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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Catching a Free Ride on the Cost of Raising Children

Every so often the government reports on the increasing cost of raising children. This latest one tells us that the average cost of raising a child to the age of 17 is now $245,340. With six children in that age range, that math gets pretty staggering. Divide that number by 17 and you get an average of $14,431 per year. Multiply by six and you get $86,591. That is less than I make, so if you work on the theory that raising a family is most of what I do, I suppose that's theoretically possible, but it's certainly not an amount which one must spend.

One of the things that always makes these reports sound so large is that they aggregate spending over a long period of time. Just dividing the number by 17 does a lot of the work. The median US household income is $51k. If you say that a median family size is two adults and two kids, and you just divide that $51k by four, you get a per-person spend of $12.7k, which is not much shy of the $14.4k number suggested by the "cost of raising a child" study. If you think of raising a child as a hobby, it's an expensive hobby. If it's simply a portion of the amount you spend on your household which is related to spending on kids, it's really not.

However, at these times, people always stop to ponder questions of "how much more will it cost me if we have kids". Or one more kid. Megan McArdle had some thoughts on the report which got me thinking, as the parent of a large family:
The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses. Now, those education expenses are a bit misleading -- as the report points out, many families basically have no expenditures in that category. Still, it’s remarkable how the averages have shifted. And that reflects a great difference in how we view the basic task of launching a child into the world. It’s no longer enough to make sure they’re fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race.

If you’ve ever watched "19 Kids and Counting" and wondered how the Duggars (and families like them) do it, the answer is: They don’t do much beyond the basics. They spend a huge amount, more than $2,000 a month, on food. But before they became television personalities, the Duggars were living in a three-bedroom house with 14 kids. They buy all their clothes at thrift shops. They vacation in an RV. They home-school, and no one’s on a sports travel team or in dance classes. If they buy toys, it’s at a secondhand store. If average-size families did this, no one would be complaining about how expensive it is to have kids.
This strikes me every time I have to go clothes shopping for the children. I remember a Easter Vigil a while back when I was standing in the back of church with our two youngest at the time, and then-four-year-old Jack was talking with a little girl from a family we knew.

"That's a very nice blazer you're wearing," she said. "Where did you get it?"

"It's from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"Oh. Those are very nice shoes you're wearing."

"They're from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"I don't think I know that clothing store," the girl said, with the mature solemnity of a six year old. "But it must be very nice."

Well, it is very nice. It's the second hand kids clothing store we frequent, and it allows me to get used to spending $2-4 per item on kids clothes. I'll walk away with a bag full of barely used clothes from nice brands for far less than I would pay for much more cheaply made new stuff at Target or Walmart. We also get free hand-me-downs from all the two child families on the street. So between all these the kids are constantly awash in clothes, and nice clothes at that. It's MrsDarwin and I that have small wardrobes and get frustrated by how much everything costs. (Those with massive patience seem to find nice used adult clothing, but it always seems to me that the pickings are incredibly slim on anything other that the kind of clothes I might wear while doing yard work. With that latter exception, I buy all my clothes new.)

One of the advantages of the upper middle class culture of spending a lot on a small number of children is that it creates more cast offs than the second hand industry can well handle. I remember this article going around a while back with comments like "no one wants your used clothes".

The Quincy Street Salvation Army may be on a quiet out-of-the-way street, but it is the main distribution center serving eight Salva­tion Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens. It processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year, and much more during the holiday season when donations spike. From that astonishing mass, the sorters choose exactly 11,200 garments a day to be divided up equally between the eight thrift stores they serve. I asked Maui if they’ve ever hit a dry spell, where the donations dipped too low to fully restock each stores with their share of the 11,200 items. He laughed, “We never run out of clothes. There are always enough clothes.”
...
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. I visited Trans- Americas Trading Co., a third- generation textile recycler in Clifton, N.J., which employs 85 people and processes close to 17 million pounds of used clothing a year. Inside Trans-Americas, there is a wall of cubed-up clothing five bales tall and more than 20 bales long. “This is liter­ally several hundred thousand pounds of textile waste, and we bring in two trailer loads of this much every day,” Trans-Americas president Eric Stubin told me. The volume they process has gone up over the years alongside our consumption of clothing.

Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.
...
Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes like the ones I saw at Trans-Americas and Salvation Army. The bales are cut open in front of an eager clientele and buyers, who pick through it for higher-value finds.
It would appeal to people's sense of neatness for there to be only exactly the right amount of used clothing. People buy no more than they need, wear things, pass them on, and there's only just as much as people want to buy used. But the massive excess is hugely beneficial for those of us trying to get by on less than the average when raising children. The excess is what allows us to find so much good among the leavings.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cool Maps: Where Each State's Population Comes From

This map (details visible as you mouse-over all the details on each state) is a fascinating piece of data visualization, as well as showing off some interesting demographic data. I am now one of the less than 1% of Ohioans who was born in California. (Indeed, at 75% Ohio has one of the highest percentages of natives in the country.) For a while, I was one of the 3% of Texans who was born in California. Louisiana appears to have the highest percent of natives (79%) while Nevada has the lowest at 25%

For some related interesting data visualization, here's a historical view of where people from each state went to or came from. I'm part of the 25% of native Californians who has left the state, and the only 3% who have gone to the Midwest.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stillwater - 53

I've been working 9-5 on this, only on the wrong side of the clock. Only one more installment left.

***

The Saturday before Melly came home, Malcolm wrapped his thin jacket tighter around himself as he stood on a street corner in Brooklyn. The non-stop hustle swirling around him was pleasantly alien to one steeped in the simmering gumbo of Louisiana life. There seemed to be life for the taking. Park Slope bohemians and stroller-wielding couples were out doing their holiday shopping on the first weekend of December, and the cupcakeries and the vintage boutiques and the record shops, capitulating to the bourgeois charm of Christmas lights, looked almost like places normal people would shop. These were Alys’s stomping grounds, and Malcolm was here to offer her comfort in her time of need. She hadn’t told him that she needed comfort after her brother’s disastrous affair with Malcolm’s sister, but he assumed that she must need it because he did, so very badly.

He was exhausted. He’d spent almost every weekend since Dick’s accident up in Dallas with Richard and Cheryl, visiting Dick in the hospital, listening and listening to fears and sorrows, grievances and regrets. Of course he was glad to do it; he was in the outermost circle of grief and it was only right that he should support those more sorely wounded without expecting them to shoulder his own burdens. But he did have burdens of his own, soul-bruising burdens. Work was crushing him. Traveling every weekend to be the sole emotional support of his parents and brother was crushing him. He didn’t realize how much he’d been counting on Olivia to take her share of the load until that hope had been crushed. Everyone was in chaos, everyone was in some kind of pain, everyone clutched at him.

Some support was simple enough. Cheryl brightened up every weekend at his arrival, not just at the sight of her second son, but because Malcolm on site meant that she could cede all the week’s emotional baggage to him, along with the handling of Dick and Richard. She was on the roller coaster of grandparenting now, and so far the climb was sky high. The tidings of Olivia’s unexpected pregnancy wrapped up her other cares in a warm snuggly blankie, preferably pink. All babies brought Cheryl joy, but her very own grandbaby restored her hope in humanity. She had installed a pregnancy countdown on her email signature and was researching flights to Brazil, though she tried to be unobtrusive about it so as not to agitate Richard further.

Malcolm sighed as he considered his father. Richard had too much gravitas to be described as “a broken man”, but he seemed to be on hold, in some distant place waiting for something, a decision, a sign, something to give him direction now that so many familiar paths had been bulldozed. It was painful to see him unmoored, and it was painful to have no solutions to offer him, and and though Malcolm kept making efforts to reach him, it was growing more difficult to keep pouring energy into what felt like a one-sided relationship.

*
The truth was that Richard was suffering a profound crisis of fatherhood. He’d raised all his children to adulthood and now they were making adult choices, but so many of those choices cut across everything he thought he’d raised them to think right. Maybe Dick’s accident was mostly a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Dick had chosen both the place and the time. Olivia had never seemed like the sort of girl to get pregnant before she was married, but when Richard examined himself, he had to admit that he’d never given much thought to the preliminary issue of whether his daughter was likely to be having sex with her boyfriend. He hadn’t even paid enough attention to her friendship with João, or to her Brazilian sojourn, to realize that João was her boyfriend, or likely to become so. Olivia had been his low-maintenance girl, the one he could trust to take care of herself. But how had he, her father, equipped her to take care of herself?  Of course children had free will. It was hardly unprecedented for a child to make moral choices that her father would disapprove. But would Olivia even have known that he thought it was important that she get married before having sex? Had he ever discussed the topic openly with her? He had dumped buckets of money into a pricey Catholic education for his children and assumed that by doing so, he was discharging his obligation to pass on his values. Now he was realizing that it was ridiculous to expect his children to absorb his beliefs by osmosis, without the necessity of having awkward personal conversations.

