Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prices Are Increasing, But It's Not The Fed's Fault

There's been a rash of articles lately in conservative venues complaining that inflation is higher than people are willing to admit, and that this increase in prices is squeezing the vaunted middle class. Amity Shlaes wrote one of the more widely discussed of these in National Review. There have been many critiques of this line of thinking from the right as well, such as this American Enterprise Institute piece. However, it's a line of argument which is tantalizingly easy for people to wrap their minds around, while the working of prices and inflation is the sort of thing that can easily make your head hurt. So there's also a more down-home sort of article such as this one from The Federalist, which makes the modest assertion that consumer prices have increased faster than wages since the recession, and that this hurts consumers.

“Americans should stop whining about food prices.”

That was the message AEI’s Mark J. Perry blasted last September to families gullible enough to believe that rising food prices were a problem:
It’s a favorite pastime in this country – Americans love to complain about rising food prices. Even when they aren’t. In fact, given all of the complaining you would never know that average food price inflation in recent years is actually the lowest in several generations. Below are three reasons that Americans should stop whining about food prices, and be a little more appreciative of how affordable food is in the US today, especially when compared to other countries, or when compared to previous decades in US history.
Perry’s three reasons for why American families should stop whining were that 1) Americans spend a smaller percentage of their budgets on food than they did 60 years ago, 2) people in other countries spend more of their money on food than we do, and 3) the four-year moving average of food inflation is low.

To which I say: so what? None of those supposedly devastating critiques of the “inflation is real crowd” came even close to addressing the real problem for millions of American families: namely, that the prices of stuff they buy are growing a lot more quickly than the wages they use to buy that stuff. Yes, it’s nice that we spend a smaller percentage of our budgets on food than other nations do or than our grandparents did after World War II, but that’s cold comfort to a working mom trying to figure out how to buy $20 worth of meat with only $15 left in her pockets.
Now, he's right. A number of key consumer goods have increased in price faster than wages in the 2008-2014 time period, food and gas key among them. I pulled a couple of the key categories off the Consumer Price Index website and looked to see how the prices have increased from 2007 to 2014:

Overall CPI: 12%
Food & Beverage: 17%
Apparel: 7%
Medical Care: 21%
Recreation: 3%

During that same period average hourly wages have increased 14%, so food and medical are are both definitely increasing in price faster than people's wages are rising. Some types of food have increased significantly more than the average for the category.

The reason why inflation worries find an audience is that they take a clearly observable phenomenon (prices have increased) and blame it on a little understood one: inflation and the actions of the Federal Reserve.

Yes, the Fed has tried to achieve low levels of inflation. Yes prices have increased significantly on some key consumer products. However, while inflation (in terms of increasing the money supply -- or "printing more money" to use the populist phrase) does tend to result in increased prices, increases in the money supply are certainly not the only thing that increases prices.

Increasing the amount of money in circulation will tend to increase the prices of everything (including wages and interest rates) in a country. Two big reasons you would want to do this to spur the economy are:

1) If our money gets "cheaper" compared to the currency of other countries, the prices of the goods we produce will get "cheaper" for customers in other countries, while the cost of imported goods will rise in our country. This means that with inflation we will tend to export more and have more tourists come to visit us. The inability to inflate their currencies (because they share the Euro with Germany, France, etc.) is one of the things that has hurt poorer countries like Greece and Spain in the European financial crisis. Back before the Euro, they would have inflated their currencies thus spurring imports and tourism and helping to get their economies back on track

2) Constant but low inflation acts like an annual decrease in both wages and prices. This can be a help in resetting prices since people don't like to accept pay cuts. Often a company will lay workers off rather than reducing the wages of their existing workers. With a low level of constant inflation, a company's real wage expenses are always going down (while they make this up with the workers they value most by giving them raises) thus making layoffs less frequent. Getting stuck in a job where your company won't or can't give raises is bad, but it's often better than getting laid off entirely.

However, prices also increase for reasons having nothing to do with the money supply. During the last 20 years, prices of food and energy commodities have generally been on the increase. One of the major reasons for this is that much less of the world is in abject poverty than before. As countries like China develop, the number of people able to drive cars and buy meat at the store has been going up faster than the supply of gas and meat. As a result, these commodities and many others have increased as a simple result of supply and demand. (Other goods which depend on labor efficiency and technology have gone down in price or increased slower than inflation: electronics, clothing, etc.)

Inflation is almost certainly not the main driver of price increases on gas and food -- nor on education and medical care, though there the reasons for increases are driven by a whole other set of factors than those I've just discussed. Even if inflation hawks succeeded in reining in the Fed or re-establishing a gold standard, we could expect to see food and oil costs going generally up over the coming years. Increases in technology and efficiency are allowing the world to produce more of these than before, but the demand is increasing even more rapidly and in a situation in which the demand for something increases faster than its supply, increasing prices is the way that the market encourages people to modify their behavior to consume less of in-demand items. We can expect more of the same until we reach something like a new equilibrium.

Stillwater - 49 REVISED

Expanded, revised. Let this be a lesson to me not to forget my own plot.


And so, here she was, in the new normal. Ian was gone back to New York City, Malcolm was returned from New York City, and Melly was anxious to hear that neither of them had gotten what they’d set out to get. To know the worst would have been easier than living day in and day out with the sickening uncertainty of hope. What she did know was that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life this way, waiting for the soap opera of Stillwater life to provide her with some vicarious suds. Her life was now, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it lacked the big city panache of New York or the stately rural rhythms of Stillwater, but it had something neither of those places could provide, the one thing that made life more than bearable here: a sister.

In the beginning Melly and Leonie had had nothing in common but the rickety bones of a childhood. They had not fought — Melly never fought — but their personalities were as perfectly weighted as the scales of Justice, so that the slightest character imbalance set them pitching and swaying. After the first explosive week at home, Melly thought that perhaps she was just fated to be more isolated with her family than at Stillwater, but Leonie had surprised her again. At Stillwater there was a certain basic social decency, but nobody there, not even Malcolm, had the tenth part of Leonie’s complete openness. She was head-strong and heart-strong, intense in her loves and in her convictions, ready to correct course at full speed. Zeal and humility made strange bedfellows, but she made sense of the synthesis. In her life there’d been little enough to challenge her to be better than wiser instead of bigger and stronger. And now, with the arrival of Melly, came the revelation that heroes could be small and personal. Melly was good and sweet, but she didn’t come with a cause that Leonie could throw herself into. Strangely enough, Leonie found that Melly’s independent perspective on their family didn’t undermine her own, but deepened it. Together they could adjust and settle isolated, inexplicable bits of memory as in a stereoscope and suddenly old stories would snap into a crisp new coherence. 

Melly, in her turn, tried not to shrink into herself whenever Leonie’s fierce devotion was kindled. It was awkward to be regarded as a teacher by someone who would seize even the gentlest hint as a exhortation to charge into battle. What was needed was something that would knock her down to a human level in her sister’s estimation, something useful and admirable that Leonie could do better than she could, that would play to Leonie’s strengths and give her something to teach Melly. This was Melly’s dearest wish (aside from the secret dream Malcolm would show up on her doorstep with a ring in hand) and, as so often happens with dearest wishes, she wasn’t nearly pleased enough to have it come true, and in the most mortifying way: Leonie taught her how to drive.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Does Calling God 'He' Mean Men Are More Godlike?

People sometimes get a bit queasy about referring to God as "He" on the theory that it somehow leaves women out or marks them as lesser creatures. Someone recently asked the question this way: If it's more accurate to call God "He" because there is something about Him that is more masculine than feminine, does that mean that men are more godlike than women?

