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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Catholic Left's Internalized Anti-Catholicism

In Catholic circles, one of the many Clinton camp emails released by wikileaks has got a lot of play because it features Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta fielding questions from a fellow Democrat who wonders whether the US bishops' opposition to ObamaCare's contraception mandate could be used as an opportunity to start a 'Catholic Spring' uprising akin to the Arab Spring uprisings which brought down various regimes in the Middle East.

"There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a Middle Ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church." [source]

(That these regimes were replaced with more religiously fundamentalist ones rather breaks the analogy I suppose.)

As Ross Douthat observed on Twitter, however, it's a bit simplistic to simply label these slurs ('Middle Ages dictatorship', etc.) as simple anti-Catholicism, as many conservative Catholics have been quick to do, given that Podesta himself is Catholic as are many of the progressive Catholics who have supported and expanded upon the attacks on the Church and the bishops included in the emails. What we're seeing instead is that the progressive faction in the modern intra-Catholic civil war over theology and ecclesiology has taken on and internalized a lot of the anti-Catholic rhetoric of a hundred years ago.

This shouldn't necessarily be surprising. These days, we think of Protestant anti-Catholicism as being a product of the fundamentalist 'conservative' sects within Protestantism, but back in the day many of these lines of attack were formed by Protestants who were very much in the enlightenment/liberal tradition. For instance, when Newman wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in response to accusations from Charles Kingsley that the Romish Church encouraged dishonesty in its members, encouraging them to deny the truth and their own conscience at the insistence of the hierarchy, Newman was not squaring off against some right winger. Kingsley was a friend of Charles Darwin and a pioneer of Christian Socialism. Kingsley and those like him in the progressive Christianity of the day in great part disliked the Catholic Church because they saw it as backwards and reactionary -- which is precisely the view which many of the Church's internal critics take today.

Similarly, while people may associate the anti-immigrant Know Nothings and other anti-Catholic groups of the 19th and early 20th centuries with primarily right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric today, the Know Nothings were in great part motivated by a desire to preserve American liberty and democracy from the reactionary ideologies they associated with the Catholic Church and its political opposition to the secularist and progressive movements involved in the various European revolutionary movements of 1848 and beyond. Thomas Nast, who in the famous anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant cartoon above depicted Catholic priests as alligators about to feast on America's children, was actually a radical Republican in the aftermath of the Civil War, supporting racial equality and universal public schooling, which he saw as threatened by Catholic attempts to have their own school receive government funds just like the (effectively Protestant) public schools.

If progressive Catholics today have adopted many of the anti-Catholic stereotypes of the past about their own church, it's probably because many of those stereotypes were in fact developed by the kind of progressive Christianity which they would like the Church to resemble.

Journeys End in Lovers' Meetings

We clean up nicely.

Throughout the weekend, there was general disbelief when we told people that we were attending the wedding of someone we'd never met in person. But it isn't strange when you consider that we've been reading and interacting with Leah Libresco since July 2011, and that every discussion with Leah is personally revealing in some way because she loves diving right into the big issues. It was a delight and a surprise that we were invited to Leah's wedding to Alexi Sargeant, but it wasn't strange, because Leah isn't a stranger to us.

So we traveled to Philadelphia, just ourselves. It was a lovely wedding, full of laughter. I recall, when I was getting married, how self-conscious I was about being the center of attention. That anxiety permeated the whole day, making it far less joyful than it could have been. That's one reason why I love going to other people's weddings -- all the happiness, none of the stress. Leah and Alexi radiated happiness. I've never seen a smoochier couple up on the altar.

At the reception, each table had books on it, mostly culled from the duplicates in Leah and Alexi's now-mutual library and tailored to the people assigned to sit there. Our table, which featured three young families as well, had The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen. The Mind of the Maker I know and love, but We Found A Hat is brand new, the third in the Hat trilogy after I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat (both favorites at our house). In keeping with the literary theme of the evening, We Found A Hat reveals the Divine Comedy underlying the seemingly lightweight children's set. I Want My Hat Back is a trip through an animal Inferno, in which a bear's search for his beloved hat is bound up with deception and, ultimately, violent revenge. This Is Not My Hat takes a Purgatorial turn, with the small fishy thief confessing to the reader his misdeed. Will penitence be his? We don't know his final fate, but justice seems to prevail as the big fish recovers his hat and falls asleep with what we must presume is a clear conscience. We Found A Hat takes the chapeau to a celestial level, as the two turtles who covet the single hat discover that even more precious than sharing is the love that moves the stars.

We ceded We Found A Hat to one of the young families, and ended up trading Mind of the Maker with Clare Coffey for one of the books at her table, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.

And so, at the wedding reception, we finally got to meet the bride and groom. It felt like we'd known each other for ages, and indeed we have. It might be that we didn't know exactly how Alexi scratches his nose in person (though we quickly learned, since that was the subject of one of the toasts), but through years of blogging and other online interactions with Leah, we'd established the kind of personal, intellectual, and religious overlap that makes the perfect soil for friendship to flourish. Our initial comraderie was probably facilitated that there were two of us writing -- the comments section of Leah's blog has always been a place where debate has flourished, and since Darwin enjoys debate far more than I do, he's the one who struck up the initial acquaintance. That's how it's been throughout our relationship. Individually one of us will meet someone that the other person might not have encountered, and since friendship with one of us usually becomes friendship with both of us, everyone's circle expands and is enriched.

And Leah's hair is really that awesome.

The happy couple weren't the only longtime friends we met for the first time. We had much good chat with Elliot Milco and numerous other people whose names we recognized from comment sections or Facebook. It seemed a foretaste, through a glass darkly, of heaven, when we will finally see clearly all those we thought we already knew on earth. Journeys end in lovers' meetings, sings Feste. Apparently, Philadelphia is a way station on that journey.

A wedding toast is probably the closest most of us will ever come to hearing our eulogies in advance, and perhaps that's appropriate since a wedding marks a passing to a new state of existence. I recall that the toasting at our wedding was quite brief and mostly generic, as most of the guests were rarely-seen relatives or friends of Darwin's parents. (This was in the days before my siblings performed elaborate musical toasts at weddings, and also, not a single one of our college friends, who'd known us the best over the recent years, was able to attend.) Fortunately, Leah and Alexi are loved and admired by many eloquent people, who told wonderful anecdote after anecdote about their intelligence, their warmth, and their virtue. Fittingly enough, it all ended with a Hamilton parody (Leah is probably the only 538 columnist to crunch the numbers on Hamilton lyrics.)

The wedding was at noon, and the reception wrapped at 6:00, which meant that people were not nearly ready to cease partying. And so a good portion of guests moved over to Clare's house, which was in a lovely section of Philadelphia that reminded me of Cincinnati (my highest compliment to any city). And there was plenty more lovely discussion, some of it with Eve Tushnet, and Daniel Silver of Doxacon. At the reception, we'd been in the middle of the demographic, perhaps trending toward the older side; at the afterparty we were definitely among the dinosaurs. At one point someone came out on the porch and sighed, "I was talking to someone in there I thought was 25, and she turned out to be 21. I need to get out here with people my own age." We, Class of Aught One, nodded sagely. I did find my venerable status being challenged at one point when a slim young thing expressed astonishment at my fecundity.

