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

Friday, May 22, 2015

"I Never Thought I Could Love Something Almost As Much As Myself"

Jumping off of our recent discussion in the combox of philosophically unsound and morally soppy blogs about mothering, here is a link for Anonymous, summing up my reaction when I read one of these "Motherhood is so precious because it has made me so much less selfish" posts: Until I Had Kids, I Never Thought I Could Love Something Almost As Much As Myself.
Having a child can be the most transformative experience of a person’s life. You get so used to living your life a certain way—focused solely on your job, your social life, your personal goals—and then, just like that, it all changes. That’s what happened to me last year when my daughter, Jane, was born. Until that moment, I never in a million years thought I could love anything almost as much as myself.

As soon as the nurse put her in my arms, that beautiful baby girl became the second-most important thing in my life. In an instant, I went from caring only about myself to caring about myself and also one other person. All but one of my priorities went right out the window. And that shift was permanent: My daughter has been an additional consideration in my life ever since, and I know in my heart that’s never going to change.

After me, it’s all about her.

When Jane came into this world, I wanted to do so much for her. I wanted to give her everything I could that wouldn’t require me to sacrifice too much of my free time or compromise any of my personal ambitions. That indescribable sensation of looking into her beautiful brown eyes for the first time made me realize I would do absolutely anything except risk my own life to protect her. That’s how much she means to me.

Every time I notice the way her face lights up when she smiles, or the way her chubby little cheeks puff out when she’s upset, I see some of myself in her. That’s the part I really love.
Can people write well about how parenting changes you and your parameters of selfishness? Sure, and for sheer honesty I recommend Betty Duffy's post on helicopter parents and the "old days".  But mothering, or parenting if we're going to be inclusive, also opens up vast new vistas for realizing selfishness. Let me tell you that I'm writing this while ignoring the baby latched onto my breast, who every now and then looks up at me with sweet blue eyes and then tenderly pinches my neck in the way that hurts most. The 9 year-old and 6 year-old are playing Monument Valley on my phone at 8am on a school morning, and the 4 year-old is rotting her brain by looking over their shoulders, and I hear the bickering and sniping that I know I ought to step over and lovingly correct, but I don't because the phone is buying me mostly quiet time in which to write this very post. I once swore that my kids would never watch TV, and now every afternoon I shunt them off to the computer to watch an episode of Mission: Impossible on Netflix, not so that I can pray or get a shower, but so that I can hunch in the kitchen in front of the newspaper spread out on the counter, but instead of reading the news I scroll down Facebook on my phone. Do you understand: I sit my kids in front of the glowing screen so I can read Facebook in peace. St. Gianna Molla, Bl. Zelie Martin, and Ma Ingalls weep for me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Arriving at Amen, by Leah Libresco

"Amen" means "So be it". It's a word of consent. And so it's fitting that Leah Libresco, who has written so much about the importance of consent, called her new book Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Instead of molding her conversion into a neatly packaged narrative, she's written about learning to pray, and specifically, learning to consent to the content and implications of seven Catholic styles of prayer in order to arrive at amen.

Leah's refreshingly unsentimental voice and spirit of inquiry is the foundation of Arriving at Amen. She never tries to manipulate the reader with sloppy emotional ploys or soft-focus fables. As a convert from a rigorously deontic atheism, she isn't looking for ways to make the spiritual life easier or more basic. She is looking to make it more intelligible, and to that end she mines all her scientific habits of inquiry and her wide set of interests to find reflections of all seven spiritual practices outside of traditionally religious spheres. She confronts the problem of evil from both rational basis and through an example drawn from Norse mythology, and concludes that a world designed to shield us from every bad consequence, whether natural or man-made, would be an ultimately opaque place, unknowable and unpredictable. "The problem of evil has always seemed to me to be the price we pay for having an intelligible world, one that we can investigate, understand, and love."

Fiction, and with its omniscient, complex approach to characters, leads her to a deeper understanding of praying for other people, which leads her to conclude of other people, "My ignorance of the full depth of their lives is not evidence that they are shallow." She draws on the science of cognitive bias, especially the sunk-cost fallacy and loss aversion, to understand and overcome her reluctance to go to Confession. Ballroom dancing's emphasis on one dancer maintaining basic step rhythms while cooperating with the leading partner helps her to follow the basic rhythm of the Rosary without worrying that she's not doing it well enough to get something out of it. (As someone who has poor habits both in following a lead in dancing and in praying the rosary, I found Leah's analogy so much more helpful and more instantly useful than any spiritual guide to the rosary I've ever read. Perhaps my swing dancing will improve too.) And so on. Chinese knots, unmatched parentheses, Shakespeare, coordinate planes, mellified men, sign language, musical theater, and double-chocolate-chip-espresso cookies: Leah translates the unfamiliar language of prayer through these diverse frames of reference, and in the process finds that she is able to observe patterns of grace in her rational world.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Parents Make Bad Action Heroes

When MrsDarwin took the older kids to see Avengers 2: Age of Ultron I was parked with my laptop trying to keep up with my production schedule on The Great War, a novel, but in bits of free time I couldn't help noticing that a few fans of the Marvel franchise somehow themselves into a discussion of women's roles and mother's roles in SciFi extravaganzas.

A site called Geek Mom has a post that's been going around wondering why action movie women are divided into moms and non-moms and to the extent that women get to star in action movies they're generally locked in one of these boxes, with the non-moms as the adventurous types.

[T]he controversy about Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, started me wondering about the boxes society puts women in. Because in pop culture, it often seems like a women’s primary role is either as a mom or something else—usually something dangerous or time-consuming that moms shouldn’t do because, hey, who else should watch the kids?

What if, like me, you’re two things at the same time?

Let’s take Age of Ultron. I love that Hawkeye’s a dad. I’m also completely cool with Laura Barton doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I’ve done that and I don’t regret it for a second. Women fought for equal rights to have choices. All choices are equally valid, so long as the ability remains to choose.
But it started me wondering: There are action heroes who are fathers—the Rock is all over my television screen in his new San Andreas trailer—but very few action heroes in pop culture are mothers. Hawkeye can be a dad and be a superhero, but the women are divided into mom and not-moms.

Then, I started making a list of great mothers in science fiction and fantasy, either books or movies, and realized that most of the ones on my list were known as mothers first. Even Sarah Conner is protecting her son in the Terminator movies and Elasti-Girl/Helen Parr, who is awesome, is best known as part of a family unit.

Where are the mothers who are equally moms and something else?
But the list is frustratingly short. Complex women who are something else and mothers were hard to find in science fiction and fantasy.


I suspect it comes down to that the general feeling is that once women become mothers, their adventures are over. Jack Bauer of 24 can be a super-spy and a father. The Rock can be a rescue pilot and a dad. Their action “jobs” have little to do with their being parents, though sometimes they use their skills to save their kids.

The vast majority of women in action movies who are mothers just need that simple description “wife,” “mother.” Not, “spy” or “police officer” or “soldier” for whom that role means as much as their role as mothers.

It sends the message that while men can go off and do dangerous jobs and define themselves not just as fathers but as something else, a women’s role of mom takes precedence over all. Once motherhood begins, that’s it.
It strikes me that the fact that people are even asking this question underlines both a certain lack of realism about parenthood and also a profound disconnect between the violent action spectaculars that people like to watch and the kind of actions they fictionalize.

I work in an office. It's not a high risk occupation that gives people nightmares. The most it disrupts your life is by occasionally demanding long hours or overnight business travel. And yet even so, the women around the office who are mothers generally complain about the work life balance much more than the fathers do (and the single people mostly enjoy travel and high profile projects with long hours more than married people or parents.) Now think about this a little more if your job involves traveling all over the world at a moment's notice and engaging in extreme violence in risky situations. Work life balance goes out the window. You would think that your number one priority, if you became a parent or even just got into a seriously relationship would be to get out of the action hero business.

