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

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Black is the new black"

I sat down half an hour ago to write something substantive, and I've spent most of that time staring stupidly at the screen and shaking myself awake. So instead of posting a really scintillating piece, I'll give you something right up my mental alley tonight:

Sorry, guys. It's the best I can do.

Historical Note: The Great War, Chapter 9-2

Catholic Bibliophagist asks on Chapter 9-2, "Was this based on a real incident?" I'd meant to write a historical note on this chapter, so this is a good opportunity.

The incident described in the installment is not directly based on a specific incident, but it's representative of a large number of incidents that took place during the occupation of Belgium in August 1914. There were memories in the German Army of guerrilla warfare waged against them during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, and officers were instructed to deal harshly with any attacks by un-uniformed fighters. As the German troops passed through Belgium (and to an extent Northern France, though as the troops gained experience the incidents stopped, so it was Belgium which suffered by far the most) there were frequent scares that they were being shot at.

From this remove, it's impossible to know how often these fears were justified (civilians whose country is being invaded do sometimes shoot at the invading soldiers) and how often these were simply panics with no real attack.

German units responded to these perceived attacks by searching houses, rounded up the suspected perpetrators (or at times simply rounding up hostages) and summarily executing them. Modern scholars of the period believe that roughly 5,500 Belgian civilians were executed by German forces during August and September of 1914.

On August 25th (four days after Walter's IV Reserve Corps passed through) German soldiers occupying the city of Leuven, believing that they had been shot at by civilians, went on a rampage which resulted in 248 civilians being killed, the remaining 10,000 being forcibly expelled from the town, and the town being burnt (including the destruction of the University of Leuven library, containing more than 300,000 medieval and early printed manuscripts.) Other smaller incidents occurred in many towns. In addition to summary executions of civilians, the homes of those accused of having shot at German troops were often burnt in order to serve as a lesson to others, but in my chapter I felt that confiscating the house worked better for the story.

In Sint-Truiden where I set this incident, a total of twenty Belgian civilians were killed and a number of homes burnt.

During the course of the war, the stories of these atrocities were circulated and often exaggerated. The real things that had happened were bad enough, but sensational accounts felt the need to come up with stories even more horrifying, and so newspapers were filled with claims of women being crucified, of thousands of children having their hands cut off, etc.

After the war, as it became clear how false these sensational claims were, and as post-war disillusion set in, the realization that these stories (a sort of grass roots propaganda which often originated with private journalists rather than with the government) were not true, and disgust with anything that had caused people to believe the war was worth fighting, caused many people to reject all stories of German atrocities in Belgium, true and false. However, German executions of civilians on fairly flimsy pretexts did happen to a shocking degree in the first months of the war , and is attested to in German accounts as well as in Belgian ones.

For further reading, consult:
14-18, Understanding the Great War by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker
Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings
The Marne, 1914 by Holger Herwig
The Rape of Belgium by Larry Zuckerman

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 9-2

Second of four installments of Chapter 9. I'll post some historical notes later today or tomorrow in relation to the events in the chapter. The next installment should be up by Tuesday night.

Sint-Truiden, Belgium. August 19th, 1914. For a seemingly endless minute, undirected fear gripped the soldiers in the street. Some took cover against the walls of the buildings, some ran from imagined threats, some fired, some held back. Walter could see no sign of who, if anyone, was attacking them. But how easy would it be for an attacker to hide within a building, fire a shot from a window, and disappear into the dim recesses of an upstairs room until ready to shoot again?

Leutnant Weber stepped out into the middle of the street, drawing his sword. “Korporalshaft 5 and 6, take cover against the buildings. If you see anyone shooting from the windows, fire upon them. Korporalshaft 7 and 8, follow me. Sergeant Zimmerman, your Korporalshaft 7 is to watch the windows to the left. Sergeant Breiner, Korporalschaft 8, the windows to the right.”

The leutnant walked slowly down the street towards the place where the panic had broken out, not looking back to see whether he was followed.

Nine days since getting off the trains and it was their first action. Walter felt a mix of fear and pounding excitement, but also a sense of unreality. It was so very like a training exercise, the officer walking slowly down the street with his sword drawn and the two lines of soldiers forming up behind him, rifles at the ready.

Fabel’s gruppe was the second gruppe of Korporalshaft 7. The first gruppe formed up behind Leutnant Weber’s left shoulder, Sergeant Zimmerman walking next to the gefreiter at the head of the line. Gefreiter Fabel, Walter, Franz, Alfred, Georg and the other four men of the second gruppe had all stepped out as well, and they followed first gruppe down the street. Walter shifted his grip on his rifle, trying to settle the butt into his shoulder and scanning the windows to the left, looking for a deeper shadow in the darkness or a movement of the curtains. He could feel his heart pounding, and there was a slight trembling in his hands which caused the front sight of the rifle to dip and bounce against the buildings as he moved along. No movement at the upstairs windows.

They advanced down the street, an overwhelming force. The officer leading thirty-eight men men, half focused on each side of the street. They crossed the intersection and reached the place in the block where 1st Zug had scattered on being shot at. Leutnant Forstner stepped out of the doorway in which he’d taken cover and came to stand by Leutnant Weber.

“Well?” asked Leutnant Weber.

“I heard shots. It must have been from one of the windows.” He looked around. “No one is hurt, but I know that I heard shots.”

Leutnant Weber nodded. “Which house?”

The narrow brick row houses stood three stories high, sometimes a storefront with its plate glass windows on the bottom floor, sometimes an ordinary residence with paned windows framed by shutters and a painted wooden door.

Leutnant Forstner looked up and down the block. “I don’t know. But I heard shots.”

“Well, let’s search house to house, then.”

Luetnant Forstner called the men of First Zug to form up, embarrassed to see them still cowering in doorways when Second Zug had come in good order to protect them, and he ordered his gruppe to search each house. They began pounding on doors. If a civilian opened the door, he or she was ordered out into the street while soldiers pushed in to search the house. Doors that were not answered were broken down. As the houses were systematically emptied a growing crowd of civilians stood in the middle of the street, grumbling quietly among themselves in Flemish as they watched the German soldiers search the houses.

[Continue reading]

Boldly Gone

We're watching the neighbors' guinea pig while their house is on the market, and although I am no softy when it comes to the animal department, I find the guinea pig ("Piggy") to be an oddly endearing little creature. Part of this is that I bear no responsibility for its care: the girls have to feed it, water it, clean its cage, give it timothy grass and apple sticks. I only encounter it when I go in the princess bedroom to sigh at the baskets of clean laundry that reside there, or to use the shower in that bathroom because we're not ready to do the extensive remodeling that would make the master bathroom shower useable. And when I do encounter it, I say, "Hello, Piggy," and this ball of fluff squeaks at me with the most adorable little chirps I've ever heard.

I told the girls, "Piggy's squeaks have the same effect on me as a Tribble cooing." And the girls get that reference now, because after Leonard Nimoy died, we showed them a few episodes of the original Star Trek. They already knew who Leonard Nimoy was, of course: Paris in the later seasons of the original Mission: Impossible. M:I is a show that's aged well. It feels very rooted in its time period in a classic way. It feels stylish. Star Trek, on the other hand... We picked three episodes which we though embodied what was mostly good about the show, and then the "killer pancakes" episode because Darwin made a passing reference to it and everyone was intrigued. I couldn't even sit through it, it was so painful. I'd forgotten all the philosobabble the screenwriters poured into the mouths of our heroes, the sort of drivel which you find amongst those who treat trolleyology as a serious moral quandry.

(Was there ever a trolleyology episode? The trolley problem was developed by Philippa Foot in 1967; Star Trek started in 1966 and ran for three seasons. I don't remember, but what I've forgotten about Star Trek is a goodly body of knowledge.)

