Another Week Ends

Celebrity Memoirs, Adult Halloween, School Grading Apps, Independent Kids, and the Apologetic Power of a Kiss.

Bryan J. / 11.3.23

1. My Bandit Heeler costume didn’t come in time for Halloween and I was angry and sad. The dad of the beloved TV show Bluey is my spirit animal these days, and the other three family members had secured their Bluey, Bingo, and Chili costumes a week prior. My repeated messages to the Etsy seller responsible for this tragedy remain unanswered, and only one person recognized my back-up costume as a fan of Ted Lasso’s AFC Richmond Greyhounds. I trust your Halloween was more fun than mine this week.

Halloween hits differently for adults, as Clare Coffey observed at Plough earlier this week. It’s a kid’s holiday, she points out, and there’s something a little sad about grown ups wearing chincy or lude costumes from Spirit Halloween trying to recapture that childhood magic by drinking and sloppily dancing to “Thriller.” Is there more to the holiday that might make glad the hearts of grownups?

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that trying to cling to the first infant moments of a pleasure can only exhaust it […]

He goes on to say that new types of thrills come to those who can let go of the old ones. The man who once experienced the thrill of paddling will discover the first tilthy moment of gardening. And it is true that new horizons will open up if you are open to them. But the more relevant point is the one he references in passing: the fun of learning to swim. The thrill does not merely subside when its infant moments are allowed to die; it deepens. The little girl must not try to endlessly extend the first moment of doggy-paddling, not so that she can drop aquatics in favor of some new hobby, but so that she can become the woman who knows the joy of swimming against a strong sea current under a stormy sky.

Adult Halloween must, like John Barleycorn, die so that adult Halloween can live: not as a pale imitation of other festivals, but by finding its own distinct nature as the feast of admixture and open doors: children and parent, neighbor and neighbor, light and dark, safe and frightening, home and street, visible and invisible, living and dead, underworld and overworld.

Parents, I think, are slowly starting to add their twist to the holiday. The ever popular Dad Tax is a new development, where children “thank” their parents for taking them out by giving them a piece of their score. I think the 12 ft. tall Home Depot skeletons are a part of this too, as well as the fact that my neighborhood now puts more effort into decorating for Halloween than Christmas. I find Coffey’s admonition to ask more of adult Halloween — to move beyond recapturing childhood thrills and search for something richer and deeper — to ultimately a word of freedom, a promise that better things are ahead for those brave enough to venture out and find them. It certainly makes me appreciate the Feast of All Saints a little more.

2. Two opposing models of parenting were examined this week, one side easily declared the winner. Over at the Cut, Gail Cornwall profiled the many ways that grading software and school apps have changed the parent, teacher, and student dynamic. If a massive, notification-sending, instantly accessible piece of software that tracks a child’s future trajectory sounds like helicopter parent’s catnip, you’re not wrong:

Research has long tied family engagement in schools to better outcomes for students, but there’s a critical difference between grade transparency and relationship building. Accessing a glut of information doesn’t necessarily lead to more contact with teachers or a better understanding of what’s happening in the classroom … these apps have unintended consequences for family dynamics, often interrupting weekends, increasing conflict, keeping kids up at night, and making parents feel forced into an intensive, helicopter style of parenting. This software can change the way parents and kids interact with teachers, too, with the nature of the data — points and percentages — encouraging negotiation rather than cooperation […]

Tanya says these apps “sucked the intrinsic motivation” from her students; increasingly, they viewed achievement as the holy grail, not learning. As a result, she says cheating became more rampant, and speed-grading was required. “They want to see the grade go up and down in real time, like the value of a stock,” she says. But Tanya couldn’t grade assignments immediately while also providing meaningful feedback. For these reasons and a few others, she left the teaching profession. Of online grade books, Tanya says, “I think overall they do more harm than good.”

Cornwall catalogs a number of anecdotes to flesh out her concern, and it’s enough to make one’s stomach flip. It’s not an exaggeration to say that high schoolers are living Orwell’s 1984 while reading Orwell’s 1984 in class and living in 2023. In true law/gospel fashion, it’s not a surprise that these apps weaken relationships, destroy motivation, and create anxiety in kids while increasing cheating, helicopter parenting, and weekend homework. What else would we expect when we ratchet up the unspoken laws of college admissions at play? (“Thou shalt go to a good college” and “thou shalt raise kids who go to a good college.”)

