State of the Union

The Stillness of Saturday

It’s Saturday—the day of waiting, the day of quiet. The day when disciples quaked behind closed doors, and darkness covered the lands, and the Son of God lay in a tomb. The day of aching, grieving, seething pain.

That 24-hour cycle of numbness and fear throbbed through Jesus’ disciples, through the people who were “looking for the kingdom of God,” like Joseph of Arimathea. It was after Jesus was dead that Joseph and Nicodemus finally exposed their allegiances—they took Jesus’s body, wrapped it in a linen shroud, wrapped it in 75 pounds worth of spices. They wrapped his body in their own allegiance and love, telling the world who they followed.

And the women followed and saw—the women who had cared for Jesus, ministered to his traveling troupe—they followed him from road, to cross, to tomb. They didn’t fear the blood or turn away. They didn’t run and hide. They followed and watched, then went to prepare their spices and ointments for His body. But first, on the Sabbath, “they rested according to the commandment.”

How do you rest when your hopes and dreams are lying in a grave?

We live in a culture of pain. So often, our response to the world’s pain and death is either cynicism or despair. Author Leslie Jamison writes in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” that we live in a post-wounded culture (she limits this to women, but I think it could apply to much of our world):

The post-​wounded posture is claustrophobic: jadedness, aching gone implicit, sarcasm quick on the heels of anything that might look like self-​pity … Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever.

This is a world that has screamed with the pain of genocide, holocaust, terror and war. It’s a world in which 55 million babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade in 1973. It’s a world of shunning and racism, hate and abuse, violence and fear. We grow accustomed to the stories—we look back on anniversaries and shrug our shoulders: What could we have done differently? Perhaps nothing. We sit in the silence and nurse our aching wounds. We begin to believe the lie: we were made for this bleak, hostile, hurting world. We were made for death and destruction.

But no—“death is an abomination and an obscenity,” says blogger Tony Woodlief. We are right to lament, to protest, to reject the bleak blackness of death: Read More…

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Building Conservative Prison Reform

Talk of bipartisan prison form has rallied spirits in Washington in recent weeks, and was a topic of hope at CPAC last month. Though American politics may suffer schismatic divides in many issues, maybe—just maybe—we can find agreement here.

But it’s interesting how many are framing the debate—while the left’s motivation is largely viewed as humanitarian, the right’s motives are seen as decidedly pragmatic: prisons are costing us too much. Let’s change that.

Of course we can appreciate this pragmatism, but where is the principle and conscience in our prison reform views? Do conservatives only think in dollar signs?

In a conversation with Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador some weeks ago, he agreed that prison reform makes fiscal sense—but expanded conservative interests into the ethical sphere. He argued that as a Christian and defender of justice, our system ought not consign so many people to rotting in jail. “Because of the fear of crime,” he said, “We keep making it easier and easier for the state to take away your liberty and your freedom … we shouldn’t be throwing people in jail for long periods of time over non-violent offenses.”

Is this something other conservatives should be on-board with? Take solitary confinement, for instance: as conservatives, should we support it—and to what extent is it also deserving of reform?

A Wednesday piece by Lisa Guenther for Aeon provides some good philosophical reasons to oppose solitary confinement. She argues that, since man is (as Aristotle put it) a “social animal,” it is spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically deleterious for him to be alone. We depend on “the other” to undergird and reinforce our experience, our reality. Without that, the soul and mind are cut loose:

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.

We may live in a rather individualistic society—but we never have to experience life in total solitude. “Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone,” writes Guenther. Traditional conservatism opposes individualism—it upholds the important and reforming nature of community. Should this principle extend to our penal system?

It depends, to some extent, on what you think prison is for. Those who believe in “locking up prisoners and throwing away the key” have a good, strong understanding of human depravity. But their belief in redemption is somewhat lacking. This is, perhaps, the largest problem I see with solitary confinement: it leaves absolutely no room for reform of the person. Instead, it turns the soul further toward its inner depravity, and keeps it locked there, away from “the other.” This may keep the individual from harming others—but it also leaves no room for the soul to grow or emerge from its inner prison.