"Six kids?"
"Yes, six."
"You're shitting me, right? I mean, that's just a joke?"
"Do you want to see my stretch marks?"

This being a marriage of Ivy Leaguers, many bright young things turned out in full bowtie regalia. At any moment I expected to see Whit Stillman moving about, filming the sequel to Metropolitan. I myself didn't go to one of the Ivies, but I tell you what: even in my college days I knew better than to drink from a bucket being passed around a party. At a certain point in the evening I started to feel very maternal, whether it was because I gently redirected a wobbly young woman trying to find the bathroom behind the locked glass porch door, or because I ended up watching Animaniacs with the hostess's youngest siblings, or because I was weighing the practicalities of staying up any later when I knew we had to get up at 4:00 am to get to the airport, and I still wanted to have a chance to talk quietly with my own favorite husband.

Early Sunday morning we flew out. The sun had not yet risen, and the full golden moon hung in the sky, alone except for bright Venus. Below the plane, the clouds were a mysterious carpet. I stared and stared up at the moon as the plane started to descend. Wisps of cloud passed by my window and finally engulfed us, veiling the lesser light. But still it shone, looking down on me and Darwin and all that we love, near and far.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Be Careful Where Your Loyalties Lead You

I will not be voting for Donald Trump. Nor will I be voting for Hillary Clinton. In all likelihood, I will simply leave the top of my ballot blank, and vote only in the state and local races.

While there are people I respect who are likely voting for one or the other of the major candidates (mostly Trump, given my the profile of my acquaintance) and I do not think that it is morally impossible to come to a reason for supporting either, I think that withholding my support from either candidate has been or moral benefit to me. Some people are capable of being entirely practical in their voting, "I'm voting for Trump because I think that policies I support are more likely to pass under him than Clinton." However, many people are not able to be so impersonal. Having decided to support a candidate, however reluctantly, becomes necessary for them to defend him.

I see this among Hillary supporters on a group of Social Justice oriented Catholics that I lurk in. People who seemed to start out supporting a Democrat in a rather conflicted fashion, troubled by her absolutist position on abortion, are soon repeating anti-clerical lines about how priests and bishops should just shut up about politics and making broad claims that legalizing abortion is good for women.

I see it too among Trump supporters, and because these people are more like me ideologically and in temperament, I find it all the more troubling. People who were annoyed when feminists hash-tagged that #YesAllWomen were sexually harassed by men in too many cases are now willing to argue that "look, all men talk like that" when Trump talks about walking up to a woman and grabbing her genitals.

Most of us do not simply vote in detachment, we join the team and then feel the need to defend everything "our" guy does. This isn't a bad instinct. Loyalty is a good thing. But it is important to think twice about who we give our loyalty to. What has saddened me in this election in particular is to see Trump's awful candidacy drawing people to defend things they never would have excused a year ago.

At the end of the day, I care a lot less about who people vote for than I do about the ways in which their support of a candidate leads them to excuse actions and attitudes they never would have defended before. Those changes in moral standards may last long past the election and will effect their own lives far more.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Different Times, Different Disqualifications

As the latest revelations of Donald Trump's crass boasting about groping women have caused outrage and even encouraged some Republicans to urge him to step down from the ticket, defenders have fallen back on the defense that many other leaders have been crude sexual alley cats. While Sean Hannity was perhaps most amusing by making the defense "King David had five hundred concubines, for crying out loud!" most people have pointed to more modern figures, particularly JFK.

It's true that Kennedy's sexual exploits were just that, exploitive, and it was only in a time when reporters were used to covering for the powerful that someone could have so successfully covered up such irresponsible and repulsive behavior. However, the comparison misses two things.

Firstly, JFK's bad behavior was indeed bad behavior, and it pointed to a shallowness and recklessness which marked his problems in other areas: his repeated and unsuccessful attempts at invasions and assassinations in Cuba, his weakness with the Soviet Union which led to their testing of American resolve in the Cuban Missile Crisis, his haphazard handling of Vietnam, etc. The fact that JFK was bad, and at the time got away with it, does not excuse knowingly electing a bad leader now -- and one lacking even Kennedy's mitigating virtues of war record and 'smart set' backing.

Secondly, however, the early Sixties were another time, a time in which the abuse of women by powerful men was all too accepted by the elite and too little talked about by the rest. They were a time in which there were different live wires in politics, the touching of which could end a politician's chances quickly. In 1960, Russia was one of those live wires. If JFK -- who ran on the claim that General Eisenhower had been soft on Russia and allowed a 'missile gap' to develop, leaving the US less prepared for war than the communists -- had displayed the kind of affection for Khrushchev that Trump has for Putin, he would have gone absolutely nowhere in the world of 1960. Communism and Russian imperialism were a live issue in that time, and the voting public would not have tolerated a politician who was seen as soft on the issue. Democratic insiders of Kennedy's day who knew of his sexual proclivities -- if they even considered them wrong, which many didn't -- could rest assured that his failings would not hurt his ability to get done what they wanted in a leader.

In this day and age, a politician can survive flirting with Russia, but issues of marriage and sexuality are not some circus side issue. For religious conservatives in particular, some of the most key issues of our time involve what it means to treat others with human dignity under the conditions wrought by the sexual revolution: Is marriage constrained by certain biological realities, or is it simply the social acknowledgement of whatever sort of sexual relationships people desire to have? Does equality between the sexes demand that women have the unlimited right to end a pregnancy even if the unborn child is living human person?

It is religious conservatives who have to fear not only that many will hurt themselves and hurt society by following wrong beliefs about these issues, but that our very social institutions, our churches and schools, will be crushed by the strong arm of the law if we refuse to change our beliefs to fit the prevailing norms of sexually libertarian elite culture. We need a leader in this time who can credibly make the case for marriage, for life, for the idea that these foundational values do not mean the oppression and marginalization of the half of our country who are women. Someone with Trump's morals (or lack thereof) cannot make that case for us. He is not a strong leader with a failing, he is a weak leader who is unable to lead us in the battles at hand.

The glorification of sexual assault which we heard in Trump's remarks would be wrong in any age. It marks him as a vicious, gross, and faithless man. But people are right that in various times people have ignored ignored one failing in a leader because of the importance of other strengths. When people came to Lincoln accusing General Grant of being a drunkard, Lincoln shrugged it off on the basis that Grant won battles. But he did this only because Grant's alleged failings were a side issue compared to his obvious successes as a general.

In this case, Trump's evils are not tangential to his job as presidential candidate for the Republican Party. It would be one thing to ignore a general's personal sins because he won battles, it would be utterly foolish to shrug off a general's inability to win battles because one liked his style in other respects. In terms of the actual battles we face -- to credibly present our views, to increase support for them, and to turn them into enacted policy -- Trump's actions, past and present, make him a leader with no ability to win.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Millennials: Weakness in Numbers?

I was recently at a conference where a demographer gave a talk dealing with how demographic trends could affect business. I'm still deciding what I think about the overall approach (other than that it looks fun to be a pop demographer) but one element which struck me as interesting was his discussion of how population dynamics have made things harder for the Millennial generation. In this post I'll take you briefly through his argument, and I'd be curious as to your reactions.

