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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Makeup More than Skin Deep

Despite the fact that your little sister is definitionally a girl, you don't necessarily relate to your little sister as a girl because... Well, she's your little sister. As a result, this guest post that my little sister wrote as part of the blog tour for her new novel Crimson Bound was kind of doubly fascinating to me: I thought it was an interesting human insight which is distinctly female, but there was also a sense in which reading it involved meeting my sister as a woman in a way that I would not otherwise have thought of.

I was lonely in Oxford. And when you're lonely, it's easy to feel bad about yourself. "Nobody loves me and I deserve it" starts to sound pretty plausible when you literally have not had physical contact with another human being since that cashier accidentally brushed your hand while handing you groceries six days ago.

And that's when I discovered makeup all over again. I hadn't brought much with me to Oxford--at that point, I still didn't wear it everyday, just for special occasions. But one day I was sad and wanted retail therapy, so I started buying cheap makeup at the drugstore. I started putting it on in the mornings, even though I wasn't going anywhere special, even though I knew I wasn't going to talk to anybody, even though I felt sure nobody would notice if I died or wore lip gloss.

And I found that I felt better when I wore makeup. Not just prettier, but like I was more in control of my life. Like I mattered.

I'd always thought of makeup as being something you did because you wanted to look pretty. And I really, really wanted to be pretty, so I really wanted to wear makeup. But what I learned in Oxford is that makeup can also be a way of saying that you matter. It can be a way of saying: I deserve to look pretty. I deserve to be taken care of. I am precious and my body is precious and I deserve to spend time perfecting my mascara technique.

Crimson Bound is a novel that deals a lot with self-hatred. The heroine, Rachelle, killed somebody to save her own life and has never been able to forgive herself for it--because that killing also gave her supernatural badass powers, so she's still benefitting from it. She feels completely unworthy of being alive, let alone loved or happy or pretty. Her only lifeline is her friendship with Amélie, a girl who dreams of being a makeup artist and likes to practice on her. And it's through Amélie's cosmetics that Rachelle is first able to imagine what it might feel like to be worth loving again.

Read the whole thing.

She also did an interesting one on the particular fairy tales which inspired this novel.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-3

This is the last installment of Chapter 10. I'm doing some business traveling and hoping to have some time for writing once I'm back to my hotel in the evening, so my plan is to have the first installment of Chapter 11, which focuses on Henri, up no later than Saturday.


Chateau Ducloux, France. August 26th, 1914. The morning routine was gone. No newspapers were delivered from the station. Madam Ragot and Emilie did not arrive. Philomene considered going out to pick up breakfast things herself, but when she looked out the window she could see only German soldiers in the street, no townspeople. She cut slices of yesterday’s bread and spread them with jam for the children’s breakfast while Grandpere cranked the coffee grinder so that they could make their morning pot of coffee. Pascal stared at this bread and jam without eating and then returned to his room rather than going out into the garden with his sisters as on a usual morning.

It was just as the two adults were sitting down at the table with their pot of coffee that someone pounded on the front door.

They looked at each other.

“Perhaps it’s only someone needing something from the shop,” said Philomene. Naming some harmless explanation seemed to hold more terrible ones at bay.

“Go wait in the kitchen,” said Louis. “The girls are in the back garden. If something bad happens, you can go out through the kitchen door and take them over the garden wall into the next street.”

“But Pascal. He’s in his room.” She was gripping the spoon with which she had been stirring her coffee, holding it like a dagger as if for protection.

“There’s no time. He’ll hear if something happens, and he’s a grown boy now. Look how he came through yesterday.”

“But--”

“My child, there’s no time.” Louis was moving towards the door as he heard the pounding again, louder this time. Philomene nodded and left the dining room in the other direction, into the kitchen.

He opened the door. Outside in the street was a young man in an officer’s uniform. The shoulder boards and high collar of his field grey tunic were marked with silver braided rank insignia. A buttoned-down holster of polished brown leather hung at his belt, as did a slim, straight sword in a black leather scabbard.

“Good morning. Are you the owner of the Mertens shop?” asked the officer in surprisingly unaccented French.


[Continue Reading]

Monday, April 20, 2015

The $70k Minimum Wage and the Difficulty of Generalities

A fairly small business named Gravity Payments became huge national news last week when the founder and CEO announced that he was going to set a $70k/yr minimum wage for his company. The 11-year-old company has 120 employees and offers credit card payment processes services for small businesses. CEO Dan Price founded the company in 2004 when he was 19 years old. After seeing the owner of a coffee shop where he was playing a gig struggle with the coffee shop's payment system, Price thought he could do better. This year he expected to turn a $2.2 million dollar profit and pay himself a salary of $1 million. However, after reading some research on how increases in income up to about the $70k/yr threshold have a much larger impact on happiness and security than increases thereafter, Price decided to cut his salary to $70k and use 75-80% of the anticipated profits for this year to begin a phase in (over several years) of getting all his employees up to the $70k mark. The average wage of his employees is currently $48k and about 70 will be seeing some kind of an increase, with 30 seeing their earnings at least double. Price plans to keep his own salary low until the company has grown enough that its profits return to the pre-wage-increase levels.

Given all the attention to inequality and wages, it's no surprise that this has attracted a fair amount of political commentary. Joe Carter has a piece up at the Acton Institute arguing that this dooms Gravity Payments to go out of business, and thus is of questionable ethical value. He has two arguments. The first is based on competitive pressure:
Imagine a competitor, Anti-Gravity, has both the exact same number of employees and the exact same non-salary costs as Gravity. The only difference is thatAnti-Gravity has decided to pay all of their employees a minimum of $60,000 a year ($72,000 in total compensation). Because of the differences in salary costs, Anti-Gravity would need to bring in $1.4 million less in revenue that Gravity. They could pass that savings along to their customers and completely undercut Gravity.

In reality, though, competing companies willing to pay their own employees competitive market wages, which means if their other costs are similar they’ll always be able to price their services lower than Gravity. Payment processing companies are extremely price sensitive, so Gravity has put themselves at a severe disadvantage in relation to their competitors.
Now, since I work in pricing analytics, I'm always kind of drawn to arguments which put price at the center of driving business, but it seems to me that there's a clear problem with this. Gravity is already making enough money to pay the higher wages and then some, it's just that the money is currently being spent on the CEO's salary and on company profits. (And as a private company, they're fairly free to make a high stakes bet with their profits in a way that a public company would have a harder time doing.)

So a competitor with a product and service of similar value was out there, they could already be making the same price play to attack Gravity by choosing to have lower CEO pay and lower profits. There may well be lower cost competitors out there, but not enough to have significantly hurt Gravity up to this point, given that it's gone from zero to 12,000 business clients in eleven years and currently processes $6.5 billion in total transactions per year for them.

With a business service such at this, you typically do what's called "value based pricing". This means that you assess how much your service is worth compared to those of the most relevant competitors. To create a quick example:

I do payment processing and my key benefit is that I have a really great mobile processing app, while the processor my potential client currently uses provides an app that is always crashing, making it hard for the client to sell his widgets and craft widget shows outdoors. My client estimates that he could increase his sales by $40k per year with better mobile processing, and his profit margins are 30%. This means that, all other things being equal, I can charge up to $12,000 more than my competitor and the potential client will be at least as well off as he is now. If I charge $3,000 more per year, my client realizes an increased profit of $9,000 per year by going with me instead of my competitor.

Okay, so that's value based pricing. But so what? What if a new competitor Anti-Darwin CC Processing shows up and offers a service just as good but with pricing $2,000 lower than me. Well, in that case, he may take money from me. But in the real world, having a service which is "just as good" is not always as easy as it sounds. There are a ton of companies who might see it as their mission to produce smart phones "just as good" as the iPhone while undercutting Apple on price, but with a lot of customers, Apple manages to convince people that they provide the best product for the money and thus they keep their massive profits.

