Wednesday, October 30, 2019

It's Been A While

Why Are You Looking Over Here?

In the battles over disproportionate school discipline, those who maintain that there must be something wrong with the attitudes of the teachers, or with the rules, or with “the whole system*,” rather than with the behavior of the students, remind me greatly of the old joke about the guy looking under the street light for his lost keys rather than where he actually dropped them.

In fact, I think that may be a rule that generalizes pretty well. It ties in nicely with my previous post about Who You Believe.

*You know how I feel about systems.

There Is No System (2006)
There Is No System (2019)

Changing A Mind

Bethany’s link about changing a mind over at Graph Paper Diaries has stuck with me.  Run through that first before continuing, please.  The problem is not what the people we disagree with believe, it is who they believe. 

We all learn things and have them reinforced by what we read, but sometimes an idea starts to lock in, creating a real sea-change, and this may do that for me, though the idea is certainly not absolutely new to me.  It may just be the right time. . For those who mostly agree with us, we can attempt persuasion via logical argument. There are people who I read often or who come comment here who have established credibility with me.  Sometimes this is credibility around a single topic or a few, sometimes this applies more generally, because they have proved reliable in many areas. If I say, “I think Trump’s decision to deregulate hamster farms will be unnecessarily destructive to the Elbonian economy,” I might nonetheless pause if a reliable source counters “No, I think Trump has it right on the hamsters.”

Because of this I engage in the fantasy that the same thing applies with people I have more substantial disagreements with.  My aim has been to be more precise, more complete, and more clear in my declarations.  I do more homework, to confirm things and plug possible leaks in the argument.  I anticipate objections and try to head them off at the pass. I look for better analogies, more persuasive phrases, tie-ins to other beliefs they likely hold. (I assign less credibility to those who don't do this themselves.)

This mostly doesn’t work.  I may have wasted enormous amounts of energy over my lifetime, in conversation, in writing, in commenting, and in imagination crafting these beauties. Yet no matter how well I succeed in any encounter, people are likely to immediately return to the same sources they have trusted. After watching various gun control arguments rise and fall, I have mine whittled down to a few that I think unassailable, and I have tight answers for my opponents’ most likely claims. Neat. Simple.  Seeking only refinement of expression and a fair hearing. Yet when I am done, even if I have temporarily left them without a leg to stand on, they will pick up the Washington Post, and they will see the FB posts of their friends and relatives, and will listen that night to NPR.

Multiply this by many subjects, and the same sources they trusted yesterday – their pastor, people in their profession, a scrap of a course they took in college, a blogsite or news site they visit daily – will start in again, dragging them back to that culture’s center. Unless, of course, they are natural contrarians who say “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute,” about everything reflexively. That would be the photographic negative of the same problem.

No disproof can be allowed to stand – some weak point must be found, ignoring the 90% strong points. The conventional wisdom will be cited, agreed upon by the purported experts, and that will carry the day. The facts don’t matter. To change their way of thinking, people generally have to change their sources of who they believe. We don’t tend to abandon our sources unless A) they prove to be horribly wrong about something we know on our own. Even that is seldom enough “Yeah, the Globe has just got this thing about education and gets it wrong, but it’s still better than the Herald!” They must lose credibility on a few issues, unless the one area of fault is of huge importance.  Or B) Some new source must come in which is also believed, and has explanatory power. That new source creates an island of its own, setting up its own credibility, and will itself link or otherwise refer to other new sources.  A new coworker, a new website, a book we got for Christmas – these don’t always directly contradict our old sources, they just move in and set up shop.

I wish I had the ability to do that latter.  I am much more wired for refutation and explanation.   Those are necessary foundations, but are not the usual persuaders. The takeaway is to spend less time in refutation and more meticulous explanation, and more in encouraging the new sources.  The old sources will not be abandoned until their replacements are visible and already partly-believed. Sometimes I can at least provide new angles.

Different Places, Different Thoughts

Despite the ticks and the bowhunters  I went up into the woods the other day,  simply because I missed them. Near the end of the hike, I recognized I had been thinking a type of thought I had not recently had.  I wondered if the last instance had also been the last time I walked in the woods. Rough estimate, yes. Had the environment encouraged me down certain trails of contemplation? In this case it was the whole life trajectory of near relatives, some still alive, some deceased, but there are other topics that I would include with it in mood, that I had to admit “I haven’t thought about those in a while.”

