Post 242

Can’t Touch This:
Reflections on the Immeasurability of Suffering

Suffering is thwarted intention. You want something and you cannot have it. You want to do something and you cannot do it. You want someone to do something and they do not do it. You want things to go one way and they go the other way.

The main attribute of being human is our will. It is our way of expressing ourselves and our eternal destiny depends on what we will. When Jesus condemned looking at a woman with lust in one’s heart, he was speaking about the will. It’s the essential thing.

If you want to poison someone, but you don’t get around to it because you are the procrastinating sort, then you bear much of the guilt of someone who is more punctual.

What is in your heart?

If you have good intentions for others, your will is pure. If you have bad intentions for others, your will is in need of correction.

Because suffering is interrupted or thwarted intention, you cannot easily know whether someone has truly suffered.

Let me explain.

You hear the very sad story of a woman whose daughter has gone astray. She tells long stories to anyone who will listen about how, despite her very best and almost heroic efforts, her daughter has chosen the wrong path.

When you hear the story and assume that she is a normal mother, who wants the very best for her daughter, and loves her unconditionally, then you come away with the impression that this mother suffers deeply. You shake your head and you sigh that the world is truly a sorrowful place.

Now although you’ve done nothing wrong by assuming that the mother is portraying the truth of the entire matter, the human heart is often quite twisted.

Not every mother loves her daughter unconditionally. As a matter of fact, not every mother loves her daughter at all. It’s very unfortunate, but it’s true, and I far prefer nepotism to an absence of parental love. Nepotism, after all, is a (misplaced) manifestation of something normal. An absence of natural parental love is always deliberately chosen and is highly unnatural.

So let’s study the hypothetical case of Helga. Helga is more than ready to tell you, in detail, about her daughter’s misdemeanors and flagrant immorality. As a matter of fact, she will derail an entire social gathering to make her sorrowful story the centre of attention. She is showered with attention; sympathy is shown (if not felt). People sigh about “free will.”

The good-hearted people empathize deeply, imagining how they would feel if put into the same predicament. Their hearts break at the thought of separation from their own daughter, of similar age. They pray rosaries for Helga and her situation.

The thing is, Helga never cared much for her daughter. “Take her or leave her” would be a fair description. Nevertheless, nobody realizes this truth because Helga has always known better than to admit something which would make her sound, well, cold and uncaring. But the truth is that from the get-go, Helga was rather ambivalent about the kid.

Fast forward a few years, and Helga is basking in the attention, and each new development in her daughter’s life is simply more material to share with her sympathizers. “Woe is me!” is the tune that Helga plays on her violin. But her will has not, in fact, been thwarted. She is not suffering.

Another example: Flavian wants a job. He really, really wants to work — or so it seems. We sympathize because he just isn’t getting what he wants and we sigh that he’s another casualty of the economic downturn. We empathize by imagining ourselves jobless and without prospects. But what is Flavian’s true and deep desire? Does he want to work? Well, not really. He likes the idea of the money, but the part about working — well, it depends. What are the hours?

As it turns out, Flavian is not at all like Pablo, who genuinely wants to work, and who is willing to try his hand at almost anything. Pablo searches online for opportunities, and when he’s not doing that, he’s cooking supper for his wife and learning English. Both men are unemployed, but they do not suffer equally. Pablo suffers more, as he wonders whether he’ll be able to provide for his family.

My point is, you really can’t measure the suffering of another.

Manuel has broken his leg and now he can’t play basketball as he planned. How much does he suffer? Well, it turns out he kind of enjoys the entire medical nature of the injury and he’s decided that he’s going to be an orthopaedic surgeon one day. As for the basketball game, it’s not a big deal to him, though he won’t admit this to his teammates, who see sports as life-defining.

People are very careful about what they reveal. In particular, it is very often the type who appear to ‘say anything’ and who appear to be entirely relaxed, spontaneous and natural, who are calculating the most. They just calculate faster than you realize. In the time that it took you to decide what to say next, they’ve mentally experimented with four options.

Not everyone knows how to sound cool or intelligent or funny or charming, though people try.

People are quite good, however, at hiding what they feel is embarrassing or uncool or damning about themselves. In general, they just don’t mention it. They pretend it doesn’t exist and that it’s the furthest from their thoughts. “What? ME? You think that I would look at women in that way?”

Yeah.

And so it is that we underestimate the darkness in the hearts of our fellow man. We assume that all the “bad guys” are facing criminal charges or robbing the local convenience store. But consider: why were Jesus’ harshest words reserved for the holy elite? Even the rich tax collectors didn’t get the brunt of his disapproval. As a matter of fact, he enraged the Pharisees by saying that the known “bad” people would go into heaven before the known “good” people.

It’s always this reversal. It’s a constant theme in both the Old Testament and the New: things are not what they seem! Only God knows the whole truth.

I mention all these things because God doesn’t get enough credit. People believe they observe more suffering than they do, and they blame God. If they only knew how convoluted and absurd the human heart was, they’d realize many people are quite pleased with the turn of their life events!

Conversely, people fail to perceive the suffering of others. Look at that man who seems to have it all. He’s got fame and money and a beautiful family. He’s got everything you think you want.

Him?

Yeah, him.

Didn’t he commit suicide a few years ago?

Yes, he did.

The suffering of Jesus’ mother Mary was acute, but did anyone perceive the depth of her sorrow? They could not fathom it, because they could not comprehend the tremendous love that she had for her son, and his corresponding love for her. It was a relationship with no parallel on earth. She watched as humanity tortured her precious and innocent Son in order to destroy his body and kill him.

And, in the case of Jesus, it is far easier to sigh over his physical suffering, but that was not his worst. His worst suffering was the sense of abandonment that he felt. He felt abandoned by his Father, and by almost everyone else.

In other words, even the graphic death of Jesus presents another example of this rule: people are unable to properly measure the suffering of others.

You could have a Job in your midst and you wouldn’t know it, because you’re looking for the tell-tale signs of suffering. You’re looking for the diagnosis of cancer or the house burned to the ground and the GoFundMe campaign.

Silly you.

Some of the deepest suffering is entirely hidden from you.

Spiritual suffering is the worst kind of suffering, and can leave one breathless. What have you heard? What have you read? What do you know? Does it not descend upon a person like labour pains and then vanish as if it never happened at all?

I like Chesterton’s description — where he said it, I can’t recall — something about being so sad that one forgets that it is possible to be happy and then being so happy that one forgets it is possible to be sad.

Yeah.

Something like that.

Post 241

The Talk: Reflections on Giving up Your Cloak

So on Sunday at the Basilica, we got The Talk.

You know. “The Talk.”

It’s the one where the priest tells you to donate more money, either by pre-authorized payments directly from your bank account or “at least” by envelope. (The alternative to envelopes is dropping money directly into the collection basket that circulates during Mass.)

It doesn’t happen everywhere like this, but it happens far too often, and almost every Catholic has heard a variation of it.

On Sunday it was Fr. Martin Carroll who tried, unsuccessfully, to deliver a homily which connected the readings of the day with The Talk.

Then he split.

Yup.

He didn’t stay to concelebrate the Mass. He was outta there, having said what he wanted to say.

I see.

Yeah, it was one of the lamer variations on this whole thing, not only because he high-tailed it out of there immediately after, but because the homily got all mangled after being warped into a demand for cash. I was going to say that it was a plea for cash, but it wasn’t. Donating money was very much connected with personal sanctity, and the take-home message was that You Need to Examine Whether You Have Listened to Fr. Martin Carroll’s ‘Suggestion’ of Donating Your First Hour of Pay for the Week to the Church. We were told to consider this in particular when we received our tax receipt in the near future.

Hmm. My first hour of income for the week?

How about if I just send you a Facebook friend request instead? Not on Facebook? That’s good.

Priests should NOT be on Facebook.

Obviously.

But back to the Mass, the main celebrant was dignified throughout, and his closing blessing was not marred by any chit-chat-hey-howya-doin’-folks. Less is more. And wow, it is so good when the priest does the Consecration with utmost care and reverence.

I like reverence. I like priests who deliver the Mass without all these “personal touches.” I was just reeling when I came out of a Mass over at St. Theresa’s Parish. Whoa, what just happened in there? Fr. Jim Corrigan began the Mass and promptly started joking about the ‘need’ for his recent excursion to Arizona. Yikes. If you must mention that to your congregation (many can’t afford to travel), incorporate it into the homily the way some priests try to begin with A Humorous Story. Then he walked all through the congregation, down one aisle, up the next, behind these pews and around the others during the Mass. I was watching him mosey around. What on earth? Where is he now? Oh, he’s way at the back. Meanwhile, the congregation, apparently used to this, was reciting something or other. Weird. But it got weirder. For some unknown reason, the parish has a ‘tradition’ of having the children come up to the priest during the collection of donations. The priest sits in his chair and the children line up with their parents. Then when the child reaches the front, the priest hugs the child. Huh? Weird. Where am I? Is this a visit to Santa Claus at the mall? It just looks beyond dorky. Looking towards the altar you see a line of children spanning from one side to the next.

I’m not opposed to children. I’m opposed to this ritual of making them greet the priest every week in front of everybody. The kids didn’t look particularly enthusiastic. They probably just think it’s something you do at church. It’s not cute and why is he hugging them? Aren’t we kind of through with this whole touchy-touchy stuff? Why do we say that it’s okay to hug someone you never otherwise interact with as long as he’s a priest? Doesn’t that set a bad precedent?

But speaking of touchy-touchy, please don’t put your hand on my shoulder when you give me Communion, Father Jim Corrigan. It’s just, well, ick.

So much of the Mass at St. Theresa’s was highly problematic. The music was done in the rock style which is so prevalent at these ‘youth’ Masses and the words for the songs (and many prayers) were projected onto two large screens. Those screens backfire, you know. In theory, they make it easier for the congregation to participate, but in reality, it lowers the bar of participation. People go into passive mode. They don’t even have to crack open a hymnal. Picking up the book and finding the page is important, because it’s that bit of exertion, that bit of commitment, which will help give you the drive to actually sing along. Ya got the book open to the right page; you’re halfway there, hey?

But the screens got worse. At the end of the Mass, in addition to the overly long announcements by the priest (including a description of how purchasing the grocery-store gift cards is really great because the parish purchases them in bulk at a discount of such-and-such and then when parishioners purchase them, it’s a win-win for everyone, since of course everyone needs to eat), the screens flashed various announcements. Whoever did the graphics decided to be ‘creative,’ and each graphic announcement arrived and disappeared in a flashy way. Sometimes the message whirled away, and sometimes it dissolved. You know what I mean. Special effects. At Mass.

The most exciting thing at Mass is supposed to be the Eucharist. Everything else should support that. The priest is not a stand-up comic and the musicians aren’t entertainers. It’s not a movie theatre, so put away the screens, and it’s not a play, so please don’t clap at the end.

Man.

But anyway, back to the Mass at the Basilica, the first reading from Leviticus 19 went like this:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

So it was nice.

What struck me, however, upon hearing it, was that little phrase in there. It says, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”

It does not say, “Do not reprove your neighbour.”

It says, “Reprove your neighbour.”

In other words, if you see something being done that is wrong, speak up.

Speak up and denounce what is wrong. That’s part of being good. It will cost you, but it’s part of being holy. If a friend lies to you, confront him. If a friend insults you, confront him.

The arrival of Jesus does not undo this. Even though the Gospel was all about turning the other cheek, the obligation to denounce wrongdoing continues. There is no contradiction, and I have been heartened by the words of Pope Francis, who says that we must denounce evil.

I have become very brave about denouncing wrongdoing, but this shocks many. It most unsettles those who have done me wrong or who are friends with those who hypocritically enjoy(ed) a good reputation while doing wrong.

And on this note, I have wondered about the nature of loyalty.

Is it good to be loyal to someone regardless of any wrong that they have done? I would say that it is good, provided that the loyalty does not blind you to reality. I would not shun the Shawn Beavers of the world who haven’t done me wrong (he hasn’t). I would however, be willing to tell him that he did wrong if he were to suggest that he has not. And if he ever showed up wearing pointy shoes, I would tell him that men shouldn’t wear pointy shoes if at all possible.

The problem with “loyalty” is that those who are loyal sometimes deny guilt when there is guilt, and instead malign those who speak the truth, saying that there is guilt in denouncing. These ‘loyal friends’ enjoy their good relations with Mr. Holy & Connected. The relationship is valuable to them, and when that Catholic school gets named after Mr. Holy & Connected (Catholic schools should not be named after uncanonized saints, obviously), they plan to be right there casually mentioning, “I was good friends with so-and-so.” Are we surprised when they ferociously defend the character and the actions (even hidden ones) of Mr. Holy & Connected, no matter what is discovered? That’s loyalty for all the wrong reasons, and one wonders whether it deserves the name.

And it can work in reverse. I remember the time, not too long ago, when Barbara Duteau (real names used for the sake of reality) cheerfully said to me something along these lines: “I really disliked you at first. It’s because my friend from another school met and liked that guy named Jason, but then he started dating you. Out of loyalty to her, I refused to get to know you.” When it was said, I was taken aback on some level, but it was not in me to respond with anything other than laughter. Now I have the courage to denounce such conduct and the flippant admission of it as if it were a humorous anecdote; now I can present it to my readers as a very clear example of misguided loyalty. I hope you’ll see that there’s nothing trivial or humorous about that manifestation of “loyalty.” As a matter of fact, it’s something worth apologizing for if it’s going to be raised. It is wrong to intentionally choose to dislike someone on the basis of “loyalty” to another.

Loyalty must always be grounded in truth. This means that in some cases, you are doing two things at once: denouncing wrong behaviour on the one hand and loving the person on the other. Jesus was very much charged with the task of saying what was true, painful though it might be. This also means that if I denounce the actions of someone, I am not necessarily lacking in love for that person, though it may appear that way.

Hmm, I wonder why prophets aren’t popular.

The second reading was from Chapter 3 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It goes like this:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again,“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Well, that’s a nice section too, isn’t it? It’s a pleasant surprise to me to see how this dovetails nicely with what I was saying about Mr. Holy & Connected. It’s so typical to be ‘wise’ in terms of social interaction. Facebook is one example. People spend hours on it, cleverly maintaining their network of connections, and they use their wits to say just the right things at the right moment. Has someone posted a photo of herself after getting a new haircut? Make sure you say “You look AMAZING!!!” Has someone updated their profile page with a photo of themselves from 1991? Say, “Wow, just gorgeous xoxo!” Has someone posted a photo of the wedding where the groom is wearing jeans and a leather vest? Say, “Oh, how beautiful!” We all know the lines. We know the lines that you use to stay connected and to please the people in your life who might come in handy for you at a later date. At the very least, they’ll send some “Likes” your way. It’s what you do; these are the angles you play.

Ah.

Angles. Angles and corners and the Roundabout. Let’s go around that topic. Let’s not confront it. Let’s change the topic. Let’s play Avoid and I Didn’t See. Yeah yeah and yeah.

It’s the name of the game but it’s not right. Let’s get it right. Let’s avoid the angles and be simple and straight.

In other words, let’s be fools.
Blurt it out, spit it out and throw it out there.
Say what you think.
Say what you really think.
Write a blog and send me your link.

What have you got to lose?
Everything?
Yeah.

Party on.
God’s in control.

This is from Matthew 5 and it was the Gospel for Sunday:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

That’s a heavy-duty reading. It’s all about what to do in the face of evil and the message here underpins almost all of western civilization, whether it is acknowledged or not. It informs our idea of “Nice.”

The message is: “Do not resist an evildoer” and “Love your enemy.”

Alright. Does it mean, then, that we are never to say, “You have done wrong”? It does not. If it did, then Christ and the Church would be as silent as a corpse. Instead, we see the Church is very alive, and this Bride of Christ is outspoken in condemning the wrongs of the day, in the same way that Christ condemned the hypocritical behaviour of those who pretended to be holier than others. The humorous thing, of course, is that people like John-Henry Weston and Cardinal Burke find that the Church doesn’t condemn what they want her to condemn.

