Monday, August 27, 2012


I continue to take moments to sift through the next layer of records that came into possession at my dad's death. This week Gwendolyn and I shredded a whole file box of tax records. Dad kept every cancelled check that he wrote (he was still receiving cancelled checks in 2003, when many banks had stopped returning them).

In the shredding process my eyes lit on two things that made me stop and think.

Over the years 2001-2003, Dad's annual premium for malpractice insurance (he was a general surgeon) averaged $19,511. And Dad had never been sued, never been accused of any malpractice. The next time you wonder why physicians charge so much for their services, remember that their insurance premiums can exceed poverty-line salaries.

Since Dad owned his own practice and paid employees, he had to fill out taxes as a business owner. One of the tax forms for the City of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) is titled "Occupational Privilege Tax." Privilege? Huh. I did not realize working was a privilege. Of course, I never have been pressed to place work in an ontological category. Necessity? Right? Privilege? Does this mean that one does not have the right to work in Bethlehem?

Do we have the right to work anywhere?

"Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." Is working an unalienable right?

~ emrys

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Only Damnable Things

I was given cause recently to review the view of human will and sin described in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (Library of Christian Classics version, 1967). In Chapter III of Book II (Knowledge of God the Redeemer), which chapter is titled "Only Damnable Things Come Forth from Man's Corrupt Nature," Calvin lays out an understanding of humanity and sin. It presages the Synod of Dort's declaration that humanity is "totally depraved." In reading this part of Calvin, I was struck by two things.

First, the uncompromising view of sin that Calvin takes and the conclusion to which that view brings him. Calvinism (distinct from Calvin's writings) has received much guff in the world for being pessimistic. This criticism is both accurate and incomplete. A proper view of sin taken from the Institutes will lead, indeed, to a rather dim view of humanity on its own. However, the Institutes does not ask us to consider humanity on its own, but as redeemed by Christ. In this redemption there is great hope. To attempt to access this hope without a dim view of human sin is a fool's errand (in this I agree with the Institutes), for the attempt will inevitably be too naive about the power of evil in the world.

Second, I notice how dependent on Augustine's writings is the Institutes. I had learned that Calvin drew on Augustine quite a bit. But the degree to which the Institutes uses Augustine's words as summary proof of its points surprised me. At first blush this seems to result from the family tree of Christian theology and philosophy in the European West: though Protestant, Calvin protested against a specific tradition, namely Western Roman Catholicism. He may have been bound by the Tradition of western Roman Catholic theology and therefore operated entirely from its premises--laid out by Augustine. I have not read the whole of the Institutes, but a scan of the abbreviations from the front of the book reveals a lack of reference to, for instance, the Gregories and Basils of Eastern theological tradition. Certainly the apophatic tendency of the East (say less about God, not more, lest you get it wrong) is defied by the 1600-page count of the Institutes.

This is perhaps the element most challenging to me in Calvin: the desire to explain in logically consistent detail every facet of one's belief. It challenges me both because I have a similar strong tendency in myself, and because I see from the scriptures that pursuing this desire may also be a fool's errand. Human persons, about whom we claim to have so much understanding, cannot be boiled down to a logical set of principles; how then shall we expect the deity to submit to the same?

~ emrys

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ganache Me

A few months ago I embarked on the experiment of making Boston Cream Pie. (It's not really a pie: It's a layer cake with filling and frosting.) I decided not to use the cheats (vanilla pudding, canned chocolate frosting) and make everything from scratch.

Rather than frost it in the traditional fashion, I elected to use a chocolate ganache. I find ganache is more fun to apply and to eat. And my little helper, there for every step of the not-pie-making process, had the same evaluation:

We only differ in where the ganache is applied.

~ emrys

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The New Guardians of Decency

We have arrived. The great innovation of American culture, arguably from the beginning according to some, is that the government will stay out of my way and let me pursue my own interest: "life, liberty, pursuit of happiness." Wherever you stand on the Demopublican spectrum, this is the ideal to which American government cleaves. The government will not criticize or incarcerate you because you choose to deal cards to people with gambling addictions; nor because you accumulate wealth while neighbors struggle to survive; nor especially because you say things to others that make your mother wish she could put you over her knee.

