The Geese are Seeking Higher Ground

While we haven’t been hurricane-flooded wet like the Carolinas (spare a prayer for them), it’s been wet this year.  If I’m reading this graphic from NOAA’s Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center right, we’re already about 16 inches over our annual rainfall, and we still have three more months to go:

The numbers get all bunched up there in the middle around DC because of the cluster of airports (Dulles, National, and BWI), I suspect.

In practical terms, this has meant a few very wet rides.  One morning, the Four Mile Run connector path to the Mount Vernon Trail was under enough water that I decided to detour and take an entirely different path, along with four other bicyclists who came to that spot at the same time I did.  My hunch is that we’ve had enough rain this year that part of the embankment has washed away, creating a couple of more low spots where the water can flood the path.  At least, this is the first year where I remember seeing three washout spots, as opposed to just one.

The path along Gravelly Point has also gotten wet at least once, if not twice.  There’s a nice debris field from the Potomac flooding that comes really close to the path, but since the path is a good 25 feet away from the river, at the top of a gentle slope, it didn’t quite wash out a significant portion of the trail.

The geese who live at Gravelly Point, on the other hand, actually seem somewhat unhappy with this turn of events.  Last week, they were in the middle of the soccer field at Gravelly point, when usually they hang out on the other side of the path, closer to the river.  While yes, they’re waterfowl, I think they resent their nice dry land close to the river being turned into marsh.  They get no relief on the DC side of the river, either, unless they cross a road to get to some sports fields (which they do, by the way, and obstruct traffic).  There are, however, some ducks who seem quite at home in the newly-marshy areas.

The rains continue.  Personally, I’m pretty happy with the most recent round, which has been falling gently for most of today.  I just planted some grass seed in my front clover/violet patch to try and cover in some bare areas, and this rain is perfect to get the grass going.


Benson’s Saturday Evening Spot

Cats like routine.  Lavash and Benson are our secondary alarm clocks–they know breakfast is at 0600, so start to get worried and make noise at about 0530 if we aren’t up and moving by then.  Lavash gets annoyed when we come in the back door when we get home from mass, since that messes with her plan to flop down on the carpet by the front door for belly rubs.  Curiously, this only happens on Sunday, so I suspect belly rubs are part of her after post-post breakfast nap routine.

Benson likes Saturdays since I almost always make pizza.  Not only does he try to steal a slice, or select toppings (like kale), he gets to hang out on top of the cabinet above the refrigerator.


I assume the view must be pretty good from up there, especially as a look-out spot for dropped pizza toppings of interest.

Checkerboard Birthday Cake

Ikinji recently turned nine, and we had a board games-themed party for him and a few of his friends.  Fortunately for us, only a couple of his friends were able to come– I think the noise level gets exponentially louder with each additional guest, especially after they’ve had a nerf gun battle at the park nearby.

In any case, keeping with the theme, I made a checkerboard cake.  There are surprisingly few tutorials online for how to do a rectangle checkerboard.  There are plenty for circular cakes, since it won’t matter which side you cut into–each wedge of cake will have the pattern, which is usually made by cutting concentric circles out of your cakes and fitting them back together in an alternating pattern.  For the rectangular cake, I cut strips of cake, approximately 1″x1″x9″ (the width of the cake) and stacked them alternating yellow-chocolate-yellow.  I used seven minute icing to stick the pieces together (and stick they did!) and german buttercream to frost the outside.


Checkerboard around the outside hints at what’s inside.  The top, by the way, had a chess piece piped on in chocolate.

As an added wrinkle, my wife suggested that each slice have a 9×9 grid, so that you could play tic-tac-toe with white and dark chocolate Reeses Peanutbutter Cups.  This required marking the outside with where the pattern repeat occurred.  I used a thicker line of icing for the outside checkerboard to indicate where to cut.  While it isn’t an exact match to the inside, this actually worked out pretty well.


Checks on the outside, checks on the inside. This is after most of the cake has been cut and eaten, hence the messy cake board.


What surprised me most was how quickly this came together once I had figured out how it would come together.  I had to bake two 9×13 vanilla cakes to get enough of the white, and one 9×13 chocolate.  If I had it to do over again, I would have cut .75″ rectangles to allow for loss during cutting, and to have a slight margin of error.  As it was, I had to use a leftover frozen chocolate cake for the last strip.  Still, the cutting and assembly went very quickly.  Also, since the frosting on the outside wasn’t too elaborate, that came together rapidly as well (which was a good thing, since I was frosting it the morning of the party.

The final product elicited the desired effect:  the boys were impressed, especially Ikinji, who didn’t know what we had planned.  The kids’ parents were pretty impressed, too, but the “Wow, neat!” I got from the kids was well worth the effort.


