Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2011)

Athanasius (298-373)

This summer, I am trying to improve my understanding of (1) the history of Christianity and (2) the varieties of belief within Christianity. To that end, I am currently reading (and listening to) Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

There was considerable theological ferment during the 300s and 400s, as Christians debated whether and how to systematize their beliefs. A series of councils developed creedal statements that organized Christian beliefs and resolved (or aimed to resolve) budding controversies.

For example, the Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) examined the question of Jesus's relationship to God the Father. The context was that two important leaders disagreed about the theology: Athanasius stated that Jesus had been "begotten" by the Father from his own being (and therefore had no beginning), while Arius believed that Jesus had been created and did have a beginning.

The bishops who gathered at Nicaea overwhelmingly sided with Athanasius; therefore, the Nicene Creed states:

[And we believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,

God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,

begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.

I think I'm starting to get my head around the Athanasius/Arius debate. The key question seems to have been the extent to which Jesus was a "regular" human, and the resolution seems to have been that he's not regular at all.

The next debate is proving trickier for me to understand, and it has to do with the nature of God and Jesus.

The Council of Chalcedon was called by Emperor Marcian in 451, and its primary focus was whether Jesus had both a divine and human nature or only a single (combined) nature. The lay of the land was as follows:

- Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople (and a follower of Theodore), argued that Jesus definitely had two natures. He attacked references to Mary as Theotokos ("Bearer of God"), because he did not believe it was possible for God to be born; thus, Jesus's human nature must have been distinct from his God nature.

Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril argued that Jesus had one nature that unified his God hypostasis (this word means "person") and his human hypostasis. The idea of one nature is called the hypostatic union.

This is where it gets extremely tricky for me. The Council of Chalcedon tried to thread the theological/linguistic needle between these two positions, and it did indeed satisfy most Christians. Here are excerpts from MacCulloch:
The Chalcedonian agreement centred on a formula of compromise. Although it talked of the Union of Two Natures, and took care to give explicit mention to Theotokos [in this sense, the agreement favored Cyril], it largely followed Nestorius's viewpoint about 'two natures', 'the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union.' 
... In the manner of many politically inspired middle-of-the-road settlements, the Chalcedonian Definition left bitter discontents on either side in the Eastern Churches. 
On the one hand were those who adhered to a more robust affirmation of two natures in Christ and who felt that Nestorius had been treated with outrageous injustice.
On the other side, history has given those who treasure the memory of Cyril a label which they still resent, Monophysites ("a single nature"), though this label has been widely replaced by Miaphysite ("one nature").
Today, most sources seem to use the term Church of the East (or Assyrian Church of the East) for people who held onto the Nestorian perspective and Oriental Orthodox (which includes Coptic Orthodox) for people who held onto the Miaphysite perspective. Here are two different graphic depictions that are helpful for me:



One interesting detail is that the Coptic Orthodox Church has a pope; other than Roman Catholics, they are the only other group to use this title. In the case of Coptic Orthodoxy, the current pope is Tawadros II, born in Egypt in 1952.

Pope Tawadros II

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Scarlet Letter (1850)


As I've been reading and listening to The Scarlet Letter these past few weeks, I've decided that Nathaniel Hawthorne's depiction of Pearl (the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale) is quite remarkable. Pearl is truly childlike: unaware of society's rules (and hypocrisies) at some times, then fully aware just moments later.

She has a fantastic ability to entertain herself. The scenes during which she plays joyfully are hitting home for me as I watch J, T and B find countless new ways to amuse themselves during these long days of coronavirus.

Hawthorne had a knack for communicating the thought process (and the soul) of a child that escapes many authors. In truth, Pearl is -- in many respects -- the most interesting and fully realized character in the book. Dimmesdale is so wooden and incapable of empathy as to seem misdrawn (how could his sermons have been so powerful, if he couldn't understand the world from another's eyes?), and Chillingworth is villainous to almost comical effect.

Here's a sampling of Pearl's adventures:
And she was gentler here [in the woods] than in the grassy-margined streets of the settlement, or in her mother’s cottage. The flowers appeared to know it; and one and another whispered, as she passed, “Adorn thyself with me, thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!”—and, to please them, Pearl gathered the violets, and anemones, and columbines, and some twigs of the freshest green, which the old trees held down before her eyes. With these she decorated her hair, and her young waist, and became a nymph-child, or an infant dryad, or whatever else was in closest sympathy with the antique wood. In such guise had Pearl adorned herself, when she heard her mother’s voice, and came slowly back.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Macbeth (Part 2)


In a lecture on The Great Courses, Clare Kinney explores the topic of gender in Macbeth.

