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

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Men" Is Not A Group Capable of Taking Action

As a child, I recall suffering from the delusion that all adults were in league against me and in constant communication. If my mom asked me "How was school today?" it was doubtless because she already knew about the difficulty I had had with my teacher that afternoon. If my teacher asked, "Did anyone have trouble with the homework assignment?" it seemed obvious that she somehow knew about the fuss I'd kicked in front of my parents over doing it.

One of the problems with the "identity group" approach to politics and thinking is that it engages in a similar kind of thinking, but applied at an even unlikelier grand scale.

A prime example of this was a Washington Post editorial from a few days ago, in which the author opens with an account of yelling at her husband about the misdeeds of men:
I yelled at my husband last night. Not pick-up-your-socks yell. Not how-could-you-ignore-that-red-light yell. This was real yelling. This was 30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling. Triggered by a small, thoughtless, dismissive, annoyed, patronizing comment. Really small. A micro-wave that triggered a hurricane. I blew. Hard and fast. And it terrified me. I’m still terrified by what I felt and what I said. I am almost 70 years old. I am a grandmother. Yet in that roiling moment, screaming at my husband as if he represented every clueless male on the planet (and I every angry woman of 2018), I announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead. If one of my grandchildren yelled something that ridiculous, I’d have to stifle a laugh.

My husband of 50 years did not have to stifle a laugh. He took it dead seriously. He did not defend his remark, he did not defend men. He sat, hunched and hurt, and he listened. For a moment, it occurred to me to be grateful that I’m married to a man who will listen to a woman. The winds calmed ever so slightly in that moment. And then the storm surge welled up in me as I realized the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women. As my rage rushed through the streets of my mind, toppling every memory of every good thing my husband has ever done (and there are scores of memories), I said the meanest thing I’ve ever said to him: Don’t you dare sit there and sympathetically promise to change. Don’t say you will stop yourself before you blurt out some impatient, annoyed, controlling remark. No, I said, you can’t change. You are unable to change. You don’t have the skills and you won’t do it. You, I said, are one of the good men. You respect women, you believe in women, you like women, you don’t hit women or rape women or in any way abuse women. You have applauded and funded feminism for a half-century. You are one of the good men. And you cannot change. You can listen all you want, but that will not create one iota of change.

In the centuries of feminist movements that have washed up and away, good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture. Not once. Bastards. Don’t listen to me. Listen to each other. Talk to each other. Earn your power for once.
Why have good men not taken the trouble to make other men stop treating women badly? Why do good Catholics not end the sexual abuse scandal? Why have good Muslims not made bad Muslims stop committing terrorism?

The fact is, these identity groups which are bandied about so freely are large. Larger, really, than we can conceive of. There are over 3.5 billion men in the world. How many have I met? And even of the people I have met, how great is my ability to bend people to my will, getting them to follow the moral laws that I believe in.

We each have a solemn duty to teach others and lead others towards leading a virtuous life. This duty is serious. Damned serious. Literally. When we sin against others or lead others into sin, we trifle with their and our damnation. And yet each choice is a battle in a war that we will not win this side of eternity. It is not a matter of just getting all men together at their secret clubhouse and getting them to resolve to behave morally. It can't be done. "Men" are not a group which it's possible to change in concrete fashion. We have a duty to teach and enjoin those we have influence over to behave virtuously, and yet even as we do that with all seriousness we must also realize that we will not in a day, a year, a century win the war against evil and be able to settle back in a world where it no longer occurs.

Meanwhile, it deserves to be said: If you find yourself yelling at individual people you know, not because of what they themselves do but because they belong to a vast group which you believe is acting badly in some sense, you are no longer treating the person in front of you as a person. You are treating them as a representative of a group that you resent as a group. And that is wrong.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Regulated Mediocrity

A brief tizzy of discussion moved through the online Catholic world today over reports from the Youth Synod that the English-language working group had recorded some seemingly critical notes on home schooling:
USA has many home schoolers – bishops in USA are not united, as homeschooling can have an ideological basis – kids may have special needs

are parents qualified to homeschool them?
It's hard to discern what sort of discussion was had from such quick jottings, but if Catholic home schoolers jumped to the conclusion that they were being critiqued, it surely was not without having experienced slights at the hands of local churches. Around the time we moved away from Texas there was a good deal of upset in the Austin diocese when the diocesan offices told a large Catholic homeschooling group that the new bishop would not be able to participate in their annual home schooling mass anymore because it would be inappropriate for him to in any way encourage people not to attend Catholic schools. Within our own parish here, we've had the pastor deny groups of home schoolers permission to meet in parish buildings, even though the home schooling families are active in the parish (including teaching Sunday school.) Again, the explicit rationale is that since the parish has a school, he can't give any aid and comfort to those who choose to pursue other schooling options.

It's tempting to see this as about money. Catholic schools are expensive to maintain, and they in many cases rely primarily on tuition paid by the families sending children there to meet those expenses. Parents who choose to school their kids some other way are thus seen as taking needed money away from the schools.

I expect this is the case to some extent. However, I think another perhaps larger motive can be seen in the concern that "homeschooling can have an ideological basis" and the question "are parents qualified to homeschool them?"

Catholicism is the most institutional of institutional religions, and our bishops often think in a very institutional fashion. As such, one of the tendencies I've noticed is that bishops often prefer mediocrity that they control to more varied performance that they can't.

For example, some years ago when I was helping to teach RCIA classes, an edict came down from the diocese that several "sensitive topics" (mostly relating to sex) should only be talked about by people who had gone through diocesan approved graduate theological training. If your parish happened not to have a volunteer catechist who had gone through the diocesan graduate program in theology, you could show a video which was on the list of approved catechetical materials.

These video materials were not particularly good. And indeed, some of the people who'd gone through the diocesan grad program weren't that doctrinally sound, or particularly good speakers. But this did give the diocese an appearance of control.

I've seen similar dynamics play out with marriage prep, youth catechesis, etc. There's a strong tendency to try to put in place means of greater institutional control, even if the result does not much increase the quality of the teaching or actively stifles it.

For institutions with this mentality, homeschooling must seem like the ultimate wild card. Sure, the diocesan schools often don't do that great a job at teaching the faith. And their quality of teaching may not be much different from the local public schools. (Indeed, in our own diocese the Catholic schools make a selling point of using exactly the same curriculum as the local public schools, the only difference is that they teach religion as well.) But diocesan schools are at least under clear institutional control.

Home schooling families, by contrast, are under no institutional control at all. They can pick the curriculum they want, teach in the style they want, and there is no way for a diocesan office to intervene. To an institutionally-minded bishop, this must seem dangerously anarchic. And so even though homeschooled Catholic students provide a disproportionate percentage of the young men entering the priesthood in the US these days, there is in the minds of many church men a cloud of suspicion hanging over them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Teaching Boys Morality Is Enough

There's a genre of piece these days in which parents are solemnly advised how to teach their boys not to be rapists. I read one this morning. The suggestions were to teach boys 1) not to bottle up their emotions and then explode into rage when they couldn't take it anymore, 2) to observe basic personal boundaries of the "don't touch people like that" and "don't burst in on family members when they're naked" variety, and 3) to behave respectfully towards others (not hitting, insulting, beating up, etc.)

It's not that any of these are bad ideas. They're good ideas. These are essential elements of raising a boy (or a girl) to be a decent human being. I was raised this way, and I raise my children this way.

If the current consciousness of the dangers of rape and sexual abuse are a good hook to use to remind people that they have a moral obligation to teach their children to behave towards others with basic human respect, all the better, I suppose. I would hope that parents think of the idea of teaching their sons to treat others well even before they read an article about the issue of the moment, but if not, I'm glad that this prompt finally gets through to them.

Why then do I even bring it up, if I agree with the suggestions given?

It often seems as if there is an underlying assumption in the "let's teach boys not to rape" rhetoric that this is a new idea, one which the "old" moral principles do not cover. When Christians attempt to use the concerns of the moment to say it would solve these problems if people obeyed God's law in regard to sexuality, the response is often: "Rape and sexual abuse was pretty common in 'traditional' societies. We can do better."

There's a truth to this which some apologists too quickly dismiss. The past was not a golden age in which people did not sin. Those who cast a rose-tinted gaze on the era before the Sexual Revolution often forget this. Yes, there was abuse and rape in traditional societies. There was also theft and murder and adultery even though these are against Christian moral principles as well. The fact that there was not the same formal challenge to 'traditional morality' that there is now does not mean that people did not sin. Sometimes people's knowledge of morality was twisted by their cultural assumptions. Other times they knew the moral laws but violated them anyway, just as today we hear often enough about "woke" advocates who are revealed nonetheless to have abused the women in their own lives.