The better episodes were "City on the Edge of Forever", in which Kirk and Spock chase a crazed McCoy back into the 1930s; "A Piece of the Action", 30s again, gangster-style; and naturally "The Trouble with Tribbles".

1. "A Piece of the Action" is funny enough on a surface level and makes absolutely no sense at all on closer scrutiny, either of human motivation or of how one civilization makes contact with another. It's canonical fan fiction -- "What would it look like if the crew were thrown into this other genre?" I picked it solely for a line which my dad quotes ("I hit Krako, Krako hits Teppo, Teppo hits me," spoken by the incomparably named Bela Oxmyx), and that was indeed the high point in the episode, though there were any number of lows. (Spock and Kirk knowing what a clutch was on an old car fell into that category, from the vantage point of 2015.)

2. I'd remembered "City on the Edge of Forever" as being more significant than it turned out to be. I pass over the McGuffin of an inciting incident, or the method of time travel (since all time travel in fiction is arbitrary anyway), and I look at the execution of the 30s portion of the episode. There's a compelling premise here -- if you knew you had to allow someone to die so that history could be restored (just take it as a given that history can be disrupted and restored), could you do it, especially if it's Joan Collins and you have developed feelings for her? -- but as played, it's just kinda silly. Joan Collins, as Edith, makes her soup kitchen bums pay for their meal by being subjected to a hackneyed speech about progress and man going to the stars one day and prophecies about the power of the atom.

I love the soup kitchen bum character actor; one thing we noticed both with this episode and with "A Piece of the Action" is that the character actors are more comfortable with their material than the leads. Also, Joan Collins's hair, said no 30's hairdo ever.

This episode includes the amusingly unfunny gag where Kirk tries, incompetently, to explain away Spock's appearance.

Darwin tells me that Harlan Ellison, the original writer, hated the final episode so much that he demanded that his name be taken off the credits. I feel you, Harlan.

3. Now we're cooking. "The Trouble With Tribbles" is entirely fluffy, entirely goofy, just over-the-top silliness -- and it's about as well-crafted as any fifty minutes of television. It's almost bulletproof situation comedy. I don't see why this couldn't become a stock piece of theater like "Arsenic and Old Lace" -- a troupe of fifth-graders could play it as written, and it would still work. It has stakes. It has bloviating bureaucrats. It has villainous aliens. It has a snake-oil salesman. It has insults, and a bar fight. It has Chekhov's running Russian gag... well, that's actually cultural deadweight that could be cut out entirely with no loss to the script.

There's the rub. There's nothing in this episode (except Chekhov) to rub our faces in the 60s. It actually transcends both its time and its setting to become something worth watching for its own sake. Every character is a stock character, and that's okay, because there's nothing wrong with stock comedy if it's well done. The Tribble itself needs no technobabble to explain its allure and its threat. Its very simplicity is what makes it timeless. The bridge may look like cardboard, and the lab equipment like plastic buckets, but a tribble is a tribble is a tribble, in 1967 or in 2015. The kids voted this one their favorite, hands down.

And so, Leonard Nimoy. Even when Spock didn't have a sense of humor (and he does have a number of lines which suggest that the writers believed he didn't), Nimoy did. The series itself, whether as much of a cultural touchstone of the late 60s as it's proclaimed to be, has little substantive to say to 2015 about race relations or women's empowerment or ending war or scientific anything. You watch Star Trek for Spock, and you watch Spock because of Leonard Nimoy. Who remembers Tuvok, the Vulcan from Star Trek: Voyager? Who remembers Voyager? Who cares? Star Trek was all downhill after man actually went to the moon. It boldly went, and now it's boldly gone, and the children of 50 years later, inured to the wonders of iPhones and iPads and all the technology that Gene Roddenberry couldn't imagine, only respond to what is authentic in the show: Leonard Nimoy, and the lowly tribble.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Invisible Barriers

A bunch of friends were talking about this episode of The American Life the other day, which I finally got the chance to finish listening to over lunch today. (There's also a written transcript if you prefer to read.)

Its jumping off point is two teachers in New York, one at an exclusive private school, one at a poor public school in the Bronx (just three miles away) who decide to to an exchange program where the kids in the two schools visit back and forth. Then it tracks how the kids reactions to being exposed to this much richer school affected their own attempts to get into college and get out of the poor neighborhood.

There are a lot of programs and people trying to help these people get out, and yet one of the things which stops a lot of them is their own deep belief that they don't belong in elite college and jobs, and they don't deserve to do better. A lot of the kids who make it into elite colleges with lots of financial help nonetheless fail out, partly, it sounds, due to lack of academic preparation (being an A+ student at their school translates to being a C and D student at college) but also to a great extent because they feel a paralyzing sense of not belonging and not deserving which causes them to do things that seem on the face of it both stupid and their fault.

For instance, one guy gets a full ride to Wheaton College. When he arrives, he can't afford his text books. But rather than telling anyone in the program that sent him there, he just doesn't do the reading. Then he feels bad about being behind on the reading when he's often the only black kid in small discussion classes, so he stops going to class to avoid feeling ashamed. He's eventually expelled from the college.

It adds up to a strong sense of how class barriers involve a lot more than money, and that overcoming them is not simple.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Is Prison Destroying the Family?

When I wrote about the question of jobs versus culture being at the root of the precipitous decline of marriage among poorer Americans, Bearing asked to what extent the "war on drugs" and mass incarceration might be at fault.

Certainly, the number of Americans in prison has skyrocketed in the last 35 years, and the vast majority of those extra inmates are male. There are now roughly 1% of American men in some sort of correctional facility, and another 2% or so currently in parole.


A significant percentage of those men are African American. 2.2% of the Black population is in prison, and since we can assume the vast majority of those are men, via simple math we could call it around 4.5% of Black men. By comparison. 0.4% of the White population is in prison, or about 0.8% of White men. (This is the result of a range of factors. There are some studies indicating that racial minorities tend to get longer sentences for similar crimes, however it's also the case that racial minorities commit a number of crimes at higher rates.)

To what extent high recent incarceration rates are the result specifically of the war on drugs, I don't know, and again I suspect the answer is complicated. Megan McArdle (who is an advocate of legalizing drugs) wrote the other day that people are in general mistake to believe that a lot of the people in prison are there for simple possession of drugs. Of the population of people actually serving time, apparently a lot are there for drug offenses, but also additional ones that most people agree are a problem (domestic abuse, theft, etc.) There's an extent to which the illegality of drugs begets other crime, since it creates a niche for organized crime to sell drugs and then to fight over who controls the drug market. However, drug use (which would doubtless go up with legalization -- after all, drinking went down during Prohibition) can also get tied in with crime in other ways: people steal to get money for drugs (or for alcohol), serious addiction cuts into the ability to hold jobs. etc.

So I'm not sure precisely to what extent the war on drugs can be blamed as the primary reason that our incarceration rate is high. But let's get back to the question of whether the incarceration rate is what's causing people to have children out of wedlock. Are all the men locked up, and so the only alternative is to have children out of wedlock?

Well, both graphs move around the same. Here's the out of wedlock birth rate again:

There are some differences: incarceration picks up about ten years after out-of-wedlock births do. Incarceration has actually been going down for the last few years, while out-of-wedlock births are still going up. However, there is a similar directionality to it all.

I don't have a definitive answer.

I would however note:

The number of people who are caught up in the prison system (or are on parole, or have been) is significantly smaller than the shortfall in marriages. I've found figures ranging from 11% to 30% for the percentage of African American men who spend time in jail, prison, on parole or on probation at some time between 20 and 34. Even if we assumed that this renders all of those men completely unmarriageable, that's still not up there with the 70%+ out-of-wedlock birth rate. But the intersection of crime and imprisonment, and the way that the latter often leads right back to the former, is definitely one of the forces which is making society much worse in certain parts of society.