3. Or, perhaps, we could page Lenore Skenazy, who was given the reins this week at Jonathan Haidt’s After Babel substack. If grading software and apps represent the law at its most omnipresent, the “Let Grow Experience” is a homework exercise in imputation. Is it possible that children, when they experience freedom, independence, and bravery, grow to become free, independent, and brave adults? Skenazy thinks so:

After all, this just-out study from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that while parents of kids 5-11 see the benefit of having their child do things by themselves, there is “a sizable gap between parent attitudes and actions.” I.e., most parents know it’s good to let go, and want to — but can’t.

There are many approaches to change that, but among the easiest and most powerful is via the very thing that has hijacked a whole lot of kids’ autonomy — homework.

Teachers can assign students something called The Let Grow Experience. It’s a series of homework assignments, where students are told to go home and do something new, on their own, with their parents’ permission — but without their parents.

At first, it’s not just the parents who may be a little hesitant! Kids can be, too:

“I was hesitant to try walking my dog alone because I was scared that he would get loose from the leash or a scary man would take me.”

“I was afraid to climb a tree because I was scared I was going to fall and break a bone.”

“I was afraid to try and cook because there’s an open flame and I could get hurt.”

“I was hesitant to use a sharp knife as my parents had never let me before.”

Those are statements from 7th graders (ages 12 and 13) in suburban New York who were given the Let Grow Experience. But with the assignments to prod them — and prod their parents — these young people finally ventured out of their comfort zones.

At that school and so many others, kids started to make meals for their family, or play outside, or run errands after school. They ordered pizza by phone — something that had daunted a whole lot of them. One California 5th grader took himself to his haircut appointment … and came home with a mohawk. Yikes. But after that, his mom told me, he also started doing his homework by himself.

Give children mature activities to accomplish independently and don’t be anxious about them, and kids complete the activity, become more independent, and lose their own anxieties. According to Skenazy, the course was so effective in transforming parent and student behaviors that psychologists are testing out this method of building independence as a way of treating the growing tide of child anxiety. Freedom, play, creativity, and independence outmatch control, helicopter parenting, and worldly achievement in just about every way. Trust outmatches fear, stepping back outmatches diving in, gospel outmatches law.

4. In humor this week, lots of Halloween laughs to review, the funniest being the quiz: “Are You Starring in a Horror Movie or Sharing a House with Small Children?“:

You can’t remember the last time you slept. Friends and family members regularly express concern about your haggard appearance. But whenever someone asks you whether you’re all right, you smile faintly and whisper, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

You hear at least one bloodcurdling scream a day.

You’re on the toilet when you see the door handle begin to turn, slowly. Someone or something begins to rattle the door back and forth as if trying to force it open. Suddenly, it stops.

Also: “Dad Sadly Informs Kids A Robber Broke In Last Night And Only Stole Their Reese’s Cups,” and SNL’s take on the Hallmark Channel doing Halloween specials (below). And Tolkien fans will need to run, not walk, and check out this collection of LotR scenes recreated in the style of Orthodox iconography.

5. Lots of celebrity news this week, and it’s worth consideration. The big news, of course, is the death of Friends star Matthew Perry. We profiled a remarkable section of his memoir last year, a masterwork of vulnerability and a window into the mind and spirit of addiction. As Sarah Hepola outlines in Rolling Stone, it’s heartbreaking that his wisdom and witness would be lost so soon after it was recognized.

He lobbied in D.C. for drug courts, pushing to give drug offenders long-term treatment and court supervision instead of jail time. In 2013, he received a Champion of Recovery award from the Obama White House. That same year, he also opened a sober living facility called Perry House. That move might have been a tad rash: He’d gone into business with his AA sponsor, and when the business faltered, so did their relationship. He relapsed soon after. He wanted so badly to help people, but it remained a mystery (to him, to loved ones, to an adoring public) why he could not help himself.

But he did get sober. By the time his book came out almost exactly a year ago, he’d been clean 18 months. In an interview with the podcaster Tom Powell, Perry said, “When I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to ty to help other people.” Of course, Perry’s biggest claim to fame will always be Chandler Bing. Could that be any more obvious? But by opening the door to the humiliations of his life, his failures and not-good-enoughs, he gave untold companionship to the lost and lonely, and he showed that change was possible. Fleeting at times, excruciating at others, but: possible. Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing turns out to be the obituary he did not know he was writing for himself. As sad as that is, consider how few people get to write such an extraordinary obituary. One that doesn’t merely document a life but might save them, too.

