I’ve Been Watching Justified

The early months of 2010 found me unexpectedly living alone in Canada, working hard to distract myself from the fact that my wife was hospitalized in the United States, and I had chosen the selfish route of continuing with my diocesan-sponsored studies instead of remaining by her side and taking charge of our two young sons, who instead I had entrusted to my in-laws to manage until Uxor was better. My primary mode of distraction was the aforementioned studies, and most days I would spend at the library from late afternoon when classes ended until the wee hours of the morning, with only brief breaks for food and the quick nightly Skype call home. My classmates, few of whom knew much about me aside from the pleasant banter we exchanged, often marveled at the “fortress of knowledge” I would construct around myself at my table in the library, often hauling thirty or forty volumes at a time from the shelves and poring through them for source material for my various papers.

But I can’t study all the time, and so I also watched a lot of video entertainment. I made frequent walks to the public library to check out films from the past decade that I had never had the opportunity to see. I also embraced the Apple iTunes Store and the weekly offer of a handful of episodes of new shows as free downloads. Many of these were utter tripe, and the fact that I downloaded and watched the pilot episodes of shows like Basketball Wives and Bubba’s World should adequately illustrate how avidly I was seeking to absent myself from a dire headspace. (That even with all of the above, I still ended up drinking myself to sleep most nights with several ounces of increasingly-cheap Scotch is probably also on indicator of something.)

On 23 March 2010, one of the free episodes was the pilot of a new FX series called Justified. Unlike most of the shows, which I downloaded and played blindly (and usually deleted with a shudder after the initial viewing), I had heard rumor of this series in the preceding weeks, and I had liked what I had heard. Spoiler-proof as I am, watching “Fire in the Hole” for the first time was a tremendously enjoyable experience, even though I had read descriptions of most of the key scenes already in The New York Times review online. The opening reveal of the back of Raylan Givens’s hat, and the poolside showdown with Tommy Bucks that follows: I bet I watched that 100 times that week. I watched the episode as a whole at least a dozen times through, enough that, the following Tuesday, I made a highly unusual choice: I decided to splurge the $2.09 American to download the second episode to see if it carried through on the promise of the first.

It did, and so did the third, and by the time I had purchased five or six episodes, I stopped looking back. The characters became part of what I clung to through the remainder of that lonely semester: the life-and-death drama of Harlan County became an integral part of my own struggle to survive long enough to rejoin my convalescent wife and begin to rebuild our life together. And when the show survived it’s initial season to tell more of the story in a breathtaking second season, and jaw-dropping, gut-churning third, it was definitively established as part of the fabric of my life experience.

Not only has this series held me mesmerized from one cliffhanger to the next, but most importantly to me, it has held up to repeated viewings. Most notably, as the third season unfolded in all its sordid wonder, I re-watched all the episodes to date each week while I waited for the next one top drop the following Wednesday morning. Many were the nights I paced up and down our tiny rented house in suburban Ottawa, soothing our newborn third child while watching the machinations of Robert Quarles and Elstin Limehouse on the tiny iPod screen I held behind her.

Tonight, the final episode of this sixth and final season of Justified will air, and sometime tomorrow morning that finale will be available to download via iTunes, and – unable to wait until evening – I will spend my lunch break huddled over my desk at work and gorge myself on every delicious minute of the last hour of this marvelous show. It has been a glorious ride, a show I have allowed myself to invest in like very few others. Someday, I hope to put into thoughtful words the great esteem I have for this grand exercise in storytelling. I am not ready to do so yet. If you are one of the many who have watched and loved this show over the past six years, you understand. If you are not, and you love good storytelling (of the violent variety), do yourself the great favor of giving Justified a chance to amaze you, too. It pays off in spades.



*The title of this post is a hat tip to a lovely little Tumblr project of reflections on each episode that sadly only made it halfway through the second season. But once you watch that far, I highly recommend reading Meghan’s posts, they are gems.