If you graph out the number of births in the United States every year, one of the things which jumps out is that the 1970s (when many Gen X people were born) had the lowest numbers of births in the last sixty years.

United States Births by Year

Throughout this entire period, the total US population was growing, but this was a period when the birth rate (the number of babies born divided by the number of thousands of population) had just fallen significantly from ~25 in the 1950s to ~15 in the 1970s. The rate has been moderately stable since then, but it took a while after the initial drop in birth rate for the growth in the population to catch up and start producing numbers of births per year equal to what was normal before.

The number of births per year translates pretty directly into the number of 18-30 year olds you that you have entering the workplace, because everyone who is 18-30 has to have been born. This means that in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a significant dip in the number of 18-30 year olds.

From 1989 to 2001 the number of 18-30 year olds dropped 14% while the total US population increased by 15%. Then, the number stared climbing again, so that from 2001 to 2016 the number of 18-30 year olds increased 17% while the US population increased only 14%.

The demographer's argument was that the smaller Gen X generation benefited from being a scarce resource. With fewer young people coming into the workforce they had higher employment rates and higher pay -- the 1990s boom -- but that by 2005-2010 you had more young people coming into the workforce each year with an economy going into recession that had already adjusted to get by with fewer entry level workers and less affordable entry level housing. The Millennials were a more plentiful resource than the Gen X-ers and so the economy payed less for them.

There are interesting elements to this, and others that I want to think through more. I hadn't realized that the number of 18-30 year old was growing faster than population at the same time the recession was hitting, and I can certainly see how that would tie in with youth unemployment, skyrocketing higher education costs, etc. We'd now hit the end of that rise and will see a basically flat number of 18-30 year olds for the next ten years while the overall US population continues to increase. That may ease some strain for the next cohort of young adults coming along.

Of course, the trick is that an economy does not have just a set number of jobs for people at a given stage of life. People create innovation, growth, etc. and so in general a healthy economy is one with a growing population. It would be a mistake to see a growing number of young people as a necessarily bad thing for an economy or a culture. And yet, change is messy and systems are slow to adjust. I could certainly see how after twenty years during which the absolute number of young adults shrank or was flat, to have it start growing (and doing so faster than the population as a whole) would throw off a lot of things until people adjusted.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Stillwater Bubbling Up

My dears,  I have been sitting on this for a week, trying to be a responsible person and not say anything until I knew anything, but I am weak and giddy and must call you all to rejoice with me.

An agent is reading Stillwater.

An agent requested to read Stillwater, through recommendation, not because I queried.

It's really the worst piece of nepotism ever, because it's my sister-in-law's agent. I was thinking that it was time to get moving on Stillwater again, so I wrote to Rose to see if her agent might have suggestions for someone who'd be interested in the kind of thing that Stillwater is (because agents often only represent specific genres), and Rose obligingly sent off a note with a kind word about my modern adaptation of Mansfield Park. The agent responded that she could certainly make some recommendations, but that if the book was brilliant she'd love to read it herself.

And this note showed up in my inbox right before we had to go sit through an hour and a half of German lessons, so I couldn't start taking immediate action. Ach.

I compiled the latest version of the manuscript and worked all night to scan it over and make formatting changes such as putting all my italics back in and making sure the scene breaks were just so and the typos were not, and the next morning I sent it right to the agent, stepping daintily over the slush pile. And later in the day I discovered that my document was not saving any of the changes I'd made, so the manuscript went over pretty much as it compiled. Fortunately, it's nothing that would sink the story, but it is a good tablespoonful of humility for me.

That was last week, and I can't possibly hear anything for a month, so if you see me obsessively checking my email, gently pry my phone out of my grabby little hands.

1. Buy my sister-in-law's new novel, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. Romeo and Juliet, but after the story we know is over, in a world where the dead don't stay dead and there's only one safe city left in the whole world.

2. To celebrate, here's the revised beginning of Stillwater.

In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, established the Stillwater Fellowship to provide an education for deserving young men who lived within the boundaries of his estate. Such philanthropy was an uncharacteristic turn for a man so ambitious that he built the largest, most elaborate house on the river simply to spite an upstream rival, but John’s charity had tightly circumscribed limits: the only eligible recipients were Stillwater’s own ex-slaves. He didn’t intend to go to expense educating his neighbor’s freedmen or white trash from Plaquemine.

The days of Reconstruction were a strange, hard time to found a scholarship for former slaves based on the revenues of a sugar plantation, but John Spencer was a strange, hard man. Even as his sons now worked the fields and his daughters turned their dresses to eke one more season of wear out of them, he sent the first Stillwater Fellow up to Baton Rouge to St. Mary’s Institute — the Sisters would give him as good an education as any white man might get, at half the cost! — and feasted him economically at annual Stillwater Fellowship Balls. The motivation for this piece of charity remained a matter that John chose not to divulge even to many journals. Perhaps the harsh realities of the new postwar economy pressed in on him, as both weather and politics conspired to make producing sugar an increasingly dicey proposition. Perhaps the scholarship was an enlightened decision to buy the loyalty of the best and brightest of his freedmen now that he could no longer compel their servitude. Perhaps he stood on the back gallery of his war-worn house and looked over his cabins and his sugar house and his commissary and his cane fields, stretching as far as the eye could see, and considered that his entire empire was built on the scarred backs of his slaves and that one day soon he too would face his Master and be called to give an account of his stewardship.

Whatever its reason, the Stillwater Fellowship was effective. The share of revenue allotted to the Trust was only large enough for one Fellow at a time, but  workers flocked to Stillwater, desperate for a chance for their sons to get a leg up out of poverty. The Stillwater Fellows, treated as partners in the running of the plantation, devised new business practices and implemented agricultural innovations to keep the business afloat even in days of hurricanes, drought, and debt. As other plantations fell into ruin, as the river gnawed away year by year at the half-mile of oak groves that stood before the house, the Spencers held onto Stillwater, battered but intact.

When American Cane leased the Stillwater sugarlands from Harold Spencer after the disastrous harvest of 1915, and financed the equipment to modernize production, the fortunes of the estate were at such a low that the suits at the sugar conglomerate thought nothing of guaranteeing a certain percentage of income from the land to the Stillwater Trust. The pool of available candidates was reduced, anyway: the new machinery meant that fewer laborers were needed, and many of those who still worked the fields moved into town. Most of the old slave cabins on the plantation were demolished so that more cane could be planted. The few remaining cottages were updated for the convenience of those employees who still lived on the estate. Of those employees, few likely lads still qualified for the Fellowship.

The Balls, of course, were held whether the Fellowship was bestowed or not. The Trust could not be diverted to purposes other than the Stillwater Fellowship, not even to the upkeep of Stillwater itself. Fellowship Balls took on a gothic grandeur, dancers in their grandmeres’ hoop skirts sweeping past decaying pilasters under the flicker of chandeliers still not wired for electricity. In those lean days, the family inhabited only a few of Stillwater’s 75 rooms, and great dramas were enacted over whether it was time to sell the house, or to have it demolished before it collapsed on itself. Yet Stillwater remained, and the Spencers remained with it.