The question of in what sense masculine pronouns are best applied to God is a tricky one. Two things are very clear:

1) When God became man, He became a man: Jesus

2) God qua God is not either a man or a woman, and both human sexes in some sense reflect aspects of God. "God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female* he created them."

I think the opening question can be addressed very easily, however. Rather than God, let's think for a moment about ordinary human relationships. Say a man has four children, two sons and two daughters. Imagine someone says of one of the daughters "she's just like her father" or "Jane is more like Tom and any of his other kids."

Now clearly, if someone says this, they're not trying to suggest that Jane is a man or that Tom is a woman. Rather, they're expressing that in regard to personality, appearance, hobbies, or some other set of characteristics, Jane seems more like her father than any of her other siblings do. In this basic, human kind of comparison, sex is not the primary thing that we're referring to when we talk about how similar people are.

The problem with saying "We call God 'He', so men must be more godlike than women" is that it assumes that sex is the primary axis on which we would determine how much or little someone was like God. Why would this be?

Other characteristics seem obviously false: "Jesus was a Jew, so Jews are clearly more godlike than gentiles." or "Jesus was a carpenter, so carpenters are clearly more godlike than plumbers." I'd argue that making a similar comparison based on sex is equally so.

If there's one characteristic which is the right axis on which to compare people to God, it would be virtue. Thus, men and women are both more or less similar to God based on the extent to which they emulate His perfect goodness.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stillwater - 49

And so, here she was, in the new normal. Ian was gone back to New York City, Malcolm was returned from New York City, and Melly was anxious to hear that neither of them had gotten what they’d set out to get. To know the worst would have been easier than living day in and day out with the sickening uncertainty of hope. What she did know was that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life this way, waiting for the soap opera of Stillwater life to provide her with some vicarious suds. Her life was now, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it lacked the big city panache of New York or the stately rural rhythms of Stillwater, but it had something neither of those places could provide, the one thing that made life more than bearable here: a sister.

In the beginning Melly and Leonie had had nothing in common but the rickety bones of a childhood. They had not fought, because fighting wasn’t Melly’s style, but their personalities, introverted versus aggressive, were pitched for disharmony. Melly had feared, after the first explosive weekend at home, that she would feel more isolated among her family than she had at Stillwater, but her family still had a few surprises for her. No one at Stillwater, not even Malcolm, had the tenth part of Leonie’s complete openness. Zeal and humility seemed like strange bedfellows, but Leonie made sense of the synthesis. She was head-strong and heart-strong: intense in her loves and convictions, but willing to correct course at full speed. In her life, there had been little enough to challenge her to be better and wiser, instead of bigger and stronger. Now, with the arrival of Melly, Leonie discovered that heroes could be small and personal. Melly didn’t have a cause that Leonie could throw herself into. Her independent, characteristic perspective on their family deepened Leonie’s own understanding rather than setting them against each other. Together they could adjust isolated, inexplicable bits of memory in their stereoscope and suddenly old family stories would snap into a crisp new coherence. Melly’s mildness was not a rebuke to Leonie, but a clarion call.

Melly was trying, in her turn, to respond to this enthusiasm not by shrinking into herself, but by opening herself to her sister. She tried to allow herself to be changed by Leonie’s fearlessness without being intimidated by her fierce devotion. She didn’t want to be Leonie’s teacher — in fact, the danger was that Leonie would seize on the gentlest hint as an exhortation to charge into battle. As it was, Melly had had just about enough of being put on a pedestal, between Ian’s “bright angel!” schtick, and trying to avoid playing voices to Leonie’s Joan of Arc, and (she could even begin, in the recesses of her heart, to admit this to herself) Malcolm’s “dearest confidante” tunnel vision.

Ian could be dismissed from thought, and Leonie lived with, but Malcolm was the source of Melly’s disquiet. Her greatest deprivation at home was not the the lack of good food or good family, but the loss of his daily company, and although the length of the separation had dulled the initial pain, her spirit was roiled whenever she meditated on him, and him and Alys, and now, on his trip to New York City. She longed to know what had happened between them, and she wondered why she had heard from neither. The days empty of news left her to spin multiple fantastic scenarios about their visit, little novelettes in Melly could override her reason just enough to create plenty of dramatic tension for Malcolm and Alys but not enough to give them a really satisfying break-up. Why didn’t they just settle something, so she could move on with her life?

She had almost persuaded herself that the reason she heard nothing was because they were too happy in each other to talk to her, or perhaps they really had nothing to write, when, late the week after Ian had left, there arrived another letter addressed to Mlle. Melusine Arceneaux.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mandatory Fun

I feel guilty about writing a blog post while Stillwater still hangs over my head like the fountain pen of Damocles, but for this I break my silence: Weird Al has released a new album called Mandatory Fun. He's releasing one video a day for a week, on different sites, but you can see them all as they come out at

So far we've got:

Tacky (parody of Happy by Pharrell Williams

This is one of those where I hear the parody and think, "Oh, that's what that song is!" The comedian cameos are good goofy fun (I love Eric Stonestreet's little tap combination at the mention of resumes in Comic Sans.)

Word Crimes (parody of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines)

I don't know anything about the original except that it's the song which accompanied Miley Cyrus's infamous Twerk That Launched a Thousand Facebook Posts, and I'm told that one should not, under any circumstances, look for the original video. No matter. This must transcend its source material, because it's absolutely hilarious, and is the sort of thing that will have homeschoolers canceling their English co-ops in order to study the lyrics for a semester.

Foil (parody of Royals by Lorde)

Now this one I do know, and I tell you what, despite the inspired silliness of this song, I just can't take my eyes off of Weird Al's hair, especially when he dons that fetching hat. My girls were in hysterics by the twist at the end, since they've become die-hard fans of the original Mission: Impossible series, which used that little device all the time.

Handy (parody of Iggy Azalea's Fancy)

Another "Huh, so that's what that song is" moment. Not the craziest thing you've ever seen, but definitely watchable, and he's doing some clever things matching the rhythm of the original. And that wig! I'd hire him.

Keep checking daily until July 21 for more fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Wonder of Mutant Corn

This is a re-post from five years back, when we were living in Texas, but since I now drive through Ohio corn fields on my way to work, and we've been growing sweet corn in the garden for the first time this year, I was reminded of it.

Here to the north of Austin, we live in an odd patchwork of new neighborhood, business parks and shopping malls interspersed with open fields. Cattle graze in the field next to our supermarket, and corn grows cross the street from our bank.

Seeing the orderly fields of corn, I'd never realized that corn represents an intriguing mystery in regards to plant evolution and the history of humanity's interaction with the plants we live off of. First domesticated in Central America around 7000 years ago, corn as we find it today is a domestic-only plant in that it is virtually incapable of reproducing in the wild.

One of the characteristics of corn that makes it such a useful crop is the incredibly high return of kernels harvested to kernels planted. Biologically, one of the reasons for this abundance is that unlike other grasses which have been domesticated as agricultural grains, the corn cob forms halfway down on the plant, closer to sources of water and nutrients, and thus the plant is able to put more energy into seed growth. In other cereals, the seeds are at the very top of the stalk, at the plant's farthest extremety.

Another great feature of corn is that the cob is covered by a husk, which largely protects the grain from pests. It pretty much requires a creature with opposable thumbs to get the husk off, which means you loose less of the grain prior to harvest. Plus, the kernels are well-rooted into the cob, as compared to grains like wheat where the ripe seeds can easily fall from the ear of grain.

However, all of this -- particularly the firmness of the kernels in the cob and the husk covering it -- means that if there are no humans to harvest the corn, very, very little of it will succeed in naturally reseeding. If a cornfield were abandoned before harvest and you returned in five years to see if any wild corn was left growing, you would probably find few to no corn plants.

