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

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Play to Your Strengths

I know I said somewhere that I was done offering homeschooling advice, but it's February and everyone's burned out. So here's my offering to everyone considering overhauling everything next August:

Play to your strengths.

I had a chance to talk to Bearing when her family visited us over New Year's, and she made a remark that stayed with me: Each homeschooling family is running a magnet school, focused on their own interests. Some families are going to be big on scientific experiment and field trips. Some families like structure and are very good at sticking to a plan and getting prescribed work done on a schedule. Some families love literature and art. Some excel at hands-on stuff. And that's fine. My homeschool doesn't have to look like your homeschool, which doesn't have to look like her homeschool. That's why specific advice is often unhelpful, because it grows out of one family's particular way of functioning.

My strength is that I like to read aloud, and I like good literature. We're not aces at science, we're basic with the math, and I hate getting people out the door, but I could spend all day sitting in the big chair reading to people in the living room and discussing what we read. So each morning, that's what we do. We start with prayer, read the daily Mass readings and talk about them as we go, read a meditation and have about 30 seconds of silent prayer, and then a chapter or two of our current piece of literature (right now it's Emma). In the afternoon I sit with the 1st and 3rd graders and read a chapter of a book (Charlotte's Web) and a chapter of A Little History of the World.

This is fun and easy for me. I repeat: this is not onerous. I don't feel like our day has properly started if for some reason we have to miss our readings. I think literature is extremely important, and I think that reading aloud to children has many benefits that manifest throughout life, but also, I like doing reading aloud to the kids. It's my strength, so any homeschool revision we do has to take that into account. For example, in past years when I've worried we weren't getting enough science in, we didn't add a bunch of labs that would be tended eagerly the first week and forgotten the next. We added a science book to our readaloud time.

If you love something, that's probably a good sign that you should be incorporating it into your homeschooling as much as possible. And the things you don't love, but you know you need to be doing anyway: we're still working on that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Difference Exhaustion

I blocked out my morning next Tuesday to go with MrsDarwin to her 20-week ultrasound and get a first hand look at Septimus. The half day absence on my work calendar serves as a reminder that I haven't actually told my team at work yet that we're expecting another baby.

There's a limit to how much longer I should put that off, but I so far I've delayed because I'm not looking forward to it. I work with nice people, and I don't expect to be given any lectures on how I'm overpopulated the planet or neglecting my existing children. I don't expect anyone to be intentionally rude or even critical. People will be surprised, congratulate me, and the memorable thing about me will get just a little bit more memorable. "Oh yeah, you're the one with a million kids!" (Modern people are kind of like the rabbits in Watership Down when it comes to counting children. One, two, three, four, a million!)

It's hard to explain why being well known around the office for having a lot of kids annoys me. It's not something I'm ashamed of, nor do I have any desire to adhere to the two kids, two careers, two travel sports per kid model of family life which so many of my coworkers seem to follow.

Yet even though I don't have a desire to follow the majority family model, the subtext of the "Darwin has a million kids" jokes eventually starts to read as a constant refrain of: You're different. We're the same. But you're different.

I think this must be part of the frustration that members of minority groups (whether ethnic, religious, or sexual) sometimes talk about. Even well meaning references to minority status eventually start to sound like endlessly repeated reminders that, "You're not one of us." Even if you don't want to be "one of us", you eventually start to just want to say, "Shut up all ready. I get it."

In turn, it's what's comparatively relaxing about hanging out with other large families. Not only are there certain basic experiences in common, but you're also free for a little while from the constant wonder are your fecundity.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 1-2

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. March 30th, 1915 The one person who had been distinctly unsatisfied with the resolution to the relief committee question was Madame Perreau, but she was someone who had a gift for sharing her feelings with others. After a campaign of conversational needling waged every morning and evening over the dining room table -- a sequence of battles whose first casualty was Justin Perreau’s wife, who began to take her meals in the nursery with the children in order avoid her mother-in-law -- Justin at last promised his mother to speak to the commandant.

It was at the end of a long day that Justin was ushered into Major Spellmeyer’s office -- what had in peacetime been the mayor’s office -- and stood before the big mahogany desk. Justin’s own office was small, a room once inhabited by the town clerk. The commandant did not look up as Justin was announced by the orderly, and the mayor had time to wonder if the timing of his visit would prejudice his results. Still, it was too late to flee. He planted his feet firmly, overcoming the nervous urge to shift his weight from foot to foot, and tried to focus his mind on the peace that would return to his home once Madame Perreau’s sense of injustice had been relieved.