Old John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. In 1942, American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature pink and green package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The patched shell of the house was restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor, and the grand front rooms were opened for tours.  The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.
World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when the boys came back, they didn’t return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Spencer largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. The scholarship, owing to its restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since who knew when, but there were no such restraints on the annual dinner, so that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the purpose of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball seemed to be nothing more than that the good times should roll, as extravagantly as possible.

As a result, when Richard Spencer named René Arceneaux the first Stillwater Fellow in more than six decades, there was general surprise -- not because anyone doubted René's obvious genius, or his residency on the property (who could miss the passel of noisy young Arceneauxs bursting out of the small cottage behind the big house?) -- but because hardly anyone remembered that the Fellowship existed to be given instead of merely celebrated.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

This is October, the two-conference month. I always think that I'm going to get a lot of writing done while Darwin is gone, but I don't. At the end of the day I'm exhausted and find myself falling asleep over my computer, the kitchen a wreck and the rest of the house not much better. God bless all single mothers, and please never let Darwin die so that I have to do this by myself, forever.

In lieu of real writing, I offer you the Immediate Book Meme.

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?


The Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, by Roger Scruton.
Scruton is so close -- he's reaching in the right direction, but perhaps he lacks the gift of faith. He senses the transcendent everywhere, but can't seem to pull them together into one Being. His analysis of sex is as good as I've seen from a secular source, but his description of Christian charity is sorely lacking. He turns it into a form of utilitarianism: "Charity hopes to maximize joy and minimize suffering in general, just as each person spontaneously acts to maximize joy and minimize suffering in himself." That's a description of charity I've never seen, though perhaps that's because I've always heard charity analyzed from Christian sources as agape.  Also, he discusses Kant's personalist principle without going beyond to Wojtyla's positive formulation: A person is not simply an end, not a means, but one to whom the only appropriate response is love.

The Best of Myles, by Flann O'Brien
This collection of newspaper writings by Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O'Brien) [Brian O'Nolan] is laugh-out-loud funny. I'm only a bit in, but so far his account of the anarchic ventriloquists terrorizing the theaters of Ireland, and the fee structure for distressing a rich person's unread library of newly purchased books, have been the purest comic gold.

Hallowe'en Party, by Agatha Christie
The big girls are on a Poirot kick, so I'm just picking up what's laying around.

2. What book did you just finish?


Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon
I finished this several weeks ago, but for the purposes of writing a post about it, I only just finished it. A beautiful little book which ought to be widely considered a classic, set in remote Canada in the early 20th century. Maria is offered the chance to escape the harsh life of a Canadian pioneer and start an easier life in America, but the decision isn't as easy or as clear-cut as it sounds.

The Clocks, Agatha Christie

The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien
This is a fascinating book which I was simply not in the right mood to read, and I had to return it to the library partially read. I feel the fault lies with me, but there it is.

3. What do you plan to read next?

more Deuteronomy

La Force Du Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah, when it is available on Kindle on Nov. 9th. Good thing I brushed up on my French with Maria Chapdelaine. Here is an excellent interview with Cardinal Sarah on the book, and on the essential importance of silence.
“God’s first language is silence.” In commenting on this beautiful, rich insight of Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, in his work Invitation to Love, writes: “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God.”  
It is time to rediscover the true order of priorities. It is time to put God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: the only place that He should occupy. Thus, our Christian journey will be able to gravitate around this Rock, take shape in the light of the faith and be nourished in prayer, which is a moment of silent, intimate encounter in which a human being stands face to face with God to adore Him and to express his filial love for Him.  
Let us not fool ourselves. This is the truly urgent thing: to rediscover the sense of God. Now the Father allows Himself to be approached only in silence. What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition. It is centered on Christ Himself, whom we must know, love and imitate in order to live in Him and through Him, to transform our world which is being degraded because human beings live as though God did not exist. As a priest, as a pastor, as a Prefect, as a Cardinal, my priority is to say that God alone can satisfy the human heart.  
I think that we are the victims of the superficiality, selfishness and worldly spirit that are spread by our media-driven society. We get lost in struggles for influence, in conflicts between persons, in a narcissistic, vain activism. We swell with pride and pretention, prisoners of a will to power. For the sake of titles, professional or ecclesiastical duties, we accept vile compromises. But all that passes away like smoke. In my new book I wanted to invite Christians and people of good will to enter into silence; without it, we are in illusion. The only reality that deserves our attention is God Himself, and God is silent. He waits for our silence to reveal Himself.  
Regaining the sense of silence is therefore a priority, an urgent necessity.  
Silence is more important than any other human work. Because it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and toward others so that we can place ourselves humbly at their service. 
Perhaps more Roger Scruton.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk. I have a deadline on this -- a November book club that my sister-in-law's family hosts. And I like it a lot. It reads quickly and has a lot of fascinating detail. The book simply got put down in the shuffle and ended up on the wrong dresser, and so I haven't picked it up when I'm looking for reading.

John Adams, David McCollough.
I'm about to bring the troops home on this one and return it to the Little Free Library in the neighborhood. I just can't get around to finishing it. Sorry, John Adams.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass
A friend lent me this collection of essays on courtship and marriage (actually, I saw it on her shelf and said, "Hey, can I borrow this?") and it's been sitting on top of a bookshelf where I don't see it for months. I need to put in on my recently cleared bedside table to it's right to hand.

6. What is your current reading trend?

I don't know that there is one right now.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Does Making A Feature Standard Justify A Price Increase?

When you manage pricing strategy, one of the thornier problems that can land upon your desk is how to adjust expectations when what was previously a premium feature becomes standard. There are numerous examples of this in various industries, but I'll go ahead and stick with the one I'm dealing with, though I'll speak in generalities for confidentiality reasons.

For a long time now, "organic" and "natural" have been claims which command a price premium. This applies whether you're at the grocery store, buying plants or seeds at your local nursery, or buying clothing made from non-GMO cotton. Products that go to the trouble of avoiding biotech usually sell for more.

Let's think for a moment, however, about why that is the case.

One explanation is that organic products sell for more because they cost more to produce. Chemicals may be expensive, but they pay for themselves several times over in reduced labor and and increased productivity. However, can that really be the explanation? Imagine that no one cares whether a product is organic or not, in other words, that the label "organic" has no influence on their decision of which product to buy. If that's the case, all other things being equal, if there are two products on the shelf -- Product A which is $5 and is not organic, and Product B which is priced at $6 and is organic -- people will buy Product A because it is cheaper. Even if we assure the customer that the seller of Product A had a cost of $4 while the seller of Product B had a cost of $5 such that either way the buyer is only providing the seller with $1 of profit, buyers who do not place any monetary value on the label "organic" will simply buy the cheaper product. The difference in cost does not matter unless people think that there is also a difference in quality.

The better explanation is that there is one group of customers who care about buying products that are organic, and another group of customers who are indifferent to the claim. (There might also be some who actively do not want an organic product, but let's ignore that possibility for the moment.) These people either think that organic products are better (taste better, are healthier, etc.) than non-organic products, or they think that there is some ethical imperative to consume organic products instead of others.  Either way, these people place a value on "organic" which makes them willing to pay more for a product which has that label.