This means that corn as we find it today must be biologically fairly different from the corn ancestor which Central Americans first found in the wild and domesticated. The predominant theory out there is that corn is descended from the grass called teosinte which is found in Mexico even today, but the differences between the two plants are extensive, though there is enough genetic similarity to make it pretty clear they are related. Teosinte grains is far out on the extremities of a banching stalk, the grains are covered by hard outer covering (like the chaff of wheat), the grains are not strongly rooted in a cob-like structure, and they are not covered by a husk that remains closed.

The National Science Foundation has a nice comparison here:

The prevailing theory at the moment is apparently that teosinte underwent a series of major mutations during a very short period of time which resulted in the corn we see today. I find that a bit unsatisfying, since series of major, conventient, stable mutations are hard to come by. Thus I was interested to find this article about Prof. Mary Eubanks of Duke University, who has been working on the theory that corn as we know it today is the result of multiple hybridizations between teosinte and another wild grass called tripsacum. She's developed a hybrid of tripsacum and modern corn which exhibits many of the properties of the ancient ears of corn dating back 5000+ years that have been found in caves in Mexico. Apparently she has pretty decent genetic evidence for this as well by now.

While I'm not remotely an expert, I must admit to finding the hybridization explanation somewhat more convincing on the face of it than the sudden large mutation explanation. And I had never realized that corn was so interesting.

Re-Reading for the Younger Kids

Isabel (age eight) was having a hard time the other night. She'd taken a spill on her bike and had to have dirt and grit washed out of her scrapes before she could be bandaged up.

"What can I do for my girl?" I asked.

"Read Princess and the Goblin!"

She got out the book and found the chapter two thirds through where we'd left off perhaps six months ago. I read her the chapter, and she curled up happily and listened. The older and younger kids gathered around as well, and what had been a private comfort read became bedtime read alouds -- a ritual which has been all to rare of late since it's light outside until almost 10PM and the kids don't want to come in until it's already after bedtime.

Thinking about it afterwards, I felt guilty. We'd been working very slowly through The Princess and the Goblin for the somewhat selfish reason that I'd already read it (and The Princess and Curdie) to the kids six years ago, when our oldest girls were six and five. It was a great age for reading it to them, but that put Isabel at age two, too young to remember. Now she wants her turn, and I hadn't thought about it because I'd read it to them already.

The same thing struck me the next night when Jack and Diana (ages 5 and 3) were having a hard bed time and Diana begged for me to read her a Mother Goose book which she'd picked off the shelf. The book itself shows the amount of Mother Goose reading that's gone on in the family: the covers are loose and some of the pages are torn or wrinkled, the result of hard use by children on down the line. But that was mostly a long time ago. When the first two kids were aged 2-4, I read them a lot of children's verse and classic picture books at bed time. As they've aged, so have the read alouds. This is particularly the case because, frankly, I'm not as fond of books and stories aimed at very young children as I am at younger ones. The current family read aloud is a Dorothy Sayers murder mystery. The older kids love it, and I enjoy sharing with them a book that I myself enjoy a lot. But while the younger kids can get a surprising amount out of books aimed at an older audience, I realize that my own taste and the fact that I've ready read the two to six year old canon many, many times means that the younger children get a lot less nursery rhymes and Madeline and Babar and Beatrix Potter than the older ones did. Even more left out are children's novels accessible to younger children: Edward Eager, George McDonald, E. Nesbit, E. B. White and such. It's not that I dislike these books. I enjoyed reading them to the kids, but since I've read them to them already, I'd been thinking entirely in terms of moving on to new books.

I can see now that I'm going to have to change this tendency and make sure that the younger kids are getting their fair share of younger-focused read-alouds. I doubt the older kids will mind this particularly either. I go back and re-read my own favorite books moderately often. Re-hearing books that they heard some years back will probably be enjoyable for them, as well as getting the younger children a chance to hear the books they were too young to recall from before.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Coffee Fueled the Civil War

It's been a long couple weeks, and as I wrap things up I'm sitting here at my desk with a cup of black coffee. It seems those under far more trying circumstances than I relied on much the same, according to this post on the reliance on coffee of soldiers in the US Civil War:
It was the greatest coffee run in American history. The Ohio boys had been fighting since morning, trapped in the raging battle of Antietam, in September 1862. Suddenly, a 19-year-old William McKinley appeared, under heavy fire, hauling vats of hot coffee. The men held out tin cups, gulped the brew and started firing again. “It was like putting a new regiment in the fight,” their officer recalled. Three decades later, McKinley ran for president in part on this singular act of caffeinated heroism.

At the time, no one found McKinley’s act all that strange. For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”
The Union Army encouraged this love, issuing soldiers roughly 36 pounds of coffee each year. Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets. They spent much of their downtime discussing the quality of that morning’s brew. Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a “delicious cup of black,” or fumed about “wishy-washy coffee.” Escaped slaves who joined Union Army camps could always find work as cooks if they were good at “settling” the coffee – getting the grounds to sink to the bottom of the unfiltered muckets.

For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as another diarist noted, “little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.” Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon tens of thousands of muckets gurgled with fresh brew.

Confederates were not so lucky. The Union blockade kept most coffee out of seceded territory. One British observer noted that the loss of coffee “afflicts the Confederates even more than the loss of spirits,” while an Alabama nurse joked that the fierce craving for caffeine would, somehow, be the Union’s “means of subjugating us.” When coffee was available, captured or smuggled or traded with Union troops during casual cease-fires, Confederates wrote rhapsodically about their first sip.
There's a good deal more, and worth reading.

Stillwater - 48

Yeah, I could read this through for continuity, or I could go to bed. 


Fortunate indeed are they who can command the weather to fit their fancy. Melly could not. She hoped for rain, vast bucketfuls pouring from the vaults of heaven, flooding the streets and making it impossible to walk down by the river or for Ian to drive to her family’s house. What she found, when she looked out her window in all hopefulness, was glorious October, clear and fine, the weather really almost Novemberish in its hint of crispness. There was nothing to prevent Ian from coming, and nothing did; he arrived on the cramped concrete stoop in good time, paid his respects, and escorted Melly and Marie-Helene to the car, and downtown. There they parked along River Road and stood on the sidewalk surveying the options for strolling amidst greenery. To their right, the Old State Capitol, a great wedding cake of a building, rose up amidst an expanse of fenced, manicured lawn. Tucked beside it was Repentance Park which, Ian had heard, had just received a multi-million dollar renovation.

“All the repentance money can buy,” he said, surveying the green crescent of field. “It doesn’t look very exciting, does it? Anyway, we want to see the river.”

Marie-Helene was already charging ahead up the steps of the pedestrian bridge which would lead them across the street to the terraces and fountains of the river front plaza. Melly followed at a more leisurely pace, and Ian matched her speed. He maintained a correct distance between them, doing nothing to alarm her or make her skittish. Melly appreciated the reserve. It was thoughtful of him, and reduced the hardship of having to spend time in his company. She paused, hovering above River Road — her own River Road, though it ran along the east bank of the river here in the city — and looked away south, wishing she could trace its course down to the ferry from Sunshine to Plaquemine, where it picked up on the west bank and ran down past Stillwater itself. Down to Stillwater, where Malcolm was not, because he was in New York City visiting Alys. Melly wanted to stay on the bridge above River Road and stand vigil until Malcolm returned, but Ian was at her elbow. Marie-Helene was shouting back at them from the next, higher portion of the walkway to come and see the river. With the smallest of sighs, Melly turned her face from Stillwater. Marie-Helene, full of the zeal of youth and animated by the sheer joy of living on such a glorious day as this, ran back to seize their hands and drag them up the second flight of stairs. Ian was infected by her mood. Together they pulled Melly up onto the high walkway over the railroad tracks, where the breeze whipped around them as they took in the view.