All of which is to say: Yes, if Gravity had an immediate competitor who was clearly offering an equal or better value for the price, they would doubtless be taking customers from Gravity (and since they're a small business are credit card processors go, there are clearly a lot of businesses who do choose a provider other than Gravity) but providing an equal or better product is not always as easy as it sounds, and that is shown by the fact that Gravity is already making a tidy profit and paying its CEO lots of money.

One could argue that Gravity is currently more ready to weather a major competitor threat because it's easier to lower profits or lower CEO wages than it is to lay off employees or reduce the wages of employees you've just excited by giving them higher wages, but by that line of thinking any company with a narrow profit margin is already right at the edge of going bankrupt, and we know that many companies live for long periods with low margins.

Carter's second argument has to do with the productivity of labor versus its cost:
Wages are merely the price of labor. The reason wages differ from job to job is because, in general, higher wages are paid for higher productivity, added value, or to compensate for dangerous or toilsome work.

Let’s say Assistant X, who has no degree, has a job at Gravity making copies and getting coffee. They were originally paid $30,000 a year and added $40,000 of extra value to the company. Manager Y has an MBA, works in sales, and is paid $70,000 a year while adding $100,000 in value to the company. After the pay change, both make $70,000 a year. But now, Manager Y is adding no extra value to the company. All his value added is going to make up the deficit of paying Assistant X $30,000 more than he was worth to the company. (For now, we’ll ignore the animosity that would result from Manager Y making the exact same wages as his less educated, less productive assistant.)

Presumably, none of the employees that were previously making less than $70,000 a year were adding $70,000+ in value to the company. So all of them will be operating at a value deficit that will have to be made up by other, higher productivity employees. What would have previously been taken as profit will have to go to compensate for the loss of value.

But the higher wages are based on the current profits of the company. What happens in future years when the company is making less profit because the previous value (previously realized in profits) is going to over-pay for less productive employees? Eventually, the company will start operating at a loss and will have to cut jobs. Guess whose job goes first? Those whose value to the company is now negative because of the pay increase—the people whose labor is worth $40,000 but are being paid $70,000. The people who are cheering today because of the pay increase are likely to be the ones that tomorrow will be lamenting their unemployment.

This one seems kind of odd to me. Let's assume that the two employees described are in fact the only employees at a company.

Year 1: Assistant X and Manager Y produce $140k in value while costing $100k in wages, producing a $40k profit.

Year 2: Assistant X and Manager Y product $140k in value while costing $140k in wages, producing $0 in profit.

Yes, the profit has gone from $40k to $0 because expenses now equal gross sales. Now, if the owner wanted to make the same $40k in profit, this would be a problem, and he would be looking to cut expenses or grow topline revenue while keeping at his new expense structure. However, if the owner expected the profits to be down until he grew out of the current depressed profits (Price's stated expectation, which suggests he thinks he can grow his revenues faster than his expenses) then there's not necessarily a problem here.

Given that the situation described is one in which the company continues to make a (much smaller) profit after the wage increases, and given that the CEO thinks he has a growth plan which will allow him to return profits to prior levels, I'm unclear what mechanism Carter thinks will cause the company to have to conduct layoffs.




Now does all this mean that all businesses can and should go to a $70k minimum wage? No, of course not. It's silly to generalize the situation of this one business out to all businesses. This is a small, closely held company which the owner believes (rightly or wrongly) is able to pay all its employees a higher wage while continuing to charge the same prices and grow. Not all companies can do that. Nor, even given one that can, do I think there's an obligation to have a $70k minimum wage.

The reason I think Carter's analysis falls down is that it works in a sort of Econ 101 world of generalities rather than considering things which may be specific to the business in question. Those who think that all businesses can do the same are falling into the same error. In fact, what we have here is an interestingly novel store about what one business is doing in its specific circumstances. We arguably don't know enough to evaluate well whether this will work out well for them, and the implications for others businesses are not necessarily direct, though the overall approach of the founder/CEO looking out for his employees and trying to make sure they share in his fortunes is admirable.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-2

A couple extra days in the making, but tonight's installment brings the novel to 115,000 words. There is one more installment of Chapter 10 to go, and I will be posting it some time during the coming weekend.


Chateau Ducloux, France. August 23rd, 1914. The little church of Saint Thibault was nearly full even before mass began. Surely God would not allow a treasured son or husband to be cut down by a German bullet simply because his loved ones had been lax in their prayers for him, and yet God must somehow hear. Even if prayers could not turn aside bullets, they could at least turn away the self-accusations which might follow: on the day it happened you could not even be bothered to go to mass and pray for him.

Every candle in the votive racks was lit. Many stayed after mass as well, for the rosary which Pere Lebas introduced with the intention, “For the strength and protection of our brave soldiers.”

Once the rosary was over, Philomene gathered up the children to go home. Their behavior had been unusually satisfactory. Charlotte had seemed on the brink of a crying fit when she was told that all of the votive candles were already lit, and so she could not light one for Father. It had seemed the moment to say something inspiring: If you pray to Our Lady and tell her how much you wanted to light a candle for Father, she will light a candle in heaven for you.

But while these little scenes were invariably successful in the columns of devotional magazines, Charlotte was not the type of lisping angel who seemed to inhabit those pages, and so Philomene had instead whispered to her, “Remember that we were going to stop at the patisserie on the way home to get breakfast.”

The thought of her favorite little cake instantly drove thoughts of candles -- and perhaps even of father -- from the seven-year-old’s mind, and she had showed complete decorum as prayer books were collected and the family left the church.

Outside, blinking in the bright morning sunlight after the nearly windowless, candlelit interior of the church, Philomene saw an unusual crowd in the square before the church. A two-wheeled farm cart was stopped in the street, the shaggy pony between the shafts standing with its head down. On the driver’s bench was a woman in a brown dress. The sheen of the fabric and the gathers along the seams made it clear it was a Sunday-best, yet it was also visibly old, and it showed the dust of days on the road. She was flanked by two small children, and the cart was filled with a variety of household valuables: a cedar chest, a mattress, several wooden crates with straw showing through the slats, a treadle sewing machine.

Several people who had just left the church were gathered round the cart asking questions.

“What part of Belgium are you from?” “When did you leave?” “How far have the Germans come?” “Have you seen the French army?” “Has there been a battle?”

“We left Tongeren nine days ago. I don’t know anything,” she said, her French spoken with a heavy Flemish accent.

More questions poured forth but the woman only shook her head. She straightened her back and flexed her shoulders, as if she had been hunched on the seat of the cart for many hours, and as she did so she placed her free hand on her round stomach.

Pregnant. Philomene felt a tightening of her own stomach. This woman was pregnant, her husband gone, trying to bring her children and possessions to safety, driving a farm cart away from the invading armies.

“Is it true that the Germans burn houses and shoot civilians?” “Is the Belgian army still fighting?” “Have you seen the French 212th Regiment? My son is in it.” The crowd continued to press with questions.

Philomene stepped forward. “Let the poor woman alone, she’s said she doesn’t know anything. How could she give us news when she’s been on the road for a week and a half?”

There were some embarrassed murmurs, but the villagers surrounding the cart fell silent and then began to drift away. Philomene stepped closer. “Can I offer you some breakfast? Our house is not far from here. You could have breakfast with us and we could give you food for your journey.”

She reached out and took the woman’s hand in her own. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, then the refugee turned away and Philomene saw tears running down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “We will be no trouble. We won’t stay long. Thank you. God bless you.”

It proved an awkward meal. As she stopped at Jeanpetit’s Patisserie and ordered three times her usual number of cakes and pastries, Philomene had entertained visions of the comfort which a little bit of hospitality could bring to this family which had been on the road for ten days. She could give them what they needed while gaining some sense of the plight which faced families in Belgium -- which perhaps awaited families in France as well.