Feline/Toddler Interactions

Life with cats and kids is always amusing…never a dull moment around here.  It’s even more exciting when they start interacting.


Benson perusing Thumbkin’s favorite book.

Thumbkin is 16 months old, and very active.  He absolutely loves the cats, and I can sometimes distract him from an impending tantrum by suggesting we see where the cats are.  He usually snaps out of it, says his equivalent of “cat” (context definitely helps since other than “Mama!”  all his words sound nearly the same) and makes a vigorous petting motion with his hand.  Of course, when we find a cat, Thumbkin wants to pet the feline.  Usually, they put up with his affection with remarkable feline stoicism.

Benson is more often the recipient of toddler petting, since he’s usually more accessible.  Lavash is a little quicker to convey a feline “nope!” then Benson, so Thumbkin has learned to be a bit more cautious with her.  Still, this morning she was the target of his affection for a good several minutes, and she just took it in stride.  I even caught her purring.  Thumbkin was ecstatic about this, and, to show how happy he was with the interaction, took a break to lay down on the floor mirroring the cat’s body language.  It was incredibly cute.

Even though it wasn’t a toddler interaction, the cats got some additional attention and play time this afternoon.  Ikinji recently had a birthday, and, as a gift, received a Da Vinci catapult kit.  Think balsa wood pre-cut parts put together with dowels (and a little glue) to make a working catapult.  The instructions suggested using it to fling cat toys, which, once it was completed, he did.  Benson was snoozing on the couch and not terribly interested.  Lavash, on the other hand, played along for a couple of tosses, much to Ikinji’s delight.

Still, I suppose the cats feel they owe it to the kids to put up with slightly-too-rough petting from time to time given the number of times a week they score a snack when one or more of the kids, especially the toddler, accidentally drop food at mealtimes.


Rose Bush vs. Morning Glories

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house.  We lived in the same town, and she would look after my brothers and me during the summer and after school (at least, while we were in elementary school) while my parents worked.  It was a pretty good arrangement, actually.  We were expected to help some with yard work (I don’t know how many thousands of dandelions I pulled) and gardening (also pulling weeds, helping plant as well as harvest), but other than that, we were free to read or play.

My grandma had roses, lots of them, and she was quite proud of them.  She also passed on an appreciation of the rose to her grandkids, even though my forearms were torn up many a time from trying to rein in (no, really, tie up with stout rope) one rose in particular with half-dollar sized pink blooms, and hundreds of thousands of tiny, needle-sharp thorns.  Welding gloves weren’t even sufficient to take this one on.

She also always had morning glories; just your typical, powder blue morning glory that she would make twine up her front lamppost that stood at the corner of her driveway.   When my grandma died, my aunt collected morning glory seeds (and probably augmented with some from a store, come to think of it) and gave them to the funeral guests as a way of remembering her.   The combination in the front of rose bushes lining the driveway and morning glories going up the lamppost made for a pretty picture, and late summer always brings to mind the days at her house and this mental image.

Fast forward to now.  As I’ve documented in this space, I have a prairie rose, that seems to do OK.  It only blooms once a year, so I don’t have a second or third flush right now.  What I do have, though, are morning glories twining up, through, and over the bush.

I think my rose bush may have met its match.

Cherry Tomato Pizza-Slices Up or Down?

Pizza experimentation continues.  Then again, when pizza happens each week, it’s hard NOT to experiment some with ingredients, baking times, and baking methods.

This week’s test case was whether halved cherry tomatoes go better with the cut side up or down.  Here’s how the (very unscientific) trial went:

On a very simple pizza (crust, halved cherry tomatoes, cheese, and basil–no sauce), put some of the tomatoes cut side down, and some cut side up.  Cover with some shredded cheese (aged mozzarella and pecorino romano), and top all of that with fresh basil.  The question is whether the tomatoes adhere better to the crust with the cut side up, or down.  A secondary question is to what extent the tomatoes essentially self-sauce the pizza, and whether the orientation on the pizza makes a difference.


Unsurprisingly, the tomatoes with the cut side up tended to get displaced when hit with the pizza wheel (see bottom right quadrant below), while the cut side down ones squished a little more into the crust (most of them on the cut on the left below).


Does it really make a big difference?  Not really–it’ll be a little easier to eat if most of the tomatoes are cut side down, but it will taste pretty good no matter which way your tomatoes land.


Chanting–In Over My Head?