True conservative prison reform should consider the impact such measures have on the human psyche and soul—not merely their monetary cost.


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What Austen Taught Me

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873

Many view Jane Austen as a decidedly “feminine” writer. And it’s true: every woman must read Jane Austen. But there’s a lot to be found in Austen’s work, apart from romance, interesting characters, and good plot development. Austen explored the depths of human nature, its foibles and fancies, and wrote novels that promoted virtue to great effect.

This is what Br. Aquinas Beale argues for in his blog series, “Austen the Aristotelian.” His posts are remarkably insightful and interesting. He goes through Austen’s primary works, and reveals their parallels with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. Not only are Austen’s works fun to read—Beale shows that they are philosophically profound.

Beale offers a deep look into the virtuosity inherent in Austen’s plot lines. But I want to return to that earlier statement—“every woman must read Jane Austen”—and demonstrate why it has nothing to do with the novels’ romantic storylines (though they are good, too). I would reinforce the fact that Austen’s works contain lessons and delights for any reader, regardless of gender. But a woman who reads Austen will find truths sadly lacking in most other modern novels created for women. When it comes to the “romance” novel, Austen stands apart.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through her heroines. Their virtues are decidedly counter to the “cultural norm” we would expect from a 19th century woman novelist. There is freedom, independence, strength, and valor within these women. They displayed a courage and virtue that, while enveloped in the docile scenery of English countryside, are decidedly robust in caliber.

Jane Austen wrote three novels that perhaps best exemplify the virtues of bravery and resilience better than most others: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is a close runner-up to these three (I highly recommend Beale’s insights into Fanny Price and Mansfield Park).

These novels’ protagonists face a series of disappointments and griefs. Lizzy Bennett weathers family trauma and disruption, doggedly protects her older sister, faces down her coldest enemies, and overcomes the fear she’s lost the man she loves. Elinor Dashwood has to uproot herself in the wake of her father’s death, takes charge of her family’s future with prudence, walks her sister through heartbreak, all the while struggling with inner turmoil and disappointed hopes. Anne Elliott braves the callousness of her father and older sister, bears the judgment of becoming an “old maid,” and watches her former love flirt with other women—and she never stops serving and loving the people around her.

Lizzy, Elinor, and Anne are good, strong characters—while being single. There is never any indication on Austen’s part that they are lesser women without a man. It’s true that they have romantic interests, and indeed wish to be married at some point. But their love isn’t tempestuous, nor is it willful or selfish. Austen’s romance, while still emotional, is very rational. Her characters pick good men—men with character, humor, and gentility. These girls aren’t swept away in momentary crushes. In the same way, they don’t let unrequited or rejected love derail them: Elinor is perhaps the best example of this. She holds strong in the midst of inner disappointment. Anne “fades” for a while, but as Beale points out, she learns to seek happiness and hope in the future. She doesn’t lose herself in the past.

There are a few novels by Austen that teach virtue through sillier, more frivolous protagonists. These characters learn and develop their virtues, not through periods of intense circumstantial difficulty, but rather through their own shortcomings and shame. The lessons they offer us, however, are just as important—if not more so.

Marianne Dashwood is an excellent foil to her sister Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In a sense, she’s the Bella Swan (from Twilight) of the Austen novel: an emotional girl, deeply sentimental, and completely obsessed with Willoughby, her dark and romantic suitor. When Willoughby turns out not to be the knight-in-shining-armor she was hoping for, she sinks into the depths of despair. She becomes fixated on her own pains and broken heart. It’s only through a long and painful process that she finally moves on. Note this: Willoughby doesn’t come back, and explain the whole thing, and redeem himself. He actually tries—but there is imprudence and vice in him that cannot be ignored. Marianne has to give him up, and seek new hope for the future. This is often counter to the way we write romances. But it’s truer to reality.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland is a sweet and innocent girl—but also quite immature. Northanger Abbey is a story of Catherine’s journey into maturity, and reality. Catherine embraces shame and repentance in the wake of her actions.This is perhaps one of my favorite Austen novels, because of its dry irony and humor. Austen deliberately makes fun of the gothic novel, and the romance-besotted girl. She shows the lack of reality portrayed in those sorts of stories. This is a cunning, clear-sighted commentary on the way sentiment and drama twist our perception of truth. It’s a worthy critique for all of us.