Sometimes movie writers become conscious enough of the topics their genre deals with to realize this. In crime movies like Donnie Brasco and Heat, you see the bad effects that the action world has on the ability of characters to maintain family relationships. But in escapist epics like the Marvel movies, you gloss over those kind of things. Goofy enterprises like The Incredibles or Spy Kids play with the conventions further by imagining a sort of work-a-day super hero or super spy world in which people both drive the kids to school and engage in action spectacles, but in a sense these are entertaining as a commentary on the fact that action movies generally ignore this.

There's a strange balance that a fun action movie has to hit: lots of spectacle and yet never letting the audience think about the sort of things that are being portrayed enough to have the jarring experience of thinking about how much misery we're enjoying watching. We enjoy watching a city be destroyed as the good guys and bad guys fight it out, but we can only do so because all the costs are hidden from us. We don't have to think about the lives caught in the crossfire, and we don't have to think about what it would really be like to be these characters. Sometimes a movie does think about this too much, and as a result it ceased to be fun. To my mind, the latest James Bond reboot made this mistake with Casino Royale, where the writers tried to give half a thought to the life experiences which someone would go through on the way to becoming a secret agent with a license to kill. But as we saw Bond learn not to love the women he slept with (because they'd be killed) and saw him be tortured by enemy operatives, the movie ceased to be fun. James Bond movies were fun in previous incarnations because you never thought of the people involved as people. Turn these experiences human and they became dark rather than spectacle.

Which is why the action hero mom idea doesn't seem all that workable. Sure, in a sufficiently goofy movie a la Spy Kids you could have a mother packing her kids off to school and then heading off for a day of giant flying aircraft carriers and rappelling down ropes into impossible action scenes -- but you'd only get away with that in a movie even more fluffy than the standard Marvel epic.

Parenthood is humanizing. Whether we ourselves are parents or not, we all come from families and so seeing a fictional character in family life provides a humanizing sense. And yet, the danger with humanizing your characters too much in a genre which is only fun if you don't take it seriously is that you can throw the whole mood off.

So why do we have action hero fathers?

Well, often we don't. Perhaps part of the reason this conversation is being had is because of the cultural obsession with "have it all" feminism in which women can both be great moms and have great careers without having to sacrifice anything. But Among the Avengers there's a larger sample size of men than women and we've got Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk all without children and only Hawkeye with. I haven't read the comics, but the movie incarnations of Batman, Superman and Spiderman all seem to be childless as well. Nor do the X-Men seem to be settling down to have kids. In Star Wars, the only parent among the main characters is Anakin in the second round of movies, and we know how that ended up. In Star Trek the only male lead with a kid didn't even know he had the kid until his son was grown up.

I'd tend to say that in general the action hero trope is one of the lone wolf, not the family man or woman. If the percent of female action heroes (a small number to start with) who are mothers is lower than the percent of male action heroes who are fathers, it's probably because the cultural image of father as protector fits better with running around blowing things up on a mission than does the cultural image of mother as nurturer. I'm not at all clear that's a bad thing.

In this war memoir Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger says that the ideal assault team is made up of leaders in their mid twenties who have seen enough combat to know what is dangerous, but who belong to that small percentage of men who can enjoy combat, and enlisted men who are twenty or twenty-one and still believe they are immortal. There's something to that, and I think it has to do with why parents don't really fit well in action hero roles. If we're going to have stories about parents, at least parents who we are actually seeing as parents (not just some generic person with a token seen with spouse and kids thrown in) and who we're prepared to feel at good parents who make their children and family life a significant priority, it's going to be a different sort of story.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Briefly Reviewed: To The Last Man by Jeff Shaara

Shaara has made his name writing well researched novels dealing with America's military history, starting with his prequel and sequels to his father's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels. In To the Last Man, Shaara turns his attention to World War One. He has four main characters: American Raoul Lufbery who volunteered to fly planes with the French air service before American came into the war; German pilot Manfred von Richthofen better known as the Red Baron; General John Pershing, who led the American expeditionary force when the US entered the war; and Private Roscoe Temple of the US Marine Corps. All of these are real historical characters on whom Shaara clearly did his research.

The structure of the book can be a little odd. It breaks into two halves, with the first half almost exclusively dealing with the air war and the two flying ace characters. The second half deals with the last year of the land war from a primarily American perspective. As such, this is very much an American view of the war, even though we have some French characters in Lufbery's sections and of course we get a German view in the chapters dealing with the Red Baron.

The writing is competent throughout, but I didn't find myself deeply emotionally invested in the characters. I wanted to find out what happened to them, but somehow I never felt that extra bit of immediacy which makes you shrink away as the character suffers, and hope at ever turn that good things will happen to the character.

However, I didn't dislike any of the characters and this is a good, workmanlike effort bringing a little known period of American history to life. I could wish for a novel that dealt with the war more widely, rather than a strictly American view, but that would simply be a different novel.

If I could do fractions, I'd rate this 3.5 stars, but I'll round up to 4 for the historical effort put forth and the fact that the characters do seem individual and detailed even if I wasn't emotionally invested in them. They are certainly not mere placeholders or ideological pawns (in that sense I'd rate it well above Ken Follet's Fall of Giants, also dealing with WW1, which I couldn't finish.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Avengers: Ages and Ages

(Dangers of the shared computer: it's me, MrsDarwin. Darwin didn't even see the movie; he was at the library pounding out the latest Great War installment.)

First, a little story about Artificial Intelligence.

A few days, lots of people on Facebook were passing around the link to How Old Do I Look?, a site which claims to be able to do what it advertises: tell how old you are based on a selfie or other photo. Out of curiosity, I tried it out on a photo of Diana which I had on my phone.

A pretty little girl, no? The site declared her to be 45.

This fails the Turing Test. Any human on earth would look at this picture and say, "That child is certainly younger than eight, probably younger than 6." As it happens, Diana is rising 5. The site's complex set of algorithms for skin smoothness, contour, hair texture, and whatnot have nothing on the recognition patterns and judgment of a barely-verbal child. (I did ask my own barely-verbal child, William, to tell me if this picture was an old lady or a little girl, and he said, "Julia" ["Du-a"], and then went on to identify all the rest of his sisters as Julia. So I'm not admitting that as evidence.)

And then I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I just couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to buy into the whole AI taking over the world plot thread. The non-suspension of disbelief issue wasn't new to this movie, though; last week I let the big girls watch the first Avengers so they'd be up enough on their Marvel mythology to comprehend the new one (they've also seen both Captain Americas, but I'm not ready to sit through Thor again), and I just couldn't. The bloated battle scenes, the ridiculous odds, the photogenic scratches as the only mementos of battle. Look, even King Leonidas died in the end. And one million guys really did trounce three hundred (really more like a thousand, counting the non-Spartans), because that's actually how crazy odds like that work out. But the three hundred bought time, and there were other men like them to finish the job.

But there are no other men like the Avengers (or women either, because let's acknowledge the fuss about gender issues, and the inherent absurdity of Black Widow wearing a full bodysuit, whereas Hawkeye's arms, which you'd think would be protected as his great asset, are always exposed). The Marvel-verse of heroes is mind-bogglingly big when you think that someone had to sit around and come up with all this back story and costume design, and yet on the grand scale of planetary destruction they cause an outsized share of damage trying to avert Armageddon. South African cities, Seoul, fictional Russian statelets -- it's time for the rest of the world to share New York's pain as the Avengers rumble through the landscape, ripping up glass buildings and barreling trains through city streets in lovingly choreographed action sequences. Every now and then the camera slows the action so we can admire our heroes en tableau, administering an picturesque ass-kicking to robots or aliens so interchangeably other that we need waste no precious drops of pity on them. It's kinda awesome, but it's fake awesome, in the way that things that have no stakes and make no sense are.