6. The other big news of the week is that early 00’s pop-icon Brittany Spears released her memoir to a salivating public. Readers of a certain age will remember a number of beats in her life — the rocket to stardom, the relationships with Justin Timberlake and Kevin Federline, the harrowing conservatorship of her family and the legal battle to end it. Laura Snapes reviews The Woman in Me for the Guardian and outlines how the pop star’s story of exploitation is damning to just about anyone following her through the lens of the tabloids.

Over the course of Britney Spears’ career, she was repeatedly subject to narratives constructed to disempower her. She was a teenage pop star presented as a virgin then scolded for a sexualised image sold by those same forces. After her breakup from Justin Timberlake, Spears was vilified and forced to undergo a grilling from Diane Sawyer so severe you might have thought she was a war criminal, not a double denim-wearing singer.

It made her suspicious of entertainment’s gendered double standard, she writes in her highly anticipated memoir, though that was nothing compared with the legal disenfranchisement she later experienced. She was advised to divorce husband Kevin Federline to avoid the humiliation of him doing it first, only to take the flak for fracturing their young family. Her 2008 breakdown was conveniently framed as a sign of madness, not a proportional response to exploitation and losing custody of her children. Once she was placed under the conservatorship that would rule her life for 13 years, she became trapped further: “If I became flustered, it was taken as evidence that I wasn’t improving,” she writes. “If I got upset and asserted myself, I was out of control and crazy.”

The contradiction reminds Spears of medieval witch trials, she writes in The Woman in Me. As the most famous young woman in the world, she admits she “never knew how to play the game”. But at 41, her understanding of these archetypes and their connection to wider systems of power is more astute than any of the tawdry spin that did her dirty.

Seriously, I had no idea this was her life. I didn’t follow her music as teen, but it was impossible not to encounter some of these controlling narratives filtering through the news. I find myself genuinely repenting, for example, of the derision I felt when I saw videos of her head shaving incident (and the famous viral video of the dude screaming in tears under a comforter to “leave Brittany alone.”). Snapes writes of that incident:

Pushed to breaking point, Spears shaves her head in public in 2007: a “f*** you” to a world that wanted her to be pretty, good, a fantasy, a sex object and a role model, a passive product. Her account of this manic high is exhilarating: “It felt almost religious. I was living on a level of pure being.” It doesn’t last: her family ambush her into a conservatorship. Spears’ pained indignation about them restricting her freedom while flogging her earning potential sears the page.

Imagine feeling so controlled and hemmed in by the expectations and demands of the world, and becoming so resentful for not being able to measure up, that disfiguring your own beauty feels like freedom and mercy and the grace of God. Both celebrities have heartbreaking stories, and remind me of one of my favorite Sarah Condon quips: we were not made to be famous.

7. Speaking of being judgmental, Emma Wilkins takes a moment to remind readers in the ABC Religion and Ethics portal that “feeling judged isn’t the same as being judged.” It’s a down to earth example of transference, how our judgments of others tend to expose more about us than about the targets of our evaluation.

One thing I’ve come to realise, as I’ve tried to be more aware of how and why I judge others, is that I often feel judged — or rather, misjudged — myself. Sometimes it’s to do with something trivial. I’ll assume a stranger’s stare means they’re judging my children’s “spirited” behaviour. Other times, it’s to do with a polarising issue where sympathising with one “side” means feeling judged by the other, and not taking a side means feeling judged by both.

I might have the opportunity to add nuance to a conversation — then assume everyone has made up their minds, so there’s no point. In that moment, I presume to know what others would think, what they would say. I deprive them of the chance to hear another point of view, and myself of hearing how they would actually respond.

I see the irony. Or should I say, the hypocrisy. It’s not very open-minded to consider other people to be judgemental without good reason. Feeling judged isn’t the same as being judged, and it’s certainly not evidence of it.

Assumptions and judgements are a part of life. When they’re informed, they’re often right and help us operate effectively. I’m not suggesting we should make no judgments at all, or second-guess each one. But when we’re making ill-informed, ungenerous guesses about other people’s thoughts and motives — and treating them as proven conclusions — we should be wary indeed.

Working to imagine, when we feel judged, that it might just be a feeling, that we might be wrong, could make us happier, kinder people. We might become less defensive, more open and more gracious. Even if a person has been judging us, they might start to see us differently.