But Sophia’s actions cast his parenting in an even more damnable light. He never would have thought that a daughter of his would commit adultery, bust up her marriage, and flaunt it on network television, but recent events seemed to suggest that he didn’t have any idea what his daughters were likely to do. His illusions of control, of a carefully managed family life, were being peeled back layer by layer to reveal the ugly truth: he’d never taken the time to get to know his children, and his children had never felt comfortable enough with him to reveal themselves to him. And because of that, he’d never learned which of their virtues needed to be nurtured or which vices needed to be uprooted while the soil of their hearts was still soft and arable.

*
Malcolm paused by a fragrant coffee roastery to adjust his backpack and listen to the soothing impersonal melange of traffic and chatter and acoustic carols blending into one big humming chorus of reinvention. It was so peaceful to stand here, an island in a sea of activity, with no one making any demands on him. Back in Dallas, Dick, who when able-bodied had never lost a chance to tweak him, now was almost pathetically eager to keep him around, and his neediness tried Malcolm’s already threadbare patience. Dick was obsessed right now with dredging up old memories, but since they were mainly memories about stupid stuff he’d done with stupid friends, Malcolm could only sit quietly as Dick rambled on in long digressions about why he’d been thinking, and what his friends had probably been thinking, and what those friends were doing now. And he would be frustrated when it seemed like Malcolm wasn’t paying attention, and then he’d tell his story all over again. Malcolm couldn’t tell if Dick was trying to shock him or impress him or just didn’t know how else to make conversation, and he didn’t know how to respond when Dick started in on him.

“Hey,” Dick had said last weekend, as Malcolm had been ready to walk out the door. “You remember before you went to seminary, when you were supposed to go to Rome?”

Malcolm had needed a moment to place the allusion: the money for the trip had gone to pay off Dick’s debts.

“Yeah,” he said, poking experimentally at the memory. The old resentment had burned down, and even stirring up the ashes didn’t raise any sparks.

“That was all right? You didn’t really mind?”  Dick’s fingers plucked at the bed sheet. The fidgeting wore on Malcolm’s nerves, but he turned away so he wouldn’t focus on it.

“It was a long time ago,” he said.

“I mean, it turned out okay. It’s not like you’re a priest now.” Dick managed a shadow of his old leer, and Malcolm wondered why he kept pushing. After all these years, did he still think he could goad Malcolm over it? Was it the only form of power he felt he had anymore? Malcolm felt disinclined to get riled anymore, especially when all he wanted was to go back home.

“Maybe the trip would have strengthened my vocation.” He shrugged as he pulled the door open. “I guess I’ll never know.”

Dick had been watching him carefully and now he let his head drop back onto the pillow. Why did he wear himself out with his old teasing? It didn’t make him happy, and it didn’t make him endearing. But then, Dick never had cared what effect he had on other people.

*
For once, Malcolm was mistaken about Dick’s callousness. Dick was actually in the throes of his own existential crisis. Death had hooked him and then thrown him back, but his security was shattered. Trapped in a hospital bed with nothing to do but examine his own life choices, he felt his parents’ distress flick on the raw of his newly tender conscience. Sophia’s affair had devastated them; Olivia’s pregnancy had blindsided them. Had he given them grief too? He’d always shrugged off all his antics with the vague conviction that people who loved you didn’t judge. But now he began to see that the whole fabric of family life was so densely interwoven that one little tug on any thread could warp the texture. What if everything was interwoven? What if every little thing he’d ever done had some effect on someone else? What if one day he would be held accountable for his actions? These were deep waters for Dick, and he was no philosophical swimmer. He clung desperately to Malcolm and his seminary education that used to seem so pointless, but like many drowning men before him, his panic was dragging his rescuer under as well.

*
After six weeks of this, Malcolm could feel himself cracking. He had not expected how deeply his brother and sisters’ troubles would grieve him. The Spencers had never been a particularly close-knit clan, and Malcolm had always felt like the odd man out among his siblings. In his more cynical moments, it had been no stretch to imagine several scenarios along the same fantastic lines of the current family drama. But it turned out that the hard, messy reality of your sister burning up her marriage and your brother relearning how to walk after being stupid collateral damage in someone else’s family implosion, and your other sister getting pregnant without being married — your real, body-and-soul siblings, not abstract fantasy constructs — well, it hurt like hell. He wished that he could have taken a less painful route to discover that he really did want the good for Dick and Sophia and Olivia.

When he heard that Chris Dalton had filed for divorce, he had changed his weekend destination from Dallas to New York, even though he knew his parents would need him. This was the final heartbreaking, stomach-aching blow to his illusions of self-sufficiency. He wanted a safe place to mourn, and he hoped he might find it with Alys because she of all people could understand the agony of the past week. And if she were only half as weary and grieved as he was, she too would yearn to be with someone who knew.

In the tiled foyer of her brownstone, he pushed the button marked “Alys Winter”.

“Hey, Malcolm, is that you? Shut up! No, I don’t mean you should shut up. I’m trying to get Flora off the phone. Come on up.”

 Her voice, even through the intercom, was pure Alys, bright and supple as a strand of the silver wire she twisted into her jewelry. The week-old knot in his gut began to unwind and even turn to a warm fluttery expectation.  As he climbed the stairs, the rich burled wood of the bannister and the patterned carpet runner had the same historical comfort that Stillwater gave him, a sense of connection to the past. For the first time it actually seemed possible that there could be a future here for him and Alys after all. Perhaps he just hadn’t been flexible enough to see it before. Perhaps this miserable business of Ian and Sophia would draw their siblings closer together in a bond of sympathetic love. With Alys’s support, he might start afresh in this strange new world and let his family cares float away into the big city ether.

Alys opened her door and beckoned him in with a smile and an apologetic gesture at the phone pressed to her ear. He hadn’t seen her since before Dick’s accident, when she’d been playful and standoffish. Now everything about her seemed warm and inviting: her soft golden hair, fixed in some mysterious way that combined the best of up and down; her blue eyes and her Christmas red lips and that dress wrapped around her. Malcolm was torn over the dress. As a man, he approved. As a man from Louisiana, he thought she must be awfully cold.

“I have to go, Flora, he’s here.” Alys cast an expressive glance at him and whispered, “Come in. I’ll be off in a second.” She ushered him in, shaking her head as if to rue the politeness which kept her from just hanging up, and stepped into another room, lowering her voice. “Don’t be appalling, Flora. Of course I didn’t forget. When have I ever been careless about that?”

Malcolm unslung his backpack and looked around him, feeling the discordance between the substantial prewar facade of the brownstone and the homey grandeur of the hall, and the deliberate neutrality of the sitting room. The space was as elegant as Alys herself, but it was a curiously monochromatic elegance, angles and textures taking the place of any vulgar splashes of color, and everything curated to the point of severity. The room reminded him of a catalog of Esther’s he’d once flipped through: 200 pages of ridiculously expensive furniture and curtains in the same four shades of beige. It was the style now, he supposed, and Alys was nothing if not in tune with the zeitgeist. He sat down in a very comfortable chair which had been expertly distressed to look like a centuries-old family heirloom. Having a lifetime of practice with the awkward proportions and horsehair cushions and carefully preserved finishes of real heirloom furniture, Malcolm was not fooled, but he did wonder whether the people with the enviable job of scarring up these pieces could just bring their work home with them and be done with it.
He stood up quickly as Alys entered again, a jolt of life in the pale room. She laughed in her Alys way, and Malcolm felt his smile broadening out to a silly, joyous grin. If she had been within arm’s reach, he would have seized her and kissed her.

“How crazy is all this?” she asked, crossing over to him. “I’ve spent all week watching my door, waiting for Ian to walk in so I can kick his ass from here to Sunday. I tell you I thought I would die when I saw those two idiots on the morning show. Their faces had to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She had taken his hand, but he did not immediately press his advantage. Her easy humor threw him off balance.

“Didn’t it upset you at all?” he asked hoarsely.

“Of course it did! I can’t think of any more foolish way they could have managed it.” Alys threw herself onto the couch and curled up in that way she had. “To sit in a TV audience with Uncle Carson on the stage? That is amateur hour right there. You almost deserve to be humiliated when you’re that foolish.”

Malcolm sat too, but more stiffly. “You say ‘managed it’. What do you mean?”