In fact, threads of psuedo awesome and profundity run through this, and all its legion of prequels. Nick Fury shows up at a few crucial moments and says some stuff about how if we do not all hang together, we shall assuredly all hang separately, and how you do the best with what you're given, which would totally be significant if he'd not been given an unlimited budget by someone fictional and unlimited CGI by Hollywood. Ultron, a big chiseled sentient robot conceived by the damn-fool team of Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, makes a number of pronouncements about the limits of humanity and our puny abilities and comprehension, and I kept bouncing back to the computer program identifying Diana as being 45. 

MrsDarwin, you say, you are entirely the wrong person to review a superhero movie. Don't be hatin'. Not so! There were sections that I liked, but they had nothing to do with action, battles or Tony Stark's crazy housekeeping and construction expenditure. I liked the moments of human interaction -- two orphans describing the terror of a two-day ordeal of helplessness;  the slight rivalry between Thor and Captain America; the refreshing prospect of an Avenger with a normal homelife; Steve Rogers wondering what place he can call home. And chiefly, the tension between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov, a conflict fueled by internal obstacles and the fascinating, all-too-brief glimpses of Natasha's backstory. When are we going to get a Black Widow movie? (In a twist of supreme irony, Scarlett Johanssen was pregnant during the filming of Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

So yeah, it could be that I should stick to costume epics and kitchen-sink dramas. But it seems to me that if superhero movies are the mythologies of our times, someone needs to be pointing out where fantasy devolves into a collection of wish-fulfillment imagery. And someone needs to remember that the gods of fantasy only matter to the extent that they're human. Because there's only one God, man, and his epic battle is fought on and for the varied terrain of the human soul.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-3

Tonight's installment brings Henri to the Battle of the Marne via one of the most famous incidents in the battle.

Paris. September 6th, 1914. The streets were quiet in the diffuse pre-dawn light as Henri left the requisitioned hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais. It was not just the quiet of an early Sunday morning. The half-emptied city held its breath. The afternoon before, the distant booming of the guns had been heard like summer thunder disturbing the hot, humid afternoon. It had put the officers who gathered in the lobby on edge: a day too early. The battle was supposed to begin on the morning of the 6th, not the afternoon of the 5th.

General Joffre’s draft order of the day had been circulated ahead of time among the officers, the words which would be read on the morning of the 6th to soldiers about to go into battle:

“At this moment, the battle on which the salvation of La Patrie depends is about to begin, and the time for retreat is ended. Every effort is to be poured into the attack, to hurl back the enemy from our soil. Any soldiers who find themselves unable to advance further are to hold their positions at any cost and die on the spot rather than retreat.”

Rumor was not slow to confirm the implication of the final line: The retreat is over. He has ordered that any man or officer who abandons his post without orders is to be shot. My God, about time too. The soldiers will fight if only the orders to retreat will stop coming. They want to fight, not give up ever more French soil.

The talk had all been enthusiastic, and yet there was the lurking fear too: There is no more time. There is no more room. If they take Paris…

There were dual notices posted on the neo-classical columns of the Church of Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou. Whatever the priests might think of their place of worship serving as a public noticeboard, since the Church-and-State law of 1905 the church buildings belonged to the government and some enterprising poster-bearer with his bucket of paste had decided that the smooth round columns were the perfect place to catch the eye of those hurrying in to pray for the preservation of the Republic. The first of these notices, already three days old, was the announcement that the government was abandoning Paris.

“PEOPLE OF FRANCE!” read the bold heading, with the rippling tricolor displayed above. But each succeeding paragraph shrank with shame into smaller type.

“For several weeks relentless battles have engaged our heroic troops and the army of the enemy. The valour of our soldiers has won victories at several points; but in the north the pressure of the German forces has compelled us to fall back.

“This situation has compelled the President of the Republic and the Government to take a painful decision. In order to watch over the national welfare, it is the duty of the public powers to remove themselves temporarily from the city of Paris.”

It continued on into smaller, denser text, promising that the struggle would continue despite all costs, as if by repetition of words such as “resolve” “tenacity” and “victory” it could erase the blow which its message conveyed. The other notice had been pasted up to partly cover these craven rationalizations and its message had the brevity of confidence.


“The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a fresh impulse to national defence.

“I have been entrusted with the task of defending Paris against the invader.

“That task I will fulfil to the end.


“Commandant of the Army of Paris”

It was not the first time that Henri had seen General Gallieni’s proclamation, but he stopped to read it all the way through. There was a thrill to the short lines which was like the feeling when the whole company stood as a body and practiced the bayonet charge.

“That task I will fulfil to the end,” he repeated, tasting the words. Would the time come for him to stir men’s hearts with such sentiments?

An old woman, her curved back covered with a black knitted shawl despite the already warm morning, scowled at him as she hurried past into the church. The priest had doubtless already started and he was loitering on the steps reading government proclamations which had no right to be posted on a house of worship. And yet, surely this feeling of exultation at the chance to defend France was itself in some sense from God.

[continue reading]

Friday, May 08, 2015

Standing With Mothers Day

Mothers Day is, perhaps, an artificial Hallmark Holiday. Certainly, it's not a Catholic feast of any kind. However, it's an American holiday (however we came to have it) celebrating something which is, from a Catholic point of view, worth celebrating. Motherhood is an important and wonderful vocation. It's certainly not the only vocation for women, but obviously none of us would be here without our mothers, and although religious vocations for both men and women are traditionally seen a higher than the married vocation, that's balanced by the fact that we believe Mary was the most perfect of God's creations and through the incarnation God himself was born of her and had her as a mother.

Thus, it doesn't seem a bad idea for Catholic churches in the US, where Mothers Day is celebrated, to in some way integrate the holiday into Catholic life. One way which this is often done is to have a blessing at the end of mass for all the mothers present. Sometimes all the mothers in the congregation are asked to stand at the time of the blessing.

One can think good or ill of this. If the priest is going to give some group a blessing, it's not unusual to ask that group to come forward or in some other way set themselves apart. For instance, when they have the annual blessing of all the people who will be teaching the parish religion classes, the catechists are all asked to come forward. Of course, with 300+ people in a Sunday mass, and 20-40% of them mothers, you can't have all of them come forward to the altar rail to be blessed, there just isn't room. However, apparently some people feel like asking mothers to stand and receive a blessing is hard on non-mothers:
A few years ago I sat across from a woman who told me she doesn’t go to church on Mother’s Day because it is too hurtful. I’m not a mother, but I had never seen the day as hurtful. She had been married, had numerous miscarriages, divorced and was beyond child bearing years. It was like salt in mostly healed wounds to go to church on that day. This made me sad, but I understood.

Fast forward several years to Mother’s Day. A pastor asked all mothers to stand. On my immediate right, my mother stood and on my immediate left, a dear friend stood. I, a woman in her late 30s, sat. I don’t know how others saw me, but I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman. Real women stood, empty shells sat. I do not normally feel this way. I do not like feeling this way. I want no woman to ever feel this way in church again.

Last year a friend from the States happened to visit on Mother’s Day and again the pastor (a different one) asked all mothers to stand. As a mother, she stood and I whispered to her, “I can’t take it, I’m standing.” She knows I’m not a mother yet she understood my standing / lie.
It strikes me that the problem here is not with asking mothers' to stand and receive a blessing, it's with someone thinking of herself as an "empty shell" because she isn't a mother. You see pieces that deserve criticism in this quarter. Too often, when writing about how people should just get married already, authors act as if everyone has a good spouse candidate just sitting around waiting, when in fact a lot of people who would very much like to be happily married and having children are not successfully finding someone to marry. Assuming that people are selfish or overly picky because they aren't married is foolish to say the least.

However, simply asking that mothers stand in order to say a prayer over them is not saying that women who are not mothers are not real women, are not mothers, etc. There are good arguments for not incorporating Mothers Day into mass, or for not doing in this particular way, and in the end I'm fairly ambivalent about the practice. I certainly put no great stake in being asked to stand and receive a blessing a month later on Father's day, and I wouldn't mind if that practice were dropped. But this is not one of those good arguments. By this line of thinking, any acknowledgement that some people are mothers (and thus by implication that others are not) is hurtful and should be avoided, and that's frankly silly, not to mention a bit selfish.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

When Something Is Not Right

The other day I glanced through my bedroom door, and almost emitted a yelp at the eerie scene.

