First snow in Georgetown

It snowed in Washington on Thursday, unusually early for mid-November when we’re still hypothetically enjoying autumn. I worked from my apartment that morning, as the roads had something like a quarter inch of accumulation and slush on them. It was good to look out my window and see snow on the pavement. Here’s a scene from N and Wisconsin I shot as I waited for an Uber:

And scenes from along Wisconsin from around noon that day, along with a night scene as I made my way home after attending Leah Libresco’s Catholic Information Center talk.

On national feeling

I spent time at the National Gallery of Art this afternoon, where I took this photo of Augustus Saint-Gaudens‘s Amor Caritas:

“Amor Caritas” represents the perfection of Saint-Gaudens’s vision of the ethereal female, a subject that he modeled repeatedly, beginning in 1880. The elegant figure in a frontal pose with free-flowing draperies and downcast eyes also appears in the caryatids for the Vanderbilt mantelpiece (25.234) and in several funerary works. Here, Saint-Gaudens made subtle changes in the drapery and added upward-curving wings, a tablet, and a belt and crown of passionflowers. He considered several titles with universal themes, including To Know Is to Forgive, Peace on Earth, God Is Love, and Good Will towards Men, before settling on Amor Caritas [Love (and) Charity].

I read about Saint Gaudens last autumn in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, and thought this went well with something I read this week.

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes on nationalism and the notion that filial piety—respect and love for one’s forebears—that lends nationalism its potency are simply myths to be discarded, or that national spirit and interest are purely arbitrary and consequently disposable:

‘National identity is made up.” Thus saith the explainer journalist. But what exactly is explained by this gnomic pronouncement? The New York Times says that its new column “The Interpreter,” whose authors recently produced a four-minute video defending this thesis, “explores the ideas behind major world events. They use political and social science to explain topics from authoritarianism to arms control.”

“Use” is an apt verb. From the evidence at hand, I can see that political and social science were deployed for a purpose. A thief uses tools for his purposes too. And it could be said that a propagandist also explores ideas. …

Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers who just happened to inherit the chair. Further, national identity helped to create the social trust necessary to institute massive social-welfare systems. We might also note that while the Nazis made use of national loyalty, so too did the Poles, the French, the British, and the Americans who resisted and defeated the Nazi regime. And they could not have defeated the Nazis without that loyalty. …

Because national identity assumes into itself facts that derive from social interaction and history, the explainer concludes that it is a myth. It isn’t real. It’s just made up. Of course, lots of things that you can study have these properties: languages are “made up” in this way. They change over time. Their uses vary in history and social context. English shows evidence of assimilating Latin, French, and Greek vocabulary over its life. It is conditioned by history. But it would be stupid to say that English is somehow unreal. N’est-ce pas?

It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home. …

The anti-nationalist says that he wants fellow-feeling with all men, but … [t]he posited freedom to serve any man comes by dissolving his duty to his neighbors. His tragedy is that once he succeeds in deconstructing national loyalties, he will find that loyalties based on blood or creed come roaring back.

When you stop saying “nationalism”, which frightens some, and start saying something like “national feeling”, you start to get close to the heart of the thing that some claim to want to reject. Are we forgetting that national feeling does not mean either reactive jingoism or lack of charity and graciousness abroad? Are we really, broadly speaking, interested in disposing of a distinctly American national feeling? I doubt it.

Near BWI Amtrak Station

I flew into BWI airport recently, and found myself early in the morning waiting at the nearby BWI Amtrak Station to catch a train back into Washington. On the southbound side of the tracks there is this beautiful patch of forest:

I can’t tell whether “Stony Run” on the map refers to this patch of forest, or specifically to the little creek flowing through it. It was a gift to be able to do a work call, review emails, etc. in this place.