However, on the other side there is another fallacy, that because people who are identified as being "religious" are often seen to sin in these ways, that somehow a whole new morality is required in order to teach that get across the idea that rape, abuse, and harassment are wrong. Even some religious writers have caved to this idea, arguing that it's not enough to teach traditional Catholic sexual ethics, but that we must also teach the "everything is okay so long as both parties consent" ethics of the secular sexual morality which is slowly being constructed in its place, so that people will have a backup ethics to follow if they decide to violate Catholic morals.

When ostensibly "religious people" sin in these ways, the problem is not that Christian sexual ethics are unable to convey to people that it is wrong to abuse and harass. The problem is this that people do not always obey the moral codes to which they give outward assent. This is the case whether the code in question is Catholic moral teaching or the secular code of consent at all times.

If men follow the Church's teaching on sexuality, if they treat women with the dignity they deserve as people made in the image of God, they will not rape, abuse, or harass them. If they treat women in those ways, they are not following the Church's moral teaching. We do not need a new moral teaching, a new understanding of human decency, we need to teach and follow the one we have.

Test Strategy

Yesterday afternoon my 16yo took the sample SAT test included in her prep book, and in the evening we sat down together to score it.

I'm not a demanding or pushy parent by any stretch, but I have to admit that my heart was sinking as we totted up the number of questions that were either left blank or were wrong. There wasn't any point in flustering her, but I did start to question my entire schooling ethic. Had I been so lax that we'd learned nothing? Maybe I was failing my children academically? Maybe the final score wouldn't even be college-material -- not a moral failing, of course, but not indicative of the abilities of a bright child. She too could see how things were trending, and her shoulders drooped the further we went. By the time we finished marking all the answers, we were both rather puzzled and distressed.

The score didn't actually make a lot of sense, so we hunted around on the SAT website until we found the metric for calculating what the equivalent final score would be for the raw answers we'd turned out for the PSAT. You had to look up the raw number of correct scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and the total of both Math sections. Those translated into a number that was close to the raw score, but not quite the same. Then you added the adjusted Reading and the Writing scores together and multiplied by 10. The adjusted Math score was to be multiplied by twenty. All this jiggering finally resulted in a number that was recognizable as an SAT score. In our case, it turned out to be a quite respectable number, and we sighed in relief -- and in triumph, because our detecting and calculating had been to good effect and had cheered us considerably.

As we analyzed our data, we realized that the test is not necessarily designed with the idea that every question will even be answered. In fact, you can get a perfect numerical score without answering every question, or if some of the answers are wrong. So, with one more day left to study, we built a test-taking strategy.

1. Go through quickly and answer every question that she can answer easily. That will take care of missing some shoe-in questions at the end of the test sections. For the math section with calculator, that means answering all the graph and word problems first, because those are much easier for her than the equations.
2. Go back and spend time on the lit and writing questions she knows she can solve but needs more time to answer. Work the basic equations.
3. Work through the hardest questions, if possible.
4. Since there's no penalty for wrong answers, guess on the ones she can't answer. Leave nothing unanswered!

As all the questions she missed on the sample test were the harder ones, this strategy will almost automatically guarantee her a higher score on the actual PSAT than on the sample one. And that's something that can build confidence right there.

This morning she went through the sections she hadn't completed in the test time yesterday, setting a time limit and answering questions according to this strategy. This garnered her some more correct answers, and a lucky guess in the math section. We'll see if all this strategy pays off tomorrow, but we're feeling cautiously optimistic right now.

Humpty Dumpty Clericalism

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

‘Ah, you should see ‘em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: ‘for to get their wages, you know.’

(Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)
Though the Looking Glass, Chapter 7

One of the odd dichotomies that crops up as Catholics discuss the scandals surrounding clerical sexual abuse and chronic violation of clerical vows is that some people say "it's about sex" while other say "it's about clericalism", when it seems clear that the scandal involves both. On the one had, the clergy sex scandals clearly involve sex. On the other, I can't think of a better word for a culture among clerics in which they on the one hand continue to give at least lip service to the Church's doctrine's on sexuality and on the other hand cover up for the sexual sins of clerics as if clerics were some protected class to whom the rules of morality do not apply.

For me, as a married person, violation of my vows would be potentially life ending. When priests or bishops brush off other clerics violating their own vows with the comment that everyone falls once in a while, they are engaging in an approach to morality where clerics live under a different set of rules and consequences than the rest of us.

And yet, while you might think that this definition of "clericalism" as a system or mentality under which clerics do not live by the same rules as everyone else, where clerics have an exalted status simply by virtue of being clerics, is a very straight forward definition, there are wordsmiths who would laugh at your simplicity.

Enter theologian and self appointed spokesman for the pope Massimo Faggioli. He writes in La Croix that a set of initiatives kicked off my lay Catholic donors with the aim of investigating cardinals in regards to their handling of sexual abuse cases and their own personal morality represent a case of dangerous clericalism.

Catholics with abundant financial resources and strong connections to the leaders of the U.S. episcopate are trying to fill the vacuum with an agenda that is officially about reform. But, in fact, it is actually corrupting the Church even more, though in a different way.Recently a self-appointed Catholic watchdog group emerged under the name “Better Church Governance.”At a meeting on Oct. 3 at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., the group announced “plans to enlist the help of former F.B.I. agents to investigate the cardinals who will vote for the next pope and assess how they handled allegations of sexual abuse and whether they have remained faithful to their own vows.” In the very same week, another event — called “Authentic Reform” — also took place in Washington. It was organized by the Napa Institute, a group of wealthy Catholics “known for its annual conferences in California wine country” and which “blends conservative theology and libertarian economics, with an emphasis on apologetics, sexual ethics and countercultural anti-secularization.”There is much to say about how the leadership of the Catholic Church has become desensitized to the threat that money represents for the Christian character of the communion of the faithful. This desensitization is one of the consequences of the abandonment of a theology that takes seriously what Karl Marx called “relations of production” and has instead embraced “culture” and “identity” as an opposition to materialism. This post-materialistic theology of culture, focused on “values,” turned out to serve the interests of those who are in control of the “relations of production” — the influential network of wealthy Catholic philanthropists from the right, which recently has built strong ties with conservative bishops in the United States.
If the 2013 conclave took place under unprecedented circumstances (following the resignation of Benedict XVI), the next one could take place in a much more dangerous and uncertain situation for the freedom of the Church. The influx of agenda-driven money has long term consequences on the trajectory of a religious community and of a faith. Just look at the effects of money coming from Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the schools for the formation of the new generations of leaders of Islam – not just in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but globally. This could happen also to the Church, with certain groups of American Catholics using their resources and outreach to create an ecclesial culture that is not exactly in sync with the one embodied by the current pope. Without ignoring the obvious differences, there are certain similarities between the new right-wing Roman Catholic institute in Italy, created under the auspices of Steve Bannon and Cardinal Raymond Burke, and the Saudi-financed madrassas that teach Wahhabism around the world.This poses a challenge to Catholicism that is no less dangerous for the freedom of the Church than the one coming from the Chinese government or from aggressive secularist agendas. But it is more subtle than foreign State interference, presenting itself as offering theologically orthodox assistance to the Church. However, it is actually a new version of the old juridical-political principle “protection draws to it subjection” (protectio trahit subjectionem).In the 12th century, the initiator of “modern” canon law, Gratian, said that there are two kinds of Christians (“duo genera Christianorum”) – the ordained and the laity. He was notreferring to the ability to marry or celebrate Mass as that which separates the ordained from the laity. Rather, he was referring to the distinction between those who can manage Church finances and resources (the ordained) and those who cannot (the laity).We are now in a Church that is trying to get rid, for theological reasons, of this dualistic understanding of authority and power in the Church – what Francis refers to often as “clericalism.”And in reality the line dividing the clergy from the laity has been blurred for a long time now — having become a canonical distinction says little about what the clergy and the laity have in common and what separates them. But we are now witnessing a new type of “duo genera Christianorum” — those who have money (and can thereby influence in the Church) and those who do not. This is creating a new clericalism of money and even dividing the Church in one same nation (today, the United States). But it also threatens to create an even deeper division between the rich churches and the poor ones. This Catholic plutocracy is already one of the major factors in the rift between Pope Francis and some sectors of U.S. Catholicism.Money is indeed talking in the business of Catholicism today. It is not at all clear if there is another kind of currency that can influence the Church and in a different direction. Given all this, the canonization of Oscar Romero next Sunday could not come at a more crucial time.
So there you have it. If members of the laity use their financial resources to shine a light on clerics who use their power within the Church to cover up for their offenses, that is "clericalism". To avoid clericalism, the pesky laity should know their place and leave the clerics to do as they please.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Justice: Individual or Group

I recently read a post urging that society treat the investigation and punishment of rape as seriously as murder. This strikes me as a good idea, given the grave evil of the crime and the personal devastation it causes, but it did bring to mind an interesting contrast.