“This whole relationship, start to finish. God, I could slap them for being so stupid.”

  “Did you know that Chris Dalton filed for divorce?” Malcolm hoped that she didn’t know. Of course she didn’t. She couldn’t be so cavalier otherwise.

“Yeah, that’s terrible.” Alys assumed a grave mouth for a moment, perhaps in deference to the famous Catholic position on divorce. ”But he shouldn’t have bothered on Ian’s account. He doesn’t like to feel hustled into anything. That was Sophia’s problem. She just kept rushing things. Okay, so they spent the weekend together. If she’d played her cards right, she would have kept it that for a while, just fun on the weekends, and they could have gotten to know each other better and then decided what they wanted to do about it. But because they were so stupid as to let my uncle show them up in public, Sophia panicked and pushed too far. Why did she cut ties with Chris and trigger the divorce and put that kind of pressure on Ian? Did she think he loved her? They’ve only just had sex, and now it’s as if they’re expected to get married.”

Malcolm had the strangest sensation of floating outside himself. He had come to comfort her, but it was plain that the only thing she found distressing was that Ian and Sophia had been dumb enough to be publicly humiliated. He had come to receive comfort, but she had none to give because it had never occurred to her that an innocent little affair and divorce might hurt anyone. A family had been ripped apart, and Alys was docking points for style! If it were only that she were trying to hurt him by acting as if none of these things mattered… But Alys wasn’t naturally cruel. She wouldn’t have said these things if she thought they would hurt, and that meant that she couldn’t conceive of Malcolm feeling any differently. Alys genuinely thought that she and Malcolm agreed on everything. Malcolm now wondered if they agreed on anything.

The turmoil in his mind must have shown in his face; Alys eyed him with compassion.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I hope you don’t think I’m trying to put all the blame on Sophia. She’s your sister; of course you want to defend her. It’s really as much or more Ian’s fault. He’d put so much time and work into managing Melly, and I really think he could have been happy with her, even on her terms, but no, he had to go bang Sophia just to prove he could.” She uncurled and stepped over to her phone to pull up a series of texts to show Malcolm. “I tried to stop it, you know. That night at the party, when I saw Sophia practically daring Ian to start something by playing hard to get, I immediately tried to convince her to let us take her to Dallas, right then. Even at that point Ian would have walked away from Sophia, for Melly’s sake. But now…” She sighed. “Have you heard anything about it from her? I guess he’s blown his chance there.”

“His chance… with Melly?” Every time Malcolm thought he had defined the parameters of this conversation, whole new levels kept unfolding. “You mean the job offer?”

“Well, that too. Ian’s a pretty persuasive guy, but even he can’t delude himself that Melly is going to take him on after this. She at least has some standards; she’d never trust him. And no offense, but she’s a better woman than Sophia will ever be.” She gave a wry little laugh. “That’s what’s so frustrating. You know, I blame Melly, I really do. She knew she had influence over Ian - he told her so, several times! - and someone as good as she is has an obligation to use her influence for good. She could have shut Sophia out from the beginning by having Ian the first time he offered. It would have been a win-win situation. Melly would have made him a better man, and Ian would have made her… Cinderella.’ This time Alys’s laugh was pure Alys. “And Sophia would have been the stepsister flirting with the prince at the family reunions.”

The cold sick feeling in Malcolm’s stomach was transforming, warming, as the little tendrils of flame at the edges began to flare up.

“You believe that it’s Melly’s obligation to keep Ian’s lust in check?”

“Lust is just part of love, isn’t it?” Alys was puzzled by the attack in Malcolm’s question, but she refused to raise her own stakes. “If you love someone, you want to take all of her. ”

“If you love someone, you want to give all of yourself to her.”

She threw up her hands in mock surrender. “You’re the professor, but it sounds like the same thing to me.”

“Alys, it’s not the same thing at all.” Malcolm paced to keep himself from alarming her with his urgency. “To take someone, out of lust, is to use that person. That’s the opposite of love. To give yourself, completely, for the good of the other person — that’s true love. Having an obligation to love isn’t the same thing at all as having an obligation to let someone use you.”

“How is one person supposed to give if the other person can’t take?” Frustration crept into Alys’s voice. This was not the way Malcolm’s visit was supposed to be, all bogged down in word games and concepts.

“Receiving love as a gift isn’t the same thing as taking it.”

“That sounds like a pathetic kind of life, only getting what someone else feels like giving you. It turns everyone into a beggar. Every time you give love, you’re really just asking for some love in return.”

“To be human is to seek love. Only God can give love without asking for a return.”

“Oh, goody, you’ve worked in your theology lesson for the day. You must be so proud of yourself.”
The silence stung like the bite of winter air. Malcolm took a few aimless steps, ran his fingers through his hair until it crackled, and then took up his jacket.

“I can’t seem to go right these days,” he said, with no rancor. “I made the wrong choice this weekend to come here, and I apologize.” Alys sat still, her cheeks pale with shock, looking at her hands in her lap. She did not look up as he took up his backpack.

At the door he paused, weighing his words before he spoke.

“Before I go, I have to apologize again because I used you. Not intentionally, not even consciously, but I used you all the same. I wanted so much for you to fit a certain template of “woman I loved” that I crammed you into my mental Alys box. When I thought about you, it was the imaginary Alys I pictured, someone who would always think I was right. I rationalized any differences we had because I didn’t want to lose my ideal friend. Perhaps I never knew you at all, and for that I’m sorry. Maybe we’d actually hate each other, but maybe I missed a chance to make a real friend.”

He walked resolutely into the hall. Behind him, the door opened behind him.

“Malcolm,” Alys said. “Malcolm. Please.”

He turned. She made a tragic attempt at her normal smile.  Then she fumbled with the tie of her dress and with a shuddering breath, she let it slide down to the floor. After a second she stepped awkwardly out of her shoes as well, and stood almost completely exposed in the slight chill of the doorway.

“I want to give myself,” she said.

This moment was so far off-book that Malcolm had prepared no defensive emotion to stand between him and Alys’s body. His mind, bereft of human armor, received this new image of her unadulterated by his own constructs, forcing him to see with pure eyes the way she stood pigeon-toed and vulnerable, the fine hairs on her arm that prickled more from terror than cold, the tears brightening the blue of her eyes until they mirrored the Madonna’s robe. He was caught in the hold of a choking, burning tide of pity, a tide too overwhelming for anyone to contain, for this other person, Alys Winter, beautiful and wholly uncreated by himself, so desperately seeking from a flawed creature a perfect affirmation.
He stepped back into the apartment and shut the door against the draft.

“I love you,” he said to her. “But I can’t give myself to you that way right now.”

“Now or never.”

He shook his head. “I can’t make that false choice.”

“Then you don’t love me.” She was stiff with tragic pride.

He set down his backpack and held out his hand to her. She stood, undecided, picked up her dress from the floor, and turned it over. But the humiliation of reclothing herself was too bitter. She wadded up the dress and hurled it at him with a great sob that rent her being.

“Go back to the seminary,” she said.

Once again he was almost suffocated by a overflowing of pity for the anguished woman in front of him. He stooped down and retrieved the dress, smoothing out the wrinkles and folding it neatly. Then he set it on a little table by the door and shouldered his backpack as heavily as it if contained the weight of her sorrow.

“Goodbye,” he said, and turned toward home.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Detention by Quota

Every so often I'll see a news story and think, "That smells wrong, it can't be true." At which point, I have a compulsive desire to look into it until I can get some feel for whether or not it is in fact so.

This morning I saw a link to a piece in The Nation which made the claim that the ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is required by law to detain a quota of 34,000 illegal immigrants at any given time. I was suspicious of this because the quota was apparently that the ICE fund 34,000 "beds" which suggested to me that what that quota actually dealt with was capacity, not the necessity of detaining 34,000 people at a time whether they needed to be detained or not.

However, after some poking around, it appears that one does not necessarily do well to defend the rationality of the Federal government. Here's the most exhaustive piece I was able to find on the detention quota. In some sense, it sounds like my instinct was correct. The law allocates funds to pay for 34,000 beds worth of detention space. However, apparently the ICE (and some members of congress) believe that they must actually have 34,000 people in detention at any given time. Obviously, it's not very hard for law enforcement to detain 34,000 people out of the estimated 10 million people in the US illegally at any given time, but there's something particularly obnoxious about the idea of requiring a specific number of detentions regardless of need.

Some of this sounds like cushy government boondoggle:
Some of the additional money provided by Congress will be spent filling beds at places such as the brightly painted Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened here last year amid bobbing oil derricks on the rolling plains south of San Antonio. It holds more than 600 detainees, but ICE prefers not to call them that.