Amazon Go

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When I was in Chicago earlier this month I stayed at the Club Quarters hotel in the Loop at Adams and Clark Streets. After coming back from dinner in the Homewood, IL suburbs one night, I walked past my first Amazon Go store, which turned out to be right across the street from the hotel. I had read about these “cashless” Amazon stores:

Amazon Go is a chain of grocery stores operated by the online retailer Amazon, currently with three locations in Seattle, Washington, two in Chicago, Illinois, and one in San Francisco, California. The stores are partially-automated, with customers able to purchase products without being checked out by a cashier or using a self-checkout station.

Apparently this Amazon Go store opened only a few weeks ago. There are just six of these stores so far; three in Seattle, two in Chicago, and one in San Francisco.

On entering, you use your iPhone and the Amazon Go app to scan a QR code and the turnstile swings open. An Amazon Go person greets you and you browse, pick what you want off the well-ordered shelves, and leave. No phone/scanning required at exit; the turnstile swings open for you, and you can grab napkins, utensils, etc. on your way out. Your Amazon account is billed automatically for whatever you picked up.

I don’t know if the plan is the same for all of these, but this Amazon Go location was more of a deli/bodega than a full fledged grocery store. Lots of prepared Whole Foods sandwiches and meals, with drinks, chips, ice cream, etc.

Chicago and Homewood scenes

A few scenes from earlier this month in Chicago, walking downtown into the Loop from River North, later walking to the Van Buren Street Metra station, and scenes from my visit to the Chicago suburb of Homewood, Illinois.

I liked Homewood a lot from the brief time I spent there. Its character reminds me of the Philadelphia suburbs, particularly Main Line towns like Narberth. Though you do not see freight trains and commuter trains coexisting like Metra and freight do in Chicago. Seeing double decker Amtrak trains, Metra trains, and freight on that trip brought me back to my 2011 Amtrak cross-country trips which were a very slow but richer way to travel and really encounter the people and places of the land you’re traversing.

On the ~45 minutes or so on the way out from the Loop to Homewood, I sat on the upper level of the Metra car. A stop or two after Van Buren, a whole crew of construction guys got on and sat around me. I had my laptop and was working, but enjoyed being around them mainly because there was no pretension. They talked openly about their family life, plans for the weekend, retirement schemes, etc. as a few of them nursed beers from their Busch Light six pack. They probably have something like the same conversation every day; at least I took some kind of comfort in being around them for it and thinking so.

Notre Dame at Northwestern

I caught the South Shore Line from South Bend Airport to Chicago’s Millennium Station as Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” conference was close to winding down on Saturday in order to catch Notre Dame at Northwestern’s Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.

It was a beautiful day, and the game was close right up until the final few minutes at which point it was raining steadily and quite cold. We caught an Uber back into the city afterwards.

Higher Powers

Notre Dame’s 2018 Fall Conference was a good and worthwhile experience, focused on the theme of “Higher Powers”. I was fortunate to meet Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Rod Dreher for the first time, and many other good people. Here’s context on the conference:

What is the proper relationship between God, the human person, and the state? In a 1993 address, Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that, “having refused to recognize the unchanging Higher Power above us, we have filled that space with personal imperatives, and suddenly life has become a harrowing prospect indeed.” Twenty-five years after Solzhenitsyn’s address, and one hundred years after his birth, the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference will consider how every human pursuit can be oriented toward higher powers and reflect on the true measures of social progress, the role of morality in law and politics, and the dynamics of liberty, dignity, self-sacrifice, and the good in public life.

Daniel J. Mahoney’s conversation/interview with Ignat Solzhenitsyn on “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Art and Truth in a Fearsome Century” was the highlight of the conference for me. Other highlights were Alasdair MacInytre’s talk “Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland” as well as Adrian Vermeule’s “Liberalism and the Invisible Hand”. Carter Snead moderated the closing colloquy on “Catholicism and the American Project“, which provides glimpse into a wide and deep debate within American Catholicism on how to Catholics are to move forward in this country in the 21st century.