Above them drifted flocks of puffy clouds in an azure sky; below them lay the pleasant sculptural grounds of the plaza; beside them rose a monumental homage to the large red stick, the baton rouge; before them stretched a pier arched at intervals with great white pipes bent like paperclips. The sunlight was bright enough to make Melly shade her eyes, but she found that every color was intensified, not bleached, by the clear light. Nothing could alter the essentially muddy nature of the Mississippi, but the vivid blueness of the sky transmuted the water into peridot wavelets chased by the occasional shadow of a cloud. Even Port Allen across the river had acquired a certain industrial nobility.

Such a beautiful prospect did her heart good. She felt her cares melt away from her for the moment. Even Ian’s company wasn’t so onerous, because she could see that he too felt the lure of all that was good and right and lovely about such a day. He didn’t appreciate the sky and the river simply because he was seeing them with her. He could see them in themselves and love them independently of whether she loved them too. Melly remembered how serious he had been when he discussed photography with Olivia Spencer, one of the rare occasions when it seemed to be discussing a subject for its own sake and not for how it served him. Now as he gazed out over the riverscape, she snuck a glance at his face, and could believe that he was not thinking of her at all.

On the levee below them, Marie-Helene was already dancing around on the red-paved path lined with benches. Melly made her way to one and rested her weary legs as she surveyed the two ships moored in the river: the USS Kidd and the riverboat casino.

“There’s an interesting contrast,” said Ian, following her gaze as he sat beside her. “Ship of heroes, ship of fools. One is a monument to men who sacrifice their lives for their country, the other a monument to men who sacrifice their money for their entertainment.”

“Often they’re the same man,” said Melly, thinking of her father.

Ian seemed to follow her. “How long have you been at home now, Melly? A month?”

“Yes,” she said, and then hesitated under the demands of accuracy. “Well, not exactly. I got here on a Sunday evening, so tomorrow it will only be four weeks since I left Stillwater. So it’s almost a month, but not yet…” She might have qualified this several more times if not for the check of his eyes, which glowed with the moonstruck fervor of a parent contemplating an adorable infant.

“You never like to be caught saying anything untrue,” he said. “I like that you always feel that honesty is the best policy.”

“Honesty is a facet of the truth,” she said slowly. “I want to be truthful.”

“That’s why I rely on your judgment.” His boyish face was serious, his body tense with the effort of not leaning close to her. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you. I wanted your opinion on my project, especially after I’ve had a night to chew on Leonie’s criticism. Do you think it’s selfish of me to fix up a house for only myself? Do you think it’s wrong of me to come down here from New York and buy your houses and throw money at local workmen like I was some French aristocrat patronizing the peasants?”

Melly was unsure what he wanted her to say. “I guess if you’re stimulating the economy no one will complain.”

“That’s a financial angle. But I need you to tell me what to do.”

“I can’t tell you what to do. You know your business better than I do.”

“But tell me what’s right.”

“You’d do better to ask your conscience instead of me.”

“You’re my conscience, Melly.”

“Don’t say that!” Melly did not want to look at him for fear that she might see the light of sincerity in his eyes. “That’s too much of a burden for anyone to bear, to carry the weight of being someone else’s judgment. It’s wrong to put that on me.”

“If you say so, I believe it.”

“No! Believe it because it’s true.”

Melly stood up and turned her face toward Marie-Helene, and toward the street and the car parked on it. She wanted to walk away and leave Ian behind, but she knew her legs were too tired to carry her very far very fast. He could tell too; even without looking at him she could feel him standing behind her, watching her with the devotion of a penitent before the statue of his patron saint.

“You aren’t well,” he said.

“I am. Well enough. I just need an early dinner and bedtime tonight.”

“Let me take you to dinner, “ he said. “You need better food than you’re getting at home. And you need a better environment. What if…” He stood behind her now, almost whispering in her ear. “What if I drove you down to Stillwater, and we could look around for old time’s sake, and then come back to town to eat? I can put off my flight until tomorrow. The pilot doesn’t care.”

Oh, Stillwater. Her breath caught in her throat as the glorious vision rose up before her: every wing and window clear in her mind as if she were standing out on the levee on a cool summer morning. Ian could have her there in an hour. Speed cost him nothing.

But speed cost her everything, and the detachment from Stillwater she was beginning to foster was still new enough to crumble at temptation.

“I can’t tonight,” she said with all the social self-possession she could muster. “I need to take Marie-Helene to the Vigil Mass.”

“Then let me take you there.”

Not only did he take them to Mass, he went with them. Melly didn’t know whether to be gratified or frustrated at this. In the end she said nothing and left him to his conscience, whatever it told him. She had her doubts about whether he’d ever set foot in a church before, but despite his unfamiliarity with the Mass, he comported himself respectably, though he would take her hand at the Our Father and hold it longer than observation of the congregation should have indicated. Still, when he dropped her and Marie-Helene at the house, he didn’t linger or push her. She stood looking after him longer than he’d stood saying goodbye to her.

The house was dull and gray that evening. Leonie was still at work, so there was no one whose eye lit up when she entered the living room. The noise and the chaos struck her with fresh force now that she’d been out for the day in civilized company. She was disgusted with herself for being disgusted with everyone, and ashamed of preferring Ian’s company to the present company. By the time she caught herself staring at the door in a reverie, half hoping that he would return and renew his offer of taking her to Stillwater, she took herself to her hard twin bed and spent several hours with eyes resolutely closed, repeating a fervent prayer that she would never see him again.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Write For The Insiders?

There's always something a little delicious about reading a negative review, though at the same time I always hesitate because I'm not sure how seriously to take it. Being negative can be so much fun that there's always the question of whether the negativity is fair. Be that as it may, this review of blogger turned novelist Emily Gould's first novel Friendship struck me:
The incestuous hub of this activity is now Brooklyn, where literary life resembles a high-school popularity contest. Brooklyn's litterateurs write about themselves and their friends and then are published and publicized by that same clique. This is hardly unprecedented in the annals of literature—as the critic John Leonard wrote of one of the late Manhattan literary gangs in 2006, "cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt." But the narcissism that online platforms like Twitter and Tumblr tend to enforce has made Brooklyn books especially mystifying to non-belongers. To even begin to understand the recent memoirs by Benjamin Anastas and Jon-Jon Goulian or the new novel by parody blogger David Shapiro, you have to be a master of hipster Kremlinologyy: to know who's dating whom, who goes to whose parties and who's favoriting whose tweets

Firmly established someplace in the upper echelons of this hierarchy is Emily Gould, who has now written her first novel, "Friendship." She made her name as a blogger cheerfully dishing about her boyfriend, her parents and her cats and then as an editor-provocateur at the gossip website Gawker. She reached an even wider audience with a tell-all memoir in the New York Times Magazine about traumas like "losing the will to blog"— though what people mostly remember from that piece is the cover photo of her lolling in bed, her tattoos carefully exposed.
"Friendship" is about two New York women approaching 30. Amy, once a minor celebrity in "the blog big leagues," has a sinecure at a Jewish online magazine called Yidster. Bev, an aspiring writer, is getting by on temp work. Amy is melodramatic and egotistical; Bev is quiet and determined. Despite their frequent resentments, the two feel like "allies in a world full of idiots and enemies." Their friendship reaches a crisis when Bev becomes pregnant from a one-night stand and decides to keep the baby. Amy, meanwhile, loses her job, her boyfriend and her chic apartment. The reversal of fortunes is signified through fashion. Bev wears a taupe trench coat to an interview at the start of the book; Amy wears "sad taupe interview shoes" at the end of it. Taupe is evidently the color worn by the down-at-heel.