There's a sort of mini industry, primarily coming from the left of center, of trying to prove that people who have been accused or convicted of murder are actually innocent. (See: Serial, big heavily researched stories for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc. The Innocence Project is potentially also an example, though it's worth noting that they do also work to prove the innocence of people convicted of rape when DNA evidence, etc. make it possible to do so.) Conservatives at times complain a bit that this represents the left siding with murderers over victims.

It's interesting that there's an extreme reversal of this dynamic when it comes to rape, with many on the left saying that any doubt that someone accused of rape is guilty represents acting as if it's not in fact a horrible crime that deserves to be punished. (Of course, this is in certain cases confirmed by reprehensible talk in certain quarters about how sexual assault might be "boyish hijinks".)

I'm thinking that perhaps the dynamic behind this is that there's a general tendency on the left to look out for those perceived as downtrodden by society. People accused of murder (especially if they happen to be poor or minorities or otherwise disadvantaged) seem to fit the downtrodden model, and there's thus a desire to see if perhaps they can be proved innocent or otherwise the victim of circumstances.

In the case of rape accusations, the tendency on the left is to see the accused as the representing a powerful group while the victim represents a historically oppressed group, thus in this case trying to show that the accused is innocent is seen as standing up for the powerful at the expense of the weak.

This contrast came into sharp focus during the last week as Rich Lowry of National Review and Jamelle Bouie writing at Slate crossed swords over what side of the Bret Kavanaugh affair it was more appropriate to imagine Atticus Finch taking.

Most succinctly, Lowry argued that in a world of #BelieveAllWomen the Atticus Finch who reduced Mayella Ewell to tears in the courtroom with a line of questioning that proved the accusation that Tom Robinson had raped her could not be true, could no longer be seen as a symbol of American legal integrity. Bouie, on the other hand, argued that what was notable about Atticus Finch was his willingness to stand up for an oppressed class that were habitually disbelieved, and thus that to walk in the tradition of Finch would be to support women who have been raped or abused. He concludes:
If you want to make the Atticus Finch analogy, you must understand the actual dynamic of the story in question. You can claim the mantle of Lee’s hero if you are standing in defense of the marginalized, giving voice to claims of innocence, or victimhood, that are otherwise ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. You can claim Atticus if you fight for the powerless, for those who might truly lose everything from speaking out, who feel the weight of society against them. Looking at our society and the ubiquity of sexual violence—looking at the extent to which women are presumptively challenged and men presumptively exonerated—there are opportunities to deploy the Atticus Finch analogy for those who want to use it. It’s not in defense of Brett Kavanaugh.

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those classic novels "everyone has read" that I somehow managed to miss reading in my youth. I read it for the first time a couple years ago, when Harper Lee's original novel (a rejected draft dealing with an adult Scout going home to the south and dealing with her memories, which memories an editor suggested she make the main subject of the novel instead) was published as Go Set A Watchman. The paroxysm of the moment was "new Harper Lee novel reveals Atticus Finch was a racist" and I was curious to go read the book which everyone else had read as a teenager.

What struck me reading Mockingbird was that Atticus Finch is not really any kind of an anti-racist. He's not out to overturn a system. Indeed, he insists on deference to system and to age, as when he makes Scout and her brother help out the (fairly nasty) old lady in town when they respond to her insults aimed at their family by destroying her flowers. We eventually find out that Atticus didn't even volunteer to defend Tom Robinson, he was assigned to do so and reluctantly agreed to take the assignment.

However, Atticus is someone who believes deeply in the integrity of the law and its process, and having been assigned to defend Tom, he investigates, becomes convinced that Tom is in fact innocent, and sets about proving it.

What makes Atticus admirable -- particularly in the context of the 1930s era South in which the story is set, and the 1960s America in which the book was published -- is that Atticus considers the fact that Tom is innocent far more important than the fact that he is Black. Atticus preaches a kind of humanism which involves taking people where they are at and understanding them, whether it's Tom the falsely accused black man or Mrs. Dubose the morphine-addicted, racist old lady who mocks his children because he's representing a black man.

In this sense, it seems to me that Atticus represents a vision of justice which is correct: a blind justice which is concerned only with the question of "Is the accused innocent or guilty?" It does not seem to me that he endorses a the view, common in the more identity-driven sectors of the left, that we should decide which side to support strictly on the basis of which identity group they belong to and not whether they are right or wrong.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Working the Land

I'm only up for a brief post tonight, because I'm sore all over and barely propping my eyelids up. I took the day off work today -- a planned day off originally scheduled to do a catch-up with the older kids for whose school schedules I am responsible -- and ended up spending the afternoon and evening on heavy yard work. Several months ago we'd had our driveway resurfaced, and this left me with a little cliff ranging from 12 and 30 inches high at the edge of the lawn where the digger had cut into it to lay the asphalt. Today's task was to break down that little cliff, till it into a slope, and get it ready to lay new grass seed down.

We all have out deeply held yet basically inexplicable beliefs about what kind of work makes one a "real person", an "ordinary person", a person who hasn't got above himself. For me, one of these is doing my own yard work. I know there are lots of good reasons why people hire this out to people with more expertise and more power tools, but I've never had a "year guy" for basic things like mowing and planting and mulching and digging. If I need a tree more than twice my height cut down, I'll hire someone. If I need plumbing or roofing or even certain kinds of painting done, I'll hire it out without a qualm. But to me, an able bodied man who doesn't go out and put in the sweat to keep his yard in order is a man who is passing out of "hard working American" territory. Indeed, I remember with a certain pride in my ancestry and industry the time I was slogging away on a Texas summer day digging a hole a plant a rose bush, when some neighborhood teens wandered by and shouted at me "Stupid wetback! What ya doin?" (Before someone says anything about the white privilege of the teens, I'll note for the record they were all black, which just goes to show that racial assumptions and prejudices are complicated.)

So I borrowed my neighbors tiller this afternoon and got a mattock out of the garage and spent the afternoon breaking sod and moving dirt.

If any of you want to start one of these trendy workout routines where you use real world motions to tone your muscles, I can assure you that both swinging a mattock and perhaps more surprisingly wrestling a tiller that's cutting through thick grass root systems and dry soil, are really great workouts. I hurt in lots of places that I don't normally use in my office existence.

Complaints Against The Church, Good and Bad

There's been a lot to accuse members, and indeed leaders, of the Church of lately, and so a lot of people have been engaging in accusing. Given some of the ways that many of our shepherds have fallen drastically short of living up to the task which Christ has given to them, that's entirely right and proper.

And yet, as I watch people making their complaints, it strikes me that some come from a spirit of faithfulness while others from a spirit of rebellion. And while we as Americans have a soft spot for rebellion, when it comes to matters of God it's worth remembering that there's one great rebel in the history of salvation, and he represents the ultimate turning away from God.

One simple division which strikes me in terms of how people complain against the Church consists of complaints that members and leaders of the Church are failing to life according to the Church's own teachings, versus complaints that the Church's teachings been promulgated by "the powerful" in order to oppress the faithful. The former is a reminder that the doctrines which Christ gave us are greater than we are, and thus that we owe to them obedience no matter how difficult that may seem. The latter attempts to put ourselves above the Church's teaching.

In assessing all this, the difficult balance it to remember that at all times the Church has been peoples by sinners. Thus, at any given time, though in each time according to the spirit of that particular moment, people are living out the Church's teachings badly, and mistaking some of their personal and cultural preferences, the sins they prefer to indulge and mistake almost for virtues, for "what the Church teaches". And yet, we are told, indeed, we are promised, that the Church is no merely human institution. Despite all the sinful people responsible for the everyday running of the Church, the overall teaching authority of the Church is protected by God.

Thus, we must remember that at any given time, many of our leaders may be lousy Christians, and yet at the same time that if we find ourselves claiming that the Church is wrong on some issue, that e are rebelling against Christ not following him.

Calling on Catholics to dedicate themselves more deeply to following the Church's teaching is the path back towards Christ, demanding that the Church's teachings change is the path away from Him.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Query Life

I've been sending out query letters to agents for my novel, If You Can Get It, (an earlier draft of which some of you may have read on the blog as a NaNoWriMo six years ago, but which has been quietly removed from the archives since I'm not trying to sell it) since early July. I've now sent out 98 queries. It's an interesting process.