The colloquium “I Shall Write My Law Within Their Hearts” moderated by Rev. Séan Mac Giollarnáth, O. Carm. was also very good. It featured Hon. Thomas Donnelly (Loyola University) who spoke on “Freeing Law from Legalism”, Marianna Orlandi (University of Padua) who spoke on “Judges Who Refuse ‘Higher Powers,’ and Judges Who Die for Them: An Italian Case on Assisted Suicide, and on Sanctity” and Bernard Prusak (King’s College) who spoke on “The USCCB and the U.S. Supreme Court on Cooperation with Evil”.

Donnelly advocated the restoration of the U.S. jury trial to common practice and the habit of judges not hiding behind a technocratic method of rendering judgment, but instead fully engaging their cases as moral agents. Orlandi contrasted public disengagement from moral issues in the case of suicide by physician and contrasted this with the witness of Rosario Livatino, a young Italian judge murdered by the mafia who is now a Servant of God. Prusak spoke on the danger of all public questions of moral philosophy and moral reasoning being distilled to a narrow set of “religious liberty” issues in constitutional practice, making the point that many if not most so-called “religious” questions in American law are not properly theological disputes that are, consequently, unresolvable in law, but are in fact generally issues of moral philosophy and moral reasoning.

All Saints and All Souls

I’m at Notre Dame for the Center for Ethics & Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference. This year’s theme is “Higher Powers”. Since I got into town late on Halloween, and am marking All Saints and All Souls days while here, I thought I would pay my respects to the dead at Notre Dame’s Cedar Grove Cemetery on campus:

Cedar Grove Cemetery provides a dignified Christian burial to members of the Notre Dame community. By setting aside a holy place for burial, Cedar Grove Cemetery offers a fitting environment for full liturgical celebrations. Just as in life, we believe that in death the human body deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We also foster a type of remembering that is enlightened by faith and sees death as a bridge to the Communion of Saints. Our bond with the believing is not broken by death.

We celebrated mass with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. It’s a beautiful time of year to be on campus.

Writing as a habit

Seth Godin writes:

For years, I’ve been explaining to people that daily blogging is an extraordinarily useful habit. Even if no one reads your blog, the act of writing it is clarifying, motivating and (eventually) fun.

A collection of daily bloggers I follow have passed 1,000 posts (it only takes three years or so…). Fortunately, there are thousands of generous folks who have been posting their non-commercial blogs regularly, and it’s a habit that produces magic.

Sasha, Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan add value to their readers every day, and I’m lucky to be able to read them. (I’m leaving many out, sorry!) You’ll probably get something out of reading the work of these generous folks, which is a fabulous side effect, one that pays huge dividends to masses of strangers, which is part of the magic of digital connection.

I’ve been writing or sharing something daily for a few years now, but Seth Godin has been doing it for much longer. I think he’s right that daily writing is “a habit that produces magic”, at least for me insofar as it’s helped me learn to be accountable to myself first.

When I write here, I sometimes think about the possibility that these words will be read by friends or family generations from now. I also realize there’s a possibility some of these words might never really be read by anyone. Both outcomes are alright.

I’ve written here before that I think it will be amazing to future generations that we who were so connected generally said and left behind so little. We share and post and engage on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, but we rarely share coherent stories there, or narratives or anything other than little vignettes. Even assuming those those networks preserve that content, the idea of grandchildren or anyone else trying to make sense of most of it will be like sifting through the charred remains of family letters after a fire; what’s there will still be valued, but very little will tie together.

What got them up in the morning? What did they believe about the world? When did they decide to start a family? What were their challenges and triumphs?

We can think and write out loud now, and if we’re comfortable being a little vulnerable in doing so, we might do more than just create a record of the sort of things we’re doing and experiencing and thinking about—we might just foster a culture that’s a bit more empathetic and connected, too.

And no, writing doesn’t require having an audience in mind and it doesn’t require being perfct. Develop a voice, then speak.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.