So very tired

I am experiencing an acute onset of social network fatigue these days. No discernible single cause, no distinct bad experience that stands out as spoiling things for me. No, I am just tired of so many places to put things, and so many places to check for things put by others. I am tired of too many options for pretty much the same sorts of content, tired of gauging my arbitrary preference for one place over another with no more profound or definitive basis than the “feel” of the user interface or some such. I am tired of liking and sharing and commenting. I am, in a word, tired.

Now, before this turns into one long whinge, let’s put on the rhetorical brakes a bit. I love social media; I always have. I am a natural at it. I almost never have a thought I don’t feel like sharing. What I am going on about is nothing against social networks as they are, but rather a recognition that something in me has changed so that I am left wondering if I need a change.

There is no doubt that one contributing factor in this is my relatively recent addition of a proximate wifi device to my everyday carry. Not that I was short of opportunities before to flip open my laptop or toggle over to my ever-open browser window on the family iMac. But now my access to each and every one of my various streams of input and sharing are palpably omnipresent wherever the requisite signal reaches.

Sometimes I can keep my check-ins in check. But more and more often I find myself “looping” in a manner not far off from the sketch in the pilot episode of Portlandia, and that is not a good feeling. I am lost in a fog all too often, not fully present to my family, and unable to adequately concentrate on projects and tasks. So what should I do? Cut myself off from the digital community? I don’t want to. But I do need to find a delimitation to my engagement with said community, and I think the time may be a hand to focus my scope of engagement a bit. I am a completist by nature, so just as I strove to collect and read every Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery, so too I have felt nearly compelled to keep a wriggling toe in every major social network. But I am reaching a point where I am ready to say:

“Yeah I tried Pinterest, but I just don’t need that in my life.”

“Goodreads is a good idea, but I just can’t fit it into my soul anymore.”

“Foursquare isn’t a social network; it’s a game, and one which yields me no real reward.”

I am not trying to paint a scene of winners and losers here, but rather, I am trying to define a reasonable amount of engagement with social networks that still leaves me time and energy to be engaged with, well, my real life. It’s an ongoing process, but the sooner I can pare down the number of buttons on my mobile touchscreen, the sooner I can define what streams of input and output are most enriching and meaningful to me, then the sooner I can deliberately make myself available to the people and experiences most important to me.

Goody goody gumdrops!

It was Dr. Michael Mikolajczak, the professor with whom I took three of my eleven courses in my undergraduate major (English, if you are just joining us), who first inspired me to don a bow tie, for which I will always thank him, as I am sure does the general public. A colorful and dynamic instructor, he is also memorable for his peculiar views on final examinations.

Literature courses in a liberal arts institution are not, in my limited experience, generally seen as conducive to evaluation in written exam form. These are the sort of things we write essays for, texts spread out on our crowded dorm desks while we fiddle with the margin and line-spacing settings and try to avoid spilling either coffee or beer on any of he library books. But Dr. M. had his own approach to pedagogy, and he was very fond of the final exam.

On the morning of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, “Goody, goody, gumdrops!”

“I want you to think of the final exam as an occasion of joy,” he would explain to the class, and in each of the three semesters I heard this speech, the students seemed pretty uniformly skeptical on this point. “The final exam gives you an opportunity to revisit all that you have learned this semester. On the morning of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, ‘Goody, goody, gumdrops!'” The class would pretty much just be staring at him at this point, wondering what he was on.

I won’t pretend I was any fan of those final exams at the time, but I have never forgotten Dr. Mikolajczak’s words. And now, in the ultimate days of my graduate studies, I think I can say I finally say that I share and embrace his enthusiasm. It is only in these long hours of panicked review that I am truly seeing the extent of what I have (theoretically) learned these past three years of work toward my Licentiate in Canon Law. It is almost not too strong to say that it is only in this review that I am learning what before I had only heard, which is not meant as a judgment on my professors’ pedagogy but rather as a telling comment on my own lackadaisical learning style.