The first challenge is to give a sense of what your novel is about (basically a hook followed by a summary for the 20-30% of the story) in a short and punchy letter. This is harder than it sounds, and I've revised mine repeatedly during the last few months. Here's my current one:

Jen Nilsson has an MBA, a Bay Area condo, and a great job as a product manager at a tech company. And if her big product launch goes well next month, she may finally land the marketing director job she’s been gunning for. But then her younger sister Katie, fresh off a fight with their parents back home, blows through the front door, dumping cardboard boxes of possessions onto Jen’s couch and a lifetime of personal drama into her lap.

Family is family, so Jen agrees to let her sister stay, even though impulsive Katie, with a newly minted liberal arts degree and no plan for her life other than not to let their mother tell her what to do, sums up everything that frustrates Jen. Somehow she’ll turn her sister into a model adult. But then Jen’s product launch is canceled and she’s laid off.

Jen feels like the floor has dropped out of her world. Katie tries to step forward and support her sister, but her wages at Starbucks are less than the mortgage and her attempts at cooking and home maintenance tend to spiral into catastrophe.

Jen’s got to find a new job, not just to pay the bills but to rebuild her shattered pride. At last she seems to have found the perfect lead, but with each interview she becomes more sure the company’s dysfunctional from top to bottom. When she’s finally offered the job, her instincts tell her to turn it down. But how can she turn down the job she so desperately needs?

She takes the job, but within days her fears are confirmed by an email from her new boss. She’d better dust off her passport. She’s got to be in China next week.

IF YOU CAN GET IT is mainstream fiction which explores the humor and humanity of the business world in the mode of THIS COULD HURT and THEN WE CAME TO THE END but finds its heart in the deepening relationship of two sisters as different as Elinor and Marianne of SENSE AND SENSIBILTY. It is complete at 72,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The comparisons in the last paragraph I added most recently and with extreme reluctance. I don't actually think that my novel is hugely similar to any of these, but what I eventually reconciled myself to is that comps are a shorthand for evoking in the agent's mind a sense of what the novel is like in tone and theme beyond the very short pitch which is in the query itself.

To find agents, you go to either a writers market such as one can pick up at the library, or a website with lots of searchable listings of agents. I use, which not only has a searchable list but also lets you record who you sent queries to and what responses you've received.

Different agents what different materials. Some want just the query letter. Some also want a brief summary of the entire novel including the ending. Some want you to include the first five pages or first ten pages or first chapter or first three chapters in the email you send.

And once you send your email, you wait for a response. How long? Well, I have a spreadsheet to tell you.

Of the 98 queries I've sent out, I've had 44 responses: 39 outright rejections and 5 requests for either the first three chapters or the whole manuscript. The other 54 queries I haven't received responses on yet, and from what I've seen it's typical that about half the time you get no response (which means "no".) All five positive responses came within the first two weeks after sending my query. Of the negatives, most responses have been fairly quick, but there's a long tail.

You also start to get a sense of when agents are clearing out their inboxes. I've received the most responses on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Many agents clearly spend their "free time" answering queries, as a fair number of responses have come in during the evenings or on weekend, but I don't record the time I get emails in my spreadsheet, so I can't graph that one for you.

Rejections are basically all form letters and provide no specific reason for the rejection. Some of this is doubtless to save time, and I suspect some of it might also be to avoid having writers try to argue the reasons for rejection. A fairly typical letter might be:

Thank you for writing to me about your project. While the idea has some merit, I don't think that it's right for me. However, publishing is a very subjective business, so I strongly encourage you to keep trying. It may well be that your project is just right for another agent.

[Note: this is not the text of any one agent's rejection, it's a just a typical example that I made up after reading lots of them.]

Rejection is, of course, disappointing, but it's part of the game. So as my own bit of amusement, I've been compiling the text of all the rejection letters I've received. Here's some word frequency art based on all thirty-nine.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Test Prep

My oldest daughter is gearing up to take the PSAT at the local high school next week, so it's been a time of review. When I registered her, I was handed a test prep booklet and a SAT practice test, which has formed the basis of our review. I say "our", because she and I are going right back to Algebra I.

Looking over the booklets, I find I can answer the literature/reading comprehension/writing questions at the speed of reading. This is not difficult at all for me -- it's the kind of thing I do every day. The math was... the math was harder. I have, literally, a high school math education, as do many liberal arts majors who never had to take a math class in college. As I look at the questions, both in the test booklet and on Khan Academy's prep site, I remember doing these kind of equations as a teenager -- pages and pages of equations, hours and hours worth of work each week. I just don't remember how they were done. Some things I recall. Balance the sides of equation. Consolidate terms. Cross-multiply and divide for percentages. But there are many concepts and processes that I have to relearn -- linear and quadratic equations, polynomials, trigonometry. These things are not instinctive for me.

On the other hand, there certain kinds of percentage word problems and graph reading that I do find more instinctive. Perhaps these are the kinds of things I have occasion to do nowadays, or the kind of analytic reading that one needs dealing with stats in the newspaper, etc. I can interpret charts in the science articles fairly easily, and when the problems are cast in concrete terms (According to the chart, how does the price of gas change from 1972-1985? If Annie bought 73 pieces of fruit and 23% of them are apples and the rest are oranges, and the next day she bought 104 pieces of fruit but the percentage of oranges stayed the same, so how many oranges were there on the second day?), I find them laborious but not impossible to solve. Some of these problems also can be answered by going with the common-sense solution, and my daughter and I have both found that to serve us pretty well in practice questions.


This isn't the only humbling learning experience I've had lately. The same daughter is taking an online biology course, which requires reading and essay questions and lab work. I have tried to read her biology textbook, and it has taught me something: about myself, not about biology.  I'm sad to learn that in terms of biology, I'm the counterpart of those obnoxious people who are so proud of the fact that they think the Odyssey is stupid, and they've lived a perfectly fine life, thank you very much, without ever having read some dead Greek writers.

Cell structures, molecules, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, aquaporins: I read about these things, I look at sentences, sentences made of words which individually I understand, and yet these words put together into a concept of biology slide right off my brain. If I look at them long and enough and read them aloud, I can memorize them for a moment, but when I look away from a sentence, I am unable to tell you what it was explaining. I feel like I have biology dyslexia.

My daughter, fortunately, understands what she is reading, and can explain it convincingly (though not in a way that really takes root in my memory). Her main struggle is with the quintessential homeschool maturation process, in which you learn that yes, in a class you really do need to write out the answers and turn them in, even if you feel like you understand the material perfectly, and that your grade is going to be affected if you don't. And thus I put in far more effort superintending a student studying something that I cannot directly help her learn than I do actually teaching other children material I know well.

This biology illiteracy has served to give me much more sympathy with my 8yo daughter, who has difficulty reading. I have always read almost effortlessly, but for my daughter, who has dyslexic symptoms, the words just seem to slide off her brain. Rules such as "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" have to be retaught almost every time. It helps me to be patient with her when I think of my inability to make any sense of the diagrams in the biology textbook and how anything I picked up has been through dint of sheer memorization. I don't understand my daughter's particular struggle -- I have never in my life had difficulty reading -- but my weaknesses elsewhere inform my ability to help her learn.


The PSAT is next Wednesday. Whether we'll have enough time to get through all our review, I don't know. My daughter also doesn't particularly remember how she did a lot of Algebra II, but it's easier for her than for me,and she's younger and more mentally malleable than I am. The benefit of age and experience is increased perspective and a vast mental library, but boy, is it humbling how hard it is to pick this stuff up again.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Stories Without Villains

In one of the set piece incidents in War & Peace, Dolokhov -- a hard drinking, heavy gambling, constantly womanizing character with a cruel streak who is at times cited as one of the books villains -- take the opportunity of a dinner party to taunt idealistic and often hapless Pierre Bezukhof with the rumors that Dolokhof is having an affair with Pierre's wife. Pierre challenges Dolokhof to a duel, and despite being both inexperienced and short sighted, shoots him. Pierre goes off shattered by the belief that he has killed a man, even his wife's lover, but Dolokhof is in fact only severely wounded, and he is carried off to be nursed by the old mother and doting sisters whom he loves. It's an interestingly human moment, and I think points to the interpretation that Tolstoy's massive novel does not really have a villain. Even Napoleon (responsible for the French invasion of Russia, unless you accept Tolstoy's rather tiresome approach to historical philosophy) comes off as very human during his brief moments in the narrative: congratulating the wounded Prince Andre for his bravery fighting against the Russians, trying to decide where to dedicate a hospital to his mother, shocked and hurt that the Russians to not welcome his enlightened rule.