The commandant signed the document he had been reading with a satisfied flourish and favored Justin with a smile. “A long week, and it’s just Tuesday! Can I offer you a drink, Mister Mayor?”

He pulled open a desk drawer and brought out a bottle of cognac. It was not a luxury that was easy to come by. Surely it was a good sign as to the level of respect the commandant had for him that he was willing to share something of which there could be no more supply so long as the war lasted. The Cognac region was on the other side of the lines, and so it was necessary to conserve what bottles were left or develop a taste for German Schnapps, or American Rum or Whiskey.

Major Spellmeyer took a pair of tumblers out of the drawer and splashed large portions of the amber liquid into them. Justin was shocked at how generously the major poured.

“Thank you, Major.” He accepted the glass, which must have held twice as much as a proper cognac class would have. Nor was it a cheap vintage. Rather than any harsh taste his first sip offered a refined bloom of well aged flavors.

“I just had three cases of this seized,” said the commandant, knocking his glass back with a casual glug that genuinely shocked his guest. Without a pause the officer refilled his own glass before corking the bottle and putting it back in the drawer. “Smugglers, God bless them. There’ll be a commendation for suppressing illegal activity, no ill will from the local citizens, and a goddamn good deal to drink, eh?”

He knocked back the second glass, unfastened the top brass buttons of his tunic, and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, now that’s nice. All right, Mayor. Tell me what it is you wanted to see me about.”

The thing had seemed so easy when Justin had rehearsed it in his mind earlier in the day, one man of authority asking another for a little favor. Now he came to it, however, the mayorship his mother’s force of will had won for him from the Germans, a position that he had at for years dreamed of as a fitting proof that he was a worthy holder of the family name, long before the war put it suddenly into his hands, did nothing to increase his sense of dignity and confidence and he stood before this foreigner. He felt more like a schoolboy, standing before the headmaster to ask for some undeserved privilege.

“It’s about this relief committee, sir,” he said. He found himself shifting from one foot to the other, exactly the boyish habit he had been seeking to avoid. “I’d had my doubts about the Serre woman as an administrator, but the other committee members overruled me. Now as she begins her work I am more than ever convinced she was a poor choice.”

[Continue Reading]

Friday, February 10, 2017

Emma at Hogwarts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that ranking people by what Hogwarts house they would be in is one of the shallower ways to assess character. That said, we had some fun this morning using the Sorting Hat on the characters in Emma, our current readaloud. This is not a book heavy on Ravenclaws -- you have to go to Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility for those (or to my favorite, Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey). But Slytherins and Hufflepuffs abound.

Emma is a Slytherin. She may be kind and loyal to her father, but her pride and snobbery, the way she uses her influence to manipulate, her attachment to her various schemes regardless of their intersection with reality, and her blindness to her own flaws put her solidly in green and silver territory.

Mr. Knightley: Gryffindor. He says what he thinks, he forges ahead while others dither, he will not be overborne, and he's brave enough to speak his love to Emma without knowing what response he'll receive.

Frank Churchill: Another Slytherin. Charming, cunning, and able to manipulate situations so skilfully that others end up doing exactly what he wants while thinking it their own idea. Secretive and willing to put the reputations of others at risk to preserve his own schemes.

Jane Fairfax: Gryffindor. Probably the bravest character in the book. She faces her future with clear eyes and makes straightforward plans to make her own living by the unpleasant task of being a governess. She bears up under the condescension of Emma, the machinations of Frank, the tediousness of her aunt, and the odiousness of Mrs. Elton. Would have been a better heroine than Emma, we think.

Mr. Elton: Slytherin. Oily, insincere, and able to turn quickly from one prestigious plan for a match to another. Also with a touch of cowardice, and the willingness to humiliate social inferiors.

A pack of Hufflepuffs: Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse.

Mrs. Elton: A muggle, for sure.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Reading and Empathy

I've been largely taken up lately with work on the novel, an unusually busy period at work, and also a reluctance to write on my usual topics due to the burn-out I'm feeling with many political and cultural topics as I watch the extremes of pro and anti Trump opinion wage scorched earth battle against one another. Given the topics I have been keeping up with, however, I found this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education about reading and empathy an interesting read.

The author, a newly minted literature PhD, cheerfully starts off by telling her American Literature for non-majors class that reading literature makes us more empathetic.

One of her students (a diligent engineer of a conservative political bent) finds her choices of readings to be overly pessimistic:

Henry lingered after class to talk to me about how troubling he found our reading. The American literature I was teaching, Henry asserted, had nothing good to say about the United States, or about humanity, for that matter. It wasn’t uplifting.

