Saturday, October 16, 2021

Addressing Elephants in the Room

 When starting a new endeavor, I like to go into it with a clear a mind as possible, Which means tying off loose ends of unfinished tasks. One of these is the sustainability of my neighborhood payphone (as written  in a blog post on Oct. 31, 2020). It's not a growth industry, and I looked at options ranging from microgrants to forming an endowment consisting of telecom stocks. The solution came to me in the form of a different coin-operated machine: I could buy into an equity share in a local and established car vacuum business. The return on investment would support the phone operation. In fact, the vacuum business had started as a payphone operation, and according to records, he still maintains a couple of phones in his hometown.

The second loose end was the phone bill. For the past year, my neighborhood payphone  was treated as a general business line instead of a payphone. My local service provider has 132,000 employees, and finding the responsible party was like finding a needle in a haystack. In the past decade, its coin-operated telephone division has moved long distances. Now it is no longer an office of its own, but a group email address. It was in Bloomington, Illinois; a part of the country where state governments have sought to maintain payphone service; then in Garden City, New York, a suburb of New York City, home to 1 out of 5 payphones in the USA. Finally, the "department" found a home in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, where federal telecommunication regulations are made. Once I found my point of contact, my service issues were resolved quickly. 

Of course, I have other "want to do" and even a few "need to do items". But I do feel that the pressure has lightened. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Approved to Test

 "Who knows when thou mayest be tested? So live that thou bearest the strain!"

From "The Laws of the Navy", by Rear Admiral Hopwood


I've been through the routine of large exams: US Coast Guard Marine Engineer Licensing, twice, National Registry for Emergency Medical Technicians, and the NCEES' own Fundamentals of Engineering. Now, it's time for the Professional Engineering exam. 

In contrast to school exams, predictably scheduled,  professional exams occur based on the ebbs and flows of work experience, completion of prerequisites such as career training, and by the individual's own volition. So there is a general sense of when things will come together, but the "statutory" readiness occurs when it does. As for the individual readiness of studying, it's good to be prepared ahead of time, but to prevent knowledge attrition, the six-month period before the exam is critical. 

Which brings me to the point of scheduling the exam. Exams for certain desirable positions, such as high-end firefighting and ship's harbor pilots, only test twice a decade. More commonly, they might be twice-annually, as the Professional Engineering exams used to be. So you would typically schedule for the next exam available. And when there is flexible, daily test availability? Just schedule it and hold yourself to that date.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Break the Ice on Travel

 

I only realized the momentousness of the journey as I rode the drizzly waves on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry between Delaware and New Jersey. It was my first trip outside Virginia or DC since March 2020. During the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, I simply had no need to travel for work, and national guidance advised against leisure travel. Airline flights? Forget about it; I heard enough stories about 4-leg transcontinental flights on routes that had once been non-stop. Hotels that once provided scrumptious breakfasts resorted to handing out bagged muffins “because of COVID”. In fact, until the vaccine was widely available, my employer documented all personal travel out of town, which would start a two-week isolation period upon return to work. Why travel?

Like after 9/11/01, enough time has elapsed so that some of the imposed travails of travelling- perhaps familiar to horse-and-buggy trail warriors in the 19th century- have been lifted. Last weekend was an opportune time to visit New York; not Manhattan, but the Alma Mater just east on Long Island. Reflective of the times, the Alumni event was scheduled in May after loosening of CDC guidance; then cancelled in August on account of the Delta Variant spike; then resurrected in a low-key format after it was revealed that people had bought non-refundable airline tickets to travel.

Among the several dozen attendees, I was the sole long-haul, work-from-home person. I listened intently to the stories of international quarantine, and promotions earned as a result of others’ early retirements. Onboard ship, in a shipyard, or even in the design shop, the maritime field is very hands-on and relationship-oriented. It felt great to break out of a period of professional isolation, a phenomenon studied in rural doctors, scientists, and sole proprietors; but which now applies to millions of white-collar professionals who ground out their work from laptops at home. While work-from-home has received favorable reviews from workers and some managers, I wondered how many more months of value could be added when professionals were running on autopilot, without conferences, training, and collaboration. In just a weekend, a switch was flipped in me. By Monday, I registered to attend an upcoming workboat show in New Orleans.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

The College Experience: Now Customizable

As I walked around Old Dominion University, I felt like I was back in the Fall of 2019. There were students on the streets and in the student center and in the local shops; I was no longer “the lonely graduate student” on an empty campus. While there are many anecdotes of college students joining the full-time workforce instead of attending classes online, evidence shows that traditional college enrollment has remained fairly stable. They have presumably been living with their parents while attending online class. Thus, while dormitories and dining halls remained available during the pandemic, they had been empty save for a small number of non-traditional students. At ODU, the Spring 2021 semester was conducted in a hybrid format. In addition to the essential lab and practical courses for nursing students that were never cancelled, in-person seats were made available in many other undergraduate classes. 