If place can so strongly influence our thoughts it suggests that setting aside areas as sacred is valid, and that we should make some effort to do so.  In my case some typically sacred areas leave me cold.  Outdoor chapels at summer camp are much admired and camp people seem to feel strongly about them, but that never worked for me, not as a child and not now. I worry that “natural” settings may actually distract people from contemplating God to contemplating only a few aspects of Him, which could lead to regarding those aspects as most important. Worship spaces of architectural beauty are mixed for me.  Some work and some don’t.  Starting off on a journey alone, by car or on foot, is usually a time of worship for me, as is completion. I am certain that would not be true on a bicycle.

Areas of seriousness or contemplation may not be enough.  I suspect those imitations are frequently used by intellectual folks, who are pleased to be pulled out of their daily grind into deeper thoughts, equating that with the spiritual and worshipful.  Yet worship is sometimes intellectually deep, sometimes not (as in the Cider and Carols video of “Joy to the World,” below.  Wonderfully valid.  Not much intellect at that particular moment, nor should there be.) We should be intentional about what places we choose to put ourselves in.  Location may be a prayer posture of a sort.

Monday, October 28, 2019

#15A - Festival Worship

Links related to the downstream effects of worshiping in both linear and circular time (or, as a commenter cleverly said, helical time.)

Festival Worship

Window Into Heaven

Festival Generation

Chesterton on Festivals

From Cider and Carols

#15 - Linear Vs. Circular Time (July 2008)

The most curious aspect of the scientific world we live in, says science writer Loren Eiseley, is that it exists at all. Westerners often assume a doctrine of Inexorable Progress, as though the mere passage of time leads inevitably to increased knowledge as surely as an acorn becomes an oak. “Yet the archaeologist would be forced to tell us,” says Eiseley, “that several great civilizations have arisen and vanished without the benefit of a scientific philosophy.” The type of thinking known today as scientific, with its emphasis upon experiment and mathematical formulation, arose in one culture – Western Europe – and in no other.

Science, Eiseley concludes, is not “natural to mankind at all. Inquisitiveness about the world is indeed a natural attitude, but institutional science is more than that. “It has rules which have to be learned, and practices and techniques which have to be transmitted from generation to generation by the formal process of education,” Eiseley notes. In short, it is “an invented cultural institution, an institution not present in all societies, and not one that may be counted upon to arise from human instinct.” Science “demands some kind of unique soil in which to flourish.” Deprived of that soil, it is “as capable of decay and death as any other human activity, such as a religion or a system of government.”

What is that unique soil? Eiseley identifies it, somewhat reluctantly, as the Christian faith. “In one of those strange permutations of which history yields occasional rare examples,” he says, “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself.
(The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton.)
How then, does the rest of the world think of itself?

It is a huge philosophical shift to go from the more natural counting of time as a repetition of daily hours, days of the week, and seasons of a year to picturing time as always moving forward. Pearcey & Thaxton claim that the idea of an orderly universe was the single greatest contribution of Christianity to the sciences and philosophy: that the universe made some sort of sense, however elusive, and its order could be discovered. Without this, the scientific viewpoint as we know it cannot exist, and indeed, as noted above, never has existed.

I submit that the idea of linear rather than circular time is the foundation of this. Christianity claims that this world and even this universe had a beginning, and with shadowings in the Hebrew scriptures, through a dramatic Revelation to John, this earth will have a definite end. Because many cultures have origin-myths and Gotterdammerung myths, the Christian version may not seem unusual at first. It is easy to take a facile Golden Bough/Joseph Campbell approach and think them all the same. But Genesis has a proto-calendar in it from the start, and its events are located in a specific geography, however uncertain we may be about it now. The Revelation to John has many time-interpretations: the events already happened in the 2nd C; the events have unfolded over 2000 years; the events will take place in a short seven years at the end. But days, years, and definite locations are in the marrow of the book. The Norse Gods will fight the giants at the end of the world, and great heroes from Valhalla will participate – but the time and place are entirely shadowy.

In the Christian world, time may cycle through its weeks and years, but it is always moving forward.

