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One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Ugh, it's happening again.

Listen, I liked Yogi Berra -- at least I admire his skill as an athlete and his way with words, and he seems to have only friends among his colleagues -- but I think Obama is wrong to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The same is true of John Wayne; Ronald Reagan was wrong to give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  If we want to create a medal for the president's favorite performer, my only objection is the award is frivolous (almost as much so as the Nobel Peace Prize).  

Just don't say that the award is "America's highest civilian honor".  By its very nature, surely the Gold Lifesaving Medal, which the Coast Guard can issue to anyone, including civilians, must be a higher honor -- no acting, singing, or sports accomplishment can truly be more meritorious than saving a life!  Particularly when civilians risk their lives to save the lives of strangers -- as Lenny Skutnik did when Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. -- whatever the nation's highest civilian honor is, they should have it.  A good case could also be made for someone like Chesley Sullenberger, whose skill, calmness, and good judgment saved many lives.

What Is Poetry?

Perhaps the place to start is by looking at what poetry is not.

Poetry does not consist of "artistically" placed line breaks, ignoring capitalization, or other gimmicks of typesetting.  Nor is a powerful use of the language with memorable phrases necessarily poetry.  Consider the following familiar passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are stirring words, and the passage is a beautiful use of the English language, but it is not poetry; nor would it become poetry merely by writing it in this form: 

we hold these
to be self-evident, that 
all men 
are created EQUAL, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 
that among these are 
and the pursuit of Happiness....

Others may disagree, but I maintain that this Tony Bennett song is not merely bad poetry, it is not poetry at all: 

If I ruled the world
Every man would be as free as a bird
Every voice would be a voice to be heard
Take my word we would treasure each day that occurred....

Ugh!  Look at what is happening there:  the need to force each line to rhyme with "bird" is ruling over the composition like a Sith Lord, cruel and despotic.  There is no feeling that the rhyme occurred naturally and the poet had real freedom.

I am not, therefore, insisting that rhyming is the essence of poetry, so that anything that rhymes is a poem, and anything that does not rhyme is not a poem.  For example, although my background means that I surely cannot fully appreciate it, I acknowledge that Oriental poetry, such as genuine Japanese haikus, really are poetry.

So what is poetry?  My answer is that poetry is text that has been voluntarily submitted to a significant arbitrary constraint but is written with such skill that the constraint does not seem to limit or force the text.  The constraint is arbitrary, but there must be a constraint.  The constraint needs to be "significant" and "voluntary", or else a term paper or business letter (both of which have the constraint of standard forms) would qualify.  Let me know if you have a counter-proposal!

Let me close with a particularly nice passage from "The Garden Party" by Hillaire Belloc:

For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier,
And it stinks a trifle worse
Than in 
The days of Queen Victoria,
  They married and gave in marriage,
They danced at the County Hall,
And some of them kept a carriage.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jeb Bush, Baby Hitler, and Prayer

Jeb Bush has recently said that if he could, he would go back in time and kill Hitler while the latter was still an innocent baby.  This was the wrong answer to a question that should have been ignored, and it invites some follow-up questions.  
Close-up photograph of a male baby (4424012923)
© Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Since you are willing to kill an innocent baby because you think it will save tens of millions, Mr. Bush, you apparently believe that the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are serious enough. What if you could save the most lives by deliberately murdering a baby who would not have grown up to be a mass murderer?  What if you "knew" that stabbing to death a baby who would have died of asthma at age 10 anyhow would save over a hundred million lives?  Would you murder that baby?
  • What if we were not talking about the past?  Suppose an angel with demonstrably preternatural abilities told you tomorrow that you could save a billion lives by murdering a certain baby.  Are you in fact prepared to murder this baby?
    • Would it matter whether the baby were a foreigner or an American?
    • Would it matter if the baby were your own grandchild?
  • What if you were not asked to murder a baby, but simply to offer a pinch of incense in worship of Satan?  Would your answer still be, "Hell yeah!"?
  • The most troubling questions probably revolve around situations that Jeb Bush might in fact face during his hypothetical presidency.  Suppose that all the important leaders of ISIS were known to be meeting in the basement of a building full of children -- not just "minors", who may actually be 17 years old, but unambiguously children, aged 8 and younger.  Your National Security Staff are all in agreement that this is a very real opportunity decapitate ISIS and throw them into so much chaos that they would fall apart in the face of the enemies they have already made -- but the only way to be sure is to completely destroy the building, leaving no survivors, say with a bunker-buster followed by two daisy-cutters.
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are the families of the ISIS leadership?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Syrian civilians?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Western hostages -- American, British, and Canadian children?
Sometimes saying "Hell yeah" is literally saying yes to Hell.