A villain is a quick and easy way to add extra tension to a story and keep the plot in high gear. Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe novels spring to mind as ones which are propelled by their particularly over-the-top villains. The longest running one is the loathsome Obadiah Hakeswill, but every novel features at least one and sometimes several villains of unremitting cruelty, venality, and often cowardice as well.

This kind of approach can make for a fun, fast moving story, but I tend to think that the best novels do not make use of the crutch of having a thoroughgoing villain. (Having said this, someone will probably point out a novel that I love which leans heavily on a villain to keep the plot moving.)

The reason, I think, is that a really thorough villain ends up being a less human villain. Fiction is, after all, a distillation of live. It concentrates it, draws out the bits which make a more comprehensible story, offers clearer plot and more resolution. To say that a novel is not fully like life is no insult. Naturalism taken too far becomes boring and aimless. The author's job is to evoke real life while still providing much more structure and intelligibility than real life does.

Yet I think good writing does well to keep certain human realities when describing characters, and one of those, I think, is that the world is not really much populated with villains. Many people do bad things, and indeed one of the things that a novelist needs to do a good job of is showing how even "good people" often cause complications for their lives by performing wrong actions. And yet even the people we might think of as the antagonists in our lives, people who make us suffer through their actions, tend to do so for reasons other than simply wishing to be the worst people possible.

Dolokhov is a great example of a character who makes many evil choices, causes severe trouble for multiple characters in W&P, and yet is not really a villain in that his goal as a character is not primarily to defeat or cause trouble to the main characters. He is a more rounded character: at times heroic, often destructive. He seems as real on the page as any other character in the novel.

Monday, October 01, 2018


One of the trends throughout this blog's existence is that our posting has generally decreased each year. 2006, our first full year of blogging, we put up 524 posts. Last year we had only 145, and last month was one of our lowest on record with only seven posts.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Social media to some extent has gobbled the blog world. I read Facebook and Twitter more and blogs less, and as a result an idea sometimes gets no further than a longish post on Facebook.

I'm also busier than I used to be, both at work and at home. I used to write most of my posts during quiet moments at work. These days I pretty reliably do not have quiet moments at work. It's not exactly that I'm doing more as that what I do has changed, following the path which advancement often causes. Twelve years ago, I often had stretches of time where I'd kick off a database to update and have thirty or sixty minutes of downtime while I waited for it to finish. My work was mostly focused on producing data (pulling it from my company's massive enterprise data warehouse and compiling it into useful data cubes) and then processing it into reports that would be useful for the teams that I supported. Once in a while, because I still know a little more SQL than anyone working for me, I still have stretches of quiet project time pulling data, but in general my work these days involves meeting with people on other teams, understanding what they need to know in order to run the business, turning those questions into projects for my people to investigate, and then explaining the results of those investigations to the proper audiences. Rather than spending my time coding and analyzing (with breaks while the processor did my work for me) I spend my time meeting with people, often with few breaks.

And when I do have breaks... Well, too often I'm wasting them on the social media listed above.

Blogging in the evenings would seem a rational response to these problems, but our time of life has shifted since we began our blog as well. Back in 2005 when we began, our oldest child was three years old. She's now sixteen. Divisions and alliances shift among children as they age, but at the moment one of our divisions is between the big three and the little four. The big three are all girls: 16, 15, and 12. All are full grown enough to regularly steal their mother's shoes (except those who are now a size larger) and they are deep within their own projects. Our second oldest organized, directed, filmed, and edited the Spiderman trailer from this last weekend, a project which brought the whole family to a cluttered standstill for three days worth of crunch time as they completed it. The oldest has set out to complete Inktober, with daily ink drawings throughout the month. But more often, it's simply that the teenagers like to stay up late and still enjoy talking to us. This is a thing not to be wasted, and so many is the happy hour I've spent listening to one or another of them talk about her current interests and concerns.

For many people a little older than we, this would constitute the fullness of family life, but of course we also have the small four: three boys and a girl, ranging in age from 10 to 1. They also keep us on our toes. I provided quite the show taking all four of them grocery shopping Sunday afternoon, with the ten year old pushing a second cart so we could fit everything. People shake their heads and say, "You have your hands full." And I don't have to decide whether to say, "This isn't all of them," because they happily do it for me. The performance art of shocking people with our family size is apparently something in which all ages can happily indulge.

And, of course, I have other writing projects now that I'm trying to get under control. I took a pause on the World War One novel earlier this year in order to try to get If You Can Get It (a light modern day novel of business and sisterhood) polished and submitted for publication. Ninety-eight queries later, it's starting to look like if I want that novel to see publication (and I do) I'll have to go the indie route.

Yet despite all these reasons for writing less, I value the blog a good deal. Furthermore, some of the things on which I've been spending my time (cough, Facebook, cough) are not ones that I find all that valuable in my life. So for this month I'm setting myself the challenge of writing a post a day. Some may be short, but then, one of the freedoms of blogging often is that one doesn't feel the constraint that every post must convey something significant in the most exhaustive and correct way possible. Blog writing and at times should be occasional and brief, providing a first assay at laying out some thought. And too often, as I've written less and less on the blog, I've allowed the idea of sitting down to write to be too daunting and thus too slow, thus making posting even less frequent.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Trailer Madness: Homecoming

First, watch this:

And now behold, the fruit of a month's labor, and one intense weekend's scrambling: a shot-for-shot remake of the trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring the Darwin children, a friend, our house, the blue screen, and featuring a cameo by our big blue van.

Julia, the auteur, kept a spreadsheet of every shot, every line of dialogue, and the timing of each.

Darwin and I woke up to a frenzy of reshooting this morning because twelve shots had been deleted before being uploaded. But now the work is done and everyone is about to have celebratory M&Ms.

For fun, here's a side-by-side comparison of the two trailers. If it doesn't autoplay for you, click the professional trailer first to get the timing mostly right.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: New Year, New Class, Same Me

We're back in session! This year it's different: we have a curriculum with student workbooks and a teacher's manual and a separate confirmation curriculum with its own workbooks and manuals and journals. Classes are held to about 15 students, and I have an adult assistant with me. You happy now, MrsDarwin? You happy?

Well, I am glad. We're now required to submit lesson plans to the office a week before class, which does insure that I get planning done. And there are two other Confirmation classes, taught by good people I know, so we can coordinate and bounce ideas off of each other.

And so, with all this support, plus a lesson plan, plus a teacher's manual that almost has things scripted out, I had my students open their books to the first page of the first chapter, which discusses, amid graphics and text boxes, how St. Peter gave up everything to follow Christ, and how we were going to talk about the founding of the Church...

...and blanked. I stared at that page, and I had absolutely no words to say about it. I sat for about seven seconds, with almost no brain activity -- SEVEN SECONDS of dead air, count it out for yourself -- and thought, "Screw it." I knew that two pages further on, there was a brief summary of the themes of the Our Father, and I knew I could talk about that.

"Guys, let's flip over to page 5," I said. And for the next 40 minutes we went through the Our Father line by line, and God be praised, I did not freeze.

(When I say "we talked", I mean that I talked. My group of kids is not bad, or rude, or mouthy. They are silent. It is pulling teeth to get them to talk at all. I think that they'd rather have teeth pulled than volunteer an observation. It is what it is -- and it's okay if they feel like they don't know what to say. They're in class to learn, after all.)

(And as always, this is what I can dredge from my memory after the fact. Some sections feel more abbreviated than they were in class because I can't remember exactly what I said, or how I arrived at this point from that point. Caveat lector.)


Our Father: some of you have really excellent fathers, and some of you might have fathers that are not so great (no hands, please!), but all fathers have some kind of flaw. God is the model for every father, and he fulfills all the needs that your earthly father can't. In telling us to call him father, he's calling us his children. My little baby toddles up to his dad with his arms up and a big smile, saying, "Da! Da!" We're called to have that kind of love and trust in God our Father.

Who art in heaven: Earth is not all there is. Everyone knows that longing for something bigger, something better, something that's coming. You're at the age where you really feel that, the yearning for something. St. Augustine says, "Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you." Heaven is our ultimate goal, and everything we do here on this Earth should be preparing us for heaven and for eternal life with God.

Hallowed be thy name: Anyone know the second commandment? "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Do you know anyone who takes God's name in vain? Do you do it yourself? (No hands!) God is holy, set apart, perfect.  When you use his name as an oath, do you think he doesn't hear you? "I swear to God..." Do you really? Do you want God witnessing this statement? We are called to treat God's name as holy, and to remember his perfect holiness, and to live in holiness ourselves.