She points out that Lady Macbeth is the first (only?) of Shakespeare's female tragic characters to soliloquize (in contrast, for instance, to Ophelia). Here's an excerpt from her famous second soliloquy:
Come, you spirits 
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, 
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full 
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood. 
Stop up the access and passage to remorse, 
That no compunctious visitings of nature 
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between 
The effect and it!

Kinney also argues that many of the tragedies have a central word or idea whose meaning and import is negotiated by and among the characters.

In Macbeth, the central word under negotiation is "man."

Macbeth defines being a man in terms of our shared humanity; a "man" agrees to be guided by certain principles and to act in accordance with a shared set of morals. When he (momentarily) decides not to murder Duncan, he says:

I dare do all that becomes a man
Who dares do more is none.

Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, argues that a man is one who puts aside all emotion and simply acts -- in this sense, "man" is in contrast to "woman." Here's a portion of her response:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.

Kinney points out that, later in the play, Macduff proposes an alternative vision of manhood when he tells Malcolm that a true man will deeply mourn the death of his wife and children. After Malcolm urges him to "dispute it like a man," Macduff responds:

I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me.

634. What are the major feminist critiques of Shakespeare, and how are those critiques answered? Lady Macbeth seems like a problematic character on multiple levels (manipulative, power-hungry, etc.). Is there an argument that she actually empowers women? How does the argument work?

635. Ghosts in Hamlet, witches (and ghosts) in Macbeth. Shakespeare was clearly fascinated with the supernatural and with the ways that our beliefs (and our feelings) can haunt us. Was Shakespeare (or the person who penned the plays under his name) religious? If so, what were his specific beliefs about the afterlife and the role (or not) of God in everyday life?


The three witches in the 2010 Patrick Stewart version of Macbeth are incredibly spooky

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Cameron Webb and the 5th Congressional District


On June 23, the Democrats nominated Cameron Webb as their candidate for the Congressional seat currently held by Denver Riggleman. Webb will run against Bob Good, who defeated Riggleman in the Republican primary earlier in June.

Webb is a fantastic candidate. He has specific objectives, focused on building a more just and effective health care system.

He also wants Congress to implement an energy standard that will eventually require 100% of United States electricity to come from clean and renewable sources, and his infrastructure program prioritizes broadband internet access.

I love that Webb has thought so thoroughly about why he wants to lead and what he wants to do. I am excited about his candidacy, and I hope that he will gain momentum and in the weeks ahead.

Here's an interview with Natasha Eubanks from theybf.com:

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Macbeth (Part 1)


I am in the process of reading Macbeth. This play is dark (perhaps darker even than Hamlet).

Shakespeare had a knack for exploring the awful depths to which people are capable of sinking. Macbeth murders the innocent, seemingly with little foresight (this is a major contrast to Hamlet, who broods at length before taking each step).

He is driven by ambition, in particular the desire to rule Scotland. He is willing to kill Duncan (the reigning king), then Banquo, Fleance and Macduff's family (potential threats) in order to keep and maintain power.

631. In addition to President Trump, who are the most nakedly ambitious current politicians and leaders?

632. The numerous authoritarians and dictators are clearly ambitious, and are clearly so in a negative rather than a positive way (I am thinking of Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro). Is there more rampant ambition now than there was, for example, in the 1980s and 1990s? Or is there simply more opportunity to turn ambition towards negative ends?

633. Why was Shakespeare so interested in ambition? I gather that he read tons of history, but how much did he know about the current political affairs of England, Scotland, etc.? Did he view a play like Macbeth as cautionary (in other words, did he want people to read it and think about ways that they could corral ambition?), or was he simply interested in exploring the psychology of leadership?

Here's a sampling of Macbeth thinking about his ambition, in Act 1, Scene 3:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrid imaginings.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Coronavirus Reflections from Charlottesville

This is an essay that I wrote on June 7:

March. As winter turned to spring, the pandemic struck. During those first frightening weeks, most everyone agreed about the correct course of action. Schools were closed and businesses shuttered. Everything changed, and it felt like it happened in the blink of an eye.

But now it’s June, and spring is becoming summer. As locking down turns to opening up, the consensus has vanished. The decisions seem much harder. We remain so uncertain about the nature and extent of the risks. When and on what terms can we gather again? How should we balance the costs and benefits?