When Product A and Product B are both on the shelf, those who care about buying organic products buy Product B and pay the one dollar premium, while those who do not care buy Product A and save a dollar.  In pricing circles, this is what we call "price discrimination".  In this case, 'discrimination' doesn't mean something nefarious or unfair, but rather that by offering two products with different characteristics at two different price points, you're able to capture higher revenue from those who care about the point of difference while still getting a sale (even though at a lower dollar amount) from those who would have been unwilling or unable to pay the higher price.

The difficulty with consolidating the product line and making what was previously a differentiation feature standard is that you lose this price discrimination.  When executives start to think about making a move such as going to an "all products are organic" strategy there are two concerns.  One is a desire to show that the company is 'green' and respects the concerns of young and trendy customers.  However, another is that organic products sell for higher prices (and often higher profits) than non-organic ones.  What this thinking misses is that when a feature such as 'organic' becomes standard, you are now trying to sell that product not only to the people who are willing to pay a price premium for the feature, but also to those who do not place any extra value on it.

This means that for the customers who did not previously buy the organic product, because they did not consider it worth the extra money, the consolidation into an all-organic product line is simply a price increase.  Those customers will respond to the change just like any other price increase, meaning that some of them will no longer buy the product or will buy it less frequently.  Companies are often hesitant to take a price increase on a product unless it has some sort of new 'added value' to justify the higher price (or unless there is an increase in the cost of its components such that they feel confident that competitors will be taking a similar price increase.)  Thus, making what was previously an added value feature standard seems like a more attractive move than simply increasing the price with no changes to the product.  And yet, if the feature is one that one segment of customers does not place any value on, they will respond to it just like any other price increase.

The solution is either to with until a solid majority of customers are already selecting the product with the added value feature -- in this case, until the majority of customers are buying organic.  Or else, hedge against losing customers by continuing to provide a 'value' product which does not include the new standard feature.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The First Four Weeks

Four weeks into the school year, for us. This year we're using Catholic Heritage Curriculum, with daily schedule. How's it going?

1. I am so proud of my big girls. The oldest, ninth grade, has been working through an ambitious reading list that Darwin drew up for her as part of his family's Humanities Program. The 13yo and 10yo are using CHC materials. They have taken responsibility for their own work, taking delight in checking off one subject after another and getting work done early. The older two have been working hard to make sure that they finish everything before Friday, so they can have a day off. I'm impressed by their drive, and I rather wish we'd gone with a more academically ambitious program for them.

My 13yo has disliked all the literature I've assigned her so far. She could tell me the plots of both Old Yeller and My Friend Flicka, but remained unmoved by either story. She also hasn't cared for Anne of Green Gables or its ilk. I think that she'd prefer to read a steady diet of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. And no one -- but no one! -- likes reading biographies.

2. We have basically thrown out the schedule for the younger two, 8 and 6. I have to sit on them to get them to do any work -- I mean, if I am not sitting at the table with them, they will wander off, not finish things, stare out the window, fight with each other, start great projects, build forts, anything but the work at hand. I can get my 8yo son to do a page of math if I set a timer for him, but 6yo daughter needs someone supervising her, even if it's work she enjoys.

They both have religion and science books, but I feel so dragged out after hauling both of them through the three Rs that we don't usually do either of those subjects. (We read and discuss the daily Mass readings, so it's not as if they're religiously illiterate.) And some days I have to step away if I can't handle the level of... not idiocy, but... denseness? Look, you try sitting day in and day out with a child learning to read, who can't remember the word "sit" from one sentence to the next, who will sound out the first two letters of "mat" and then say, "map!", who has no sight words, who will guess at a word without even looking at the page, who will sound out the beginning of "mud" and then say, "dirt!". It's not an irredeemable situation; I can see progress from the beginning of the year. But it's slow, and she doesn't particularly care about reading. It's not a skill she has a great desire to acquire.

What has boosted an interest in reading is our new acquisition of a boxed set of Usborne Early Readers. They are charming illustrated and have engaging stories, and the very first ones have parent pages on the left and kid pages on the right, so Junior doesn't feel like you're making him do all the work. And it is fun, oh so fun, to take them all out of the box and sort through them, and then leave them laying around so that your mom yells at you and makes you pick them all up and put them back.

The one CHC book I will praise is the K/1 reading program. It consists of pages you can tear out and fold into little four-page booklets, so your child can feel a sense of accomplishment in reading a book, and you can write on them. I like to underline sound combinations and sight words, and she likes to draw on the pages to complete the story. The stories are cute and fun, but I don't really follow the parent suggestions. Come now, I'm not going to tell my child that maybe the reason why Mom isn't in this story about Dad taking care of the baby is because she's at a homeschooling conference or doing pro-life work.

Which brings me to:

3. I will not be buying CHC next year, for a few reasons. The first and foremost is that the books and workbooks are too Catholicy. I don't just say "Catholic", because everything that participates in the truth is Catholic. But every grammar exercise has some kind of moral or Catholic lesson. Every spelling list has a Catholic bit of vocabulary, or a religious picture. The history books, while not terrible, are very very focused on Church history or Christendom. I feel like there's little system to the handwriting and spelling books for the younger grades. I don't think it's a bad program. But I'm not sure it's for our family, after trying it.

But I am so happy with how the older ones are thriving with a daily schedule of work.

4. As always, my morning starting point is bible study/readalouds. We begin with the morning offering and intentions, read the readings and discuss them, read our meditation, have about 20 seconds of quiet prayer, and then have a chapter of our readaloud. The first book of the year was The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston, an instant favorite. Currently, I'm reading The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's a bit challenging for the kids, though I do make sure to have them tell me about plot points, and to discuss character and themes. I won't say that they love it, but there are times when people are listening intently.

5. We're planning a family dinner out this weekend as a sign of appreciation for how well the kids have jumped into the year and done their work. I know I've felt frustrated with how I have to drag the younger ones through their stuff, but imagine if I was having to sit on the big three as well! So some congratulations are in order.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Non-spoiler review: Beautifully filmed, poignantly acted story of an Irish immigrant eventually forced to make a difficult choice between a life in the old world and a life in the new world. The first half of the movie is very sweet and compelling, but it all falls apart in the second half when the story reveals itself as without a moral core. All the more disappointing for being so attractively done.

Spoilery commentary:

We'd heard lots of good buzz about Brooklyn, and seen some pretty stills, so when I found it on the Boomerang shelf at the library (3 days, no renewals, heap big late fees), I picked it up mostly on spec. Truth to tell, we hoped it would be a romantic movie after a long and tiring week, so we kicked all the kids upstairs and settled in with wine and cookies. And ah, it was so aesthetically pleasing. The Irish lilt, the scenery, the costumes with just the right hint of 50s downmarket, but with such lines! Saoirse Ronan's luminous face, so expressive. And the story was pleasing: Eilish Lacey is a young Irish woman heading to America for a job and living situation that her sister has arranged for her through a priest friend. And although she's not uncapable, people look out for her: her brassy cabinmate on the ship, her landlady, her elegant supervisor at the department store she works at, her worldly housemates, the sweet Italian boy she meets at a dance... There is a wealth of charity that is heartwarming, which stands her in good stead when a tragedy calls her back to Ireland.

And then the tone shifts. Tony, the Italian plumber, asks Eilish to marry him before she leaves, although she's only slated to be gone a month. And when she agrees, they tumble into bed (a move made possible, unwittingly, by her landlady, who has entrusted her with the basement apartment with a separate entrance precisely because she thinks that Eilish is not the sort of girl who will abuse the privilege). The next day they slip off to marry at City Hall.