Without this, people are less likely to think in the scientific frame of “this takes X time to complete.” In a circular time frame, the hour from 3am to 4am seems a very different item than 3pm to 4pm, but in linear time, it’s just an hour, same as any other hour. History also looks different, as the idea of development (or deterioration) becomes part of how we see the events around us.

Conceiving of time as moving forward seems so natural to us that we have a hard time recovering the older idea that is still common in many cultures. The days and years move on, we project out what will happen with the economy or climate in 2010 or 2020. May of 2015 is not strongly connected to May of 2018 in our minds. Those times do not “touch.” They are three years apart.

We can get back into the older way of thinking, but it takes some effort. “Every Christmas when I was a boy” is a phrase that has meaning. Those Christmases do touch each other in some way. “Every Thursday at 4,” if we have some regular appointment, or “all the sunsets last week,” if we saw them, touch each other in a nonlinear way. The seasons, the church year, the school year – the cycle of Sabbaths and 6pm dinners and bills due on the 12th of each month are a different type of counting time, natural in its own way.

“In the 17th year of King Arglebargle IV*…” This is not just an ancient Mediterranean way of keeping time, but is found on Mayan and Chinese inscriptions as well. It seems, in fact, to be the default method of recording history. The sense of a series of decades and years that goes on running, not restarting with each new monarch, comes in much later. Even in the book of Genesis, which carries the first glimmers of this idea of progressive time, time is not measured according to any calendar except a repetition of years. This one lived 200 years and that one lived 300, but nothing is going anywhere. God opens out an idea of long-future descendants to Abraham, but it is described entirely in terms of his narrow clan.

This is more than an interesting curiosity. It is not just some quaint way that other cultures see things that it is fun to contemplate as a multicultural exercise. When we try to answer to ourselves why do these other nations act as they do, it is important to step into their mindset. Imagine for a moment the feeling of being in a culture where this is the only time that is. There is a cycle of hours in each day, days in each week, seasons and a series of festivals in each year, and that’s all there is. The only glimmer of anything outside this series of hamster wheels is your own passing through stages of life and passing life on to the next group – a cycle in itself – or the imposed cycle of rulers. There is no progress of time overriding those things. None of it is going anywhere. Earth is just a place where things go around for awhile, and then maybe you go to another place. You are only a player in a drama that keeps repeating, like living in a full-time Oberammergau Festival. You don’t have much value as an individual. Your family continues existence, or your clan, or your tribe, and that’s the only contribution you make.

It is both comforting and depressing to contemplate that life. One’s life might only have meaning in reference to the survival of the larger group, but that’s at least something. I find it difficult to conceive of a life in circular time as anything but clan or tribe-centered. They seem to go together naturally. There isn’t much point in putting your energy into anything that doesn’t benefit you or your clan pretty immediately. You might fix a car, but why invent one? Why study diseases of plants grown in the next county, even if it would make the area prosperous? These are not either/or propositions, of course. Clan-based societies certainly have their sciences (though technology might be a more accurate term), and people in our forward-time, progress-seeking cultures in the west don’t orient all their actions toward posterity.

Discuss: Put this specifically into the context of foreign relations, and trying to spread democracy (or technology, or prosperity) throughout a region. Things that seem like obvious progress and advantage to us do not seem so to others.

*What’s that from?

Looted Art, Still Unreturned

Literary Hub has an article about a trove of 1,200 works of art found in a an old man's apartment.  His father had been an art collector on behalf of Hitler and the Reich.  Getting them returned to their actual owners is going to be difficult, and the German government is not hurrying about it in the least.

That was interesting enough in itself, but these lines from the article jumped out at me.
In contrast to all other Western dictators except Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler was genuinely obsessed with art. His actions fundamentally and permanently altered the West’s cultural landscape. Hitler regarded himself as an artist first and a politician second.
It is often overlooked or intentionally buried, that the Nazi and Bolshevik supporters were disproportionately artists, philosophers, university students and professors, novelist. There is a decided preference for portraying them as ignorant thugs. There were plenty of ignorant thugs among them, to be sure. Such people are always glad to attach themselves to those who provide intellectual and moral justification for their thievery and violence. Yet it was the intellectuals who were the early adopters of both ideologies - an uncomfortable point which modern intellectuals try to obscure. Funny, eh?


