Discretion in little places

A thing I wrote in May 2013 while having a beer:

I’m sitting here in The Queen Mary Pub in a small town deep in South Florida, on the fringes of the Everglades. It’s nearly midnight and I find myself alone at the bar reading C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra.” A few inches away, my glass of London Pride finds itself nearly missing.

It’s been a pleasant evening, one of those where the bar isn’t too crowded, and even with mostly college students ordering pitchers an aura of warm feelings and consciousness soaks the place.

And yet, because it’s in our nature, probably, to end up meddling with the moments that should most please most of us, I hear one of the bartenders, a woman, whisper to the barman who’s been nearby… “See that girl over at that table? How old is she?”

My barman’s filling a drink. “I dunno,” he says. “But she hasn’t ordered anything and she’s been there without a glass.”

“I’m going to grab her ID,” replies his colleague decisively. “I mean, ask for it,” she quickly corrects herself.

It turns out the girl doesn’t have her ID with her. She’s asked to leave. Her friends at their table are left to finish the night without her, and she’ll be walking home alone.

Let’s break away from this scene for a moment to visit our friends at Merriam Webster. Specifically, “discretion,” which we’re told is the “freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation.”

I feel for this girl who was made to leave, even if she wasn’t of legal age. Because despite doing no concrete or true harm to anyone here among us, one among us was compelled to do a concrete harm to her evening.

In law, there’s a general idea that a case can’t be judged unless actual harm has come to some party. Law is not meant to be decided abstractly—which is why we have philosophy.

In the case of the girl here at the pub, from whose company we’re now the poorer, there was no harm. Even presuming she was, in fact, underage, my barman had been watching her. She was enjoying good company even if not good spirits. Even if she was underage, no genuine harm was done to anyone.

And yet, our culture has developed in such a way that we send her away anyway. An abstract law protecting abstract principles occupies a higher place than the barman exercising his own discretion.

In a sense, we’re no longer in some out of the way place on the fringes of a national preserve. In the act of eliminating discretion, a barkeep became an agent of Tallahassee, the Florida capital. She became an agent of something other than her own conscience, disrupting private fellowship for an abstract principle.

We become poorer people as our chances to exercise discretion—to personally decide how a principle might best be applied in a particular situation—disappear from our culture.

In a constitutional culture constructed to favor the concrete and local culture of a place over the distant and abstract sentimentality of a state or federal capital, it only makes sense to leave as much room as possible for acts of discretion.

Just as “one size fits all” rarely suits fashion, it certainly doesn’t suit our cultures and communities well, because it frustrates their ability to be authentically unique, special places. It makes them like anyplace else.

And it feels more and more difficult to go anyplace anymore that anymore feels like any special place.

Anyway, back to my Lewis and London Pride.

In Ave Maria briefly

I’m back in Ave Maria, visiting solo for personal and work reasons. It’s been ~90 degrees here typically, which I love.

I’m staying with the Novaks near the center of town, though Micheal is in Washington this year teaching with Catholic University. It’s strange being down here without him here. He’s been here every time I’ve visited since I starting coming down five years ago.


The town continues to grow. A paver stone was just installed in front of Ave Maria Oratory in honor of Terri Schiavo’s parents, Mary and Robert Schindler. It looks sharp and is a nice lasting honor for them.

On Wednesday I’ll fly back to Philadelphia. I wonder whether the leaves have started to turn golden in Pennsylvania.

At Ave Maria’s Oratory

Tropical Storm Colin is threatening Florida’s Panhandle, which is very far—hundreds of miles—from where we are, but it’s resulting in periodic heavy rains nonetheless. Or perhaps that’s just Florida weather this time of year:

In any event, I’ll be down here for the next few days enjoying time with friends, enjoying time at the Pub, enjoying the heat and humidity, and enjoying reading time. I haven’t booked a return flight yet, but will probably head back to Philadelphia sometime mid-next week.

I place tremendous value in the ability to work from anywhere, and try not to lose sight of how rare that flexibility is.

Afternoon at Hollywood Beach

I’m writing from Hollywood Beach, Florida’s “broadwalk,” specifically from the patio of an allegedly French-type restaurant where I’m having lunch and bottled beers. I’ve got my iPhone charging inside, and am working from my iPad in the shade on this beautifully hot, mid-80s afternoon.