In March, the agreed upon goal was to flatten the curve. By limiting contact with each other, we could lower the rate of infection. By lowering the rate of infection, we could prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Those who fell ill would receive the necessary resources and attention. We would all play a role in helping those at greatest risk.

Implicit in the goal of flattening the curve, for many of us, was a more personal goal. We wanted to prevent ourselves — and those we love — from becoming infected. The virus is fatal for a certain (still unknown) percentage of those infected. Descriptions of the way that the virus attacks some of its victims are frightening.

In other words: by closing down society, yes, we were helping to protect the most vulnerable, but we were also taking steps to protect ourselves and those closest to us.

The curve has been flattened. Now, our political leaders — along with some public health experts — tell us that we can resume many of our old routines. We are told to take precautions, to wear a mask and maintain a six-foot distance, but the sense of crisis seems to have lifted. The President practically implores us to start shopping and eating out again. In his words and his demeanor, he projects certainty that the emergency has passed.

But the overriding emotion for many of us is uncertainty. If it made sense to avoid gathering in groups two months ago, for our personal safety and the health of our communities, then why is it ok now? What has really changed? The statistics twist and turn, with spikes in infection in one place and a gradual decline in another.

Psychologists say that it takes between three and ten weeks to form a habit. The period of strict social distancing lasted for approximately eight weeks in many places. Habits were formed. We learned to be wary of interacting with others (our co-workers, our neighbors, even our extended families) too closely. We learned to wash our hands after every encounter with a surface that could recently have been touched by someone else. We learned to analyze each activity in terms of its capacity to expose ourselves and others to a deadly disease.

Now, as the world reopens, I wonder how long it takes to unlearn a habit. Having become accustomed to warily viewing the world through the lens of a pandemic, how do we adjust to re-entry?

My final questions arise from my perspective as a father. My oldest child is ten, and my youngest is four. I think often about the long term effects that the life-altering experiences of this spring will have on them. Will they and their peers be better equipped to deal with uncertainty than my generation? Will they have more capacity to anticipate the unexpected, and therefore be better problem solvers? Will they be more or less risk averse than their parents? Will they decide that big challenges can only be addressed on a broad (even global) scale, or will they retreat into themselves and build walls whenever a potential threat arises?

We are still at the beginning of a long journey. Amid all of the uncertainty, two things are sure: our perspectives about the virus will continue to evolve, and many difficult decisions lie ahead. Winter became spring, and now spring turns to summer. We are already so much older, and yet the fall and winter still wait in the distance.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Archaeological Debates About King David


In this week's New Yorker (here), Ruth Margalit examines archaeological-historical-religious debates in Israel.

Margalit's primary focus is Israel Finkelstein, a 71-year old archaeologist who argues that King David and King Solomon were either (1) purely figures of fiction/myth or (2) at most, the leaders of a small chiefdom of minimal historical or political significance:
"... A wily, resourceful man from Bethlehem decides that his people are meant for more than lightning raids and mercenary stints. He sends his men to rout an advancing force, then shares the loot with the highland elders. This wins over the highlanders, and, in time, they make him chieftain of the southern hill area. 
He takes over the tribal center of Hebron, and later captures Jerusalem, another hilltop stronghold. 
The chieftain moves his extended family to the main homes of the Jerusalem village, and settles in one himself—a palace, some might call it, though there is nothing extravagant about it. He rules over a neglected chiefdom of pastoralists and outlaws. His name is David."
Finkelstein's argument rests on the limited physical evidence of the biblical Solomonic kingdom (referred to as the United Kingdom) that is claimed to have existed during the 9th century BCE.

His argument is influential but not entirely accepted among other archaeologists. For instance, in 2005, an archaeologist named Eilat Mazar discovered the walls of a large public building on a slope that descends from the Temple Mount, and she claims that this building was part of the biblical capital city.

Finkelstein and Mazar are representative of a debate between two camps of scholars known as maximalists and minimalists: "If maximalists treat the Bible as verifiable fact, the minimalists treat it as fiction: a near-mythological account, composed between 500 and 200 BC, that should be understood within a purely literary framework."

This article is helpful for me because it connects and overlaps with the intra-Christian debate (which I'm currently thinking about as I read The Evangelicals) between those who read the Bible as factual/historical and those who view it as metaphorical.