Back in Ireland, Eilish doesn't tell anyone that she's married, even as her friends are trying to set her up with a guy. A nice guy, a guy who's inheriting his parents' pub and elegant house in the countryside. A guy who is educated, unlike the Italian plumber. A guy who is falling in love with her. She doesn't tell, and she doesn't tell, as she goes out on dates with the fellow and leaves her husband's letters unanswered. As people start making plans around the assumption that she'll be staying in Ireland now. The fellow all but proposes to her, and she all but accepts. But the town gossip gets wind  of the marriage from relatives in America who saw her at the City Hall that day. Eilish takes a ticket back to America the very next day and meets up with her plumber again, and... the story is over.

Saoirse Ronan certainly has the acting capability to play an internal moral struggle, but she didn't do so, because the script gives Eilish no moral struggle. She doesn't wonder if it's wrong to break her vow to her husband. She doesn't struggle against her attraction to the man in Ireland. She isn't ashamed, guilty, conflicted, or proud of setting convention at odds. She is simply living as if her husband doesn't exist. Only when the gossip tries to blackmail her does she own her marriage (after an initial lie), and then not because she realizes that she really loves Tony, or because her vows matter, but because she's angry about transatlantic gossip and wants to go back to a new home where her life isn't everyone's business. The movie allows her to get out of most of the difficult self-examination that would ordinarily accompany a deception of this magnitude.

And that's when we looked back and realized that we'd never seen Eilish make a moral choice through the whole course of the movie. The first half of the movie, which seemed so sweet, involves other people making choices on her behalf. She reacts, she adjusts, and in ways that seem authentic, but she is never once faced with making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong -- until she is, and then then she fails on every count. The charming performances go a very long way toward masking this deficiency, but eventually the script betrays its moral vapidity.

Brooklyn was a true disappointment. It wasn't a romantic movie at all. Even the ending, as she shows up unannounced to hug her husband, felt unresolved. The movie doesn't indicate whether she'll tell her husband about her Irish fling, and it seems uncharacteristic of her to come clean about that. Better be careful, Eilish -- gossip goes both ways across the Atlantic.


Darwin and I worked up several ways in which you could have retained the same plot within a moral framework.

A. Eilish and Tony could not have had sex.

B. Eilish could have realized in Ireland that she was pregnant, and so realized that her marriage has real consequences that transcend her own whims.

C. Eilish could have simply gotten engaged, and not married, which would mean that she had a real choice to make between the men. Perhaps they haven't had time to buy a ring, and Tony mails one to Ireland, triggering her decision.

D. Eilish confesses to a friend that's she's married, and finds that other people take the idea of marriage much more seriously than she does.

E. The gossip gets back to the Irish man, and Eilish needs to confront the pain she's caused by her deception.

F. Eilish is open about her marriage, but feels that since it wasn't a church wedding, it doesn't count, and takes the steps to dissolve the marriage and stay in Ireland (assuming the Irish fellow would still have her).

There are dozens of ways this could have played out, and the movie makers chose the least satisfying version.

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

Rosamund Hodge, this week's New York Times #3 Bestselling Author for YA E-Books who is also Darwin's sister, has her new novel Bright Smoke, Cold Fire hitting the shelves today.

Sabriel meets Romeo and Juliet in this stunning and atmospheric novel from the author of Cruel Beauty and Crimson Bound.

When the mysterious fog of the Ruining crept over the world, the living died and the dead rose. Only the walled city of Viyara was left untouched.

The heirs of the city’s most powerful—and warring—families, Mahyanai Romeo and Juliet Catresou, share a love deeper than duty, honor, even life itself. But the magic laid on the Juliet at birth compels her to punish the enemies of her clan—and Romeo has just killed her cousin Tybalt. Which means he must die.

Paris Catresou has always wanted to serve his family by guarding the Juliet. But when his ward tries to escape her fate, magic goes terribly wrong—killing her and leaving Paris bound to Romeo. If he wants to discover the truth of what happened, Paris must delve deep into the city, ally with his worst enemy . . . and perhaps turn against his own clan.

Mahyanai Runajo only wants to protect her city—but she’s the only one who believes it’s in peril. In her desperate hunt for information, she accidentally pulls Juliet from the mouth of death—and finds herself bound to the bitter, angry girl. Runajo quickly discovers Juliet might be the one person who can help her recover the secret to saving Viyara.

Both pairs will find friendship where they least expect it. Both will find that Viyara holds more secrets and dangers than anyone ever expected. And outside the walls, death is waiting. . . .

You can find Bright Smoke, Cold Fire wherever fine books are sold.

Want a preview? Read the opening chapters, starting with...

Such Sweet Sorrow

If he does not come soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.
For an hour now, she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.
But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time, she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.
She hopes he will come soon. She hopes he will never come.
The casement swings open.
She stands. Her numb hands draw the sword and let the scabbard drop.
His dark eyes are wide as he climbs through the window, but there is no surprise in them when she greets him with the point of her blade, held to his throat.
He looks strangely small. Just a boy, with messy black hair and a sweet laugh she will never hear again.
Her only love, and now her only hate.
“I see you,” she says, speaking the ancient words for the first time, “and I judge you guilty.”
He sighs, and the corner of his mouth tips up just a little. “I know,” he says, and he kneels and bares his neck.
She can smell the blood on him. He is clean: he took the trouble to bathe before coming here to die. But he spilled the lifeblood of her kin, and she can smell that guilt upon him—she can almosttaste it. Her body shakes with the desire to kill him for it.
She wants him to fight. She wants him to beg. To flee, to threaten, or persuade.
Ever since she met him, she has most terribly wanted.
“Look up at me,” she demands, and he does, his gaze as simple and sure as the night she fell in love with him.
“Why did you come?” she whispers. “You knew what I would do. You know what I must do.”
He swallows; she sees the muscles move in his throat, and she thinks of the blood pulsing just below the skin. He is a fragile, perfect balance of breath and heartbeat, skin and bones and blood. A little world entire, most beautifully made—he was her world, and now she is going to destroy him.
“‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’” She says the words flatly, without tune, but they both remember the sun-drenched afternoon when he sang them to her. “‘Every wise man’s son doth know.’ Why did you come back?
“Because I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “Because I know you loved him. You deserve to avenge him.”
Not because it is her duty. Not because vengeance is written on her skin and the spells that wrote it compel her to obey.
Because she loved her cousin. Because he ruffled her hair and comforted her when she was a little child. Because he is dead and cold now, in a vault beneath their house, his arms sliced open as the embalmers do their work.
And yet even he, her most beloved cousin, never wondered if she wanted to avenge or not.
Nobody ever wondered. Nobody until this boy who kneels before her now.
Slowly she kneels so they are eye to eye, and she lays the sword upon the floor.
“I see you.” Her fingertips trace his cheek; her voice is tiny and soft. “I judge you guilty. But you belong to me now. So all your sins are mine.”
She slides her fingers into his dark hair and kisses him, kisses her dearest sin, again and again. Her heart pounds with the desire to kill him, to wreck and ruin and revenge, but she only clutches him closer, kisses more fiercely, and his arms wrap around her as he kisses her back.
She will not be the one who kills him.
She will give everything else to her family, to her duty, to the adjuration written on her skin.
But she will not give them this.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing about Writing about Writing

Perhaps in your life, you've heard someone pray for a "secret intention" or request prayers in some way that sounds so mysterious that you're dying to know the cause. Some people have a tendency to amp up drama, of course, but it's often true that people find themselves in situations in which they need prayers, but can't reveal the details, or know that the details aren't theirs to reveal. Even mentioning the subject invites speculation, so much so that often it feels like the better option to keep a situation to oneself.