If you squint hard enough, you can see Amy as a kind of slacker version of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, both brought low by fecklessness and profligacy. But the book's lesson—the mundane discovery that maturation is about outgrowing petty self-interest—is belied by the book itself, which has difficulty imagining what adult life might actually look like. Once Bev's pregnancy advances, she all but disappears from the story (the birth occurs offstage), which mostly catalogs Amy's hissy fits when she can't afford a dress or has to ride the bus. Eventually Amy realizes the value of true friendship, but the transformation is condensed into the final five pages and comes across as wishful thinking.

The rest is Brooklynology. To get any purchase on this novel, you need to be able to decode its real-life allusions. At one point Amy is criticized for having spastic eyebrows while shooting a video blog for Yidster. The scene is inert because it's an inside joke: Ms. Gould is poking fun at her own 2007 appearance on " Larry King Live." If you happen never to have seen that clip, tough luck for you.

The prose is of the diaristic, blogger style pushed to extremes in books like Tao Lin's "Taipei" and Choire Sicha's "Very Recent History," which offer stenographic transcripts of Brooklyn life. Ms. Gould is more personable than those writers and sometimes nails a wry observation (Amy, in a sulk, ignores her cat in order to watch cat videos on her laptop). But her writing is generally little more than autobiographical referents. The dialogue in particular, spattered with "uhs" and "ums" and "likes," conveys nothing beyond the banal mindlessness of tape-recorded speech: "But no matter what," Amy says to Bev, "if you decide to have this baby, you're going to, like, have a baby. That's going to mean something. Just because . . . like, it's a baby."
I like novels that pull one into other times and places, but a successful novel of that sort both emphasizes the differentness of the subject place and time, while introducing the reader into it. The reader is the 'other' and the milieu is the foreign land.

The insider novel, however, is an utterly tiresome mini-genre. Occasionally someone will try to write insider fiction set in the Catholic sub culture, and while I know the culture and get the jokes, I must say that if the only point is to say "hey, I'm an insider' it's dull and tiresome. What seems doubly offensive about this Brooklynology sub genre is that it parlays its geographical and personal connections to the publishing industry into publication and promotion when clearly Brooklyn is not the native clime of most book readers. The review opens with an anecdote of self importance which is enough to make even a writer feel a bit smug about the low motion death throws of the publishing industry:
In 2008, the writer Sloane Crosley fielded an interview question on the loaded subject of blurbs, those little bits of over-the-top admiration that gild the back covers of books. Ms. Crosley, who was promoting her single-woman-in-Brooklyn essay collection "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," had been a book publicist, and she scored heaps of advance praise from famous friends and clients. "Isn't this why aspiring writers in the rest of the country hate New Yorkers?" the interviewer asked. "Um, yes," she answered. "It seems like cheating. And by all means, if cheating is promoting other people's work, trying to get people to pay attention to a product that the entire world is slowly losing interest in, then yes, I cheated."
A better way to keep people interested in the product would be to write books which are aimed at people in their capacity as human beings, not their capacity as Brooklynites.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Are Traditionalists the Future of Catholicism in France?

Rod Dreher wrote about a recent post put up by the traditionalist blog Centurio which attempts to forecast out the trends in the population of diocesan priests in France and in priests in France who are members of groups focused on the Tridentine Mass. Centurio's post is a sort of sequel to an earlier Centurio post looking at the comparative rate of growth in priests world wide versus in groups celebrating the Tridentine Mass and concluding that although traditionalist groups are growing faster than the number of priests as a whole, those priests will still only comprise 0.5% of priests world wide in 2050 if current trends continue, although that 0.5% does represent a doubling of the current percentage of priests worldwide accounted for by priests from traditionalist groups.

The methodology in the original Centurio post strikes me as essentially solid:
Using available statistical data from the center for applied research in the apostolate (1) and from various sources on the traditional institutes of priests (2), I have put together forecasts on the future number of priests until the year 2050. In order to put these forecasts together I used the simple iterative formula

n (t+1) = n (t) * (1 - r) + o

where n(t+1) is the number of priests in the next year, n(t) is the number of priests in the current year, r is the rate of retirement or priests per year expressed in percent of all priests, and o is the number of ordinations of new priests each year. I was able to obtain the total number of priests as well as the number of ordinations from the sources mentioned above and input into the formula. For the retirement rate I assumed 2.5% which equals to 40 active years for a priest this means that every year 1/40 of all priests becomes inactive. I did all calculations for the individual orders of traditional priests, then summed them up to all traditional priests. I also did the calculation for all priests (currently 414,313) according to the CARA data (1).
France is an interesting case on which to do a follow-up to this analysis because although a historically Catholic country is has seen a huge reduction in church attendance and in the number of priests in recent years. France currently has 14,000 priests, with an average age of 75 and in recent years has ordained around 100 priests a year.

The approach that Centurio takes is to assume that because the average age of French priests is 75, 20% of them will retire every year, while adding assuming that the most recent national ordination number (96) remains constant from here on out. With these assumptions, the number of priests stabilizes at around 480 around 2050. Given the current number of priests in traditionalist orders in France, and their growth rate, they would become the majority of French priests around 2038 with these assumptions.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that even the new priests (being ordained at an assumed rate of 96 per year) are also retiring at a rate of 20% per year. While it may be that some French vocations are older, I think we can assume that their average age is not 75! What would be a lot more reasonable is to assume a standard length of active life for priests such as 35 years and assume that given a constant rate of ordinations the population of priests will eventually stabilize at that number times the number of ordinations. With 96 vocations per year, that would indicate a eventual priest population of 3360. Obviously, this is a much, much smaller number of priests that the current 14,000. However, it's also significantly more than the reasonably projected number of traditionalist priests. Rather than being the majority in 2050, if current trends continue traditionalist priests will make up about 16% of French priests. (This doesn't include the rate at which France imports priests from Africa and Eastern Europe.)

Even so, the decline in the number of priests is absolutely huge and says a lot about the decline in French Catholicism. This piece describes the decline in the number of seminarians:
As was the case last year, there has been a 3% drop in candidates to the priesthood (from 732 on 15 November 2010 to 710 on 15 November 2011).

In order to evaluate these data over a longer period, let us recall that enrollment in French seminaries had been 4,536 at the end of the Council in 1966; it was 1,297 in 1975 during the explosive years of the liturgical reform; 1,103 in 1996 during the John Paul II years; 784 in 2005 when Benedict XVI was elected, and 710 today. There is therefore an observable 85% drop since Vatican II and nothing seems to able to stop it . . . at least so long as the outlook at the parish level remains unfavorable to the renewal of the priesthood. ... This represents the lowest level on record since the French Revolution in 1789.
The come into perspective a bit, however, if you look at the percentage of the French who are actually going to mass every a week. That too has declined dramatically over time:
A poll by IFOP for Catholic daily La Croix published in early 2010 presented data on Catholics in France. In 1965, 81% of the French declared themselves as Catholics; no more than 64% did in 2009. The decrease in active Catholics was proportionately much larger: in 1952, 27% of the French went to Mass once a week or more, while in 2006, no more than 4.5% did.