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Since I was a teenager, I've been more drawn to history than archaeology. I liked the feeling that a person could uncover the "truth" as a historian, whereas archaeology was more about conjecture and mystery.

As I've grown older and realized just how much ambiguity is embedded in language -- and how much language depends on the perspective of the author and his/her social context -- I've realized that the fields of archaeology and history are more similar than I thought.

This is part of the "Large Stone Structure," which Eilat Mazar claims may have been part of King David's palace

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Learning About Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America


My favorite television show of quarantine has been Mrs. America, a nine-part miniseries that examines the lives of the famous (and less famous, but equally affected) women who fought for and against the Equal Rights Amendment.

There are few things I like better than a book, movie or TV show that fictionalizes history in an engaging way -- and that introduces the major personalities, events and issues while remaining reasonably faithful to "the truth."

For me, Mrs. America presents 1970s feminism, and the battle over the ERA, in a way that highlights the stakes (the political and emotional ones) with subtlety and complexity. I've heard about Phyllis Schlafly since college, but I'd never taken the time to learn about her specific role in the political battles of the 70s and 80s; I'd certainly heard Mom and Dad talk about Gloria Steinem through the years.

Interestingly, I probably knew more about Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan than either Schlafly or Steinem, by virtue of my Women's History course with Annelise Orleck (in addition to Kenneth Shewmaker's course about American foreign policy, Women's History may have been the class that influenced me the most). I loved the show's portrayals of Abzug and Friedan, particularly seeing the way in which many feminists were both inspired and frustrated by Friedan (in particular, by her opposition to spotlighting and fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation).

Schlafly is a fascinating figure. She figured out how to use the American political system at both the grassroots and institutional levels, and she maneuvered her way to considerable success. Mrs. America shows how hard she is to like or respect, even while making it nearly impossible not to credit her with effectively using our democratic system to advocate for her perspective.

Every performance in the show is stellar; in that sense, I am reminded of The Wire, Six Feet Under, and the other ensemble programs for which I'd have difficulty choosing a "favorite" cast member. As I cross my fingers hoping for a second season, this is the kind of pop culture that makes me feel grateful to be living in the era of peak TV.

Cate Blanchett and the real Phyllis Schlafly

Friday, June 19, 2020

Curtis Sittenfeld's "Rodham" (2020)


I received Rodham for my birthday. This book is vintage Curtis Sittenfeld: fun to read, it raises questions that are provocative but not too deep or serious.

The premise is straightforward. Hillary Rodham meets Bill Clinton while they are both at Yale Law School, but he cheats on her (while Hillary is interning at a law firm in San Francisco) and she decides not to marry him.

After a stint as a professor at Northwestern, she becomes a Senator in 1992 -- defeating Carol Mosley Braun in the Democratic primary, which earns her the enmity of her until-then mentor, an African American woman modeled on Marian Wright Edelman.

I like the way that Sittenfeld imagines Hillary's psychology. She is ambitious but altruistic; practical without completely sacrificing her ideals. She's definitely not perfect, but she's considerably more likable than my-conception of "the real Hillary." Here's an excerpt:
"I had thought that I'd like being a senator; in fact, I loved it. The first speech I ever gave on the Senate floor was about fair housing, and the first bill I ever co-sponsored was the Improving America's Schools Act of 1993, and I loved being able to tangibly and directly take on the problems I had spent my adult life thinking about ... My sense of purpose as a senator made me recognize retroactively that there had been a certain slackness in my life before, or perhaps it was that previously I had been imposing structure on my days and now an external structure was imposed on them. I felt busy in a good way."
In a twist, Bill -- having become a tech billionaire after dropping out of the 1992 Presidential race when he and his wife mishandled allegations of infidelity -- challenges Hillary for the 2016 nomination. Bill is not likable at all. Sittenfeld's explororation of Bill's character flaws is causing me to feel even sadder/more frustrated about his personal and political shortcomings.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

I have spent a significant part of this summer reading Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.

My (limited) knowledge of this book came primarily from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Andy Dufresne recommends Monte Cristo to a fellow inmate because it describes an escape from prison. As I read the book, I enjoyed the way that certain plot details reminded me of Shawshank; it became clear that Stephen King referenced Dumas's classic for more than the surface level reference and follow-up joke.

-----------

I started the book by listening to it while gardening.

