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.

Restoring a crucifix

A few year 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—many Catholics Philadelphians came to have one, though few have survived to the present.

Little is known about the man, about what motivated Grace’s purchase, or even particularly 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 adore Phillip Bruce, her daughter’s husband. Phillip was a city policeman and well-liked provider, but met an untimely, tragic death in a collision while responding to a fire. Stunned, elderly, and wracked by grief, Grace died within a week.

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.

Actualizing ourselves

David L. Schindler is professor of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington. I’m excerpting some of his thoughts on God and the American spirit:

Do you have one particular source of apprehension and one special source of hope as the century closes — from a Catholic theological perspective?

Schindler: Grounds for hope? Americans are religiously sincere and morally generous. This country has a tremendous energy and abundance of good will. In the light of God’s infinite mercy, that’s always a good reason to hope. My fear is that we don’t see the subtlety of how — as the pope says in Evangelium Vitae — democracy can invert into totalitarianism. We have the illusion that we’re free because no one tells us what to do. We have political freedom. But at the same time, a theological and philosophical set of assumptions informs our freedom, of which we’re unconscious. A logic or “ontologic” of selfishness undermines our moral intention of generosity. We don’t have the requisite worldview that would help us address abortion or the more general, current threat to the family. Can we unmask the assumptions of our culture and deal with them in a way that will free the latent generosity of the culture? Or will those hidden assumptions overcome our generosity? This is the real battle, both globally and in America. It calls for a new effort of evangelization — which consists, above all, in first getting clear about the ideas in Evangelium Vitae; understanding the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment Liberal culture. Alasdair McIntyre has a great line: that all debates in America are finally among radical Liberals, liberal Liberals and conservative Liberals. That’s how I would sum up. If we don’t come to terms with Liberalism…

But liberalism in what sense? Quite a few people who would describe themselves as conservative or neoconservative are, in fact, Liberal…

Schindler: That’s the point: they’re the conservative wing of Liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn’t even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American Liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That’s what I’m challenging. Their approach doesn’t go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar. [Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels — not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

Can solidarity and the common good take precedence if David L. Schindler is right in suggesting that we live with the “logic of self-centeredness”? If actualizing ourselves has to come at the expense of another, is there any justice in our society?

Is the role of the family to create a space that militates against self-centeredness for the purpose of each individual’s good/flourishing, or to help each member self-actualize at the expense of any outside the family (or within it) as necessary?

In the presence…

Rod Dreher shared the comments of a Muslim reader of his last month, and I made a note to share the entire comment (on the subject of The Benedict Option) to share. It’s beautiful:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.

Kamran

Kodachromes

I think it was about 18 months ago that I scanned more than a thousand of my grandfather John Shakely’s Kodachrome color slides from the 1950s. After finishing, I thought I had scanned all of them. Then, around this past Christmastime I was exploring in his old home and discovered thousands more. I was thrilled with the discovery, even though the scanning process is a manual, one-by-one process. It’s extremely tedious work.

But when I see photos like the one here, scanned into Flickr and captioned (thanks to Pop’s meticulous, craftsman nature), it makes the time spent well worth it. The caption for this photo: “Fishing boats, Wreck Bay, San Cristobal, Galapagos – 10 June 1955”.

Not sure when I’ll finish this side project, but I’m hoping before the start of summer.

Financial to do/not to do list

Charlie Bilello:

What matters more – your personal savings rate or your investing rate of return?

Your instinct is probably to say the latter, as that is what gets far more attention. We are often thinking about how we can make a higher return; we rarely think about saving more.

In reality, though, saving is far more important for the majority of Americans.

The 5.5% is an aggregate number. Most Americans fall far short. Some startling figures:

  • 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in a savings account. Even at higher income levels of between $100,000 and $149,999, 44% had less than $1,000. See here.
  • 66 million Americans have zero dollars saved in an emergency fund. 47% of Americans could not afford an emergency expense of $400. See here
  • 43% of working-age families have no retirement savings at all. The median working-age couple has saved only $5,000 for retirement. 70% of couples have less than $50,000 saved. See here.
  • 65% of credit card users carry a balance (don’t pay off their bill every month), paying an average interest rate of over 15%. The average credit card debt for households that carry a balance is $16,048. See here and here.

He includes this chart which encapsulates it well:

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Do the opposite of what most people are doing.

Good financial advice

Joshua Becker shares key financial advice that changed his life. At the top of the list is my favorite:

Most people who overspend their income do so in one of three ways: 1) Too much house, 2) Too much car, 3) Too much entertainment.” // Financial adviser, 2008.

I made a passing statement to a financial adviser friend of mine one particular evening over dinner. I had no data to back up the claim, it was purely an observation made on anecdotal evidence. I told him that most people I know who are living in debt seem to carry a monthly car payment. That’s when he offered the financial advice above in the form of his own personal interactions.

There are outstanding circumstances for sure (medical emergencies, tragedy, job layoffs, etc.). But generally speaking, if you have a hard time living within your income, check your spending on your home, your car, or your entertainment (dining, tickets, trips). I have tried to keep all three modest ever since.