He had a point. Our reading was a little on the bleak side. Benito Cereno interrogates the notion of good intentions; Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour" sees marriage as an arrangement in which "men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature"; and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson exposes race as a social construct but offers no way out of its grip.

So I made the case to Henry that literature is often, if not always, critique. The greatest writers don’t engage in blind celebration, I told him; their writing shows us what needs to change.

He didn’t buy it. Literature should model character traits like gallantry, courage, and perseverance, and he thought British literature did so in spades. Henry had a taste for the epic, and the books on my reading list couldn’t hold a candle to stories of heroes vanquishing obstacles to save the world. "If this is the best American literature has to offer," he opined, "then I’d say American literature is pretty terrible."

Trying to stifle my defensive response, I pointed out that using literature as a tool for critique wasn’t solely the province of American writers. Shakespeare was a critic. Sure, his plays have heroes, knights, and kings, but Macbeth’s anatomization of power isn’t uplifting, and The Merchant of Venice doesn’t have hopeful things to say about relations between Christians and Jews. Henry hadn’t read much Shakespeare, though. When I asked him to give an example of a British writer he did admire, he offered the name G.A. Henty.

"Have you read any Henty?" he asked. I had not. I had never heard of him. But I later learned that he wrote children’s historical fiction in the 19th century, "boys’ stories" filled with risk-taking, travel, and adventure. Beyond that, Henty was an unapologetic proponent of empire whose fiction traded in ethnic stereotypes and, in the view of some, racism. This was the writer my student held up as a literary ideal.

Later the same student tells her that he's gone to reading the SparkNotes rather than the full texts because he's leery of aligning himself too closely with some of the subjects she's chosen:
Not long into our drama unit, he came to see me, starting our meeting off with a confession: "I stopped completing the reading for this class long ago. Now I just read the SparkNotes so that I can pass the quizzes, and I do just enough of the reading to be able to write the papers." I’d never have known had he not told me. Henry was passing the quizzes, no problem, and was even writing pretty perceptive close readings. This was not a student who didn’t want to put in the time. He had a principled objection to reading the books.

Quoting the Bible — Philippians 4:8, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" — Henry explained that he didn’t want to expose himself to an envy-ridden, infighting family with a son who may be repressing his homosexuality (Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or to a philandering former thief guilty of manslaughter (August Wilson’s Fences). The characters and conflicts were not "pleasing," and they certainly weren’t "pure." As he would later write to me, "I did not want to be affected by the material."

Different as we were in our tastes and our politics, Henry and I both believed in the transformative power of fiction, and he did not want to be transformed. There I’d stood on the first day of class with my "Reasons We Read" PowerPoint, an evangelist for reading as a profoundly ethical experience. I’d referred to a study reported on in Scientific American in 2011 showing that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others and that adults who read less fiction report lower levels of empathy. I’d referred to research in cognitive science showing that readers of fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than do readers of nonfiction.

In short, I had tried to make the case that literature generates empathy, and that empathizing with those unlike us is valuable because it expands our sense of whose lives matter. It goes hand in hand with open-mindedness and tolerance. Henry didn’t disagree. The question for him was, what would our shared reading make him tolerant of?

It wasn’t that he decried empathy, in theory. But the prospect of spending time inside the mind of a character whose behavior he’d been taught to revile made him profoundly uncomfortable.

If these snippets make the author sound a bit self satisfied, she is. But she's also moderately self examining. For instance, at one point, she points to where she thinks an author is calling on readers to identify behavior which is culturally accepted now but may be regarded with horror in later times. She expects answers like "eating animals, playing football, capital punishment", things which she considers wrong but which many others accept. Henry one-ups her by suggesting abortion -- something which she culturally accepts without question, but which he points out people may one day find deeply shocking as a common cultural practice.

It strikes me that her student implicitly has two different criticisms of the books she's asking him to read.  One is that he simply doesn't find then enjoyable.  He comes to books looking for an enjoyable and to some degree uplifting experience.  She is instead picking books which she sees as presenting critiques of the parts of the culture she thinks need changing.

The second critique, however, is that as she emphasizes to him that the purpose of literature is to cause us to empathize with others, by putting us into their experiences, he is cautious about what people he wants to empathize with.  Does he really want to put himself in the positions of the characters she's introducing him to, or will that tend to corrupt is morals?