Darwin and I were talking recently about the things that we'd like to write about, but can't. Not because they're bad things; not because they're scandalous; not because they even have to do with us at all. Everyone has some topic they can't breach with the general public. Perhaps that's because one's take on a subject would be painful to someone who might read it, and with whom one does not wish to burn bridges. This is a tricky thing for us especially, who have been processing ideas in public for eleven years, and find it a strain not simply because we like to write and discuss, but because it goes against the goad not to be able to write openly and honestly.

And yet, people are more important. Is it better that I add one more viewpoint to an issue, however unique my insight and experience may be, or is the work of prudence that I remember that people I know and love may find my words painful? If I want to process something, should I do it at the expense of another? Is discretion really the better part of valor? All things will be revealed, the scripture tells us. But until then, we delete that angry post or that thinkpiece or the lyric autobiographical essay because cold prudence is better than hot righteousness.

How mysterious, how worrying this all sounds! So vague and dramatic, and it really isn't. But one simply doesn't get to talk about everything in life. Not everything needs to be aired or can be aired, and perhaps that's all for the best.

And no, there's nothing wrong here. But in this case it did seem better to write vaguely than not write at all, if only because this is something I've thought about for a long time. How clear we want everything in life to be! How cut-and-dried, how black-and-white! Only in heaven do we get total clarity and full understanding.

Prayers for you all today, without needing any reasons or explanations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time Tunnel Politics

Every so often I go back and check to see how this year's candidates are doing compared to how Romney and Obama were doing at the same time of year in 2012.

There's a narrative going around that Romney was a push-over candidate, a designated loser who didn't have the fire to go after actually winning the race. On Sept. 20, 2012 he was going through a rough period, trailing Obama by three points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

The supposedly virile Donald Trump is reputed to have had a great couple weeks, harping on Hillary Clinton's health and exploiting stupid remarks she made about the 'irredeamable' people who are 'deplorables' that support her opponent. As a result, Trump is producing some of his best polling ever. His support only reached this high before during the week after the GOP convention.

And yet, it's worth noting that Trump (at 44% support) is actually polling 1.2% lower than Romney (45.2%) was at this time four years ago.  Trump has less support now than Romney did at virtually any time after getting the 2012 nomination.  The only reason why Trump looks remotely good is that Hillary is a full 3% less popular than Obama was at this time in 2012.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading High School

This is the beginning of the third week of high school for our oldest, and the question I ask her most evenings is, "How's your reading going?" She's working through a somewhat modified version of the approach my parents took when they homeschooled me, and so this year I'm in charge of curriculum for her. I started the year with a list and a spreadsheet. The list contains the reading assignments that I want her to get through for History/Literature during the course of the year, the spreadsheet contains some additional refinement, adds other subjects, and breaks everything up into weekly assignments.

So, for example, the first week of school was:

Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

Six Easy Pieces, Essentials of Physics Explained Intro and Chapter 1

Math (resuming with the series of books she was using last year):
Key to Algebra 4 page 4-18

Warriner's English Grammar & Comp (Complete Course) Ch1, Ex 5, Review Exercise

Didache Introduction to Catholicism Chapter 1

As assigned by tutor

For the first week I went and broke this up into daily assignments, telling her how many sections of the math book to cover each day and to spent three days reading the three chapters of ancient history and two days covering science. (She compressed the reading so she could take Friday off.) At the end of the week I asked if she needed me to deep doing the daily breakdowns and she said she was fine on her own, so now it's just one line of the spreadsheet every day.

I've got the first 18 weeks of the Humanities Program worked out into weekly assignments, and it runs as follows:

Week Assignment
1 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

2 History Begins at Sumer ch. 1, 2, 6, 7, 13, 16, 17, 25, 37, 39 (about 80 pages total)

3 Epic of Gilgamesh Tables 1-11 (pages 1-99)

4 Never to Die pp. 15-58, 63-96,101-165

5 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 4-7 (pages 75-160)

6 [break]

7 The Bible Genesis

8 The Bible Exodus 1-23, Joshua 1-10, Judges 1-16

9 The Bible 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel 1-10

10 The Bible 2 Samuel 11-24, 1 Kings 1-11

11 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapter 9-10 (pages 185-226)
The Iliad Books 1-4

12 The Iliad Books 5-12

13 The Iliad Books 13-20

14 The Iliad Books 21-24
The Odyssey Books 1-4

15 The Odyssey Books 5-12

16 The Odyssey Books 13-20

17 The Odyssey Books 21-24

18 [Break]

As we get closer to that roughly halfway mark, I'll assess how well we're staying on schedule and decide how to cover the rest of the Ancient Greek reading list.

Friday, September 16, 2016

You Shall Not Take The Name Of Jane Austen In Vain

new online role playing game called Ever, Jane is in the open beta phase of development, designed to appeal to Jane Austen fans who crave a world of tightly-wound irony and tightly-laced tension.
Ever, Jane is an online role-playing game set in the dramatic, romantic worlds of Jane Austen. It invites players to attend sophisticated dinner parties and fancy balls, share gossip, keep secrets, fall in love, get married and climb the ribbon-lined social ladder of Regency-era England. It is definitely not a sex game, though sometimes players get wrapped up in this universe of exquisite gowns and forbidden desire, and they simply can't help themselves. 
"Let's just say that we had to put in private chat," Ever, Jane creator Judy Tyrer says with a laugh. 
To be fair, it's difficult to produce an online role-playing game that doesn't foster sexual relationships and conversations. "It's in every MMO that's out there," Tyrer adds. "The erotica is just the name of the game." 
Even though Austen's novels never delve into the sensual details of intimate encounters, her worlds are rife with sexual tension. As Tyrer explains it, Austen's Regency era was a period of heady debauchery: The Prince Regent was notorious for hosting orgies, and women, once they produced an heir, were largely free to do as they wished. However, discretion was key. 
That's where private chat rooms come in to Ever, Jane. 
"We're not here to make a sex game. That's not our purpose. But we also don't want to ignore the reality," Tyrer says. 
Historical accuracy is paramount for Tyrer. She became a history buff while researching Austen's life and writing, and she's attempting to fill Ever, Jane with as many realistic rules and situations as possible. This means that players can have a private chat room, but they can't flaunt any promiscuity. If they do, they're sent to Botany Bay, a penal colony that's populated with other troublemakers and anyone hoping to play without any rules at all. Botany Bay isn't live yet, which means current players can be as naughty as they wish, but Tyrer and her team are working on it.
It is a strange form of homage, to go to such pains to recreate the generic shell of Jane Austen's historical milieu, to name this game specifically after her, without actually touching the particular moral content and ideas that were at the heart of her writings and thought. As an fannish gesture, it's touching, perhaps; at a moral level, it's a form of calumny against Jane Austen, the ethical philosopher, whose novels explore moral questions and examine how a life of virtue should be lived. Austen didn't chose the Regency era for her novels to be sexy or to amp up the tension. She wrote about it because that's the actual world she lived in. Her characters rebel or conform to the prevailing social order and expectations because that's the framework against which their moral life is lived. The characters most focused on the particulars of dress or social position or straining against social convention are the most ridiculous: Lady Catherine, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele and her sister, Anne Eliot's father. And the characters who most embody the Regency attitudes that so fascinate the Ever, Jane crowd are the characters Austen sees as most morally damaged: Henry and Mary Crawford, with their effortless charm and their banter and their instinctive grasp of courtesies, hierarchies, rules and mores, and their absence of any ethical foundation.