Thy kingdom come: I asked whether Jesus had come to set up an earthly kingdom, and had one fellow volunteer that the church had once ruled on earth. So I talked about the dangers of the Church as an earthly kingdom, and said that anyway, when Jesus is first preaching the gospel, he says, "The kingdom of God is at hand." So where was it then, before the Church? God works in our soul and sets up his kingdom there, and that means that it can never be conquered. No matter what kind of earthly government you live under -- Roman occupation, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, a democratic republic, a banana republic -- the kingdom of God is within you and cannot be taken from you.

Thy will be done: How can we even know God's will, anyway? How do we know what he asks of us? Jesus promised: I will not leave you orphans. God doesn't abandon us or make it impossible to know how we should live. He gives us laws and instructions, not because he is domineering or cruel but so that we can know what he wants. What is one of God's laws? Can anyone name something Jesus asked of us? Okay, how about the ten commandments? Anyone know one of those? Thou shalt not... steal, yes, thank you. Why does God command us not to steal? Because he likes to order us around and tell us what to do? Here's a story: a few years ago someone broke my husband's car window and stole his work backpack. What did the thief get? A work laptop that couldn't be unlocked, and three notebooks with several years' worth of research in them. Those notebooks were worthless to a thief, just a few hundred sheets of paper. To my husband, they were irreplaceable. When the thief stole them, he not only stole the physical property, but my husband's time and memories. There is no way to make amends for that. We often cannot fully repair the harm done by our sins. The wounds are too big for even an apology to cover. That's why God gives us laws. They help us, not just to not do bad things, but to begin to live as God wants us to, in love -- to be like him.

On earth as it is in heaven: I let this one pass because we already talked about heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread: We are not just souls trapped in a body. Our body and soul are intimately connected, so that what we do with one resonates in the other. What happens when you're hungry? You get hangry, cranky, your temper gets short, you lash out at other people, you might be tempted to steal. What we do with our bodies matter, and how we treat our own, and other people's bodies, matters. Your body is not just for use. Other people's bodies aren't just for use. You deserve always to be treated with dignity and respect, and you have an obligation to treat others that way. We ask for our physical needs to be met, and we try to meet others' physical needs. Have you contributed to a food drive? Bought school supplies for someone in need? Donated clothing? You're helping others. God cares about our bodies, and he wants us to ask for what we need.

And forgive us our trespasses: Jesus will never refuse us his mercy -- he wants to grant us mercy far more than we want to receive it. But we must ask for it, because asking for forgiveness and mercy means acknowledging our guilt. We don't get far without admitting that we're sinners, that we break things that we can't fix, that we hurt people willfully, and that we need God's mercy because only he is able to fully heal the wounds of sin.

As we forgive those who trespass against us: God's extending his mercy to us means that we don't get to hold grudges. It's said that we only love God as much as we love the person we love the least. That's a scary thought! But note that our forgiveness is linked to God's forgiveness -- we're not always humanly capable of extending forgiveness, so we tap into God's great ocean of mercy. All forgiveness comes from him.

And lead us not into evil: There were things I should have said about this, but most of them didn't occur to me until just now. And that was okay, because I'd filled my time and was able to spend the few remaining class moments covering some other things we needed to talk about, such as Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and the church.

Pentecost: Was everyone here baptized as an infant? No? Do you remember your baptism? A little? We've all been baptized and brought into God's family. So why do we need confirmation? Wasn't baptism good enough?

What happened after Jesus rose from the dead? He visits the apostles, shows them his hands and feet and his glorified body. They knew about crucifixion. It's an evil way to die, designed to cause suffering. And here they see him risen from the dead. And not just them -- Jesus appeared to many people after he was risen. He stayed with the apostles and taught them and strengthened them.

So what happened after Jesus left them and ascended back to heaven? Did they go right out and evangelize and teach and preach? No, they were cowering locked in a room. Even seeing God risen from the dead wasn't enough for them. They needed the Holy Spirit before they were even able to go out of that room. They could not start the Church on their own. Their human strength wasn't enough.

(Here I tried a slightly theological explanation of the Trinity, as opposed to the shamrock version, but I don't know how it went over, or if it was absorbed at all.)

The Spirit came to give his gifts to the church as a whole. In confirmation, you receive the spirit individually. Your own unique talents and gifts -- you as a completely unique person, never before seen and never to be replicated -- are revealed and strengthened and sealed in the Spirit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Getting Better and Worse with Age

When I was a young mother, drowning in small children, I looked back on my days of studying theater as a kind of golden heyday. There I was in the thick of it, living in the theater, breathing drama, studying acting and history and stagecraft, doing what I loved. But all that was in the past, of course, and now my future was to be living vicariously through my children.

Here I am now, not quite 40, with my oldest 16 and my youngest 1, playing the blushing ingenue in our community theater's production of The Front Page. I have more fun on stage now than I did in college, because I'm not so worried about what people think of me. It's okay if I look silly, or fall on my face, or if I try my best and it's not enough. Being okay with being mostly competent at something often gives people the courage and the ability to move being mostly competent, or so I've found.

This is an example of the way someone can get better with age. Acting is easier for me now than it was when I was 20 years younger and 50 pounds lighter, because I have the confidence and the life experience to put into practice what I learned as theory. And isn't it nice to be wiser and more mature and to finally have some real technique?

And yet I'm also finding that skills I used to have seem to be slipping away from me. (And I don't mean walking up the stairs without my knees cracking.) In years past as I've taught my religion class, the words seemed to come to me. I was overflowing with ways to explain various concepts or an apt story to illustrate the day's topic. I was able to draw out quieter children or keep the chattier ones engaged (or at least mostly on topic). Maybe I had the energy of youth, I don't know.

Last year seemed to drain that from me. We had our first religion class of the year this past Sunday, and I felt myself struggling. Now we have smaller classes and a complete curriculum -- student workbooks, teacher manuals, journals, supplemental materials, craft supplies for the asking, -- and even with all this support (an entirely scripted lesson if I wanted!) I was grasping for words, feeling my stories fall flat, unable to breech the silence of the eighth-grader who wants nothing more than not to participate in class. Perhaps this is all subjective, but my teaching mojo certainly gives every impression of seeping out of the cracks. I've been looking for years for a sign that I can step away from being a catechist, and if the year continues this way, I may have found it.

Another thing that has slipped away from me is any tolerance for the enthusiasms of the inexperienced. I never volunteer to be one of those people that new homeschoolers can ask their questions, because that sort of thing turns me into the most miserable curmudgeon. There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with wanting your four-year-old to be reading chapter books, or with being distressed that your toddler doesn't share your love for your favorite fantasy series and won't listen through the read-aloud. There's nothing wrong with wanting to provide a structured day to a houseful of kids under 8. I just don't have the patience for it anymore.

This is possibly the other side of the coin for me. I tried hard to get my first four-year-old to read. I wanted to Do The Things. Since then I've had five other four-year-olds, and one still yet to be four, and the thought of implementing more fuss in my life is wearisome. Alas, this doesn't give me compassion for folks full of pep about starting out and wanting to ask all the questions. I feel exasperated at the thought of people actually looking to make more work for themselves, to the point where I have to avoid these kinds of conversations lest I break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. In this regard, age and experience haven't made me more graceful. They have made me hard and brittle.

There is a lie of progress, that we all get better with age, that our best selves are shaped and refined with the years. Maturity does wonders for people, of course, but talent and strength can peak and wane with time. And there's no discounting the cyclical nature of loves, and the situational grace that's withdrawn as circumstances change. New vices come with age, but so do new virtues. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Tie that Binds

An acquaintance of mine, from my homeschooling group, had a little boy last week. I saw the photos when he was born -- a sweet, tiny, soft fellow, perfect in every detail.

Today she is burying him. I'm going to the funeral this morning.

If today isn't the worst day of your life, give thanks to God. And please pray for M. and for baby Sebastian, and for his grieving family. If you have some small trouble today, please offer it for them. I'm offering my own literal pain in the neck -- caused by sleeping next to my own tumbly, snuggly, 14-month-old -- for these friends, and for all whose pain can never be assuaged in this life.

Also today, my son is going to a birthday party for a friend who's turning 10. These friends are from the same homeschooling group. Many of the same parents who are going to the funeral this morning will be meeting again in the afternoon to celebrate double digits and watch their children laughing and singing and generally acting like dopes, which is about the definition of being ten.

If today isn't the best day of your life, please know that it will, it must get better. And offer your troubles for Miss A., a sweet, funny girl turning 10, and for all her carefree friends this afternoon.

