Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dear souls,

I write to you desiring to strike a new mutual understanding between us. Perhaps, for some time, we lived under the happy expectation that I would join the ranks of your pastors; that I would engage, in a very direct way, in your care; that both generally and individually, I would administer to your needs as you are--as souls--and perhaps be a reservoir of grace in the service of your salvation and my own as well.

That expectation was, I should not like to say destroyed, but rather transformed. Souls, please understand, I never lost my desire or my care for you. In truth, I lately discover that it is you I care about above any of the accessories you carry about you. My reasons for leaving the track that would lead me into an official position of responsibility for you, are not that I discovered a lack of love for you. Let us think of it instead in these terms. In the short course of my years, as much as I have learned about your inner movements, your most important concerns, your longings, your thrills, your sadnesses, and your loves--this much have I lost regard for the games you play on the outside. So much distaste have I developed for those games--especially where they contradict you--you souls--and where they serve only to increase your sadness, that the games now terrify me with their ugliness. I flee them wherever I encounter them.

And so I ceased long ago to develop skills that would aid me in playing your games effectively. For that reason I confess, I am not able to command or politick or schmooze; I cannot lead, organize, empower, or otherwise motivate. I cannot administer, govern, delegate, compromise, or bargain. One great irony of my life is that, while I am no stranger to public speaking--an art I continue to enjoy--it is precisely the public I loathe. You, you souls, you I love. The public I hate. The priest must preach, he must teach, and he must govern. He must macro-manage; he must maintain a social machine, oiling the gears, cleaning the debris, preserving appearances and customs. He must carefully guard his own soul from all while you bare yourself to him... but ever so selectively. All is safe, all is appearances, all is proper, all is routine. A priest no doubt cares for souls. But he is ever more the custodian of calcified public images; cardboard cutouts of "okayness" that come to life only to thrash those men reluctant to preserve them unchanged.

Souls, I hope you do not misunderstand me. I do not criticize public religion nor public service. God created us as social spirits, and because of sin our societies need order--public order. This is a mercy, and one we may celebrate. But why do some personalities (like my own) feel justly more alone in a room full of people than with one or two? Is there not something even mildly sinister in how little honesty, transparency, humility can survive the group setting? That here, I am no longer in a room with many souls (many of you), but with only so many strategically programmed automations, deployed for survival in hostile territory, with all defenses go?

[post-script insert: the liturgy is an entirely different entity than this!]

And so, souls, I have retreated, not from you, not away, but toward you. Yes, I have pulled away from the allergens that I never developed the ability to tolerate; I have receded indoors, into air-conditioned space, protected from the pollen, as it were, within the deep underground floors of libraries and acadamia. I have done so for three reasons, here in order from least to greatest. Number one, for myself, because the games have become painful to me. Number two, for you, so that when you, too, tire of being other than what you are, you can find some comfort in my company, without judgment or reprisal. Number three, in service to truth.

A note on that last. Our salvation is fulfilled in the grace of charity which has its source from God via the sacraments. No book learning is necessary. But the professor and the priest serve complimentary roles in the Church's mission to bring Christ's salvation to all. In analogous ways both offer Christ to people in Word and Sacrament; the priest in persona Cristi; the professor as a minister to the unfolding of the written Word. The professor is the technician to the priest; he is the Q to the priest's 007--ever vital, ever ancillary, ever developing further the instruments by which the priest can accomplish his task.

And yet, souls, please do not think that by taking this path I place between you and me the priest as a buffer; that I seek to insulate myself from you behind the security of book-laden walls. It is here where I find that you are easier to reach than within the parish offices and halls; where what is really you rises to the surface, both in the words of men who knew you better than I, and in your own words responding back, ever new, ever completing the picture.

Thus I hope we have a new mutual understanding. I am not, I think, your pastor, but I can be a friend, perhaps, or a counselor, for it is in the heart-to-heart that I serve in my element. Let us learn from one another, and let that learning serve the Church in whatever way is fitting.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Operating systems and faith?

I've switched parishes to a nearby Jesuit-run church; amazingly enough these priests (or at least the community they serve) make the liturgy a priority in the life of the community, with God being a priority for the liturgy. It isn't traditionalist, and it isn't the Brompton Oratory, but it, shall we say, "feels Catholic". One of the best things to happen to me in the last year is that, while I still notice that the altar servers are wearing jeans and sneakers, and that some hymns are sung in the "First Person Divine," that the priest omits the word "men" from the Nicene Creed, and so on, these things do not have their old stinging effect on me. Part of it may be that I sense that these loose threads nevertheless rest atop a bedrock of serious Catholic worship. A prettier Mass would depress me more, if I had reason to believe that its ultimate end was perverted.

The priest who gave tonight's homily is a new associate. He is a Jesuit's Jesuit; a man for whom every fiber in his body seems to exist in order to support that massive, Baroque-styled brain of his. He gave a full-flung extended analogy this evening between faith and--get this--PC operating systems. I was titillated, though I felt somewhat embarrassed that I was likely the only one in the congregation thinking, "I wonder if God uses Linux?" Father is a Windows man himself.