The farm cart stood outside the Mertens shop, and inside the house Louis had brought Madame Peeters and her two children into the dining room. There the little boy and girl sat, very upright in their chairs, having taken to heart their mother’s stern warnings about behavior, lest they appear to be the wrong sort of refugees.

“Good morning!” said Philomene cheerfully. “I have lots of treats to choose from, and you shall have the first pick.” She spread out Monsieur Jeanpetit’s confections on the table and stepped aside, taking Lucie-Marie by the hand when she attempted to rush the table. “Go on. Take as many as you like.”

The two little Belgian children turned to look at their mother, who nodded and held up two fingers. Each child went and carefully picked out two pastries, placed them on one of the waiting plates, and sat down to eat slowly, surreptitiously licking the crumbs from their fingers between bites.

Once she had taken the edge off her own hunger by rapidly consuming three of the treats, seven-year-old Charlotte tried to ply the oldest Peeters girl -- six years old and seemingly all pale blue eyes and blond braids -- with questions, but she only shrugged. “The children only speak Flemish,” Madame Peeters explained, and Charlotte turned away to see if Lucie-Marie really wanted all of her own little cake.

“Where are you going to stay?” Philomene asked, breaking a lengthy silence.

Madame Peeters shrugged. “I don’t know. Reims? Paris?” She paused and again placed a hand on her pregnant belly as if feeling the baby stirring or drawing some strength from inside. “When he was called up, my husband said, ‘Don’t wait until it is too late.’ Now that we’ve left everything, I must not stop too soon and have the Germans come when I can no longer travel.”

Philomene hesitated over the next question. “Your husband…?” She felt guilty as soon as she saw the other woman’s expression. “Mine is with the army in Paris,” she continued, hoping this would provide some small proof of commonality.

[Continue Reading]

Friday, April 10, 2015

Linkety Links

I've been accumulating these links all week, but I haven't had time to post them because I've had the sudden opportunity to revise an opus from my younger days, a play I wrote when I was 16, which is having another youth group performance this summer. You say the litany of humility, and then someone hands you something you wrote twenty years ago, and all pride and self-love is mortified pretty quick. So I've been rewriting in double-time to get this thing ready before the auditions on Monday.

Looking back on my early writing efforts, I can say that the dramatic side of the play still works. The scenes fit together, the style works, and the structure is sound. But the lines themselves, the writing! Heavy-handed, unfunny, inelegant. When I get stuck with revision, I have to remind myself that anything I put down afresh can't be worse than what's already there.

I'm grateful at least that I have the chance for a rewrite. It would have been a true test of humility if it had been performed now as written, with my name attached.

***

You can't start 'em on lit crit too early, and that's why, on April 1, the Paris Review debuted The Paris Review for Young Readers, featuring such delights as American Lunchroom by Bret Easton Ellis, Goofus and Gallant Read Poetry, and Your Struggle: Karl Ove Knausgaard Helps You Navigate the School Yard.

***

Brandon had up an interesting post recently talking about conspiracy theorists:
One of the unusual features of conspiracy-theory thinking, distinguishing it from many other kinds of bad thinking, is that conspiracy-theories tend to be unusually evidence-rich. I guarantee you that the average 9/11-Truther knows massively more real and genuine evidence about the collapse of the towers than your average person who rejects 9/11-Truth conspiracies. Very, very few people who are not inclined to believe some conspiracy are motivated to dig into the details to the extent that believers in the conspiracy are -- usually, in fact, it's only people who are irritated enough by the conspiracy theory to spend massive amounts of time and effort answering the arguments that conspiracy theorists multiply.
Following nicely on the heels of that, I came across what is perhaps an example par excellence of the genre: Did Leonard Nimoy Fake His Own Death So He Could Seize Control of the Illuminati?
Details of Leonard Nimoy’s early childhood are necessarily vague. The media has fed us a predictable timeline of predictable life events, though his genealogy is, at best, obscure. However, it is clear that Nimoy’s March 26th birthdate does anticipate his future role in New World Order propaganda for it was on that day in 1484 that William Caxton printed the first translation of Aesop’s Fables and also, in 1830, when the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra, New York. (Star Trek has long been accused of being a palimpsest of these two works.)

However, the most fascinating counterpoint to Nimoy’s manufactured backstory is the theory that he may have been the secret love child of playboy Maurice de Rothschild and Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. Smuggled to America at an early age, he was entrusted to a nondescript family in suburban Boston, then a safe haven of New Deal liberalism despite the ravages of the Great Depression. His lineage was crucial, as we shall see, for it bound the child to the two great dynasties of hidden rule — the Romanovs and the Rothschilds. It was also a dangerous bloodline to possess, as the treachery of both families knows no bounds.

As a Rothschild, young Leonard was naturally raised as a Jew and even as a teenager, he betrayed all the trigonometric and sensual qualities of that exotic race.
Best comment on the post: "This is so irresponsible. Now he knows we know."


***

In a moment of serendipity, I turned on the radio a few Saturdays ago and came in partway through the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.

Based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lucia di Lammermoor is the story of a girl forced by her brother to break her betrothal to her beloved to marry a man with money. On the wedding night, she suddenly appears before all the wedding guests, having stabbed the bridegroom in their chamber. The opera contains one of the most famous mad scenes in the history of mad scenes, in which the soprano floats ethereally, insanely, above the rest of the world, her hands and wedding gown stained with  blood. A hauntingly virtuosic feature of this aria is Lucia's duet with a flute, in which she echoes and harmonizes with this music only she can hear.

Joan Sutherland, duet with flute 8: 36 - 10:16



Joan Sutherland is a world-class singer, but not much of an actress, and it doesn't help that there are no horrified guests to provide a backdrop. Here, now, is a stunning performance by Natalie Dessay, in which the flute is replaced with Donizetti's original scoring for water harmonica -- an instrument that just sounds like someone slipping into madness:



The duet is at 4:00 - 5:14, but note how here it really is only Lucia who hears the phantom accompaniment. The melody at 4:26 gives me chills.



I know that there are some who think of opera as a pure art, but that's ridiculous. How can you separate the singing from the acting of the role? Sutherland's voice is exquisite, but no one believes she's going mad. Dessay here is on fire, and every note seems to follow from, or be in reaction to, the breaking of her mind. I believe her, in a way that I didn't believe Dame Sutherland. Sutherland is performing. Dessay is.

(Also, love the set design with the huge moon looming in the background, a clever remark on the theme of madness.)

***

I also read The Bride of Lammermoor to imbibe the original story. There's drama aplenty, but one of my favorite moments was the betrothal itself, which Scott, in a moment of dry understatement, abridges between two moments of high personal conflict.
Lucy wept on, but her tears were less bitter. Each attempt which the Master made to explain his purpose of departure, only proved a new evidence of his deisre to stay; until, at length, instead of bidding her farewell, he gave his faith to her for ever, and received her troth in return. The whole passed so suddenly, and arose so much out of the immediate impulse of the moment, that ere the Master of Ravenswood could reflect upon the consequences of the step which had had taken, their lips, as well as their hands, had pledged the sincerity of their affection.
And the consequences are dire indeed, and both parties have cause to rue the engagement long before the fatal end, so let this be a lesson to all the hasty young things out there not to get engaged without careful deliberation.

