Bits, Bobs and Writing Elsewhere…

Firmly mired in the middle of my February read, Ted Thompson’s debut novel The Land of Steady Habits, no thanks to a gruelling schedule at work with criminal deadlines, although I did manage to complete a profile of Selma star David Oyelowo for the church newsletter I occasionally write in. What intrigued me about that in the first place was how open he has been about his faith through out his career from theatre to Hollywood. Fascinating read, if I say so myself. Other than that most of my February reading was web based longform, a few of the more interesting ones being highlighted below:

1. Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days were 24-hour periods – Justin Taylor (The Gospel Coalition): Interesting read, particularly coming from someone firmly ensconced in the camp of biblical inerrancy, key quote:

Contrary to what is often implied or claimed by young-earth creationists, the Bible nowhere directly teaches the age of the earth. Rather, it is a deduction from a combination of beliefs, such as (1) Genesis 1:1 is not the actual act of creation but rather a summary of or title over Genesis 1:2-2:3; (2) the creation week of Genesis 1:2-2:3 is referring to the act of creation itself; (3) each “day” (Heb. yom) of the creation week is referring to an 24-hour period of time (reinforced by the statement in Exodus 20:11); (4) an old-earth geology would necessarily entail macroevolution, hominids, and animal death before the Fall—each of which contradicts what Scripture tells us; and (5) the approximate age of the earth can be reconstructed backward from the genealogical time-markers in Genesis.

2. Ten Years of Google Maps, from Slashdot to Ground Truth – Liz Gannes (<Re/code>): Google Maps, ubiquitous as it now is, is only Ten Years old. Liz Gannes charts its origin story from birth to the pervasive product it now is. And the quest for innovation is not sated yet, by any means.

The early history of Google Maps ends there. Most of the seminal Google Maps team members have moved on, but to a person they recall working on Maps as the most fulfilling and successful project of their careers. They still take it personally when they hear of bugs in the product or complaints about misguided redesigns.

Today, Geo is one of Google’s main product divisions. Ground Truth remains an ongoing project, and Google developed tools to keep its maps updated through direct user contributions. The division continues to be acquisitive, buying Zagat and Waze and Skybox in recent years. Street View has mapped the Grand Canyon and the canals of Venice. And Google’s maps have laid the groundwork for its most ambitious project yet — self-driving cars.

3. Why I’m Still A Catholic – Nicole Callahan (Salon): Reflecting on remaining Catholic in spite of disagreements with doctrine and how defining herself as Catholic somehow feels like a crucial part of her heritage.

Despite my disagreements, my weaknesses, my failures as a member of the Catholic Church, I can’t do anything but remain in it, though I’ve long since abandoned any pretense of being a great Catholic. Like all American Catholics, I flout and complain about and struggle to comprehend Church teaching; I emphasize the things I find easy to agree with, and minimize those that bother me. But while I am a bad Catholic, and I know it, I am also a practicing one. I have figured out that I’m just the kind who stays.

Though I can understand all the reasons why other people lapse and leave, I can’t seem to manage unbelief. Nor can I turn my back on the church that still gives me a home, a place to belong, when I so often feel that I don’t truly belong anywhere else. This might make my faith sound like a “crutch.” It very well might be. At times I feel that I cannot function, cannot stay on my feet, without it.

4. What does your selfie say about you – The Next Web:

Selfies also allow us to exert a greater level of control over how others perceive us online, and this is a major appeal. Thanks to front facing camera phones, we can take countless photos of ourselves until we have an image that depicts us exactly the way we want – an image that we’re happy to share with the online world. Interestingly, recent research suggests that this “selective self presentation” may actually enhance our self-esteem and boost our confidence.