And, obviously, none of these answers stand alone. Even if incarceration and its aftereffects is one of the things to which people are responding, the basic idea that it's an viable life alternative to simply have a family without getting married is a changed cultural idea.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 9-1

It's good to be back.

Chapter 9 begins Part 2, which deals directly with the start of the war on the Western Front. A note: In general I am using each countries terms for both military units and military ranks. Thus, in Germany we have a "zug" rather than a "platoon", and a "gefreiter" rather than a "lance corporal". If it would be helpful I can post a reference page which lays out ranks and unit names by country.

Hanover-Dusseldorf Railroad. August 10th, 1914.
The nested rhythms of motion gave the cattle car a lulling quality, despite the hardness of the floor and the crowding of thirty-two men and four non-commissioned officers -- four gruppe, or squads, of infantry -- trying to make themselves comfortable amidst their gear. Most rapid, so much so that it gradually became unheard and unfelt unless it changed speed, was the slight jolt given by the seam between each length of railroad track. Above this, the gentle swaying of the car, which varied whenever the train changed directions or grades. The slight breeze of cool summer night air, which made its way between the slats of the siding was a pleasure rather than a discomfort, a welcome change from the heat of the day which had been oppressive ten hours before. It was nearing one in the morning, and most of the men were asleep.

Walter himself had been dozing, his head resting on his pack, until the rhythm of the rail seams began to change, to slow. There were two sets of wheels under the front of the car, where he lay, and two under the back, so each seam was a double jolt, then a pause, and another double jolt. Now these intervals were stretching out. Far up ahead could be heard the squealing of steel on steel, the brakes. There was a distinct sway as the train pulled off onto a siding, and then a jolt, which shook all but the most determined sleepers awake, as the cars came to a full stop.

Someone struck a match, and in the near complete blackness of the cattle car the flickering light illuminated bleary faces looking around.

“Are we there yet?” asked a man from another gruppe.

“Where?” Gefreiter Fabel, the non-com in charge of Walter’s gruppe, shot back. “We’re somewhere, and we’ll be more places before it’s done.”

It was a week since Walter had left Berlin, and the greater part of that week had been spent on trains. It had taken two days, traveling east on slow trains with slower layovers on crowded railway platforms, for him to reach Schneidemuhl where he’d reported for duty at his regimental depot. Three million men, called up from the reserves, were doing likewise at depots all across the empire, and the process had been honed to efficiency: Clothes off and packed away, medical inspection, disinfecting shower, uniform issued, barracks assigned. Within an hour he was back in the gray uniform so familiar from his two years service, in a barracks with its familiar rows of triple-stacked wooden bunks and straw mattresses. This time, however, there was hardly time for drill. The men were assigned to units: gruppe, korporalschaft, zug, kompanie, bataillon. Equipment and packs were issued. One extra day of drilling and equipment inspections and they were back on trains, this time in uniform, with their equipment and their units, heading west. And now, after two days of gently rocking boredom with only brief stops during which they stretched their legs and got a hot meal from a field kitchen, they must be nearing the detraining points. And France.

Someone pounded on the side of the rail car and then slid the door open from the outside.

“Thirty minutes,” said the transport officer. “Stretch your legs, smoke and coffee.”

The darkness outside was slightly relieved by the waning gibbous moon. Men shifted and began to pile out the door and amble down the embankment. The train was pulled over on a siding. Between the cars they could see through to the other two lines of track. To the northeast, sugar beet fields stretched away in broad, leafy darkness. Men were spilling forth from the other cars of the train. Lighters and matches flared, setting pipes, cigars and army issued cigarettes alight. Soon the siding was dancing with points of duly glowing light, a cloud of sluggishly moving fireflies ambling about in the darkness, and the pungent smell of all manners of tobacco mingled in the night air.

Continue reading.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Movie Review: Ida

Well before it became famous by winning the Best Foreign Film academy award, a dear friend had told me that I should watch the movie Ida. However, I didn't get around to it until after the awards, when it came to Netflix. And since watching it, I've been meaning to write about it. I'm at last given impetus to do so by an article another friend linked to, which demands in its title why Catholics are afraid to talk about Ida, and suggests that we should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Ida is a very good movie, but I think that the reason why it's not getting talked about a ton is pretty simple: this is not the kind of movie that tends to be wildly popular. It's in black and white. It's in Polish with subtitles. It's very quiet. It's emotionally powerful in a way that can leaving you feeling drained after watching it. It's fairly bleak for American sensibilities.

I'm going to take the approach of writing this review without spoilers other than what you learn in the trailer and the first five minutes or so of the movie. This is a movie in which the way you learn things is often as important as what you learn, so I think it's important not to blow key elements ahead of time. (Normally I have no issue with spoilers.) If you're going to discuss later plot revelations in the comments, please prominently label your comment as such so those who haven't seen the film can make their decision as to whether to read.

In the opening moments of the movie, we meet Anna, a young woman preparing to take her final vows as a nun. She was raised in an orphanage run by the sisters, but her superior tells her that she has a living relative, an aunt named Wanda. Before she takes her final vows, she is told, she should go and meet her aunt. Anna has reservations about going to meet a relative who apparently refused to take her in when she was orphaned, but her superior insists, so she goes. Her first meeting with Wanda does not reassure: she arrives, after a long journey, in the morning, and Wanda is seeing out a man who has clearly spent the night with her.

Wanda immediately drops the revelation which kicks off the rest of the action in the movie: Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish. Given that this is taking place in the mid 60's, this means that Anna was orphaned during World War II. The mis-matched aunt and niece set off together to find out what happened to Anna's parents.

The movie is beautifully filmed in black and white, the gray pallet adding to the bleak feeling of the film. It's set in winter. The 1960s Poland being depicted is clearly still very poor, living under communism. And the family history which the two women are confronting is similarly bleak.

The other startling thing about this film is how much of a movie it is. It is almost entirely visual. The beautiful young novice is not a big talker, and she's moving into territory that people don't like to talk about. There's no sound track other than when the characters themselves listen to music. I haven't seen a movie which makes such powerful use of silence since the (very different) movie Into Great Silence, a documentary about Carthusian monks living under a vow of silence. The narrative style is one which is utterly "show don't tell". We never know what Anna is thinking. There's something fairly isolating about the style, and that fits the story in which these two women are so much at odds with each other, and are confronting people who very much do not want to think about the stories they are trying to learn.

At root, the movie is about trama -- about how people and cultures deal with events seemingly too horrible to deal with. This is the sort of thing which we, as Americans, don't deal with much in our art or in our culture. A friend of mine who is a professor specializing in 20th century Central European history likes to describe the movie Schindler's List as a feel-good, American movie about the Holocaust. There's something to this. It's a movie which works on a broad canvas and although it's dealing with some of the darker periods of European history, at root it makes those bearable by picking a story which has a happy ending. The biggest American movie about an event in which millions of Jews died, is a story about Jews who didn't die.

Ida is a much smaller movie. It's not a movie about massive prison camps, about sweeping historical events. It deals with less than a dozen characters, and their history in a dark time when people did evil things. It deals with how people lived with the knowledge of those actions, their sins and the sins committed against them. One of the first things that Wanda tells her niece is that she works for the communist regime. She ran show trials during the Stalinist era. She had people killed. In the logic of the Nazi-occupied world she was thrust into, you can see why she did. And yet she too seems clearly broken by both what's been done to her and what she's done. As the movie continues we learn just how broken.