Of course, we can take some comfort in the fact that time travel is, at the very least, technologically impossible.  But what about prayer?  Given that God is omnipotent, and God exists outside of time, is it appropriate to ask God to bring about some effect in the past?

My answer is that it is fine to pray for some outcome in the past if you don't know what happened, but it is wrong to pray for something to happen if you already know it didn't happen.  So let's say you have a Jewish great-uncle who was last seen in Warsaw just before the German invasion in 1939.  Things look very bleak for him, but you cannot be sure he was unable to hide, change his identity, and perhaps end up in a different country at the end of the war with no knowledge that any of his family survived.  Maybe he was never captured, maybe he survived, maybe he was able to lead a long and fairly happy life somewhere; you should certainly be able to pray for all these things, and God will already have known about your prayer back in 1939.  

On the other hand, we know that Adolf Hitler did not die as a baby, so we can be sure that his survival was, in some sense at least, the will of God.  In cases regarding the future, we can almost never be sure what the will of God actually is for events (as opposed to how we are to behave), and even those few events which we are assured will definitely happen are rather lacking in detail.  The past, however, is different:  we can often remember it or reconstruct it in great detail from the evidence, and I think it is safe to say that whatever has actually happened does represent what has been called God's "permissive will".  This, of course, is fraught with all the difficulties of the Problem of Evil, because we who know imperfectly and love imperfectly will often will things different from what is willed by God, Who knows perfectly and loves perfectly.  To say that the Holocaust was part of God's permissive will is not really any different than to say that God did in fact permit the Holocaust; both are undoubtedly true, though I dare say it is well beyond human understanding to know why and even how either can be true.  At any rate, the phrase "Thy will be done" is at least implicitly present in every true prayer; any request for something known to be contrary to the will of God is not really a prayer at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Terminally Ill Man Sentenced to Death

Yesterday, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., was sentenced to death for three murders.  This was not a crime of passion, as I suppose is most often the case for murders within families or between lovers -- those cannot exactly be excused, but in many cases they can be pitied, because bad decisions based on raging emotions is a part of human frailty with which we are all familiar.  Nor was this even the callous indifference to life shown by, for example, a bank robber who murders a guard in an effort to get to the cash.  This was murder for the sake of murder, the outgrowth of a hatred that is figuratively demonic -- and perhaps more truly than merely figuratively.

According to a doctor's testimony, Miller is unlikely to live more than a half dozen years.  I'm not sure about the process in Kansas, but given the inevitable appeals, the controversies over the drugs typically used to carry out death sentences and the consequent limited availability of those drugs, and similar considerations, it seems unlikely that the executioner will come for Miller before the Grim Reaper does.  What good does it do to pronounce a sentence that the state will not actually carry out, then?

The sentence was worthwhile and good because it tells the truth about the moral gravity of Miller's crime.  He probably will not die at the hands of the citizens of Kansas, but he deserves to.  This is about the value of his victims, both those he intended to kill and those he actually killed, but it is also about the terrible dignity that is unique to man among the animals:  there is a moral, spiritual dimension to the decisions we make; our choices really matter.  This is a truth that could not be so adequately proclaimed if the only option had been to sentence Miller to prison for twenty five years to life.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Fort Necessity and Braddock's Defeat

Last week I attended the second annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Section of the American Physical Society in Morgantown, WV, but I saved a little money by staying in a hotel in Uniontown, PA.  It turns out this is close to the site of Fort Necessity, which I would have wanted to visit anyhow, but due to my recent interest in genealogy, it was almost a requirement.