Scott, in his introduction, relates the true history of the case, as he heard it at his mother's knee:

THE Author, on a former occasion, declined giving the real source from which he drew the tragic subject of this history, because, though occurring at a distant period, it might possibly be unpleasing to the feelings of the descendants of the parties. But as he finds an account of the circumstances given in the Notes to Law's Memorials, by his ingenious friend, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq., and also indicated in his reprint of the Rev. Mr. Symson's poems appended to the Large Description of Galloway, as the original of the Bride of Lammermoor, the Author feels himself now at liberty to tell the tale as he had it from connexions of his own, who lived very near the period, and were closely related to the family of the bride.
It is well known that the family of Dalrymple, which has produced, within the space of two centuries, as many men of talent, civil and military, and of literary, political, and professional eminence, as any house in Scotland, first rose into distinction in the person of James Dalrymple, one of the most eminent lawyers that ever lived, though the labours of his powerful mind were unhappily exercised on a subject so limited as Scottish jurisprudence, on which he has composed an admirable work.
He married Margaret, daughter to Ross of Balneel, with whom he obtained a considerable estate. She was an able, politic, and high-minded woman, so successful in what she undertook, that the vulgar, no way partial to her husband or her family, imputed her success to necromancy. According to the popular belief, this Dame Margaret purchased the temporal prosperity of her family from the Master whom she served under a singular condition, which is thus narrated by the historian of her grandson, the great Earl of Stair: "She lived to a great age, and at her death desired that she might not be put under ground, but that her coffin should stand upright on one end of it, promising that while she remained in that situation the Dalrymples should continue to flourish. What was the old lady's motive for the request, or whether she really made such a promise, I shall not take upon me to determine; but it's certain her coffin stands upright in the isle of the church of Kirklistown, the burial-place belonging to the family." The talents of this accomplished race were sufficient to have accounted for the dignities which many members of the family attained, without any supernatural assistance. But their extraordinary prosperity was attended by some equally singular family misfortunes, of which that which befell their eldest daughter was at once unaccountable and melancholy.
Miss Janet Dalrymple, daughter of the first Lord Stair and Dame Margaret Ross, had engaged herself without the knowledge of her parents to the Lord Rutherford, who was not acceptable to them either on account of his political principles or his want of fortune. The young couple broke a piece of gold together, and pledged their troth in the most solemn manner; and it is said the young lady imprecated dreadful evils on herself should she break her plighted faith. Shortly after, a suitor who was favoured by Lord Stair, and still more so by his lady, paid his addresses to Miss Dalrymple. The young lady refused the proposal, and being pressed on the subject, confessed her secret engagement. Lady Stair, a woman accustomed to universal submission, for even her husband did not dare to contradict her, treated this objection as a trifle, and insisted upon her daughter yielding her consent to marry the new suitor, David Dunbar, son and heir to David Dunbar of Baldoon, in Wigtonshire. The first lover, a man of very high spirit, then interfered by letter, and insisted on the right he had acquired by his troth plighted with the young lady. Lady Stair sent him for answer, that her daughter, sensible of her undutiful behaviour in entering into a contract unsanctioned by her parents, had retracted her unlawful vow, and now refused to fulfil her engagement with him.
The lover, in return, declined positively to receive such an answer from any one but his mistress in person; and as she had to deal with a man who was both of a most determined character and of too high condition to be trifled with, Lady Stair was obliged to consent to an interview between Lord Rutherford and her daughter. But she took care to be present in person, and argued the point with the disappointed and incensed lover with pertinacity equal to his own. She particularly insisted on the Levitical law, which declares that a woman shall be free of a vow which her parents dissent from. This is the passage of Scripture she founded on:
"If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.
"If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father's house in her youth; And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand.
"But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her."—Numbers xxx. 2-5.
While the mother insisted on these topics, the lover in vain conjured the daughter to declare her own opinion and feelings. She remained totally overwhelmed, as it seemed—mute, pale, and motionless as a statue. Only at her mother's command, sternly uttered, she summoned strength enough to restore to her plighted suitor the piece of broken gold which was the emblem of her troth. On this he burst forth into a tremendous passion, took leave of the mother with maledictions, and as he left the apartment, turned back to say to his weak, if not fickle, mistresss: "For you, madam, you will be a world's wonder"; a phrase by which some remarkable degree of calamity is usually implied. He went abroad, and returned not again. If the last Lord Rutherford was the unfortunate party, he must have been the third who bore that title, and who died in 1685.
The marriage betwixt Janet Dalrymple and David Dunbar of Baldoon now went forward, the bride showing no repugnance, but being absolutely passive in everything her mother commanded or advised. On the day of the marriage, which, as was then usual, was celebrated by a great assemblage of friends and relations, she was the same—sad, silent, and resigned, as it seemed, to her destiny. A lady, very nearly connected with the family, told the Author that she had conversed on the subject with one of the brothers of the bride, a mere lad at the time, who had ridden before his sister to church. He said her hand, which lay on his as she held her arm around his waist, was as cold and damp as marble. But, full of his new dress and the part he acted in the procession, the circumstance, which he long afterwards remembered with bitter sorrow and compunction, made no impression on him at the time.
The bridal feast was followed by dancing. The bride and bridegroom retired as usual, when of a sudden the most wild and piercing cries were heard from the nuptial chamber. It was then the custom, to prevent any coarse pleasantry which old times perhaps admitted, that the key of the nuptial chamber should be entrusted to the bridesman. He was called upon, but refused at first to give it up, till the shrieks became so hideous that he was compelled to hasten with others to learn the cause. On opening the door, they found the bridegroom lying across the threshold, dreadfully wounded, and streaming with blood. The bride was then sought for. She was found in the corner of the large chimney, having no covering save her shift, and that dabbled in gore. There she sat grinning at them, mopping and mowing, as I heard the expression used; in a word, absolutely insane. The only words she spoke were, "Tak up your bonny bridegroom." She survived this horrible scene little more than a fortnight, having been married on the 24th of August, and dying on the 12th of September 1669.
The unfortunate Baldoon recovered from his wounds, but sternly prohibited all inquiries respecting the manner in which he had received them. "If a lady," he said, "asked him any question upon the subject, he would neither answer her nor speak to her again while he lived; if a gentleman, he would consider it as a mortal affront, and demand satisfaction as having received such." He did not very long survive the dreadful catastrophe, having met with a fatal injury by a fall from his horse, as he rode between Leith and Holyrood House, of which he died the next day, 28th March 1682. Thus a few years removed all the principal actors in this frightful tragedy.

You may read the whole book at Project Gutenburg.

***

Very interested in reading the newly released translation of Umberto Eco's 1977 guide, "How To Write a Thesis":

We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now? After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet. There are long passages devoted to quaint technologies such as note cards and address books, careful strategies for how to overcome the limitations of your local library. But the book’s enduring appeal—the reason it might interest someone whose life no longer demands the writing of anything longer than an e-mail—has little to do with the rigors of undergraduate honors requirements. Instead, it’s about what, in Eco’s rhapsodic and often funny book, the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties. “Your thesis,” Eco foretells, “is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.” By mastering the demands and protocols of the fusty old thesis, Eco passionately demonstrates, we become equipped for a world outside ourselves—a world of ideas, philosophies, and debates.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-1

We return to Philomene for Chapter 10. This chapter will have three installments total. The next one will be posted by Monday night.


Chateau Ducloux, France. August 19th, 1914. With Henri gone, it seemed more important than ever to maintain the morning routine. Philomene arrived at the breakfast table at exactly eight o’clock, made her cup of white coffee -- half coffee, half cream, with a generous spoonful of sugar -- and sat down opposite her father. Now, though, she left her book of devotions in her room, and as soon as she sat down gave her attention to the papers.

What is the news? Have you heard anything? These had replaced all other forms of greeting. Wives and mothers waited for word of their sons. Those over fifty could remember the disastrous days in 1870 when Louis-Napoleon had been surrounded and forced to surrender at Sedan, the next major city to the north up the rail line.

She turned first to the copy of Le Temps, which she still thought of as Henri’s. Was he able to get hold of a newspaper in Paris with his regiment? Was he perhaps reading the same words right now? “Bulletin of the Day,” read the headline of the first column, the small type underneath laying out the successes of the Serbs and Montenegrins against Austria-Hungary along the Drina and the Saba. Russia. Romania. Hungary. News of distant war, but nothing that could tell her what was happening to Henri or of their own safety. She began to skim over the closely spaced columns.