I quickly gathered that Edmond Dantès is unjustly imprisoned after having been framed by three jealous acquaintances (Danglars, Caderousse and Mondego). The context for Dantès's alleged crime is Napoleon's plot, from Elba, to regain power from the Bourbon monarchy. I enjoyed the way that Dumas weaves historical characters and events into the story's plot.

Eventually, Dantès escapes from prison and recovers a hidden treasure whose location is revealed to him by a fellow inmate (Abbe Faria). Dantès returns to society under several new identities, including most famously the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. He tracks down the men who ruined his life and -- in a very roundabout way -- aims to ruin theirs.


Having listened to the first several chapters of the book, I made two incorrect assumptions: (1) this is primarily an adventure story and (2) the novel is of a typical length (300 - 500 pages). 

In truth -- with reference to my first assumption -- Monte Cristo became a classic because the straightforward revenge plot is overlaid with deeper questions about justice and forgiveness. To wit, Dantès struggles with whether to forgive his first love, Mercedes, who eventually gave up hope of ever seeing him again and married another man (Mondego). There are also questions about whether revenge can fairly be taken on the family members of those who have done wrong. One reviewer said that Dumas is ultimately exploring the distinction between justice meted out by man and justice that comes from God.

With respect to my second assumption, a lasting memory of this summer will be first seeing the novel on the bookshelf of the Crozet Library. It is 1,200 pages long!! I have never read a novel so long, and as much as I enjoyed Monte Cristo I don't think I could have survived its entire length. Dumas's level of detail can be windy and tedious; this is explained by Umberto Eco as stemming from his being paid by the word while the story was serialized. 

Fortunately, I found an abridged version at Barnes & Noble (approximately 600 pages). I'm not a fast reader, so even finishing the short version feels like a major accomplishment.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Detention of Central American Migrants

The treatment of Central American immigrants continues to be a major issue.

Many of the immigrants make claims for asylum. They are being held for long periods of time in detention centers which some Democrats have described, this summer, as concentration camps.


Yesterday, Mike Pence visited a facility in McAllen, Texas, which Wikipedia describes as the largest such facility in the country. I was curious about McAllen's location; it is very close to the Gulf of Mexico, at the far eastern point of Texas. Is McAllen where many of the migrants actually arrive, or are they transported there from other crossing points?

Here's an excerpt from this morning's article in the Post:
When Pence visited a migrant detention center here Friday, he saw nearly 400 men crammed behind caged fences with not enough room for them all to lie down on the concrete ground. There were no mats or pillows for those who found the space to rest. A stench from body odor hung stale in the air. 
When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they’d been held there 40 days, some longer. They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the Border Patrol agents to drink. 
... Pence said it was heartbreaking to hear from children who had walked two or three months to come to America and cross the border illegally, but he ultimately blamed Congress for failing to pass legislation that would deal with the influx of migrants at the southern border.
This is a photo of the inside of the McAllen detention center.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Oedipus Rex: The Question of Fate

Since high school (or college?), I've been vaguely aware of Oedipus Rex by virtue of Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex. I remember being shocked and confused when someone first explained the idea to me; its weirdness probably served to color my later impression of Freudian theory more generally. Prior to this summer, I had never read the actual play.

Reading the text, I was initially struck by its brevity: less than 100 pages (many of which are quite short because of the back and forth dialogue).

Also, the action begins almost at its climax, as Oedipus asks the people of Thebes to help him solve the mystery of who killed Laius. In truth, I was quite confused with the dearth of background or context, wondering if I had skipped an earlier scene in which the characters and backstory are introduced.

In some ways, the brevity (and climactic-beginning structure) of Oedipus make it very different from Hamlet, in which Shakespeare (and his protagonist!) takes his time at every step of the story. I think part of the reason that I was so surprised with Oedipus is that I assume these famous works of canonical literature must be dense with details and development -- like the Shakespearean tragedies.

A major theme of Oedipus is the role of destiny in our lives, and it's a fascinating theme at that. Tiresias (a prophet of Apollo) argues to Oedipus that humans cannot escape their destiny, and it's unclear to me whether Sophocles agrees or not. I guess this gets to the crux of the play and its lasting importance: can we shape our own destiny, or are certain things playing out at a level one step removed?

631. It's scary to think that our fate is pre-written, and that if we try to anticipate and change our fate we can actually bring tragedy into our lives. I'm unclear what the ancient Greeks believed about fate: if they were fatalists, how did they manage to create such a dynamic, important culture? I'm also curious to learn more about the attitudes and beliefs, within Christianity and the other major religions, about fate and destiny.