My favorite of these “silly” protagonists is Emma—though I always used to dismiss her as the most spoiled rotten, selfish, annoying heroine of the bunch. But the more I “get to know” Emma, the more I see her complexity of character. Emma is definitely spoiled, a youngest child who has trouble growing up. But she’s also full of good intentions and a desire to show charity. She’s independent, willful, and never wants to marry—she just wants to orchestrate the lives and marriages of everyone around her. Her dearest friend, Mr. Knightley, is a kind and wise man, who is always telling Emma to mind her own business—and yet also reminding her to be charitable. What a hard balance that is. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons this novel teaches us, is that our good intentions are so often vested in the wrong places. Imagine: what if all the energy Emma invested in matchmaking had instead gone into extending grace and charity to people like Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax? This is the lesson Austen teaches us: a truly charitable heart knows when to intervene, when to “meddle,” so to speak—and when to let people go.

In all these works, Austen built a portrait of womanhood that is both graceful and strong. She spends considerable time developing these protagonists’ characters apart from romantic ties—thus demonstrating that a woman alone, rejected, or burdened with “unrequited love” should not be idle or pining. Rather, a woman alone is powerful and equipped to make a difference in her world. Her novels end with marriage, but Austen does not paint marriage as the only happiness available to women—even though she lived at a time when marriage was seen as the most respectable path for women.

I wonder whether Austen was trying to sow seeds of her own confident singleness within her romances. One of the greatest mysteries of Austen’s work is that she wrote happily-ever-after-romances, while remaining single herself. She recognized the beauty and power of these happy endings, but wasn’t afraid to add shades and shadows of “What if?” along the way. What if Captain Wentworth hadn’t pursued Anne, after all? What if Mr. Darcy hadn’t felt he could marry Lizzy after her family was tainted by disgrace? What if Edward Ferrars had married Lucy instead of Elinore?

I believe the heroines would have continued living gracefully and valorously. They would have sought out meaning and purpose in their friendships and their families. Unlike the weak, sentimental heroines often portrayed in modern literature, Austen’s heroines had spirit and kindness. She has taught me the beauties of friendship, courage, and constancy. But most of all, she has taught me how to seek happiness—and how to suffer—with virtue.

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Bard College Declares War on Admissions Rigmarole

I once tutored a student who could write an A+ essay, and then get a D on her multiple-choice tests. In working with that student, I learned that these two different exercises required entirely different skills. I learned that not all students test well—an unfortunate trait in this age of testing frenzy. The SAT and ACT rule supreme over the futures of prospective college students across the U.S. Want to attend an Ivy League? The tests will determine your fate.

Thanks to a new experiment being conducted this year, liberal arts school Bard College is breaking this mold. While students can still submit a standard application, with the traditional list of SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, etc., the New York Times reports that students can also opt for a different (and in many ways, more difficult) project:

… Bard for the first time invited prospective freshmen to dispense with all the preamble, and just write four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics. Very scholarly topics, like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders. The questions, along with the relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totaling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student got in.

So you can send in your reading lists, club activity, academic references, and transcripts. Or you can write 2,500 words on the topic, “What is the Relationship Between Truth and Beauty?” Which exercise, do you think, is more beneficial to the student? Which measures their creativity—and which demonstrates their ability to jump through hoops?

Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said the experiment is an act of “declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” The typical admissions process picks students based on their best set of quantifiable skills. But this essay method requires and reveals students’ resilience, creativity, and erudition.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rigorous exercise, and many students did not complete the process. The Times reports that only 50 people ended up submitting essays—applicants aged 14 through 23, hailing from seven countries and 17 states. Nine submissions were not complete. All three homeschooled applicants were accepted.