It seems to me that the first of these is mostly a matter of taste, but the latter gets to a deeper question about empathy and understanding others which the author of the piece does not seem to think about. She argues that literature leads to empathy and that empathy leads to open-mindedness and tolerance. This she sees as a key reason for reading literature. Empathy is often thought of this way in modern society: Though empathy you come to like and understand someone. Through liking them you come to approve of them and their actions.

In this sense, I think that the heavy emphasis on empathy is based on the modern moral approach (I hesitate to call it reasoning) which holds that if we like someone, they must be a "good person", and if they are a good person, then what they do must be basically good.

There lies, I think, the problem. Fiction can indeed provide us with a way to see from the inside a character whom we might not otherwise meet, or with whom we would not naturally sympathize. This close perspective on a person very different from us can and should lead to understanding why and how that person, as a person with the same basic human emotions and powers of reason that we have, acts and reacts the way that they do.

However, the fact that we can now understand how another person feels and acts does not necessarily mean that we should approve of that person. Whether in fiction or in real life, understanding enough about someone's experiences, feelings and reasoning to know why they do what they do should not necessarily lead to approval of what they do. Indeed, sometimes properly understanding what leads to a person's actions help us see how those actions are choices that can be wrong, rather than seeing others' actions as simply being a necessary aspect of who they are.

This is where, for an adult reader (deciding what is appropriate content for children to deal with in fiction is a whole separate issue) I think the student described in the essay gets things wrong. We can encounter truth even in reading about people who sin and cause suffering in major ways. It's by watching good and bad actions play our in realistic ways that we come to understand moral struggle via fiction.

But his teacher is not doing his understanding any favors by seemingly portraying the sort of empathy and going into the experience of another which we perform when we read (or watch) fiction as logically leading to acceptance. The student is right not to want to become more 'tolerant' of what is wrong. And by suggesting that reading about a character will lead to being more tolerant of people like that character (if we take "tolerant" to mean: accepting of people who make similar moral choices) the author is actually laying down a rather dangerous lesson and potentially driving people away from an deeper encounter with fiction.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Stayin' Alive

Ah friends, please excuse the lack of posting. Between Darwin writing late every night on The Great War, and my falling asleep right after putting the kids to bed, not much bloggy stuff happens in our free time. And my energy periods are right when I should be homeschooling, which is good, I guess, for homeschooling, but not so much for writing.

But I am trying to exercise! I like to do the modified version.

When I finally finish my readthrough of Love's Labour's Lost, I'll try to write up some more extensive thoughts on it. It's not Shakespeare's best or most rounded, but it's my current favorite right now.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Jolly Good Fellow

Yesterday I went down to the Pregnancy Resources Center in town because they were looking for volunteers past 14 weeks of pregnancy to help them learn their new ultrasound machine. I had a lovely long look at baby, and was told, "Definitely a boy."

Now this threw us all a bit, because we were all convinced we were having a girl -- just because that's happened so often before, and because of the literary antecedents of five daughters, etc. At least now we don't have to all stake our positions for our favorite girl names, but now we're back to square one because we didn't have a boy name in reserve. Also, I've never had two boys in a row, so hoo boy. I expect it's going to get hairy around here in a few years.

But the young man is already fine fellow. The guy was kicking and squirming, thrusting his legs straight out in exuberance or protest or just baby fidgets. The tech caught a clip of it on the monitor and replayed it so it looked like baby was dancing. "If you ever see those videos on Youtube where it looks like the baby is clapping to music, that's just me fooling around with this function," he said. Baby himself did no clapping, but he did push some hands around. At one point he had a hand up near his jaw. "Watch, I'll make him move," said the tech. He pushed down on the stomach, and baby immediately punched back. Also, he kicked the ultrasound wand.

Baby is in the pink of health, it seems. We saw the four chambered heart and the two halves of the brain, and the carotid artery and the three vessel umbilical cord and the epiglottis. There was his little empty stomach and his bony feet, and there was his little you-know floating around between his legs, large as life. It was a treat to see him.

I wish all of you could have the opportunity to see a live ultrasound. There's nothing like matching the sensations to what baby is actually doing -- although watching a newborn gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of fidgets babies have. And donate to your local pregnancy center! They do great work, and necessary work, giving mothers who might not have the opportunity otherwise the chance to see their babies in wonderful action. Donate newborn or preemie diapers. Almost no newborn ever, no matter how big, fits right into the size 1 diapers. Even if it's only for a few days until baby fills out, the smallest diaper sizes fit more snugly -- key for a period when a baby is going to be pooping black meconium, which stains like the deuce. Ask me how I know.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

News At The Speed of Gratification

There's been a lot of talk about "fake news" of late, in part as the media establishment tries to figure out how it could have both been wrong about who was likely to win the presidential election and also how someone they dislike as much as Trump won it. I tend to think that the phenomena of "fake news" (taking the term for now to mean the peddling of wholly fabricated news stories that confirm some group of partisan's worst fears about the world) is rather over-emphasized. The problem with the idea that fake news was somehow instrumental in the outcome of the election is that in general it spread simply by providing confirmation for things that people already believed or wanted to believe.