632. What are the various ways in which subsequent authors reference and build-on the themes and ideas from Oedipus? How has it become such a foundational text in Western cultures?

“Fear? What has a man to do with fear? Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.”

Friday, July 5, 2019

Sonia Sotomayor's "My Beloved World" (2013)


When traveling to New York City last week, I wanted to read a book with a New York setting. I chose Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World.

I have enjoyed this book because it is sprinkled with advice about living a meaningful life, with a major focus on two elements: relationships and education.

Sotomayor's writing style is straightforward, and her passion for living comes across vividly. She frequently writes about how much she enjoys talking to people. I imagine (and am happy to think) that she has forged close relationships with the other Supreme Court justices -- even those with whom she disagrees.
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Justice Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx. Her family came originally from Puerto Rico, and her extended family plays a major role in her childhood:
The world that I was born into was a tiny microcosm of Hispanic New York City. A tight few blocks in the South Bronx bounded the lives of my extended family: my grandmother, matriarch of the tribe, and her second husband, Gallego, daughters and sons. My playmates were my cousins. We spoke Spanish at home, and many in my family spoke virtually no English. 
My parents had both come to New York from Puerto Rico in 1944 [Sotomayor was born in 1954], my mother in the Women's Army Corps, my father with his family in search of work as part of a huge migration from the island, driven by economic hardship.
Her father, who struggled with alcoholism, died when Sotomayor was only nine years old. While she struggled to come to grips with his passing, she turned to books as a source of strength.

She writes a lot about her experiences in school (she eventually attended Princeton), and I particularly enjoyed a passage about being open to learning from each and every person that enters your life:
It was then, in Mrs. Reilly's class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique: how, while she was reading, she underlined important facts and took notes to condense information into smaller bits that were easier to remember; how, the night before a test, she would reread the relevant chapter. Obvious things once you've learned them, but at the time deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel 
... The critical lesson I learned is still one too many kids never figure out: don't be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I've sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in every friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.
This passage reminds me of how much my students are learning from each other. As their teacher, one of my most important jobs is to create and nurture an environment where those interactions can thrive.

I miss President Obama's smile!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Lee Iacocca (1924-2019)


Lee Iacocca died yesterday at the age of 94.

When I was a child, Iacocca was the first businessman of whom I became aware. He was an outsized personality and I recall our family telling jokes with the loud punchline of "I'm Lee Iacocca!!".

Mom, in particular, used to talk about him a lot. I think she admired his self-confidence and positivity. I noticed in his obituary that he was born in Allentown, so perhaps she also liked the Pennsylvania connection. I'm curious to ask her why she was fascinated by Iacocca.

According to the article in this morning's Post (here), Iacocca was a central figure in the American economy of the 1970's and 1980's. He first worked for Ford, where he was noticed and promoted by Robert McNamara. Here's a great anecdote that helps explain Iacocca's knack for sales and marketing:
“I decided that any customer who bought a new 1956 Ford should be able to do so for a modest down payment of 20 percent followed by three years of monthly payments of $56,” Mr. Iacocca wrote in his memoir. “I called my idea ’56 for ’56.’ ” 
The plan was so successful that in three months, sales of Fords in the Philadelphia district shot to first place from last. McNamara so liked the idea that he made it part of Ford’s national marketing strategy. The company later estimated that the idea was responsible for selling 75,000 additional cars.
After clashing with Henry Ford II, Iacocca became the chairman of Chrysler in 1978. He convinced Jimmy Carter to approve a bailout of Chrysler in 1980, and then he promptly repaid the government's loan seven years ahead of schedule!

Iacocca's death, along with George Bush's death last winter, marks the passing of a generation of American leaders. For all his cockiness and bravado, I greatly admire his work ethic and old-fashioned values (such as his pride that Chrysler repaid its loan early).

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Extremely Tall Skyscrapers Under Construction in NYC

A photo from my evening stroll in Central Park

Accommodations for my conference in New York City were at St. Thomas Choir School, on 58th Street just south of Central Park. I had a couple of lovely strolls through the park.

During my time in the city, my eye was repeatedly drawn towards two skyscrapers under construction. Both towers struck me as extremely tall. However, the general enormity of all things New York made it hard to know if my small town perspective was exaggerating their actual height.

Eventually I did some research -- and I learned that both buildings, are (in fact) high, even by Manhattan standards.