However, as awareness of the program grows, it seems likely they’ll receive more applicants—from students who delight in thinking and writing, or perhaps from students who struggled with tests and classes, and want a second chance. Of course, this process defies the quantifiable designations of a normal application process, and one must applaud Bard for defying the automatous ease of the modern era. This application process, if it grows, will mean more work for all parties.

But it also offers greater goods to those involved: it stretches the application process from a mere filling out of forms, into a learning process itself. As one student essayist told the Times, “I thought about other colleges, but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed.” Bard’s experiment takes learning out of the classroom, and challenges students at the very outset of their academic career.

While the traditional college application process isn’t wrong, it does leave important knowledge—and important people—out in the cold. Perhaps this experiment will encourage other institutions to look with greater depth at students’ ideas, not just their GPA.


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Thoreau vs. St. Benedict: How We “Opt Out” Matters

“Homesteading” has come back into vogue—but it’s not the old, federal-grant-fueled farming you may have read about in Little House on the Prairie. It’s a return to the land, focused on self-sufficiency and simple living. Eva Holland wrote Thursday about the trend for Pacific Standard:

Most recently, homesteading has been tweaked and put to use again, this time in connection with the latest do-it-yourself trends and the idea of increased self-sufficiency: of severing—or at least loosening—our ties to the big chain supermarket, the power grid, the consumer economy … It encompasses everything from backyard chickens and rooftop gardens in Brooklyn to the composting toilet in the tiny house your friend’s friend built. Abigail R. Gehring, the author of several recent how-to books on contemporary homesteading and self-sufficient living, writes: “Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs—including energy, food, financial, and health needs—and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly.”

The article reminded me of Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, chronicled in his book Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote.

Of course, Thoreau was a bit more extreme than most homesteaders—he was attempting to revert back to more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than an agrarian one. Indeed, he was surrounded by farmers, and criticized the lifestyle:

The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

One wonders what he would’ve thought of our modern working world: the millions of people huddled over computers in dimly-lit cubicles, working over 40 hours a week, commuting home in droves, stuck for ages in rush hour traffic. The better part of man is no longer “plowed into the soil for compost,” but may perhaps waste away on the urban highway.

Thoreau and the homesteader are united in their desire for a simpler life, a back-to-nature and independence-driven mode of existence. As Holland puts it, today’s homesteaders “knit, and they forage for wild mushrooms, and, if they live in the right part of the country, maybe they smoke their own wild-caught salmon in a rudimentary smoker they built themselves.” Similarly, Thoreau built a rough shack, planted his garden, and cooked the food he needed for daily meals. (Though he was a bit hypocritical: Paul Theroux notes that “During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, [Thoreau] did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.”)

Thoreau’s mode of life, while not entirely solitary, suggests a state of nature centered on the individual, rather than on community. It also promotes the “noble savage” of romantic primitivism: the idea that, in his most simplistic state, mankind was most innocent, and the best caretaker of the earth. When we view the pollution, decay, and damage the humankind has wrought on the earth, it’s easy to adopt such a view. But there are a few important ingredients missing from Thoreau’s philosophy of living, and potentially from the philosophy of the homesteaders—and this is where St. Benedict comes in.

St. Benedict was a monk who lived around the year AD 500, known for starting monastic communities after the fall of Rome. Rod Dreher recently wrote a feature story for TAC on the monk and his model of living: Read More…

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Fighting Income Inequality With Friendship

Friends meeting at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair (LOC). Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer.
Friends meeting at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair (LOC). Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer.