Or, one might say that imputing better motives to the judgmental people in our lives has a way of them, which is precisely the the kind of reframing of a relationship that ensures its longevity.

8. The last word this week goes to Peter Wehner. For context, Wehner is a political veteran, serving in three different presidential administrations as a speechwriter and advisor. He continues to write for the New York Times and the Atlantic, while authoring books and leading D.C. think tanks. So, of course, when he writes for Plough magazine, it’s just what we’d expect: a deep dive into Dostoyevsky’s answers to the problem of evil, with help from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and author Philip Yancey.

Jokes aside, I’m not sure there’s a better concise explanation out there of Dostoyevsky’s great work The Brothers Karamazov and its compelling Christian theodicy. It’s not a rational apologetic, nor is it a logical solution. Instead, says Wehner, Dostoyevsky’s theodicy is merely a kiss, referencing the pair of kisses offered by Jesus and Alyosha in the famous Grand Inquisitor parable.

Dostoyevsky’s fiction is famous across the world for literary brilliance and depth, extraordinary psychological insights, and unforgettable, multi-dimensional characters. Less commented upon but just as pervasive is his sensitivity to the struggles of faith — in the words of Rowan Williams, “he quite deliberately sets out to show that being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t have to close your eyes to the horrors and the outrages of the world.” When Dostoyevsky gave voice to the case against God, he didn’t hold back. He understood Ivan’s arguments against a loving deity as not only powerful but intellectually irrefutable. He did not, however, consider them unanswerable.

“As an answer to all this negative side, I am offering this sixth book, ‘A Russian Monk,’” Dostoyevsky wrote in a letter. “And I tremble for it in this sense: will it be a sufficient answer? All the more so because the answer here is not a direct one, it is not a point-by-point response to any previously expressed positions (in The Grand Inquisitor or earlier) but only an oblique response … so to speak, in an artistic picture.”

Dostoyevsky’s response to Ivan’s attack against God isn’t an argument; it’s a kiss.

Alyosha – and Jesus – can’t rationally refute Ivan, give him a neat and tidy answer to the problems of suffering. They love him instead. The philosopher Charles Guignon said of Dostoyevsky:

“He shows the inadequacy of Ivan’s stance by displaying its destructive existential implications in the actions and interactions of his characters throughout the novel as a whole. In Dostoyevsky’s view, the only way to answer philosophical and theological doubts is by drawing on and making manifest the deep understanding of life embodied in our active lives … The full refutation of Ivan’s stance only emerges in the unfolding story of his life and the lives of those who refuse to accept his worldview.” […]

I don’t believe there’s a satisfactory answer to the questions posed by Ivan, and Dostoyevsky, to his credit, doesn’t try to provide one. The problem of evil, for him, has no cut-and-dry solution. The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t give us a solution to suffering but a different way to look at it, and a way of life we can choose to take in response: active, incarnational love. A kiss is all we have for now. But a kiss is enough for now.


  • In music this week, I never thought I’d be directing you to a new Beatles track, but AI and digital editing have made the 2020’s a very strange time. See the video above.
  • Yours truly has had nothing but the new Blink 182 album on repeat for the past two weeks. Music aside, it deserves a fuller writeup as a curious cultural artifact: what happens when a crass, crank calling, provocateur pop-punk band experiences things like middle age, cancer, lost love, and loneliness? The answer is: they make the same rocking music with about 31% more existential angst, and it’s this millennial’s catnip. I hope to give it a fuller treatment in the weeks to come.
  • Freddie de Boer writes on the great scholastic heresy of our age. A healthy and kind culture would say “you should reach for the things you want, but wanting and not getting is what adult life is all about, and you must learn to live with disappointment and failure.”
  •  A beautiful reflection on friendship, rescue, play, and grace from Comment. “If God has provided me with one certain grace, it is this: I never lacked a proper friend at any point in my life.”
  • A (paywalled) review of Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn from the Wall Street Journal. “The hymn’s overwhelming ubiquity … has intensified a paradoxical secularization of what is, after all, quite an orthodox assertion of the Christian doctrine of unearned grace.”
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One response to “October 27-November 3”

  1. Alison Mary White says:

    Please show me if something is missing here:
    “Or, one might say that imputing better motives to the judgmental people in our lives has a way of them, which is precisely the kind of re-framing of a relationship that ensures its longevity.”

    This post is gold, as all of Mockingbird is~
    Thank you for everything and everyone!

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