The first tower is being built next door to St. Thomas Choir School, at 225 West 57th Street. It's called the Central Park Tower; construction began in 2014 and the overall cost is $3 billion. Once complete, it will rise 1,550 feet (131 stories). This means it will be North America's second-tallest skyscraper (even taller than the Sears Tower)!


There's some interesting legal wrangling related to the Central Park Tower. The project's developer, Extell, paid $31 million for 6,000 square feet of air rights and the ability to build a cantilever that extends above a neighboring building owned by the New York Art Students' League. 

The purpose of the cantilever is to maximize views of Central Park. Some members of the Art Students' League filed a lawsuit objecting to the sale of the air rights and cantilever, but their claims were dismissed.

The second tower will be located at 111 57th Street, and it will be 1,428 feet tall. I kept noticing that the top of this building seems especially narrow, and my research indicated that it will indeed be the skinniest of New York's major skyscrapers.

I also learned that 57th Street is nicknamed Billionaires' Row. These two new skyscrapers are definitely going to solidify that reputation!

On Friday, I visited an exhibition at the Art Students' League (Perhaps I was curious to see if there were any lingering signs of the litigation?!). This was one of the paintings.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

National Geographic's Article About Wildlife Tourism


Yesterday morning I read a National Geographic article (by Natasha Dalyhere) about wildlife tourism. The article is well written and very, very sad.

Instagram and selfie culture have led to a huge increase in the phenomenon of people wanting to pose for photos with wild animals. An industry of elephant, tiger, and dolphin "parks" has arisen (there are places for other animals as well, but these are especially popular), in which tourists pay to interact with the animals.

At most of these places, the animals are treated poorly, including by the tourists. The images accompanying the article provide a window into humans' egos -- and our blindness to the unthinking (at times cruel) ways in which we often treat God's creation.

I appreciated that Daly's article is pointed in its critique (National Geographic's writing continues to be strong on both emotional and intellectual levels). It made me wonder about the ways in which I could do better.



Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Newsstands Without News


I moved from New York City in June 2019, twenty years ago. I’ve returned only a couple of times since then (I am here this week for a seminar about teaching world religions).

Whenever I am in the city, I am astounded by the way it’s an entire universe unto itself. The physical, cultural and human geography of the streets of Manhattan is unlike anything else in America. Walking north from Penn Station yesterday, I realized New York is one of the few places where I don’t seem to notice the plants – probably because all my senses are overwhelmed by other details.

I recently read an article about the way in which newsstands no longer sell newspapers (since so few people buy the physical version). One company is trying to rebrand some of the stands as a mix between an Apple store and a bodega. Yesterday, I saw evidence that this trend is real.

I was amazed at how few newspapers and magazines were displayed at the newsstands. They’d been replaced by snacks, trinkets, and lots of electronics. It was a bit sad to see. During my time living in Boston and New York, I loved the view of a newsstand displaying hundreds of magazines (the one in Harvard Square was the absolute best) – it was a chance to see the world’s variety in miniature, on the covers of the various papers and magazines.


Another change I noticed is the proliferation of bike rental stations along the streets. I don’t quite understand how the economics of bike (or scooter) rental can work in a smaller town like Charlottesville, but it makes a ton of sense in New York City. I hope that we move quickly towards a European model in which bikes play a more prominent role in how we get around.

A third change is the dominance of financial institutions along New York’s streets, including global banks like Barclay’s and BNP Paribas. Perhaps banks have always been a major part of the urban landscape and I just didn’t notice it when I was younger? In either event, the ubiquity of banking strikes me as a metaphor for both the changing American economy (and its domination by financial and other service institutions) and the problem of inequality.

I closed my afternoon in the peace of Central Park (the Sheep Meadow, specifically). Once there, I did start to notice the plants. For his efforts to preserve natural places in our big cities, Frederick Law Olmsted has to take the prize as one of America’s great visionaries!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898)


I'm riding the train to New York City, and I've just finished reading (and listening to) The Turn of the Screw.

Of the three classics I've read this summer, this was the densest and most challenging. Henry James writes extremely long sentences. Clauses are embedded within clauses, and it's a real process to suss out the verbs and follow the train of thought. One essay aptly describes James's writing style as Rococo.

The narrator is "the governess", who is hired to care for two children (Miles, age 10 and Flora, age 8) by their guardian uncle. The story takes place at a country manor called Bly, where the previous governess (Miss Jessel) and valet (Peter Quint) engaged in some kind of illicit or inappropriate activity (what they did is not specifically described).