Does it mean that we are to accept every suffering? No it does not. Does it mean that it is wrong to try to avoid suffering? No, it does not. It is normal and good to take steps to reduce suffering, provided that those steps are morally acceptable. Consider how St. Paul avoided being tortured by reminding his captors that he was a Roman citizen.

So what does this mean? The primary message is that we must not harbour resentment in our hearts and plot vengeance. God, in his providence, will guard our interests in the end, and this means that we have the freedom to be foolish.

These readings all tie together. Be foolish! Give away your cloak (a symbol of protection and status)! Walk the extra mile (a symbol of time and energy)! Let yourself be struck on your face (a symbol of reputation and worth)!

The message is that you can give up all of these things with total freedom and trust that God will make everything right. In a way, it is not very dissimilar to the passages about not worrying about your clothing and your food. It is less of a command (you MUST give away your cloak) than an invitation. Jesus here shows us another way, far from the scheming and calculating “wisdom” of the world. Jesus is saying, “Go ahead; don’t worry about righting the balance on your own. You can be utterly ‘foolish’ in your self-sacrifice and your tolerance for wrongs done to you; no longer must you attempt to measure everything and weigh everything. No longer must you calculate who has done more for whom, and who has lost an eye and who has lost a tooth.”

It is not a prohibition on trying to avoid suffering, and it is not a prohibition on speaking against wrongs, whether these are done against you or another.

The primary message is that we do not need to carry the burden of final vindication or punishment. We can be like children, not judges or accountants. We can finally empty our hearts of “keeping track” and “getting even.” That’s the main message. It’s about being free to love because we’re not keeping track.

And we should love. We are not called to like everyone, but we are called to love everyone. What is meant by love? Love means wishing the other well, and part of that means telling them the truth.

You see, when Jesus came, he came to relieve burdens. He came to bring a greater freedom of interaction and thinking. This section is meant to liberate, but — oh my — how it is used! Instead of genuinely loving each other, people want, very much, to APPEAR to be loving each other. You wind up with a Christian “style” which is as artificial and superficial as nail-polish. You wind up with an entirely new and fake approach where everyone is smiley and silent, yet internally seething. You wind up with scores of people playing the role of a martyr while being filled with bitterness. They play the part of someone who has taken these Gospel lines to heart, but the truth is, it’s all an act.

Enough of that! Let’s be foolish! Let’s be like little children!

Oh wait.

Did you hear that?

I think I heard a knock on the door.

Someone is there.

Hang on.

I’ll go get it.

It’s Father Martin Carroll.

He’s wondering whether you’ve adequately reflected on what you’re doing for the church. He wants to know if you’re volunteering enough, and he’s wondering if you’re donating your first hour’s pay. He said it costs $2,500 each day to run the Basilica.

It supposedly ties in with the readings on Sundays.

So what should we do? Does this Gospel reading require us to give to whomever asks? Am I obliged, from a Christian point of view, to donate to the Church? How much? And how about the rockathon (whatever that is) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation? Is it time to load up on Girl Guide cookies? Must I purchase a pink teddy-bear when I buy groceries?

Yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s tricky, and there’s no blanket rule. Give what you want to give. Give what you can give cheerfully. Don’t give $20 per week if you’ll feel resentment, and don’t choose your amount because you feel pressure or because you think it will show that you’re holy.

That’s why I really dislike it when The Talk dominates the homily. It’s just icky.

Look: if you need money, a sincere single sentence at the end of the Mass (short announcements are liturgically okay) or before it begins, will be far more effective. Just say, “Our expenses this year put us over budget – if you’d be willing to increase your donation to help us cover the shortfall, we would be very grateful.” Do it like that. Short and sweet and sincere, from a priest — well, who could resist?

A lecture that goes on and on about how expensive things are? Well, that just wears thin lickity-split.

And what’s worse: we are taken entirely away from the Gospel so that we can hear about BUCKS.

Bleck.

But okay. Have it your way. Let’s talk about bucks.

Tell me please, why $618,647.00 is spent on “Human Resources” at the Basilica over one year. That’s a lot of money, and makes up the lion’s share of this million dollar budget. I don’t believe it’s necessary.

For one thing, the administration of the sacraments could be significantly streamlined. I agree wholeheartedly with this section written by a doctor of Canon law, Dr. Edward Peters. He wrote it in 1996. I know it’s long but you already know how to scroll when your eyes glaze over. I’ve put my favorite bits into bold.

Preparing Children for the Sacraments: Some Controversies and Suggestions

Introduction

Most Catholics receive Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist while they are still children under parental authority. Usually, of course, the process of preparing young people to receive these three sacraments of initiation (Canon 842 § 2) proceeds smoothly. At times, however, misunderstandings and even conflicts can occur between parents and pastors or catechists over a child’s sacramental preparation. This article will address some of the controversies which can arise and will suggest some resolutions of those issues based on the objective requirements of canon law.

Before addressing specific questions on children’s reception of the sacraments, it is necessary to understand the Church’s general attitude toward the reception of sacraments by the faithful. Briefly, Church law prizes and protects the right of Catholics to participate in its sacramental life. While recognizing the minister’s obligation to prevent unworthy participation in the sacraments, the canons firmly foster the reception of the sacraments wherever possible.

Evidence for this is found as early as Book II of the 1983 Code, entitled “The People of God,” which opens with a remarkable series of canons outlining the fundamental rights and duties of the faithful in general and of the laity in particular. Prominent among those provisions are Canon 213 which asserts the faithful’s “right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments” and Canon 212 § 2 which recognizes the faithful’s “right to make known their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires to the pastors of the Church.”

Even standing alone, these two canons are clear affirmations of the faithful’s rights in regard to accessing the sacraments. But when these same provisions are read in the light of Canon 18 (which calls for the narrow interpretation of any Church rules restricting the faithful’s exercise of their rights) it is easy to see that a significant presumption in favor of the faithful’s rights to sacramental participation is being established very early in Church law.

Turning next to Book IV of the Code, where most of the canons specifically regulating sacramental issues are found, though still before discussing specific norms on particular sacraments, Church law restates that “sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them” (Canon 843 § 1). Once more, the obvious implication is that Church ministers are supposed to be at the service of the faithful seeking sacraments. Not at their beck-and-call, certainly, but at their service, surely.

Finally, it is important to realize that the supreme authority of the Church (i.e., Rome) reserves to itself the right to determine what is required for valid and licit celebration of the sacraments (see Canon 841, as well as Canons 837-838). This does not mean that there is no place for flexibility and local adaptation in sacramental matters, for there most certainly is. But it does mean that the fundamental rules on sacramental participation are determined by universal canon law and not by local diocesan or parish policy-makers, however well-intentioned they might be. With these points as background, we are now ready to examine some of the issues raised regarding reception of the sacraments by children.

Baptism

Parents are bound to see to the baptism of their children within “the first weeks after birth” (Canon 867 § 1), while pastors, for their part, are to provide parents and sponsors with “proper instruction on the meaning of the sacrament” (Canon 851, n. 2). In general, parishes correctly tend to be stricter in requiring baptismal preparation for parents who are presenting their first child for Baptism or when the parents are not otherwise known to be active in parish life (e.g., Sunday Mass attendance).

Understandably, canon law does not specify exactly what material needs to be mastered by parents and sponsors prior to presenting their child for Baptism. But a clue as to how much (or how little?) might be required is found, I think, in Canon 868 § 1, n. 2, which states that for the licit baptism of a child there is required (beyond parental consent) a “founded hope that the child will be raised Catholic.” Most observers would agree, that it is not much of a juridic requirement, especially when the canon goes on to state that only if such a hope is “altogether lacking” can the baptism be, not denied, but delayed for a time according to diocesan policy.

On the other hand, the “founded hope” requirement is generally considered to be more than sufficient grounds for a pastor to delay a child’s baptism because of, say, the parents’ irregular marriage situation. Although the child’s right to baptism will eventually outweigh the parents’ duty to rectify their marital status, resulting in conferral of the sacrament, pastoral evidence is clear that many couples do correctly address their own status in the Church as part of the preparation for their child’s baptism. Touching another matter, canon law does not require baptismal sponsors, known popularly as “godparents”, but the practice is strongly encouraged (Canon 872). A sponsor may be of either sex, or there may be two sponsors of opposite sexes, but not two sponsors of the same sex (Canon 873). Sponsors must be practicing Catholics, generally over age 16, and cannot be the parents of the one to be baptized (Canon 874 § 1). Non-Catholics cannot serve as baptismal sponsors, although they may be admitted as official witnesses to the Baptism (Canons 874 § 2).

Most of the other common baptismal questions (e.g., acceptable baptismal names, Sunday Baptisms, or ordinary minister of baptism) are concisely addressed in the Code, especially in canons 850-860, and so need not be addressed here.

Confirmation

For the valid reception of confirmation, it is only required that the confirmand be baptized (Canon 889 § 1). For the licit reception of Confirmation, however, a confirmand must also be “suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew one’s baptismal promises” (Canon 889 § 2). As was true in the case of baptism, the Code does not attempt a catalogue of facts which, however usefully, should be mastered by confirmands. Certainly, however, more than was required for baptism should be required for Confirmation. But this very fact can lead to a problem, especially for pastors and catechists.

Parish staffers know that for most of the young people, the reception of Confirmation will be the last time those children will have any formal contact with their parish until, perhaps, it’s time for them to marry. There are temptations, therefore, to try to stretch out the preparation periods for as long as possible and to involve the confirmands as much as possible in other aspects of Church life and mission. Notwithstanding the potential benefits which can be obtained with extended preparation, however, such an approach walks, and occasionally crosses, the line between offering challenges to faith growth and erecting obstacles to same.

For example, some parishes require over 100 classes (weekly classes for two years) before the reception of Confirmation. But that same parish, often entirely in accord with diocesan policy, might require only four classes for Marriage preparation. Clearly, something is far out of balance here.

Other Confirmation preparation programs require young people to participate in a “social awareness” service project designed by parish or diocesan staff. While many such projects are completely innocuous and of real benefit to participants and recipients, others entail specific risks to participants, (risks based on, say, travel required, locale of service, materials used, and so on), which risks confirmands and their parents may prudently elect not to assume.

A few parishes require parents, as a condition to their children’s reception of Confirmation, to consent to their children’s participation in over-night, mixed-sex retreats, at parental expense, and with a prior parental waiver of liability in favor of the parish or diocese. Obviously, parents and children might object to such activities on any number of reasonable grounds.

In the end, however, nothing in Canon 889 § 2 requires service projects or week-end retreats prior to receiving Confirmation. For that matter, as many diocesan administrators have learned, those so-called waivers of liability for service projects and retreats are not always what they used to be. Parishes making use of them should consult with diocesan legal counsel before assuming the effectiveness of such waivers in case of trouble.

It is, of course, wholly within the authority of dioceses and parishes to offer opportunities for things like Christian service and retreat experiences to those preparing for various sacraments. That does not change the fact, however, that the primary requirements for valid and licit sacramental participation are set forth in the Code of Canon Law, whose provisions control in case of conflict. As long as the voluntary nature of any additional activities is made clear, and there is recognition that young people’s eligibility to participate in the sacramental life of the Church is not based on their decision to take part or to refrain from taking part in such activities, things can progress very well.

Determining the proper age for Confirmation presents yet another type of problem. Most American dioceses delay Confirmation until late grade school or even high school. There is evidence that such delays result in the failure of many Catholics ever to receive Confirmation. Without trying to air fully all sides of this debate, it should be noted that at least some of the delays in the conferral of Confirmation are open to canonical objections.

Canon 891 states that Confirmation is generally to be administered at about the age of discretion, which age is understood to be seven (see Canon 97 § 2). There are, however, three exceptions to this rule, two of which exceptions, “danger of death” and “grave cause,” are often understood to support administration of Confirmation earlier than the age of discretion. But the main exception to requiring administration of Confirmation at the age of discretion lies in Canon 891’s phrase “unless the conference of bishops determines another age” for reception of the sacrament.

In contrast to what is allowed under Canon 891, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did not determine another age for the reception of Confirmation. Instead, it purported to authorize diocesan bishops to determine the age at which the Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred in their dioceses. This would be fine, except that the 1983 Code did not authorize bishops to establish various ages for reception of Confirmation among their dioceses, although it would have been very easy to draft Canon 891 that way (see, for example, Canon 874 § 1, n. 2).

There is, however, almost no canonical way that concerned parents, pastors, or catechists can officially push for a clarification of this matter especially since (to make a long story short) the Holy See, after some hesitation, has basically approved the USCCB’s action until the summer of 1999. Therefore, the age for reception of Confirmation will basically depend on diocesan policy. With, I suggest, one important proviso: parents, pastors, and catechists should be open to and supportive of the rights of young people to petition for Confirmation at an earlier age than that observed in the diocese.

Recalling the Code’s many provisions defending the general right of the faithful to access the Church’s sacraments, and recalling that it is the child’s sacramental life that is in question here—not the pastor’s programs—reasonable accommodation (see Canons 843 § 1, 885 § 1 & 214) should be made to welcome younger children qualified for the Sacrament of Confirmation when they ask for it. Special note: if Baptism is conferred on a child above the age of reason, Canons 883 & 885 combine to require the conferral of Confirmation at the same time, regardless of diocesan policy perhaps calling for later conferral of the sacrament. As was true of Baptism, there is no strict requirement that Confirmation sponsors be used (see Canon 892), but the practice is a long-standing one and is to be encouraged. A confirmation sponsor may be of either sex, and it is hoped that one of the confirmand’s original baptismal sponsors will accept the role of Confirmation sponsor (Canon 893).

First Communion

Vatican II’s beautiful description of the Eucharist as the “summit and source of the Christian life” is repeated in Canon 897 which opens the 1983 Code’s regulation of this sacrament. But perhaps because of the unique importance of the Eucharist in the lives of the faithful, canon law was, it seems, not content to rest on its earlier assertions of the rights of the faithful to approach this sacrament, and instead it states quite specifically: “Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion” (Canon 912, my emphasis).

While two canons (cc. 915 & 916) address the sad question of who is prohibited by law from participating in the Eucharist, two other canons (cc. 913 & 914) consider issues related to the initiation of children into the Church’s Eucharistic life. The very fact that these two issues are treated separately suggests that pre-Eucharistic children are not considered among those “prohibited by law” from receiving the Eucharist (else they should have been listed in Canons 915-916), but rather that they too enjoy the right of Eucharistic access, a right to be honored by those in authority over them in such a way as to enhance their sacramental participation “as early as possible” (Canon 914).

Most parishes make a real effort to offer first Communion catechesis to young people. There is, nevertheless, no doubt that parents are, and are recognized as, the primary agents responsible for the education of their children for first Holy Communion. Canon 914 opens with the word “Parentum” and clearly declares them as having the primary place in the Eucharistic education of their children. If that were not enough, Canons 226 § 2, 793 § 1, 835 § 4, and 1136, each taken from very different sections of the 1983 Code, weigh in heavily on behalf of parental primacy in the education of children, almost as if the point cannot be stressed often enough in an age veering toward social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies. Even parental negligence in this area, which obviously happens and which should be addressed by pastors and catechists in accord with Canon 529 § 1, cannot be used as an excuse to disregard the integrity of the family unit, the family which Pope Paul VI so insightfully called “the domestic Church.”

Does any of this, though, relegate pastors (or catechists) to being functionaries for First Communion?

Not at all. Canon 914, which recognizes parental primacy in the education of children for the Eucharist, also reminds pastors “to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.” Canon 913, I think, sheds some light on just how pastors should make that assessment.

Canon 913 states that children should be able “to understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.” Such a canon is much easier to apply in real life than it is to explain in the abstract, but a few points seem clear.