They are “residents,” guarded by unarmed “resident advisers,” and they sleep in air-conditioned, unlocked “suites” with flat-screen TVs overlooking volleyball courts and soccer fields. The low-security facility, built and operated on the government’s behalf by a private contractor, the GEO Group, offers computer labs, libraries and microwaves for making popcorn.

“This place is great,” said one young man from Honduras, strumming a government-issued bass guitar in a recreation room, along with newfound band mates from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Most detainees here are Central American migrants picked up along the border. Having requested asylum, they await an ICE interview to determine if they have a legitimate fear of returning home.

In the meantime, they can earn $3 a day working on cleaning crews or in the laundry room, and there are free English classes, “life skills” instruction and tutorials in Microsoft Word and Excel. They dine in a cafeteria cheerfully appointed with Southwestern art and Georgia O’Keefe prints.

The jail has become a showcase for improved detention conditions, especially as ICE relies less on the low-cost bed space offered by aging, rural county jails and signs contacts with for-profit private detention companies that include incentives such as guaranteed minimum-occupancy payments.

Congress’s expanding detention goals have been a boon to the contractors, especially Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America.

A significant portion of those detained by the ICE are criminals, though in many cases ones who could be dealt with safely at lower cost than jailing them:
Of the 33,391 immigrants held in federal custody on Sept. 7 — a single-day snapshot provided by ICE — 19,864 were convicted criminals, according to the agency.

Yet ICE’s definition of criminals includes a broad range of offenders, and a 2009 internal review found that only 11 percent of detainees had been convicted of violent crimes.

Jose Luis Vargas, a legal U.S. resident since 1986, was arrested by San Antonio police three years ago after neighbors reported a marijuana plant growing in his garden, among his tomatoes and prickly pear cactus.
...
Immigrant rights advocates say detainees such as Vargas, who was two years shy of paying off the 30-year mortgage on his San Antonio home, should be allowed to remain under cheaper, less severe forms of ICE supervision, such as GPS-enabled electronic monitoring.

Those alternatives can cost less than $10 a day, they say, while the cost of keeping someone in immigration jail exceeds $150.

“The explicit purpose of ICE detaining people is to make sure they show up for their immigration hearings, so it would make sense to consider less costly, more humane alternatives that meet that same goal,” said Ruthie Epstein, legislative policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
While all this makes the quote sound less irrational than the (unsurprisingly) heavily slanted Nation article, it still sounds likely that this involves both spending more money than necessary and jailing (however humanely) people who don't need to be jailed. (And that's leaving aside the point that we'd be better off simply having a looser immigration policy generally. While I want to see respect for the law as much as the next fellow, the lowness of the immigration quotas and the difficulty of the process practically encourages illegal immigration.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Open Carry is Color Blind

With the protests (and riots) going on in Furguson, MO, there's been a lot of discussion going on about policing and race relations. One particular meme that the left has apparently taken up is that in the US there is "open carry for Whites but open season on Blacks". This relates in particular to another police shooting this year: 22-year-old John Crawford was shot in a Dayton-area Walmart after a 911 call was placed to police saying that a young man was waving around an "assault rifle" in the store. Police ordered him to put down the gun, which later proved to be a BB gun styled to look like a military weapon, and shot him when he did not comply as quickly as they desired.

Clearly, there wasn't an objective need to shoot someone with an unloaded air gun. At the same time, it's stupid (though not normally fatally stupid) to be capering about a store with a gun that looks real. I kind of have to wonder, too, how much effort this stupidity took. Having bought air rifles before, I can tell you that the Crosman MK-177 air pump rifle that Crawford was carrying when he was killed should have been in a cardboard box. They are not sold loose, though occasionally stores will have an un-packaged one on display in a case which customers can ask to see and handle. Perhaps such a case was left open and unattended, allowing Crawford to pick up the loose gun and move around with it (prompting the 911 call) but at a minimum this is a tragedy that didn't simply result from someone carrying a piece of merchandise to the checkout register.

Be that as it may, it's not actually similar to what open carry protesters do. Now, I want to be clear: I'm not supportive of open carry activism. There are decent reasons for it not to be illegal to carry a gun openly. But holding protests in which you rub people's noses in your ability to carry a weapon in public strikes me as socially disruptive and generally unhelpful to the gun rights movement.

That said, while I can see how to people who are deeply uncomfortable with guns and ignorant of gun culture, open carry might look like "running around with a gun", what the open carry activists do is actually pretty well planned and calibrated not to scare police. Open carry activists tend to keep hand guns holstered and long guns slung over their shoulders. If they hold long guns, they always keep the muzzle pointed up in the air or down at the ground. They don't point guns at people and they keep their fingers away from the trigger. This is the kind of behavior that is incredibly deeply ingrained within gun culture. There is no faster way to get yourself reamed out at a shooting range than to have bag muzzle control (point your gun at someone by accident) or have your finger on the trigger when the gun is not pointed downrange. Open carry activists know that they're being transgressive, and so they're being extra careful with their actions. The result is, they look fairly safe to police.

Nor is it necessarily only a white phenomenon. Gun culture is heavily white, but there are minority members of these groups, and there are also specifically minority gun rights groups. A case in point hit the news yesterday, with a group calling themselves the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, after the founder of the Black Panthers, held a protest in Dallas where they marched with long guns (including the much maligned AR-15) in protest over police shootings.
“We think that all black people have the right to self defense and self determination,” said Huey Freeman, an organizer. “We believe that we can police ourselves and bring security to our own communities.”

Police monitored the black-clad demonstrators, some of whom had rifles slung over their shoulders. As they walked down MLK Boulevard, many chanted “black power” and “justice for Michael Brown,” the black teenager shot by police in suburban St. Louis.

At one point, the group stopped at Elaine’s Kitchen, and one of the organizers told those who were armed to display their weapons in a “safe, disciplined manner.”

Freeman said they planned to patronize several South Dallas businesses to keep their money in the community and teach their neighbors about their “right to self-defense.”

The march came to a peaceful end about 90 minutes after it began at a car wash at Malcolm X Boulevard and Marburg Street. [Source]
Police did monitor the protest, but caused no trouble, and these men and woman sound like they handled their weapons responsibly and thus caused no alarm. There is, actually, a history of Black Power groups using open carry, and it's one that I can't help admiring a bit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Empty Heads

I had so many things to write about. I could have told you about my fabulous family vacation, a week with my mom and my five siblings and their families in a big rustic house in the Poconos. I could have told you about how living for a week with my two pregnant sisters, one in the deepest throes of morning sickness, gave me an outside awareness of just how hard it is to nurture new life. I could have told you about my insight into the passage of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well and what that has to do with the upcoming Synod. Heck, I could have just written my novel.

But no. All of that is out of my head right now, because today I'm pulling things out of other people's heads. Things like this.



That's a piece of foam that had been stuck in my four-year-old's nose. For more than a month, probably.  During that month, we put a lot of time into combatting the strange head funk she'd developed. It wasn't her hair. We'd washed it and cut it and made sure she couldn't chew it. It wasn't her teeth. She'd been to the dentist and received a clean bill of health. We made her stop licking her hands and sucking her fingers. And still, the odor persisted. It seemed to come right from her forehead.

Fearing she had a sinus infection, I moved her check-up up a week, but I was still uneasy. She wasn't complaining of pain until I asked her if her nose hurt, and suddenly, yes it did, right up here, Mommy. And then, in a stellar example of why I'll never shut down my Facebook account, I put out a query, and a nurse friend suggested a foreign body in the nose, and I held the four-year-old's head up to look, and there was something huge and gray in her nose.

Let me tell you that it is a delicate operation to stick a pair of tweezers up a four-year-old's nose. It requires the right blend of reassurance and gentle words and dire threats about what the doctor will do if I have to take you into the emergency room to have them pull this out, and then they'll strap you to a board, and how about you just let Mommy get it right now HOLD YOUR HEAD STILL FOR FIVE SECONDS. And then we both stared at the gooshy wad of stinking, moldering foam at the end of the tweezers, as blood dripped gently out of her nostril. And I did not faint and I did not throw up (both of which seemed like very viable options), but I washed off the little girl and asked her blow her nose, and sent her off to play. And then I sat on a stool in the kitchen with my head in my hands, wishing it would all just go away, until a distant shrieking informed me that the big sister who was supposed to hold the sleeping baby had put him on the bed, and he'd just rolled off and fallen on his head.