The general location is in the middle of some high, steep hills, so one would expect the fort to make use of the terrain to make it more defensible.  Probably this would not have changed the outcome, but the fact is that Washington sited the fort in a level meadow with trees only a few dozen yards from the walls.  It was tiny and pathetic.  Just look at these "earthworks" -- too small to hide behind, let alone stop a charging enemy.  It's as though Washington thought earthworks are a necessary part of a fort, but he had no idea what function they were meant to play.  No wonder the American Indian allies he was trying to recruit were unimpressed and declined to stay.

The earthworks are presumably original, but the fort is reconstructed on the basis of archeology and, probably, the written accounts of witnesses. 

A "fort" was built by my ancestors either before or after the 1838 Indian raid that killed the elderly Thomas Cupples Richards, together with much of his family.  The historical marker says before:
Fort Place, forerunner of Wewahitchka, located one-quarter mile East was constructed in the early 1830's as a refuge from hostile Indians. It consisted of a hewn log blockhouse equipped with portholes for firearms, and was enclosed within a two acre stockade. No remains of Fort Place are visible today.
I never thought this sounded much like a "fort", but it was larger and apparently better defended than Fort Necessity. 

My genealogical connection to Fort Necessity is debatable.  I am maybe descended from Col. Joshua Fry, who was supposed to command the Virginia expedition but who fell off his horse and died in Cumberland, MD.  It all depends on whether Cherry Ann Nelson, who married Daniel Thomas Richards, was in fact the great-granddaughter of the Joseph Nelson (1750-1837) who married Catherine O'Bannon.  Most genealogies on ancestry.com indicate this, but on what basis I am not sure. Not only does she not appear in Descendants of John Nelson, Sr.- Mary Toby, Stafford County, Virginia 1740-1959 with Related Families, neither do her father (Joseph Nelson, 1806-1840) or mother (Sarah Ann McDavid, 1809-1860).

Close by is the grave of Edward Braddock, who was perhaps too honest, or more likely insufficiently diplomatic, antagonized the local Indians, and paid with his life.  According to his obituary, George Richards (1727-1818) was with Washington at Braddock's Defeat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: James Wallace Conoly

All my previous posts in this series have been from my father's side of the family, but the stories from my mother's side are similar.  A natural place to start is with James Wallace Conoly (2 Jul 1840 -- 3 Jul 1922), because my mother's maiden name was Conoley (note the slight change in spelling).  In fact, I met his son, my great-grandfather William Furney Conoley (27 Sep 1871 -- Aug 1978) -- or, more accurately, I was in the same room with him and saw him, since I was a child with nothing to say to a man over 100, and he in turn was blind and mostly deaf.

The only stories from the meeting are ones I have heard from my dad, though I find nothing in my own memory to contradict them.  The first is that Great-Granddaddy Conoley kept asking for "something sweet in my mouth, please!"  Being blind, deaf, and confined to a wheelchair, good food was about the only pleasure left to him, but the food at the nursing home was what we have all come to expect from nursing homes:  bland, unsalted, and unsweetened.  The other is that there was a specific yell that had to be made right into his ear that would let him know that family had come.  This was a yell that had been used in his youth to announce that the person approaching was a member of the family, and not, I suppose, a potential enemy.   Theodore Roosevelt discusses in Through the Brazilian Wilderness how this same custom is practically universal among those who live in the wilderness:
The early Saxons in England deemed it legal to kill any man who came through the woods without shouting or blowing a horn; and in Nhambiquara land at the present time it is against etiquette, and may be very unhealthy, to come through the woods toward strangers without loudly announcing one's presence.
Regarding my great-great grandfather, James Wallace Conoly, though, I have no real stories, probably in no small part because my grandfather, Roy Conoley, Sr., was not particularly close to my brother and me.  At any rate, if he passed on any stories about his grandfather, they were not to me.  

This leaves me with just the historical record, which is quite bare.  In the 1860 census, James Wallace Conoly was living in a household headed by his mother, Ann (Patterson) Conoly (45) and a Duncan Matthews (72).  Since Ann Conoly's mother had been Sarah (Matthews) Patterson, this Duncan was probably an uncle of hers on her mother's side.  Two brothers and one sister of James W. Conoly rounded out the family.  As in each case I've been able to trace, there were no slaves owned by my ancestors at the time of the Civil War.