So even when the opportunity presented itself, many of the youngest adult generation passed on "The College Experience". This college generation has better sensibility in avoiding frivolous expenditures. Tuition and expense estimators are now placed prominently on each state university's website. Understanding the effects of automation on entry-level white-collar work, this generation is more realistic about life expectations than those who attended in the early 2000s' campus amenities boom.

“The College Experience” for millennials was not built in a vacuum. As they were born in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a widespread feeling that moral and professional underachievement racked society from top to bottom, from the corporate boardroom’s tolerance of workplace inefficiency, to the high school dropout. Books like A Nation At Risk were published, and programs such as No Child Left Behind, and Common Core were implemented. These were good decades for the professional middle class, but would their children fall from grace?

A concatenation of data did offer a model for intergenerational middle-class replication: The only sensible way to succeed in life was to attend college for four consecutive years, while living on or near campus with peers. This assumption was built into the Post-9/11 GI Bill of 2008, giving extra benefits to veterans participating in the traditional “College Experience”. In addition to ostentatious amenities like indoor water parks, the university had become a city in itself, replete with administrators and counselors; paid for primarily by student debt. This in turn led to young graduates expecting comprehensive workplace amenities and luxury apartments in a time of corporate restructuring.    

As the perceived struggles of young college graduates permeated the media, resentment grew against ivory-tower professors and administrators. Populists, in both major parties, sought to replace “The College Experience” with low-cost community-centered colleges, a few large campuses with good football teams, and massive online open classrooms (MOOCs). The Ivy League and the professional-managerial elite would be banished from positions of authority. I hesitate to call this the “conservative” model of higher education, because it was the early 20th century Progressives who advocated for vocational and practical instruction at high schools and colleges. In Europe and Asia, students attending barebone but competent colleges engage in the local community for housing and social needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a break from the perceived path to success, and a reassessment of how young adults are shaped in America. The “College Experience” was very formulaic, and assumed a student’s unbridled control of their future. As late as 1973 in the US, mandatory military service affected where, when, and even in what subjects a college student would study. While students today have more choice in how to spend their pandemic semesters; as online students, trade apprentices or volunteers; the academic interruption of COVID-19 will bring an end to the cookie-cutter resume.     

 

(Enrollment Information: It’s Time to Worry About College Enrollment Declines Among Black Students - Center for American Progress)


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Our American Boys who Grew Up in Afghanistan

 

I doubt that we will fully come home from Afghanistan. Our 20-year mission there was not warfare, not a military invasion, but a patriotic duty that started immediately after the 9/11/2001 attacks, culminated with US Navy SEALs executing Osama Bin Laden in 2011, mastermind of 9/11. Unlike the controversial military actions in Iraq that sparked global protest, subduing Al Qaida and the Taliban was an endeavor undertaken by a global coalition.

A small number of Americans bore the burdens of battle in Afghanistan, often with repeat deployments. For the greater armed forces, support of the Afghanistan mission was the spirit de corps, the purpose of arduous deployments and exercises. Support for the Special Operations warfighter included the aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean that launched sorties over Afghanistan, to the American-flagged merchant ships that delivered countless cargo at the port of Karachi, Pakistan, the nearest seaport to landlocked Afghanistan. Servicemembers from non-combat roles, including present Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, were rewarded in their Navy or Air Force careers for taking Individual Augmentee assignments to Afghanistan.

Twenty years is enough to change the character of the Armed Forces. Islam, and Arabic language and culture, were at the forefront of discussion within the military, from high-level Pentagon war-rooms, to wardrooms, and the soldier-friendly bar. The carefree military of the 1990’s was cleaned up to create “21st Century Sailors”, etc, who treated the military as a career, rather than a finishing school for small-town America. Support roles, from galley operations to security and the operation of supply ships and tugboats, were divested to civilians as sailors and soldiers were positioned for mission readiness. Navy sailors learned to handle firearms, a practice unfamiliar to those retired from the service.