One day I'd like to have deep thoughts again. One day I'd like to have some energy. One day I'd like a good night's sleep, the kind from which you wake up refreshed, without aching joints and a stiff neck. But today, I'm going to settle for defunking sinus cavities, which should really feel like a more worthwhile, fulfilling, productive activity than it does.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pope Francis on Science and Religion

On his flight back from Korea, Pope Francis gave one of his airplane interviews which have such a tendency to make headlines. If you hear about this one, you'll probably hear the buzz resulting from a typically ignorant American reporting putting up a click-bait post claiming that the pope was calling for a tenth crusade against the ISIS in Iraq. (Don't gratify Vox by clicking that link, go read the sensible Thomas McDonald about it instead.)

However, there's a section of the full interview which is far more intellectually interesting, though you'll probably never hear it on the news. A reporter asked the pope about his rumored up-coming encyclical dealing with environmental issues, and Francis's reply ends up being about the relationship between religious teaching and scientific inquiry:
Q. There’s been talk for a long time about an encyclical on ecology. Could you tell us when it will be published, and what are the key points?

A. I have talked a lot about this encyclical with Cardinal Turkson, and also with other people. And I asked Cardinal Turkson to gather all the input that have arrived, and four days before the trip, Cardinal Turkson brought me the first draft. It’s as thick as this. I’d say it’s about a third longer than "Evangelii Gaudium." It’s the first draft. It’s not an easy question because on the custody of creation, and ecology, also human ecology, one can talk with a certain security up to a certain point, but then the scientific hypotheses come, some sufficiently secure, others not. And in an encyclical like this, which has to be magisterial, one can only go forward on the things that are sure, the things that are secure. If the pope says the center of the universe is the earth and not the sun, he’s wrong because he says a thing that is scientifically not right. That’s what happens now. So we have to do the study now, number by number, and I believe it will become smaller. But going to the essentials, to that which one can affirm with security. One can say, in footnotes, that on this there is this and that hypothesis, to say it as information but not in the body of an encyclical that is doctrinal. It has to be secure.
I'm sure that there are plenty of people who would encourage the pope to endorse as gospel whatever the current scientific theory is on a given topic, while others would encourage him to pronounce "scientific" findings based on scriptural interpretation while ignoring whatever the current scientific opinion is. The pope's response here, however, suggests that he has a healthy respect for the nature (and thus necessary uncertainty) or scientific inquiry, and at the same time the senses in which it is able to provide insights into the physical workings of the world which theologians should respect rather than ignore.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Vacation From, Vacation For

It's the last day of vacation -- a week in a big vacation house with all MrsDarwin's siblings and their families. It's been a good week, with games of Monopoly and cards, lots of singing, cousins tearing all over the house having fun and adults cooking, reading, and consuming a somewhat startling quantity of beer over the course of a week.

This morning, as I was sitting on a balcony looking out over the forest and drinking a cup of coffee, I was thinking about what I had and hadn't done over the week. I finished one of the books that I'd brought with me, but not the other two. I did very little writing. I didn't go running as often as I'd intended. But for all that it was a good time.

My days tend to be taken up with office duties, and then in the off hours with kid-related duties. When thinking of a vacation, I usually start with thinking about doing the things that I wish I had more time for during a normal week but don't. I think of having quiet time by myself. I think of reading a book for hours on end. I think of having quiet time with MrsDarwin. I think of getting some uninterrupted writing time before 10PM.

There's nothing wrong with any of these, but in a sense they're very much ideas for a vacation from my normal life. A day like any other day, but with less responsibility and more of what I want to do.

That might work if I was going off with just MrsDarwin. One thing we'd both like someday is the chance to get away together to some luxurious place where someone else does all the cooking and chores while we divide our time between reading, writing and talking to each other. But this is a family vacation, not an escape from reality, and so one of the points is to be with people, not to be away from people.

In some ways that is less restful. Getting 22 people including assorted babies out the door to go hiking and see a waterfall is a whole new kind of busy-ness. And yet, having a vacation for family life rather than a vacation from family life is actually a very good and needed thing -- even if it's not the thing which I most immediately think of when I think of "vacation". It's less self centered, less controlled, but in a real way fulfilling. The schedule is loose here and no one has to get angry if the kids are up late, or we don't have dinner done on time. We can finish a game of Monopoly even if that means the kids being up way past their bed times. If it takes an hour or two longer than planned to get everyone organized for some activity, none of these are activities which truly have to be done anyway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When Babies Cry

The Darwin clan is on vacation with extended family, and the living is easy. The youngest member of the family, however, was not living easy the other day. We had eight hours of driving to get through and seven-month-old William did not find that living easy. He would scream until we stopped, be cheerful for as long as we remained at the rest stop, and the resume screaming as soon as he was put back in his car seat.

People who aren't around babies as much seem to get frantic during one of these hour long crying jags where you know there's nothing really wrong and that you'll never arrive at the destination if you pull over every fifteen minutes. There's a deep conviction that when babies cry there must be something Wrong that needs to be fixed.

But the fact is, babies don't only cry when they're sick or hurting. At seven months old the world can be a confusing place. Things happen for reasons that seem unclear. On some days, people strap you into a seat where you can't move much and keep you there for many hours before you magically arrive at a place that looks and smells somewhat different from the usual house, even if the people are the same.

While the rest of us, who have the luxury of understanding why we're in the car for long hours out of the day, may express our discomfort by becoming sullen or sarcastic or arguing, for the baby there is only one option: to cry. Just as you can't make others in the family snap out of their mood induced conversation tactics, there's not really anything you can do to stop the crying. Baby is cramped and tired of his seat and does't want to be confined in the car anymore. The car can't stop. And so, because crying is his only way of expressing his frustrations, he cries.

At some deep level, we're programmed not to sit easily when a baby is crying. Our instincts tell us to make it better and stop the sound, which in many cases would indicate that there was something wrong. But when you have to cover miles and it's the car seat that's causing anger, there are limited options other than to let baby express his entirely human feelings in the only way that he knows how.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fruits of Division

This was an interesting piece, about the plight of Black Democrats legislators in the South, though as much for what it leaves unsaid and unthought as what it says.

Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had 60 Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four. The casualties included Barron, who lost to a first-time Republican candidate.

All of this was enough to give the GOP supermajorities in both chambers. Hubbard assumed his role as speaker of the House, and Marsh was elected Senate president pro tem. Having wrested control of the statehouse, now they could begin to change the state.

Clearly, for a long time, the Democratic Party ran things in the South by uniting who constituencies (white and black) who had little politically in common. As the parties have both increasingly nationalized in their agendas, whites started voting for the Republicans who more closely fit their politics while the black majority districts remained intact but are no longer able to achieve much since they are part of a minority party in a deeply divided legislature.

This nationalization of the political issues is apparent in some of the bits where it talks about Sanders' work in the legislature: fighting hard to block legislation which would restrict availability of abortion to children and prevent people from having to look for work before getting welfare. With priorities like this, it's not surprising that conservative southern whites don't vote for the Democrats anymore -- but the incidental casualty of the self marginalization of the Democrats is their inability to put through legislation to help their local communities.

Vatican Middle Eastern Realpolitik?

There's a John Allen analysis piece being linked to frequently at the moment examining the question of why the Vatican is taking a "pro-United States" approach to the crisis in Iraq -- to the point of making some noises in support of limited US military intervention.

As Allen points out, the support is there and it is surprising given past history:
Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”

Lingua spoke plaintively of the ordeals faced by an estimated 100,000 Christian refugees from northern Iraq – many of whom, he said, are children – to account for his view of the American campaign.

“You can see these kids sleeping on the streets,” Lingua said, adding, “[there is so much] suffering.”

In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”
This is in contrast to strong Vatican opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 and the UN and US-led war in 1991. Even in 2001, with the US attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Vatican reaction was mixed to negative. Allen attributes this to a kind of stark realism on the part of the Vatican which has not passed its time:
One core reason the Vatican opposed the two Gulf Wars, as well as any expansion of the conflict in Syria, was fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy in which Christians and other minorities would find themselves in the firing line.

That’s no longer a theoretical anxiety. It’s the lived reality of the new caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State, which means that the Vatican and other Christian leaders are no longer so worried about the aftermath of a conflict. They’re much more preoccupied by the here and now, and thus more inclined to back anyone who seems prepared to do something about it.
This certainly seems like a plausible ex post rationale, but is there any evidence that in 1991, 2003, and 2013 Vatican thinking was indeed driven by the idea that it was better to keep Middle Eastern police states in place in order to prevent radical Islamist regimes from coming to power? I remember vague discussion about violence never solving anything, but I don't recall anything specifically making this argument and in some ways it seems out of character.