One of my bad listening habits is that I will latch on to something interesting from a homily or a lecture, and interiorly go my own way with it while tuning out everything else completely. If faith is an operating system, which is which? Perhaps Catholicism is Windows, with its centrally controlled, hierarchical structure; its need for periodic reform; and its traditional "Windows 95" interface, akin to the noble Roman rite of the 4th century--simple, but not sloppy; friendly, but not frivolous.

Linux is Protestantism. Sure, when you get right down two it, there's a core, and you can build what you like around the core. But break compatibility with the core, and you forsake the right to call yourself Linux. Of course, that doesn't stop some people, but what are you going to do? Linux is a world that juxtaposes the wildest postmodern bending of truth and reality (and windows) with the most rigorous and unyielding (at times brutally merciless) orthodoxy. Over 300 currently managed Linux distributions and counting.

(You could compare Linux to the Orthodox Church, too; after all, it is rather Byzantine, yuk yuk yuk).

Where does that leave Macintosh? I have to give it to the Mormons. Note that in its current form, MacOS it has similar underpinnings as Linux (see above). And Apple, like the LDS, understanding the difficulty of winning marketshare in its flagship product, has instead extended influence through emissaries of various kinds; one envisions lots of iPhones on bicycles. I think the allegory also sticks where Apple's image is concerned: tightly managed, hanging from every word of Steve Jobs, at the same time beloved for its cultural output and vilified for its lack of transparency and its alien mystique.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On "Worthiness"

There is an apparent conflict (or at least a tension) within Catholic and Christian life that has its beginnings in Scripture. When am I worthy? Or am I never worthy? Is anybody ever worthy? If not, why are not all people saved or damned equally? Worthiness is an uncomfortable issue because, on the one hand, the Scriptures promise that Christ overturns the world's standards of worthiness, and grace powerfully overcomes the objective unworthiness of all. And yet standards of worthiness (both objective and subjective) still obtain and have real consequences for individuals on their path to salvation.

There are some easy answers that I am not quite satisfied with yet. Perhaps one may say that Christ did not come to eliminate all standards of worthiness, but only corrupt ones--such as when he compares "weightier matters of justice and the law" to the "tithes of mint and cummin"--the camel and the gnat, as it were. And so Christ effectively substitutes meaningless and empty systems by which human beings stratify themselves for the only one that matters: love, and its public corollary, justice.

But this explanation does not satisfy the Gospel. Both radically egalitarian and hierarchical at once, the Christian must always remember his misery at being born in sin, his dignity as a child of God, his suitability to the demands set upon him by vocation and circumstance, and above all the state of his constant battle to accept grace in the face of disordered appetites. And so, the question of worthiness is different according to the scope, the sphere, the stakes, and where it all fits into God's mercy. If I address this issue again, the main question I hope to address is: which "worthinesses" are the most important, the most ultimate, the most determining for how worthiness plays itself out in human life.

Happy Easter!

The Lord is Risen, Alleluia.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A continuation of "Blindmen", by me

For the parable, see here.

"It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind..."

And after bitter argument,
The elephant did speak.
Not loud but in a whisper to
one of these men most meek.
"These parts of me are one, you know,
if that is what you seek."

This man was truly stunned to hear
the beast speak thus and so,
though meek he was, he dared to ask
"Why me this truth you show?"
To which the 'phant did give reply,
"To let the others know."

Emboldened by the news he heard,
he sang aloud this call.
"The parts are one, this elephant
is not a tree or wall,
Nor spear nor snake nor fan nor rope
nor any thing at all!"

"He said to me, this elephant,
'I am one beast, it's true,
Now go tell all the others there,'
And so I'm telling you."
Replied a man from Indostan,
"You haven't got a clue."

"Each one of us is blind, you see,
and none can know the facts.
Your confidence is arrogant,
your manner has no tact.
Opinion is what we adore,
for evidence we lack."

Returning to the elephant,
Our prophet was so sad.
The elephant was wise to know
what anger that he had.
"Do not be too discouraged now,
my words will make you glad."

"Those who are blind will sometimes act
as though they cannot hear.
They do not know what joy is had
by listening to the ear.
But time will open up their minds,
So trust me, do not fear!"


A word like "metareligion" is a red flag that the one who utters it is a charlatan and a sophist, another pseudo-mystic who is convinced he/she has made (for the first time!) the earth-shaking discovery that "OMG, like, all the religions should get together!"--another agnostic in priest's clothing.

Or if not that, then the word should serve as a warning that the speaker is at least pretentious. Guilty as charged.

But if I use the word and suggest that there is such a thing, I don't meant to imply anything really earth-shattering, and certainly not anything like the old modernist ideal of a "natural religion" or an "essential religious experience"--religion qua religion, beyond the trappings of dogma or particularity. No. Christianity is the triumph of the particular, the sanctification of history as particular. A religion of mere generalities is a fundamentally anti-Christian religion.

Now, as I teach about world religions (to myself as much as to others), I see in the great human traditions all of the similarities and differences that reflect the mixture of order and chaos that is everywhere in nature (per the dictum of an old professor of mine, "There are always similarities, and there are always differences.").