It was the balloon blocking the crucifix, and the old cat, and the weird light and... yes.

But then, just yesterday, 16-month-old William was sitting on the kitchen floor playing with something white in his mouth, and when I fished it out I did yell.

Dear God, how did I pull a full grown tooth from the baby's mouth?

Now there is a basic explanation for both these instances. The balloon was from a kid's birthday party, and was attached to a glow stick, and people had left it in my room in rather blatant disobedience to Daddy's rule of no balloons near him, ever. And the cat... okay, he's odd, but he's just the cat, and he's been around forever, so it's usually no surprise to see him lurking on the bed. All these things together were totally bizarre, but each in itself was explainable.

The tooth happened to be one that Isabel had extracted several months ago, and they gave her a little box at the pediatric dentist so she could treasure it as a keepsake, which is kinda odd right there. I've seen that box sitting unmolested on her dresser for a long time, but for whatever reason, someone decided to dump it out in the kitchen, where William found it and put it in his mouth because he puts everything in his mouth. I simply happened to find it at the freakiest possible moment.

That's all pretty basic. After the first shock, one analyzes the situation and realizes that nothing is actually wrong. But then there are things which defy all reason and rightness.

This is no steampunk horror movie prop. This is no mad artist's image of the terrors of childhood. This is a real, historic thing: the Edison talking doll, which is is the running for "things no parent would ever put into a child's bed". To make this doll even more unholy, if that's even possible, it has a tiny phonograph in its metal torso, which recites a shrill, tortured cariacature of the classic childhood prayer about death, "Now I lay me down to sleep".

My friends, most things in life have, at root, some reasonable explanation. But for this abomination, there is no possible defense. Even state-of-the-art technology and the free market fall short when it comes to the creation of this doll. All we can conclude was that someone at Edison's laboratory thought that the pampered children of the 1890s needed their little psyches scarred. And then what happened when those children grew up? World War I, the most steampunk of wars. I rest my case.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Crimson Bound Book Giveaway Winners!

The hat has spoken, and the winners are:


Lydia Cubbedge

Please email us at with your addresses and we'll get those books out to you via Amazon Prime! Or if you prefer a Kindle version, let us know and we'll send you that electronically.

This is How it Is

For the last several hours I'd been thinking about a particular container of leftovers -- the ones that I would have taken to work yesterday if they hadn't had meat or it hadn't been Friday. I was going to eat them for lunch. They were mine. But first I was going to get the dishwasher going, because it's a busy day here with MrsDarwin singing at two confirmation masses and then the need to get the family to vigil mass since I'm heading out of town to a conference tomorrow, and I was going to be just that virtuous and efficient after having slept off the effects of writing till 2AM.

Just as I was finishing with the dishwasher, my son and heir strides into the kitchen, inspects the fridge, and takes out the coveted container of leftovers.

"Can I have this for lunch, Dad?"

I pains me. I wanted them. But I tell myself: I'm not going to be the kind of dad who makes his kids eat something else so he can enjoy all the treats. Even if I did finish the ice cream the other night when everyone including MrsDarwin was in bed. That was different. There wasn't enough to share anyway. There's probably something healthier I could eat for lunch anyway, and going to a conference always presents the danger of taking too much at the buffet line.

"Sure, son. I'll heat it up for you."

I felt good as I handed him the bowl, hot from the microwave. I felt like I was doing the right and generous thing. Maybe I'd eat a salad. I was just that virtuous.

The young man goes happily off with his bowl, eats two bites, then marches back into the kitchen and says, "I'm done. Can I have a popsicle now?"

I wasn't angry. The heavens had blessed me. Now I could eat the coveted leftovers even though I'd selflessly given them away. The reward of the just. I hurried off to give two more kids their sandwiches, already tasting those leftovers.

As I returned to the kitchen he had just finished scraping out his bowl into the trash, where it mingled with my morning coffee grounds.

"I cleaned my plate. Can I have the popsicle now?"


Rage that I should have just been selfish and eaten the leftovers myself. Rage that I was really being just about as selfish now. And rage that we ever let those damn freezer pops into the house that people have been harassing me about all morning.

Go, son, into the outer darkness! No, you may not have your popsicle now. You may have it when your father has recovered from the urge to strike you and when you have waited out the penance for your own hastiness and waste.

I was making peanut butter sandwiches for the last of the lunch crew.

"Where is Mommy?" demanded our youngest daughter, age four.

"She's upstairs nursing the baby before she has to go sing again."

The young lady collapsed on the floor wailing. "Why does she have to be up there? Why does she have to feed baby? I don't like baby! Why do we keep baby."

"We keep baby for the same reason we keep you, because we love you."

"But all he ever does is cry!!!" she screamed, kicking her heels against the floor.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-2

In which there is a letter, a dinner... and news.

Paris. August 27th, 1914. Paris was proud of its army, could wish it only the very best, and so it was unthinkable than an infantry captain should be forced to live within the canvas walls of a tent. And yet, this abundance of good will did not make rooms any more available in the already crowded city. On first arriving for mobilization Henri had been forced to check into a hotel, which despite the modesty of its rooms and laxness of its service did not stint when it came to rates, at least according to the standard to which he had become used since settling into village life. After several days of calling on friends and buying cigars for the sort of old supply sergeants who had a near miraculous ability to procure any accommodation or supply for those they deigned to exert their knowledge for, he had been assigned a room in a hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais which had been taken over for army use.

Guards now stood at attention in the lobby where before bellhops had stood with brass-railed carts. A non-commissioned officer with logistics service badges on his collar sat behind the hotel desk, managing the comings and goings in place of the desk clerk. The rug which covered the lobby floor, which over many years had settled into a shabby reddish brown like dried wine stains was, under the sudden crush of heavily booted traffic, becoming a churned-up ruin like the turf of some blood soaked battlefield.

Some long accustomed patterns persisted amidst the change. As Henri entered the lobby, his boots dusty and his shirt and tunic grimed with sweat after an afternoon of drilling the company in the fields beyond the city, the noise of the street was replaced with the murmur of conversation and the clink of glasses. The knots of people talking and sipping coffee or liquors were all in uniform, their topics the deployment of divisions and the counting of casualties, but the quiet sounds of a hotel lobby were not greatly different than they would have been at any other time.

“Captain Fournier,” said the corporal behind the desk as Henri passed. “There is a letter for you.”

The man searched for a moment among the pigeon holes and then produced a thick, letter-sized envelope with Henri’s name and unit written on it in what he recognized even while still a few paces away as Philomene’s hand.

[continue reading]

Friday, May 01, 2015

Crimson Bound: Links and a Giveaway

Crimson Bound, the second novel by Darwin's sister Rosamund Hodge, comes out on Tuesday, May 5th. What can be behind that fabulous cover? Amazon sez:
An exhilarating tale of darkness, love, and redemption inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, from the author of Cruel Beauty.

When Rachelle was fifteen she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless—straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.

Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in a vain effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her hunt for the legendary sword that might save their world. Together, they navigate the opulent world of the courtly elite, where beauty and power reign and no one can be trusted. And as the two become unexpected allies, they discover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic . . . and a love that may be their undoing. Within a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?
Crimson Bound is inspired not only by Little Red Riding Hood (an older, more sinister version of the story), but by the lesser-known fairy tale The Girl With No Hands. Here's an interview in which Rose discusses these sources and the way the tensions between them shaped the novel.
“The Girl With No Hands” is pretty obscure, so you might not have heard about it. Basically, a poor miller meets the devil, who offers to make him rich if he only promises that in three years he can have “what is standing behind your mill.” The miller, who apparently has never read any myths or fairy tales ever, thinks that this just means the apple tree planted in back of the mill. But actually it’s his daughter.
When the devil turns up to collect, the miller doesn’t try to save his daughter. It’s the devil, so what can you do? But the girl draws a circle of chalk around herself, and the devil can’t cross the line. So he tells the miller to take away all water from the girl, so that she can’t wash her hands, and somehow that will give him power over her. (Cleanliness is next to godliness, I guess.) The miller doesn’t want to offend the devil, so he takes away all water from his daughter. But she weeps on her hands so much they are washed clean, and when the devil turns up the next day, he still can’t take her. So the devil orders the miller to cut off her hands.
It’s the devil. What can you do? So the miller chops off his daughter’s hands.  But when the devil comes back, she’s wept on the stumps until they are clean. And three tries are all the devil gets: he has to go away, and while the miller offers to support his newly-handless daughter with his devil-riches, the girl says  that she will go wandering instead.
There’s a second half to the story, where the girl marries a king and the devil forges letters in attempt to get her killed, but I didn’t use that part in Crimson Bound. Because what captivated me about the story was the beginning: a lone girl, betrayed by her own father, utterly helpless to the point where her own body is not her own.
And yet utterly strong. Because when everything else is taken away from her, the girl doesn’t break. She doesn’t lose herself. It’s like The Grandmother’s Tale–there’s a malevolent supernatural force that wants to make an innocent girl his–but this time the girl wins.
So when I read that story, I thought, “Wow, if Little Red Riding Hood ever met the Girl With No Hands, she would hate her so much.”

Curious to know more? You can read the first 74 pages here.

And to celebrate the book release, we're giving away two copies of Crimson Bound! Leave a comment to enter (if you're anonymous, don't forget to include some kind of name), and we'll draw names from Eleanor's adventure hat and announce the winners in an update to this post at noon tomorrow, Saturday May 2.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Carmen Possum

The homeschoolers had a speech meet on Sunday, and Eleanor gave a particularly fine dramatic recitation of Carmen Possum, a poem by that prolific fellow Anon which we'd dug up in some Best of American Poetry book. It strikes me that our readership is probably the prime audience to appreciate the blend of erudition and cornball humor in this forgotten gem, so for your Wednesday reading pleasure, I present:


THE NOX was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.
The corpus of this bonus canis
Was full as long as octo span is,
But brevior legs had canis never
Quam had hic dog; et bonus clever.
Some used to say, in stultum jocum
Quod a field was too small locum
For sic a dog to make a turnus
Circum self from stem to sternus.
Unus canis, duo puer,
Nunquam braver, nunquam truer,
Quam hoc trio nunquam fuit,
If there was I never knew it.
This bonus dog had one bad habit,
Amabat much to tree a rabbit,
Amabat plus to chase a rattus,
Amabat bene tree a cattus.
But on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam treed a starving rattus,
Nunquam chased a starving cattus,
But sucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
Seemed on terra vehit pellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.
Quam venerit, one began
To chop away like quisque man.
Soon the axe went through the truncum
Soon he hit it all kerchunkum;
Combat deepens, on ye braves!
Canis, pueri et staves
As his powers non longius carry,
Possum potest non pugnare.
On the nix his corpus lieth.
Down to Hades spirit flieth,
Joyful pueri, canis bonus,
Think him dead as any stonus.
Now they seek their pater's domo,
Feeling proud as any homo,
Knowing, certe, they will blossom
Into heroes, when with possum
They arrive, narrabunt story,
Plenus blood et plenior glory.
Pompey, David, Samson, Caesar,
Cyrus, Black Hawk, Shalmanezer!
Tell me where est now the gloria,
Where the honors of victoria?
Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus,
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which this is the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Ne relinquit back behind him,
Et the pueri never find him.
Cruel possum! bestia vilest,
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum is a goner!

I am so tickled to find that Carmen Possum has its own Wikipedia entry, with some serious analysis of style and content.

Historical Novel Location Research in the Age of Google

Jasper Kent has a piece up at Writing Historical Novels about the location research he did for his novels, which are set in set in 19th Century Russia. As you can imagine, this is a topic which I can identify with at the moment, so I was fascinated to read about his process.

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

[Read the rest]

It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.

Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.

Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.

In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.

When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.

A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.

Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.

The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Probability, Rap Sheets, and Police Brutality

Consider this thought experiment: In the city of Metropolis, the police force makes a secret pact to randomly beat senseless 1 out of every 100 people they arrest. Aside from this, they are a model police force. What sort of people would mostly get beat up?

Most of them would be frequent criminals with lots of prior arrests. Why? Because people who get arrested frequently get arrested frequently, and thus would have a higher chance of getting one of the 1% of arrests that included a senseless beating. Someone who's never been arrested would have zero change of a beating. Someone arrested once would have a 1% change. Someone arrested ten times a 10% chance.

If all you looked at was whether the person who got beaten was frequently in trouble with the law, and assumed that if the person was frequently arrested, then probably the beating was somehow justified, the random beatings would mostly look justified, and the beatings of people without prior criminal records would look very rare.

This isn't to claim that police brutality is in fact random, or that the police are never justified when using grave or even deadly force on someone. It's the nature of the job of the police to deal with situations which often require the use of force, and sometimes make it very difficult to know what's really going on. Mistakes that may look bad to outsiders may seem fairly reasonable to an officer at the time -- though with training and experience police departments try to reduce that as much as possible.

However, if even a completely arbitrary use of excessive force by police would end up being primarily used against people with frequent arrest records, one clearly can't simply take the existence of a long arrest record as proof that force was justified in some given situation.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-1

Chapter 11 is going to have 5 or 6 sections, and focuses on Henri. I'm determined to pick up the pace a bit. The next installment will go up Thursday night.

Paris. August 19th, 1914. The 22nd Company was drawn up on the trampled grass between the Allee de Longchamp and the surrounding trees of the Bois de Boulogne, the large wooded park to the west of the Paris city walls which since mobilization had become both an encampment and training ground. Two weeks after being called up, the men were beginning to show signs of martial precision. The four sections of the company were drawn up into four neat columns, each column five men across. Within each column, three rows of five men formed one squad, with its corporal the leftmost man in the first row as Henri faced them. Two squads formed a demi-section, commanded by a sergeant, with that sergeant prowling up and down next to his two blocks of men, making sure that all was as proper as it could be. Two demi-sections formed a section: sixty riflemen and their officers.

The commanders of the four sections -- his three lieutenants and the first sergeant -- stood quietly behind Henri, awaiting his verdict on their efforts.

“Very good,” he said, turning to them. “Have them fall in by sections. We’ll march down to the hippodrome at the double.”

They hurried to give their commands and one by one the sections stepped out onto the Allee de Longchamp, wheeled to face southwest down the road, and set off at a brisk pace. The maneuver was done with a precision far more creditable than the state of their uniforms would have suggested. Because the 6th Battalion had been left behind as part of Paris’s defense force when the rest of the 104th Infantry Regiment and its reserve counterpart the 304th had been dispatched from Paris to fight in Lorraine, they had been put at the very bottom of every supply list. Although the men all carried rifles and wore their dark blue army overcoats (oppressive in the August heat) half of them were still wearing grey or brown civilian trousers rather than red uniform trousers. The fourth section had not yet been issued blue uniform kepis, some of the men going bareheaded while the rest wore an assortment of workers caps, straw boaters, and dark bowler hats. But they could march. Henri had drilled them every day, and their marching was beginning to be downright soldierly.

The fourth section fell in, and Henri himself fell in next to them, marching alongside Sergeant Leon Carpentier, the company’s First Sergeant and thus the one non-commissioned officer to command a section.

Sergeant Carpentier was one of the handful of regular army non-commissioned officers assigned to the reserve battalion when it was mobilized in order to give the officers and men who had been out of active service for anywhere from one to ten years a bit of polish and order.

“The section is doing much better,” Henri offered. “The drilling shows.”