This is not actually the first time that the Vatican has come out in support of US-led military intervention in the last few decades. While John Paul II was strong in his criticism of every other US military intervention during his pontificate he was actually quite supportive of the US intervention in the former Yugoslavia to prevent ethnic cleansing and mass killings. Indeed, the Vatican was in some ways ahead of the US supporting humanitarian intervention with military means, something which some Balkan actors continued to resent till John Paul II's death.

One common thread here is clearly a willingness to support the use of force to halt an immediate humanitarian catastrophe, but not to remove a rogue state government. However that doesn't appear to be a constant principle. I don't recall the Vatican being open to military force being used in Rwanda or to halt mass killings during the Syrian civil war. However, think the common thread which could be identified is one of rarely supporting military force in a "humanitarian intervention" context, subject to certain other criteria -- not some sort of realpolitik in which it's better to keep repressive governments in the Middle East in place in order to preserve order and prevent an Islamic State.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Ratting Out Landmines

We're busy and sleep deprived here at the Darwin household, but here's a strange and fascinating story for your Friday: In parts of central Africa which have been plagued by recurring wars, getting landmines and other dangerous munitions cleared is a major obstacle to land use. Clearing landmines is a hugely dangerous operation, but people have recently found a unique ally in the work, the African Giant Pouched Rat.
The rats have an exceptional sense of smell and can be trained to find buried landmines by scent. They can find the mines faster than a human with a metal detector, and they're light enough that they don't set the mines off when they step on them. They're also local, disease resistant, and with a lifespan of around eight years they provide lots of return for the time spent training them.

Stillwater - 52

4:50, 4000 words today. Maybe a personal best.

***

Waves of horrible clarity swamped Melly. All of Alys’s texts made sudden, vile, incontrovertible sense. Sophia was giving Ian trouble? Rumors were getting started? Ian loved her? He was bleeping Sophia, practically on camera! Oh Lord, the Spencers! Had they seen this yet? It would kill them! And how could she have forgotten Chris Dalton? Melly’s thoughts came as short and sharp as her breathing until the room started to spin around her. Somehow she made her way toward her bedroom, unnoticed over the commotion of Nanette and Marie-Helene demanding to see what was so funny. Sounds were muffled and distorted by the rushing in her head, but as she collapsed on her bed she could just hear her mother say, “Well, I hope people won’t stop getting married. How are we supposed to get by if they cut my hours at Tina’s Bridal?”

The bitter taste of this news made Melly heartsick. Sophia was no sister to her, but they had lived under the same roof for years. She remembered all the hours she’d spent beading and knotting Sophia’s wedding dress, and her stomach turned over again as she remembered shrinking back in the corner, dress on her lap, as Ian flirted with Sophia even then. Sophia had walked down the aisle in that dress only six months ago. Six months! Now poor stupid Chris, so stolid and handsome as he waited at the altar for Sophia in her embroidered gown, was abandoned.

Tears spilled onto her pillow as she felt all the sorrow of her friends. Dick, in his hospital bed. Olivia, in Brazil, perhaps seeing the video on Facebook with no warning, just as Melly had. Sophia’s good kind parents, Richard and Cheryl. They must be eaten up with grief. What parent, however negligent (and Richard and Cheryl had never been negligent — too hands off, perhaps), desires that his or her daughter should commit adultery? Cheryl would weep openly and be easily comforted. Richard’s wounds would run deeper. She compared his reaction with her own father’s, and cried some more.

And finally, she let her thoughts turn toward Malcolm. Oh, Malcolm. What must he be suffering tonight, poor love? His sister having an affair with a man he’d always known as a friend. He had to wonder how much Ian’s own dear sister knew beforehand, how much she could have done to discourage Ian and Sophia if she’d been of a mind to. Perhaps now… But Melly stepped away from this mental door and closed it gently. Malcolm had woes enough. She was not going to make a puppet of him in her thoughts.

Wiping her eyes, she rolled over and fished under her pillow for the familiar beads of her rosary. It was going to be a hard night for sleeping.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Name the Stillwater Meme

Calling Stillwater readers! 

I'm stuck on a dumb point: I can't think up a name for the meme inspired by Ian and Sophia's disastrous TV appearance.

The camera panned over to focus on the white face of Sophia Spencer Dalton, gaping in shock at Ian Winter next to her. His arm was draped over her shoulders but he couldn’t seem to turn his eyes away from the train wreck on stage. A weak smile was still plastered on his face. 

It's only a passing reference, but it's driving me nuts. Help me out and tell me what the title of the meme is and what the memebase description would be. If it strikes my fancy, I may just use it in the next installment. More importantly, you'll recharge my creative juices so I can post the next section before I go on vacation next week.

We're only about three installments from the end of the story. So close, so close...

Lydia Bennett, Sexy Heroine?

Once an author turns a book loose upon the world, there's no telling what readers will do with it. This seems to be even more so the case with books get a "fan" following, as fandom often seems to involve an over-identification with characters which inspires a desire for wish fulfillment and bending a story's meaning in order to suit the self identifications one has layered on top of it.

Such a case is this strange post in which the author considers the idea that in Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice might be a liberated feminist icon.
Lydia is presented throughout the book as, to say the least, problematic. She’s not a villain exactly, but she’s presented as not at all a good person: she’s shallow, frivolous, self-absorbed, short-sighted, concerned only with trivialities, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Her life is consumed with flirtation, gossip, dancing, fashion, and handsome men in uniforms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — there are worse things, right?) Austen describes her as “self-willed and careless,” “ignorant, idle, and vain.” And yes. She is all of these things.

But she’s also something else.

She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.

She’s a woman who — in defiance of the powerful social pressures of 19th century England — decides that who she marries, and when, and when they do or don’t have sex, is nobody’s business but hers. (Well, hers and her partner’s, obviously.) She’s a woman who — when everyone around her is clutching their pearls and freaking their shit over the fact that she had sex before marriage — doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (“She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”) She’s a woman who — shortly before her wedding, when her aunt is lecturing her about the wickedness of what she did — is ignoring her, and instead is thinking about the man she’s about to marry, and what he’s going to wear. She’s a woman who — after the marriage has been patched together — has the audacity, much to the horror of her father and eldest sisters, to not be ashamed, to take pleasure in her life, and to look forward with excitement to her future.

She’s something of a pioneer. I find myself having a sneaking admiration.
...
In that world — where the cage around unmarried women’s virginity was locked tight, and the social penalties for breaking out were severe — Lydia Bennett decided, “Fuck that noise. The rules are fucked up, and I’m going to ignore them. My body, my right to decide.” And she snuck out of the cage, and ran off into the night.

Good for her.
She goes on to talk about how she could envision writing a fanfic exploring Lydia's later life:
I’m thinking of her, older, not very wise but certainly more experienced, looking back on her bawdy life, and looking back on her elopement and defloration — and seeing it as a moment of liberation, the moment when her new life began. I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain.
There are various peculiar things about this approach to the novel.

It enshrines self-will as a sort of highest good -- though only, presumably, in a certain space. In the early 21st Century, people no longer seem to want their Nietzsche unconstrained. However, there are certain circumscribed areas in which people still find the idea of doing what you want simply because you want it admirable, and the bedroom is often one of those.

The dislike of Wickham thus strikes me as kind of interesting, in that it underscores the subjectivity of this kind of approach. If we're to admire an approach to life in which people say "my body is mine and I'm going to do what I want with it regardless of how other people feel about it", you would think that Wickham would actually be a sort of hero. Lydia is, at root, a pretty shallow character eager to define herself by how attractive she is to men, particularly men in uniform. Wickham, on the other hand, really is someone simply out to get what he wants regardless of how other people feel about it.

By the subjective standards of modern mores, his conduct is seen as bad in the context of the story only in that we have main characters who are those he seeks to prey upon in satisfying his desires. Lydia is given a pass on this because it's held that her family had no particular right to expect her to behave a way that didn't impoverish her and disgrace them. But really, there's no reason Wickham couldn't be given the same pass if one made the subjective decision to consider him the main character instead. Wickham is, after all, willing to discard not only sexual convention but class conventions as well. He's doubly liberated!