Richard Beck wrote Tuesday on friendship at his blog, Experimental Theology, arguing that “weak ties” are important to our world. He tells of a world in which individualism led to separate economic, cultural, and social worlds. Our deemphasis of friendship and its goods has created a society in which stratification erodes diverse flourishing:

In generations past the community was your insurance policy should anything traumatic happen to you. From a family death to the loss of a crop to a barn burning down. People and family would rally around you, supporting you through a difficult time.
But these cultural supports have largely vanished. For both rich and poor. The only difference is that the rich can purchase a safety net. They can buy homes and insurance. They can have investments and savings accounts. They can move to another city and another job.
So to be clear, I don’t want to lament a decline in cultural and family values and then put that decline solely on the poor. The decline cuts across socioeconomic status. It’s just that the rich have been able to insulate themselves from the historic erosion of familial and social mutuality. The rich can be self-sufficient. Thus, the social decline in America has fallen hardest on the poor.

Beck emphasizes the fact that “weak ties” in friendship are very needed. Why? Because our closest friends are usually insular groups, “bundles of sameness.” Weak ties—distant relatives, acquaintances from our neighborhood or past—are usually more diverse in their background, tastes, and employment. This wider “social web” gives us philanthropic ammunition: when you see someone in need, you don’t just bring your own talents and gifts to the table. You bring everyone you’ve ever met—”Bluntly, you might not be able to help this person in a particular situation but you might know someone else who can. In sacramental friendships you are bringing the gift of your weak ties.”

This blog post is quite timely, published during profuse talk of income inequality and its possible ties to the “decline of the family.” The emphasis on marriage as solution to income inequality has been articulated clearly and often in conservative discussion. And while this argument may have a lot of truth to it, it also may feel over-simplifying and unjust to many single parents out there. Not every single mom can or should get a husband. Not every young person ought to get married straight out of high school, or college, or grad school. Specifics matter: we cannot ascribe the entirety of our inequality problem to one cause or dilemma. And neither can we fix the problem via one set, specific solution.

Additionally, Beck is right in pointing to the role that private association has traditionally played in the realm of welfare and philanthropy. It is true that social stratification has decreased the impact that some private associations have: churches, specifically, are often isolated by their zip codes from true diversity. Voluntary civil society has never been perfect, nor has it completely provided for the needs of the American people—but it still is one of the most personable, specific, and conscious threads of philanthropy at our disposal. The government can’t fix its eye on every poverty-stricken household, to know all its particulars, needs, and weaknesses. But a neighbor down the road, friend from church, third cousin, or friend from high school can, and they can extend help in a way that the government (or even a large non-profit organization) cannot. Read More…

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Meeting Past Selves by Reading Where You’re From

nature notebook

After perusing some old bookshelves and boxes, I discovered an old nature diary. These excerpts were written by my 11-year old self:

On Monday, July 23, my family and I went huckleberry picking in the forest. As we were looking for a good place to start picking, Mom cried, “Look at the baby deer!” Dad stopped the car, and we saw a doe dash behind a bush. The baby deer stayed for about five minutes, and then disappeared.

After picking at least a gallon of huckleberrys  [sic], we went back to where we had had a picnic, and washed our hands in the creek. Then we looked for rocks, and I found a piece of petrified wood.

On the way home, Katie looked for more deer, and soon called out, “A buck! A buck!” Dad turned around the car, and we saw the buck run away! After continuing our drive Katie called, “A doe! A doe!” I barely saw her, and I didn’t have enough room to draw her, and so I didn’t include her.

 

This bed is all a-bloom. I investigated it thouroughly [sic] and not a flower does not have intricate purples, blues, whites, pinks, and vivid strawberry. This bed also, is filled with frilly purple, triumphant yellow, soft strawberry pink, luscious green, and a few hints of snowy white.

I must say spring has come swiftly and sufficiently. When I enter the house, it looks so dark and gloomy compared to the fresh, yellow-white sunlight that streams through branches outside.

It is terrible writing. But it’s also interesting. I see a little girl who loved the outdoors, and loved beauty—and she was trying, desperately, to capture these moments before they faded away. I didn’t want to forget the first time I saw a piece of petrified wood or baby deer. I wanted to capture the beauty of a garden rose. The words are an interesting juxtaposition of almost terse journalistic chronicling, and an exaggerated romantic style.