First, the content of children’s belief, not necessarily the process by which they acquired that content, is what is important. For example, there is no canonical requirement that children be enrolled in a parish religious education program in order to be admitted to the Eucharist, even though a good case can be made that parishes should, as most already do, offer such programs for parents who wish to use them on behalf of their children. On the other hand, mere completion of a parish catechetical program is not proof that a child has interiorized the information which the catechist tried to impart. A individual assessment of each child’s Eucharistic understanding needs to be made.

Second, there is no canonical requirement that children wait until a certain time of the year to make their first Holy Communion, even though they and their parents are free to wait for such a parochial “theme Sunday” if they wish. Moreover, if parents and children wish to be part of a special first Communion liturgy, they should attend those preparation sessions designed to make such liturgies run smoothly.

Third, children and their parents, regardless of the method of sacramental catechesis chosen, need to give pastors a reasonable opportunity to assess a young child’s readiness to receive the Eucharist in accord with their duties under Canon 914. Obviously, in making such arrangements, busy pastors and busy parents should be respectful of the demands on each other’s time. And if a pastor (though not a catechist in this regard) concludes that a certain child is not ready to be admitted to the Eucharist, the reasons for that denial should be clearly explained to the child and the parents. Pastors and parents can then consider what is the best way to proceed under the circumstances.

Conclusion

Sacramental preparations are times of special grace and expectation. No one wants to see them turned into an arena for a contest of wills between parents, pastors, or catechists, and in most cases, of course, this does not happen. When it does occur, however, it behooves all involved to step back from the situation and to reassess more precisely what is, and what is not, actually required in sacramental preparation. If that is done carefully and honestly, then, I suggest, most instances of disagreement can be resolved by recognizing that the Church’s expectations for sacramental participation have already been set out in canon law and are applicable without regard to the preferences of parental or parochial figures.

That was just awesome. One of my favorite parts is this:

If that were not enough, Canons 226 § 2, 793 § 1, 835 § 4, and 1136, each taken from very different sections of the 1983 Code, weigh in heavily on behalf of parental primacy in the education of children, almost as if the point cannot be stressed often enough in an age veering toward social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies. Even parental negligence in this area, which obviously happens and which should be addressed by pastors and catechists in accord with Canon 529 § 1, cannot be used as an excuse to disregard the integrity of the family unit, the family which Pope Paul VI so insightfully called “the domestic Church.”

And my favorite part within that favorite part is the phrase “in an age veering towards social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies.”

Amen to that.

This phrase, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” has taken on a monstrous life of its own, and I detest it.

So yeah.

You tell ‘em, Dr. Edward Peters!

My point here is that the Basilica puts people through too much when they try to get their sacraments. The problem is that most of it is mandatory. Mandatory! If you want your child to receive Holy Communion, your child will be grouped with the others to learn this beauty:

I wanna say yes
Yes!
Just like Mary said
Just like Mary said
Just like Mary said
Yes yes yes Lord
Yes yes yes Lord

That’s the refrain to this “Cat-Chat” song and I wanna say no. I mean, really, why waste precious time learning the “moves” for this? If the pastoral powers that be mandate that classes are compulsory, make them an efficient use of time. If it’s voluntary, then knock yourself out.  Let them teach the children to sing pseudo-rock songs in the basement while the Basilica pays people to sing in Latin.  (Or . . . how about teaching the children to sing in Latin and disbanding the Schola?)

If budget is an issue, bloated things like this should be re-evaluated. Sacramental preparation can be simplified and streamlined while keeping the letter and the spirit of Canon Law. You don’t need a big budget and a small army of people earning who-knows-what in order to make sure people get what they need, liturgically and sacramentally. That’s not God’s plan and in my opinion, a big budget for “Human Resources” is embarrassing and calls for scrutiny.

And speaking of the liturgy, let’s keep the homily as a time of reflection on the readings. Don’t hijack it and tell us that from now on, we’re going to be saying the stewardship prayer after the intercessory prayers. The way it was put, it sounded like we, the naughty children, were being subjected to a punishment.

And who wrote that thing, by the way? It’s really lame and almost makes a person cringe at the word “stewardship.” It’s so, well, Protestant sounding, with no disrespect intended to my Protestant readers. How does it go? I think it’s something like, “I acknowledge that everything I’ve got isn’t really mine and I should make sure to GIVE BACK TO GOD VIA PRE-AUTHORIZED DEBIT.”

I’m joking, sort of.

If we are going to talk about stewardship, then why don’t we discuss how the Basilica is spending the money donated by parishioners and visitors? Is it being used wisely? Let’s discuss that, how about? Let’s break down this “Human Resources” and see if it’s really reasonable. Let’s chat. Let’s have a Cat Chat.

But please, for the sake of Christ and the liturgy of the Church, don’t use the Mass to ask for cash.

Post 240

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off:
Reflections on the Cancellation of Othello

The stories surrounding this play are more interesting than the play itself would have been. After all, we’re all getting kind of used to these modern adaptations of Shakespeare, aren’t we?

To summarize briefly, someone threatened the woman who was to play the lead role in the Shakespearian play Othello, and when she backed out of the role, the theatre — Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta — cancelled the show. Othello is a male role, and is often played by a non-white actor. Here the director was looking to fill the important male roles with women. The cancellation was publicized by the theatre and has become a big news story across Canada. Well, it was a big story, but that was yesterday.

There are so many aspects to this cancellation, and it’s a fascinating little drama in its own right.

Here’s the scoop:

1603: William Shakespeare writes Othello. It’s a story about how a Venetian general is tricked into believing that his wife was unfaithful. He kills her and commits suicide.

1995: For the first time in a major screen production, Othello is played by a black actor (Laurence Fishburne). Prior to that, actors had used make-up to change the colour of their skin. Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Orson Welles used that approach.

September 2016: A theatre group at Queen’s University (Ontario) hold auditions for its Othello production. A white woman is chosen to play Othello, the dark-skinned Moorish man.

September 23, 2016: Walterdale Theatre posts an audition notice for Othello:

The Play: Come join us in a muscular, gender-bending, Mad Max-inspired take on Shakespeare’s classical tragedy. Set in post-apocalyptic Venice and Cyprus, Othello succumbs to Iago’s villainy and destroys his and Desdemona’s lives.
Casting Requirements: Our production will utilize inclusive casting; we are open to casting all roles with artists who may not reflect the original description in terms of ethno-cultural identity, gender, or sexual identity. Tattoos and body piercings are welcome as is openness to altering your hairstyle. Most actors will need to be physically able to handle movement and stage combat requirements. Adults (18+) only please.
Lead Characters: Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Brabantio.
Other Characters: Duke of Venice, Montano, Bianca, Lodovico, Gratiano, and Ensemble.
Audition Expectations: You will be auditioning with a group of 5 other actors in a two-part audition: prepared and cold readings AND movement . . .

October 2016: Linette Smith auditions for the play (not specifically for the role of Othello).

October 2016: Director Anne Marie Szucs offers major male roles to women. She states that she wanted to present a drama “where the focus was on the battle between the sexes.” The actor playing Iago, Randy Brososky wrote: “You see, all the meaty roles of power were re-cast as women — another underrepresented group in theatre, especially in Shakespeare … On top of that, with the partial gender-bending, there were straight, gay and lesbian relationships throughout, all completely normalized without any judgment.” Of course, when you have women playing male roles, heterosexual relationships would become ambiguous.

October 2016: Linette Smith accepts the offer of the role of Othello. Rehearsals begin.

November 16, 2016: The Othello production at Queen’s University is cancelled. The article written by Graeme Hamilton of the National Post said this:

A Queen’s University student theatre company has cancelled a production of Shakespeare’s Othello set to open this month following an outcry over the decision to cast a white woman in the title role of a black man.

“For the safety and mental health of our entire team we unfortunately feel the need to suspend our production of Othello,” the artistic directors wrote on Facebook Wednesday. They subsequently apologized to the Kingston, Ont., university’s black community for what they called an “oppressive” artistic decision.

After September auditions, Queen’s Vagabond Theatre made what its directors acknowledged was a risky decision: Lauren Broadhurst, a white woman, was chosen to play the title character. Since Paul Robeson played him on Broadway in 1943, Othello has typically been performed by a black actor.

Maggie Purdon, the play’s director, said she researched the play extensively before the casting and interpreted the text as being about the struggles of an outsider rather than about race.

January 2017: According to Anne Marie Szucs, “Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern” to the Walterdale Theatre people about the casting choice.

January 27, 2017: Walterdale Theatre continues to promote the production:

A classic tragedy infused with jealousy, ambition, love, deception, and betrayal, Shakespeare’s Othello will be transported to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future. Iago sets a vengeful trap for Othello that eventually destroys everyone in their paths. Equal parts classical excellence, Mad Max, and David Bowie – definitely not your parents’ Shakespeare!

January 2017: Someone leaves a message for Linette Smith which says, “Get ready for the pain. Get ready for the backlash.”

January 2017: Linette Smith becomes afraid. David Staples wrote about his interview with her. She said:

“It was very scary. I didn’t know the individual. It was just for me from a place that was terrifying … I just didn’t feel safe when I got the message.”

I asked Smith if the person might only be implying that Smith should get ready for the emotional pain, as opposed to threatening physical violence.

Smith said in that moment she simply felt vulnerable: “I just got very nervous about what people might do.”

January 2017: Linette Smith decides to withdraw from the production.

January 30, 2017, 10:58 p.m.: Linette Smith posts an apology on Facebook for accepting the role of Othello:

I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100%. I did not think through in the accepting of Othello and the impact and pain it would cause. My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women, and normalization of differently gendered relationships. While my decision was derived from a focus on gender, this was not enough for this role/play and I did not see the cost. In my naivety, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much.

I have learned and am still learning. I have a responsibility to model the behaviour that I want to inspire. I did not do so in this case. I work hard to create an open, generous safe classroom space of inclusivity. I strive to bring diverse playwrights into the drama classroom and encourage students to see all the possibilities for the theatre. I have a mandate of inclusivity in all aspects of my professional and personal life and strive to bring challenging and topical content to the classroom and to the stage. Yet, I have to own what a poor example I set forth for them in thinking it was okay to step into Othello’s shoes. I pledge to do better, to grow and heighten my awareness and sensitivity and understanding of privilege.

I am grateful for the conversation that has happened with me around the choice of attempting the role and I encourage those talking about me to engage in conversation. I am listening. I chose to leave the role and have left some amazing artists in a terrible place. I am also so apologetic for that. I want to thank the stellar cast and creative team for the process and care with which they worked on the show.

I am so sorry. I will do better. There is so much to learn and I am taking the steps, with many more to go.

January 31, 2017: Walterdale Theatre’s Media Release is received by the media and everyone on Walterdale’s email contact list. The Release states that the production is cancelled:

For Immediate Release

Monday, January 30, 2017

Walterdale Theatre Associates cancels production of Othello.

It is with deep regret that Walterdale Theatre Associates announces the cancellation of Othello, the third show of its 2016-2017 season. Othello was due to open on February 8, 2017. Patrons can e-mail walterdalefoh@gmail.com for ticketing information.

“This is a heart-breaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened,” said Adam Kuss, President of the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre.

Both online and in-person threats were received by members of the production from people who were angered by Walterdale’s decision to cast a white female in the role of Othello, traditionally a role filled by a person of colour. The matter has been referred to police.

“Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern to us as well,” said Anne Marie Szucs, Artistic Director of Walterdale and Director of Othello. “We understand and appreciate those concerns. The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We’re sorry this caused offence. We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run community theatre that has operated in Edmonton since 1958, and offers opportunities for people from all backgrounds a chance to engage in live theatre. Walterdale casts plays based on an open audition process which welcomes everyone, and roles are filled by those who attend the auditions for each play.

Decisions about the artistic vision of each production are the responsibility of the Director, the Artistic Director and the Board of Directors of the theatre . . .

January 31, 2017: The news media publish the story, including a link to Linette Smith’s apology on Facebook.

January 31, 2017: People react.

I have found that due to the wide variation in human temperament and experience, a single sentence will provoke a very wide range of reactions. The sequence goes something like this:

Originating Comment: I am sad because I ran over a cat.
Sympathizers (usually first to respond): Oh, don’t feel sad, it’s not your fault. You’re still a good person!
Advisors: Did you find out who owned the cat?
Critics: You should have been driving more carefully! Next time slow down!
Defenders: That’s not nice for you to say she should have been more careful! Maybe it was the cat’s fault!
Jokers: Now its a flat cat . . .
Cussers: Cats suck.
Advisors: If you switched to riding a bicycle, this never would have happened.
Critics: I lost my darling cat Moochie Moochie and I’ve never been the same; some drivers are just reckless.
Complainers: Why are we even talking about this?
Jokers: Is the cat still stuck to your wheel?
Defenders: You are just heartless @Joker! Go troll another site!

Some people are so funny, and you will find the full range of human expression whenever you read an online comment board. The anonymity adds to the experience.

But back to the Othello situation, there’s such a mish-mash of responses. Everyone wants to take a side, but the problem with that is that there are so many sides! Do you sympathize with Linette Smith? Yes? If so, then do you approve of everything? Do you approve of her accepting the role, her abandoning of it, her unwillingness to press charges and her public apology for accepting her role? Maybe you approve of three out of four? Do you sympathize with the person who threatened her? Maybe you approve of the viewpoint but not the method?

It’s complicated, and it seems like so many of those who comment don’t know whom they’re cheering for and why.

I’m here to help.

Here’s a short survey of actions. Please indicate whether you approve or disapprove of the following:

1. Othello, as originally written by Shakespeare
2. Shakespeare’s tragedies, in general
3. Shakespeare’s plays, in general
4. The fact that all roles, in Shakespeare’s day, were played by men
5. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, in general
6. Modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare, where casting is used to change the focus of the original play
7. Transporting Shakespeare’s play to a post-apocalyptic, muscular, survivalist, gender-bending future.
8. Casting men as women and women as men
9. “Colour-blind” casting, where, for instance, twins have different skin colour
10. Casting white actors in roles for “people of colour”
11. Casting “people of colour” in roles typically played by white actors
12. Using threats to intimidate actors
13. Issuing a media release to publicize the cancellation of a play due to threats
14. Police authorities choosing not to pursue those who make threats
15. Victims of threats choosing not to make a formal complaint
16. Apologizing for taking a role which is traditionally given to men “of colour.”

Probably one of my least favorite themes in the comments that I’ve read is the one which over-emphasizes theatre’s ability to change and transform people. Although I do believe that watching a theatre performance can, on occasion, affect someone profoundly, this happens far less often than those in the theatre industry want to imagine. It is very difficult to accomplish, and in the typical theatre context, where subsidized theatre allows directors to experiment and be “artistic” without even having to worry too much about paying for the overhead, usually audience enjoyment is put in second place behind the enjoyment of those putting on the show. In other words, it is far too often a self-indulgent exercise, where directors congratulate themselves for “pushing the envelope,” instead of an effort to serve the audience with honest entertainment. It is for this reason that directors everywhere compete with one another to present the most ‘edgy’ versions of the classics. Many shows are poorly attended but the government grants still pour in.

In other words, I am not impressed with the state of most theatre, and I weary of the actors and producers who congratulate themselves for changing the world, when the truth is that they are conforming to it. Those who genuinely seek to challenge and to inspire are snubbed by the theatre world.

So to those who say that the point of theatre is to challenge and to provoke change, I respond that the first step, in any plan to persuade or change, is to engage. Theatre that is self-absorbed does not engage, because it does not look beyond itself.

But anyway, here’s my take on this whole thing.

The idea behind Othello-Must-Be-Played-By-A-Black-Actor is that the role of Othello is the exclusive territory of black actors. The idea is that in light of past (and present) discrimination against blacks, it would be insensitive to rob them of this lead role.