The Assistant Pastor of the local Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church was killed last week standing on the Daniel Webster Highway next to his car which had broken down.  A woman unused to drinking who had had a few drinks at a wedding struck him. His wife and three children were in the car. From the bulletin at the memorial service:
Osman Mahmoud Komi Konda was born on January 1, 1966 and died tragically on the night of October 19, 2019 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Born in Senar, Sudan, Osman's family was forced to flee Sudan to Egypt in an effort to escape the civil conflict that continues to plague both Sudan and South Sudan today. As Osman grew into adulthood, he converted to Christianity and eventually became ordained in the African Inland Church in Cairo, Egypt.

Osman pastored Mansheyet-al-sadr Evangelical Church located in Cairo, Egypt from 2005 until he was given refugee status in 2015 by the United Nations at which time he, his wife and their children were resettled in Nashua, New Hampshire - USA. Osman quickly assimilated in Nashua, began working and was invited to serve as co-pastor of the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church in Manchester, New Hampshire where he served until his death. Osman worked full-time at the DiaCom Corporation in Amherst, NH as a machine operator where he was loved and admired by his co-workers. Pastor Osman was well-known across the world as a uniquely humble person who worked tirelessly towards peace and lived boldly for uniting people to Jesus. Osman's humble impact wherever he lived and served will be reflected throughout all eternity.

Osman leaves behind his loving wife, Feebi Saee Kabba, their three beautiful children Christine (13), Christopher (10), and Christian (2), three brothers in Cairo and multitudes of friends and admirers around the world who are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of their loving husband, father, brother, leader and friend. He was predeceased in death by his parents.
We went to the calling hours and the service, because we were involved in that church at its founding and have kept some contact since. Both women and men wept openly at various points, though the women more loudly, and longer.  I don't recall being surrounded by weeping people before, and it is very easy to weep oneself in that circumstance.  Perhaps we are wired that way, in the same way that we tend to laugh when others are laughing, even when we have not heard the joke. They are right to weep, I think, and we chilly New Englanders are wrong to hold back. It was not that long ago that other ethnic groups in America wept at funerals as well.

It highlighted again how difficult ministry to refugees is.  Many Sudanese could not make it to the calling hours because they did not have rides.  Feebi is less able than most to find work to support herself and her children. I know that money is being gathered for funeral expenses, but all of that is not fully organised at present. I think Pastor Osman is being buried in the last of the plots in the old Swedish section of the cemetery, purchased over a century ago by our congregation. As the Covenanters in America were very involved in international missions, such as New England Seafarers, I think the old Swedes he lies next to would have been pleased how things worked out.

Choral Singing

I have joined the choir for Advent, which I had considered many other years but never done.  I had forgotten the conventions of that art, especially the calculated mispronunciation of vowels, the dropping of "r's," and eliding of consonants onto following words as in Slee pin heavenleh pea-(ts). It seems artificial to me, yet I know it sounds better to those immersed in the craft. As with ballet, whose practitioners believe that their way of doing things is not mere arcane convention but a superior method of movement and expression, choral singers react to the intrusion of some sounds as strongly as I would to a flatted note or a premature entrance.

I had also forgotten that I don't much like a lot of the music, either.  It's a world of its own, and they like what they like and write it for each other. The arrangements of older music pleases me more.  I'm sure it will all be good for me.


Some trees in wet areas go red first, long before the others start turning. We call then "swamp maples," and they are usually sugar maples. The redness is a sign of anthocyanins, which the tree produces in order to extract sugar back from the leaves. The water holds the chill and signals Autumn to those trees earlier than the others, as early as late August. Distressed trees will turn red early as well. Once you follow the same trees year after year, you can notice that the same trees turn early. Natural variation within the species.

Earlier is generally brighter, more red, more orange, and in NH it is the maples which lead this.  Sumac and Burning Bush will also produce bright reds, but are less common. The yellows turn later, sometimes much later.  Beeches show enormous variety - I have a beech visible from my chair that is entirely brown at this point, while another about fifteen feet away is mostly light green still, just starting to turn yellow.