Freedom, especially of speech, is the linchpin of rights given to American citizens by their government.

But it is not guaranteed by employers.

Adam Smith, former CFO of Vante, discovered last week that although no officer of law enforcement would ticket him for his poorly-chosen words to Rachel at Chick-fil-A, his employer had no compunction about enforcing a certain ethic of conduct. To wit, from Vante's Marketwire statement: "We respect the right of our employees and all Americans to hold and express their personal opinions, however, we also expect our company officers to behave in a manner commensurate with their position and in a respectful fashion that conveys these values of civility with others."

Did you catch that? Smith has freedom of speech, but Vante--the one who holds Smith's paycheck--has an expectation that employees will limit that freedom according to a certain ethic. Even when they're not on the clock.

Most of us who are employed in the United States have something in the fine print of our contracts which declares that we may quit the job for any (and undisclosed) reason, and our employer may terminate our employment for any reason. We are hired at the will of our employers. Adam Smith discovered the limits of the will of his employer.

Adam Smith's case is a sign of a larger reality operating in America. Power to control and discipline social ethics parallels economic power. The government clearly does not insist that Smith be kind and respectful in his conduct toward drive-thru employees. I wonder if Smith's parents or teachers insisted on a high level of civility from Smith as he grew up. Smith's peers probably did not set high standards of grace and responsible expression.

But Vante will insist on good conduct, with force.

Let's be clear. My desire is not to complain about the situation, but to observe where we are. When our most dearly beloved cultural mantra is freedom, someone will have to set the limits on that freedom demanded by kindness. As words go viral on youtube, someone will have to determine where the buck stops. In our society, that responsibility will fall to those who have control of all the bucks: the ones who write our paychecks. Thus our fellow Adam Smiths will only learn that drive-thru employees shouldn't have to "listen to his frustration and disgust" when they've lost their paychecks for poor behavior.

~ emrys

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Why Projects Take Longer

with children.

In spite of the fact that our bathrooms are big enough to suit the Taj Mahal, we have always found it hard to place our laundry baskets in a convenient location. Behind the door? Then the door is always bouncing shut. Under the towel bar? Then they're in the way. Between the windows? Then you have to walk in an S-pattern to get to the sink. This five-year-old problem, however, was eased by the removal of the glass block quarter-walls around the toilet, because now we could bring up some cheap white cabinets that needed a new home, and get creative.

We decided to cut holes in the top of one cabinet which would house the laundry baskets (one for whites, one for colors). The baskets would be out of sight (and out of the way), but we just have to pitch our dirty clothes into the holes and they are sorted for laundering. Finally that middle-school compass came in handy for design work:

Some way into the project, I discovered that the final installation was complicated by a three-year-old who really wanted to "help"--that is, wanted to be involved. In the middle. Obstructive.
Even though she hadn't finished her lunch break yet (that's an apple whose juice she's smearing all over the project):
I had no idea that a cabinet with holes would be such a fun toy. (Why do we buy her plastic trinkets again?) It turns out that as much fun as I've had on the mallet end of Whack-A-Mole, Gwendolyn has on the hole end.
It's fun to hide and wait for Daddy to find you by looking down from above, then screaming like a little girl when he peeks over the edge:
No matter how much my work ethic butts up against three-year-old playfulness, I eventually discover every time that it's wiser to join in than try to win. So when my daughter insisted on trying to fit us both into the laundry playhouse, I went for it.
Yes. More fun than getting the project done on time.
 Much more fun.

~ emrys

Tyler House Hunt II

In the early 1940s, my grandparents moved the family to a property in Scipio Center, NY nicknamed "Three Horse Chestnuts." The three spiky-seed-dropping trees stood on the edge of Duck Road. My uncle Jim remembers wading through the sea of nuts on the way to school and, when they had cracked, pulling out the hard cores and pitching them at siblings.