There aren’t a lot of roles for black actors, is the thinking, and so people should leave them what few roles there are. It’s called ‘being sensitive,’ but perhaps it’s more properly called ‘being sympathetic.’ People are being asked — to a lesser or greater extent — to feel sorry for a group of people who have been hard-done by, and to protect their interests.

It’s tricky, because on the one hand, we are encouraged to think and act as if there are zero differences, and to really forget about all issues of race, but then on the other hand, we are to think of them as quite disadvantaged.

It’s tricky.

Those who have really absorbed the multicultural viewpoint are, ironically, more likely to be accused of racism. They’re so ‘colour-blind’ that they may actually forget that one ethnic group needs more coddling than another.

POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: We had better set aside seats for aboriginal students.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Because, you know, they need a boost.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: They get discriminated against. It’s harder for them to get into law school.
EVEN-STEVEN: Why?
POLITICALLY-CORRECT PETE: Well, when they do their undergraduate work, professors don’t treat them the same, and it’s harder for them to get good marks. And besides, some have a really hard life, and so it’s important for us to even things out.
EVEN-STEVEN: Do people, nowadays, still discriminate against the aboriginal students?

In this scenario, it didn’t occur to EVEN-STEVEN that this type of student is in need of special treatment. Is his ignorance a good thing or a bad thing? If he is fully convinced of the equality of races and of students, and is stunned at the discrimination, doesn’t that, in some sense, signal progress? And if everyone were like EVEN-STEVEN, would that perhaps be an improvement? If everyone asked, “but WHY would anyone discriminate based on SKIN-COLOUR???” then wouldn’t that be an improvement?

Instead, we are asked to do a very special and perhaps impossible balancing act; we are asked to be mindful of past discriminatory patterns and show special consideration, but at the same time, we are to proceed as if there are no differences based on race.

I am not sure if special consideration (and lowering of standards, in some cases) have a positive net effect in the end for disadvantaged groups. It means that if you meet a graduate of law school who is aboriginal, you may wonder to yourself if he would have gained admission had he not been able to rely on his race.

But back to Shakespeare, the current Sensitive Thing seems to be to reserve the role for those who have darker skin.

Despite the current craze for “colour-blind” casting, directors must remember that the role of Othello is off-limits for Caucasians. When it comes to this Shakespearean role, politically-correct thinking dictates that one must not be blind at all. Have your eyes Very Wide Open!

So although the biggest criminal in this story is the fellow who threatened Linette Smith, a very large number of individuals are validating a key part of this criminal’s views. They are agreeing that casting a Caucasian in the role was insensitive to non-whites.

Although distancing themselves from his threatening behaviour, many people are agreeing that it was insensitive to cast a non-white person in this role.

Linette Smith says that her acceptance of the role was wrong — very wrong.

Her apology is rather extreme. The contrition is over the top. If you hadn’t known the context, and just considered the words, you’d really wonder what heinous crime she’d committed. She apologizes for accepting the role — this role which should be reserved for non-white actors — and for leaving her fellow actors in a jam by leaving the production.

But let’s just pause a moment and consider the role itself.

Othello is gullible, jealous and raging. He humiliates, physically abuses and ultimately murders his innocent and sweet wife by strangulation. He maims his enemy Iago instead of killing him, so that Iago’s suffering will be greater, and then kills himself. Then the play ends.

Sure, it’s Shakespeare, but it is ironic that actors “of colour” are so anxious to have this role. Arguably, if the role is done well, it will bring negative stereotypes to life. Arguably, instead of seeing this as The Plum Shakespearean Role for Black Men, it might make more sense to a) campaign to have this play performed less often, or b) minimize the potential negative-stereotype damage by having the bad Othello played by a Caucasian.

Consider how the show-biz world is so careful to cast black actors in the role of a wise friend, or a wise judge. The show-biz world does not want to have a black man on screen hitting his white wife.

It’s odd. The take-home message with respect to Othello? If you want to be respectful to the black community, make sure that the abusive and murderous protagonist is played by a black man!

Sigh.

In any case, I don’t criticize Linette Smith if she was genuinely afraid for her safety. If she really was scared, then I wouldn’t criticize her for bowing out. Maybe her effusive apology is meant to appease the person who threatened her.

As for not making a formal complaint to the police, that’s her choice.

I repeat that the real villain here was the person who threatened Linette Smith. It’s a shame that so many people are wringing their hands at the failure to cast a non-white. All of this self-criticism comes perilously close to saying that this villain, this bully, was justified in — at least — his anger.

Too bad for you, is what I say.

Not every production of Othello will feature a black man as the protagonist. Sometimes the best actor for the role will have red hair and freckles. Sometimes the best actor will be of German-Japanese ancestry. The director has to choose the best man for the job.

But of course, that is where I draw the line.

No women, please.

No women playing the role of the jealous husband and murderer of Desdemona. That’s just going too far. It is disrespectful to the playwright and I’d argue it’s disrespectful to the audience as well. You can ask patrons to use their imagination, but don’t ask them to throw their eyes and ears and brains out the window. The play is not about evaluating the masculine traits of this woman or the feminine traits of that man, so don’t make it about that. Don’t distract the audience from the story that the playwright wrote.

(And on that note, if you want to direct a play about post-apocalyptic times where all the power structures are re-arranged, overlaid with themes from MadMax and David Bowie, then go find one. Othello isn’t it.)

The moment you realize that you don’t have a man for the male lead is the moment you realize it’s time to call the whole thing off.

 

Post 239

The Tale of J. Noah Gallagher

I once walked around in the northern Scottish islands called the Orkney Islands.  Sometimes I was alone.  This story is about a man who lived on one of these islands.

The man’s name was J. Noah Gallagher.  He was originally from Ireland, but he settled in the Orkneys after he met and married his wife Lucy.  Lucy had lived on the island her whole life and he understood her attachment to her home.  Lucy had many siblings and relatives and Noah was willing to start over in the Orkneys.

Noah purchased a building and transformed it into a pub and local eatery.  He named it “Noah’s Ark.”  Lucy and Noah lived on the floor above the pub.  They were blessed with five children in the span of nine years, so the household was a busy one.

By the time of Noah and Lucy’s tenth anniversary, Noah was more than well settled into the close-knit community.  His Irish accent gave away his origin, but since he listened more than he spoke, people sometimes forgot that he hadn’t grown up just around the bend.  There was also the issue of his surname, which was noticeably Irish.  Interestingly, his last name was said to mean “foreign helper,” or “foreign assistance,” and that was what he was.

You see, it wasn’t long before the locals realized that Noah was indeed ready to help.  He was the steady and trustworthy sort, and he could be counted upon to get a job done.  His observant mind was fast and he readily applied it to figuring out solutions for problems.  It was typical to see him behind the bar leaning in close to another, to hear the details of yet another tale of woe. He became, to many, a confessor of sorts, ready to listen and quick to understand. His advice was solid and filled with fresh insights, but the main thing was that he was both empathetic and encouraging.

Sometimes the locals would joke about “going to see Father Noah.”

As for Noah, he liked the jokes and he liked the camaraderie. He was the social sort.  He was, you could say, a fan of humanity, and he sprang to its defence, time and again.  As a matter of fact, sometimes he defended those who seemed the least deserving of his mercy.  His wife’s ne’er-do-well brother, for instance, was always given a welcome — Merton’s late-night arrivals at the Ark were regular but he was made to feel like the repentant prodigal son, as Noah dished him up a warm plate of stew with some bread made earlier that day.  As for Auntie Iris, her ‘zany’ ways were always tolerated with a sigh and a knowing look, exchanged between Noah and Lucy.

Merton and Iris weren’t the only ones to enjoy the Gallagher family’s hospitality. Lucy had cousins and second cousins and more than a few uncles and aunts. They were more than happy to pop in for a bite and something refreshing to drink. It was “on the house,” because Noah didn’t want to charge family, especially good folks like these (he always saw the good in people).

Nobody would call Noah a businessman, because he was never about the dollars and cents. He was always a generous host and the truth is that he saw the Ark as more of an extension of his home than a business. Those who noticed how often he allowed his patrons to go without paying wondered how he managed to make ends meet, but the less observant folks assumed that the abundance of patrons meant an abundance of wealth.

Ah, money!

When it came to money, Noah wasn’t shrewd. He wasn’t calculating and he wasn’t ruthless. He was, simply put, quite selfless. He didn’t keep a close eye on the money coming in and the money going out. He viewed his customers as friends, and he wanted the best for each and every one of them. What did it matter if Stuart paid him next week? Stuart had been unemployed for several months now. What did it matter if Brenda didn’t return the roasting pan in the end?  Perhaps she had simply forgotten; he didn’t want to embarrass her by asking. Conversely, however, he never forgot a good turn, and he made every effort to show his gratitude to those who had shown him a kindness, even if they were merely carrying out their ordinary duties. He was the type to throw in ‘a little something’ extra for those who did a good job.

And so the story went.

But you know how the story goes.

The day finally came when Noah found out.

It was his son who started the ball rolling. It was Tommy who said that Auntie Iris was rather kind of scary. It was Tommy who said that Auntie Iris had grabbed his little sister’s face and hissed with anger.

Noah was aghast.

Noah gathered his family about him and asked question after question.  He wanted to listen and he wanted to re-evaluate.

The stories came out, and Noah began to see everything anew. He began to see that all wasn’t well. Noah and Lucy considered the picture and they made a decision.

They decided that they had to choose their children.  They decided that no longer would Auntie Iris make their home her playground, to do as she chose.  A line had been crossed, but it would never be crossed again.

After God, family was first.  Family was the priority.  His family was his gift from God, and he needed to set things aright.

Noah surveyed the collection of glass mugs and the scraps of food clinging to the bowls from the previous evening. In times past, he would have tidied them up without a second thought, but this morning, things were different. He suddenly wondered, who were all these people who had been taking his time?  He had always assumed that the affection was mutual; he had always assumed that they meant what they said and said what they felt.

He walked over to a corner of the bar, where he kept a pile of papers. These were the tabs.  Although he hadn’t recorded everything, he had recorded some things. And besides, he had a memory, did he not?

He flipped through the names, and he looked at the amounts. For the first time in years, he calculated the totals.

He was astonished.

Things were not the way that he had thought them to be. The imbalance was staggering.

The heavy wooden door at the Ark creaked open and Noah looked up. It was Jenny. She settled into her regular spot at the bar. She did not notice that Noah didn’t give his usual cheerful greeting, but Noah noticed that she didn’t notice. She was ready for her drink and she was ready to tell of her latest adventures.

Noah poured her drink and told her the price.

Jenny almost dropped her drink, just from the shock.

The price was ordinary, but the words were not.  She was appalled that he mentioned the price.  He was acting as if he expected her to pay!  He was acting as if she were nothing more than a mere customer!

She was incensed and offended and shocked.  She finished her drink and placed the money on the bar with some disdain.

She was indignant and swore to herself that she would never return to the Ark.  She looked forward to expressing her outrage to her friends.  “Father Noah, indeed!”

Noah sat down at the bar.  He looked up at Lucy, who had come downstairs, holding one of the little ones.  She wondered at his demeanor, because he looked exhausted.

“What is it?”

“I asked Jenny to pay.”

As the day wore on, the scene was repeated.  Customers were asked to pay for what they consumed and Noah asked his customers when they were planning to clear their tab.

Word got out quickly that Noah had

Lost His Mind.

 

But Noah was cool.

And Noah was sane.

 

He locked the door and went upstairs to see his family.  They gave him joy and he smiled at his wife.  Lucy was pretty and as witty as ever.

There was a sound at the door.

Standing in a group were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.  They said they came in the name of the Lord.  They said they came as friends.

Job didn’t answer the door.

 

So they sent him emails.

They said they wrote in the name of the Lord.  They said that they wrote as friends.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar wrote many things.  They spoke about God and about what God wanted and what God did and what God thought.  They preached to Noah about mercy and meekness and accused him of pettiness and harshness. They pouted that he was “being mean” nowadays. Their conclusion was that if Noah suffered, then he suffered because he had done wrong.

Noah protested and pointed out that even in the case of their own accounts, there was an outstanding balance.  There was an imbalance.

That only made them angrier.

But Noah continued.

He wrote, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me?”

He wrote, “Behold, I know your thoughts, and your schemes to wrong me.”

He wrote, “My lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. Far be it from me to say that you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”

He wrote, “He has put my brethren far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. My kinsfolk and my close friends have failed me; the guests in my house have forgotten me.”

And finally, he wrote, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Noah felt that he had said all that could be said, but Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were determined to prove that Noah was in the wrong.  They had appointed themselves as judge, and they were pleased with their verdict upon this bartender named Noah.

They, after all, Understood All — or so they thought.

 

The truth was, they did not understand the first thing.  They did not understand, for starters, that this man had been given more than one Old Testament name.

 

His first name, as you know, was Job.

 

Post 238

Cookbooks in My Cupboard:
Reflections and a Recipe for January

It’s time to deal with these cookbooks.

Do you have a ton of cookbooks too? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you are young and have always searched online for recipes when you’ve wanted them.

Or maybe you aren’t the recipe type.

Or maybe you’re not the cooking type.

Or maybe you’re not the eating type.

Do you use your cookbooks? Maybe you like buying them but you don’t read them, or maybe you read them but don’t cook with them.

There was a time when I didn’t own any cookbooks.

I started with the Company’s Coming series by Jean Paré. The recipes were simple and relied on a mix of fresh and pre-made ingredients like canned mushroom soup.

You have to start somewhere, and I was really quite happy with what I was able to make. I bought quite a few of those coil-bound cookbooks.

When I got Joy of Cooking, however, I was ready for it. I enjoyed trying out the recipes in there. It seemed so authoritative. That cookbook has a lot of versions, reflecting the different politics and power struggles behind the scenes. Some people say that the earlier versions were better than the later ones. I have a couple of versions, but I haven’t sat down to compare them, so for once I don’t have an opinion.

Right now my cookbooks are piled haphazardly and I figured that if I pulled them all out while blogging about it at the same time, then I could begin to organize them. When all was said and done, I’d have organized cookbooks and a blog post too.

So here’s what I’ve got right now, listed in order of weight, of course:

  • 3037 g: Larousse Gastronomique
  • 2925 g: The Cook’s Book, Jill Norman (editor)
  • 2834 g: The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson
  • 2475 g: Cooking, James Peterson
  • 2424 g: The Way to Cook, Julia Child
  • 2412 g: The New Best Recipe, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 2360 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, 3rd Edition
  • 2043 g: Baking, James Peterson
  • 1917 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
  • 1903 g: More Best Recipes, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 1858 g: The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook
  • 1844 g: The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman
  • 1699 g: The Best International Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 1687 g: Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, copyright 1997
  • 1654 g: Polish Heritage Cookery, Robert & Maria Strybel
  • 1583 g: The Complete Book of Korean Cooking, Young Jin Song
  • 1523 g: Italian Classics, The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1472 g: The Quick Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1392 g: Joy of Cooking 1975 Edition, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
  • 1378 g: The Best Make-Ahead Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1338 g: American Cookery, James Beard
  • 1297 g: Restaurant Favorites at Home, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1297 g: Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
  • 1296 g: At Elizabeth David’s Table, Elizabeth David
  • 1185 g: Vitamix Whole Food Recipes
  • 1134 g: Food Cook Eat, Lulu Grimes
  • 1085 g: Korean Cooking, Young Jin Song
  • 1069 g: The Best 30-Minute Recipe, Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
  • 1063 g: The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paula Wolfert
  • 1009 g: The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook, Ellen Brown
  • 947 g: America’s Test Kitchen, The Best Simple Recipes
  • 940 g: 365 Slow Cooker Suppers, Stephanie O’Dea
  • 939 g: 20-Minute Gourmet Menus, Minutemeals
  • 901 g: The Best Soups and Stews, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 883 g: The Best Vegetable Recipes, From the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
  • 838 g: Quinoa 365, Patricia Green & Carolyn Hemming
  • 794 g: Elizabeth David Classics: Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, Summer Cooking
  • 747 g: French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David
  • 743 g: Authentic Recipes from Korea, Injoo Chun, Jaewoon Lee, Youngran Baek
  • 737 g: Authentic Recipes from Thailand, Sven Kraus, Laurent Ganguillet and Vira Sanguanwong
  • 735 g: Authentic Recipes from China, Kenneth Law, Lee Cheng Meng and Max Zhang
  • 689 g: More Make it Fast, Cook it Slow, Stephanie O’Dea
  • 657 g: Discovering Korean Cuisine, Allisa Park
  • 637 g: Mediterranean Cooking, Paula Wolfert
  • 545 g: 3 Ways to Dinner, Minutemeals
  • 425 g: Made From Scratch, America’s Test Kitchen
  • 334 g: The Korean KItchen, Copeland Marks
  • 296 g: Company’s Coming 4 Ingredient Recipes
  • 221 g: The Ideals Whole Grain Cookbook
  • 122 g: Lunchbox Love, Sally King

It’s too many cookbooks, I know.