We are joined in this strange bond of humanity, in which your pain, though it is always and inseparably yours, can be shared by me, and my joys, even though they are always and inseparably mine, can be shared by you. My sorrow can be offered for your joy, and my joy can inflected by your sorrow. Here I have mentioned some people you didn't know existed, and without knowing them you can be united to them in prayer and sacrifice, through Jesus's great sacrifice which binds us all together.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Scandal and Truth

The day after the explosive news of Archbishop Vigano's 11-page testimony alleging that Pope Francis had known of former-Cardinal McCarrick's sexual abuse of seminarians and priests under his control, and yet seen fit to make him a key adviser and follow his recommendations in filling US sees, I went to mass, as usual on a Sunday. I went, tired, short of sleep, and dispirited, but I went, because we go not for the institutional Church but for God. And if there's one time we need God, it is when the failures of his followers are so evident.

After mass, I was talking to some friends in the parking lot. One of them thanked me for my links on social media over the prior twenty-four hours covering the scandal.

I found myself wondering: What kind of favor was I doing people by making them aware of this stuff. Here were people active in the parish, devout, whom my online ruminations had ended up showing the full ugliness of the institutional church over the last day. A level of vileness which had kept me up at intervals during the prior night, and had distracted me all through mass. Was I making the world a worse place by sharing such things, by knowing such things? Wasn't the real church the parish we were in, the sacrament we had just received? Why did I feel it necessary to follow the doings far away in Rome, by people whom I will probably never meet?

There's some truth in this. I've said before on occasion: Catholicism is a great faith but a terrible hobby. Following too much of the gossip and faction side of the church can be damaging to one's faith, and if it damages your faith to follow such things you shouldn't do it. Christ is truly present on the altar, but rather obscured in comment boxes. If reading about the insider doings of the church is likely to drive you away, you should't read about them.

But of course, the problem here is not paying attention. In some places, there may be a certain illusory peace to be found in shutting one's eyes and ears to the news and retreating into the sacraments of one's own parish. But the real problem is that our shepherds have not been paying attention to their true mission.

This is part of what I've found so dispiriting about this whole thing, which I can't help thinking of as the falling action of the current papacy. In my naive initial reactions to Pope Francis, it seemed to me that although Francis might not have the focus on intellectual writing and liturgy which had appealed to me in John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that with him we were seeing a focus on the simple message of Christ's love and our need for Christ which might be just what we as the modern world and church needed to hear at this time. The modern world is self regarding. One of the standard attacks on belief we read these days is the question "Is God good enough to be worthy of our belief? Does he measure up to our enlightened standards?" It takes something startling to remind the modern world that we ourselves are in need of Christ's salvation, not the other way round.

Over the last five years I've slowly become less positive about the current papacy, mostly out of concern about its approach to marriage and the ability of us laity to actually pursue virtue. And yet it still seemed to me that lurking out there, waiting for it to become a focus again, was that early emphasis on our need for Christ.

That's the sense in which this round of scandal strikes to deeply to the heart of what the church and the papacy should be.

Our duty, first and foremost, is to lead to Christ, to a life of virtue, to holiness. Our first duty is not to fundraising. It is not to diplomatic missions. It is to heaven.

And so the idea, increasingly confirmed, that Francis from the beginning knew that McCarrick was worldly cleric who was (at the least) chronically unfaithful to his vows, and yet saw him as a useful tool for "his mission" in the world and his new papacy. A pope cannot take the view that "he may be an SOB, but he's our SOB" the way that a corrupt government or corporation might. And yet that seems to be exactly the devils bargain that was made.
"I guess the Lord isn't done with me yet," [McCarrick] told the pope.

"Or the devil doesn't have your accommodations ready!" Francis shot back with a laugh.

McCarrick loves to tell that story, because he loves to tell good stories and because he has a sense of humor as keen as the pope's. But the exchange also says a lot about the improbable renaissance McCarrick is enjoying as he prepares to celebrate his 84th birthday in July.
McCarrick travels regularly to the Middle East and was in the Holy Land for Francis' visit in May. "The bad ones, they never die!" the pope teased McCarrick again when he saw him. [source]
This failure by our shepherds is not some kind of distraction that we can turn away from in order to focus on our core mission. It is a betrayal of our core mission. We cannot teach virtue by shielding and perpetuating vice. That's what makes the betrayal here so deep. Contrary to the initial hope we would be shown a new emphasis on Christ, we have been shown instead a nest of vipers. Evil has been used to attempt to accomplish good, and thus even the good has been corrupted.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Bathrooms of the Rich and Famous

UPDATED with photos by popular request! Most of these were taken when we were first looking at the house, so if the bathroom looks clean and unlived-in, that's why.

Welcome to this episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Bloggers. Hi, I'm MrsDarwin. I live in a house with five (5) bathrooms, so I have clearly achieved the American dream. Come, let's have a look around.


Before we painted over the Insanity Green.

1. Downstairs powder room. This cozy little chamber, tucked underneath what used to be the backstairs, features a toilet that doesn't start running unless you lift the lid of the tank and jiggle it. You use the toilet, jiggle the lid, wash your hands, pat your hair, and then the potty is ready to flush. Luxury!


Photo from when we were looking at the house -- I've never owned a wicker wastebasket in my life. The ugly wooden lights by the mirror are still there, alas.
Check out the three shower heads and multiple faucets!

Bonus shot of the bathroom window, in which the lead caming has so warped over 90 years that we have gaps in between panes. We've never actually taken down the storm window here.


2. The master bath. This bathroom, en suite with the master bedroom, features a tiled shower with the top technology of 1929 -- an unprecedented three-headed shower, with the heads stacked vertically so that no part of you has to be cold. Unfortunately, we've never been able to use it since the shower pan is cracked, and repairing it would mean busting tile out of a concrete bed. Currently holds baby's bathtub (unused) and random toys. The glass door doesn't actually latch.

The sink is a vintage pedestal model. There are no flat surfaces -- everything on the sides (toothpaste, soap, mug, etc.) eventually rolls down into the sink. Six people brush their teeth in this bathroom. Glamorous!

This is what the plaster looks like today. It's usually hidden behind the shelf casting the shadow.

3. The Jack and Jill bathroom between the front and back bedroom. This spacious charmer has glazed green tile and what's left of the plaster is painted yellow. The elbow pipe under the sink drips, but no fear -- the elegant plastic bucket underneath catches all the water and makes a pleasant "plink". The shower handle is stiff and sprays you with cold water while you're pressing with all your strength to move it to "hot". This bathroom has no overhead light, but you'll adjust, and your pupils will grow larger in the process. Fabulous!


4. The guest bathroom. Herbert Hoover probably used this bathroom in the 50s! Vintage basketweave black and white floor tiles complement square pink wall tiles. This was the shower everyone in the house used, until something went down the unprotected drain and caused it to back up. The plumber is coming again on Wednesday. Heated by radiator which doesn't work, and also by a ceramic wall heater which blew out two years ago, and usually by a radiator plugged into a two-prong extension cord plugged into the bedroom. The electrician won't return my calls. Fantastic!


Okay, so it's not exactly zero entry, but believe me, water doesn't respect the minimal shower floor lip.

5. The attic bathroom. Home of the cat boxes and a unique zero entry shower. Don't go barefoot! The toilet is situated before a square window in the gable. You'll have a charming view over the neighborhood, and in winter and fall, the neighborhood will also have a charming view. Scenic!


Bonus! 6. The old toilet stall in the basement. Upholstered in yellow vinyl quilted with tacks. Hook and eye latch -- on the outside. The water has been shut off to this toilet, but it still managed to back up a few years ago. The perfect shooting location for your low-budget horror film -- dank and atmospheric. Ambiance!

Make me an offer, folks.

Friday, August 31, 2018

We Must Learn The Scandal's Lessons

I remember first running into "the scandal" via some of the far-right Catholic venues like The Wanderer (to which my late grandmother was a subscriber, to our occasional annoyance) back in the 1990s. In those morally outraged pages, I read stories about priests attending NAMBLA meetings or cruising gay bars and perfidious bishops ignoring their sins because they didn't really believe in the Church's moral teaching anyway.

At the time, it seemed to me that the solution was simple: Bishops who were 'progressive' on moral teaching needed to be cleared out, and then solid bishops who believed with the Church would clear out the sinful priests.

As the scandal blew wide open in the early 2000s, and even more so when the swirling accusations about depravity of Legionaries of Christ founder Father Maciel proved to be true, it became clear that the answer was more complex.