At the root of all this confusion is the mistake of seeing "freedom" or doing what one desires as an end in and of itself. What Austen rightly sees as the problem with Lydia is that she has no interest in pursuing what is good (i.e. virtuous) rather see simply seeks gratification, whether in the form of having many officer flatterers, or having all the neighbors recognize that she is now married.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Stillwater - 51


How long does it take to reconcile with a new life? Some people charge full tilt at new opportunities; some people slip easily from one scene to the next; some people sit out on their front porch rockers and greet the possibility of change with a civil cha-chunk of their pump action shot guns. Melly wasn’t so bad as all that. She still could not generate a burning affection for her family’s home, or even for most of her family, but they were all scraping along. They were all alive, that was something. Marc still made her nervous when he came home in a mood, but Andre had accepted her as a built-in feature and took pains not to be unpleasant. Marie-Helene now realized that you couldn’t get anything from her by playing cute. Her parents had stopped thinking of her as a total stranger in the house and had accepted her as a long-term boarder. Leonie was different, of course; it was good to be with her, and it was good to know that somebody needed her, though the difference in their temperaments consumed much of Melly’s energy. She studied her family’s moods and attitudes as diligently as she studied for her classes, and she was passing both. There was almost gratification in being able to stay calm when hair-trigger tempers were shooting off all around her. She had been quiet much of her life; she was only now starting to realize the power of silence.

Was she happy? Well, that depended on what you thought happiness was. She didn’t feel happy, or miserable, or anxious, or peaceful. She didn’t feel much of anything. The seasons were rolling over from the stifling heat of the long summer into a mellow wash of November, and with the cool came equilibrium. The emotional pendulum of her first weeks in Baton Rouge slowed and steadied to a day-to-day perseverance. Each class had its schedule; each week had its rhythm; Sunday was her respite. The routine wasn’t exciting, but it wasn’t deadening either. It just was.

The only electric moments in this existence were the fitful contacts with her past life. A small, sharp thrill pierced her heart whenever she saw a new email from Malcolm or Cheryl, even if the message itself only contained a few hasty words about Dick’s slow recovery. Occasionally the thrill was justified by Malcolm’s mention of Alys drama. Alys kept pushing him to come to New York again, but he didn’t feel easy taking a weekend away from his parents in Dallas when they were still so fractured with grief. Melly took no comfort from this lovers’ tiff. Malcolm would go to Alys soon enough, and when he did she wouldn’t pass up the chance to tell Melly all about her conquest. News would come, sooner or later. The anticipation of it became a secret wound she carried everywhere. She might forget it for a while, but it never stopped throbbing. At times the ache would crash over her in a wave; or it would rise up like the evening mist on the fields, clinging to her in a thin haze.

The dreaded announcement came late on the Friday evening before Thanksgiving. Melly’s phone buzzed, and a brief glimpse at the screen showed her Alys’s name. That was enough for the moment. Reading the text meant knowing the worst. It was better to cling to blissful, ignorant hope for a few last seconds. Those seconds were fertile ones: fear, despair, and then doubt tumbled through her mind. When had Alys ever sent her a text? She loved to compose shiny epistolary gems; text would be a cramped stage for her wordsmithing. With renewed uncertainty, Melly picked up the phone again and read the message.

We can fly down today to take you to Dallas. Take this seriously.

Melly stood aghast. Oh God! Dick was dying — Alys must have heard it from Malcolm — and she had to go to them. Cheryl would be so grief-stricken, so desperate for her aid. All the ways should could help in this time of woe played in her mind: the errands she could run, the food she could make, the consolation she could give… As this little mental film wound its last frames, the loose end started flapping. Cheryl had no inhibitions about calling or writing at any hour about anything that popped into her head; why hadn’t she said anything? Maybe she was too overcome to call Melly. But Cheryl loved to lean on those she loved. And just that morning she’d sent an email with no mention of Dick in decline. Had he really slid downhill so fast?

Melly thought it was a bit late to call Cheryl, so she sent a carefully worded text about Dick’s condition, and received an almost instant reply: Dick is great. He wiggled his toe today and is so happy to see Malcolm. Praise God.

So Dick was okay and Malcolm was in Dallas, not New York. Then what could Alys be talking about? Only way to find out was to ask her.

Why? Dick’s fine.
Sophia’s giving Ian trouble.
What trouble?
You know how rumors get started.
What rumors?
Nothing. Don’t listen to any rumors. Ian loves you.
I can’t go to Dallas this weekend.
I hope you won’t be sorry.

Sorry about what? Flutters of worry stirred in Melly’s stomach as she searched this exchange looking for an answer key to Alys’ oblique hints. What sort of trouble could Sophia be causing? Was she still angry about Ian’s flirtation, more than six months afterward? But surely he didn’t need Melly’s permission to escape, and long experience had taught her that Sophia was unlikely to listen to anything she had to say. Alys knew that, and she also knew that Sophia was plenty capable of petty malice. What on earth could Sophia do that would concern Alys enough that she would enlist Melly to stop it? It involved rumors, to which Melly was not supposed to listen because Ian loved her. Why should she care about rumors that Ian didn’t love her? Why should he care, if they weren’t true? But Alys said flat out that Ian did love her, and in fairness Melly had to admit that lying wasn’t one of Alys’s vices. So Alys must think that Melly would doubt that Ian loved her. Why? Because of the rumors?

She trod this circle again and again over the weekend, with no fresh clues to direct her thoughts. After the first burst of communication, Alys maintained radio silence. The uncertainty was starting to get to Melly. If only she knew whether she should be relieved or worried or scared or disgusted! She found herself constantly fiddling with her phone to see if she’d missed an email or a text or a call. Several times she even tapped out a text to ask Alys for more news, but she quashed this spirit of gossip unsent. Whatever Alys had to say would come out in her own good time. Maybe it had all blown over and Alys was ashamed of having mentioned it in the first place. It was better to say nothing and wait, Melly told herself as she put her phone in her pocket and rose to do something, anything but this interminable clicking around.

The school week was a short one because of Thanksgiving break. Her Wednesday class had been canceled, so she had the prospect of five long days at home to cheer her. Late on Tuesday afternoon she sat in a vacation daze in the living room, curled up in the ratty armchair nearest the door. She was not alone; her mother and Marie-Helene were on the couch snickering at some show about weddings, and her father was parked as always in the recliner back by the window, fixated on his phone. A weird sense of déjà vu crept over her as she surveyed the room. Little had changed in the three months she’d been there. Only the light was different. In August, what poor afternoon sun could seep into the window-deficient box of a house had softened the elaborate cheapness of the particleboard TV armoire and gilded the glass over her mother’s Thomas Kinkade knockoffs. Now, in November, the early encroaching twilight didn’t deepen the garish colors of the living room, as it did to the jewel-tone velvets at Stillwater. Here all the vitality drained out of the house with the dying sun, leaving a residual gloom illuminated only by the shifting colors of the TV and the white glare from her father’s corner.  Melly’s limbs felt leaden and her head grew heavy. The outside world faded away with the sunlight. Perhaps everything was a dream, and she had always been in this tomb with these same slack-faced corpses, every angle distorted by the light thrown from the images passing before their unblinking eyes.

She was snapped out of this reverie by the sound of her name. Her father was cackling in a distinctly uncorpsey fashion.

“Who’s your rich friend who got Rene a job?” he called, grinning down at his gently babbling phone.

Melly shook the dusty remnants of dream out of her head. “Ian Winter.”

This was greeted by a guffaw from the recliner.

“Come on over here and look at this, cher,” he said, shifting loudly so she could sit on the arm of the chair.

Melly crossed over and took her place, and Jean Arceneaux scrolled back up to the top of the page he was reading and handed her the phone. The headline brayed, “This man made a point about marriage. I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.”

“Watch the video!” Jean urged, jostling her elbow. “That’s his uncle, huh?”

Melly watched in confused fascination as Carson Winter, urbane and open-collared, was addressed by a panel of talk show hostesses, a trio of blondes with varying hairstyles and one large black woman. The blonde with the bun leaned across the table with a conversational glint in her eye.

“So you recently made some waves with your thoughts about marriage. Do you have any theories on why people are so upset?”

“Marriage has become this sacred cow across the political spectrum,” said Winter, draping a casual elbow over the back of his chair. “I support the right of anyone who wants to get married to get married, but I think in some ways the same-sex marriage movement has been detrimental to society because it enshrines this one model of marriage as if it were engraved on stone tablets. The fact of the matter is, history has seen as many forms of marriage as there have been societies. I think the pendulum is swinging toward a more open and pluralistic view of relationship. The human organism is not a creature of absolutes.”

“Shattering conventions — I love it,” said the spiky blonde with professionally modulated enthusiasm.