Mind you, one of them isn’t a cookbook. The Oxford Companion to Food is more like a food encyclopedia, and I think I used it once. It was a gift from someone who knew I liked cooking.

So if you don’t count that one, I’ve got 49 cookbooks.

I spent several years in the Nourishing Traditions style of cooking. It’s a laborious approach where natural eating is the goal. On the plus side, it was very nice to have no fear of normal foods like butter and bacon and eggs and cheese and all that good stuff, at a time when everyone was petrified of fat. It served as an island of sorts, providing immunity from the changing waves of food fashion.

On the minus side, however, it’s demanding, requiring the cook to steer clear of anything but the most wholesome and pure ingredients. I used my Vitamix to pulverize the spelt grains into flour and I mixed this freshly-ground flour with yogurt made from milk that had not been homogenized. I bought my beef, llama, goat and sheep meat directly from the local rancher, and I was glad that the chickens who were laying the farm eggs hadn’t been ingesting soy. I made special trips to purchase raw milk. I found a brand of bacon made without nitrates (or celery salt). I bought coconut oil. I drank kombucha and snacked on beef jerky, organic apples and raw cheese that wasn’t dyed orange. I enjoyed what I bought and what I cooked, but I was very, very choosy, and of course I avoided almost all processed food.

Ah, that was then.

Things are different now.

Now I indulge.

The world is my oyster and I’m heeding that inscription on the pearl of great price. The tiny little gilt letters say:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

And the gilt letters signal an end to guilt, to lies and food fears.

Hello peace of mind and hello food!

The ‘well-informed’ people of the world suffer a great deal of psychological distress when it comes to food. They hear, daily, of all the different foods that they are to avoid in order to stay healthy, and they hear, daily, of all the different foods that they need to consume in order to live longer and healthier lives.

Mothers worry about what to feed their children — is it better to avoid fat or sugar? Are artificial sweeteners to be avoided at all costs? Is juice okay? Should I make my own baby food? Have I irreparably damaged my child’s brain cells by microwaving her milk in a bottle containing BPA? Did I destroy my son’s healthy gut flora with all the antibiotics that he had in his toddler years? Should I make my own yogurt? Are my children eating enough fermented foods?

I am not ridiculing these mothers. I understand and I empathize. Who wouldn’t empathize with a mother trying to do her best to nourish her child? The decisions, in a world with so many mixed messages about food and nutrition and health, are often difficult, and parents are too often advised and even challenged by friends and relatives who have strong opinions about food and nutrition.

Pity the parents who are given unsolicited advice about what to feed their children. Pity the parents surrounded by those who secretly or openly sabotage their food-related plans for their children. How many stories have I heard! How many things I have seen!

In the name of concern for health, meddlesome individuals seek to impose their will. They view themselves as the authority and in their anger, they use food as the battleground to engage in conflict. They couch their comments in the context of concern, but it is too often the case that they simply want their own will to prevail. Their concern is for their own ego as the expert, and not for the happiness or well-being of you or your children. It’s a power trip for some, but hopefully you see that already, and I wish you the best as you ignore or otherwise deal with the noise.

The issues surrounding food are almost endless, with this being but one of many.

Food has always been a way to express both good and evil intentions. Those with good intentions provide food to others in order to nourish body, mind, heart and soul. It is a well-understood symbol of welcoming and care, and a good host looks forward to the enjoyment that he will give his guests with the food that he serves. Those with evil intentions use food in a multitude of ways to exclude or even to cause harm. I can think of so many examples of devilish food schemes; they range from the extremes of Holodomor to the spiteful pre-party planning which will deprive certain guests of enjoyment.

In Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the main character notices that one cook is fair — when he scoops the soup, he does it without checking which prison-camp worker is holding the bowl.

One of my ancestors had a stepmother who hid a pile of tasty white rice underneath a thin layer of dull brown rice for the boy she favoured, but reversed this for the boy she disliked.

But sometimes the games are about spoiling someone’s weight loss efforts. Some people tempt dieters with treats in order to derail them. The games related to food are endless and unbelievably complicated.

I don’t play games like that, and neither does my dog.

Her food games are simple.

She likes the Catch the Cheese Slice Game, and she likes the Chomp the Cookie Game and she likes the Lick the Ice Cream Tub Game.

Her favorite game, however, is the Drive-Through Game, because it ends with a cheeseburger.

(No pickles, please.)

IcecreamDog

It’s all good.

My two favorite cookbooks these days are both from the America’s Test Kitchen folks. One book is called The Best Make-Ahead Recipe and the other is called The Best 30-Minute Recipe.

Cookbooks are about trust. I expect a cookbook to give me enough information to ensure that my results will be successful. I still remember the time I followed a recipe in Mark Bittman’s cookbook, listed above, and I wound up with burnt cabbage at the bottom of the pot, and when I followed his recipe for roasted nuts, things didn’t work out well either. Vague instructions are, in my opinion, a recipe for disappointment, and I’ve been reluctant to invest any more time in making recipes from that cookbook. I was surprised to find that I still owned it, but I see that my collection is more of a time capsule of cooking phases than a collection of favorites.

One of my favorite things about the America’s Test Kitchen series is that the writing is so good. Check this out, for instance:

Heady with smoky pork and bittersweet molasses, Boston baked beans are an example of a side dish that actually gains in flavour when made at least a day ahead of time. A close reading of recipes — and there are thousands out there — made it clear that authentic Boston baked beans are not about fancy seasonings; they are about developing intense flavour by means of the judicious employment of canonical ingredients (beans, pork, molasses, mustard, and sometimes onion) and slow cooking. Tasters quickly rejected recipes with lengthy lists of untraditional ingredients and short cooking times.

The most important item on the shopping list is, of course, beans, the classic choice being standard dry white beans in one of three sizes: small white beans, midsize navy or pea beans, or large great Northern beans. While the latter two choices were adequate, tasters preferred the small white beans for their dense, creamy texture and their ability to remain firm and intact over the course of a long simmer. (The two larger sizes tended to split.)

See what I mean? Five stars just for using the word “canonical.” Look at this: “the judicious employment of canonical ingredients…” It’s so incredibly serious that it’s funny.

That’s a page-turner if you ask me.

I’ll bring you several paragraphs ahead to the happy ending:

While pleased with the texture and flavor, we still wanted a thicker sauce — soupy beans were not acceptable. We discovered that it was not simply a matter of reducing the volume of water, however, as this led to unevenly cooked beans. We had been cooking the beans start to finish covered with a lid, which prevented the cooking liquid from reducing effectively. When we removed the lid for the last hour in the oven, we got the results we were looking for — the sauce had reduced to a syrupy, intensified state that perfectly napped the beans.

That’s not the recipe itself, of course. It’s the story of the development of the Boston baked beans recipe, which follows immediately afterwards on page 71 of the book (The Best Make-Ahead Recipe).

I still have a copy of my October 2009 correspondence with Abbey Becker, editorial assistant with Cook’s Illustrated. I asked her if it would be okay to share the recipes with friends when they asked. She said yes and I was glad.

So I’ll give you one now.

Hmm. Which one do you want?

I have 62,489 grams (137.76 pounds) worth of cookbooks plus one food encyclopedia. If you want it, I probably have it.

Let’s see.

Alright. It’s January, so how about a slow-cooker stew? Here’s my favorite.

I see from my pencilled-in notes that it took me about 90 minutes to assemble this once, and another time I did it in 50. In other words, don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get this all set up.

An internet search will give you various beef stew recipes from America’s Test Kitchen (they have a few versions), but I’ll type in the one I’ve got, verbatim.

Slow-Cooker Beef Stew
Serves 6 to 8

You’ll need 18-inch heavy-duty aluminum foil or a large oven-ready foil bag to make the vegetable packet. If you’re going to be away from your slow cooker for more than 10 hours, cutting the vegetables into larger, 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces will help them retain their texture. Feel free to add a pound of parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks, to the foil packet along with the carrots and potatoes. The stew will thicken further as it sits; add broth or water to thin to the desired consistency before serving.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium onions, minced
1/4 cup tomato paste
6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 tablespoons)
Salt
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
1 (5-pound) boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Minute tapioca
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 red potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves (do not use dried)
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
Ground black pepper

1.Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the onions, tomato paste, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until the onions are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, scraping up any browned bits.

2.Transfer the onion mixture to the slow cooker insert and stir in the beef broth, meat, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves until even combined. Toss the potatoes, carrots, 1 teaspoon of the thyme, and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil together and season with salt and pepper. Following the illustrations below, wrap the vegetables in a foil packet. Set the vegetable packet on top of the stew in the slow cooker insert.

3.Cover and cook on low until the meat is tender, 9 to 11 hours. (Alternatively, cover and cook on high for 5 to 7 hours.)

4. Transfer the vegetable packet to a plate. Let the stew settle for 5 minutes then gently tilt the slow cooker insert and degrease as much fat as possible off the surface of the stew using a large flat spoon. [I don’t do that.] Remove and discard the bay leaves. Carefully open the foil packet (watch for steam), then stir the vegetables along with any accumulated juices into the stew. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon thyme and the peas and let stand until the peas are heated through, about 5 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

I haven’t included the illustration mentioned in step 2, which shows how to shape the foil ”hobo pack,” but I think you can manage to wrap the veggies in the foil and crimp the edges to make it secure.

I do have, however, a photo of the cookbooks looking all tidy and cozy and as canonical as can be. They’re all there; I don’t have the heart to exile any just yet.

50cookbooks

Post 237
To Gertrude Catherine Bohan

Speaking of English: Memories of L.A.

I used to see Monsignor Fee Otterson often because he celebrated daily Mass quite regularly at the chapel at Providence Centre. After saying Mass, he’d go to the cafeteria for refreshments and a bite to eat.

He passed away in 2012 and there’s a school named after him.

All that time, however, I didn’t know that I knew his sister better than I knew him.

Just this afternoon, I decided to look online to see what I could find out about “Mrs. Bohan,” an English teacher I had in junior high, because I had fond memories of her. She taught “L.A.” (Language Arts) at a school we called J.J.

I’m sad to see that she passed away on September 15, 2014. Only now I learn that her first name was Gertrude.

I liked her. She taught English in an old-fashioned way, with a lot of emphasis on grammar. I believe that she understood grammar in a way that few people did, even in the early 80s. Nowadays, of course, it is understood even less.

She wore her long graying hair in a bun. I remember looking at her dresses, which were all the same style. I wondered to myself if she sewed them herself. She seemed the thrifty no-nonsense sort who might do something like that.

She gave a lot of tests, is what I remember. She would ask us to use all kinds of words in different ways. I couldn’t believe my eyes because one time she asked us to use the word “mathematics” as a proper noun. I dutifully wrote a sentence about the girl named Mathematics.

There were bonus questions and so I sometimes got more than 100%. Mr. Yaculuk would probably have objected to such a concept, but he was down the hall teaching math, so he didn’t interfere with our grammar fun. Yeah, I liked her and I think she liked me.

Despite being the sentimental sort, I never was the type of student to return to former schools once I had left them. I didn’t return to say ‘hello’ to former teachers. I didn’t expect to be remembered or treated like a friend; I have generally felt that there would be little to say. For me, it wasn’t like that story told by teachers everywhere in which the student comes back to say that he became the person that he became all because of the amazing teacher who saw his potential. I saw them as people who had more influence upon my life than I wanted them to have, and I did not (and do not) view any individual teacher or professor as having shaped or influenced me in any significant way. If anything, earning the marks that I did was about hard work and determination, in the face of more than a little discrimination. For the most part, I have been glad to move on from the various educational experiences I have endured.

Nevertheless, there have been a few teachers along the way who gained my respect. I was impressed with my first grade teacher, for example, and when I look back, I can see that my assessment wasn’t based on my inexperience at judging such things. Her methods were thorough and effective.

As for Mrs. Bohan, I found her classes sensible and interesting. She knew her way around English and she did it with class.

It’s funny what you remember about a person. It’s funny what others remember about you. The tiniest of details and the shortest of incidents can stick like glue in this quirky thing we call our memory.

I remember having difficulty remembering her name. Was it Mrs. Hoban or Mrs. Bohan?

One time she was in the middle of explaining something and she held up her hand, counting off the various whatevers. Finally, she was left with her middle finger (she had long fingers) sticking straight up as she continued to talk.

It was junior high, and so of course the class started to giggle and soon enough she looked at her hand, and realized what she was doing.

That was priceless.

She couldn’t believe it: “Oh my, oh my! I’ve never done that in my whole life! Oh my!” She was obviously mortified, but looking back, I think she had enough of a sense of humour to be amused despite herself.

It was very funny and of course nobody in the class doubted her. She was precisely the type of person who really never would tell someone to “fuck off” either verbally or non-verbally. (How’s that for a eulogy? It’s a little long for an epitaph I suppose but it does have a ring to it — “Here Lieth Frank, Never The Type To Tell Someone to Fuck Off.”)

So anyway, I guess that was indeed a first, and I am proud to say that I was there.

A classic junior high school moment.

And that is not a complete sentence.

And that sentence begins with “and,” as does this one.

Oh man. I miss her now and if I could have met with her before she died, I would have enjoyed reminding her of that story, and if she remembered me, I would have enjoyed telling her about my own life story — the story so far, that is.

Oh well. I guess she knows everything now, and is a faithful blog reader. She’s hanging out with her husband and Chesterton and Prince and Princess Diana and all the dogs waiting to be rejoined by their masters, including Pablo and Daisy and Gunther and Steffi.

Here’s one very short version of Gertrude’s story. (Imagine your life one day being summarized into 165 words.)

BOHAN, Gertrude Catherine
(nee: Otterson)
October 25, 1928 – September 15, 2014

Mrs. Gertrude Bohan died at the age of 85. Mourning her loss and celebrating her life, are her seven children, Paddy (Megan), Michael, Maureen (Tim) Toth, Sean, Kevin (Tanys), Tiernan (Helen), and Seamus (Shelley); 15 grandchildren, Brendan, Kaitlan, Meghan, Aidan, Tara, Erin, Conal, Ashley, Kayleigh, Reilly, Danielle, Liam, Lauren, Ella, and Moira; her sister Anne Otterson of Toronto; numerous family and friends.
She was predeceased by her husband Joseph Bohan; parents Margaret and Edward Otterson; sister Consuella Ross, and brother Monsignor Fee Otterson.
Gertrude taught mostly English at junior and senior high levels with the Edmonton Catholic School Board for over 25 years. Her love of children extended from her own children to her classroom children. Gertrude adapted her love of English and language into a mild obsession with cross- word puzzles, which she completed in pen, and into becoming an almost unbeatable Scrabble player. Gertrude was also an avid reader and patronized live theatre for many years.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Arthritis Society, 10109 – 106 St NW, Edmonton, AB, T5J 3L7 or to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 10985 – 124 St. NW, Edmonton, AB, T5M 0H9.
Prayers will be held at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 9830 – 148 Street, Edmonton on Thursday, September 18, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. Reverend Paul Kavanagh will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist. Interment at Holy Cross Cemetery, 14611 Mark Messier Trail, Edmonton.
The family thanks the Emergency Service Team, Fire and Rescue, the staff at the U of A Hospital Emergency Department, the 5th Floor Cardiology Unit, and Southwest Homecare for the care and compassion shown to the family and to Mom.
To send condolences, please visit: www.connelly-mckinley.com

Gertrude-Catherine-Bohan

 

Post 236

Here's My Essay, Baby!
A Critique of the English 30-1 Diploma Examinations

On Alberta Education’s website, you can find Part A of seven past English examinations, ranging in date from 2011 to 2016.