The sergeant gave a shrug. Then after a moment’s pause he responded, “For two week’s drilling.”

Henri looked over at the sergeant, trying to read his expression, but his eyes were straight forward and his mouth nearly obscured by his heavy, walrus mustache. Carpentier did not seem a talkative man at the best of times, and he followed strictly the view that men, non-commisioned officers, and officers were three distinct classes between whom the less mixing there was the better. One the day the company had been moved into the entrenched camp, he had caught one of the privates using the NCOs’ toilets and had insisted that the entire company be drawn up so that he could bawl at them, “This is the army, and there will be order! Lavatories are for officers. Toilets are for NCOs. Latrines are for men. If any of you forget this again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for a week.”

It seemed likely enough, however, that his taciturnity was also a result of resentment that he had been assigned to the reserve battalion left behind in Paris when the rest of the regiments had shipped out to Lorraine and combat. He was in his mid forties, several years Henri’s senior, and unlike Henri had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier. To be relegated to drilling reservists behind the lines on the first time that the opportunity of war presented itself in his twenty-five year army career must smart, but it would only be a sign of weakness to allow him to indulge in bitterness publically.

“When we reach the hippodrome, the men are to fall out and have lunch. Then have them clean their rifles and do weapons drill. I’ll be back with the lieutenants at two, and then we will spend the afternoon on combat drill.”

The sergeant nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”


It was Sous-Lieutenant Vincent Dupuis who knew the 16th Arrondisement well, and who selected the little cafe on the Rue de Passy for their lunch. The son of a banker, he was also the only one who was not alarmed by the prices on the menu when they sat down. Aware that the other two lieutenants had far less money than Lieutenant Dupuis, Henri had suggested moving to a less exclusive nearby cafe, but Lieutenant Dupuis’s offers to treat them all had shamed the other three men into waving off the expense and insisting they didn’t mind at all.

The food was excellent, and so was -- as Lieutenant Dupuis had promised -- the house wine. Although the cafe was crowded they were, for perhaps the first time since Henri had returned to Paris, the only soldiers in the establishment. This seemed to make them an object of curiosity and pride for the other cafe patrons. Two elderly gentlemen in pale grey summer suits repeatedly stole glances in their direction as they discussed their newspapers, and a stately woman in a wide, lace-trimmed hat (with two younger women kept sedately in her wake) stopped to say, “We are all of thinking of you. We think of all our brave soldiers.”

“I wish those two young ones would do more than think of us, eh?” said Lieutenant Dupois once the three women had put up their sun parasols and set off down the street.

“There’s the difference a uniform makes,” replied Lieutenant Gilbert Morel, the commander of First Section now, but in civilian life a lycee math instructor. “Ah, but you’re worse off, Rejol,” he added, addressing Lieutenant Maurice Rejol, the commander of Second Section. “If you were in your usual uniform perhaps those little angels would slip into a confessional with you and tell you all the naughty things they’re up to.”

Lieutenant Rejol, who since his two years service as a reserve officer had become a priest, shrugged but did not reply. Since learning his fellow officer’s peacetime occupation Morel had kept up a steady stream of anti-clerical pinpricks, but while not otherwise taciturn, the priest doggedly refused to rise to the bait of these.

Coffee and sponge cakes arrived, and Henri decided it would be as well to change the topic.

“After lunch I want to start putting the men through fire and movement drill.”

[continue reading]

Monday, April 27, 2015


This NY Times piece by an environmentalist, blasting the anti-GMO movement, seems so delightfully calibrated to ruffle feathers that I can't resist immediately sharing it:
Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)

Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.
I, too, was once in that activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.

After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.

There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
The environmental movement’s war against genetic engineering has led to a deepening rift with the scientific community. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed a greater gap between scientists and the public on G.M.O.s than on any other scientific controversy: While 88 percent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public did — a gap in perceptions of 51 points. (The gap on climate change was 37 points; on childhood vaccinations, 18 points.)

On genetic engineering, environmentalists have been markedly more successful than climate change deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners in undermining public understanding of science. The scientific community is losing this battle. If you need visual confirmation of that, try a Google Images search for the term “G.M.O.” Scary pictures proliferate, from an archetypal evil scientist injecting tomatoes with a syringe — an utterly inaccurate representation of the real process of genetic engineering — to tumor-riddled rats and ghoulish chimeras like fish-apples.
As someone who participated in the early anti-G.M.O. movement, I feel I owe a debt to Mr. Rahman and other farmers in developing countries who could benefit from this technology. At Cornell, I am working to amplify the voices of farmers and scientists in a more informed conversation about what biotechnology can bring to food security and environmental protection.

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

We need this technology. We must not let the green movement stand in its way.
Of course, attachment to political tribes being what they are, perhaps his piece will backfire. One of the initial responses I saw to it was a conservative saying, "He believes in climate change, so he's probably wrong about GMOs being safe too!" Which reminds me that one of these days I should write a piece on the good versus the bad types of skepticism on global warming alarmism.

In the meantime, have an eggplant.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Confessions of Sixth-Grade Catechist: the Q&A Session

A few months ago, the morning session of religion class was canceled due to snow, but the afternoon session, the one I work with, still met. The kids were less than thrilled, understandably. So our leader decided to shake things up a bit. He passed out index cards and gave the kids a few moments to write down a question, any question, and then we answered them on the fly. Since we couldn't get through all the questions in class, this past Sunday was the follow-up day.

I volunteered to consolidate the questions into families and write up some talking points, and asked permission to share them, because that's just good policy. The questions have been only minimally altered, for spelling mostly, but they're pretty much as we read them off of the sixth- and seventh-graders' cards. This is not so that everyone can get a laugh at the state of education these days -- how eloquent were you at 12? -- but to make it a bit easier to enter into the mind of the questioner. Sometimes I really couldn't tell exactly what the questioner was getting at, but I did try to give a sincere answer to all of them.



Why is Jesus called God?/ What is the difference between God and Jesus?

Jesus is God! He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, God become man. He became human to atone for our sins. “The Church never ceases to proclaim her faith in only one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (CCC 232)

Related: the Holy Trinity

Why is Jesus' name Jesus Christ? Why did Joseph name Jesus "Jesus" if the angel told him to call him Emmanuel?

“Emmanuel” means “the Messiah” or “Savior”, and so does the Greek word “Christ” (CCC 436) which is why the first followers of Jesus were called “Christians” by Greek speakers (Acts 11:26 ). In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “God saves” (CCC 430).


Are Catholics Christians? 

Yes! Catholics are the original Christians. The name “Catholic” means “universal” or “total, complete” in Greek. The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth from God has been sent by Christ to the whole human race (CCC 830-831).

Why are Catholics so faithful to God?/ What is faith?

Faith is our response of trust and belief in God. Having faith in God means freely assenting to the whole truth that he has revealed (CCC 150). Catholics cannot separate faith in God the Father from God the Son -- Jesus says so over and over again in the gospel of John. Faith is also a gift from God, and he will give it to those who ask him for it. So ask! Catholics can be faithful to God through the sacraments, since the Eucharist joins us to God himself, and Confession wipes away the sins that cloud our faith.

How do we know our religion is correct?/ Why was the Bible made?

All humans have a longing for goodness, for truth, for beauty, and for love. These longings can be filled only by God, who is Goodness, and Truth, and Beauty, and Love Itself. At the same time we know that there is something wrong with human nature. We are inclined to do bad things. We cannot always act as good as we want to. And so we look for people and for groups that can tell the truth about human nature. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus himself, teaches the fullness of truth about humans and all creation because it is the Body of Christ on earth (CCC 789). The Church teaches some truths that we can observe for ourselves, such as the idea of original sin, and some truths that had to be revealed by God, such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

We know that the Catholic Church contains the truth because it was founded by Jesus Christ, who is truth itself. The Holy Spirit guides and protects it. The Catholic Church is older than the Bible itself, because the books of the Bible were finally assembled and chosen by the Church in the fourth century after Jesus was born. The Bible, which includes the Jewish scriptures as part of the Old Testament, tells the story of how God reveals himself to humans throughout time, especially to the Jewish people, and how he finally came to earth himself to reconcile us to himself through Jesus. The Gospels tell how Jesus gave us his Body in the Eucharist, how he established a Pope to lead his Church on Earth, and how he gave his apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in his name. All of these marks, the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Confession, and the Pope as leader, are found only in the Catholic Church.