On the sixteenth day of mobilization, the official communique assures us that the situation is good and the progress methodical in Lorraine and Alsace…. The Belgians today push new offensives against the Germans…. Our soldiers and their leaders are full of resolute confidence and patriotic faith….

And yet the only items which spoke clearly about events seemed to be within France. Villages bombarded outside Nancy. A mother and her child shot by heartless German soldiers in Belfort. She set Le Temps aside and took up La Croix, but there the lead headline was “Confidence!” and readers were assured that although the Germans might succeed at certain places, God did not want a nation of such savagery to be rewarded with dominion over France.

“I don’t know if there is no news to be had, or if there is bad news and the papers do not want to report it,” she said, pushing away the news sheet.

“They may not know either,” Louis replied. “The local paper prints some soldiers’ letters. No one we know, but do you want to see?”

Philomene shook her head and instead flipped the front page of La Croix over and glanced at the inside stories. “These stories about the Belgian refugees are terrible. What would we take if we had to leave with only what we could carry?”

Louis shrugged. “What good does running away do? In 1870 I watched the Germans march through town through that window,” he pointed. The morning breeze moved the curtains, and the most threatening thing on the street was Madame Legros bringing a cart full of farm vegetables to the grocer.

“God preserve us. Surely it won’t come to that here?” But as she said the words, she could imagine standing at those same windows, holding her children close to her, watching the savage Germans in their spiked helmets tramp through the street. Wouldn’t it be better to pile the family valuables in a cart and get as far away as possible, rather than face the depredations of a conquering army? The newspaper account of the woman and her child being shot returned to her mind and she could now imagine that child being Pascal. “They must be better prepared than in 1870. Surely the Germans won’t make it this far,” she said, looking to her father some kind of reassurance. If only Henri were were. He would be able to tell her whether there was real danger, and if so how to meet it.

Louis was shaking his head slowly. “I was nineteen years old. Stood staring out that window thinking that if I were a real man I would be fighting the Germans. Pere must have known what was in my mind. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘If you do anything to try to fight those soldiers I’ll horsewhip you myself.’ There was a boy on one of the farms who took a shot at them and they hanged him in the square.”

[continue reading]

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Glorious Creativity of Boring Clothes

Some female friends were discussing this piece from Harpers Bazaar about an ad agency art director who decided that she would solve the problem of what to wear to work by wearing the same thing every day:
As I arrived at work, my stress level only increased as I saw my male creative partner and other male co-workers having a "brodown" with the new boss as they entered the meeting room—a room I was suppose to already be inside. I just stood there—paralyzed by the fact that I was not only late, but unprepared. And my sweater was inside out. I had completely stressed myself out, and for what? This was not the first morning I'd felt this unnecessary panic, but that day I decided it would be the last.

The frustration I felt walking into that meeting late remained with me. Should it really be this hard? I knew my male colleagues were taken seriously no matter what they wore—and I highly doubt they put in as much sartorial time and effort as I had. But gender issues aside, I needed to come up with a solution to simplify this morning struggle.

I have no clue how the idea of a work uniform came to me, but soon, the solution to my woes came in the form of 15 silk white shirts and a few black trousers. For a little personal detail, I remembered my mother loved to put bows in my hair as kid, so I chose to add a custom-made black leather rosette around my neck. Done. During the colder months, I'll also top my look off with a black blazer. I shopped all the pieces in one day. It burned a hole in my wallet to say the least, but in the long run, it has saved me—and will continue to save me—more money than I could imagine.
Of course, there's a whole group of people who have removed most of the creativity from deciding what to wear to work, we call ourselves men. But by going with a truly identical outfit everyday she's missed out on the key to male workplace dress, which is having a fairly rigid set of rules as to what you should wear while allowing very narrow outlets for quality and creativity.

So, how do you dress like a director of pricing analytics?

Three pairs of pants, plus a fairly new/dark pair of jeans for casual Fridays (jeans not shown because I'm currently wearing them):


Eight dress shirts (sporty types wear golf shirts on Fridays, but I don't play golf and don't want to be a poser):


I could honestly get by with just one or two pairs of dress shoes/boots, but I kind of like them. And MrsDarwin bought me the boots for Christmas. (Never wear black shoes with a brown belt or brown shoes with a black belt. Just don't.)


There are doubtless a few combinations here which would not be a good call, but overall we have [4 pants] x [8 shirts] x [3 pairs of shoes] = 108 outfits, all without every having to think hard about what to wear.

Who knew it was so fun to be dull?



Should you wish to be dull:

Joseph A Banks and Charles Tyrwhitt are affordable and reliable. They have constant sales, and (how can a pricing guy resist telling you this) you really only want to buy things on sale there as they're clearly building their cost/quality model around the sale price not the list price. Brooks Brothers is somewhat higher quality, but their sales are less often and not generally as deep.

Allen Edmonds makes mens dress shoes about as good as any you'll find. They're made in the US and can be re-soled by the factory when the wear out. But honestly, they're kind of embarrassingly expensive. The only real excuse I can make is that with decent care they can last a good 5-8 years, with occasional recrafting as the soles wear out.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Sorrowful Mysteries

A compilation of last year's Good Friday meditations on the sorrowful mysteries:

The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden



The first sorrowful mystery is the one in which Jesus most clearly manifests his humanity. He know what's coming, and he's just plain scared. There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus prays, but he's always been confident before. This time he does what we do -- he begs God to take this horrible choice away from him. This is waiting, yes, but not passive, dull waiting. He's waiting to be confronted with a moral choice, one in which the right answer is clear. The cup is not just the Passion as we usually think of it -- the grotesque physical suffering, the loneliness of desertion, the mockery and humiliation. The cup is also making the choice that will set the entire Passion in motion, the choice to "allow it for now" (Matt. 3:15).

But Jesus isn't just thinking of himself. The cup is also Judas's betrayal, and Jesus begs the Father to spare him that -- not because of the consequences, but because of the pain of seeing a friend betray him, and because of the effect it will have on Judas himself. Jesus has accepted the necessity of the Passion, but he pleads that it might come about some other way than having one of his trusted friends hand him over. The false kiss stings more than the whips.

Jesus, in the garden, is just like us. He is scared like us. His heart breaks over betrayal and lost friendships, just like ours do. He became like us in all things but sin, and that means being scared to death and sick with grief like us. Jesus isn't remote from our sufferings. He knows. And that makes him the perfect model of fortitude, of strength in weakness. "Power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). That isn't just comforting drivel for us failures. That's Jesus, in the garden, sweating blood from sheer terror, and choosing the cup anyway.

The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar


The Scourging at the Pillar is the hardest of all the mysteries to contemplate directly because it's so viscerally brutal. The sheer cruel bloodiness of it, the immensity of suffering, is almost incomprehensible. I find that I can best meditate on it in its Marian aspect -- standing outside the praetorium with Mary, hearing the sounds of the flogging, unable to do anything but suffer with her as she suffers with Jesus. Everyone has experienced the helplessness of watching a loved one suffer without being able to alleviate any of the pain. The feeling of impotence, of being entirely other and unable to take away or at least share some of the pain, can be almost worse than the original suffering.

Bl. Elisabeth Leseur speaks of the value, and the usefulness of suffering, either physical or spiritual, directly or on account of others:
The stoics used to say, 'Suffering is nothing,' and they were not telling the truth. But, more enlightened, we Christians say, 'Suffering is everything.' Suffering asks for and gets everything; because of suffering God consents to accomplishing all things; suffering helps the gentle Jesus to save the world. At times, when I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of my desires for those I love, by the importance of what I want to obtain for them, I turn toward suffering. I ask suffering to serve as the intermediary between God and them. Suffering is the complete form of prayer, the only infallible form of action.
The pain we feel on contemplating the Scourging is our offering of love to Christ, our way of participating in this mystery with Mary.