There are men who spent their whole adult lives on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq, often in the special forces, and later as private military contractors (PMCs). While youth of the 1960’s protested war, young men of recent decades have appropriated war. The AR-15 rifle, military haircuts, Call of Duty and other First-Person Shooter games. Wearing brown and green t-shirts, the undergarments of soldiers, signal solidarity with the armed forces. While belligerence is out-of-taste for the urban elite, a good chunk of the United States sees the military and its contractors as the last provider of family-wage jobs.  Well-heeled members of the warrior culture will continue to support morally, financially, and physically, the resistance to Taliban rule. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Saving the Traditional Latin Mass

 

I have had time to think over Pope Francis’ changes to the use of the Traditional Latin Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass, the 1962 Missal, or the Extraordinary Form. I find the reasoning to be generally good: Latin Mass devotees, typically blessed with cultural and economic abundance, must not isolate, but share their talent and resources as one church community. The execution of this motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, at least at the Vatican’s level, is not pastoral. Some bishops, notably in Costa Rica and Arkansas, received the motu proprio on Friday, and cancelled masses scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. How does that serve the faithful? Other bishops have been more tactful: In Washington, DC, a Solemn High Mass in Latin planned to be held and televised at the National Basilica was cancelled, but Latin masses in the parishes would continue against the Vatican’s advice.  

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: This motu proprio only applies to law-abiding Catholics. Schismatic groups like SSPX will continue to say the Tridentine Mass, under the 1962 or earlier missals. As the good shepherd left the flock to find one lost sheep, Pope John Paul II in the 1980s permitted both forms of the mass to bring Catholics “attached” to the old form back into full communion. Stripped of its steam, SSPX must now peddle sedevacantist theories, that the papacy has been vacant since Pope Pius XXII’s death in 1958, to fringe groups. Weakening support for the Traditional Latin Mass by the Vatican or American bishops will give SSPX new energy.

What if the Traditional Latin Mass of the 1962 missal is ultimately suppressed? The ordinary traditional Catholic would be satisfied by a devoutly orchestrated Mass of 1970 sung in Latin, with the priest facing the altar (the Novus Ordo in Latin). This mass incorporates the reverence seen at Justice Antonin Scalia’s Requiem Mass at the National Basilica, with further nods to traditional practice. The Novus Ordo in Latin was commonplace before the widespread return of the 1962 missal in Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum of 2007. This mass is ideal for smaller traditional-practicing communities, as it requires little additional training for altar servers who serve at regular masses said in the vernacular.

The Traditional Latin Mass is an effective vehicle for conversions and returns to the faith. Each pierced and tattooed young person dressed club clothes, but sitting in a Latin Mass pew, is a victory for the greater Catholic community. Indeed, the Latin Mass community has simply outgrown the Novus Ordo in Latin, and now has its own altar servers, priests, and even seminaries at full capacity dedicated to the Tridentine Mass of 1962. The Traditional Latin Mass (or a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin) is Catholic Church’s unique product; a clear differentiator from Protestant Establishment and Evangelical churches. It is possible to receive converts who are moved by Catholic theology, but the unique liturgy is the most outward form of parish life.  The Traditional Latin Mass fills pews, funds Catholic education and ministry, and energizes a church community to fulfill charitable works. This small but vigorous revival of Catholic faith and institutions in America ebbs an attrition that has occurred since the 1950s. Why cut down the healthy tree for a handful of bad apples?

Are you looking to scorn “rigid” traditionalists? Go to any upper-income Catholic church, and you will find a group of them, regardless of whether the parish offers Latin mass or not. Undeniably, attitudes of clericalism and self-righteousness exist. The source of these attitudes is not the parishes, but the multitude of unvetted right-wing media outlets that fancy themselves as Catholic authorities. (Here’s a litmus test: is your “catholic” programming sponsoring anti-vax opinions? If so, change the channel).

Some parishioners insist that the 1962 missal is immutable. Yet careful evolution has been a part of the mass since Pope Gregory’s times. Then-recent additions to the Mass were excised in 1958; the Latin Mass’ Good Friday prayers were revised in good faith to the Jews in 1955, and again in 2008. If there is a place for reform of the 1962 missal, it would be to emphasize liturgical readings in the vernacular. There are not enough years in a lifespan to fully absorb the scripture in Latin, as the readings and gospel rotate, in the traditional mass, on an annual schedule.