A few months back, the parish went from having an Extraordinary Form Missa Cantata (or High Mass) only on the first and fourth Sundays (with Low Mass the rest of the month) to a High Mass every week.  The challenge was that the very talented person who leads the usual schola is in very high demand, and so cannot be at our parish every week–he has commitments to other parishes.  The call went out for volunteers to round out the amateur schola, led by a capable young woman.  Well, I’ve always been interested in liturgical music, and learning proper chant can only help in other parishes the next time we transfer, so…I said I would try to help.  It turns out that Yakum was also interested, so she’s learning as well.

We practice one evening a week, then before mass.  YouTube and the St. Rene Goupil Gradual at Corpus Christi Watershed are life savers for actually hearing what the propers are supposed to sound like.  I especially like the Goupil Gradual because the videos always include the neumes (that is, the notation) so you can follow along.  On YouTube, it really depends on the video.

In terms of chant basics, the Our Lady of Guadalupe seminary for the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSPP) has an actual, honest-to-goodness teach yourself chant course online.  It is especially useful for figuring out what some of the particular squiggles mean, as well as the interval exercises.

For source books, the Church Music Association of America has several PDFs of different Graduals and Kyriales online so you can get the chants direct from the source.

I’ve been at it maybe two months now (with a break for our vacation in there).  I will be the first to admit that there have been a few times when I probably should have sat out the chant.  I think I made a breakthrough this week, though.  I realized, after listening to several recordings that chant, at least Western chant, uses a “head voice” (Eastern chant, to include Slavic, chant seems to be somewhat different on this point with prominent use of bass tones), rather than projecting from the diaphragm.  This sort of makes sense if chant is sung prayer or the psalms.  Especially when using a psalm tone (that is, the syllables all fall on the same pitch with little variation), the chant phrasing is supposed to be that of speech, not of song, especially not modern song.  So, with this realization in mind, I was actually able to hit and hold pitch without too much effort or flailing about this week.  I won’t say that we sounded great, or even good, but this week certainly felt like we were more cohesive and I think we sounded better than we had in prior weeks.

Still, I have lots more to learn about the nuances of chant, especially how to convey the meaning of the prayers, rather than just chanting words and syllables.  That, and lots, lots more practice to do.

St. Gregory, pray for us (because we really need it).


Revision to CCC 2267-My Thoughts

Earlier this week, the Vatican announced a revision to section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).  This particular section deals with the Church’s position on capital punishment, and is situated in the part of the CCC dealing with the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”

The previous section 2267 reads as follows, including contextual/framing sections 2263-2266:

Legitimate defense
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.”65
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.66
Capital Punishment
2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. the primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.67
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

65 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.
66 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.
67 Cf.  Lk 23:40-43

Per the Vatican Press Release2267 now reads:

The death penalty
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
[1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

To sum up the line of development of the thought extending pretty far back, most prominently from St. John Paul II, the argument goes that as we see more and more often that the judicial system doesn’t get the right person and as judicial penalties seem to be more effective at keeping the public safe, the death penalty is seen as less likely to be commensurate to punish the crime.  St. JPII called cases where capital punishment would be appropriate “practically non-existent” (see above).  Pope Benedict XVI sought an end to the death penalty in some of his speeches and writings.  Pope Francis has declared capital punishment “inadmissible” because it is an attack on the inviolability of the human person and an assault against human dignity, incorporating this line of reasoning into the CCC.  So, contrary to media reports that imply Pope Francis upended centuries of Church teaching, he really only advanced a more pointed stance on the death penalty, moving it from “exceedingly rare” to “inadmissible” for consideration as a method of judicial punishment.

My main issue with this change is that it takes out the line from St. JPII’s Evangelium vitae and replaces it with Pope Francis’ phrasing during an address.  This actually weakens the case for the death penalty to be “inadmissible” because it seems to unmoor the argument from the line of theological reasoning that stretches back and was captured in the previous section 2267.  Rather than a complete rewrite, taking out all of the previous language, they could have kept some of it in, most importantly the Evangelium vitae line, then added the citation from Pope Francis.  That would have helped prevent some of the articles that argue this is a break from previous teaching.  Probably not prevented all of them, but at least made it harder to make that argument.

My second issue is that I get very nervous when the Church wades into judicial issues.  It tends to go poorly for the Church (see Medieval Clerical Courts, fights for jurisdiction over and Inquisition, The).  What this does is seems to remove from moral consideration what had long been a legitimate exercise of secular penal authority, and using moral arguments about the dignity of the person (in this case, the adjudged guilty party) rather than moral arguments about justice, that is, the punishment fitting the crime.