Yet along with that basic insight, we are also dealing with ideas; religion, revealed or no, is bound up with ideas; and as long as a religion makes use of any words at all, it shares with all human traditions a partaking in human thought. Postmodernism will never be as successful as it pretends to be in deconstructing the unity of thought, even while it explodes traditional of logic. Destroying models does not destroy the unity of being which serves as the ineffable substrata which allows anything to be intelligible at all.

And so even the remedial student of comparative religions is bound recognize recurring patterns and archetypes. Here, people jump to hasty conclusions. From recurring patterns in religions, we cannot deduce therefore that...
  • "most religions are the same in the most important ways" (and its variants). The most common tendency that I see is for people to be so impressed by the similarities that they imagine that the differences must be of relatively minor importance. There is, of course, an inherently non-religious prejudice in this notion, since non-religious people are less likely to regard any of the concrete details of religions as important. Pluralists are terrible question-beggars.
  • "the formal elements that religions have in common are the only important ones". Here we return to the Greek prejudice against the particular in favor of the universal. I once met a man who was so far-gone in this direction that he practically plagiarized Plato without ever having heard of him. It is a testimony to the human experience of alienation that societies again and again fail to reconcile the universal and the particular, and philosophers are always collapsing one into the other, embracing one and rejecting the other, and so on.
  • "religion is of merely natural origin because these patterns are rooted in the human organism." I haven't read Carl Jung, so I don't know if this line of thinking comes from him or from his atheistically-inclined disciples. Yes, archetypes repeat; sometimes a religion will borrow from the literature of another; sometimes the repetitions are spontaneous. How this has led some people to believe that, therefore, religion is bunk, I do not completely understand. One would think that it would be a testament to the truth of a religion that it promiscuously embraced and upheld the truths and patterns everywhere outside of it. Only if God were profoundly alien to nature, almost contrary to it (a common enough human prejudice) would the true religion then be marked by absolute uniqueness. Moreover, William James exposes the question-begging of claiming that "because God does not interact with or through nature, therefore what can be shown to have natural causes cannot be of divine origin". This will only be persuasive if you were already at least a deist.
Keeping these in mind, how do I understand the word, "metareligion"? Revealed faiths--in particular, Christianity--cannot be separated from their source without becoming incoherent. Thus I am not suggesting that a metareligion is more primary, more essential, or in any way a practicable substitute for any religion.

What I mean by metareligion is this: it is the declension of a religion. I mean that in almost precisely the mathematical sense of the word. Now, I failed calculus in college, but I was still fascinated by the process of taking derivatives. A declension preserves something of the form of a function, while losing some of the information in the original. Derivatives are vital for comparing functions. What I discover as a new student of religions is that comparative religion is essentially an exercise in comparing declensions.

Suppose that there was another religion that resembled Christianity in almost every way, except that they believed that somebody else was the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, who died for our sins? What would interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and this other religion look like? From purely a standpoint of doctrine (which, of course, is only a model) the two faiths would have identical "metareligions".

So far in class, we have looked at the major Judeo-Christian traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (we wrapped up by watching the PBS documentary on the Mormons). One thing that has always struck me is how much formal similarity obtains between Mormonism and Islam, at least in terms of their story of origin. One might say that they have very similar metareligions--however, the comparison falls apart when we look into other features.

I don't pretend to have discovered anything new here. I only think that thinking in terms of "metareligions", or declensions of religions, helps to underscore not only where religions are similar but also where they are most profoundly different.

An example: if you were to interview side-by-side traditional exemplars of Catholicism, classical Protestantism, and Mormonism, and you asked each one what the height of religious action was in their lives, you may get three profoundly different answers. One might guess that the Catholic would say it was the Eucharist; the Protestant would say it was Baptism or else being born again--coming to personal faith. The Mormon would more likely say that it was being married or "sealed" to someone for all eternity. Each of these answers represent profound formal dissimilarities that not only speak to different doctrines, but have profound concrete effects on the daily lives of these people. Investigating the consequences of these differences for belief and life would be an exercise in comparing, not so much religions, but metareligions.

Speaking of metareligion is really nothing more than the methodical presupposition that life-determining human traditions (of which religion is one kind) are, in fact, comparable.

Bidding adeiu to Microsoft

I have been using the Eee PC as my only computer for more than a month now; not only as my personal computer but also as a work computer (I even used it to project a PBS movie in the classroom).

Linux isn't perfect, but it has valiantly proven itself as almost everything it claims to be, especially through Ubuntu. Although the operating system requires more than a little wrangling, the end result is such a refreshing departure from Windows that all reasons to go back have been, to my mind, eliminated. And the thought that I may never need to spend large sums of money for software again is just (really sweet) icing on the cake.

I will never be anti-Microsoft. I like the XBox 360 too much. I don't even wish for Linux to overtake Windows, because a part of Linux's advantage is its security through obscurity. Moreover, I imagine that the next Windows OS (due out in 2010) will probably be a much better product than Vista. But even if it was, what I've discovered in Ubuntu is a cozy little refuge from the world of constant maintenance and updating. I like it here. I think I'll settle down.