You can see the essay-writing portion of the diploma examinations for English 30-1, and the website also provides samples of actual student essays. The sample essays are classified (with commentary) as “Satisfactory,” “Proficient” or “Excellent.” “Proficient” isn’t the clearest term in this context; it’s between Satisfactory and Excellent.

English 30-1 is the highest level of English study available for Alberta high school students.

I found the entire collection of questions, student essays and commentary on the essays to be interesting in the way that a four-car pile-up is interesting. In other words, what I saw made me question what I saw.

The test itself is poorly designed and the approach to marking is problematic. The exam is a poor measure of English writing ability.

I say this as an outsider to the process. I wrote my exam ages ago and until I looked at these samples on the website, I didn’t care very much at all about how they were graded.

But now I do care, and I have been comparing the exams marked “Satisfactory” with the exams marked “Proficient” and “Excellent.”

I shake my head, unconvinced that those who received higher marks were better at English, and unconvinced that those who received lower marks were worse at it.

I present my objections below. In keeping with the English essay theme of this post, I have three objections.

1. Which is better? An apple or an orange or a watermelon or a papaya?

Someone obviously thought that it would be nicer or more open-minded or fairer to allow for a huge variation in approaches to the essay writing on the diploma exam, but the result is just nutty.

Students are provided with three resources: a poem, an excerpt from a fiction piece and an image. It is the student’s choice as to whether to use one, two or all three of the supplied resources. They are also allowed to write about their own lives or to write about the life of someone else. This story can be real or fictional. The essay assignment refers to a choice of three styles: “personal, creative or analytical” and some students did a combination of these styles.

So you can see that there are a myriad of choices here. It means that student A’s analysis of three provided resources will be compared with student B’s fiction piece about a photo, even though literary analysis is entirely different from story telling.

I am not saying that one is better than the other, but the point of standardized testing is to compare things that are roughly equal.

The fact that each student can choose his preferred resource or his preferred style is a drawback, not a strength. It reduces the effectiveness of the examination’s ability to accurately measure and compare writing ability.

Imagine hundreds of athletes competing for the prize of best athlete where each athlete does his own sport. At the end of the day, how can you compare? Is Kate better at fencing than Steve is at rowing? Is Attila better at hurling the discus than Matilda is at cycling? Is this kumquat better at being a kumquat than that kiwi is at being a kiwi?

Any sensible organizer will know to categorize and judge the sports individually. Different styles of writing are like different sports, and even different resources change the game considerably.

Writing is already a very individual process, making testing and comparison difficult. If you have one hundred people writing about bananas, by the time you get to the end of the second sentence, no two people will have written the exact same thing.

Nevertheless, there are ways to make the test more standard and there are ways to make the test less standard. The test-designers at Alberta Education have obviously opted to increase variation, not reduce it, and I disagree with that choice. (And here I will not even delve into the other part of Part A of the exam. In the second part of Part A, students answer a question about any piece of literature studied in the grade 12 program.)

It would be preferable to test ability by having the students describe a photograph or other clear image. Show students a photograph of a room or an event and ask them to describe it.

See whether their compositions are clear and informative. See whether they have used appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure. See if there is variation of sentence style. See if the spelling and the punctuation are correct. See if the word choice is discerning and see if word usage is skillful.

If you gave me one hundred such descriptions, I could tell you which students showed a greater command of the English language and which students had a weaker command. It would be enough of a test and yet easy to implement and easy to evaluate. As a matter of fact, with such a straightforward and uniform arrangement, many people could evaluate English-writing ability.

Sadly, however, with the current model, the amount of variation built into the test is extreme. The essays are topically and stylistically so different from each other it does not look like they are writing the same exam, and the marking guidelines themselves are a dizzying mess of adjectives which confuse the issue further. The guidelines are not straightforward or sensible because they are supposed to be one-size-fits-all. The guidelines are supposed to be useful no matter what type of essay is produced by the student but that’s not practical. We would never think of using one type of scoring method regardless of sport.

So much for “standardized testing.”

2. Personal revelations tend to skew results

The examination asks students for a “personal response” to the resources which are provided, and one of the optional approaches is called “personal.” This means that it is considered perfectly acceptable for the student to write an essay about his personal life for this diploma examination. Indeed, every year, the question is worded to show the student that he can write about his life: “Support your idea(s) with reference to one or more of the texts presented and to your previous knowledge and/or experience.”

Although personal revelations have their place, personal revelations have their place. In other words, although personal revelations can be appropriate for certain types of writing (letters to family and friends, personal opinion pieces in publications, blogs, autobiographies), personal revelations and opinions are not suited to as many places as people currently believe; one anecdote does not make a general rule. In any case, personal revelation most certainly does not belong in the world of standardized testing.

The evaluator is, after all, human. I know that the evaluators will swear up and down that after marking thousands of papers, they have become entirely immune from the emotional and psychological angles of the students’ writing, and I do believe that there are very professional teachers (these exams are marked, for the most part, by English teachers) who can stay quite focused on the English skills at hand. However, there are far too many evaluators who are going to be influenced when the student confides that he is the long-suffering but incredibly diligent Engine-That-Could, who has made many sacrifices to succeed and become A Better Person so that the World Could Be a Better Place.

And even if it is the case that the evaluator is able to stay focused on evaluating English ability, why have a system which lends itself to these types of shenanigans?

Consider this actual student sample from the January 2016 English 30-1 examination:

 

I often tried my best throughout following my own personal goals in my life and I was hard on myself when I may have been unable to meet them. Living with PTSD has kept me from choosing to climb up the ladder again, and I always felt as though I wasn’t a good person for doing so. With time and a strong, determined spirit, I was able to better prepare myself for the ladder, and I am ultimately a better person for it. With my education, I often stay up late into the night to finish my work, which is difficult mentally, however, I continue to do so because I enjoy seeing the things I can accomplish and I enjoy learning new things in my life. Some may never reach the fruit at the top and it’s a personal belief that the amount of effort an individual produces is more important than reaching for the lowest you can.

The take-home message is that the student keeps making personal sacrifices for all the right reasons. I guess that’s awesome, but the English is not. I will refrain from commenting on the fruit and ladder imagery, because that’s a reference to the supplied poem, but let’s look at that first sentence: “I often tried my best throughout following my own personal goals in my life and I was hard on myself when I may have been unable to meet them.” The main issue is the word “throughout.” Throughout what? It’s an incorrect use of the word and throws the sentence into grammar purgatory.

Consider the last sentence. It is a comparison sentence, where one thing is more important than something else. Behind door number one is “the amount of effort an individual produces” and that’s more important than what is behind door number two. Are you ready? Behind door number two is “reaching for the lowest you can.” There’s a lack of balance in the sentence, and of course any comparison between something obviously nice and something obviously bad is suspect from the get-go. Here’s my version: “It’s a personal belief that striving to keep one’s house clean is more important than aiming for the stickiest floor on the block.” Another wrinkle is the use of the word “produces” with the noun “amount.” We usually do not speak of “producing” an amount of effort. It is more natural to speak of effort being expended or exerted or spent.

You say I am being critical.

Of course! The entire process of evaluating English writing involves critical scrutiny of the use of English words and phrases. That’s the entire point, and my concern is that evaluators will become distracted from the poor use of English because they are caught up in the drama of this PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder?) student burning the midnight oil, fueled by his noble personal beliefs.

Even now, those who read what I write will view me as excessively harsh — how dare I go after some poor 18-year-old student who works so darn hard and suffers so very much just to Get By In Life?

And that would be my point.

When a student portrays himself as a disadvantaged but earnest underdog, who has the nerve to say, “Hey man, your sentences suck” ?

This is why personal stories should be kept out of the arena most of the time, if not all of the time. Don’t let students play the sympathy card in the guise of having a “personal response to texts.” Don’t let them Accidentally Happen to Reveal that they are creative geniuses. Please — don’t let them. If you’re a genius, prove it to me by whipping up a paragraph that is second to none. Don’t write that all your friends and family and teachers expect you’ll be going to med school Any Day Now (real example from a different sample).

Allowing these personal stories means that many students will choose the story which casts them in the most positive light. The following student presented several versions of the earnest underdog:

 

Like the girl in the poem, my life is shaped by forces that encourage my actions. When facing adversity these forces encourage me to stay determined and carry out my actions. In the past, I was trying out for the senior basketball team. There were many athletes at the tryout that contained various skill levels. When these girls demonstrated their knowledge of the game and their ability to handle the ball, I became very intimidated. Instead of drawing back and quitting, I became motivated by their intensity. It encouraged me to run faster and jump higher in order to succeed. Being encouraged to put in the extra work not only made me a better athlete, but a better individual. I used the competition as a concept of motivation in my life. When writing tests I would strive to get the highest mark, which led to more studying. When being in musicals I would attempt to have most emotional performance, which led to countless hours of character analysis. All of my work had become enhanced because of the force that encouraged me to succeed. This has shaped me into the dedicated person I am today and I will continue to be in the future. I have many years of the game of life ahead of me and I plan to continue pushing forward to be prosperous.

Groan.

Are you beginning to see my point?

These students were not born yesterday. They know the game. They know the game all too well. The game is to show that you are incredibly motivated to succeed and that you have a past history of success.

You can tell me that this type of self-promotion has no effect on the teacher, but I would disagree. These two essays both were labelled as “proficient.” The sample section above was praised as being a thoughtful discussion, containing specific examples. Indeed, there were examples.

However, there are problems in the writing and I do not find it to be particularly impressive. The construction of the following sentence is awkward: “I used the competition as a concept of motivation in my life.” A concept of motivation? In the following sentence, an article is missing, and the phrase “when being in musicals” is worse than the conventional “when participating in musicals.” Here is the student’s sentence: “When being in musicals I would attempt to have most emotional performance, which led to countless hours of character analysis.”

If the student is accurately describing her outlook and her experiences, then she may be an impressive person, and very emotional during musicals, but that is not the same thing as being a skilled writer of English. Reading these personal life stories blurs the one into the other.

At the risk of boring you, I will show yet another example where the student presents himself as a driven underdog. Believe it or not, I found these 3 examples in a group of only 6 essays. That’s 50% of the samples from the January 2016 examinations. Three students included personal revelations of their exemplary character. Doesn’t that fact alone make you wonder?

Alright, so the following excerpt is from an actual student essay which was marked “excellent,” but I will put into bold all of the words/phrases that are problematic.

 

Just as many onlookers of this photo do, I never possessed any extraordinary skills. Those all belonged to my older sister, the prodigy in our family. My older sister excelled in every task a teacher could possibly think to employ; she was a fantastic student, a prolific writer, and considered by many to be among the elite artists of our generation. She began commissions for her acclaimed artwork when she was 12 years old. Naturally, when we both went to our dad, a fabulous musician, with an interest of learning the guitar, I already knew how things were gonna play out. Just like everything else, I was going to live in her shadow. And I was right. For the first couple months, my sister’s ability with the instrument skyrocketed while I remained, with bleeding fingers, still trying to play my first chord. I hated it; not music itself, but my own inadequacy. Music simply spat that stark truth in my face. I wanted to give up. I didn’t want to play anymore; there was no point. For some reason, however, my dad favoured me more than he did my sister. At first, I thought it was because he pitied me, and perhaps this is true. Now I realize he saw potential I couldn’t see in myself. When I was on the verge of quitting, my dad started playing with me. We would jam, just the two of us, for hours on end. I’ll never forget the one Sunday afternoon, we played for three hours straight. The more my fingers hurt, the more I wanted to continue playing. At the end of the session, as my dad was putting his guitar back onto the rack, he said, “Good job, Nate. You’re gonna be better than me if you keep that up.” It was that day that I fell in love with music, and I don’t think that would’ve been possible without my dad. When I lacked the confidence to keep trying, he instilled confidence within me, and caused me to grow in ways I never thought possible.
My whole life has become about making music that inspries people . . .

The student goes on to talk about the fire burning within him and so on and so forth.

Sigh.

The entire personal revelation aspect of these essays seems formulaic and predictable.

Mind you, I don’t fault the students for writing this way, because they want to succeed, and they have been encouraged to craft these little Life Moments pieces for a few years by the time they write the Diploma examination. Ah! Another Little Engine That Could? Take a number.

The problem is the trend in English education which places a premium on self-disclosure and the personal voice. The trend was already underway back in 1985 when I was beginning high school. [Cue background music for Blogger’s Life Moments Story:] I remember that I could not make any headway with my English instructor until I began incorporating reflections from my real life. To talk about myself struck me as cheesy and out of place in an essay discussing a work of literature, but the teacher seemed to think that I had ‘broken through’ once she saw these little personal reflections and the higher grades started to rain down, stupidly.

I was glad but unimpressed.

The personal voice should be reserved for certain applications and most definitely should not be used in a setting where one student’s work is compared with another student’s work. It can too easily cause things to degenerate into one student’s outlook being compared with another student’s outlook, or one student’s character being compared with another student’s character. An evaluator, being human, will tend to go easier on a student who sounds admirable.

3. The diploma examination questions are vague and jargony

The test-designers provide questions which are maddeningly vague and airy-fairy. Here are some examples:

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions? (Jan 2016)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the ways in which individuals deal with the uncertainties of the past? (Jan 2015)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the impact significant events have on an individual’s ability to determine their own destiny? (Jan 2014)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the human need to make a commitment or renounce a course of action? (Jan 2013)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the interplay between how individuals perceive themselves and are perceived by others? (Jan 2012)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the conflict between pursuing a personal desire and choosing to conform? (Jan 2011)

These questions are very broad, and sadly, the provided resources do little to focus the questions.

These questions are really not much more than themes, especially when you study them in relation to the provided resources. The provided resources are also airy-fairy. You’re left with a fuzzy question about fuzzy resources.

When I say that the resources are fuzzy, I hope you believe me.

Here’s a typical example:

 

You have been provided with three texts on pages 1 to 4. In the poem “The Leaving,” the speaker reflects on a night’s labour. In the excerpt from And the Birds Rained Down, Bruno and the narrator discuss the circumstances leading to Gertrude’s arrival at the hotel. The photograph by Stephen Salmieri shows a carnival worker posing in front of a game of chance.

Did you catch that? One of the “texts” is a photograph!

Yikes!

The entire point of the word “text” is to differentiate letters and words from images. If you are a graphic designer or a magazine or newspaper editor, one of the most basic distinctions is between writing and graphics or images.

You would think that what I state is really obvious, but this is what happens with those who consider themselves progressive. While you and I have our backs turned, they change the definition of an English word and act as if they’ve done something wonderful, as if they’ve gone “ping” with their magical word wand. They congratulate themselves on their modern and broad-minded approach. While you and I naively think that the word “automobile” refers to a vehicle with four wheels, they know that only the laypeople are Narrow Like That. They know better. They know that a bicycle is also a “automobile.”

Man.

It’s not right. The most basic component of successful communication is consensus about what the words mean. If they teach students that the word “text” can include a photograph or a painting or a drawing which contains no letters, then they are failing in their duty to educate their students. They are miseducating them.

In this case, the problem is amplified, because here the question-makers are pretending that a photograph can speak volumes about abstract human questions.

A picture may be “worth a thousand words,” but let’s be sensible — it is NOT a thousand words.