5. An Ode to the Aux Cord – Eric Hulting (Medium):

Few things exemplify that [instant gratification] more than the AUX cord. Literally any song that exists on your phone or the internet is within your reach once you get in your car. It’s cathartic, spiritual even, to have that level of free will over what you listen to. Last road trip I took, I listened to something like 100 different songs from like 50 different albums

On Loving, and (Not) Marrying…

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When I was seventeen, I was sure that I would be married by the time I turned twenty-seven. I knew the date, Saturday the 7th of July 2007, who she would be and the song we would say our vows to. That year was my first away from home at University in a different city, one in which I cut my teeth creating a budget, spending money as I chose and defending my results to my father at the end of each month – all very responsible and grown up – or at least so I thought. There was no real science – or thought for that matter – to the timing, merely a wild stab in the dark. Ten years seemed far enough into the future to feel like forever, and my big Uncle F who seemed to embody adulthood perfectly turned twenty seven that year, or maybe thirty. Reality, I would later find out, was far more intention and hard slog than hit, hope and wishful thinking.

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Thursday nights at Union Square, with the milling masses of people camped out at the various eating places and shops, are perhaps the clearest confirmation of what I learned as a seventeen year old, that we as a species are wired for love and loving. If you believe the 2013 predictions, Britons splurged nearly £1bn for Valentine’s Day, with the average spend just under £120. Across the world, Japanese, Thais, Indonesians and Taiwanese splurged a tad more, the equivalent of £173 on average. A 2015 survey in America by the National Retail Federation, projected a total spend in excess of $18.9bn (£12.2bn). Valentine’s Day therefore does continue to capture the imagination as The Day to be romantic, one on which we indulge ourselves and our love interests.

That we are now busier, and more stressed out, than at any other time in the history of our species seems to have done little to dampen our enthusiasm for love. We have in the main co-opted technology to our cause. By almost every measure (size, revenue, number of service providers at least), online dating is big business – £2bn and growing; the most astonishing statistic perhaps being that one in five relationships now starts online. Social media perhaps also has had a part to play; conflating time and space into a continuum in which separation is defined by a few mouse clicks or bursts of data from any one of a plethora of messaging apps bobbing around the ether via our ubiquitous wingmen, our cell phones and tablets, rather than by physical distance .

In spite of all the love and loving we seem to gravitate towards, marriage as an institution appears to be in decline. We as a species are waiting longer to marry, and when we do, there are fewer marriages, and more divorces, across Europe. Across the pond in America, the situation is as dire, the headline number being a thirty per cent reduction in the marriage rate per 1000 between 1990 and 2011.  Clearly, between hooking up and marrying there lies some sort of bottleneck, a rate limiter that constrains conversion from romantic connections into marriage.

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One possible explanation for this apparent disconnect is, at least in the West, that marriage, or more specifically living together, can carry an economic penalty. The rise of the welfare state, and its ever increasing generosity, means that at least in some scenarios, it makes more economic sense to preserve separateness in the eyes of the law, as opposed to tying up and losing benefits in the process. This factor perhaps impacts more strongly on persons more likely to need welfare due to lower earnings but it is an effect reproduced in the US also, as identified by research conducted by Heritage..

Beyond the economic disincentive, there are also a number of perception issues within the wider culture. One of such is that marriage is inherently limiting, succinctly captured by The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz in the The Vartabedian Conundrum Episode:

 “There’s a whole buffet of women out there, and you’re just standing in the corner, eating the same deviled egg over and over again”. 

Another perception problem might be that marrying is increasingly being seen as an addendum to life, something to be progressed only after several other more critical things have been checked off. True, marrying for the heck of it, without proper preparation or thought as to how to deal with the responsibilities that come in its wake, is somewhere between foolhardy and irresponsible, but the delay trap can sometimes be self perpetuating for no real benefit. Delaying marriage to focus on getting an education, work and other critical life skills for successful adult life does correlate with lower divorce rates as research in the US by the National Marriage Project concludes. There are costs associated with this though, particularly to do with enjoying the freedoms of the single life a little too much at times. The same report concludes:

Twenty somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married twenty somethings” 

A third societal influence is perhaps the rise of the personality cult when it manifests itself in an overly explicit focus on looking out for oneself only. Only the best will suffice, the narrative suggests,  as such the guy or girl next door can only ever be a barely passable 5.5 whilst we are rip roaring 10s on the desirability scale. Whatever glamorous attractions they had disappear forever once you’ve heard them fart five times in a row after far too much cheese or seen them wake up looking like ‘crap’. 