When the war started, he joined Company D of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry, and North Carolina Troops 1861-1865:  A Roster contains only these few lines about him (on page 131 of volume 2):
Enlisted in Cumberland County at age 20, July 22, 1861 for the war.  Mustered in as Private and appointed Corporal April 1-September 30, 1864.  Present or accounted for through September 1864.
His pension application contains the statement,
During the fight in White Oak Swamp in Northern Virginia I was wounded in my right arm.  I cannot give exact date but it was in the month of September 1863.  However, my wound did not disable me for the remainder of the war.
James Wallace Conoly died in the same North Carolina county (Robeson) in which he had been born and to which his grandfather and great-grandfather, both named Daniel Conoly, had moved from Scotland.  His son William Furney Conoley moved to Florida about 1900.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pets and the Afterlife

By Virginia State Parks staff (Ghost Dog Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a good time of year for some speculation about what role, if any, animals in general and pets in particular might have in the afterlife.  The traditional conclusion, of course, is that they have none, but until it can be shown to me that this is actually a binding Teaching of the Catholic Church, I will feel free to entertain other ideas.

Let me begin by putting forth a few thoughts and observations that can serve as the raw material for a hypothesis (though certainly not a hypothesis in any of the natural sciences).
  1. Ghosts are usually -- in fact almost without exception -- reported wearing clothes.  Most ghost stories are pure fiction, of course, and most sightings are the result of excessive imagination or some sort of altered state of consciousness, but anyone who believes in God, angels and demons, the survival of the soul, and the final resurrection should be open to the possibility that sometimes, for reasons that may not be clear to us, the spirits of deceased humans may have some business in our world.  The fact of ghosts wearing clothes, though, is frequently noted with surprise or even derision; after all, clothes are not actually a part of a living person, right?  Consider, though:  hair is also not living (at least above the root), and it likewise contains little DNA; hair is basically a kind of natural clothing that mammals produce for themselves.  No one seems to expect ghosts, should they appear, to appear without hair or nails, so why should clothing be any different?  After all, ...
  2. According to Peter Kreeft, though I forget in which book, it is a mistake to picture, as most people do, the body containing the soul.  A more accurate picture would be the soul containing the body.  In fact, Abbot Alois Wiesinger goes quite a bit farther in Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology.  Wiesinger claims that the traditional belief is that Adam had the preternatural gift to understand and control objects outside his body.  He even claims that this remains possible after the Fall under certain circumstances, though he emphasizes that it is a very bad idea to attempt to extend the soul beyond the body.
  3. Back to reported ghosts.  One thing that stands out is that although animal ghosts are reported, they are almost always the ghosts of pets or of working animals (mostly horses, especially when ridden by a human ghost or pulling a ghostly wagon or carriage).  Wild animals and food animals seem not to leave ghosts.  The obvious objection is that if ghosts are the effect of psychological biases, or even disorders, it makes sense that we would most often see as ghosts the animals we interact with while they are alive; once again, I assume there is more to the story than that, though.  Also, I have to exclude "animals" that are believed to be demonic manifestations -- hell hounds, the Black Shuck, etc.
  4. Finally, animals that become cherished pets often behave in ways that are surprising for animals.  Part of this surprise is no doubt due to the inadequate credit we give animals -- wild elephants and chimps have been observed to grieve the death of family members, for example -- but again, nearly every culture has stories of dogs who guarded the graves of their masters until they themselves died.  On a less dramatic level, it has often been observed that pets and their owners start to look alike, even physically; much more obvious is that they begin to act alike, at least as regards being friendly, or suspicious, or nervous, etc.
The cat is also a ghost, as the full performance makes clear.

At this point my conjecture should be fairly obvious:  pets become extensions of their owners, and so they participate in some way in their owners' immortality.

If true, this would parallel our relationship to Christ.  The Church is, after all, called the Body of Christ, and each Christian is a member of that Body -- not by nature, but by adoption, because we are loved.  As such, we participate in His immortality.