Why is the Pope so popular (Francis) and why do we have him?

Jesus put St. Peter in charge of the Church on earth as the first Pope (Mt. 16:18-19) (the word “Pope” means “Papa”), and there has been a clear line of succession from Pope to Pope down to the present day. The Pope is the highest spiritual authority on earth. He represents Christ. Pope Francis is so popular because he is a strong witness of Christ’s truth and love to the whole world, and he can be funny too!

Do you have to be straight to be Catholic?/ (Follow-up question: So Catholics don't have to hate gay people?)

To be Catholic, you have to be baptized and accept and live what the Church teaches. That is what Catholic means. Every individual person is called to chastity in accordance with their state in life: married, vowed religious (priests and nuns), or single. Everyone has sinful inclinations and temptations and struggles against chastity of some kind or another, and none of these are excuses for not living a Christian life. “The Church believes that, in the order of creation, man and woman are designed to need each other’s complementary traits and to enter into a mutual relationship so as to give life to children. That is why homosexual practices cannot be approved by the Church. Christians owe all persons respect and love, however, regardless of their sexual orientation, because all people are respected and loved by God (YouCat 65).

Follow-up answer: No, we don't hate gay people! We are not supposed to hate anyone! "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God: for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Since God is love, any time we act in love, we participate in his life. Love doesn't mean just agreeing with everyone about everything, because God is also Truth and Holiness, but it does mean that we treat everyone with the same respect that Jesus did "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4: 10-12). Love is holy, pure, sacrificial, and to be given to all, just as Jesus died for all.

Related: Sex is reserved for a man and a woman vowed to a permanent married state because one of the primary ends of sex, both biological and spiritual, is the procreation of children. And marriage exists -- as an age-old institution in every society, not just something made up by “religion”! -- not because adults in love want to have some way of showing that love permanently, but because children have a god-given right to live with their biological parents in a stable married family.

What would happen if you died before being baptized?

CCC 1257-1261
“Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” (CCC 1257)

God doesn’t play gotcha with his creation. He desires that everyone be saved. Baptism is a great gift, an assurance that we are freed from original sin and reborn as children of God. Outside of baptism, we can’t know for sure how God will save each person.

We believe that babies and children who die before being baptized are entrusted to the mercy of Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). Those who die while preparing to receive Baptism receive what we call the baptism of desire -- God knows that they wanted to be baptized and were not avoiding it. Those who die for the sake of the faith without being baptized receive the baptism of blood -- an example is the Muslim man who chose to die with the Egyptian Christians executed by ISIS. For those who don’t know about Jesus or the Church (many people throughout history!), we assume that someone who sought the truth in their lives and lived the will of God as they best understood it would have made the choice to be baptized if they had known about baptism being necessary, and we trust them to God’s mercy.

Related image: trying to get to a far-away city; taking a highway that runs directly to that city vs. setting out across country on foot with no roadmap. Baptism is the highway which we are assured runs straight on the way to salvation -- and John the Baptist himself was the "one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23).


Why do we use holy water at the beginning and end of Mass?

Holy water is a “sacramental” -- a sacred sign or action in which a blessing is conferred (YouCat 272). We use it as a physical reminder of God’s blessing. And as something blessed, it’s to be treated with respect and not splashed around, etc.

Why doesn't the priest read the first and second reading?

He could! The priest is the primary celebrant of the Mass, offering prayers to God on our behalf in persona Christi: he doesn’t just take Christ’s place, Christ acts through him. Priests are actually ordained to the office of Lector, which tells you how important reading God’s word is. But lay people are allowed to assist in particular ministries in certain parts of the mass -- reading, serving, singing. (CCC 1142-1144)

Related: Since the Mass is a liturgical prayer, that means that we believe that the form of the Mass has been established by God through the Church as the way he most wants us to worship him, which is why we can’t just make up new stuff every week. The liturgy is meant to be celebrated by the whole community, but different members have different roles. The priest is ordained to the special service of acting as Christ; the lay people are called to “active participation”, which doesn’t just mean sitting, standing, singing, but actually praying the Mass through listening to the words and raising their minds to God.

Why do we go up for Communion?

We receive Communion because it is the true Body of Christ, and in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus says over and over again that his body is the bread of life, real food that we can eat and which strengthens us. He means that literally: the Eucharist, the consecrated host, is Jesus himself, making himself food for us, to be digested and become part of us as we are part of him.

We go up to communion because a) it’s an efficient way to receive communion, instead of the priest walking to every single person; b) many of the psalms and scriptures speak of “going up” to worship the Lord -- making the physical effort to approach close to him and receive his graces. All churches used to have a communion rail, where people could kneel while receiving the Eucharist as a way of expressing our worship, and some churches still have them and use them. In Europe, people don’t line up for communion. They surge forward in a crazy mass and push their way to the front. It’s pretty wild.

Why do we use incense?

Incense is used in the Bible (and throughout history) for sacred rites because the perfume is a sign of honor and worship. Also, the Psalms talk about our prayers ascending to heaven like the smoke from incense. Next time you’re in Mass when Father is using incense, watch it drift upward and think of the prayer of the Mass rising to God.

Why do we celebrate Holy Week?

Holy Week is the celebration of the week before Jesus died, and is the most sacred time of the Church year because it contains the essential mystery of our salvation: Jesus’s death and resurrection. We celebrate because Jesus has defeated the power of death through his resurrection, and restored us to his own life of grace.

Why do we go to church on Sunday instead of any other day of the week?/ Is it a sin if we don't come to church once every week?

The Jewish people worship on Saturday because that’s the day God rested after creating the world (Genesis chapter 1), but Sunday is our holy day because Jesus’s resurrection makes us all new creations. (CCC 2174). Sunday Mass is the basis of our practice of the Catholic faith -- from the very day of Jesus’s resurrection, Christians have always gathered on this day to worship and give thanks for God’s gift of grace. As Catholics, we have an obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, and it is a grave sin to skip Mass without a serious reason such as illness or urgent family duties. As kids, you can’t drive yourself to Mass, but please, ask your parents to take you, and to come with you, every Sunday. As you grow and live on your own, at college, for example, the obligation to go to Mass on Sunday is on your own soul, not your parents’ souls.

Why do people not go to church but call themselves Catholics?

We can’t judge anyone’s spiritual state: many people may want to be Catholic but not understand the teachings of the Church, or may not have strong faith. But it is true that those who know that they have an obligation to worship God in church and don’t do it are setting a bad example of living the Catholic faith. Lead by your own example and go to Church! And invite others! Many people are waiting to be asked.


Why do we use the tabernacle in the church?

The tabernacle shows our respect for the Eucharist. “If there are consecrated hosts left over after the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, they are kept in sacred vessels in the tabernacle. Since the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in them, the tabernacle is one of the venerable places in every church. We genuflect before every tabernacle.” (YouCat 218). The tabernacle is a reminder of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, and is made of precious metal and jewels to show our honor and respect for the Blessed Sacrament. Don’t be afraid to visit it! There’s a kneeler up in front of the tabernacle for anyone who wants to pray right next to Jesus.

Why are there candles in church?

Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), and the fire of candles brings that light into church in a very beautiful and holy way.

If the church is God's house why aren't the pews padded? Does he not want a couch?

Because the essential part of every home is not how the furniture looks, but whether love is present there. In many parts of the world, there aren’t even any pews in the churches, and people have to stand throughout the mass!

Catholic Practices and Traditions

Why are we supposed to eat fish on Fridays during Lent?