Let’s dispel any illusions you may be harboring about me. I don’t take notes. I don’t make flash cards. I don’t ask questions. I don’t raise my hand during lectures. I don’t get around to reading a lot of the ‘recommended’ texts, or even many of the ‘required’ ones. What do I do, then, to have made it this far in academic pursuits? Two things: I listen in class, as actively as I can manage, and I care. Most days, that is enough. Which is fortuitous, since that is all I can manage.

Now, three days before I must stand before a panel of my professors and answer on the spot whatever questions they choose to throw at me, I am doing some of those studenty things I just said I don’t do. I am poring over canons and commentaries, laboriously creating a heap of index cards during the day which my loving wife will use to quiz me in the evenings. I am, in a word, actually working at this, which feels foreign to me (because it is), and also feels downright thrilling.

Should I have felt this sort of agency regarding my own learning before now? Absolutely. I am embarrassed and ashamed that I have largely slouched through my academic degrees, because I could, rather than muster the energy and courage to really try. Who knows what I might have become? At the least, probably a better man. But it is too late to change what is past; what I can do is change the game, even at this late hour, and I am uncharacteristically confident that I might be able, not only to make this work in this critical moment, but to make a lasting change of it that will open new possibilities of productive learning and knowledge retention for me in the future.

No more comments here

“Comments are disabled on your blog! How can you even call it a blog anymore?”


That’s right, I have switched off the dreaded combox on all my posts. Boom. This probably seems a drastic and unnatural action, but I have my reasons, they are intractable, and they are these:


One factor is something I first heard voiced by Merlin Mann, some time ago. As I recall, he said he doesn’t allow comments on his website, in part because he works hard to make something, and every aspect of his site is part of that something he has made, therefore he wants the page from top to bottom to be his content. I remember thinking that was a bit megalomaniacal at the time, but I am coming round to it now, especially as I grown disillusioned with comments altogether. I, too, want to be busy making things with words to put into the world, and I really want to get back to doing that with some passion and regularity. The presence — or even the possibility of the presence — of comments by visitors known and unknown is a mental aggravation I think I quickly learn to do without.

Far and away the greatest reason I despise comments on posts is that, in my experience, they bring out always the worst and never the best in the people making them. I won’t preach to the choir about this; anyone who has ever read the comments on, well, anything on the internet knows exactly what I am talking about. People are awful to each other, people do a lot of shouting and hardly ever any listening (or the typed equivalents thereof), and the end result is a lot of “views express, and not one jot of betterment to any of the individuals involved, and least of all to anything that might be construed as the “online community” in question. Comments are the red AND black mold of the online world, and once they get started, there is no getting rid of the infection of awful. So I spraying the place with vinegar, so to speak, and not letting any more spores in the door.

This does not — I repeat, does not — mean that I don’t care what others may think, or that I am trying to insulate myself from feedback, criticism, and arguments. Not. At. All. anything. I love responses to my writings, whether I am opining, sharing a scrap of personal memoir, or rhapsodizing about something I like. It helps me know that people care that I wrote something, sure, and much more importantly, it helps show me that mine is not the only way to think about a thing. What I want, really want, is substantive responses and dialogue, but I am not at all convinced that a combox is ever, ever, ever going to produce even the faintest glimmer of such gold. Instead, if you want to pat my back or comment inappropriately on my hips, you can send me a message. Ad if you would like to dispute some claim I am making, or take me to task for a viewpoint I am stating, or set me straight on some erroneous conclusion, I want you to do this: get your own damn blog, take the time to think through and craft a cogent, reasoned post of your own in your own space, and when you are satisfied with it, put it up for the world to see, and then — here’s the best part — send me a link, by message or even via Twitter, to let me know there is a conversation underway, and it is my turn again. That is the only way I want to argue on the internet from here on out, and I would be thrilled and honored if any of you would like to make this important shift along with me. I could be wrong, but I imagine it being a much more dignified process, where heads will be cooler, and we might even take time to consider what the other person is thinking.