Quint and Miss Jessel both died before the governess's arrival, but they appear as ghosts and continue to interact with the children.

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The central mystery of The Turn of the Screw is whether the ghosts are real or merely imagined by the governess. Mrs. Grose (a fellow servant) never sees them, and neither child acknowledges their reality. Even the governess is less concerned about the ghosts physically harming the children and more worried about the possibility of "corruption". James leaves the meaning of corruption ambiguous; the commentary I've read says that the term is probably a stand-in for knowledge of sexual acts.

My hunch is that James intended his readers to interpret the ghosts as the psychological invention/imagining of the governess. However, I will need to learn more about him in order to understand what he believed about the supernatural and whether he may have believed in the reality of ghosts.

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When I selected The Turn of the Screw as my third book for the summer, I had no idea that ghosts played a major role in the story. Just a few weeks ago, I made the point (about Hamlet, here) that writers don't explore the idea of ghosts as much as they should. Now, I'm quickly proven wrong!

The ghosts in Turn are definitely more foreboding than the ghost of Hamlet's father. They are more within the mold of "haunted" or "evil" souls.

However, it is an interesting plot point to have Miles's death come at the hands of the governess (as she tries to protect him from Quint's ghost). Perhaps James is aiming to tell us that our fear of ghosts (rather than ghosts themselves) is the true problem.

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A final ghost connection: I recently started to read Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography, My Beloved World. Sotomayor describes parties at her grandmother's house during which, after the children have gone to sleep, the adults partake in a ritual in which they communicate with spirits of the deceased (Sotomayor is curious and tries to watch and listen from a neighboring room).

Ghosts, ghosts everywhere, in the literary world of 2019!!

Here's a photo I just took, as the train departed Washington's Union Station.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Senegal and the Challenges of Rapid Urbanization


Sub-Saharan Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing place on Earth.

An article in this morning's Post (here) focuses on Senegal. Danielle Paquette writes that President Macky Sall has prioritized construction and that leaders there hope to cash-in on its budding reputation for beach tourism.

Dakar and other cities are growing so quickly that there are few outdoor places where children can play:
What politicians cast as progress can feel suffocating to children in rapidly developing nations, who tend to live in cramped homes and yearn to roam. They don’t have smartphones or iPads. Adults occupy televisions with soccer matches or Indian soap operas dubbed into the local language. Playgrounds are scarce.
This is causing the children to head to the beach, where there are few lifeguards. Last year, 50 people drowned.

The article explains that economists used to believe that children in rural areas were worse off than those in cities. However, urbanization is happening so quickly in the developing world -- without the necessary government policies accompanying it -- that urban kids now face more problems.

629. Which country is growing fastest right now?

630. I watched part of a Netflix documentary about Brazil this week (The Edge of Democracy). The film includes a clip of President Obama embracing Lula and describing him as the most popular politician on Earth (at the time, he was overseeing tremendous expansion in Brazil, which I described in a 2009 post). Right now, which politicians are the most widely supported in their countries? Who is viewed as providing the best kind of leadership that serves the broadest segment of their population?

This is a photo from the article, by Jane Hahn.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Miracle of Bodo's

Bodo's is one of our family's favorite restaurants. Their bagels are consistently delicious, and the atmosphere is welcoming and happy.

Yesterday I realized that the cost of lunch has increased, across the board. Whereas a restaurant sandwich (or a salad, or a burger and fries at a fast food restaurant) used to cost $5.00 to $6.00, the same meal is now $7.00 to $9.00. I'm uncertain about the timeframe that this increase has occurred, but probably within the past 4-5 years.

The change in prices holds true everywhere, from chain restaurants to various local establishments.

EXCEPT for one amazing exception: Bodo's.

Somehow, a bagel sandwich at Bodo's still costs $5.00, and it's still every bit as good as it was ten years ago. How have they managed to hold their prices steady? (Meanwhile, they also continue to have a very loyal workforce -- I often recognize employees that have worked there for at least a decade)


Speaking of questions about the economy, and taking the lens to a national scale, I remain curious about when the stock market will finally run out of steam.

After its short-term correction last fall, the market is again charging ahead (up about 15% year-to-date). I just don't see how the economy's growth can continue, and I anticipate a more significant market decline within the next six months.

Here's a chart showing the S&P 500's year-to-date performance.