The main character herself is, due to being such a quiet character, a somewhat enigmatic presence. You want to pour into this beautiful young novice what you think "a good person" would do in this situation, and there were moments when I found myself rebelling: Would she do that? Would a character like this do that?

But at almost no moment in the film do we know what thoughts and doubts are going through her mind. We watch, and at some level we desperately want to pull her close and make things better, and yet we cannot because we are only watching.

The post which pushed me to finally review this movie demands to know why people aren't talking about this as Catholic art. As I said, part of it is just that this is not a mass-appeal movie. But it's also not a "faith movie" in the niche sense. It's a movie about a woman who is devout, who is preparing to live a life under religious vows, who is confronted by the difficulties of family ties and of terrible evil in the world. He atheist aunt needles her a few times about how her beliefs fit with all this, and honestly, we never know how she reconciles that question. It isn't a movie which discusses questions of belief and faith in any explicit way. It simply shows us a woman we almost immediately come to care about confronting things about as difficult as anyone will ever confront. And in the end it at least hints at what her decision on how to move forward with her life is. In this sense, it's something more and something less than a movie about faith. Let it be what it is. Watch it, if you have an appreciation for this kind of storytelling or for this kind of history. But don't try to make it into some kind of faith identity boosterism.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Retirement Savings: Holding On To What Little They Have

The other day I was watching some progressives speculate out loud as to whether the stock market should be abolished on the theory that it only benefitted rich people and thus had no social value. I pointed out that a lot of perfectly ordinary Americans have retirement accounts which are invested in either stocks or in funds which include stocks. The reply was that since rich people have most of the money in retirement accounts, those don't really help ordinary people much either.

Now, it's true that Americans do not have nearly enough money saved for retirement. I think of myself as having been fairly conscientious about saving over the years (I opened a Roth IRA when I was 21 and working while going to college, and any time I've had an employer who does an 401k match I've always contributed the max that they'll match), but when I look at this chart, I'm actually close to the "low" end of total savings for my age:

And even that is mostly from the last four years, during which my income climbed to well above the median for a married family.

Here's the actual average 401k value by age group according to data put together by some of the big mutual fund companies.

The article I got these from goes on to say about this:

Every source available says that Americans are not saving enough for retirement. Vanguard recently reported the average 401k balance at year end 2013 reached a record high of $101,650. Not bad, but still much lower than my chart’s guidance of $218,000 to $350,000 for the Low and High End for a 35 year old (the average age of an American).

Meanwhile, other reports show the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households. Supposedly two-thirds of working households age 55-64 with at least one earner have retirement savings less than one times their annual income. Given the median household income is roughly $52,000, that’s not a good sign.

Finally, more than 38 million working-age households (45 percent) do not own any retirement account assets, whether in an employer-sponsored 401k type plan or an IRA. Hopefully these households are diligently saving their money in after-tax accounts and not solely depending on Social Security.

Now, the one thing I would not about average accounts is that if I'm any example, account balance and total savings are not the same thing. If you save via an employer's 401k, you end up with a new account every time you switch jobs. You can then roll those old 401k's into a IRA. But even though I try to stay on top of these things the result is that I have a 40lk with my current employer, a traditional IRA which 40lks from my last couple employers have been rolled into, the Roth IRA that I started back in college, and a 401k from my first employer out of college which has been so hard to get rolled over that it's still sitting out there with the whopping 2,300 that I managed to save (even with earnings of the ten years since) during two years of fairly low wage work. So the average of my four account balances is clearly much less than my total savings. However, no matter how you look at it, a lot of Americans are looking at relying heavily on social security and working longer.

Class warriors would think that this means it would be easy to attack the whole idea of personal retirement savings, take away the tax incentives on them, and encourage people t go all in on beefing up social security and fixed benefit pensions. Because, unions!

In reality, however, cutting incentives for retirement accounts is incredibly unpopular. One theory is that this is because the upper middle class is politically powerful and the broad middle class are dupes. I think a better way to think of this, however, is that people who don't have much can still feel very strongly about it. Sure, if someone making the median married family income of $72k/year has only $30k socked away in his retirement accounts and he's 45, he's in danger of having a pretty tough retirement compared to his current lifestyle (though if he' doing stuff like paying off his house that will help a lot.) But $30k may also be the largest single block of cash that he's ever had in one place to own. Telling him that you're going to take it away from him is gong to make him really angry, and the knowledge that someone making ten times his income has a muck bigger 401k will do nothing to change that.

This is something that in other circumstances progressive are fairly good at understanding: if you have less money, smaller amounts of money matter more. Well, when it comes to why people are fiercely defensive of retirement savings, that applies too.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Get Bat out of Hell

Matthew Lickona is a seriously imaginative writer, and he's got a new project going: an animated show called Bat out of Hell which brings Hieronymus Bosch paintings to life to tell the story of Bat, a devil who just isn't very good at the job of getting souls damned. Of course, hell isn't the place to go for sympathy, so it's not like his fellow demons are particularly nice to Bat about it, which just makes it all the harder for him to catch a damn break.

Here's the opening of the first episode:

Matthew has got a Kickstarter going to get more of it made. Those of you who are connected to me on Facebook may have already seen me link to it.

Quirky art is worth supporting for its own sake, so I've kicked in a contribution to bring Bat to fruition. Even if you might not normally spring for this kind of thing, I would encourage you to give it a second thought as you'd also be helping out some folks in a tough spot. After the project was launched Mark Lickona (the animator for the project and also the voice of Bat) had his house burn down.

Thankfully, they're all okay. But the house is mostly toast, and they're going to be living away from home for a good long time. There was insurance, but still: suffice it to say that I just got that much more eager to see Bat Out of Hell make its goal. Please spread the word on Bat's (and my brother's) behalf if you can. Thank you!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is Capitalism Destroying the Family?

Apparently one of the ideas going around on the left is that if conservatives really cared about marriage, children getting to live in an intact family with both parents and other related issues, they would turn around and support progressive economics: unions, higher minimum wage, etc. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig had a piece in The New Republic earlier this week titled "Poor People Don't Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies." Today Jeff Spross takes to the virtual pages of The Week with a similar piece entitled "The conservative obsession with moral values doesn't explain the plight of the working poor".

Spross argues:
Research on both sides of the aisle has confirmed a quiet crisis in American life: over the last few decades, the social fabric of the poor and working class has come apart at the seams. For Americans in roughly the bottom third of the economy, marriage has collapsed and divorce has ballooned. Participation in work or in community groups is erratic at best. Children are largely raised in unstable, single-parent homes, where the support necessary for learning and healthy emotional development is very hard to come by. Loneliness and isolation are common.

A vocal cadre of conservatives have cohered around a theory of what happened: the post-1960s turn away from traditional moral values. But like any theory, it must fit the available data and it must be internally consistent. This one fails on both counts.

Instead, Occam's Razor suggests that economic changes — specifically the collapse of broad prosperity and the rise of inequality and the hourglass economy — is the lead culprit.
The evidence is indeed pretty dramatic. There's been a society-wide decrease in marriage and increase in single parenthood, but that change has been most dramatic among the poor. Spross includes a chart from Charles Murray's Coming Apart which shows how, although marriage rates were always lower among the poor, the gap has become much more dramatic since the '70s.

Spross points to the decline in unionization, etc. as the culprit, and argues that this is a far simpler explanation than blaming the shift on changes in cultural values.

That inflection point just after 1970, when the lower class begins its decline, is significant. Unions began devolving in the late 50s and really went into a slide in the late 60s. Median incomes stagnated compared to rising productivity right around 1970. And around 1980, right when the lower class really broke off from the upper class, was when the Federal Reserve induced a massive recession to fight inflation. Unemployment and involuntary part-time employment have been unusually high ever since, and it's taken the job market far longer to recover after each recession.