So to sum up: no more combox here, but hopefully lots more conversation. I can’t wait to read what you think of this idea. Let me know; I’ll be right over.

Changing the Rules

I have been busy in my head of late assembling a (hopefully small) collection of new rules for myself vis-à-vis blogging (in particular) and making stuff for the internet (in general). This has been fun, exciting, a little madcap, but mostly sobering. I am really crap at persisting in making anything, online or off, almost entirely due to an absence of discipline in my internal life, with an overwhelming amount of mundane life commitments piled on top.

My life is not going to magickally become less crammed full of demands and commitments. Far from it. In two months I will be done with grad school and back home working full-time once again, in a demanding position as head of two departments. So it will do no good to wait and wish for things to calm down. Instead, I need to calm myself down, to tame my monkey mind and re-develop, from square one, the “mind like water” that David Allen speaks of. And after way, way too long spent mostly just feeling sorry for myself and/or panicking, I am at last climbing out of my rotten rut and making a real effort to dust myself off and get charging forward.

So here are, in no particular order or relation to each other, several new rules or parameters I intend to implement and enforce for myself. I don’t expect any miracles to happen as a result, but if I put in the effort, I do expect them to be the first steps down the path to a more balanced, productive, and creative experience of living.

  1. Make stuff. I have to lead off with this, because it is the easiest thing to completely lose sight of. How many times do we (and I include myself as the poster child for this) get lost in a forest of incredible-sounding tips and tricks and tools and methods and other productivity porn, and never end up making a damn thing? That’s right, too many. I fancy myself a creative person — a writer, if you will — and I have let too much moss grow on my tired back. Even while my world is in flames around me, I am taking up my writer’s torch again and starting once more to write myself to safety, or at least to sense. While I have quite a range of written projects in the offing, personal blogging is the most immediate, and offers the most direct path from effort to completion and gratification. So here we go, and no stopping. Even if it is crap (and when isn’t it, really?), it still needs to ship. The lights are coming back on.
  2. No more comments. This one has been a long time coming. The only honest reason to allow comments on a blog post, even moderated ones, is simple: the blogger needs to prove to himself or herself that people are reading their stuff. I will without hesitation admit that is what I have looked to them for as long as I have been blogging. I’m not saying I am beyond that now — I crave attention and affirmation as much as ever — but blog comments are hardly the way to get that in any meaningful degree. I have a lot more to say on this point, but we will have to save that for future post. For now, it is enough to announce that I’m switching them off.
  3. Build up a reserve before launching anything. Too many times over the past, well, whole life, I’ve had an exciting idea, done some initial burst of work on it, then immediately dashed about to friends, family, and the cute barista to get them all to take a look at it forthwith. Even when the response was enthusiastic and rewarding, my creative stamina was so low that, in every case, my output rapidly fell behind my self-imposed expectations, and I just gave up and quit. This time, before I light up a neon sign pointing to my latest endeavor (yes, there is something new in the works), I want to make sure I have the shelves stocked, so to speak. Taking the extra time and effort to stack up a few weeks worth of content means I can open the digital doors with plenty for folks to look at (and judge if they want to keep coming back), and might help me cement the habits I need to keep making stuff at the same pace once the thing is live.
  4. Work in ninety-minute blocks of time. This is entirely behind-the-scenes to my readership, obviously (unless I opt to set up a live webcam of my “writing process” but that thought is incredibly nauseating to me), but I still feel it is worth mentioning. I have only just begun to try it, but I agree with my guru Merlin Mann so far: ninety minutes is a good, solid chunk of time, and I think it is feasible to shut down the nattering distractions of Facebook, Twitter, and real life for that long and really knuckle down on one thing, make real progress, and then break before I start rabbit-holing or fall asleep. I’m going to start setting a timer, and we will see if such a self-imposed constraint can help me push out of the lethargic bubble I have been drowning in.
  5. Embrace the tools I need to succeed. Yes, this translate to new stuff — tools — and this is still difficult to justify, even to myself. Most of me thinks I should just hunker down on the back steps with a Moleskine and a Mont Blanc and write a whole new world. And some days I will still do that, I hope. But so much of the written work I intend to do is bound for electronic formats, it makes more and more sense to work at a keyboard, and while recording words in electronic form is among the most basic of technological tasks, there are also such things as tools that really, really work; that give me everything I need, nothing I don’t, and then get the hell out of my way and let me just make stuff. I have a good start on this (Scrivener is still my cornerstone, roof, and foundation), but I intend to examine what tools will really and truly assist me in my workflows, (possibly) go ahead and get those tools, and then forget about everything else that is out there for a god long time. Obviously much more detail on this point will appear in future, as well.