The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning With Thorns


A number of years ago, I said something to someone. I thought I was telling a few home truths, drawing on my great wisdom to set someone straight (thus proving that a little education can be a dangerous thing). Not long ago, this memory bobbed to the surface, and sharp slivers of shame and remorse bit at me. How could I have behaved so cruelly? How could I have been so wantonly unkind? I was so disgusted with myself that I had to confess this ancient sin, but the recollection still pricks.

Jesus never sinned, so he never felt the shame of remembered sin, the bitter bite of stale vice. But with the crown of thorns, he takes on the stabbing pain of our guilt. He knows, physically, the way sin gets into our minds and wounds us even long after the fact. He buries our worst memories in his own head. The soldiers wove his crown of thorns; we weave our own. But Jesus gladly removes our piercing crowns and wears them for our sake.

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: Jesus Carries His Cross


Not only was Jesus forced to carry his own cross, but he had no choice about where to carry it. Every step of his way was determined by guards prodding him and the crowd bounding him. He had no chance to make a break for it. The only place he could go with the cross was Calvary.

Sometimes our path in life has been determined for us, whether through our own choices or the choices of others. Sometimes earlier sins set us on a course from which we can't deviate later, even long after the sin has been repented. Sometimes the sins of other people force our lives into a different mold than we would have chosen. When we bear our heavy cross down a road not of our choosing, Jesus is with us every step of the way, carrying our burden and his own to the inevitable ending of the Crucifixion -- and the Resurrection.

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: Jesus Dies on the Cross


Bl. Teresa of Calcutta was called a fraud and hypocrite by some because instead of using donations to establish big hospitals or fund general health care, she clung to her mission to care for the dying, to bring health to souls, not bodies. She understood the crucial importance of the decisive moments at the end of life, that the transition from life to death is the pivotal point of our existence.

The last mystery of the rosary skips past the nails and the words and gets right to the heart of Christ's life on earth: his death. Unlike us, he chose the precise moment of his death. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again" (John 10:18). First he said, "It is finished," and then, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He could commend his spirit to the Father in utter confidence because he had so perfectly understood and lived the will of the Father that he could allow himself to die as soon as he had finished completing it.

For the rest of us, the Father's will for our death is a mystery sometimes unfathomable in its delay or its swiftness, which is why we strive to care for our souls, and, like Bl. Teresa, the souls of others, so that at the moment of death, each person can say with Jesus, "It is finished."

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 9-4

In which the Battle of the Marne begins. The battle stretched across a hundred miles, but for any given person, like Walter, any battle is the immediate.

The next installment will begin Chapter 10, focusing on Philomene, and it will go up on next Tuesday.



Chambry, France. September 5th, 1914. The orders that morning had been encouraging: A half day’s march and field kitchens with hot rations at the end of it. The supply trains had finally caught up with the army.

“Or one of the officers’ horses died,” suggested Georg. “And they’re going to stew it up so that they don’t have to bother burying it.”

It was an easy march of twelve miles over gently rolling farmland. They reached Chambry at eleven in the morning, a small town of stone and plaster houses with red tiled roofs. The field kitchens had reached it before them, and huge pots of what Georg darkly predicted was horse stew were filling the air with a welcome fragrance.

They lined up with their mess tins and were each given a heaping portion of the hot rations. Walter, Georg, Franz and Alfred sat down together on the cobblestones of the square and spooned the thick, savory bites in as quickly as they could without burning their mouths. Whatever had gone into it, after three days during which they had eaten nothing but what could be taken from the villages they passed through -- mostly uncooked vegetables lifted from gardens -- the hot meal was wonderful.

“Why hasn’t someone conquered that shop yet?” Georg asked, indicating a window across the square through which shelves of bottles could be seen, the sign above saying: le Marchand de Vins

“Maybe we’re the first ones in this town,” Walter said. “Or perhaps that’s officer territory.”

“Unless you see any military police around, I say we open it for business,” Georg replied.

Perhaps it was the fact he was eating hot food for the first time in three days, perhaps it was the sheer normalcy of the town, apparently untouched by the war until that day, but the suggestion of looting the shop suddenly came into contrast with his life up until mobilization in Walter’s mind. When had they become thieves? Would any of them have considered for a moment the idea of smashing a store window and stealing alcohol before August?

There was an unreality, a distance from all prior experience to so much else that had happened: the heaped bodies by the iron bridge at Thulin, the Belgian woman throwing herself into the line of fire as the men in her family were put up against the wall and shot in Sint-Truiden, the endless days of marching in column through the countryside. None of these had any commonality with life as it had been before mobilization, and it seemed possible that these were all part of some continent-wide fever-dream from which they could all wake, and return to ordinary life to find it untouched. The wine shop, however, could as easily have fit into any former period of his life. And yet, it seemed, he was no longer the person who had inhabited that life. Had order been so casually discarded?

“Well?” asked Georg. “What do you say to a bit of conquest?”

Before they could decide whether to act on the idea Hauptmann Kappel, the commander of 5th Kompanie, stepped into the middle of the square, accompanied by his three leutnants.

“Soldiers. This was to be an easy day for you, a short march and a hot meal, a chance to recover after long marches and short rations. However, we have just received new orders. There is a French force approaching us from the west, seeking to make a surprise attack upon 1st Army’s right flank. IV Reserve Corps has been given the task to stop them. Until now you have marched hundreds of miles with never a chance to fire your rifles. Today, we will fight, and I know that I can rely on you to do everything that is asked of you for the sake of the Fatherland!”

He ended on a stirring note, clearly expecting his speech to draw enthusiastic shouts, but for a moment there was total silence. The men sat with their ration tins in their hands, absorbing the news which a week or two earlier would have had the intended effect, but now simply reminded them of their swollen and blistered feed, their too often empty stomachs. Sensing the awkwardness, the non-commissioned officers led a cheer, in which a number of the men joined half-heartedly.

Leutnant Weber stepped forward. “You have fifteen minutes to finish eating your hot rations. The field kitchens have also managed to find some barrels of beer. It’s Belgian beer, but there’s enough of it to go around. Report with your cups and everyone will be served a ration before we head out in thirty minutes. Now let’s hear how 5th Kompanie feels about finally getting our turn to show the French what the Fatherland is made of!”

This drew an actual cheer, full throated and sincere, as men began to queue up to get their rations of beer.

[continue reading]

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Dead to Sin

The soul that wants to be at peace must flee from thoughts of other people's sins as though from the pains of hell, begging God for a remedy and for help against it; for the consideration of other people's sins makes a sort of thick mist before the eyes of the soul, and during such times we cannot see the beauty of God unless we regard the sins with sorrow for those who commit them, with compassion and with a holy wish for God to help them; for if we do not do this the consideration of sins harms and distresses and hinders the soul... 
In this blessed showing of our Lord's I understood two contrary things: one, the wisest thing that anyone can do in this life; the other, the most foolish. The wisdom is for people to behave according to the wishes and advice of their greatest and most supreme friend. This blessed friend is Jesus, and it is his will and his advice that we should bind ourselves to him and direct ourselves toward him, familiarly, for evermore, in whatever state we may be, for whether we are sinful or pure his love for us is the same. In weal or woe, he never wants us to flee from him, but because of our own changeability we often fall into sin. When this happens, it comes to us by the provocation of our Enemy, though our own folly and blindness, which say, "You know very well that you are a wretch, a sinner, and also, faithless, for you do not obey God's commands; you often promise our Lord that you will do better, and immediately afterwards you fall back into the same sin, especially sloth and time-wasting" -- for these are the beginning of sin, it seems to me, especially for people who have vowed to serve our Lord with inward contemplation of his blessed goodness. And this makes us afraid of appearing before our courteous Lord. So it is our enemy the Devil who sets us back with false fear of our sinfulness and the punishment with which he threatens us; for with these he intends to make us so unhappy and so weary that we shall forget the fair, blessed considerations of our everlasting Friend. 
-- Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Divine Love, LT 76
A specter is haunting my head -- the specter of sinuses. Like Julian, who would suddenly be stripped of consolations so that she could remember that she was not to rely on her own strength, I find that the presence of this (minor) physical suffering clogs up all memory and understanding, so that I forget all that the Lord has done for me, and move through my day in a heavy, stupid haze. I think that one of reasons that the Church prays the psalms so often is that they are reminders, constant reminders that of God's goodness, because we are so apt to forget. Holiness isn't in the highs, but in conquering the present moment through Christ, no matter how petty that moment may be.