I didn’t know it then, but I was writing to an audience of selves. Years pass, and a new self visits the journal—someone with greater experience, skepticism, knowledge. This new person reads with fresh eyes and perhaps amusement—but aloof as they may seem, they still feel kinship with the writer of the past.

This is the horror and wonder of writing: we know we will return to ourselves, five or 10 years down the road, and see a face we’ve forgotten. We will look closely at a soul whose face we know, but whose expression and turn of phrase is now old-fashioned (and sometimes cringe-worthy) to our eyes.

There are two ways to “read where you’re from,” and I think both are valuable exercises. The first is to revisit old diary entries, scribbles, photographs, and personal collections, such as the above. Not everyone is a writer, but almost every child collects memories from their childhood in one form or another. Revisiting such materials gives us a window into who we were, and the ways we’ve grown—or stayed the same. Revisiting old notebooks and diaries from childhood requires a sense of humor, perspective, and candor—to see oneself clearly, then and now. Read More…

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What’s Happening in Egypt?

The turmoil and tension surrounding Ukraine has dominated the media as of late—and before that, war in Syria drove the news for many months. But a year ago Egypt was preeminent: the military overthrow of elected President Muhammed Morsi last summer brought both outrage and applause from various factions.

Now, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister who led last summer’s takeover, is running for president. Sisi has been in charge since last year’s military takeover—this would just put a formal title to his rulership. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick believes it’s likely, almost certain, he will win: “Several would-be candidates have declined to enter the presidential race, arguing that the support of the military and security services all but guaranteed Mr. Sisi’s election,” he writes.

Yahoo News reporters Maggie Michael and Lee Keath report that Sisi has surrounded himself with former President Hosni Mubarak’s circle of “politicians, technocrats and big businessmen,” suggesting his presidency would mark a return to the autocratic methods of bygone days.

But Financial Times reporter David Gardner believes Sisi will amass more power than Mubarak, for a few reasons: first, “he has tilted power away from the security services towards the army,” and has used the new constitution to bolster military power. Second, branding the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and throwing 15,000 to 20,000 of its members into prison has solidified his political prospects. While Sisi may hang up his uniform, notes Gardner, he hasn’t given up its power. Read More…

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Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?

Khoi Vinh believes coffee drinking in the West is a self-conscious and ostentatious practice—“not just a daily habit, but a totem of conspicuous consumption”:

Once in hand, we proudly parade those ostentatiously titled cups of coffee, lidded and wrapped in insulating sleeves, around with us as we walk and drive. They’re like our hood ornaments: branded markers, symbols of our fealty to given coffee houses that, we are convinced, make us better, more informed, more authentic, more committed consumers of dirty hot water than those others who will settle for lesser brands.

But Jason Kottke argues that our coffee culture, “like almost everything else these days, is a sport.” Everyone has a favorite “team” (aka Chemex vs. French press) and preferred technique, and they often love to argue with “fans of other teams.” There are more methods to brew coffee than I ever thought possible—this Pop Chart Lab “Compendious Coffee Chart” shows a swath of them, from the “Toddy Cold Brew” and “Kyoto Dripper” to the “Neapolitan Flip.” And don’t forget the various methods of serving and drinking coffee—of course we are familiar with plain black coffee (so boring), the americano, cappuccino, and latté. But have you heard of a cortado? A galão? A Vietnamese Cá Phê?

In addition to methodology fans, there are also those who ascribe to various coffee retailers—whether it be a chain a la Starbucks, or a local indie store (usually offering thimble-size shots of espresso). Nathan Yau recently mapped the most popular coffee chains across the nation: Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had the greatest fan base, clearly dominating on the east and west coast. Dutch Bros. and Tim Hortons also had a pretty good showing in their respective regions.

Frank Bruni wrote a column for the New York Times in 2010, describing his journey from one method of coffee making to another. While he learned to appreciate the art of French press and other various methodologies, he also came to love the beautiful simplicity of good old Mr. Coffee—to find in your kitchen “10 cups of coffee, brewed automatically, just five minutes earlier, as a consequence of a few simple steps and some alarm clock-style programming the night before.”