Of course I know it is all fine and dandy to spout some half-digested productivity tidbits I’ve picked up from some podcast. I still have to prove — first to me, and then to you — that I can step up and put some or any of these worthy rules into lasting action. For now, it’s just more talk from a chronic underachiever who is rapidly running out of chances to get it right.

Visit to Excelsior Brewing

In a rare incursion into the Twin Cities Metro, I was able to briefly visit the brand new Excelsior Brewing Company brewery on Saturday afternoon. I had been dying to get there for some time, especially since they had promised me a free t-shirt in response to some pre-opening Twitter interaction back in, oh, late May I think, and I am one of those people who will drive an hour and half to get a free t-shirt.

But far more than that, I wanted to be able to set foot in at least one of the glorious spate of new breweries setting up shop in Minnesota in 2012. This is a very exciting time to be a beer lover in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I’m not sure what has been more frustrating: watching this abundance develop from far away in Canada’s Capital throughout the past fall and winter, or watching it from 100 miles away this spring and summer. It’s probably for the best, though: if I was still living in Saint Paul I would be a beer-chasin’ fool right now, and that’s probably not what my family needs of me.

But back to Excelsior. As I mentioned, I was only able to manage a very short visit, long enough to collect my t-shirt (thank you very much! I wear it proudly with my kilt!) and enjoy a small sample of their inaugural brew, Bring Jumper. The story that was being told when we were there is that they had planned to brew a sessionable American Pale Ale, but their brand new brewing system was far more efficient than expected, and a monster 8%ABV beer had come out instead. I just have this to say about Bridge Jumper: if it was truly as unplanned as legend would have it, I certainly hope is is reproducible, because I LOVED it. I can find a ton of beers that smack me in the face with a bushel of hops, but Bridge Jumper smacked me with a big malty hand instead, and that is all too rare a treat. Bravo, Excelsior Brewing team, and I look forward to trying all your efforts, I hope for many years to come. And next time I visit, I’ll make sure to give myself time to enjoy a full pint of something. And I’ll be sporting my new shirt, too.

I need to buckle down

Oh, to strike out boldly, sucking in deep dedicated draughts of knowledge and digesting rapidly and energetically, then turning and placing with both hands, as far out into the world as I can reach, my own craft of words and thinking. This is my goal, this my desire: to light a fire in my own belly that will know no quenching, to burn with ideas, to labor long and fiercely into the night and before the sun rises, to be a scholar who admits no distraction until his work is done. I want to punch myself in the face so hard I cry for a week at the ache of it, to slam my fist against weak flesh and bone and wake me up to the plowman’s labor I need to have set my hand to years ago.

What? Yes, I want to be a writer, and I have many avenues of that craft that I want to chase my words down, herding them like rabid pregnant cats, corralling them into the shape of stories, histories, insights, and truth. We know how dearly I still want to tell my seminary stories, the stories of my journey of faith and religion, and nothing would bring me more satisfaction than to see that project consummated, perfected, and chasing around in search of a profitable avenue of publication. That day will come.