Increasingly relaxed societal norms around cohabiting also contribute, I suspect. With relational needs – often sex, but also the emotional support and commitment an intimate relationship provides – no longer limited to the context of marriage, there is also less of an incentive to ‘buy the cow’ in a sense, seeing as the milk is often available for free. 

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I would be hard pressed to describe what my seventeen year old self felt as love. There was a certain element of excitement, and perhaps delirious joy, associated with what I felt, or thought I felt, but the cold hard evidence suggests that that in itself is never sufficient. Paul’s seminal chapter on love paints a picture that majors on the focus, work and intentionality that sharing life in the real world requires rather than the warm fuzzy feelings we as a species associate with love and loving.  What cannot be in serious dispute on the other hand though is that a sense of duty alone, without the buzz and excitement, seems like a consignment to purgatory at best, or a living hell at worst. Where the balance is is a question I am still unable to answer. Eight years and counting after my Big Virtual Wedding which was not, it is clear that I am still none the wiser, having cycled through a few of these phases myself. Perhaps the chaps at Wait But Why put it most succinctly:

Marriage isn’t the honeymoon in Thailand—it’s day four of vacation #56 that you take together. Marriage is not celebrating the closing of the deal on the first house—it’s having dinner in that house for the 4,386th time. And it’s certainly not Valentine’s Day. Marriage is Forgettable Wednesday. Together.

On praying, and changing…

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One day you wake up with a sense of hunger, as though someone  – or something  – dredged the innards of your soul and all you want to do is talk to Him. The tug is so strong – and insistent – that you think nothing of kneeling on the cold, hard floor and pouring out your heart. It seems to work because by the time you’re done, you feel light headed and ready, ready to take on the world, bad guys, ghouls and all.

Some other days your prayer feels like an intense coffee date; playful, happy, somewhat giggly and intimate. You come away at the end of it all feeling like you’ve sat in your favourite corner of your favourite coffee shop;  ginger bread latte and waffles to hand, swung your feet beneath the table with the odd knee touch, your voice only a smidgen above a murmur and caught up on life, love and everything.

Sometimes the beauty of a sunset or an unexpected rainbow will knock you out and like a flood of words to the lips, prayer will rise, the sense of presence and of being near somehow convincing you that there is a wider meaning to everything, and that the show – colours splashed as though on your canvas – has been crafted especially for you. Maybe you might cry, or sing a little too loudly with gusto, but all told you’ll come away with the unshakeable sense that He was there.

Some days you’ll find yourself floating, lost in the crowd, the collective drone of shared ablutions dragging you along like the receding tide drags an unwilling swimmer out to sea. Unlike the swimmer you don’t resist, allowing yourself to be carried along, soaking in all the energy in.

Some days it will feel like a war of attrition. You, and what you want on one side, Him and his sovereign will on the other. You plead your case, the same words you’ve used every day for the past nine lives. You might rant a bit, about being the good guy, and about how the bad things which seem to insist on happening to you and yours speak the lie to his being good. You moan about the existential crisis his failings are bringing on. You might cry yourself hoarse, and come close to shaking your fist in his face in anger. Somehow you won’t. You’ll stop just short of the line between despondence and plain rebellion. You’ll convince yourself that there must be a bigger point to everything.

Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, you will return in quiet contemplation. Whether He will or He won’t, you realise that life goes on at a steady clip. You find acceptance, difficult as it may be.

I didn’t get the one thing I prayed most about last year. At times there was an overwhelming sense of faith that it would happen, at others it felt like I was chatting up a brick wall. What I can not deny however is that with time I am finding acceptance, and the niggling thought at the back of my mind that maybe that was the whole point of everything, changing me.