Here is a photo, dated in my grandmother's handwriting to 1946, of the Tyler siblings Jim, Joan, Dotsy, and George (my father) sitting on the front lawn of Three Horse Chestnuts. Behind them is one of the legendary trees; further in the background is a light grey patch of Owasco Lake:

We stood on that property yesterday. Only one of the original three chestnuts survives (at right in the following picture), but a younger spawn has grown up to make two on the property. Below is Uncle Jim with my daughter and son (in the baby carrier), on the same front lawn sixty-six years later:

 And George Tyler's progeny (granddaughter, son, and grandson) at the foot of the second, younger chestnut tree:
The house had an extensive garden (as did most houses in the early forties, I believe) on the west side. Here is my dad, George, standing in the garden with Grandpa's 1939 Ford behind him and the house in the background:
 The house has since burned down, leaving only the faint outline of the block foundation and the concrete cover for the original well. Jim remembers Grandma going out in the winter mornings with a hatchet to chip out chunks of ice to bring in for water. He said the house was designed to be a summer home--no plumbing indoors--but the Tylers lived there year round. This may be a testament to how budding college professors (still finishing their PhDs, as Grandpa was) struggled to make ends meet. Then again, it may have been indicative of the times, as the United States still suffered the economic burden of World War II. Here is a view of the well cover with the chestnuts in the background:
This shot taken from the front yard shows a good swath of Owasco Lake in the distance:
Since 1946 the trees to the north have grown up a bit, but the field across the road is still farmed, and the view from under the horse chestnuts can still be enjoyed:
What a treat to walk across the soil of some family history.
~ emrys

Friday, August 03, 2012

Tyler House Hunting I

Today my uncle Jim, Gwendolyn, Micah and I went on an adventure to find the homes that my grandparents and father occupied during the 1930s and 40s. Uncle Jim had done all this researching and journeying before, so this was mostly for my benefit. Here are a few of the fruits.

Grandma and Grandpa began their academic careers teaching at Wells College in Aurora, NY. While they struggled to establish themselves on the faculty, they lived in at least three different residences. The first was known as "The Avery House," now a fine refurbished structure at 316 Main Street in downtown (down-village?) Aurora:

Another was the manse of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Moravia, NY. How my grandparents got to use the parsonage, since neither of them was an Episcopal priest, is now anyone's guess:

The first of two gems from this adventure is the discovery of a house known in family records as "Pointed Firs." Here's a photo of it in about 1940, with my grandfather's 1939 Ford parked out front:

The house is still there, in the village of Poplar Ridge, on the high ground between lakes Cayuga and Owasco:

The window shutters and door frame look to be original. A gable has been added and the roof renewed. I could not tell if the fence was original (which in itself was telling). When we knocked, no one was home, so we could not get a tour of the inside. But this is the house that my dad came home to after he was born.

The second gem, Three Horse Chestnuts, will have to wait until a future post. But meantime, here is a photo of the schoolhouse in Scipio where my dad and three of his siblings did their first years of school:

 Though overgrown and neglected (so much so that we couldn't get near it with small children in tow), it is still standing and, according to a local, still has some of the original school furniture inside. The farmer who now owns the land, however, will not tear it down. Maybe he was a fellow student of my dad's?

~ emrys

When the Ducks Say Thank You

We, the parents of our children, try our best to encourage our daughter to say "Please" and "Thank you" at every opportunity.

This evening I listened to Gwendolyn act out little scenes in the bathtub with her rubber ducks. One repeating story line was a duck asking another duck for a hot dog.

"Can I have a hock-dock please?"

"Yes. Here yuh go."

"OK. Tank you."

"Can I have kezhup please?"

"Oh, ketchup. Here yuh go."

"OK. Tank you."

Among broad smiles of amusement I thought, Perhaps some of what we're doing is actually sticking.

~ emrys