The now of my writing, however, is the now of my career — my vocation — in canon law. I have not emerged as a stunning scholar in this my chosen profession as of yet, and I recognize certain significant limitations that will probably continue to bar me from the highest flights of my field. But that does not mean that I have no contribution to make, and if I can amend even one of those innumerate limitations — my failure to apply myself to my work — then I know that there is a depth to my God-given skills and talents that will tear a whole in the veil of obscurity my habitual indolence has drawn over my academic years. No more of this. It is way past time to put to proof my assertion that I have been worth educating. It is time to emerge from the shadows where I have been lazing and throw my monogrammed hat into the scholarly ring. It is time to read hard and heavy, and to pen some journal articles, like a boss.

And the hardest part is going to be, without any doubt, shutting out the cycle of distraction I have burrowed my metaphorical ass into over these past several years. Yes, I mean Facebook, and Twitter, and LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and Tumblr, and all the many, many distractions that the on-line, plugged-in life I have embraced is built around. No, I don’t want to sever myself from any of those tools, for I believe they are tools both valuable and needed. But they are also addictive, and my infatuation with idleness has latched me deep into them, a latch I must break if I am ever to be weaned from the Mobius loop teat of social media to the harsh but healthful rations of disciplined self-application to my own mental and creative work. (Ridiculous hash of metaphor, I know, but whatever, you get my point.)

I know I can write. I know I can read. I know I can think. I do not know that I I am able to sit down at a keyboard or a writing desk and just read through page after page of sources, comprehend and synthesize their contents, and turn to put my own thoughts in an orderly fashion upon a page. I do not know that I can hold myself to any task, I do not know that I can keep myself focused on anything that doesn’t have a “Like” button attached to it somewhere. But I want to believe that I can do these things, and since I have (for good reason) no more faith left in myself as a productive and dedicated performer of any task, I have no path other than actually doing these things — and then doing them again, and again, and again — of convincing myself and those I love that I can truly carry myself forward into a tomorrow in which I star not as a disappointing lump, but as a vital and driven artist and academician who doesn’t sit in dream of projects he would like to start, maybe someday. I want to start being someone who starts projects, tackles them day after day, and completes them. That is how drastic I want this to be.

Verbing affidavit

A few days ago a friend in the legal profession posted on Facebook expressing his frustration with the awkward and cumbersome (and oft-used) phrase “swore an affidavit” and wondered if there was perhaps some forgotten or neglected verb form that would allow him to express this same meaning with a single word. He quickly scrounged up affy as a possibility, which (spoiler alert!) is probably the closest thing we are going to find to what he (and now I) are looking for. But I just plain don’t like affy, and thus the following.

Affidavit is a Latin verb form, specifically the third person singular perfect indicative active of the verb affidare, a late Latin (i.e. Mediæval) verb meaning ‘to give faith, to pledge, to prove by oath’. It’s migration into legal English is uncomplicated: a heading indicating that “he/she has sworn” followed by the substance of that oath-backed assertion was bound to become a mainstay of legal documentation in the development of the common law system. But it is as I already noted a late addition to the language: a compound of the preposition ad, towards, and the verb fido, fidere,’ to trust, confide, put faith in (someone/something).’ Classical Latin also had the compound confido, confidere, ‘to trust confidently in something, confide in, rely firmly upon, to believe, be assured of’. Why the construction of affidare involved the shifting of conjugation is beyond my linguistic knowledge and resources (although it is, I think, further evidence if any were needed that the Mediævals were mostly crap at Latin, and just made it up as they went along).

But what of the English verb we are looking for? Did any other words come into the language alongside affidavit? If so, where were they? The word I really wanted to find was **affide. It just makes sense to me that just as confide developed quite directly from confidere, there should be a verb developed in parallel from affidare. But, for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have happened in the living language. Maybe it is due to the lateness of affidare appearing in Latin, when that tongue was already on the decline as a vernacular. Or perhaps the curious shift from the Second Conjugation to the First in the formation of affidare itself confused things and derailed the progression. In any case, I don’t find affide in any dictionary or lexicon that I can lay hands on.