On Crime and Punishment

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When my father would tan my hide – which was often in the years between turning twelve and escaping to University when I turned seventeen – he would send one of the many cousins who lived with us to fetch his preferred instrument, a lean, mean pankere, roll up his sleeves and matter-of-factly deliver a canning of epic proportions.  The speed with which the instrument materialised time and time again – in spite of my best efforts – had me convinced that my cousins took a certain perverse, gleeful joy in seeing my bum tanned. Any number of infractions could have been the trigger for one of those in those days – taking apart his treasured gramophone for the heck of it (and not being able to put it back together again a la Humpty Dumpty), sneaking off to ‘dessert’, the patch of red earth where endless games of football took place – and young men where introduced to cigarettes and girls if you believed my mother, and once resorting to my fists to settle an altercation with E, the sharp mouthed imp who seemed to delight in getting under my skin. Early on, the tears flowed in copious amounts, until I mastered the act of tensing my buttocks just enough to mitigate the pain, the odd faint moan escaping my gritted teeth the only concession I allowed myself. Custom and practice dictated that, upon completion, I would have to say thanks and then sit through a debriefing session where my failings would be analysed, and alternate behavioural practices highlighted. In retrospect, the canning – intense as it was – was never truly the worst outcome. Infinitely worse was being left to stew in silent contemplation, particularly where my failings had occurred outside the confines of the house on 39th; my sense of guilt being complicated by the uncertainty around how much, if any, my father knew of my misdemeanours.

Punishment as a consequence of crime or offending is primarily regulatory. By inflicting pain, discomfort or a penalty of some sort, punishment acts as a disincentive, conditioning the behaviour of the members of the collective towards what is ostensibly for their good, and more importantly, the greater good of the collective. In society, these limits of acceptable behaviour are codified in  rules, laws and regulations with the justice system providing the framework for deciding appropriate punishment.

In the home, the limits of acceptable behaviour are largely part of an unwritten social contract – parents have a duty of care to their offspring, and responsibility for passing on the body of knowledge of social mores, the elements of a worldview and core values which accrete over time into the culture that defines the specific religious, ethnic and social space within which the family operates. Offspring on their part implicitly trust what is being provided for them – at least at first – and agree to operate within the boundaries their parents set, however arbitrary these might seem. As the offspring age, and hopefully develop the mental capacity for interrogating their own spaces, they add to, delete from and modify the premises of the body of knowledge they have been handed, keeping it fluid, relevant and appropriate for being handed over to the generation they themselves will cater for.

Beyond the obvious regulatory objectives of punishment, there is a sense in which punishment is redemptive – that much I gleaned from the fall out in my heady teenage years. I suspect the redemption punishment brings is premised on two things – that the offender can come to terms with what they have done with a measure of contrition, and that the punishment exacted is somehow seen to be commensurate to the offence committed. In a sense, the offender has to be seen to have paid for the disruption before reintegration into the wider collective can take place – being able to contribute to the greater good of the collective is the upside to reintegration and rehabilitation.

In conversation over the weekend with a friend, the Ched Evans case came up. Following his release from prison after a rape conviction, his attempts to  get back into football have floundered, largely due to the public outcry, and the threat of the withdrawal of sponsorship from the various football clubs who have mooted the idea of re-signing him. I expressed the opinion during said conversation that punishment could be redemptive, and that in this case having been released from prison, he should be allowed to get on with his life, whatever shape or form that might take. I was quickly reminded – sternly I might add – of how the girl in question has had her own life overturned having to change her name and change location several times over the last five years after being outed on twitter. She is unlikely to ever be able to just get on with her life, which makes the premise of commensurate punishment somewhat difficult to achieve here.

Having said that – and I am not pretending that I even remotely understand the nuances of the case, and if he was/or was not innocent as he has maintained – surely the premise of punishment in the law is that having served his sentence, and being registered on the violent and sex offender register rehabilitation is in order? By no means am I suggesting that Ched Evans is the victim here; I am merely pondering how rehabilitation and reintegration square with his situation. It is a difficult conversation – particularly given his relative profile – and the fact that he maintains his innocence. I wonder though if any of the two or so people who still stop by these pages might deign to offer an opinion? Fire away if you do!!!