My own Catholic reformation

That prayer is difficult for me is no news. The Catechism's description of prayer as a battle is especially apt in my case. Having reached my first anniversary of non-seminarian-ness, I am led to reflect on my relationship with God, and to understand the different factors affecting my prayer life a year ago, and today.

Although I have never swayed from my obligations as a Catholic, I long ago ceased to attempt upholding the obligations of a seminarian. The Liturgy of the Hours volumes that always sit on my desks (at home and at work) feel heavy and hollow. Not even the Office of Readings, which was always my favorite hour, holds the same appeal as it once did. In past Lenten seasons I would pray the Sorrowful Mysteries daily; this last one I have not gone through the entire Rosary even once.

I suppose some of my faithful friends might be alarmed or even irritated by this development, but I am not. I am not saying good-bye to prayer or to God. I am shedding a neurosis that poisoned my past prayer, and I seek an authentic prayer. Prayer was never relational for me; it was meant to ward off the disapproval that I feared so much, so that I could return to a comfortable, solitary existence. I prayed so that I could say that I did. I had a receipt of completion to give to St. Peter, so that I would be at least blamelessly mediocre.

Of course, this is not true of all of my past prayers. But up until this point my prayer life has been bifurcated into the obligatory-rigorous and the spontaneous-unreliable. It is as though within my soul the Protestant division into the reductive liberal sects and the deductive conservative sects has played itself out. My life is too busy to maintain two dysfunctional "prayer lives". Let me now say yes to grace, and soberly and deliberately take up the path of prayer again, as a beginner in need of a guide, as a new follower, with the shambles of past prayers broken and burning behind me. My name is Jeff, and I am a member of the Body of Christ; let me be carried to Him in the arms of the sacraments; let me live their graces humbly and simply between each one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reflection on lonliness

The other day, a student from the school's journalism class interviewed me for my point of view on a certain news story. Some researchers discovered a positive correlation between loneliness and belief in God. The student asked me why this might be so. My official answer was that, perhaps, lonely people spend more time in the absence of the distractions of company, and thus God becomes more visible and clear.

Another possibility is that loneliness is not the cause of the belief, but vice-versa. We live in a largely atheistic culture. Belief, if it is real, is an alienating factor. In a random assortment of cafe-dwellers, the believer will more typically be the outsider. He is the one with the burden of explaining himself; the one reduced to silence by casual stories of casual sex. Being a minority of any kind has a correlation with loneliness. We only have not widely not recognized the minority status of real religious belief.

Loneliness is universal, and I am well enough acquainted with it. Understanding it more deeply might unlock a better sense of its purpose, of its disordered forms, and of its treatments. This feeling is never pleasant. At best it provides a momentary impetus to call a friend, like being hungry. At worst, one joins a growing epidemic of non-people who isolate themselves into nothing.

There are many treatments for loneliness, and (speaking for males) female attention is only one. It is, perhaps, the most immediately attractive in the same way that red meat satisfies more than a salad; but it is hardly the only nourishment that satisfies and sustains. In that respect, celibacy is not analogous to starvation so much as to a kind of relational vegetarianism. Just as vegetarianism is (in some ways) healthier for eaters, celibacy has been found to be healthy for lovers--just ask Fr. Andrew Greeley in his many reports on the subject.

Loneliness is a hunger which is not fed by genital love, and in fact has little to do with the lack of it. The genuinely lonely person longs for something, but it is not the mere release of endorphins. I believe that a more accurate understanding of loneliness is that it is a kind of relational claustrophobia. One finds themselves inside of the very small room of their own consciousness, where everything is familiar and little is ever new. Outside of the window, one glimpses the wonder of a world not of one's own creation, and one longs for the adventure of the interplay of the Other and I.

Some of us are marginally gifted with an ability to discover the continually new within the small room, even if that is a mere facsimile of infinity, achieved by division rather than addition. Yet this is a mere temporary consolation. Rationing one's meals does not make the larder more full. Larger lungs enable someone to hold their breath underwater, but they are not gills. I must break out of the room. I must find the Other, be discovered by the Other, be welcomed by the Other; enjoy and be enjoyed by an Other.

I believe that my description here is validated by a horror reproduced in popular culture. The film "1408" is the most recent example; the video game "Silent Hill 4: The Room" is another. Both pieces conjure the claustrophobic nightmare of a room that cannot be escaped, even while the evil of the room offers the prisoner the illusion of escape (indeed, the illusion of a world outside). The most gut-wrenching moments are not conventional Hollywood "boo!" scares, but the moment when the protagonist tries to wall-crawl to another window only to discover that there are no other windows, nor corners, only an infinite 2-D plane of bricks. Akin to this is when the fire-escape map depicts "the room" within a sea of black ink, and the words: "You are here." Again, the protagonist has a prolonged dream of having escaped, only to be dashed when devils rip away the illusion and only the room remains. Again, when the protagonist thinks he has done the impossible (surviving more than 24 hours), and the room is in shambles from its own tortures, suddenly it resets itself, and all is the same as before, ready as ever for another round, and another, and another (the temporal analogy to the endless, windowless wall).