If we take the percentage of French who were weekly mass goers right before the council as 27%, and the current percent as 4.5%, we get a decline in the number of church attendees from 16 million to 3 million. This 77% decline in the absolute number of church attendees, even as the French population increased by 41%, represents a near implosion of religious practice. If you look at the number of seminarians as a function of the number of regular mass goers (after all, I think we can assume that only people who go to mass at least weekly enter the seminary) it turns out that the ratio of seminarians to mass goers hasn't changed as dramatically. In 1966 there were 3.6 seminarians per 10,000 weekly mass goers, while now there are 2.4 seminarian per 10,000 weekly mass goers -- a 33% decline. If we could control the number of mass goers for age, we might well see a flat rate.

None of this says that vocations are healthy in France, but it underscores the fact that the vocations crisis is a part of a long term decline in faith and practice by which France has pretty much ceased to be something you can call a Catholic country.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Red Beans and Rice

It's been a while since we've done any food blogging, so let me tell you about dinner tonight:

Red Beans and Rice
(adapted from Leon Soniat’s La Bouche Creole)

1 lb. red beans
1 or 2 ham hocks
2 onions
3 stalks celery
2 bell peppers
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. vinegar
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste

Sort and rinse beans. Put in pot with ham hocks, and add 2 1/2 quarts water. Chop onions, celery, bell peppers, and garlic and add to the pot. Add the seasonings. Never let the mixture boil, but rather allow it to simmer gently. Stir the pot 3 to 4 times an hour.

As the beans begin to soften, mash some of them against the side of the pot. The result will be a thick, creamy sauce. When beans have cooked to a cream tenderness they are ready to serve over fluffy white rice.

To serve:

Make 2 cups of rice. Cut andouille sausage into rounds and fry it up. Serve red beans over rice and under sausage.

Red beans are traditionally served on Mondays, but Tuesday is just as good here.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Beauty for Everyone

Our new pastor wanted to make the parish festival bigger, with more games and rides and attractions, something that would boost revenue and bring in the community. I was dubious because I'm not a fan of festivals myself, or of anything that requires standing in line on a hot day, clutching tickets in a sweaty hand and trying to fend off the kids howling for cotton candy. But we went, and I'm glad. Besides seeing a good portion of the parish out and about, the festival brought in a large cross-section of society at large. There are strata and sub-strata to the local community that I never even see, except at the county fair, and the festival brought them all in: the high rollers, the families with small children, the tattooed, the buttoned-up, the young and the old and everyone in between. People who would never have cause to set foot on the grounds of a Catholic church were wandering the parking lot and the school yard having a great time. They came because they wanted some temporal entertainment on a summer weekend, and St. Mary's was providing it. And this is a legitimate aim of the church: to provide ways to nurture not just the soul, but the community's desire for companionship.

The next day was Corpus Christi, and I sang the shorter form of the Sequence in Latin at Mass. The unaccompanied chant rolled through the church, and it was, despite the singer, a moment full of beauty and peace. It was the kind of spiritual beauty, nurturing the soul's longing for the eternal, that the Church does and must provide. And I hoped that anyone who had visited St. Mary's because of the festival and who had decided to try going to church the next day would find that the Catholic Church could provide both temporal and spiritual solace, and that the temporal kind is only the prelude and invitation to the deeper, fuller, richer spiritual beauties that Catholicism offers.

The festival drew a cross-section of society, and the Church needs to draw a cross-section of society, so that no one ever feels that the Church is composed of "my people". But what the Church must offer, is obliged to offer, is beauty, true beauty. This is egalitarian. This is evangelization: to be a source of beauty in the lives of those who have little temporal beauty, to be a refuge and a waystation and conduit for all the deeper longings of the soul trapped in the squalor and the banality of this world. A Church that sloughs off that obligation, that seeks for "relevance" in worship, or "accessibility", is a failing Church. My pastor had the right idea: offer good accessible entertainment as a stepping stone to the richer beauties of the liturgy. If we believe that the Church really is for everyone, no matter who, then we need to respond to the longing for beauty of women who have butterfly wings tattooed on their backs as much as to the longings of the Sunday regulars and those who have been Catholic all their lives. It's a mistake to make the church a place of easy, cheap beauty to draw people in, as if the deepest longings of their souls deserve no more fulfillment than watery pop music or chintzy liturgy. The church becomes temporally relevant in extra-liturgical activities; she stays spiritually relevant by remaining a source of authentic, rock-solid, eternal beauty.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Reading (and not reading) Highlights

The WSJ has a piece this morning on the best sellers that people do, and don't, read. The methodology is kind of clever. Those reading on a Kindle or the Kindle app have the ability to highlight passages of interest. Amazon keeps statistics on which passages are most highlighted. The author of the piece uses the distribution of these most highlighted passages to track whether people appear to be reading the whole book:
It's beach time, and you've probably already scanned a hundred lists of summer reads. Sadly overlooked is that other crucial literary category: the summer non-read, the book that you pick up, all full of ambition, at the beginning of June and put away, the bookmark now and forever halfway through chapter 1, on Labor Day. The classic of this genre is Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," widely called "the most unread book of all time."

How can we find today's greatest non-reads? Amazon's "Popular Highlights" feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book's Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book's five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we're guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)
He then runs down some of this year's hot sellers and looks at how much of them buyers appear to be reading.
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt : 98.5%
This seems like exactly the kind of long, impressive literary novel that people would carry around ostentatiously for a while and never finish. But it's just the opposite. All five top highlights come from the final 20 pages, where the narrative falls away and Ms. Tartt spells out her themes in a cascade of ringing, straight-out assertions.

"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins : 43.4%
Another novel that gets read all the way through. "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them" is the most highlighted sentence in the seven-year history of Kindle, marked by 28,703 readers. Romantic heat in the late going also helps to produce a high score.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James: 25.9%
Perhaps surprisingly, the top highlights here are family-friendly. You should apologize to the people you thought were reading this as pure smut, because they actually were just noting the names of the characters' favorite operas and marking, for further study, slogans like "The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership."
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn't even close. Mr. Piketty's book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.
Of course, the wildcard here is the question of what people actually use highlights for. I'm probably not the best person on this, as I've only read a half dozen books on Kindle, and those only because I couldn't get them practically in hard copy. Since a lot of my recent reading is novel research, I've been doing a lot of "highlighting" if you will, but this involves sticking little color coded Post Its into my books and perhaps putting a note on the Post It as to why I want to recall that passage. In addition to the fact that I just like physical books (and a lot of what I'm using for research isn't available on Kindle) I find it a lot easier to use a physical book for reference when writing on the computer. Somehow flipping back and forth between screens/apps seems a lot less productive.

In more general reading, I think that highlights will tend to be passages that the reader wants to reference or quote later, so it's probably not a surprise that in Shades of Grey the highlights are literary references and self help slogans. It's not necessarily that these are what people were reading the book for, but rather that that these are the pieces the reader is most likely want to refer to for some other purpose later. Indeed, skimming down the list of most highlighted passages of all time, it strikes me that pithy general statements get a fair amount of the attention.

It also strikes me that these draw from a small and unrepresentative section of readers. The most highlighted passages are still only highlighted by a few thousand readers, and apparently readers of the Hunger Games trilogy have an extreme propensity to highlight. (Personally, I read the first and by the time the second came in at the library I realized I really didn't care and so returned it without starting it.)

For the record, my unfinished book for the year (all others I've finished or am still making active progress through) was Ken Follet's historical novel Fall of Giants. I read about 500 pages out of 1200 and realized the only reason I was continuing was so that I wouldn't have to mark it as unfinished. Once I realized that, the check box ceased to be worth it. Flat characters and bad prose.