“You flatter me,” said Carson Winter, “but convention is just that, a commonly understood term. It’s not a law that everyone abides by. People talk about family values as if they’re some kind of building code. I think family values are things like honesty. There’s nothing that says a relationship has to be exclusive as long as it’s honest. Marriage is supposed to be some public commitment that says you’ll be exclusive for the rest of your life. But isn’t that often just a form of hypocrisy? Let me give you an example. I’ve brought some guests.” He gestured toward the audience. “Right here with us is that paragon of American virtue, a Southern matron, who’s up in New York this weekend to [bleep] my nephew.”

The camera panned over to focus on the white face of Sophia Spencer Dalton, gaping in shock at Ian Winter next to her. His arm was draped over her shoulders but he couldn’t seem to turn his eyes away from the train wreck on stage. A weak smile was still plastered on his face.

“A lot of people would think it was immoral for a married woman to spend a passionate weekend with a man not her husband,” Carson Winter droned on through the blood pounding in Melly’s ears. “I think it’s immoral to reduce marriage to a societal straitjacket.”

Sophia was out of her seat and scrambling over the studio audience, followed by Ian. The black hostess bellowed, “Oh no he didn’t!”, and the layered blonde motioned desperately for the camera to cut away. Carson Winter crossed his legs and, as the video froze, favored the internet with a still of his perfectly bleached smile.

“Look at her face,” gloated Jean Arceneaux, moving the video back a few frames to snicker at Sophia and Ian’s ludicrous pose. “That’s gonna be a great meme.”

Saturday, August 02, 2014

This Is How It Is

Last night I broke a streak of nights with five hours sleep, went to bed without writing, and got more than eight hours sleep. It was great.

This morning, as I was gradually working my way towards consciousness, the children trooped in to collect their allowances from my wallet so they could go attend yard sales up and down the street. I put the pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Half and hour later people had apparently latched on to the idea of having our own, unplanned yard sale and began collecting things from all over the house to take outside. At this point, it seemed that perhaps it was time for me to get out of bed.

The old records and National Geographics from the attic failed to attract any buyers but we did unload four old trunks for twenty dollars. Flush from this success, we purchased three aluminum baseball bats from a neighbor for a total of two dollars and decided to go out for hamburgers tonight. Then it started raining. And it wasn't yet 10:00 AM, so the day still lay before us.

I don't know if that sounds like a fun and inspiring family morning. The reality is frustrating in away that gets you down. One box of vintage clothes didn't make the yardsale because some animal of the house proved to have peed in it. Drama ensued when it turned out the kids had harvest all the squash from the garden but then left it somewhere in the house and can't remember where.

Some years back I remember a parent whose children were getting older saying that you're given exactly enough grace to get by at any given time, but that it never "gets easier". In an odd negative way I find that comforting, in that it suggests that it's not just because we have six kids and a massive old house and two somewhat defective cats and a couple of novels in progress that everything seems chaotic and maddening. In all probability, even if we had 2.5 kids and a new house and dutifully watched whatever the newest show was, it would still seem maddeningly difficult.

Perhaps one of the prime ways that my own personal Screwtape tries to get at me is by suggesting all the time, "If it weren't for this," or "If you only had this," it would all seem easy and peaceful and decorous. If we had a new couch. If the floors got picked up more often. If we weren't up to our necks in children. Just some one, not-quite-attainable little thing and it would suddenly become Me World, in which everything happens to Darwin's ease. There is no such world, of course. But I constantly find myself tempted by the notion that there could be.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading and Listening

I just finished listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook. This was, somehow, an odd experience, because it's a book that I've read in print perhaps a dozen times over the years but never listened to as an audiobook before. (I did, however, used to listen to the BBC radio dramatization of LotR constantly as a child.)

I've known people who consider listening to an audiobook as somehow "cheating", as not being real reading. I certainly can't come to that, in that some of the most formative reads of my life were books that I heard my father read aloud when I was a child. However, listening to a book does feel a bit different than reading one.

For one thing, even listening along in a car, there's a sense of not being utterly alone with the book. Some website I was on the other day was advertising the audiobook of 50 Shades of Grey, and I thought: How could you possibly want to listen to a porn book? You'd feel like someone was right there with you all the time.

I suppose listening also takes away a certain kind of focus and difficulty which can, at times, accompany reading. When I'm commuting and listening to a book, I'm hardly going to set it aside and pick up another. I only have the one book loaded on my iPhone at a time, and so I tend to always finish. If a book might not be totally involving in print, I can still get through it on audio because I have nothing else to do. By the same token, I don't know if I pay quite as much attention when listening rather than reading, though I try to. This is why, as a parent and educator, it annoys me a bit when the kids insist that they'd rather listen to a book I like on audiobook than read it themselves. Although I give myself full credit for "reading" a book that I listen to, I worry that if they only want to listen to a book that they aren't sufficiently developing their reading skills.

How would you relate the experiences of reading and listening to a book? Do you let your kids listen to books or do you insist on them reading them on paper?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Class, Culture, or Genes?

I found this article on long term social mobility rather interesting. It's a semi-review of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by economist Gregory Clark, which seeks to look at the extent to which wealth or poverty persists through generations.

He set out thinking the social-science consensus was correct, intending only to extend those findings further into the past. But the evidence changed his mind: social scientists have been measuring mobility the wrong way, and in fact the popular intuition is on target.

The key to understanding Clark’s thesis is his division of the factors that make for success in worldly affairs into an inherited component and a random component. (“Inherited” here need not mean “genetic”: one could inherit, for instance, one’s family’s reputation.) Most previous studies have focused on movements in social class from one generation to the next. But as Clark explains using his two-factor model, such a limited time frame means that the random component of social achievement is going to have an undue influence. This is not an esoteric notion: think, for instance, of a member of a high-achievement family who suffers a terrible car accident as a youth, leaving him with severe brain damage. It is quite likely that whether measured by income, profession, or educational level, that member will do significantly worse than the family average.

But this accident will not change the family’s basic “social competency” (Clark’s term). If the injured son has children, they will not inherit his brain damage. Their level of achievement will tend to return toward the family baseline. So, Clark suggests, if we really want to measure social mobility, we should look at the social status of families over many generations.

The way he and his team of researchers did so is ingenious: they found relatively rare surnames primarily associated with high social standing, such as the names taken by the nobility in Sweden, or low social standing, such as names characteristic of the Travellers in England, and tracked their appearance in historical records showing elite status, such as admissions to top universities—for Oxford and Cambridge, we have data dating back 800 years—large estates bequeathed in probate, or presence in high-status professions such as law and medicine.

The results confirm that the popular intuition has been correct all along:
The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimates—medieval England, modern England, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile, and even egalitarian Sweden—is … much higher than conventionally estimated. Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.
What’s more, it matters little what social policies are put in place: Clark and his team find that social mobility remains nearly constant over time despite the arrival of free public education, the reduction of nepotism in government, modern economic growth, the expansion of the franchise, and redistributive taxation.

Clark introduces us to the reality of this persistence of status with a few notable examples. For instance, the family of famed diarist Samuel Pepys has had high social status from 1500 until today, while that of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, apparently has been upper crust since the Domesday Book of 1086. And in noting the many prominent members of the Darwin family, he remarks, “It is also interesting that Darwin’s fourth-generation descendants include Adrian Maynard Keynes and William Huxley Darwin.” The elite tend to marry the elite.

But if such isolated examples were the crux of Clark’s case, it would be a rather flimsy one: even if the standard social science take on mobility were correct, we would expect to find notable exceptions to the general rule. His main backing for his thesis is a number of studies conducted across many countries and many centuries. Nevertheless the anecdotes are an important aspect of this work: they are a component of how Clark continually turns what could have been an extremely dry executive summary of a number of demographic surveys into a consistently engaging book.

The method and the findings here both strike me as fascinating.

One of the points that strikes me as particularly interesting is the point that if how well you do is a combination of family factors and personal factors, that looking at the difference between fathers and sons would tend to magnify the important of personal factors, while looking over more generations would give more of a sense of family factors. This should ring true to any lover of Victorian and earlier novels: distressed nobility may be distressed, but they're still nobility, and thus they have more ability to get themselves back up into the range of other nobles than do non-gentlefolk who may have similar incomes.

The article, however, surprises me a bit in that it seems to assume (whether this mirrors the book or now I don't know) that if certain families seem to continue to achieve highly through many generations, that this must be entirely the result of unshakable class privilege. I would imagine that class is a factor, but it seems likely that family culture and genetics come into it as well.

Culture and genetics would help to explain the phenomenon of immigrants from an educated/genteel background coming to a new country with nothing, yet somehow ending up within a generation or two back in the upper middle class. Obviously, given the shift of cultural context, it's unlikely to be the result of class power or influence and more likely to be the result of some combination of family culture and natural abilities passed down through genetics.