There follows more hand-waving about how things are tough for those at the lower end of the economy. And they are. But here's the problem. They always have been. The effect that we're looking to explain is a massive decrease in marriage rates and increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing. If we're going to explain that as driven by a bad economy, we'd expect to see the incomes of those people getting worse, right? But they haven't. Here's a handy Congressional Budget Office chart showing the change in inflation-adjusted after-tax income from 1979 to 2010 for households by quintile.

It's certainly true that the bottom 20% haven't grown as much as the top 20% or even the middle 20%, but all quintiles have in fact seen real income growth. If we're trying to explain a societal environment in which marriage has fallen apart badly for the poorer section of society, and fallen apart somewhat for the affluent, and your explanation is that this is because people aren't as well off as they were in the '50s and '60s, it seems pretty clear that you'd need to see incomes going down for the poorest section of society in order to make your argument work. We've seen unionization go down. We've seen the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage go down. But real after tax incomes for the poorest Americans are up.

I was trying to think of other ways that this hypothesis could be tested. One which occurred to me is trying to break the population down by race. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for African American families is significantly higher than for White families (72% versus 29%) however, the increase has not been as dramatic over the last 50 years in that it was higher in 1960 as well. Here's a graph I found on a Heritage report.

Since 1960 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for African Americans has increased by about 3.5x while the rate for Whites has increased by 10x. If you look at median incomes by race via the Census, you'll see that inflation adjusted median income for African American men has gone up by 82% from 1960 to 2001, while for white men it's only gone up by 35% (for women those numbers are 272% and 135% respectively.) This does have a certain inverse relation to what we see on out-of-wedlock births, in that white out of wedlock births have increased more, but again we have the problem that incomes have in fact gone up, while marriage and the family have clearly gone down.

Now, one theory which Spross does not air, but which one occasionally hears either from liberals who think the decline in marriage is a good sign or from those conservatives who think that women in the workplace are a bad thing, is that it's the fact that women have better incomes now in relation to men which makes women need men less and thus less inclined to marry. I don't know whether I buy that theory or not, but since I had the data from the Census I figured it could be interesting to run a graph, and here's the result. I've charted the ratio of women's income to men's income by race:

Black women have incomes close to those of Black men than do White women in relation to White men. There's also kind of a dip in the 50s and 60s where White women's incomes dipped in relation to White men's. This doesn't mean that White women's median incomes went down, it's just that White men's median incomes went up so much faster during the 50s and 60s than women's did. Black women did not suffer a similar dip. (I originally had a comment here saying this was doubtless because racial discrimination kept Black male incomes from experiencing the 50s and 60s boom which White male incomes did -- but actually it turns out that Black men saw their incomes rise at the same rate as White men from 1950 to 1965, it's just that their starting income in 1950 was much lower.) White women saw their income ratio inflect upwards and start to rise fast in 1979, so that would kind of fit Spross's story, in which everything goes bad in 1980, but I'm not sure he would want to reframe and blame women's liberation.

So we're not finding any clear stories here. A little later Spross tries to make some international comparisons. He says:
Other western countries do far more to reduce deprivation in absolute and relative terms, while coincidentally enjoying far greater family stability.

On family stability he links to this report. It's pretty damning. The US shows up low on the list, while right at the top with 94% percent of children living with two parents is that well known northern European social democracy... Jordan. Then Israel -- at least they have a good economy and welfare state. Then Egypt, not exactly known either for its booming economy or its generous welfare state. Are we doing so badly on family values because our economy and social programs are worse than Egypt? Then Italy, Poland, Malaysia... The Philippines ranks well above social democracy poster child Sweden. And yes, the US ranks below Ethiopia and above the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Oh, you say, but I'm not accounting for cultural factors. It's cultural factors which have Egypt ranking way above the US.

Cultural factors. Well, if it's cultural factors that have 89% of kids in Egypt living with both parents while only 69% of kids in America do, couldn't it just possibly be cultural factors which have changed in the US between 1950 and 2015? No epicycles are required. Occam's razor is appeased.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lent, Week 3

The baby was asleep, the dishes were done, and I had settled down to my evening's entertainment, when suddenly I thought, "Don't we have a blog?" and "Maybe we should post something one day?"

So, Lent. We've been getting up early, when the alarm clock goes off (mostly), and saying Morning Prayer together. It's strange how you can say the same thing every morning, and every time it strikes you afresh. The Invitatory Psalm, Psalm 95, has the line "Forty years I endured that generation," and every single morning that line jumps out at me. I'm still within my first forty years, though I'm on the wrong side of 35, so each time I hear it I think, "I'm still being endured," and it's a comfort. I don't how it will strike me after I turn 40, but I have four more years until I have to cross that bridge.

But it's Julian of Norwich who is pulling me through Lent. I read a section or two of The Revelation of Divine Love (long text) every day. Julian is the kind of spiritual writer I find very beneficial, who presents theological ideas in ways I'd not considered before, and who is able to reveal the unimagined depths beneath the simplest concepts. In section 37 she writes about mercy:
And mercy is a work which comes from the goodness of God, and it will go on operating as long as sin is allowed to pursue righteous souls; and when sin is no longer allowed to pursue, then the operation of mercy will cease; and then all shall be brought to righteousness and so remain for ever.
I had never considered before that the work of mercy is temporal, although the effect is eternal. But the same is true of faith and hope, as we know from 1 Cor. 13:13 -- they abide, but in heaven they are fulfilled, while the operation of love is perfect and eternal and ever new.

Another passage I've been pondering has to do with Christ's thirst:
For regarding Christ as our head, he is in glory and beyond suffering, but as regards his body, in which all his members are joined, he is not yet in full glory or beyond suffering; for that same longing and thirst which he had on the cross -- a longing and thirst which it seems to me had been in him from eternity -- those he still has, and shall have until the time when the last soul which is to be saved has come up into his bliss. (31)
Now if Christ's resurrected body is perfected, can he still suffer? Or does this refer to his body the Church, "in which all his members are joined", which does indeed suffer and is not yet in full glory? Or does this refer, in ways I can't even fathom, to the mystical union between his resurrected body and his body the Church?
For as truly as there is a property of compassion and pity in God, so there is as truly a property of thirst and longing in God. And because of the strength of this longing in Christ it is for us in turn to long for him, and without this no soul comes to heaven. And this property of longing and thirst comes from his endless goodness, just as the property of pity comes from his endless goodness; yet, as I see it, the longing and the pity are two separate properties; and this is what distinguishes the spiritual thirst which last in him as long as we are in need, drawing us up to his bliss; and all this was shown as a revelation of compassion, and his thirst will cease on Judgment Day. 
Thus he has pity and compassion for us, and he has longing to have us, but his wisdom and love do not permit the end to come till the best time. (31)
Last week I felt the Lenten stumbling block in the form of a black mood descending. I'm not generally a moody person, and although I'm not prone to think of things in these terms, what it seemed like was a spiritual attack, hitting me right in the everyday where I'm trying to practice love and discipline. During this day or two when I felt bitter and hated everything, these words of Jesus to Julian were an anchor for me:
Look how I loved you. Look and see that I loved you so much before I died for you that I was willing to die for you; and now I have died for you, and willing suffered as much as I can for you. And now all my bitter torment and painful hardship has changed into endless joy and bliss for me and for you. How could it now be that you could make any request that pleased me that I would not very gladly grant you? For my pleasure is your holiness and your endless joy and bliss with me. (24)
Thus I reasoned: if I ask for patience, that is surely pleasing to the Lord, and so he will grant it to me. If I ask for love, he will grant it. If I ask for mercy, he will grant it. If I ask for joy, he will grant it. And so I slogged through my unhappy day in constant prayer, far more than I ever pray in the course of a more regulated day, and eventually the cloud was lifted and I was restored to equanimity, and my amount of prayer went down again, and I skipped a day or so of reading because I was distracted, and generally squandered the spiritual benefits of normality.