While I seldom choose to leave a book unfinished, some sit in my "reading" pile for years without being finished. The big ones I can think of in this regard at Tackary's Vanity Fair, which I've been 50 pages from the end on for at least six years, and Stripping of the Altars which I got ~200 pages into while on a liturgical history kick and still keep meaning to get back to.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Leopard and the Two Travelers

Eleanor is taking a writing class over the summer, and was assigned to rewrite a fable by Aesop in a different setting, and to include some dialogue, without changing the original message. Here's the fable:

The Bear and the Two Travelers

Two men were traveling together, when a Bear suddenly met them on their path. One of them climbed quickly up into a tree and concealed himself in the branches. The other, seeing that he must be attacked. fell flat on the ground, and when the Bear came up and felt him with his snout, and smelt him all over, he held his breath, and feigned the appearance of death as much as he could. The Bear soon left him, for it is said he will not touch a dead body. When he was quite gone, the other Traveler descended from the tree, and jocularly inquired of his friend what it was the Bear had whispered in his ear. "He gave me this advice," his companion replied. "Never travel with a friend who deserts you at the approach of danger."

Message: Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.

Here is Eleanor's version:

The Leopard and the Two Travelers

Once there were two men journeying across the African savannah. One man was named Ivan, and the other Joey. Both were very tired. When these men came to a clearing in the tall grass they saw an enormous leopard, and he looked hungry! Ivan wasted no time in scuttling down an aardvark hole. Joey on the other hand climbed a nearby tree. The leopard went for Ivan. He caught Ivan by the leg just before the unfortunate man could pull it down the burrow! The leopard pulled Ivan out of the aardvark hole and shredded the poor man with those claws leopards have. The leopard carried Ivan, who was too weak to get away up the tree and turned to get Joey. Joey was terrified and tried to kick the leopard out of the tree. But this just made the leopard mad! With a flying leap the leopard lunged for Joey, and caught him with his teeth. Both leopard and man went flying out of the tree. They landed with a crash in the tall grass. Joey got up to try and escape, for the grass had cushioned his fall. But the leopard made quick work of him and carried him back up the tree.

Just before he died, Ivan said to Joey, “Did he say to you what he said to me?”

“Yes,” said Joey. “He said, ‘Do not trust those who desert you in fear of their own lives.’ Does that mean I should not trust you?”

“No,” said Ivan to Joey. “For in times like this I trust any man who is about to share the same fate as me.”

“But I’m not,” said Joey with a wicked smile. And with that he jumped out of the tree.

Ivan, too weak from blood loss to shout after him, gave up and said, “Well, after all, nobody should doubt a leopard’s word.” And with that he died. And the leopard ate him.

The End
You'll have to decide for yourself whether the moral has been altered.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Someone to Root For

MrsDarwin and the kids were off visiting Bearing today, and not expected back till late, so I allowed myself to get sucked into watching the US v Belgium game, which was playing on the massive screen in one of the conference rooms near my cube.

Normally I'm one of the world's die hard sports agnostics. I'm not sure that I've ever sat down with the express intention of watching a televised professional (or college) sports game all the way through, and the only game I ever saw in person was back in fourth grade when they took all the altar boys to a Clippers game. Still, watching the second half of the game, and then the overtime, I found myself deeply involved. We all cheered when Julian Green scored the US team's one goal in the last fifteen minutes of the game, and the mounting tension as it looked repeatedly like team USA might bring it up to a tie and bring the game to penalty goals.

This wasn't quite the first time this ever happened. I happened to have gone to an Irish-themed pub to listen to my brother-in-law's band play the night of the last game between the Rangers and the Giants in the 2010 World Series, and in a game between a "red" team and a "blue" team played the day before the 2010 election, I found myself susceptible to becoming deeply involved in rooting for Texas.

Given that life in the Darwin household has revolved so much around novel writing of late, and that when writing I somehow get sucked into a vortex of doubt over whether anyone can really be interested in the doings of people who don't exist, it struck me that these brief sports enthusiasms of mine are a bit like the Paradox of Fiction. Why, after all, should it matter a whit to me which of two groups of soccer players sweating it out down in Brazil wins a game? Why in the world other than that we choose to invest interest and excitement in the question. Something interesting enough happens to pull us in, some circumstance, some personality, and next thing we know we are tensing every muscle waiting to see the outcome of a contest that in any objective sense ought to mean nothing to us.

Bathrooms as Sign of Advancement

I was listening to a lecture about music history the other day, during which the speaker went on a brief digression about the unexpected contingencies of history. As an example, he brought up the Minoan town of Akrotiri buried by the eruption of Thera some time around 1600 BC.

The explosion of Thera, and its impact on Minoan civilization, is often theorized as a source for the legend of Atlantis, which gives it a certain aura of magic and possibility. Add to that the fact that excavations of Akrotiri have found drainage systems and indoor plumbing, in this apparently very successful Bronze Age city, and you get a lot of speculation about What Might Have Happened had the volcano not buried the town and set the Minoans back a bit in their civilization. (How much the volcano itself was actually the cause of the eclipse of Minoan civilization on Crete and the rise of Mycenaean civilization on mainland Greece is one of those things that is hard to know but easy to tell stories about.)

This digression, unrelated to the substance of the lecture, reminded me of the odd hold which bathroom technology and practice seems to have on our ideas of how "advanced" a civilization is. Here was the lecturer jokingly speculating that if it hadn't been for the eruption of Thera, the Romans might have had wide screen TVs and fusion reactors -- yet although indoor plumbing is something which we associate with modernity because you only have to go back a century or two to get to a point where most of our ancestors didn't have it, there's nothing inherently "high tech" about indoor plumbing, especially on a small scale. Sure, setting up an entire city (especially one not built on a water way) with indoor plumbing takes a lot of work, but the sort of system which Akrotiri had certainly doesn't put it out of the reach of other bronze age civilizations. I don't deny that indoor plumbing is a very nice thing, but which constructing a ceramic plumbing system is very clever, it doesn't suggest that a civilization which hasn't yet figured out how to refine iron ore is on the verge of developing computer technology.

Similarly, when comparing Western Europe (particularly in the Middle Ages or early modern periods) with non-Western civilizations such as the Arab states or China, one of the standard things for pop histories to bring up is the reputed frequency of bathing in Europe versus other places. I am, of course, in favor of frequent bathing, as I have to remind my children from time to time, but again: the frequency of bathing is not necessary a good measure of how "advanced" a civilization is in its science, its literature, its political institutions, or its culture. It's simply an indicator of how much that culture values bathing.

I wonder if, perhaps, this all stems from the transitional period during which some classes of American and European society had modern bathroom technology (and the hygiene practices that go with it) while others didn't. If at that point society came to identify plumbing, bathing and flush toilets with being an advanced and modern person, this would have helped read back into history the "smelly old middle ages" and the general assumption that bathroom technology was an indicator for overall development.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Saint of No Excuses

The other day I broke down and called the washer repairman. We'd been ignoring the rattling of the washer for a long time, and though we kept adjusting the feet they kept unadjusting. It was shaking so badly that one of the daily assigned chores was for someone to sit on the washer as it went through the rinse and spin cycles. The shaking got gradually worse, until one of the feet started coming off because the threads of the screw were getting stripped.

The washer repairman worked on the thing and came out shaking his head. "It's not good to let the feet get worked out like that," he said. "You need to keep the loads balanced and not overfill it. When it starts shaking like that, it makes itself worse and worse because of how heavy the machine is."