To be alone itself is no great pain. We all enjoy the moment of decompression when entering our private spaces at the end of the day, and our exhausted social selves can find respite and peace, asleep within our private wakefulness. The anxieties of disapproval, of social faux-pas, of awkwardness, now melt away as I sink dreamily into the warm bath of solitude. This is the bath I do not want to leave, even when the water now feels tepid and stale, even when the comfort is gone,because the security remains, and fear keeps me anchored within.

But in time, one of two things will draw me reluctantly from this solitude--the loneliness, or more commonly, brute necessity; my warm bath must be paid for.

Because only the necessity of work brings me outside of my solitude, and not the hunger of loneliness, the hunger is never addressed; only the necessity of work is addressed. And so I shuttle between the necessity of work and the warm bath of solitude, while the loneliness grows and the walls of my personal room 1408 draw in closer. Now I have an artificially self-sustaining cycle of material well-being, and my interactions with others (business and social) are perfunctory and utilitarian, not truly relational, meant only to preserve the warm bath (to 'pay the water bill', as it were) and insulate me from the terror of the disapproving Other.

Meanwhile I become truly starved, and two things happen. First, my hunger for relationship grows beyond the tight control of finely-honed social skills meant to lock it silently in my bomb-shelter/dungeon where it "belongs", safe from harm, safe from exposure. It begins to pipe out of the cracks like a tea-kettle under pressure, always embarrassing and inappropriate, never under control. After some time this leads others to sense that I may be dangerous--that I am intense, relationally immature, codependent or desperate. And so follows a mutual withdrawal, strengthening the anxieties, reinforcing the dungeon, and prepping the psyche for another cycle, and another, and another.

The second thing that happens is that my desperation refuses to be ignored indefinitely. My life knows no shortage of interactions, most as deep as a thimble. My eyes widen at every potential friendship like waif before a bowl of beef stew. I respond to new friendships, compliments, gratitude, appreciation and invitations with unconcealed, ecstatic happiness (but informal, personal invitations only; invitations to large and formal events via cards revive my anxieties and cause me to shut down). I draw out coffee-conversations with one or two people as long as they will go, and I push romantic relationships too far, too fast. I experience every relational moment as if I had been holding my breath for 90 seconds; I gasp it in greedily, thoughtlessly and instinctively.

If others withdraw from me because they perceive this, they are not wrong to do so. We who are well-fed tend to withdraw from those who are poor and hungry because we fear they will ask more of us that we can appropriately give. This is as true for the relationally poor as for the monetarily poor. Yet let others not spurn me too much. I am trapped in room 1408. I pursue every hint of escape with the determination of someone locked in solitary confinement and forgotten. Can I be blamed?

In the film, the protagonist escapes by lighting the room on fire, nearly killing himself, only not quite. This ending reveals only a part of the truth--the truth that I will not be able to escape but painfully. What the film forgets is that I cannot liberate myself from myself. I am the room. Only the Other can break into my cycle of anxiety and withdrawal. No mere human other will do, neither a healthy nor a desperate 'other' like myself, for I will only draw them into the room with me, and if they are wise they will run away. Only an Other who is infinite, in and through a host of human 'others' in his service, who rely not on their own strength but on his, can light my 1408 on fire, drag me from the ashes, and tell me finally: Welcome. We love you. Everything will be all right. We are your friends. Stay with us.

Maybe that is why there is a positive correlation between loneliness and belief in God. The lonely have no other hope.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Vatican Website needs a council.

I mean, seriously, this thing is as much a dinosaur, a dumping-ground of technological relics, a static, disorganized, unfriendly, and anti-human entity as the worst pre-Vatican II churches. needs a council--an aggiornamento of the official Web site of the Church that Christ founded. The Web site needs to practice some nouvelle technologie, some resourcement. Somebody over in Rome needs to remember what the Church is about, and what the Web is about, and they need to throw open the windows and let in the fresh air of PHP, proofread documents, uniform and efficient site structure, and for goodness sake let sfondo.jpg be anathema sit.

Let us condemn also the gnosticism of the hidden knowledge of where the front-page buttons go, until you move the mouse over them. Let us condemn the grammatical indifferentism that allows childish typos to remain for decades in the official online copy of Nostra Aetate. Let us condemn the modernism of a Web site that has illegitimately prioritized experience and feelings as the goals of its design and function. And let us condemn the Protestantism that has allowed multiple and redundant versions of documents to split off from the originals and float without purpose in a chaotic directory tree.

Let us reform the rampant corruption that has creeped into; let us strip away the layers of paint and the accretions of age, to return to the noble simplicity of the early Web, focused on efficient data retrieval and communication.

Let us re-establish the importance of inter-Web site dialogue, and finally acknowledge that Web sites other than exist, and that we ignore them at our peril. Without surrendering the unsurpassability of the Vatican database, let us reestablish lines of communication with our separated bretheren, the .coms and the .orgs, for the purpose of mutual understanding and enrichment, and the pursuit of common goals.