The student is told that the photo (“the text”) suggests something to the student above and beyond the obvious. A photo of a carnival worker standing in front of a ball-in-basket game suggests something about “the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions.”

Oh puh-leeze!

Nobody in his right mind who looks at a photo of a carnival man standing at his booth is going to start thinking about “the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions”!

Most people will look at the photo, say, hmm, a photo of a carnival guy. It looks like it’s an old-fashioned photo. The guy is obviously posing.

Then they move along.

If they look at it longer, they might think of the times they’ve been to the carnival, and what happened there. Others might try to decide if the man looks handsome or not, and what his mood is. Some will read the writing on the sign.

That’s about it.

Photographs are for quick digestion. You look at them and you absorb the main idea within seconds. Sure, some photos are stunning, and you take your time, looking at the overall image and then lingering to enjoy the details.

But still, they are not essays. They are not books or short stories. You could call them “poetic” but they aren’t poems either.

They can be shocking and they can elicit emotion and they can educate you about a reality, but they do not delve into abstract concepts by means of words. Their power is their immediacy, not their depth and exploration of topics at length.

(And as an aside, it can be said that as our society becomes more enamored of the image than the printed word, our analysis of life’s deeper themes becomes less frequent. We want the quick story. We want the story in picture form. Even a movie is too long for us nowadays; we like the 3-second gif and the witty meme.)

In any case, it is unrealistic and misleading to tell students that a photograph is going to enlighten anybody about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions. It’s just too much, and I don’t like the game of Let’s Pretend.

It’s not right to burden one photograph with essay-type responsibilities. Let it be what it is. Let it be a photograph. Judge it and evaluate it and enjoy it the way photographs are meant to be. Consider the composition, the colours, the subject, the mood and the lighting. Don’t say that it’s suggesting something about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions. It’s not.

 

NORMAL WORLD:

 

Charlotte: This photo reminds me of the time the family entered the pig in the fair.

 

Wilbur: This photo reminds me of the time I was entered into the fair.

 

ENGLISH DIPLOMA EXAMINATION WORLD:

 

Charlotte: This photo suggests that an individual’s actions can be inhibited by various forces, including the likelihood of losing at a game of chance.

 

Wilbur: This photo suggests that financial considerations can function as an encouraging force, enticing individuals to take chances in life.

Um, yeah.

In sum, the questions are painfully vague and consulting the provided resources (poem, excerpt from fiction and image) does little to illuminate the question. If I were to provide an analogy, I’d say that the students are directed to go fishing in the dark with a dimly-lit flashlight and a dollar-store fishing net. Get ready, set, go!

Reading the question, one is given the impression that a person could gain valuable insight into deeper human topics by reviewing the resources. One is given the impression that these “texts” will be Suggesting All Manner of Things About Life, but the sad truth is that the connection between the “texts” and the essay topic is usually sketchy.

However, like abstract art, the game is all about acting as if you are capable of seeing the Deeper Meanings and All the Connections.

In other words, the game is about bullshitting.

And the students catch on pretty quickly. Before you know it, one student is writing that the white garment worn by the man is a way for the photographer to suggest that the game is an honest one. (Real example.)

Before you know it, another student is suggesting that the fish eyes in the canal symbolize persistence in the face of failure. (Real example — it was something like that.)

Before you know it, half the students are just saying the texts say whatever they need the texts to say and the other half have decided that they are going to steer clear of writing English essays for the rest of their lives.

Can you blame them?

It’s a contagious case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The teacher says to the students, “Don’t you think this garment is fine?” The students look at the teacher’s empty hands and say, “Yes, it is mighty fine and the luxurious fabric catches the light.” The teacher says, “Indeed, it glimmers like the dawn, and symbolizes the brightness of your upcoming score on the upcoming diploma exam.”

The “texts” which form part of the exam are quickly scanned by the students, who mine them for the odd phrase or idea which might possibly, arguably, tie into the question’s abstract concepts. The diploma exam is timed, after all, and students have 45 to 60 minutes to read the resources, draft an outline and prepare an essay.

That is not the best approach to literature. Quickly reading a poem and an excerpt from a story in order to answer an essay question on an examination does a disservice to the literature.

Poems aren’t meant to be read quickly. Fiction is also meant to be savoured. A careful and unhasty reading of the works has the best likelihood of uncovering the intention of the author and is the proper approach to any analysis beyond the superficial (such as an examination of obvious literary devices). I am not in favour of suspending a measured and thoughtful approach in the context of an examination.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in my review of the student’s essays, analysis of the provided texts was scanty and token, and when a student did venture into the provided texts, the discussion of the texts was either very basic or else — at the other extreme — fanciful and implausible.

I did not encounter any insights into the provided “texts” that were compelling.

Nevertheless, I do not fault the students. I fault the examination.

In order to properly explore any work of literature, it is advisable to read it for its own sake, without asking it to reveal an answer to a predetermined question. Take your time, move at a pace which is comfortable to you and suited to the work. See what the author or the poet has to say, and if the work is terrible, think no further about it. (Either that or write a blog post about it.) If the work has merit, consider what the author is saying about life, and how he chose to say what he said.

The English 30-1 diploma examination already has a comprehension section, where students demonstrate their understanding of a previously-unseen piece of literature. That is enough. Do not ask them to incorporate a new piece of literature into an essay.

In the same way that you wouldn’t ask a chef to make you an Irish stew in forty-five minutes, don’t ask a student to analyze a poem or an excerpt from a story in that span. Proper analysis takes time.

Furthermore, the essay portion of the English 30-1 test should be testing on English writing ability, and in the same way that personal essays tend to push evaluators in the direction of evaluating personality, there is a problem with asking students to analyze or even comment on works of literature and life’s more complex issues. The danger is that students who are more logical and analytic will appear to be better writers than those who are less logical and analytic.

Now it is true that logical arguments and good writing are often close companions, but I’d argue that it is better to remove the argument aspect as much as possible when trying to evaluate writing.

Otherwise, the teacher could be distracted by the fact that there is only scanty support for a given proposition, or impressed by the persuasiveness of a novel argument. Will a paragraph promoting candy floss and caramel corn be judged in the same light as a paragraph promoting kale and parsnips? Maybe not. Maybe the teacher will deduct marks for flawed logic despite flawless sentences.

In my opinion, persuasiveness and logic are important, but they should not play too large a role in an examination on English.

Even more dangerous is that it is frequently the case that a teacher will be biased towards a student who says things about life that sound more pleasing. Students learn the hard way that taking a position which is unpopular with the instructor is a quick route to a lower grade. Students learn quickly to praise the fashionable idea of the day. They refrain from saying what they really think. Why run the risk?

(And here I would venture to say that the constant grading of viewpoints throughout the educational system has a stunting effect, which discourages independent thought. Students emerge from the system learning to gravitate towards whatever answer is ‘right’ according to the person in charge. Students become accustomed to moving with the herd, and those who challenge the prevailing viewpoint are few and far between.)

For these reasons, it’s safer to separate the two aspects. There is no need to review a student’s outlook on life’s bigger issues in order to assess his writing skill.

As I said, if a student is asked to provide a description of a person or a room or something along those lines, you will see quite clearly whether the student is able to make good use of the words in the English toolbox, in the same way that a good carpenter can build a better chair than an inept carpenter, and in the same way that a good cook can make a better breakfast than an inept cook can. You don’t need to make a test Big and Deep and Fancy in order for it to separate the men from the boys.

I’m going with the biblical theme that someone who is faithful in small things will be faithful in big. Someone who can successfully answer a straightforward question is the best person to write a novel or an encyclopedia. Someone who calls a photograph a “text” is not.

The point is that the examination question need not be contorted and self-conscious. The examination question needn’t refer to unfamiliar “texts” which supposedly suggest things about abstract topics. Exile such questions. Send the person who is designing such questions on an indefinite time out.

Stop the game of Let’s Pretend.

If you want to evaluate a student’s ability to write, make the question plain and no-nonsense. A convoluted and jargony abstract question encourages students to invent connections where they don’t see them in order to appear insightful and it encourages students to make assumptions about the literature which are not supportable. Having been told that certain resources suggest Big Things, the students pretend that those resources are suggesting Big Things.

At the start of the examination, they had never deliberated upon “the interplay between how individuals perceive themselves and are perceived by others” and they had never seen such-and-such poem. But forty-five minutes later, they have written with confidence (“confidence” is something the evaluators purport to evaluate, believe it or not) that an unfamiliar poem suggests quite a bit about these abstract concepts and that this is supported by their “previous knowledge and/or experiences” blah blah blah.

It’s just all such a stretch, and it is usually a counterfeit of genuine analysis, evaluation of literature and exploration of abstract concepts.

If you really must ask questions about new literature, keep them down-to-earth. (I find it telling and disturbing that the word “straightforward” is a word with negative connotations in the grading system of the diploma examinations; straightforwardness is a sign of merely “satisfactory” writing.) Ask the student whether a given character is being presented as a hero or a villain, and how this is being accomplished. Ask the student about the mood that is being created in the piece, and how this is being accomplished.

If you want something creative, ask the students to continue the short story from where it left off. I enjoyed the work of the January 2016 student who used the photograph as the launching point.

There are ways for students to demonstrate their ability to write which do not require fanciful pseudo-psychological theories about life. Such topics are best explored when they are personally chosen (not imposed) and they are best explored when the timer is not running.

The current recipe (Vague “Deeper Meaning” Question + Unfamiliar “Texts” + Time-Pressured Student) does not yield a desirable result. It’s a recipe for Fake and Bake, and that’s a shame.

Concluding Thoughts

I could go on, but if you agree with me by now, you’ll join me in hoping that those charged with the responsibility of designing the tests will overhaul the examinations. If you don’t agree with me by now, there is probably nothing I could say to convince you.

How’s that for a concluding paragraph?

I think it’s “Excellent.”

Post 235

You Stand with Whom?
Reflections on the Consent Order That Ended Wisdom Home Schooling

The slogan chosen by supporters of Wisdom was “We Stand With Wisdom Home Schooling.”

Well, from what I can tell, for all practical purposes, Wisdom is out of the game.

Wisdom will no longer fill its coffers with money in the name of home schooling. Wisdom will no longer make contracts with facilitators or with rich deacons hiding behind corporate entities in order to collect rental income. Wisdom will not give itself salaries.

Wisdom will not be able to do any of these things, because the cookie jar is being placed out of its reach. Trinity Christian School Board, which was the party entrusted with overseeing home schooling, is not going to be able to deliver, as it previously has, the lion’s share of its funding into Wisdom’s bank account, for Wisdom to do with as it pleases.

I have reviewed the January 5 Consent Order, which was not posted onto the Wisdom website, but which was posted onto the Alberta government website.

Among other things, it states that all employees will be employed by Trinity (i.e., not by Wisdom). It probably means an end to facilitators working as self-employed contractors and receiving cheques in the name of their companies as well:

b) All staff, including the principal, home school administrator, teachers, teacher contractors, facilitators, etc., will be employees of Trinity.

The agreement recently reached between the Alberta government and the many parties who sought an injunction was that Trinity Christian School Board would be allowed to retain its accreditation (for the time being, obviously — funding grants are discretionary) but the government will appoint a financial administrator to oversee Trinity. A government-appointed financial administrator will oversee Trinity for twelve months, and perhaps longer:

f) Alberta Education will appoint a financial administrator (in good faith consultation with Trinity as to the individual selected) (the “Financial Administrator”) to oversee Trinity for a term of twelve (12) months, the time of appointment to be extended if necessary. Alberta Education will bear the cost of the Financial Administrator.

The administrator will be calling the shots:

g) The Financial Administrator will support the Board of Trinity’s review and development of revised bylaws, board policies, and oversee the restructured operations of Trinity as set out in the agreement including policies on related party transactions, remuneration and leasing.

In addition, as a further precaution, Trinity will receive the government funding in dribs and drabs:

e) Funding to Trinity from January 2017 onward will be provided on a monthly basis until otherwise approved by Alberta.

I can tell by the wording of the Consent Order that the government lawyer had the upper hand when it came to drafting the agreement.

Trinity clung to existence by conceding almost everything.

It will be interesting to see how Trinity does ultimately get restructured. Who will be employed by Trinity? What will their credentials and job descriptions be? What will their salaries be? What programs will be offered to the families who stay with Trinity?

The Wisdom website gives assurances to the effect that it will be ‘business as usual,’ but I suppose time will tell. Nobody can predict exactly how a restructured Trinity will look. It is arguably a brand new board, with new policies, regulations and employees. While other boards in the province continue with business as usual, Trinity will go through a process of massive change. I wouldn’t be surprised if some families decide that they do not want to go along for the ride; I wouldn’t be surprised if some families decide they don’t want the drama.

The agreement (and Consent Order) is a victory for the government because the government’s goal was to ensure that the funds were being managed in accordance with the provincial regulations. With an administrator in place, this can be achieved.

The initial approach — disband Trinity ASAP — was unpopular with those who were loyal to the people behind Wisdom, and with those who feared that other school boards would not be as good, and with those who dislike the NDP government. In other words, it was unpopular with many people. It wasn’t unpopular with me, but it was unpopular with many.

So, in light of the political pressure, the government proceeded with an alternative way of protecting the cookies (Administrator=Parole Officer=Babysitter). This should satisfy the families who were enrolled with Trinity (though they thought they were enrolled with Wisdom), and I am not surprised that they view the Consent Order as a victory (no need to switch boards).

From the outside, it looks like Wisdom was victorious, because the families can stay where they are. It is no wonder that lawyer Jay Cameron focuses on this aspect of the outcome in his statement to the press.

From the inside, however, it’s a new ball game, and Wisdom now has neither role, entitlement nor voice. It has not retained any of the powers that it formerly had — not a single one.

Indeed, that fast-handed player with the word “Wisdom” on his hoodie has given himself up with a whimper.

So much for #Standing with Wisdom.

Wisdom is nothing more than a website now.

a) . . . The Applicant WISDOM Home Schooling Society as an entity will have no governance role or decision-making authority in the Trinity organization.

Post 234

By the Oaks of Mamre: An Update

Greetings and Happy New Year!

I am sorry that I did not write to you earlier, but the days have flown past, and it seems that my life has, of late, begun to travel in a new direction. I have hesitated, trying to decide how I could begin to summarize what has happened in our lives since I saw you last.

After some reflection, I have decided I will just put pen to paper and describe it as well as I can, come what may.

Where shall I begin?

As you know, I recently celebrated my ninetieth birthday. Praised be the Lord that I have reached such a ripe old age! My blessings are doubled because I enjoy good health, and I can say the same for Abram, who is almost a century old! Who could have predicted that we would still be walking the earth, albeit more slowly than before?

Ish’mael is in his thirteenth year and is himself now a man. He looks more like Abram than his mother Hagar, as it turns out, which is a personal relief to me. Ah, the lot of a woman!

Oh, and speaking of Lot — I have so much to tell on that score as well, but first I will tell you of our own story.

A few months ago, Abram gave me the most startling news. He said to me that the Lord had appeared to him, and said,

I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.
And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.

Can you imagine? I was just speechless as I listened to him. Abram said he just immediately fell onto his face. There was more. The Lord said to him,

Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

I was stunned as I listened to him. How could this be, I wondered, that the Lord would speak to my own husband? My regular and simple Abram! Yet at the same time, I could not doubt what he told me, because his word is always true. I have never known him to say a dishonest word.

A million thoughts were rushing through my mind. Was I supposed to call him Abraham from now on? Would we use that name privately or would we tell all of our friends? Surely they would question us! What would they think of a name change after a century of life with one name? I suppose you will think my thoughts were trivial, but I tell you how it was.

But of course, the words were more stunning than that, because they spoke of descendants! I should have been dizzy with the words — “nation,” “kings,” “generations,” “everlasting” and yet I was strangely steady. Indeed, the Lord himself supported me so that I could hear such things! How the Lord had spoken to my own husband!