I'd never found the book of Romans to be all that compelling, but reading it through the commentary of Julian is suddenly opening it up in ways I'd never thought about.

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  
Romans 6:11

This is something that Julian keeps saying, that sin is nothing, that it has no power, which didn't really settle into my head until Romans 6:11. I am dead to sin. Dead to sin! Something that is dead has no power. Sin's power is illusory, but I am dead to it. It has no hold on me unless I forget that I am alive to God through Christ Jesus. When I forget this, which is most of the day, I imagine that I live by myself, and my existence dwindles down to the one petty point in time and space that I occupy right now, and the weight of sinful nothingness oppresses me like my sinus headache. But I do not live by myself. I am alive to God through Christ Jesus. I do not have to carry any of this weight because he will carry it if I stop clinging to it and let him take it.
Did that which is good, then bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For  I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self. but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 
Romans 7:13-25
I considered typing up all of chapter 8 as well, but really, you should just go read it. Right now.

Julian is insistent that sin is something separate from us, because our souls are not created from matter but simply made it, made it of himself.
... I saw and understood very clearly that in every soul that will be saved there is a godly will which never agreed to sin, nor ever shall; this will is so good that it can never intend evil, but always and constantly it intends good and does good in the sight of God. Therefore our Lord wants us to know this as a matter of faith and belief, and most especially to know that we all have this blessed will kept safe and whole in our Lord Jesus Christ; for beings of the kind that will people heaven must needs, by God's justice, be so bound and united to him that there would always remain a higher nature in them which never could nor should be separated from God; and this is through his own good will in his eternal foreseeing purpose. And in spite of this just binding and this everlasting union, the redemption and the buying back of humankind is necessary and useful in all things... (LT 53)
We ought to rejoice greatly that God dwells in our soul, and we ought to rejoice much more greatly that our soul dwells in God. Our soul is made to be God's dwelling place, and the dwelling place of the soul is God, who is not made. It shows deep understanding to see and know inwardly that God, who is our maker, dwells in our soul; and deeper understanding to see and know that our soul, which is made, dwells in God's being; through this essential being -- God -- we are what we are. 
And I saw no difference between God and our essential being, it seemed to be all God, and yet my understanding took it that our essential being is in God: that is to say that God is God, and our essential being is a creation within God; for the almighty truth of the Trinity is our father, he who made us and keeps us within him; and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed; and the great goodness of the Trinity is our lord and in him we are enclosed and he in us. We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed int he Holy Ghost; and the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son in enclosed in us, and the Holy Ghost is enclosed in us: almighty all wisdom, all goodness, one God, one Lord. (LT 54)
We are being of the kind that will people heaven -- an amazing, comforting thought. And we are dead to sin because it is no part of our essential being, which is God created in his own image and enclosed within himself.

And I forget this every day. O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake

At the moment the chattering classes are all talking about cakes, and so far as I can tell none of them are this fun.

No, instead, everyone has to have an opinion about whether an Indiana state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) will make it impossible for gay couples to hire a florist or cake-maker for their weddings.

It doesn't help that there has been a massive amount of misinformation about how RFRAs work going around. The progressive talking point is that the law is a license to discriminate. This is patently untrue. What the law does say is that in some case where a person is violating a law for a reason which that person says is a matter of religious conscience (and where the court finds that there is in fact a real religious belief which is being substantially burdened by the law) the government has to show that it has a compelling interest in the law in question being applied in the situation in question, and can't achieve the same end by some other means. So first of, the RFRA does not mean that you get to do anything you say your religious beliefs require without legal penalty, it just says that the government must weigh your beliefs against its own goals with the law in question and see if there's a way to satisfy both.

This article provides some examples of cases won (and lost) under the federal RFRA and similar laws which exist in twenty other states in addition to Indiana. One example:
After being baptized in the Sikh faith, Kawal Tagore began carrying a kirpan, “an emblem resembling a small knife with a blunt, curved blade” that reminds Sikhs of their commitment to justice. It’s one of five articles of faith baptized Sikhs are supposed to carry.

She was told to go home from her job with the IRS in a federal building in Houston and told not to return. The building allowed scissors, knives, box cutters and other items with far sharper blades than her kirpan, but they wouldn’t let her carry her religiously required emblem. After working from home for nine months, she was fired.

She sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and on November 4, 2014, the government agreed to settle the case.

This letter from a group of law professors concerning the Indiana law also provides some interesting context, in particular noting as an example of the sort of balance that the law is designed to encourage that the little discussed finding (because it satisfied the partisans on neither side) in the Hobby Lobby case is that the federal RFRA protected Hobby Lobby from having to provide contraceptive coverage to their female employees precisely because the employer could be exempted without affecting their female employees' access to contraception.

The ways in which the Indiana law differs from other versions of the RFRA is that it explicitly covers corporate persons (some courts have applied existing RFRAs to companies, others haven't) and that it allows the people to appeal to the RFRA in cases in which the government is not a litigant (a dispute between two private parties). However, since the RFRA only requires the government to see if it can achieve its goals in a case (such as enforcing an anti-discrimination law) while still respecting the religious views of the person in question. Since it's clearly impossible for a government to enforce an anti-discrimination law without... punishing people for discrimination, it's a pretty safe bet that the RFRA will not be successfully appealed to in such cases. (And indeed, though people have tried, no one has won relief from an anti-discrimination law by citing an RFRA.)

So while people have been working themselves up into tizzies of moral quandry over whether various people should be able to deny various others cakes of varying descriptions, everyone is having a proxy fight here.
Clearly a Violation of Religious Conscience
At it happens, Indiana does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, but if they did the existence of the RFRA would not provide a defense for some baker unwilling to bake a cake for a same sex wedding (or some person with literary taste unwilling to bake a Twilight cake.)

Why the fuss?

I'm fairly ready to spread blame around. The progressives require an enemy in their constant battle against the forces of evil and repression. The conservatives would also like to mobilize their base by pretending to be fighting back against the tide of gay marriage, even if they're really not. Both sides are thus served by pretending to be fighting some big fight that they're really not.

And, in a sense, the fight we're pretending this law is about is the one that people are really interested in. Ross Douthat has a post up asking critics of Indiana's RFRA how far they will be willing to go. It's a question worth asking, though I think it's the rare progressive who'd be willing (or indeed able) to answer the questions honestly. This isn't because progressives are evil and deceptive, it's because the cultural consensus has been moving incredibly quickly on this issue and people's demands have been moving as they go along. As Douthat notes:
But it is my very strong impression that if a religious conservative (or anyone on the right) had said, back in 2004 or even into President Obama’s first term, that they accepted that marriage should be redefined nationwide to include same-sex couples, that they further accepted that this would happen swiftly through the courts rather than state-by-state and legislatively, and that all they asked of liberals was that this redefinition proceed in a way that allowed people like Barronelle Stutzman some wiggle room about whether their businesses or facilities had to be involved in the wedding ceremonies themselves — with the mechanism for opting out being something like the (then-still-bipartisan) RFRA model – this would have been treated as a very reasonable compromise proposal by a lot of people on the center-left, gay as well as straight. I cannot prove this absolutely, and I concede that there are lots of people on the left who wouldn’t have liked the deal. But the world of liberal opinion is a pretty familiar one to me, the world of the past isn’t that far past, and I think my assessment is basically correct.