It's clear how the Crawfords, or Lydia Bennet and Wickham, or Willoughby, fit into the world of Ever, Jane. It's rather less clear how the virtual world of Ever, Jane reflects Jane Austen's world of virtue ethics. Playing around in Jane Austen's "world" is the shallowest way of appreciating her and her work, because the heart and soul of Austen is moral change through development of virtue. Ignore that, and you might as well call your MMORPG Fanny Hill.


Maybe, then, the best way of reappraising Austen is to transpose her novels into modern times, see how the stories hold up in a world of different social and sexual mores. Random House tried this with its recent series of Austen reboots. This week I came across "Emma: A Modern Retelling" on the library shelf and hate-read it in one sitting. This modernization doesn't make the mistake of assuming that sexual tension has anything to do with yearning, repressed virgins. Much time is devoted to explaining the sexual history of characters who are not currently having sex, so that we don't need to worry that, say, Mr. Knightley is abnormal because he is not living with anyone. My dears, even old Mr. Woodhouse is not spared the indignity of being matched up with someone at the end, because Emma is about matchmaking, and matchmaking is about sex. Marriage, and permanence, are afterthoughts. Emma's interest in Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax has nothing to do with the personal qualities those ladies exhibit, but rather her mild sexual attraction to each -- mild, because it keeps her from having sex with men, but burns off easily enough to allow her to pivot to Mr. Knightley when it's convenient for the story. What is the secret of Harriet Smith's parentage? Not simply that she is the natural daughter of someone who supports her anonymously, but that her father was "decent" enough (Knightley's words) to let the mother dose herself with his sperm, instead of insisting on having sex as other less principled men might have done.

The premise of these modern retellings, and this one in particular, is that people are so different now than in Austen's time that we need bigger, more scandalous things to make us understand the issues of an Austen novel. On the premise that there's no real character drama in being a rather sheltered young woman who learns that that it is possible to cause other people pain and grief with small thoughtless actions, Emma now pushes an uncomfortable Harriet to pose nude for her portrait, and manipulates Harriet's perception of Mr. Elton by lying about Mr. Elton trying to assault her.

Interestingly enough, the events that Austen considers pivotal to Emma's development -- her easy unkindness to Miss Bates, and her climactic character choice to listen in friendship to what she thinks will be Mr. Knightley's profession of love for someone else -- are mostly glossed over. The picnic at Box Hill, where Emma insults Miss Bates to her face, is a muted plot event because most of the characters are high on marijuana-laced cake. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The author never even allows Emma to make the decision to consider Knightley's feelings above her own, because Mr. Knightley is not allowed to make the difficult choice to tell Emma about his feelings. That office falls to Harriet Smith, who is matchmaking because matchmaking is what the book is about.

But the author seems to have read Austen and knows that moral awakening is important to her. And so, Emma is given some insight: "she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives: the ability to see, even for a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person. It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more than the pursuit of the goals of the unruly ego." Yes, empathy is the great moral good which is the end of all our moral striving, without which happiness cannot be achieved: "She realized that happiness is something that springs from the generous treatment of others and that until one makes that connection, happiness may prove elusive."

Unhappily, this book was unable to convince me, even for a brief moment, that the author could see the world through Jane Austen's eyes.


If sex is not the only matter of significance in the world -- if virtue, and a good character, and the ability to choose a good that exists independently of our desires and whims are things that have the significance that Jane Austen believed they did -- then maybe it's time to stop using her name as a brand to market projects which resemble hers only through the most superficial imitation of plot or style. "Austenesque" means something rather deeper than Empire dresses or irony or the early 19th century marriage market. It means moral clarity and virtue ethics and sexual standards based on a traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Stop taking the name of the Jane in vain.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

At Fault

It is my policy, generally, not to write in rage, so after composing and trashing several mental reams ranging from the furious to the maudlin, let me step back and tell you the very fine news that there is nothing wrong with me. I am in perfect health. My blood pressure, of a morning, is 120/80. Every lab a doctor runs at a checkup comes back just peachy. Even my teeth are good. My diet isn't a problem. I'm eating about as healthily as a modern American can without veering off into faddishness.

The reason I am tired and sluggish, the reason I'm not losing weight, seems to boil down to the fact that I'm too damn lazy.

The doctor didn't put it that way, of course. He asked about my level of daily activity, which ranges from "laundry" to "dying of heat on the couch". He looked at my chart and noted that four years ago I weighed forty pounds less than I do now. In those four years, I gained sixty pounds of pregnant, but that means that in 2.5 years since pregnancy I've only lost twenty, and almost ten of them were the baby himself. So now I'm to get 45 minutes of cardio a day -- "not Olympic level, just walking or something", because clearly I'm not even getting 45 minutes of walking around a day -- and take a multivitamin.

Is it the sixth baby? Four years ago I had a two year old as well. Is it getting older? Four years ago I was 33. Is it the move? But four years ago we were already in Ohio. Is the summer heat? Four years ago we didn't even have the a/c in the kitchen window.

So. I've had several days to stew this off. A week, in fact, in which I've discovered that I have a step counter on my phone, and in which I have boosted my daily count. A week in which Darwin and I have run 2.5 miles three times. A week in which I gave up sugar to support my sister giving up sugar. A week in which I did all these things and dropped not a single pound.

These things are not enough.

The fact that I can pick up running 2.5 miles after not running in ages, and that after a sedentary summer I could climb the toughest mountain in Virginia pretty handily, suggests that I am capable of a good deal more physical activity than I currently do, and that I need to do far more than I have any desire to do. My desire, to be honest, is to sit on my fat ass doing nothing, because I like to be comfortable, more than I like to be slim, or muscular, or be willing to have sex when I actually want it because my current weight makes the blood pressure risk of sixty extra pounds an okay prudential judgment...

I see that I'm violating my policy of not writing in rage.

Having to confront that a problem is My Fault is liberating, in a sense. I don't have to wait around any more hoping for a diagnosis that explains my weariness at some deeper level. I just have to get started on 45 minutes of cardio a day, or 10K steps, or improving my running distance. And these are concrete things. I can take one more step, as I tell myself when I'm running. I hate running, as it happens. I never feel light and easy. I feel every pound jouncing around on my frame. But I can do it, and without any more effort than getting up earlier than I want to and going out of the house when I don't feel like it. For the rest of my hopefully-not-goddamn life.


Looking back, I see I've been hating running for a good ten years.