It became clear that even some church leaders who claimed to fully support the teachings of the Church were in fact utterly depraved, or at least willing to cover up and protect the crimes of those who were.

Among the abusers and their protectors we have found both 'liberals' and 'conservatives'. One clear lesson which everyone of good will in the Church should have learned by now is that we can never ignore an accusation because someone is on the "our side" in the various theological, political, and liturgical splits within the Church.

This is what I find so dispiriting about the current, highly partisan wrangle surrounding the accusation that Pope Francis knew that former-Cardinal McCarrick had been accused of forcing himself on seminarians and priests under his jurisdiction, and yet give him an significantly more influential place in his circle than McCarrick had enjoyed under Benedict, who allegedly put McCarrick under some, clearly insufficient, degree of restrictions due to the accusations against him. (Up until last year, McCarrick had not been accused of abusing children, only of using his power to sexually impose himself on men under his control.)

If these charges that Francis chose to ignore accusations against McCarrick are untrue, they are a despicable and the man who made them should be disgraced for making them. But if they are true, they suggest that Pope Francis has still not learned the urgent lessons of the last twenty years: that we can never choose to disbelieve or ignore accusations of sexual abuse leveled against someone because he is on "our side" of some factional divide. If that's the case, the pope must learn those lessons, must repent, and must change his ways or resign his office.

However, anyone who responds to these serious accusations simply through a partisan "our guy" vs "their guy" lens rather than insisting on getting to the bottom of the question of how someone like McCarrick rose to the very highest levels in the Catholic Church even while rumors swirled about his forcing men under his control into his bed, is committing the same errors which has allowed and perpetuated abuse for far too long.

If we have one duty as Christians, it is to follow Christ. I cannot believe that it is following Christ to cover up the abuse someone has committed or enabled just because he is on "our side".

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Your Novel Is Different, And That's Bad

During the last month I've been sending off queries to literary agents to see if I can find someone willing to represent my novel If You Can Get It an early version of which some may remember from National Novel Writing Month some years back. Lest that effort prove in vain, I've also been researching publishing and marketing novels independently. A very good resource on marketing for self published novelists is Nicholas Erik's "Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing", which I'd definitely recommend to anyone interesting in the topic. I've been coming to the conclusion that not only is this good information for my backup plan, it's also a good explanation of the difficulties of selling a novel to an agent as well. After all, what is an agent going to do with a novel? Try to sell it to an editor, who in turn would buy it in the hopes of selling it to lots of readers. So really, when you send a novel off to an agent, the agent is thinking: How likely is it that lots of people will want to buy this novel.

Now as I was reading Nicholas Erik's guide, particularly the section on market research, I kept finding my sense of taste rebelling. Erik, like a lot of successful self published novelists, is a big advocate of finding a very defined sub-genre and working within it:
All sci-fi readers are not seeking the same experience; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is a different sub-genre than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation). Study what makes Snow Crash (cyberpunk) a different reading experience than The Expanse (space opera), despite sharing some tropes – or a billionaire romance different from a bad boy rock star one. In many instances, this is an emotional feeling, rather than “include tropes X, Y & Z.” You can identify these differences by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best method is reading books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Still not convinced this process is necessary?

Selling authors have done this for over a hundred years. They will do it for a hundred more, long after your books are forgotten. If you are going to write a romance, understand what readers expect. Thriller? Understand what those readers expect. Want to mash up the two genres into romantic suspense? Fine – understand which elements must be present to craft a satisfying cocktail.

Then retire to your writing lab and execute it.

Let’s address the elephant in the writing room. Because writers often dismissing market research by saying things like I want to write anything I want. This is for my soul. This is for fun.

Fine. Unless whatever you like to read and write is a commercial genre/sub-genre, you’re unlikely to make money, no matter how good your book is. Almost any author who tells you to write what you love – to write the book of your heart, and that readers will connect with that passion – was fortunate enough to really, really like a genre that was super commercial. Passion means nothing. Quality means very little if you miss genre conventions.

Writing whatever you like without any thought to the market will usually result in sadness if your goal is to sell books.

Let me be clear: There is no coming back from a book that misses the market. You face an uphill climb at best, or your book is dead in the water (at worst). Many of the books people claim are “super original” or “weird mashups” are actually right in the genre pocket with some fringe details changed for decoration. That doesn’t mean you have to be super-formulaic and hit all the tropes (although that’s an option, if you’d like). Instead, it means you need to understand what readers want when they pick up a certain type of book. [source]
Now, of course, my first reaction to this was: Wrong! I'm a reader, and I don't just want to read the same tropes in the same sub-genre again and again. Lots of people that I know praise books they like by saying they're different not by saying they're exactly the same as all the other books in the genre. So surely if I've written a book that is unique, that's a good thing. Right?

I continue to think that's true to an extent. However, as I've thought about the actual marketing tactics involved in finding customers to buy my book, I've also come to realize that while he may be a bit off on how readers think, he's dead on when it comes to how to sell books efficiently.

Say you're a writer, like me, with a book you want to sell to other people. You release the book on Amazon and you tell your friends to read it and review it. They do. Now you've sold two dozen books and you have four reviews, all positive. However, people browsing Amazon do not simply go to a page which says, "Show me books which have sold a few dozen copies and have four positive reviews" and find the next gem. How do people find books?

Well, I often find books via reading reviews in the WSJ or other major publications. However, forget about that one, because those publications don't review obscure, independently published books

Next option: I often find books via the "related to this item" links on Amazon. Some of these are generated by Amazon's algorithms, based on what books actual consumers have also bought, but others actually ads. If you want to sell your book, you find another book which is similar to your book, and you pay Amazon to show your book as a "related to this item". As you sell more books, you hope that your books starts to show up in the "also bought" lists as well.

Now here's the challenge. If your book is very unique and not like other books, what other book to do you pay to advertise it next to? Let's look at the two books I'm reading at the moment:

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers is a fantasy novel set in Los Angeles. The books advertised on that page are all other fantasy novels.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre is an espionage thriller, and all the ads on that page are espionage thrillers.

Now, I'm a real reader, and I've bought both of these books within the last month and am currently reading and enjoying both. But here's the trick: my actions are hard to predict. Sure, some people who go to the Alternate Routes page will also want to buy The Honourable Schoolboy and vise versa, but that affinity is hard to predict. Other people will have ended up on the Alternate Routes page because they want to read an urban fantasy. Those people may be persuaded to read another urban fantasy as well, or instead, and the ads are targeted at them.

Even the 'also bought' links will generally be based on close affinity. For Honourable Schoolboy the 'also bought' links are all other le Carre novels. For Alternate Routes they're all fantasy novels, two of them also by Tim Powers.

This doesn't mean that the average reader of le Carre or Powers only reads other books of the same sub-genre. Many of them may have eclectic readings tastes. But all genre readers are alike, while each eclectic reader is eclectic in his own way.

Indeed, we've been trained to look for books through affinities. If I were looking for another spy thriller, I would start by looking up a book by le Carre or Alan Furst, and then I'd look for related books. If I were looking for an urban fantasy, I'd start from Tim Powers. If I were looking for a military history novel, I might start with Jeff Shaara.

So if you've written a unique book, it's not that people may not want to read it, it's that you will have a much harder time finding the people who want to read it. This means the the pull of genre is not so much that people only want to read novels that conform to genre tropes, it's that you will more reliably find people through the means of the kind of similarly which genre provides than you will through wide open advertising to "everyone who reads".

I find myself wondering if in our crowded media landscape (with the advent of self publishing there are hundred of books coming out on Amazon every day) there's far more market pressure to conform to genre than there might otherwise be. Imagine if only twenty books came out every week, and if you subscribed to a newspaper with a good books column you could read reviews of all of them. In that case, you could easily read a review that might alert you to the attractions of a unique book that you might not otherwise find. Movies end up following this model. There are few enough of them coming out that if you follow a major newspaper you can read reviews of basically all of them. Thus, a quirky movie has the chance to explain to people it's charm.

However, instead of a score of books coming out every week, we have hundreds coming out every day. Only the largest releases get any kind of review in a major publication. So how do you find books? Via advertising. And how does advertising find you? Via placement on similar books. And how do you find similar books? By identifying every more granular sub-genres.

You advertise your zombie novel on the pages of other zombie novels. You advertise your medical thriller on the pages of other medical thrillers. You advertise your Amish romance on the pages of other Amish romances. And so on. People write to genre not because readers only want to read novels that conform strictly to genre, but because in the vast pool of books and the vast pool of humanity, it's easier to track down readers who might want to read your particular novel if you write a novel which is clearly similar to other novels that people already like.