Today, though, as I said above, I think the consensus center-left position has basically shifted toward the argument offered by Garrett Epps for The Atlantic: It doesn’t matter if Stutzman or any other wedding vendor is a nice person with sincere religious beliefs, and it doesn’t matter if she or they would provide her services to gay clients in any other context; her religious anxiety about decorating a wedding chapel for a same-sex couple is no different from the objection to integration of a Southern store-owner whose preacher taught him the races should be separate, and needs to be dismissed with extreme prejudice lest anti-gay discrimination flourish and spread.

For as long as the tide of power and opinion continue to flow in the direction of making sexual preferences and freedom one of societies few sacred values (trumping older American freedoms such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press), I would expect to see things that were previously unimaginable become the commonly accepted elite and center-left cultural positions.

Myself, I have no idea how far or how long that will go. And so while I don't necessarily know that I would share the scruples of the photographers or cake makers who have run afoul of the gay marriage freight train thus far, if there were a way to protect their consciences I would absolutely support it. Not just because I think they're the ones with the right moral beliefs in terms of same sex marriage, and not just because I in general like the kind of pluralism that tries to let most people live according to their beliefs, but also because it's been made pretty clear that even if you are quiet about your beliefs to the point of near invisibility they may come for you anyway. And I could certainly see that happening to me too some day.

It's not impossible to imagine some modern American equivalent of the Act of Supremacy and the Treason Act that naturally went with it: Sure, you may believe whatever you want in the quiet confines of your head, but if you do not publicly affirm that you agree with the secular American pieties about marriage, you become ineligable for a host of jobs, benefits, and rights. And, of course, like the Elizabethan version, you'd have those who found some way to basically hold the dissenting views while making proper public show of agreeing with the consensus of the powerful. And there would be those who would take a principled stand and receive their marginalization as a result. In our consumer society, beheadings are out of fashion, but just exile people from the jobs people care about.

Perhaps this can evolve to some equivalent of the medieval Jewish codes, which forbade Jews from participating in many fields, pushing them into what at the time were seen as pariah roles like banking. What are the acceptable jobs for traditional Christians in the brave new world? Obviously not flower arranging, cake decorating, or running software companies. A randomly assorted set of jobs, but I'm sure someone would be happy to fill in many others.

Do I expect all this? I really don't know. Dystopias tend to be based on a "if this goes on" projection of certain aspects of our own time. But of course, "this" never goes on in simplistic fashion. And history is much more a pendulum than a highway. There is no moral arc to history, getting better and better over time. Things swing one way, then swing another. Who knows how much further we have to go on the current swing, or where the wandering pendulum of culture will swing next.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Great War: Vol 1, Ch 9-3

This latest section brings the novel past the 100,000 word threshold, right in the range of the length of a lot of full length novels (90-120k is pretty standard.) The total now comes to 103,080 words. I think I'm still about on target for 220k total.

There will be one more installment of Chapter Nine, which should be going up on Wednesday next week. Chapter Ten, which centers on Philomene, will begin on Tuesday, April 7th.


Brussels, Belgium. August 21st, 1914. It was two in the afternoon, the sun still high and hot overheard, when the regiment stopped to rest and reform before entering Brussels. Walter and the rest of the soldiers of 7th Korporalschaft had thrown themselves on the ground in the shade of the trees that lined the road. They cast aside packs and coats and drank the tepid, metallic-tasting water from their canteens.

Fifteen minutes to lie in the shade, chew some army bread, and try to try to let the sweat dry out of their shirts, and then Sergeant Zimmerman ordered them back on their feet and began inspecting their appearance.

“Roll that overcoat properly, soldier.” “Beat the dust out of that tunic. What, have you been sitting on it?” “Clean the mess off that rifle, soldier.”

He moved down line dispensing instructions and abuse.

“But sergeant,” said Georg, in an undertone which was audible only to Walter and the Linden brothers. “How can I clean my rifle when you keep the whole korporalschaft’s cleaning rods up your ass?”

Alfred coughed out a suppressed laugh but Franz remained unmoved, re-rolling his greatcoat and buckling the roll to his pack in silence.

It was not a victory parade, nor were they the first conquering troops to enter Belgium’s capital. They wore the same field uniforms that they had worn since leaving the depot, and the gray cloth clovers, which identified their regiment in block read numerals “82”, stayed on their pickelhaube helmets, protecting their shiny black leather and polished metal fittings from dust. But the men were to be inspected and made neat, and the bands would play as they marched through the city.

The First Army had been marching through Brussels since ten o’clock the day before. Now, a day and a half since the first German soldiers had entered the city, it was the IV Reserve Corps turn.

The shutters of the buildings were closed despite the summer heat. The outdoor tables of the cafes were nearly empty, as if a plague stalked the city. A lone civilian man in a gray suit, sat at a cafe table with a newspaper open and a cup of coffee next to him, his eyes fixed on his newspaper as if by holding to an appearance of normalcy the marching thousands could be defied.

The few people they saw in the streets were mostly German military policemen, in their distinctive green uniforms and with silver gorgets hanging around their necks. And yet precision was enforced. The boots which they had buffed and oiled under the eyes of the sergeants and gefreiters gave off their dull shine, and the iron hobnails in their boot soles -- designed both to give traction on rough ground and because iron wore away much more slowly than shoe leather -- rang in time on the cobblestones as they marched in step, given the columns of marching soldiers the sound as well as the appearance of something half machine. Eyes front. Arms swinging in time. Rifles resting on the left shoulder at the correct angle. The precision of the show suggested some long, gray, mechanical caterpillar, its back bristling with the spines of rifles as it curled down city streets. There might be little audience to see it, but the logic of the army demanded that the show be made because the men themselves knew the image they projected to those unfriendly streets, and that image told them they were one, their minds adjusting to the rhythmic beat of the regiment’s 3,287 men stepping in unison.

They reached the Rue Royale and turned south, a mounted military policeman blocking the way before them and waving them in the direction they were to go. It was a simple enough change of direction, which within half an hour took them out of the city again and sent them down country roads with pear orchards growing on either side, but on a map at the General Staff it was the pivot point. To this point First Army had traveled nearly straight west, its path taking it halfway through Belgium to the nation’s capital -- the invasion of a neutral country which had brought Britain into the war with its small Expeditionary Force, which was already moving north from the channel ports to support its French and Belgian allies. Now First Army would travel south, towards Paris. They were the outside edge of a revolving door which was intended to sweep up all of the Fatherland’s enemies in its path, surround them, and destroy them.

As the soldiers marched along the southern roads, however, it was simply a change of direction which put the late afternoon sun at their right instead of in their faces. Without the silent buildings to witness their marching column, discipline began to slack, and the non-commissioned officers did not worry themselves over it. The men stepped off the road to pull the hard, unripe pears from the trees, hoping for a sweeter change to the steady diet of army bread and stew from the mobile kitchens.

“Don’t eat that,” Franz advised, as Georg fell back into step with one of the fruits, pulled from a nearby tree.

“Why not?” asked Georg, turning over the pear in his hands. “It’s a little hard, but it looks fine.”

Franz didn’t reply, and after a moment Alfred explained, “We had a pear orchard growing up and learned the lesson from trying to steal a snack on summer afternoons: Unripe pears will give you the runs.”

That night, spared the misery so many others experienced as half the kompanie crouched over makeshift latrines or braced themselves against tree trunks, George and Walter had cause to give thanks for their farm-bred gruppe-mates.

***

Thulin, near Mons, Belgium. August 24th, 1914. The burial parties had not yet come, and bodies, some clad in field gray uniforms like their own, others in British khaki, lay sprawled or huddled where they had fallen. All through the previous day they had heard the sound of rifle fire and artillery in the distance and expected orders to hurry to the attack. Now they could see the remains of the brutal human drama which had been unfolding a half dozen miles to the south of them.

[continue reading]

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