But this was not all. Abram (shall I refer to him already as Abraham?) could recollect, with perfect clarity, these words as well:

As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

My astonishment, which I thought could not be increased, was doubled upon hearing these words. Circumcision? For all the males? Indeed, it would be a symbol in the flesh! I will make you smile when I say that in that moment, I did not mind to be a woman!

But trust me, friend, I had not yet heard the part which was the most astounding of all, and it is no wonder that Abraham was anxious to get to the end of his news before letting me say very much of anything at all. He said to me, “Sar’ai, Sar’ai — there is more! Sar’ai, listen!”

This is what he told me the Lord said:

As for Sar′ai your wife, you shall not call her name Sar′ai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.

I was incredulous. When had I heard such words? When does a barren woman receive such a message? I, who had never before doubted my dear Abram, was pushed to the limit now. But he insisted. He insisted that this is what he had heard from the Lord. He said to me that he himself had laughed, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Indeed, shall a woman who is ninety years old give birth to a child?

Abram could not believe that the Lord really was speaking of me, so he mentioned Ish’mael. Abram said, “O that Ish’mael might live in thy sight!” but when he said that, he heard:

No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ish′mael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.

I tell you no falsehood when I say that I would have fainted away, had not the Lord sustained me. Such words! Such words to my heart! I cried and I laughed, and I didn’t know if it would be more painful to believe the words or to disbelieve them.

Could it have happened? Could the Lord really have spoken to my own Abram?

I pondered it and I lived almost in a dream over the next few days and weeks. I went through my ordinary tasks as a person divided. My hands and eyes were in the present, but my mind and my heart were in the future. Could this be true? Could this be true?

As for Abram, however, he had a faith greater than mine, and he did not waste a single moment. Before I could even digest what he had said, he began all the arrangements. The sun had not yet set and both he and Ish’mael and all the menfolk of the house — even the slaves — were circumcised.

It seemed as if our ordinary lives were suddenly turned entirely upside down, and I felt that we had experienced more excitement in those twenty-four hours than we had in the preceding ninety years.

However, the Lord was not finished with us.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the tent when Abram (I was still accustomed to calling him Abram) rushed in and this is what he said, “Sarah, quickly, take three measures of fine meal, knead it and make cakes.” The weather was unseasonably hot, but he spoke urgently, so I did as he said without delay. While I did this, Abraham went out into his flock and chose a calf for the servant to prepare. I was filled with curiosity, but there was no time to waste.

Later, after I had given the cakes to Abraham, I observed him as he presented them to three tall strangers. They ate them, along with curds and milk and the prepared meat. They sat under the oak trees and Abraham stood there, watching.

I studied the clothing of the men, and their demeanor. I had never seen them before, and they were striking in appearance. They did not speak but they did not appear overly solemn. They had pleasing expressions and manners. I wanted to see more, but I was afraid of being seen, so I retreated towards the rear of the tent, where I could still hear them, if they were to speak.

Suddenly I heard my name! One of them asked, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” If you were to see me, you would have seen my very ears open at hearing my name spoken this way. How did they know me, and how could they know me by that name? Had Abram already mentioned me? I was very attentive.

Do you know what I heard next, from these mysterious strangers? I heard these words, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

Oh, you know me well! I could not help but laugh to myself at the notion!

But would you believe? These strangers read my very thoughts, and addressed Abraham this way: “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”

I was so embarrassed, and I sheepishly emerged with flushed face from the tent to say my part, but when I denied laughing (it is true I should not have denied it, but I was afraid), the stranger said, “No, but you did laugh,” and I could say no more, because I knew that he was right.

Ah, you see how I tell you everything, friend! I am sure you have not had a letter such as mine before!

The visitors came just seven weeks ago, so that brings you up to date about our lives.

I am not with child as far as I can tell, but if my account is true, then we shall await the spring! If what we have heard is true, then I will be blossoming along with the flowers and trees. What a sight that would be! Can you picture your friend — me — holding a newborn child in barren arms? Can you picture your friend — me – holding a newborn child as if I were young again? Could it be true?

I hide nothing from you when I say that I feel my life has become more mysterious to me than ever before. I once felt that I had nothing left to see, and nothing left to experience, but now I gaze at the world around me with fresh eyes. I try to pierce the veil that prevents me from seeing the future. Could these promises be real? A son? A son from me? How many times have I whispered the name “Isaac” to myself!

I hide nothing from you when I say that if these promises are not true, then my suffering will have been doubled, for the Lord has allowed to be awakened within me a dream which I had thought long dead.

So I choose to trust in the goodness of the Lord, and we will await the future with trust and anticipation. I hope that you do not ridicule me as you read this.

But the light is fading now, and so I shall not bore you any longer with all of my ponderings and questions.

I remain, as always, your true and constant friend,

Sarah (Sar’ai)

P.S.: I almost forgot to say — the light fades quickly now so I give you the briefest of summaries. Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomor’rah, along with his two daughters. He attempted to persuade their fiances of the impending destruction, but they did not believe him, and I presume they died with the others. As for Lot’s wife, she escaped the city, but she disobeyed the angel, who told her to not look back towards the city. She’s a pillar of salt now.

Post 233

Debacle: Reflections on a Curtain Call

A conversation is a dialogue. A conversation is not a monologue.

You would think that an actor would know the difference between a dialogue and a monologue, but actor Brandon V. Dixon described his on-stage speech as a “conversation.”

When President Elect Donald Trump asked the cast of “Hamilton” to apologize, Dixon responded with the following: “conversation is not harassment sir.”

Trump asked for the apology because when Vice President Elect Mike Pence went to a theatre performance on November 18, 2016 by the name of “Hamilton,” the actor Dixon addressed Pence from the stage during the curtain call. Pence was seated in the theatre and Dixon was on stage.

In other words, Dixon was prepared and Pence was not.

In other words, Dixon had a microphone and lights, and Pence did not.

That was not a conversation. You can call it a conversation only if you stretch the definition of the word “conversation” so far that it encompasses almost every type of human expression. If that address was a conversation, then the homily I just heard at the 5:00 o’clock Mass today was also a conversation. If that was a conversation, then what I write to you now could presumably be called “a conversation.”

Man. Some people should not write their own lines.

I do not mind theatre being used as a vehicle for advocating social change, and I do not mind script writers criticizing and condemning those whom they believe are in the wrong. Why would I? Perhaps this does not happen often enough. In any case, playwrights and screen writers typically cannot help but incorporate and promote their own world views, as do all users of Facebook and all the people in chat rooms and forums all over the world. Everyone views himself as an expert on humanity, being human.

Those who have defended Dixon’s speech in the name of The Rights of Theatre misconstrue, probably deliberately, the criticism of those who criticize what Dixon did. They are fighting on a different front, where there is no enemy. Nobody was saying that theatre cannot be bold and brazen and confrontational and challenging and enlightening. It can be. Even Broadway theatre could, in theory, be like that.

Go ahead, script writers, do your darnedest. Write me a script that moves me and makes me fall in love with your characters and your ideas.

Some want to pretend that those who criticize Dixon are attacking the freedom of theatre to challenge the populace and the politicians. But they are pretending, because those who criticize Dixon are not saying that theatre should not criticize individuals, institutions or ideas. It very well can, and I don’t even mind if they mention the individuals by name, but this is to be done via the script, and not via actor-to-audience impromptu speeches. The method matters.

In a theatre production, there is a special relationship between the actors and the audience. There is an element of trust which should not be violated.

When I go to see a play, I will purchase my ticket and take my seat, expecting that the actors will deliver their lines and go through the motions of their performance. For my part, I will pay attention and not distract the actors or other theatre patrons from the performance. That’s the way we do things nowadays. It is the cultural expectation and it is civilized. Don’t talk to me about how “in Shakespeare’s day,” the patrons used to do this and that and the other thing. I’m talking about the norm for our day.

Of course, there are special types of theatre which are improvised, and anyone attending may expect that the actors will come up with lines in reaction to current events or even in response to the audience reactions or behaviour. They will speak their mind, and we’ll see that some people are funny and witty and that others should stay out of improv.

Nevertheless, even with improvisational theatre, there are still limits, and if the audience is going to be engaged, then this must be done on a strictly volunteer basis. Let those who want to be involved volunteer themselves.

As for the others who haven’t volunteered themselves, leave them in the anonymous safety and security of the darkened theatre. Do not single out any of your guests without their consent and foreknowledge. Even if you have a message which you consider innocent, such as “Happy Birthday,” do not spring it upon a member of your audience during a public performance without consulting with him in advance.

Using polite words does not give you a free pass. Some have defended Dixon’s words because they were not offensive. I agree — they were rather unremarkable, in my books — but that is besides the point. Even a message which you consider innocuous takes on an entirely different flavour when it comes in a setting where you would never expect such a message.

That is why a marriage proposal written on a front lawn with Christmas lights is noteworthy. That is why a “Will you forgive me?” message written on a billboard would make people look twice.

My cousin once paid for billboard advertising to let his former girlfriend know that he was now “new and improved.” It sure caught her attention! Unfortunately, when she decided that she’d give him a second chance, he changed his mind.

But anyway, when an unsuspecting audience member takes his seat in the audience, give him your show, to the best of your ability. Other than that, leave him in peace.

There are so many reasons for this. Part of the reason has to do with the inequality in the arrangement between the actors and the audience. The actors are on their game; they are psychologically prepared to speak and to perform. The audience members have a different mindset. They expect to be one of the crowd. Even a famous person has an expectation that when the lights go down and the spotlight is on the actors telling their story, all eyes will be on the show.

And to continue this theme of inequality, the actors are more ‘at home.’ They know the story inside and out, and they know their theatre. They know when to expect this music and that sound effect and they know that the lights will go dark here and the fog machine will be activated there. The creating of an atmosphere is so much of what theatre is all about. You could say it’s a house of mirrors, where patrons are just a little bit lost. It is something of a foreign world, as it should be.

Finally, the actors in a play are the story-tellers; they are the authority in the room. They are the ones with the scoop. They hold the cards; they have the information. The audience members participate as the recipients of that information, not as the authority. All the theatrical devices are employed in order to lend credibility and weight to both the story and the story teller.

This, incidentally, is a large part of the reason actors enjoy acting. Someone else writes interesting and persuasive lines, and the actor finds that people want to hear him saying them. You can make an audience fall in love with almost anybody, provided that you give them the right lines and moves.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people rapturous about actors who were 180 degrees different from the characters they portray. As a writer, it is a bittersweet feeling.

In the past, actors were not held in such high esteem, but nowadays, they often are. In any case, by the time of the curtain call, when the cast steps forward to receive credit from the audience, the actors are often glowing. They feel like heroes and often the audience perceives them as heroic.

At that moment, what is a mere mortal audience member by comparison? Who is that dot who has been silent and in the dark for the past two hours?

Do you now address him with gusto, as you stand there in your costume and your eyeliner?

Do you now decide that your moment for fame has arrived, and that your voice must be heard?

Is your audience “captive”?

Stop and think, euphoric Broadway actor.

The audience member is always important, and is not a passive entity who can rightly be subjected to anything of your choosing, by virtue of the fact that he chose to attend a performance that you participated in, organized or wrote.

(And I extend most of what I say to other types of entertainment. How wrong it was for Chumbawamba’s vocalist Danbert Nobacon to pour water upon the head of a deputy Prime Minister who had come to see the show. He publicly humiliated his guest. How wrong it was for Sinéad O’Connor to destroy a photograph of Pope John Paul II when she was invited to sing on Saturday Night Live. She deceived her host, who had no advance knowledge of her plan because she had held up a different photo during the rehearsal and did not tear it.)

So actor, do not think you tower over the audience member just because you stand on the stage in the limelight and he doesn’t. Don’t let your ego get ahead of you.

All actors, writers and theatre producers should be honoured by each and every soul who attends their performances.

It is an honour to have people dedicate their life’s precious minutes to coming out to your show, and you are, in some sense, indebted to those who are watching.

The audience member is a guest in your house, and I say it is fitting that the area where the audience sits is called, in English, “the house.” Technicians talk about “the house lights,” and that means the lights above the theatre seats.

You have invited your audience member to see your show, and he has accepted that invitation. There is a contract and a trust, and those attending a performance rightly have an expectation of physical and psychological safety.

To depart from the script in order to single out an audience member without warning is a violation of that trust. It can be alarming to hear oneself addressed directly from the stage because you have come to see a play, not a public lecture directed to you personally.

I would even go so far as to say that this should extend to those who are backstage. The Master of Ceremonies is violating a trust if she surprises the director, by calling her onstage without forewarning. It does not matter if a bouquet of roses is waiting. People should always be forewarned before being thrust into the spotlight.

I have previously condemned President Obama’s ridiculing of Trump while Trump was seated as a guest at an official function. That attack was offensive and reflects poorly upon President Obama. President Obama was the darling and the hero that evening, and had the authority of his office behind him. He was prepared with microphone, video clips and lighting. The guests at that dinner laughed politely at each and every one of his jokes. And they obliged with laughter when he made jokes at Trump’s expense. Was it funny? Perhaps. Was it appropriate? No.

If it were a public debate, that would be different. That would be an equal duel. And there are other venues for expressing differing opinions — there are newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, magazine articles, columns in newspapers and magazines, blogs, cartoons, television satires and movie and theatre scripts. There’s Twitter and Facebook and hey, you can even put a sign on your lawn, provided that you don’t live in St. Albert.

My point is that context matters. If you invite a guest into your home, you have a special responsibility towards him that you would not have if you were both at a restaurant. And in a similar way, if you are a guest in someone’s home, you have duties towards that person in addition to any of your existing duties.

Could you imagine someone screaming at her host? How outrageous! And yet I have both seen and heard of such things. That type of behaviour, which is already highly problematic, is worse in the context of a host-guest relationship. For that reason, I encourage those with explosive relatives and friends to plan get-togethers in a neutral zone, such as the front lobby of the local police station.

Context matters.

As for the booing of Pence by some audience members, that is a different matter, because in that case, there is equality. In that case, both the jeering and the jeered are spectators; they are on equal ground, literally and figuratively.

Booing is a rather inarticulate way of expressing oneself, but perhaps sometimes it is warranted. It is an expression of the people, and those who seek public office may encounter this type of opposition. The morality of such behaviour depends on the circumstance and I leave it to those who do that to review their own consciences.

But I could not leave those involved in planning and executing the November 2016 “Hamilton” debacle without expressing my disapproval. They did wrong. They should have been honoured that another person (in this case, Pence) wanted to see and attend their hip-hop drama show. They did wrong in ambushing him. No audience member, no matter how famous, should be surprised in this way.

Imagine how unnerving it could be — as the actor turns to where you’re sitting and as he begins speaking to you, would you not be unnerved? You may well wonder, in the context of an audience that has already been booing you, whether the words are going to be accompanied by anything else. In the moment, there would be no way to know.

The New York Times had this: “Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of the show, said the statement to Pence was a group effort. ‘The cast, the creators, we all felt that we must express our feelings,’ Sellers said. ‘We wanted to express our feelings and thoughts.’”

They wanted to express their feelings and thoughts.

They wanted to.

Ah.

In that case — a free pass?

Man.

Some people should not write their own lines.

I like the word “debacle” as a summary of the event, a word which I am not accustomed to using, but which popped into my head as I tried to find the right noun. My big red dictionary defines debacle as “a sudden, disastrous overthrow or collapse; rout; ruin” and it is explained by vocabulary.com in this way:

Use debacle to refer to a fiasco, disaster, or great failure. If several dogs run onto the field during the big baseball game, tripping players and chewing up the bases, you can call the whole event a debacle.

That’s a three-syllable way to summarize what they did to their own production. The production itself was outshadowed by their use of the theatre setting for a pre-planned speech to an unprepared member of the audience. They took advantage of the theatre setting in order to satisfy their own whims and get publicity for themselves and their production along the way. In so doing, they did a disservice to theatre itself.

No stars.