(While I can find no authoritative attestation to it, a Google search did turn up a very small number of occurrences of affide, only one of which was in the precise context and sense as what I was hoping for: a motion filed in a case before the Supreme Court of Ohio in 2007 (State of Ohio ex rel. Deborah S. Reese vs. Cuyahoga County Board of Elections et al.), which included the assertion that “it would not be proper for the Relator to affide to such matters.” Hard to tell, though, if this a legitimate use of a real live word that even dictionaries have forgotten, or if it just an isolated example of a legal drafter in the Buckeye State “going Mediæval” and making up a word on the fly, either deliberately or without thinking about it. )

I want to take a moment here to credit a fantastic source I happily discovered in pulling this post together. Alexander M. Burrill, A New Law Dictionary and Glossary: Containing Full Definitions of the Principal Terms of the Common and Civil Law, Together with Translations and Explanations of the Various Technical Phrases in DIfferent Languages, Occurring in the Ancient and Modern Reports, and Standard Treatises; Embracing also all the Principal Common and Civil Law Maxims, Part I (New York: John S. Vorhies, 1850). It is available free in its entirety through Google Books, along with the second volume which I have not yet had time or occasion to inspect.

It is in Burrill’s work that I found a solution that satisfies me in my legal context, although it may not be what my counterparts on the common law side of things would like.

The party making an affidavit is usually described as “the deponent,” (sometimes, but rarely, “the affiant,” (q.v.) and in making his statements is said to depose—(“being duly sworn, deposes and says,”)—but an affidavit is distinguished from a deposition, properly so called, by the circumstance that it is always made ex parte, and without any cross-examination. (p. 49)

So, if I were planning my formal vocabulary for my own legal praxis, I think I will probably say “The witness deposed that the lazy fox had no tail.” But if my friend prefers to say that his witness “affied to the veracity of his statement,” then I can only say that the history of our language supports him, and I salute his efforts to rescue another lonely English word from neglectful obscurity. If you doubt my sincerity, I would be happy to **affide this fact to anyone.

Owning and Possessing in a Digital World

We live in curious and confusing times, as have pretty much all our ancestors throughout all of recorded history. Some lines that once seemed clear are always starting to blur, and that is always going to make us uncomfortable to some extent, although we all have varying degrees of tolerance for such unease, especially when with it come excitement and the promise of new and better (?) things just ahead.

My friend (and cousin-in-law) Dave Schwartz asked a very interesting question on his blog yesterday morning: what does it mean to own a book? He describes his experience of recently purchasing physical copies of three books he already owned in e-book form, and wonders what that says about him, and in a broader sense what that says about digital vs. physical media.

Personally, digital property still feels ephemeral to me. While I love the fact that I can own whole seasons of my favorite TV shows (for example) without having thick cases devouring inch after inch of my precious bookshelf space, at the same time, I can’t see them, I can’t hold them, I can’t really know that I have them: ultimately I have to believe in them. It becomes almost a matter of faith, and trust as well: faith in an unseen world of zeros and ones that somehow coalesce consistently into the sights and sounds and words that we have paid for, and trust that a glitch, a hiccup, or dust mote is not going to wipe out all that unseen digital property in the blink of an eye.

And that leap of faith trust and in the reliability of digital property is a hard one to make, and far harder (for many people) when it comes to books than to music and visual entertainments. Why? Because our relationship to books is inherently a more physical one, at least it always has been since people started reading to themselves back in late antiquity. (Augustine comments in Book VI of Confessions how bizarre it was that his mentor Ambrose would sit by himself and read silently, rather than aloud as everyone else did: “When he read his eyes would travel across the pages and his mind would explore the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.” Of course, reading aloud helped back when there were no spaces between words.) We carry books with us, we curl up with them, we smash creeping things with them, we amass long shelves full of them, we press treasured mementos in them. They are for many of us touchstones milestones along life’s journey, sometimes even monuments to the achievement of tackling and conquering a particularly daunting text.