Well, thanks for telling me that! Darwin and I had just been wrestling with the feet the night before and had been unable to get them back in. The repairman had gone at them with a pair of pliers to screw them back in and realign them. So I paid $80 to hear something I already knew. But that's the point: I already knew I shouldn't be overfilling the washer in the first place. I knew the shaking wasn't good, and I took a year to call anyone about it. We knew it was bad for the feet, and every now and then we'd give them a cursory adjustment, but we kept ignoring the problem in hopes it would just work itself out. The repairman didn't make this stuff up to make me feel bad or to accuse me. He was telling me what I already knew. The fact that I have six kids, including a baby, and mountains of laundry to work through each week, and that I'm tired and want to get through the clothes in as few loads as possible doesn't actually change the nature of the washing machine and what it can handle. That's not the universe thumbing its nose at me. It's just reality.

The other day was St. Josemaria Escriva's feast day, and several acquaintances were reflecting on how they really disliked the saint, finding his advice unhelpfully condemnatory or elitist or patronizing. This particular quote gave rise to a long discussion of how St. Escriva was placing heavy and unreasonable burden on women:

4. What would you advise married women to do to ensure that their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to boredom? This question may not seem very important, but it is one asked by many people.
“I think it is in fact an important question and therefore the possible solutions are also important even though they may seem very obvious. If a marriage is to preserve its initial charm and beauty, both husband and wife should try to renew their love day after day, and that is done through sacrifice, with smiles and also with ingenuity. Is it surprising that a husband who arrives home tired from work begins to lose patience when his wife keeps on and on about everything she thinks has gone wrong during the day? Disagreeable things can wait for a better moment when the husband is less tired and more disposed to listen to them.

Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’

That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty per cent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children, as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.

There is no excuse for not fulfilling this lovable duty. Work outside the home is not an excuse. Not even one’s life of piety can be an excuse, because if it is incompatible with one’s daily obligations, it is not good, nor pleasing to God. A married woman’s first concern has to be her home. There is a Spanish saying which goes: ‘If through going to church to pray a woman burns the stew, she may be half an angel, but she’s half a devil too.’ I’d say she was a fully-fledged devil.”
(Conversations with Saint Josemaria Escriva, 107)

I read this, and as with so many of St. Escriva's writings, I think: he is talking directly to ME. People can (and did) argue over the saint's unscientific 80% assessment, but I understand completely what he is saying, because sloth is a great failing of mine, and I know personally how easy it can be to just let it go because I'm so frustrated at the work needed to keep myself in good repair. This isn't for everyone, obviously -- note well the caveat that "naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances" -- but in my own experience, he's right! My own older facade does need more restoration, and frustration and fury ensue when I don't take into account that I'm 35, not 22, and that my body doesn't respond as easily and quickly to what used to work. This isn't to say that I ought to look like I'm 22, but that I shouldn't be discouraged and disgusted if the low-effort, fairly painless fitness routine that worked for a 22-year-old doesn't have the same effects on a 35-year-old, grand multipara body. That's not the saint trying to make me feel bad or accuse me, and it's not the universe thumbing its nose at me; it's just reality.

I'm a step down from Escriva's advicee; I don't neglect myself because I'm striving for some form of holiness. I do it out of pique. Am I responsible for every thought of my husband's? Of course not, and with St. Escriva's emphasis on personal responsibility, I don't think that's what he's saying. But my husband isn't some random guy off the street assessing me. He's someone I love and have given myself to, including my body and my appearance. He actually thinks I'm beautiful when I don't, and I want to be very careful in how I respond to that, because although I find it frustrating sometimes when our perceptions don't line up, I have to ask myself: do I really want him to stop finding me beautiful? I want to feel like it doesn't matter, but do I really want him to feel like it doesn't matter? He's responsible for his own thoughts, but it's not really consistent with my saying that I love him so much for me to make his path harder, to put up obstacles and make him prove the love I don't even doubt, because I can't be bothered.

As I say, this is for ME. Other saints speak more directly to other people. (I personally can't get anything from St. Padre Pio's spirituality, though he seems to have great wisdom and comfort for many others, and since he's canonized I accept that and move on.) There are saints for all temperaments. St. Escriva is the saint for me: a saint for the psychologically healthy, a goad to the one who knows what she ought to do but doesn't do it, a saint who doesn't put up with my personal laziness or sloth, a saint who challenges me to rise beyond my cradle Catholicism and my basic "good person" mindset, a saint who expects more from the one who has been given more. He's the saint of no excuses from people who have no excuses. And whether or not anyone else in the world fits that description and needs that kick in the pants, I do. I'm more blessed than anyone else in the world: I have my own personal saint.

The church is a big tent. Thank God we have mild saints and vinegary saints and patient saints and acetic saints and saints who know when to give leeway and saints who know when not to.  Thank God that everyone is not a carbon copy of me, because what a dull and impoverished church that would be. Thank God that he cleanses the filth from the temple but does not quench a smoldering wick. And thank God for St. Escriva, whose mission is to kick me out of my complacency and smack me right into heaven.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Breaking News from 1914

Tomorrow makes 100 years since Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. The assassination began an at first slow-moving diplomatic crisis which would result a month later, July 28th, in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

The BBC is putting a lot of work into covering the anniversary, and they have an announcement up that they will be covering the assassination tomorrow as live news, giving viewers a flavor of how such an event would be covered if it happened now. News-from-the-past efforts can be kind of hit or miss, but I'm always a bit fascinated by them, so I'll be doing my best to catch some of the coverage. Here's the trailer:

If you'd like to see how it was covered at the time, check out the coverage in the June 29th New York Times.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Marriage, Ideas Do Matter

My commute-read lately has been Emile Zola's Nana, a novel about an actress and courtesan after whom the novel is titled. It's not for nothing that Zola's school of fiction is called naturalism, and as with The Belly of Paris, which I read a while back, this translates into a writing style which both provides huge amounts of sensory description and also takes a very frank and realistic approach to people's emotions and motivations.

Nana is too much a force of nature to be a likable character, but she's fascinating to watch, though at times also painful because of her bouts of self destructive impulsivity. It's probably no great shock, in a novel dealing with the high end courtesans of 1860s Paris and the men in their orbit, that one sees a lot of bad relationship models. The marriages we observe are universally unhappy ones, and many of the characters or yearning for a permanence and security which their actions are not likely to achieve.

This reminded me of some thoughts that I had not got around to forming into a post during a discussion of marriage a while back. The theme which many people felt called upon to write on at that time was that having a Catholic understanding of marriage is not a talisman against marital problems. This is most certainly true. A proper understanding of what marriage is for and how spouses should treat each other does not protect you against mistakenly marrying someone with great either great personal failings or who simply turns out to be hard to get along with. It does not protect you from marrying someone with hidden faults, or un-hidden ones that prove more difficult than you expected. It does not protect you from the shadow of your own or another's past. In short: ideas are not magic.

Nonetheless, ideas do matter -- in marriage as in the rest of life.

A couple who believe that marriage is simply a relationship of convenience which should last no longer than they find it adding to their happiness may, by chance, end up having a fairly successful marriage. And a couple who believe that marriage is meant to be a permanent and loving relationship for the purposes of bearing children and providing companionship may have a tragically unhappy marriage. But the latter set of beliefs is more conducive to happiness than the former.

This should be so obvious that it hardly needs arguing. Would we argue in relation to any other part of life that it doesn't impact the quality of your relationships whether you act well or act badly?

Where people get hung up, however, is on turning these things into absolutes: If you have incorrect ideas about marriage, your marriage will be bad. If you have good ideas about marriage, your marriage will be good.

It should be obvious that both of these are far too simplistic. People, both those with good ideas and those with bad ideas, often don't live up to their professed standards. Some people have good fortune, other have bad. A host of things contribute to the relative success or failure of a marriage. However, none of this means that ideas don't matter. They do.