Ah, well, there are still several weeks left in Lent.

And finally, a request. Our parish has been having extra confession times on Friday night, which is great because the Saturday lines always seem prohibitive. Usually, when I'm examining my conscience, I work through the Ten Commandments, but I feel like I've grown too used to this metho and am not really digging very deep any more, so if anyone has a better system, please feel free to share it.

Friday, March 06, 2015

A Rosamund Hodge Reader

Darwin is, of course, not the only writer in his family. His sister Rosamund Hodge, author of Cruel Beauty, has had several short stories out recently.

Cut Her Out in Little Stars at Hanging Gardens
Three sisters fell in love with a star. (This is not quite true. But wait and listen to my story.) 
They lived very near the edge of the world, where the rivers run faster and faster until they fall roaring off the rim, into the infinite void. Where birds with feathers of smoke and fire build nests, and hiss at passers-by as they brood over their eggs in smoldering trees.  
Where stars, sometimes, come down to visit the earth. 
There is a little village called Edge-of-the-End, and the people of the village are as used to visiting stars as anyone can be. Many strange folk come through the village; the people are polite, and careful, and keep their iron-wrought charms about them. Sometimes they listen to the stars’ low, musical voices, to their tales of dances and battles in deep heaven, but they do not pay much heed to them. It takes a fearful quantity of common sense, to live at the edge of the world.

The Lamps Thereof are Fire and Flames at Uncanny Magazine

The second queen forbade any telling of tales or writing of histories. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. Let him that breaks this law see his own hands cut off before he loses his eyes. 
You have taken so much more from me, my Queen. But I will tell my story anyway.

Her second novel, Crimson Bound, will be available on May 5.

The School Library Journal has just given it a starred review:

With this romantic mash-up of classic fairy tales that touch on elements from the familiar “Little Red Riding Hood” and the lesser-known “Girl with No Hands,” Hodge has created a chilled cocktail of creep and gore shaken, stirred lightly, and poured over villains who fall in love and heroines who commit murder. Featured in this delicate and skillfully written romantic horror is Rachelle Brinon, who has been trained by her aunt to serve as a woodwife. It’s her responsibility to protect the village from the dark magic of the forest. While venturing into the forest, Rachelle is eventually tricked by a humanlike wolf creature, to whom she becomes bound to it by a thin crimson thread that only she can see. The connection is filled with passion and also gives her superhuman skills with the possibility of immortality. Now one of the king’s assassins, Rachelle has many responsibilities and soon realizes that there are just as many dangers and threats within the kingdom as they are without. Loyalties are stretched when she’s assigned the job of protecting Prince Armand, and a romantic triangle develops among Rachelle, the prince, and the captain of the bloodbounds. Teens will gladly join this quest to find out if there’s a happy ever after in this intricate web of friendship, fear, loyalty, love, and hate.VERDICT With a thoroughly developed setting and so many shadowed nods to the Brothers Grimm, this novel will captivate readers. Outstanding.

Leah Libresco will be talking about Crimson Bound on her radio show tomorrow.

Take and read!

It's Friday: Read a Novel

It's Friday, and you deserve a break. Why not take the opportunity to read Part 1 of The Great War, A Novel? Part 2 will begin posting on Monday, March 16th.

If you haven't been following up till now:

The Great War follows the experiences of five characters before and during World War One. Henri and Philomene are a married couple living in a village in the north of France, where Philomene looks forward to the end of Henri's time as a reserve officer though his feelings about having left active duty are much more mixed. Walter works in a bicycle factory in Berlin where he is caught between the chance of promotion and the budding labor movement. Natalie is a Polish girl of unknown parentage raised in a French convent school, who in 1914 both meets a previously unknown relative and is given a job as a governess. Jozef is a university student living in Vienna, in the shadow of his manipulative mother, who sees in his cavalry officer friend's career a chance to escape. Their lives as all changed in unexpected ways by the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

When To Call the Cops on a Kid

You saw the ten-year-old girl walking down the street -- a bright sunny day in the neighborhood, the perfect day for riding a bike or playing in the park. Her yellow sundress looked like summer, and perhaps that's the only reason it stuck in your mind, until you saw the picture that night on the evening news: Body of local girl found in park after brutal slaying. You might have been the last person who saw that girl alive and happy, the last person until her killer who is still on the loose.

That seems to be the sort of scenario that people all too often imagine, as they worry that they need to call the cops when seeing unattended children in public. A Washington Post piece which is making the rounds asks, "Would you call 911 on another parent?"
Would you call 911 if you saw a child sitting in a car parked outside a store, alone, engrossed in a video game?

Or a 9-year-old playing alone at a playground?

Or a 10- and 6-year-old walking purposefully, hand-in-hand, toward home?
It's easy to paint a terrifying scene -- like something from the first few minutes, pre-commercial break, of a cop show -- in which the only thing which saves an innocent child's life is calling the cops when parents have been so foolish as to allow that child to wander without an armed guard escort, or at least a hovering parent. But the fact is, most of the time calling the cops because a ten year old is walking down the street alone will only result in scaring both child and parents, and making them feel under assault by a malevolent society.

Certainly, there are genuinely dangerous areas, and times when you see a genuinely dangerous situation. Anyone who sees an infant or toddler left strapped into a car seat in a closed car on a hot, sunny day would do well to do something about it immediately. However I think it's also important, more so in our disconnected society where we live surrounded by strangers, that people no be over-quick to call the cops over things that honestly aren't dangerous except in TV shows.

If you see a property or violent crime being committed, by all means call the cops. Or if a kid is doing something which seems likely to directly result in death or injury. If a child seems genuinely lost, upset or hurt, and you're not able to find an adult connected with them (especially if you've taken the time to ask the kid if she needs help and she says yes) then by all means summon help.

But keep in mind that calling the cops on a family can have traumatic (and at times even fatal) consequences. "I wouldn't let my kid walk home alone," is probably not a serious enough reason, unless you happen to live rather literally in a war zone.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Catechism on the Uptown Funk

Q: Where is all this going down?
A: Uptown.

Q: What is the first effect of Uptown?
A: Uptown gon' give it to ya.

Q: What, then, is the second effect of Uptown?
A: Uptown, funk you up.

Q: When is all this going down?
A: Saturday night.

Q: If you should be so foolish as to not believe me, what should you do?
A: Just watch.

Q: How is it that my kids, yea, even the four-year-old, know almost all the words to Uptown Funk and I'm only just hearing it?
A: Uptown, funk you up. Uptown, FUNK YOU UP!

Q: When did Bruno Mars become a thing? Because the last time I listened to the top 40 station, several kids ago, he was singing sappy romantic ballads.
A: Nice moves, though.

Star Trek: Nothing Ages Like The Future

When my kids heard that Leonard Nimoy had died, they said, "The guy from Mission Impossible?" They've been working through the classic '60s Mission Impossible series on NetFlix. It started at the same time as Star Trek, and as soon as Star Trek was cancelled, Nimoy went on to take the role of Paris in seasons Four and Five of Mission Impossible. They have yet to see any Star Trek.

As a kid, I watched old episodes of the classic Star Trek over and over again. We had about a third of them on VHS, and I watched those over and over again. When Star Trek: The Next Generation started, I watched most of that too. Some of my earlier memories of story critique: tearing down the writing of something, discussing how it didn't work, and how it could have been re-written as a good story spring from listening to my parents discuss how the (pretty universally bad) first two seasons of STNG could have been better, and by the time the bright point of seasons 3-5 was fading towards the dotage of seasons 6-7, I was old enough to join in these conversations myself. During the launch of Deep Space 9 I was probably at my deepest point into Trek fandom, but then when Babylon 5 launched my allegiance wavered and I eventually quit watching all the Trek shows in favor of B5. (By the time newer SciFi shows like Firefly and the Battlestar Galactica reboot came along, I had pretty much run out of time and stopped watching TV.)