And now that is changing. The presentation of texts to be read is migrating to ever-improving digital devices that allow us to carry copious amounts of reading material about with us in our purses and man-bags. I cannot see this as a bad thing, but at a deep level it is still a difficult development to adjust to. It is one thing to embrace the ease and convenience this shift offers, but it is another to compensate for the unconscious expectations of what it means to hold a book, to own a book, to possess a book. We’ll get used to it in time: we’re good at that.

Canon Law in the Internet Age

There are many interesting aspects to taking on the full-time study of canon law, at this or any time. In my brief experience, the problems of the day are ever-present in our classroom discussions, along with what we as canonists will be facing in our professional work in just a year or so. Canon Law is a vital and vibrantly relevant element in the life of the Catholic Church, and I and my classmates are going to be the experts who will, we all hope, carry forward the saving and redemptive mission of the Church through our careful and correct application of the law in a thousand different scenarios.

Another aspect that has made studying at this particular juncture interesting is the feeling of being at the verge of a technological revolution. Now, we are only talking revolutionary in our specific context: the technology is question is often years or even decades old. But my class seems to be at the bleeding edge, at least at this school, of wedding the ancient tradition of ecclesiastical law with the tools of the digital age.

My first year of canon law studies, two of my classmates had iPads with them in class. That number is doubled this year. That first year we were given (and were billed for) printed notes for each course, most around two hundred pages each, one more than four hundred pages. This year we received all course notes in .pdf format via email. Our youngest professor used the long-available Blackboard intranet site for our course this semester. Our discussions of praxis frequently turn to the future rôle of video-conferencing services such as Skype in the tribunal of the twenty-first century.

And yet the resources available to us electronically are still quite sparse. The Code of Canon Law itself is not officially available in a digital format, but many of us make use of a series of .pdf text files that are floating around of the various core Codes in both Latin and English. (More detail in a future post on how I have labored long to make this text useful to me in my studies in my own peculiar way.) Of the small number of academic journals devoted to canon law in English, only one is readily available in full page scan .pdf through the library. (Our faculty’s own journal is also available electronically through the library resources, but in unformatted plain text.) I have not made any serious survey of what other books might be for sale as legitimate e-books, not yet finding myself in that market, but I believe the number of titles would be fairly brief.

And the conversation in the ether is quite limited right now, as well. Friends in other disciplines have any number of favorite websites and blogs that they can frequent for news and opinions in their respective disciplines. But canonists have not yet flocked to the Internet to build their own small soapboxes. Perhaps this is a good thing in many ways, but for a person who has always endeavored to do his thinking in full view (however embarrassing the result), the lack of dozens of blogs to link to was deeply discouraging to me.

I keep reminding myself that I am not called — let alone able — to correct this deficiency on my own, but the trend toward hubris is persistent. And I also need to remember that I am not actually alone out there: just among my class of sixteen, at least three others have started blogs of their own, all focused more-or-less on canonical themes. And there are a small number of very reputable and well-established canonists with a long-standing web presence. These solid entries are not to be discounted, and if pressed I would ultimately side with quality over quantity. But I would still like to see more in my saved “#canonlaw” Twitter feed than Dr. Edward Peters’s infrequent posts and retweets of the same.

So what? What is the point of all this blather? I guess just to position myself, for myself, regarding what I am about as a new canonist in this digital era. I don’t need to change the world with my words (fortunately). But I want to be a consistent presence on the Web, both in long form, in the sharing of conversation-sparking quotes and news items, and in whatever it is I use Twitter for. I hope that some will find my efforts not just worth reading, but worth responding to, commenting upon, or even countering. At the end of the day, I am an excited young practitioner of an ancient discipline, and I want to start to be part of the conversation.