We speak often about "peak" foliage up here, with websites which track how far south it moves every day and where the best viewing is right this moment.  We may be over-influenced by the movement of tourists and photographers in thinking like that, because it's not that simple. The brightest reds show before many of their maple cousins have much gotten started in turning yellow. The oranges come overlapping soon after and these are the electrically bright individual trees that get singled out for photography, or people driving half off the road to ooh and ahh. I think that when the oranges are still hanging on and the yellows are thoroughly under weigh is what we call peak foliage, and tell our friends from other places to get here for. In a bright sunrise or sunset against a good background it's hard to take your eyes off.

Yet the two weeks following may be better.  Back roads will have related trees overhanging, and in slanted light you are in a tunnel of gold. No need for showy reds at that point, they would muck up the effect. One is already resigned to the disappearance of the dramatic colors and begins to write the rest of the season off prematurely, but notes cheerfully that there's still plenty to see. Yup. That's about it for this year. Well. I do like this partic'lar avenue though.  I'll have to come back this same way later. 

The oaks are an almost malevolent counterpoint throughout.  They are dull green to start with, not even providing the enjoyable contrast that the bluer evergreens provide. They turn a more sullen green, then brown, and finally a dirty brown, many of the leaves hanging on defiantly through the winter. Yeah all those showgirls are gone now, eh?  But we're still here.  How d'ye like that, mistah?

Friday, October 25, 2019

Little Folkies

Originally published September 2007 and is one of my Top 20 visited of all time. It is actually two posts in one - my original takedown of the song and its singers, and then a contentious comment section. I got nasty in response to being attacked.  Perhaps that is entertaining even now.


Tom Lehrer called "Little Boxes" the most sanctimonious song ever written. I hadn't stated it so bluntly, but the sentiment has been in my mind for some time. The lyrics deplore the sameness of 1962 suburbanites and their houses, which "are all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." It is supposedly Levittown that inspired Malvina Reynolds to write the song. Many others have recorded it, but Pete Seeger's version is the best-known.

I thought it was snide, and perhaps a bit unfair, when I first heard it years ago. But it was snide and unfair to the right people so I really didn't mind too much. Offending bourgeois sensibilities was what being a folkie was all about. Looking down on such people was what reminded us how superior we were.

I am uncertain what prompted my slow reverse on the song; perhaps becoming a homeowner myself had something to do with it. But long before I left liberalism I had decided that this song revealed a rather poisonous attitude of contempt. Maybe all these suburbanites weren't all fascinating and eccentric people, I reasoned, but they were decent working folk, bringing up families and enduring the difficulties that life brings. What was Reynold's beef with people who wanted to own homes? Many were likely children of immigrants who had never owned property in America. A modest house on a little plot, with a bit of garden and some shrubbery - what on earth is the problem here?

I eventually decided that the reverse was true. People in Levittown gradually added dormers and carports, porches and fences, and made the little boxes individual. Homes. The Malvina Reynolds of the world, however, changed not at all, and spent their time in mutual self-congratulation with other folkies. Reynolds was a PhD in English from Berkeley, and a communist organizer left over from the 30's. Just regular folk, y'know? Friend of the working man, and all that. Seeger, product of a fashionable Connecticut boys school and journalism major at Harvard, is drawn from the same pool: Arts & Humanities Tribe, with contempt for the Business Tribe, and Science & Technology Tribe. Hoping that they were burgeoning communists if they could just be made to see the light, folkies were good to the Union tribe, at least up until the 70's.

That's all we folkies ever were: A&H snobs who really believed that bad poets were worth more than good homebuilders - though we said the opposite.

The song "Little Boxes" has lingered in the back of my mind, hated but hummed, these forty years. Perhaps I can exorcise it with this parody.

Little folkies on the hillside, little folkies made of ticky tacky
Little folkies, little folkies, little folkies, all the same
There’s a white one, and a white one, and a white one, and a white one
And they’re all made out ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.

All the people who are folkies all know how to say “diversity”
But they all think in boxes, little boxes, all the same.
And there’s artists, and there’s journalists and there’s teachers of social sciences
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.

They believe the TV newscast and the newspaper editorials
But they never believe conservatives so they can’t be "taken in."
Now they don’t all wear gray ponytails and they don’t all wear Birkenstocks
But they do wear them on the inside in the boxes in their brains

And the houses look like summer camp and they all buy organically
And they don’t have any children, except okay, maybe one.
There’s a Green one and a Pink one, an old Red one and a Rainbow one,
But they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all think just the same.