One way to get there through the justice angle is by showing how we, as flawed humans, often convict the wrong person.  For punishment to be just, we have to have a high degree of certainty that we have found the actual guilty party.  The only perfect judge is God, and He isn’t telling us right now to go out and be instruments of His justice (see various groups in the Old Testament), but rather, by following Jesus, we are called to be instruments of His mercy.  Out of mercy, if there are ways to ensure the safety of the general population (CCC 2263 and 2265) without depriving the guilty of life, then we should use those.  Following St. JPII, capital punishment should be an absolute last recourse, and at that, exceedingly rare.  Per Pope Francis, better judicial penalties exist now than in say, the days of St. Thomas Aquinas, so capital punishment is no longer admissible as a proper, fitting punishment for crimes.  Because of the doubts about having the actual guilty party, the violation of the integrity and dignity of the adjudged guilty party becomes an important consideration, and should render capital punishment outside the tools in the judicial toolbox that can be considered for use.  In short, the flaws in the tool, and the advantages of other, newer tools, mean we should not use it.

At least, that’s one way of getting there.  I’m sure there are better theologians out there writing far better analyses and arguments.  I’m still not entirely sure what “inadmissible” means–I’ve tried to explain it above the best I can, but I’m not sure I have it right.

Still, I’m a bit annoyed at how it was done.  As my wife and I were discussing it, she suggested that why I was annoyed was that Pope Francis didn’t lay it out as a logical argument, which would have made the Dominicans happy, he just made it as a statement.  I answered back that the Jesuit Pope really needs to hire a Dominican copyeditor and proofreader.  If nothing else, that would bring some clarity to issues, or delay their publication indefinitely.

Medoviy Torte Birthday (Honey) Cake

Unlike last year’s very rushed birthday cake, I left myself plenty of time this year to make my cake.  I took the entire week off work, mainly because we were coming back from Colorado, but also to ensure I would have some time to work on this year’s recipe:  Russian Honey Cake, or Medoviy Torte.

When I was in Dushanbe, the Korean-Tajik ladies who ran the (tiny) cafeteria would serve this daily.  We would also get it in Turkmenistan, but it was less common there.  After I saw the recipe on Smitten Kitchen, I knew I wanted to try and recreate it.

As I said, I gave myself plenty of time to work through this one.  I was prepared for an honest-to-goodness full day marathon of working in a hot kitchen.  I even recruited Ikinji to help.  I mean, the recipe includes a stovetop portion before you even roll out the layers and bake them.  As it turns out, the actual flow of the recipe is not that difficult, and it goes pretty easily.  Even though I had Ikinji help with trimming the layers into perfect rounds (by tracing around a plate) one person can easily do everything.

The main change I made (other than using whole wheat flour, which I do in everything (except angel food cake)), is to use greek yogurt instead of the sour cream.  At least one of the comments on the recipe aludes to the fact that Russian (and post-Soviet territory) sour cream is much, much thicker than what we get.  It really is much closer to greek yogurt (that is, yogurt that has had most of the whey drained out) than the sour cream you buy here.  Also, rather than using sweetened condensed milk, I wanted more of a honey flavor, so I wanted to sub all honey for the condensed milk in the recipe.  Well…I only had about half the honey I needed, but I went with it anyway.  This made the icing not nearly as runny, and not nearly as sweet.

I would call it a success.  I do want to try it again with the correct amount of honey.  Even though it was ready for my birthday itself, due to outside circumstances, we didn’t get around to eating it until two days later.  By that time it was almost too dry, since the layers had absorbed all the available moisture.  Taste-wise it was great, but the texture was a little off.  Still, since it isn’t as difficult to make as it would seem just by reading the recipe, I think it might be making a reappearance.

Transferring Without Moving

The primary constant in the Foreign Service is change and transition.  Approximately every two or three years, we pull up stakes and move to a new posting.  In many ways, we’re global nomads, and the itinerant lifestyle makes it very difficult to put down roots, or make any long-lasting connections with people.  Still, we have the chance to meet new people, experience new cultures and food, and see an amazing chunk of the world.  I think that this line of work attracts those who get bored pretty easily and are always wondering what’s over the next hill, or what more they can learn.

This transfer is different:  I’m starting a new posting, but we’re staying in the D.C. area.  I get to change jobs, but we aren’t moving to a new country.  I will be doing something significantly different (focused on our foreign relations with two specific countries, rather than looking at political-military issues across an entire continent), but don’t have a lengthy plane ride to physically signal the change.  I closed out my portfolio and handed it over, but (thankfully!) didn’t have the stress of also packing up and moving out at the same time.  I will move offices, but the kids won’t have to change schools.

Even though I really had hoped to get back overseas for this tour, it is a relief that we have a couple more years of stability; a stability that is in dreadfully short supply in this line of work.  I would almost say this transition without moving is the best of both worlds–I get to do something new and different at work (without going through starting with a new employer), while life at home stays pretty much the same.