So I certainly have many fond memories of Star Trek, but as of yet they haven't caused me to plunge the kids into those series. Some of that is perhaps that I've drifted away from science fiction in general over the last fifteen years, but another element is that I've pretty consistently found that the science fiction I was attached to in my youth has not aged nearly as well as the fantasy and other genres. As a young reader, I was deeply attached to the "juvie" SF novels by Heinlein and Del Rey. I tried to get our oldest to read them as she got into reading science fiction and fantasy and she shrugged them off, so I re-read them myself. I was, of course, not around reading novels in the SF "golden age" of the '50s and '60s, but there was a basic if slightly retro currency to Heinlein when I was 10-15. Rereading them a few years ago, I realized that age had set in during the intervening couple decades. Fantasy books written in the '20s through the '50s at times have a period feel, like a historical novel, if they're set in their own present day, but they are not that hard to follow. However, Heinlein's project future of the '80s and '90s as written in the '50s is far more alien and far harder to explain. Even re-reading the much more recent Ender's Game (a 1980s SF book which deeply affected me when I read it at the age of about 13) now reads as deeply dated: the warmed over Cold War tensions, the early internet projected into the indefinite future, the futuristic novelty of video games.

And this, I think, is also part of the problem addressing Star Trek from the distance of almost fifty years. (Next year will makr 50 years since classic Star Trek first started airing.) It's not just that the special effects now look incredibly old fashioned. It's that the vision of the future and the problems we project into our future have changed. Episodes that seemed to be important commentary at the time, like the plant with the never-ending war which has been turned into a simulated war in which virtual attacks are carried out, casualties are assigned, and those "killed" then report to vaporization chambers to meet their fate (all this so that the infrastructure of civilization will not be destroyed by conventional war), or like the endless fight between the half-black, half-white faced aliens, are now inexplicable and vaguely silly. In order to understand why they seemed important at the time, it's necessary to explain so much about '60s history and culture that you'd be better off watching a historical movie about the '60s and understanding it first hand.

In this sense, it's perhaps significant that one of the episodes that's held up best is a historical: City of the Edge of Forever, a story in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to depression era Earth. Because the setting is one that's now explicable, the story has held up much better.

Of course, there's also just the fact that City on the Edge of Forever was a well written episode, and many of the classic Star Trek episodes weren't. Out of the three seasons, maybe a third of the episodes were actually pretty good, mostly from the first two seasons. Part of what was so pioneering about Star Trek was that there hadn't been a for-adults semi-realistic science fiction show on television before. This was a new kind of storytelling and people were willing to forgive a lot because of that. Science Fiction is no longer the outcast genre that it once was, and as a result people don't have the tendency to put up with as many mis-steps.

There's something compelling about writing about an imagined future, and yet it seems like a genre of peculiar impermanence. I'm trying to think of a work of science fiction from more than fifty years ago that doesn't seem incredibly dated at this point, but although perhaps I'm missing something, nothing is really coming to mind.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Children Will Listen

My six year-old-son was watching out for me. I went to get a beer from the fridge and he said, "Dad! That's alcohol. It's bad for you."

I wasn't sure where this was coming from. Aside from religion classes at the parish, he doesn't attend any kind outside classes where he'd be getting propaganda encouraging him to watch out for his parent's substance abuse. (I've never been a smoker, but I always sympathized with Mr. Quimby when Ramona and Beezus decide to wage their PR campaign against his smoking, particularly when he's out of work.) Nor is my nightly drink or two the sort of thing which would cause a child to worry. I have a beer when I get home from work and sometimes a glass of Scotch or Bourbon after the kids go to bed.

"What's the problem?" I asked him.

"It's bad for you!" he insisted. "You shouldn't use alcohol."

This went on for several weeks. Every time I got a drink, he warned me against it. Finally I sat him down. "What are you worried about, son? Why are you so upset about my drinking alcohol."

"Because it's bad for you," he said, crossing his arms and glowering with the seriousness of a six-year-old who has been questioned in his convictions. "Remember when the lady at the mall said that you should never use alcohol because it was bad for your skin?"

Then it came back to me. I'd had him with me a month before when I stopped by a shaving store at the mall and tried out their shaving soaps and aftershave. The lady there had indeed said that I should never use an alcohol-based aftershave, because it was bad for my skin. And because they sold very expensive little tubes of after-shave lotion which were not alcohol-based.

I explained to him what she had been talking about: alcohol-based aftershave, not drinking alcohol, and he was reassured. There have been no complains when I pour a beer or a gin & tonic since then. But it goes to show the extent to which young ears are open and trying to watch out for us. At the time, I'd thought he was fully occupied poking around at the demonstration products, but he was in fact paying plenty of attention.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fear and Loathing at the BMV

It was a Saturday morning, and MrsDarwin and I had both set out to get our driver's licenses renewed. It's an easy enough process, so long as one has the time to wait through the snaking line down at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and write the state of Ohio a check. We spent our fifteen minutes in line and then separated, each going do a different desk clerk to fill out our forms, pay our fees and get our pictures taken. I handed over my paperwork to the lady behind the counter with a cheerful, "Good morning," and waited.

For a moment she typed away at her terminal, then suddenly her face became grave. She turned and called over her supervisor. "Have you seen this before?" The supervisor looked at the screen and assumed a similar expression of gravity. "You can't renew that," she said.

No matter how law abiding one is, this kind of thing inspires a moment of guilty panic. What had I done? I wondered. Had I been cited for something via some sort of camera or other remote system, not received the letter, and had my license suspended? Had some terrorist stolen my identity? Was I about to be plunged into some Kafkaesque hell of mistaken identity and absurdly applied but inflexible rules?

"What seems to be the problem?" I asked.

"I can't renew your license," the woman said. "I don't know what sex you are. It should say M or F, but it just says U."

I wasn't wearing a dress at the moment. Indeed, since it was a weekend, I hadn't bothered to shave that morning. I don't claim to be the most ruggedly masculine person in the history of the world, but I'd certainly never encountered any question of this before.

"I'm male," I said.

"Yes, but I can't put that in the system without proof," she replied.

I considered offering to step into a back room and drop my pants. It seemed a little personal, but then, we've reached the point when we need take off our shoes and raise our hands while exposing ourselves to an electronic peeping tom before boarding an airplane. Perhaps it's also necessary to do a quick strip before getting a drivers license these days in order to make sure that everything is in order. Why not. I'm secure in my masculinity, and as a father of small children I'm used to not having any privacy these days.

Nonetheless, a remark which might be construed as sexual harassment didn't seem the best way to get the BMV ladies to help me.

"What kind of documentation do you need?" I asked, trying to maintain a serious demeanor.

"A birth certificate or current US passport," she said. "You are a citizen, right?"

Apparently in this day and age one can be a citizen even if one has no sex. "Yes," I assured her. I wasn't sure if it was worse that an indeterminate creature like me had besmirched the shores of these United States with my uncertain birth, or if it would be a worse offense to have dragged my doubtful sex across one of our borders, but it seemed best to stick to the facts of the matter.

"How did you get a driver's license?" the supervisor asked. "I don't understand how they even issued you a driver's license without a sex."

"I just came into this office four years ago when I moved from Texas," I said, name dropping the Lone Star State in hopes that it would help my case for masculinity. "I provided my Texas license and they issued this one."