We’re only obligated not to eat meat on Fridays in Lent (and the rest of the year, to either not eat meat or to offer some other penance on Friday), but fish is a handy substitute.

Why do we do Communion in the 2nd grade?

To receive the Eucharist, a person has to be old enough to understand that it is the body and blood of Jesus, and to desire to receive him worthily. There’s nothing particularly sacred about the second grade year: it’s just a way of organizing classes in America. Some dioceses have confirmation in second grade and First Communion in third grade, to emphasize that the Eucharist is the highest sacrament. The important thing to remember is that these schedules are all man-made traditions, just like wearing a suit or a white dress, or even having a parish day for first communions. They are not necessary to our faith, but they can be nice reminders of the holiness of the occasion.

Related: The same is true of Confirmation: it’s not a graduation from religion class or a sign of Christian adulthood. It’s the sacrament of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have man-made traditions like “sacrament years” and service hours to demonstrate our respect for the sacrament and our desire to know and to serve God, but these things are not necessary for the sacrament to be effective, and if, for example, someone were sick and in the hospital all through eighth grade and never attended class or did any service hours, that would not be a valid reason to deny anyone the Sacrament. NOTE: An unworthy reception of a sacrament is on your own soul (1 Cor. 11:27-31), so don’t skip your Confirmation classes because you feel like they’re a waste of time!

Why do they have white and black smoke for the election of the pope?

The ballots from the papal election are burned in a stove, and everyone watching can see the smoke. Black smoke (made by adding straw to the ballots) mean that not enough cardinals could decide on a new pope; white smoke (made by burning ballots by themselves) mean that we have a new pope. These days chemicals are added to make the black smoke blacker and the white smoke whiter, so there isn't so much confusion for the people standing down in St. Peter's Square looking up at the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

Why is Easter called Easter?

Easter is an English word which comes from the name Estre, an old Germanic goddess whose festival was celebrated in the spring. Christians took over the name for our own springtime celebration of Christ's resurrection. Many other languages call Easter some variation of Pascha, which comes from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach. The Church decided at the Council of Nicaea (325) that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.

Why is Ash Wednesday not a holy day of obligation?

Ash Wednesday is a great day to go to Mass, but it’s not a holy day of obligation because it’s not a great feast of the Church. And ashes are not a sacrament! They’re a sacramental, a blessed object that is a physical reminder of grace.

Why do we have to go to PSR (Parish School of Religion, our name for classes) every year instead of just sacrament years?

Because there’s a lot more to learn about God and the Catholic faith than the Eucharist and Confirmation, as excellent as those topics are.


Why is Mary so important?

Mary is important because she is actually the mother of God. She carried Jesus inside of her for nine months, and through her he is a descendant of the Jewish people. She was brave and holy and strong, able to accept God’s will and participate in it by becoming the mother of his Son. And she is our mother too, because Jesus gave her to all humanity when he was dying on the cross. She prays for us and sends us graces from God. Catholics don’t worship Mary, since we can only worship God, but we honor her above all other humans because God honors her so much.

If Mary is the mother of God and God tells Mary to be a mother of a baby does that make God that baby's brother?

God did ask Mary to be the mother of a baby: Jesus! But we know that “Jesus is the only son of Mary in the physical sense” (YouCat 81, referencing CCC 500-501). “In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, there is only one word for sibling and cousins. When the Gospels speak about the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus (for instance, in Mk. 3:31-35), they are referring to Jesus’ close relatives.” (YouCat 81).

In fact, the Church teaches that Mary was always a virgin, and that Jesus was conceived by her not by human actions, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has no human father because he is already the Son of God. Jesus is the New Adam, the first human since the very beginning not created by the union of a human father and mother, but solely by the action of God. Her virginity shows us that we are reborn in God not by human actions, but by the working of his grace.

Some people claim that Mary’s virginity is only symbolic, or some kind of legend, instead of reality, because they think it is impossible. Even Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” (which means, I’m a virgin). And the angel answered, “Nothing is impossible for God” (Lk. 1:34-37). Creating the world from nothing is not impossible, rising from the dead is not impossible, giving us his flesh and blood to eat under the appearance of bread is not impossible, and God coming as a human conceived miraculously in the womb of a virgin is not impossible.


How was the first person born? God was born so how was the first person born according to the Catholic Church?

(CCC 282-285)
God was born as a human through his mother Mary, just as you were born. That’s how everyone is born! But if the question means, “How did the first human come to be created?” then what is necessary for us to believe is that God established time and created everything from nothing, and that humans are the “summit of the Creator’s work” (CCC 343).

Scientific studies can bring to light new information on the age of the earth, on early fossils that can give us a better understanding of the beginnings of our planet and life on it, and can help trace human activity on the earth. But we don’t have any eyewitnesses or records of creation, and of the earliest humans. Genesis chapter 1 gives a spiritual account of God’s work of creation on earth, and how he brings order from chaos and develops the layers and richness of both physical and spiritual creation. Genesis is not, and was never meant to be, a literal account of how God made the world. Remember the four senses of scripture? Rather, the account of creation in Genesis is put right at the beginning of the Bible to show, in beautiful language and poetic imagery, the deeper truth of creation: how all creation is founded in God, how he called everything he created “good”, how humans are the summit of creation, being made in God’s image and likeness, and how, even though sin cuts us off from God’s grace, he promises to make all things new. These themes are repeated all through the Bible. (CCC 289)

(CCC 306-314) In creating humans in his image and likeness, God entrusted them with the great job of being co-creators with him. Now, after God’s first act of human creation, he wills that new life enters the world through the act of a mother and a father -- only Jesus is the exception to this! And there are other ways in which God trusts us to help carry out his plan. He makes use of our cooperation with him and our free will, in allowing our actions to affect creation, both for good and for ill. Our prayers and sufferings become part of God’s work of salvation. Our free will is a gift of love, because it means that we are free to choose to love. W It also means that we are free to reject God and choose to do evil. God is not the cause of evil, but he permits it because he respects our freedom and does not impede the natural consequences of our actions. He can, however, turn all evil to good, as he showed through bringing about the greatest good ever from the greatest evil ever: Christ’s death and resurrection.

But just because God can bring good from evil, that never makes evil a good thing, or doing an evil deed justified.

Which leads to:

Even though God gives us free will how come he didn't save millions of lives in the Holocaust?

(CCC 309-314 Free will and the problem of evil)
It is very important here to understand what we’re talking about. When we ask why God didn’t stop some big event in history, we might imagine that things like the Holocaust, or slavery, or war, are dropped into some time period out of the blue. But the Holocaust isn’t simply one action, and it didn’t have one starting point and one stopping point. Even wars, which may officially begin with one battle, and end with a peace treaty or a defeat on a certain day, don’t just exist between those two dates on the calendar. Rather, all events in history are the effect of the choices of individual people throughout their lives. Some of those choices are sinful and produce great evil, such as Adolf Hitler’s decisions -- but Hitler’s sins would not have affected so many people if other people hadn’t made sinful choices to support his decisions. And very rarely do people kill others out of the blue. Rather, sin builds on sin until a person’s conscience and will to do good is weakened. If you’ve spent a lifetime thinking of slaves as less than human, it’s easier to beat them or sell them and treat them like property.

Other people affect history by making holy choices. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, was sent to a concentration camp. He saved the life of a Polish prisoner by offering to die in his place, and he was sent to a hunger bunker with other prisoners and starved. That Polish man survived the war, made it home to his family, and spent his life telling the world about the goodness of St. Maximilian and the power of his holiness.

It’s easy to look at history and think that we would have done the right thing always, or been on the right side, if we’d been there. The question is: do we always make the right choice now? Will people in the future look back and say, “Why didn’t God stop abortion? How come he didn’t save the lives of all those innocent babies?” About 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews. By 2011, 57 million babies had been aborted legally in the United States alone. This is history happening now. How are we using our free will to respond?