Later this afternoon, Kevin Horne arrives in Fort Lauderdale and we’ll drive across South Florida to Ave Maria to visit with Chris Buchignani, also visiting, and Ben Novak who lives there. This will be my third visit to Ave Maria this year.

In the meantime, beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae

James M. Patterson writes on the turmoil between the president and faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University, and in Patterson’s writing he returns to look at the characteristics that should define a Catholic university:

Ex Corde Ecclesiae [is] St. John Paul the Great’s 1990 papal encyclical. It explains the purpose of the Catholic university as, “an academic community, which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities.” To that end, the Catholic university must cast “the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasure of human knowledge” and remain faithful “to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church” in “service to the people of God and of the human family.”

Great, succinct way to understand why Catholics rightly call for institutions like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Loyola, etc. to conserve their distinctive identities.

A Catholic institution should exist to serve the culture by being distinct from it. If it’s simply another institution doing great research, teaching students, and affirming the reality of different perspectives without any unifying perspective, then they might as well be state schools. Even the state once believed e pluribus unum

This is certainly something I hope Ave Maria University can do—conserve its distinctive character.

Early hours

I like to put the work in during the early hours of the day. I’m sitting here in Ave Maria, outside The Bean with a black iced coffee, rum butter muffin, and iPad Pro. It’s an overcast morning, and the quality of the light is vaguely menacing.

In looking over my Todoist agenda for the day, I always find I’m able to tackle most of it early in the morning at times like this. Peter Drucker, Cal Newport, and many smart people talk about the importance of deep work, uninterrupted focus, etc. to achieving big projects—completely true. There’s junk that’s been left in my notes since November that hasn’t been addressed, because many of them require enormous chunks of time that I haven’t carved out yet.

I’ll be tackling those notes and addressing what I can before wiping the rest away. It’s as important to know when to wipe the slate clean and start fresh as when to put in the time to knock something out.

Ave in metaphor

A strange reflection. Too much of the Brothers Grimm in my childhood? I don’t know. In any event:

There was something about Ave Maria that I really liked the first few times I visited the place, starting three years ago. In many ways, Ave is still a work in progress. It’s a little enclave amidst the wilderness of Southwest Florida. Ninety minutes from Miami, almost an hour from Naples and Fort Myers, its early neighbors were the people of Immokalee in the farmers markets and casinos. Other than that, just the local bear and panther population.

Visiting Ave felt, I think now, something like I imagine some Austrian or Swiss castle three centuries ago. You arrive after a great distance at the edge of a settlement, a sleepy little village. Making your way past the mostly quiet and dimly lit alleys of the village proper, you navigate the narrow path to the castle grounds on the center hill.

Within, you find great company. Faces you’ll come to know and love over a night together, rocked by the storm that began raging outside the walls. It’s a castle with a thousand rooms and one, yet it feels small and accessible in its own way. You feel comfortable with it, with its unknowns. There are some rooms and spaces you don’t enter. The time you share with your new companions will be yours forever; the candor and camaraderie of strangers creating friendships that will endure, even if you’ll never see each other again.

You leave this place the next morning, making your way delicately past the still slumbering village and back onto whatever path it was that led you there. In time you wonder whether any of it ever really happened, and whether that place existed. Maybe it was an enchanted place.

Enchantment’s distinctive allure. Ave has some of that allure for me.

Ave Maria

I’ve spent a lot of time in Ave Maria over the past few years. It’s also been a long time since I’ve visited; about a year. It’s a wonderful, fascinating community, located in some Southwest Florida pioneer territory. Ave Maria University has something like 1,100 students now; small but growing. It’s a traditional Catholic university, and I hope it maintains its character as it grows.

Ave Maria as a town is growing faster; I’ve heard something like a few hundred new homes since my last visit about a year ago. From my drive through town, that seems to hold up. Where before there were dead-end streets and rocky fields left over from the 2008 housing bubble, today there are paved streets and rows upon rows of large, beautiful homes.

Whether the community itself is developing its own character, I’m not sure. In many ways, that’s not something a visitor is really equipped to answer. In other ways, an outsider is uniquely positioned to notice. In any event, every time I visit here (and anywhere) I try to look for clues that might answer that question about a place.

While I’m here, in between meetings, I’ll try to take note.