It seems many people are as excited about various coffee brews as they are about wines—and coffee tasting can have a similar air of self-conscious elitism as that expressed in various wine-loving circles. Some shun Starbucks with an eye-roll and a reference to its big-gulp sized, sugary drinks. Others scoff those silly hipsters who only drink their coffee with butter.

So why do Americans drink coffee? Do they truly love their cups of joe for joe’s sake, or do they claim it as a status symbol, a team activity like watching March Madness? Read More…

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After I’m Gone: A Commentary on Crisis

“A therapist I know—” Rachel was careful not to say my therapist; only Joshua knew she was seeing someone— “says there’s a theory that traumas leave us arrested at the age of the trauma.”

“Michelle doesn’t even remember Daddy. And that would make you forever fourteen, me sixteen. With all due respect, your therapist friend is kind of a quack.”

What do moments of catastrophe or tragedy inflict on the human psyche? Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, suggests a mind emotionally and cognitively “stuck” at a historical moment of pain.

Her novel tells the story of five women left bereft and embittered by a man’s disappearance, and the story of one man struggling after the death of his wife. Felix Brewer, a charming and cavalier fellow, marries Bernadette “Bambi” Gottschalk after meeting her at a Valentine’s Day dance in 1959. Bambi cares for their three little girls while Felix runs his rather lucrative, illegal business. Facing an impending prison sentence in 1976, Felix disappears—leaving his wife mysteriously impoverished and emotionally shocked.

Bambi has no idea where her husband is, or where his money has gone. She suspects her husband’s mistress, Julie, may know where the funds are—but Julie insists that she has no idea of Felix’s (or his money’s) whereabouts. Ten years later, Julie disappears without a trace. People surmise (and Bambi fears) that she has joined Felix—but in 1986, people discover her remains in a park. What happened to Julie? Was her fate tied to Felix’s disappearance?

Fast forward to 2012: Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective working on cold cases, begins investigating Julie’s murder. He realizes the case is inextricably linked to all five of the women Felix left behind: his wife, his mistress, and his three daughters: Linda, Rachel, and Michelle.

Sandy has his own life trauma: specifically, the loss of his wife Mary some time before. Their romance, marriage, and emotional struggles provide an additional narrative thread throughout the mystery.

Though each of Felix’s daughters have their own story, each is tied both to the fate of their father and their own psychological “age”: Michelle, the baby of the family, acts like one—and is always eager for the attention and approval of males. Rachel, the middle child, finds herself battling grief at every turn. Linda, the oldest, manages to perhaps get the best “grip” on life. But interestingly, she chooses a husband who is perhaps the most manipulable of the group. She chooses, in some senses, the antithesis of her father.

Each of these characters combat their grief in different ways, and slowly begin to emerge from their pain. However, there is only one character who seems to transcend that pain: Bambi. Her final musings, at the conclusion of the book, are quite poignant. I don’t want to give the story away, but it’s a good passage.

Perhaps all of us face “frozen moments” in life. Death, divorce, financial crisis, betrayal, etc.: moments of heartbreak arrest and stall us. We are like records stuck on a single phrase or note of music. We play it, over and over. This “frozenness” derails Sandy, Julie, Michelle, and many others in Lippman’s story.

In her Author’s Note, Lippman says the novel’s inspiration came from her husband, who suggested that she “write a novel inspired by Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore into the 1970s.” Salsbury was convicted of mail fraud, and disappeared—leaving behind his wife, three daughters, and a girlfriend. “I found myself fascinated by the idea of the five women left behind,” Lippman writes. “What is a wife without her husband, daughters without a father, a mistress without her lover?”

Despite elements of mystery and drama, this book’s strongest genre is tragedy—not because of the characters who suffered pain, but because of those characters who refused to move on from pain: the people who chose to plant their feet in the stream of tragedy, rooted in their moment of crisis.


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