Let us call a council, and pray that we might be visited by the Spirit of 2.0.

Yet more triumphs in Linux

Recently, I have just succeeded in doing the following things in Linux:
  • Getting Gradequick to work with no problems.
  • Using "VirtualDub" (a free Windows-based video editing program) through Wine.
  • Using the Web-based Outlook client to schedule events in the school's public calendar (not really a Linux thing, but I didn't know I could do that in the Web client).
  • Put a link to my course planning folder on the desktop; changed the icon so that it looked like a folder. This is a chintzy workaround for an issue that makes it difficult to make a shortcut to folders on removable media.
  • Using PCSX to play Playstation games, and using Brasero to rip a game onto my removable media. This was actually quite difficult, as Linux does not generally play nice with certain kinds of CDs.
  • Wrote a few short scripts to easily switch the display to different external monitor resolutions, and back to the default. What's neat about them is that they also change the size of the "taskbar" (panel) to the appropriate thickness.
Have I reached full functionality yet? Almost. Now a big issue is porting my iTunes library over from the old computer. Thanks to Amazon going DRM free, I no longer need to depend on iTunes anymore; however, I have a pretty big collection (by my standards) that I would like not to have to purchase again.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sums it up in a comic.

Assorted notes and things

Economic woes

All right, so news outlets are talking about a recession. To an extent, I have material security from the recession, since my job is not only in high demand, but my salary is controlled by the diocese--not the school. But knowing what I know, for example, about teachers receiving higher raises than other employees, motivates me toward more liberality on behalf of the school.

Recessions have never affected me materially as long as I have grown up. Either family or church--even now--have always insulated me from the terror of being jobless when there's no job market, of being unable to afford food, home, or transportation. They're never good news, but in my present position it is easy for me to say: well, we've had 'em before, and we've always survived.

We were in recession the last time the country elected a democractic president; I suspect that history will repeat itself here. As far as whether democrats or republicans are better for the economy, who is to say? Both parties take credit for economic booms, even if those booms happen during democratic administrations. Regardless of whose policies are responsible for economic recovery, I would like to think that a democratic president--as the next will likely be--means good tidings for the next 5-10 years.

In the meantime, I need to be more conscious of my giving and see if I can't expand it a little bit, to make up for the losses of others.

Car buying

I will never work with salespeople again.

Some might be better than others, but they are all bad. The defining characteristic is not whether one dealership is valiant and another unscrupulous, but simply the bare fact that the man or woman behind the desk does not get paid if you do not buy the car. As long as that is true, you can trust nothing. Salespeople do not bend the truth; they tell lies. They do not persuade; they deceive. Buying from a salesperson is by definition buying blind.

Human language itself is radically transformed the moment that one steps into a car lot. All rules of human communication are thrown out the window. There is no vestige of polite society left; all that remains is pure ideology. There is one rule: you will sign a contract, or you will not. The salesperson has one task, and that is to remove your freedom to say no; you have one task, and that is to keep your freedom. The salesperson will tell you that this is not the case; and if you believe him or her, you will have lost most of your freedom.

Never forget that, in a car lot, all human interactions are a virtual reality. Nothing is ever said or done out of kindness or generosity. Nothing is ever said or done out of respect or caring. Not even promises of honesty or integrity--these are the most common market-speak of all. The car lot is a chess board, and if you forget that it is a chess board, you are already checkmated. The best way to win is not to play.


I continue to use and admire Linux on my Eee PC. I recently installed an applet that will tile windows the same way that Windows does, when you right-click on an app in the title bar and select "Tile Vertically." The only obstacle to perfect usability right now is that I have not succeeded in getting my school's grading software to work reliably yet. It hangs at startup. I believe the problem is the latest version of Wine (a program that runs Windows apps).

My school may soon start asking the question of whether to upgrade to Windows Vista computers. Our librarian--and de facto technology person--asked me "what is this Linux I keep hearing about?" and I answered honestly that, though it has advantages, it requires someone who at least knows how to configure a system, and those are not easy to find. One of my short-term pipe-dreams is to do work for my school as an on-campus technology consultant. If the school was planning a serious upgrade within the next year, obviously my advice would be to stay away from Vista like the plague. We only just bought a series of HP workstations for our computer lab, and they don't even have the muscle to play YouTube videos or PowerPoint presentations--Vista would cccrrraaawwwlll.

At the same time, Linux would not be possible for this school. We are too locked-in to our Microsoft Exchange server to change platforms like that. So I guess I will have to be satisfied with Ubuntu for myself and, occasionally, to preach that word to those who ask.


Yesterday, this diocese had its annual youth gathering, and I was impressed with the effort and the production value of the whole affair, if not with the cooperation of students. It's easy to be completely negative about these things, but I give it a C, which is passing in my book.

One of the presenters spoke at length about God--surprise--and suggested that God loves us enough to save us from ourselves. He told us what one of his mentors told him: "Continue to let Jesus ruin your life."

That spoke to me, because I recently made several mistakes in grading papers that made me fear I would be terminated outright for gross incompetence. This fear left me feeling very existential and wondering what I would do if I was asked not to return after Monday.