Strictly speaking, the Mass of 1970 in Latin could have become the primary representation of the Ordinary Form of the Eucharist. If this motu proprio proves to be lasting, it could be the future format of Latin mass performed within church structures. However, faithfulness to clerical hierarchy in the 1970’s led to some of the more bizarre changes instituted at behest of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In this came renewal for the sake of renewal, claimed to be “in the spirit” of Vatican II. In clear contradiction to the reverence found towards Catholic art and music in the Vatican II documents, the USCCB criticized traditional music and church statuary (1). In areas where the Catholic Church held influence, historic preservation authorities allowed radical reconstruction of old church interiors without room for public debate.   

A certain generation embraced the “opening up of the church” with new forms of expression such as folk mass with guitars; and found spiritual fulfilment in it. However, younger generations who might have been attracted to that form of spiritual practice found satisfaction outside the church. When I attended grade school in the 1990’s, this language of “renewal” was still in use, the felt banners hanging on the wall, and folk masses being sung (2). In a short-lived reversal of history, I grew up believing that incense and candlesticks belonged to Protestantism, and plain churches belonged to the Catholic Church. The excesses of the “Spirit of Vatican II” in America perhaps led to a recursion for traditional practice. Our nation is home to the vast majority of Tridentine masses performed worldwide.

What is disconcerting about Pope Francis’ motu proprio is the feeling that the Catholic church had reached an equilibrium in America that, in everyday practice, satisfied a supermajority of Catholics. The dark, destabilizing effects of sex scandals and pederasty were atoned for, financially and spiritually.  When new parishes are built in the American South, there will inevitably be an altar rail and high altar to facilitate traditional masses alongside vernacular masses. When parishes are renovated in old Catholic cities, architects will invariably consult historic photographs and drawings to create a continuity of time and space.

In these times, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s opinions should hold exceptional weight. As a young theologian, he actively participated in the Second Vatican Council, and was known at the time to be a liturgical progressive. He was, and still is, supportive of the Council itself, but had clearly stated reservation about certain expressions of the “Spirit of Vatican II”, whether it be on clapping in the mass, interior design of churches, or on pastoral counseling. Perhaps wisely, he has not yet offered a point of view on the latest motu proprio of Pope Francis. With the retired pontiff at 94 years of age, now is the last chance to set the record straight on the objectives and fulfilment of Vatican II.

(1)   Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, USCCB. 1977.

(2)   “How Felt Banners and Altar Girls Arose form a False Sense of ‘Participation’ in Liturgy”, Life Site News, 2/28/2019

 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

A Decade of Jewish Existentialism


 Source: Humans of JNF (www.jnf.org)

Long before the rise of Adolf Hitler, establishing a Jewish state became the rallying cry of Zionists. Subject to the Jewish Question for centuries in Europe and the Middle East, through persecution, exile, pogrom and finally, systematic extermination; it appeared that other remedy could suffice for the Jewish people.

Trouble existed from the beginning. From 1948 to 1967, Jews lost access to their historical monuments and worship sites as Jerusalem came under Palestinian control. The Jewish state was tentative, perhaps a false promise or aberration in the course of history. After Adolf Hitler died in his bunker, many Jews continued to live a psychological holocaust, resulting in secularization, loss of ties to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Survivors of the Holocaust were prolific in writing and thinking in the post-war decade, reviews and analysis of which can be found in the Arts section of The Wall Street Journal. Where was G-d, who let this horrible thing happen? What about the psyche of Jews of America, still excluded from certain neighborhoods, social clubs, and held at an arm’s distance by those in power? Could it happen here, considering the sensational Rosenburg trial that conflated Jewish tenets with communist ideology?

In contemporary evangelical thinking, the Six-Day War of 1967 was fulfilment of a biblical prophecy. Outnumbered by Islamic forces, Israeli soldiers defended and overpowered the assault that was predicted to end the existence of the Jewish state. In the following decades, Israel became a beacon guaranteeing the survival of the Jewish people. The state received persecuted Jews from the Soviet Union, and from Ethiopia.

It has become popular to criticize the existence of Israel. The younger generation of Americans do not know that Israel’s survival was far from certain; or that Israel is merely the size of New Jersey, requiring a strong defensive posture against Hamas’ missiles and guerilla tactics. Nor do they consider that Islamic allies have not offered broad-based residency visas for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.