"Well, I don't know," she said. "Maybe there was something wrong with the computers. Bring in your birth certificate or passport and we can issue you a license with your sex on it."

I left the counter, making room for a fellow Ohioan who was blessed with a more determinate sexuality. MrsDarwin was getting her picture taken. "All set?" she asked.

"No," I replied. "They said they can't renew my license."

Was this a crisis point? If I wasn't even male, could we actually be married? Sure, if this was some advanced state such as Massachusetts, this might be easy, but here in the midwest could a... whatever I was, actually be married?

"Why not?" asked MrsDarwin, unaware of the dangers that lurked in her innocent question.

"Because they don't know my sex," I said.

"Oh." She considered. "Did you tell them?"

"Yes, but they need documentation. I need to bring in my birth certificate or passport."

MrsDarwin began to laugh.

It was not the first time we had suffered an existential crisis at the BMV. Four years before, when we first came in to get our licenses, MrsDarwin had nearly ceased to exist. It was my fault, of course. The move had been a logistically difficult one, when it came to complying with Ohio law. We moved up from Texas when I started my new job in Columbus. I stayed in an apartment provided via the company's relocation package, while MrsDarwin stayed at her father's house in Cincinnati. When we found a house to move into, I set up all the bills because I was the one local. This seemed helpful and sensible until the day we went to get our Ohio licenses (having already been cited for taking too long to transfer our car registrations and licenses because we were waiting till we had a permanent address.)

"I just need proof that you live at this address," the desk clerk said.

MrsDarwin hesitated. "We just moved in. What do you need?"

"Some official mail with your name and the address on it, like a utility bill."

"All the bills are in my husband's name. I have a copy of our marriage certificate. Can we use that and the bill with his name?"

"No, we need proof that you live at the address."

"But we're married."

"Yes, but we need proof that you live there. Do you have a paystub with your address on it?"

"I stay home with the children full time."

"Oh, I see. Well, we need something."

We'd come laden down with out family documents folder, complete with birth certificates, marriage certificate, car titles, the lot. All of these pieces of official paper, but nothing to prove that MrsDarwin actually lived at the house that we'd just bought. I, the man, had taken all the utility bills, and without realizing it I had made my wife homeless in the process. In the eyes of the state she had no place to lay her head. Perhaps she did not even really exist, a flitting, insubstantial being, deprived of utility bills and paystubs by the patriarchal arrangement of our family.

In the end, the state giveth and that state taketh away. We went out to the car, where we had all the mail which had come thus far. In the midst of moving our family, I had been keeping bills and all other important papers in my backpack that I took to work. The house was still too chaotic to have a bill paying nook. We realized that although nothing addressed to MrsDarwin had arrived yet, her change of address had gone through and due to this a piece of mail from the Social Security Administration had arrived for her with its bright yellow UPDATE ADDRESS WITH SENDER sticker. We took this envelope, this slim tether which connected MrsDarwin to our home, in to the desk clerk, and after sighing and thinking about it for a bit she owned that although this wasn't really the sort of thing they were supposed to do, she was able to accept it. "You really should change at least one of the bills into your name, though," she advised, as she granted MrsDarwin existence in the form of a plastic identity card.

My own problem took slightly longer to resolve. I went home and dug out the aged piece of paper which showed, on a certified piece of paper, that years ago when I was born in Whittier, California I had a sex. I was not Unknown but Male. I took this in to the BMV, waited through the line again, and presented this proof of my sex. She had to call downtown to grant me my legal Y Chromosome. "Hello? Yes, I have a record here where I need to update the sex."

A few moments and I was male again in the eyes of the state. The supervisor came over. "I did some research into this," she said. "Did you get into an accident or get pulled over before you got your Ohio license?"

"I got a parking ticket because they thought I hadn't transferred my registration to Ohio soon enough," I said.

"That must be it," she said. "Apparently there's a glitch in the system where if you get cited in the state before you have a license, you're put in as sex unknown, and in your case that didn't get corrected when they gave you your license."

So there you have it. I had been emasculated by the police, and only when I proved my manhood to the ladies at the BMV could it be restored to me.

Anti-War and Anti-Woman

My latest read is a French novel (recently out in a new English translation in one of those nice trade paperback editions but out by NYRB), Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier. Fear was one of the rash of war novels that came out around 1930. Twelve years after the end of the first war, and nine before the beginning of the second, a number of blistering anti-war novels and memoirs came out, in part a reaction to an understanding of the war which had, in the eyes of the veterans writing these novels, been too heroic and too nationalistic. These novels emphasized the futility and brutality of the war, and the estrangement which it caused between those who fought and those back home. Probably the most famous of these was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, but within France, Chevallier's Fear, which came out the same year, caused its own significant stir.

There's a lot interesting going on in the novel, but the part that I read tonight which struck me takes places when the main character has been wounded and is spending time in a hospital. There he's well taken care of a a group of young nurses who take an interest in him, even though he's a private, because he is a student and self consciously intellectual.

There's a trope, certainly in English and American war novels that I've read, of women as being those who see through the hypocrisy of war and object to the waste of life. I hadn't thought about how used I am to this trope until I found Chevallier taking the opposite approach: in this scene he describes women as being the ones upholding the bourgeois and sentimental mentality which he thinks enables war.
Such are our most frequent topics of conversation. They lead us, inevitably, to define our notion of happiness, our ambitions, the goals of humanity, the summits of thought, even god and religion. We re-examine the old laws of humanity, laws created for interchangeable minds, for the whole flock of bleating minds. We discuss every article of her morality, the morality which has guided the endless procession of little souls down through the ages, indistinct little souls which twinkled like glow-worms in the darkness of the world, and were extinguished after one night of life. Today we offer our own feeble light, which isn't even enough for us.

Through my questions, I lead the nurses into traps of logic, and ensnare them in syllogisms that completely undermine their principles. They struggle like flies in a spider's web, but refuse to surrender to the mathematical rigour of reason. They are led by the sentiments that a long passage of generations, ruled by dogma, has incorporated into the very substance of their being -- sentiments that they have got from a line of women, housewives and mothers, who were alive in their early years and then crushed by domestic drudgery, worn out by the daily round, who crossed themselves with holy water to exorcise any thoughts they might have.

They are surprised to learn that duty, as they understand it, can be opposed to other duties, that there are seditious ideas vaster and more elevated than theirs, and which could be more beneficial to humanity.

Nonetheless, Mademoiselle Bergniol declared:

'No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.'

'I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you'll only give your son the guttering candle that you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men's candles, and you can be sure taht tomorrow they'll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.'
When Mademoiselle Bergniol has gone, Negre, who was following our conversation, shared his opinion:

'The delicate little dears! What they need is a hero in their beds, a real live hero with a bloody face, to make them squeal with pleasure!'

'They don't know...'

'They don't know anything, I agree. When all's said and done, women -- and I've known plenty of them -- are females, stupid and cruel. Behind all their airs and graces, they are just wombs. What will they have done during the war? They'll have egged on men to go and get their heads blown off. And the men who will have disembowelled lots of the enemy will receive their reward: the love of a charming, right-thinking young woman. What sweet little bitches!'

It's a toxic mixture, I suppose, of a couple different trends I've seen, reading a bit of French stuff from the late 19th and early 20th century. It's fairly common to see women presented as less capable of the intellectualism which is seen as quintessentially French. (There's a political analog to this in that France had a very early universal voting franchise for men, but was fairly late to give the vote to women.) There's also a tendency to portray women as the keepers of family and domestic culture, and since Chevallier is writing about his sense of alienation from mainstream culture, indeed from everyone who hasn't both experienced war in the trenches and reacted to it in the same way that he has, women are an obvious target since none of them have experienced the war as soldiers.