I am inclined to be a negative thinker, and one of my defense mechanisms, if you can call it that, is to reconcile myself to the worst possibility before engaging a problem. I dwelled for two days on what my reaction would be if I were fired. The temptation would be to pitch myself headlong into despair: I cause more harm than I am worth; I bring nothing but irritation and more work to the people around me; I need to disappear.

God often manifests himself in these moments, and sometimes he reminds me of the things that are common sense, but easy to forget:
  • God has never been angry at someone for failing.
  • God has never abandoned me, but at every loss has carried me though to joy and purpose at the other end.
  • If I was fired, and fired justly, it says only that that I am not presently suitable for a particular position, at a particular school at this particular time. Saints and geniuses have suffered far worse worldly disgraces. It would be terrifically short-sighted for me to be sad at such a minor setback.

In some sense, these thoughts left me very open to the message that I should "let Jesus ruin my life"--not to suggest that my getting fired would be the result of anything but my own incompetence, but rather to accept the results of those mistakes, whatever they were, and to move on to the next stage of my life, begging for the guidance of grace once again.

I was not able to continue being a seminarian, on the way to priesthood. All right. Perhaps, not even a teacher. All right again. Am I to be upset that I join the ranks of the world who would not be great priests or great teachers? Those billions of people, who raise families, who serve, who fix, who feed, who clean, who consult, who build, who rule, and who all love--are they so less dignified that I would be sad to join them? Such arrogance, if it were true. Yet I remember the saying relayed to me by one of the Dominican sisters in the city--the only true failure is not to be a saint; which is to say, not to love. And this is a liberating gospel.

Now, I have been given assurances from long-time members of my school community that my mistakes have not placed me in danger of termination--if I move to fix them, of course. And so my fears may have been exaggerated. But the ordeal saved my soul, again, by bringing me back to God, love, and the dignity of the beloved (Nouwen's word), those things which no one can take away.

Failure is not a reason to be sad. Praise the Lord.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Car buying, part trois

It's rare that I make a "third part" post (my interesting in a subject usually drops off after "deux") and using the French is a first.

Not only have I broken the Third Commandment bit about not working on the Lord's Day, but I have thrashed it, working harder today than I have any day at school. Buying a car is not easy. Somehow, those salespeople managed to take my clear-cut roadmap and twist it into a pretzelian voyage of epic proportions. We're talking 3x visits to dealerships, frustrated salespeople, evasive tactics, bullying, "now-or-never" pressure, etc. and so on. I fancied myself better prepared for this than most people buying a car, especially people buying their first car. But nothing could have prepared me for this.

As per my plan, I visited Honda first. I was successful in getting them to offer the Honda Fit at less than MSRP with an aftermarket cruise-control system installed. However, the cost was still not much less than normal, which meant that they still wanted almost $1700 up front. Short of begging my Credit Union for more money, there was no way I could afford a down payment of that size.

Still, I had an offer, and that offer was decent--I was thinking it might be worth it to push my credit union to loan me an extra grand or more to be able to afford it. So I took this deal over to a neighboring Toyota/Scion dealership to ask about the Scion xD.

By my research, the xD was far and away the best model, but it was also the most expensive. I was pleasantly surprised to discover than Toyota's financing would not only beat my credit-union loan, but also (according to the repeated assurances of the pretty Korean sales-lady) cover the entire cost of the car. No down payment. "Are you sure?" "Yes." "Really?" "Yes." "Because I don't normally hear that." "I've been working here for *blah blah* years, I know what I'm talking about. You won't have a down payment." Keep in mind that they told me this without pulling my credit and without a loan application. Also, it's Sunday, and Toyota's bank wouldn't be open to approve it until tomorrow.

Now, only trouble is, this dealership didn't have the color I wanted, and another dealership did. This dealership really wanted my business, so they offered $1000 for my cruddy old Cavalier to trade in. Then they did everything they could to keep me from leaving, and rightly so, because (of course) I only wanted to use their offer as bargaining leverage with another dealer that had the color I wanted.

So I drove to the other dealer, and sure enough, they match the $1000 trade-in for the color Scion xD that I wanted. This brings the Scion down to the same price as the Honda Fit, only I'm thinking that Toyota financing is going to loan me the entire cost of the vehicle.

Hold on there, bucko.

After a credit application, I get the bad news. See, my FICO score is great, but I've only been on the bureau for 7 months, and I only have two lines of credit. So by Toyota's standards that puts me in a higher risk bracket which normally requires that I front a certain percentage of the car cost. In my case, that's almost $1700 up front. Sound familiar? Yep, we're in Honda land again.

But now I'm confused. Both Toyota dealerships use the same bank, and the other one was promising up and down that I would have no down payment. But how could two dealerships with the same bank give me such drastically different offers?

Well, the first dealership never did a credit-application for me, for one thing. The guys at the first dealership warned me that something squirrelly was going on--but me, I have two dealerships telling me something very different, and no way to tell who was fibbing. (Answer? Both!)

Here's the rub. The dealership doesn't decide whether someone gets approved for 0-down-payment. Toyota does. At least the second dealership was up-front about this. And it's Sunday, so Toyota's bank is poker-faced until tomorrow. Both dealerships wanted me to sign a legally binding contract tonight without knowing for sure whether Toyota would approve a 0-down-payment loan. Both dealerships pushed me towards opposite expectations of what Toyota would say.

If first-dealership had their way, I would be locked-in to a deal thinking that I had a 0-down-payment Scion xD, and if Toyota said no, I would be bound to pay them $1700 up-front. Bait-and-switch. ARGH ARGH ARGH

If the second-dealership had their way (at first), I would simply agree to paying them the $1700 without even trying for a lower down-payment. Bullying. ARGH ARGH ARGH

I almost fell for the second-dealership's trap. Then I made them explain things more to me, and they agreed to at least submit a purchase for a 0-down-payment loan. But they also said not to have very high expectations.

I called the first-dealership and asked to talk to a finance manger in order to confirm the story given to me by second-dealership. I asked him, "So, is it possible that Toyota could say no, and I would be forced to pay a large down-payment?" "Well, yes, but we're optimistic." OK--NO. Putting me at risk for a down-payment I can't afford without telling me about it is not "optimistic". It is horrifyingly dishonest.

So, thanks to advice from Mom (Hint people: Mom is always right), I told second-dealership that there is no way I could afford even a risk of a $1700 down payment, so I could not buy the car today.

Rather than do the "frustrated and downcast" thing that salespeople sometimes do, the guys (there are two I'm talking with) were suddenly super-friendly and nice, and said that they would do what they could to get me the car at 0-down-payment, or at least a smaller down-payment than $1700.

This whole ordeal has taken me from 10am to 6pm, and I am exhausted. But I have a car I can drive, I know what car I want, and I don't have to borrow money from Mom and Dad, or live on peanut butter and jelly for two months in order to afford it.

The moral of the story is:

Car buying, part deux

After some more research, I discovered, uh, stuff.
  1. Not only does the Honda Fit not have cruise control or an auxiliary audio jack, but the latter of those two can't even be put in as an aftermarket option--Honda did not build the base model with that in mind.
  2. The '08 Honda Fit is the last year of this model, which is seven years old. The '09 Fit is a complete redesign.
  3. The Yaris name is somewhat "artificial"--Toyota uses different names in most other countries. The Yaris 3-door hatchback is an even older model design than the Fit, going back to 1999 and called the "Vitz" in most countries. The coupe, however, is newer; it came out in 2006 and is called the Belta in most other countries. (Seriously, Toyota needs to hire somebody else to name their dang cars).
  4. There *is* a "5-door Yaris hatchback" which competes with the Fit much more equally in features, only it's not a Yaris--it's the Scion xD. Unfortunately, the base xD packs in so many features--like GPS and Pioneer speakers--that it's even pricier than the Fit. The xD doesn't have the Fit's advantages, but it does have the Yaris' advantages and is less boring than the coupe. It's also quite a bit more powerful without sacrificing MPG.
What it's looking like right now is a dead heat between the Fit and the Honda Coupe. I'm bugged by the fact that a new Fit is coming out. But if the Honda guys can offer me aftermarket cruise control, I might be sold.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

My first new car - Toyota Yaris, or Honda Fit?

I'm buying a new car within the next month, and I have more or less settled on one of two models: the '08 Toyota Yaris (4-door coupe) or the '08 Honda Fit.

As is typical for me when it comes to a buying decision, I research obsessively, chart the pros and cons, read debates and articles, test drive, etc. and so on. Essentially my choice is between these two cars' sets of advantages:

The Yaris:
  • Cheaper. Configured about equally to the Honda Fit, the Yaris is about $600 cheaper. If I forwent ABS, side airbags, power locks and windows, and the 4-door coupe (getting a hatchback instead), it's $2500 cheaper; I could afford that without a thought.
  • Standard cruise control, which I find an incredible convenience on the highway.
  • Slightly better MPG and bigger gas tank.
  • mp3 playback and an audio-in jack so that I can plug in any player I like.
The Fit:
  • More HP, better acceleration, generally more highly reviewed in driving tests; more "fun".
  • Much better cargo--about a third more than what's available in the Yaris hatchback. Folding down the back seats makes the area look positively cavernous.
  • Better safety features and ratings
  • Hatchback styling--I'm bored of sedans, and don't like the Yaris' hatchback as much.
  • Somewhat better name and reputation; more likely to be desirable years down the line.
The Fit's higher price could make it a relative struggle to afford, unless the dealer can offer me a better loan than my credit union. The Yaris, in some ways, is more sensible--I'm really not crazy about long highway trips without cruise control, and the mp3 features would definitely get used a lot. But the Fit has two things that make it extremely attractive - the cargo space (my bike could go in there without taking the front wheel off), and the Honda name. Let's face it, Honda is the Sony of the car world. So I'm definitely leaning towards the Fit.

Depending on how my talk with a dealership goes tomorrow, I may have a new car. Chances are good--they have the colors I like and the sales guy is telling me that Honda can give me a better loan than my credit union.