This story about researches trying to dig into the effects of such fake stories I think highlights the point:

Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford commissioned a survey in late November hoping to discern just how deeply some of the fake news embedded itself with American voters. The two asked people, among other things, whether they had heard various pieces of news that reflected positively or negatively on one of the candidates — of three varieties.

There was completely true news: Hillary Clinton called some Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” for example, or Mr. Trump refused to say at a debate whether he would concede the election if he lost.

There was fake news, as identified by fact-checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact — big things like the Pope Francis story and smaller items, like Mr. Trump threatening to deport the “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to Puerto Rico.

The third category was most interesting. The researchers created “fake fake” news. That is, they invented some headlines that were the type of thing fake sites produce, but had never actually been published during the campaign. One of these placebo headlines was that “leaked documents reveal that the Clinton campaign planned a scheme to offer to drive Republican voters to the polls but then take them to the wrong place,” and its inverse in which it was the Trump campaign scheming to take Democrats to the wrong polling place.

There is some good news in that more people reported having heard, and believed, the true statements than the false statements. Only 15.3 percent of the population recalled seeing the fake news stories, and 7.9 percent recalled seeing them and believing them.

The more interesting result: Those numbers are nearly identical to the proportion who reported seeing (14.1 percent) and believing (8.3 percent) the placebos, the “fake fake” news stories. In other words, as many people recalled seeing and believing fake news that had been published and distributed through social media as recalled seeing fake news that had never existed and was purely an invention of researchers.

What I think this shows is that in many ways "fake news" is more a reflection of pre-existing views and the way that people are interacting with news in the social media world than it is a true changer of opinion. In this sense, fake news may be responsible for increasing partisanship, but I don't think it's likely to have changed many minds.

The really interesting thing here, to my mind, is the way that people are interacting with news (fake and real) in a world of social media. Traditional, passive forms of receiving news (the nightly news, news magazines, news papers) are all on the wane. People see much of their news on their phones and computers, and via social media sites in which they see a feed consisting of links, capsule summaries, and comments. A news story gets wide play not simply by being in a major venue (say, being on the front page of a big city news paper, or being in the first ten minutes of the nightly news) but when lots of people make a point of passing the news on to others: sharing it, re-tweeting it, etc.

What news do people pass on? In the human realm, things that pull at the emotions: Isn't this terrible! This inspired me! I'm so excited to see this!

But in the political realm, a key reason people share news is because it fits into some existing set of beliefs and opinions they have. A story about someone finding tens of thousands of fake Hillary votes in an Ohio warehouse fit into a narrative that some people already wanted to believe that Democrats were dirty tricksters who were going to try to steal the election. A story claiming that Trump's treasury pick owned a bank that foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman over a $0.27 underpayment fit into a narrative that bankers are evil and Trump is aligned with unscrupulous people. A story claiming that a judge has ruled doctors can refuse to treat women who have had abortions or people who have had sex change operations fits a narrative that people who ask for religious conscience protection simply want to be mean to others.

One of these stories is totally made up, the other two are based on massive mis-reporting and selective reporting of the facts (which ends up with the stories as reported being basically false) but the way that people interact with them is the same. For instance, the last of these got wide play online because Star Trek actor George Takei shared it with his massive audience of Facebook followers. Many people probably only read the headline or the summary online before sharing it around, making comments on it, etc. Fewer still went so far as to click the link to the ruling (which turns out not to be a ruling at all, but rather the granting of a preliminary injunction) and discover that the articles being passed around on the topic totally misrepresented the point at issue and the nature of the judge's action.

To my mind, that fact that a news story can become just as "viral" when it's totally made up (indeed, sometimes more so, because then the story can totally fit the mood of the intended audience) is in a sense a symptom. For many people, the news is not a way to find out what is going on in the world, but rather a way to confirm the ideas they already have about the world. This, combined with the incredible speed of social media -- where a satisfying bit of "news" can travel the world in seconds and a less satisfying clarification never get spread at all -- is going to result in people reading a lot of self-confirming and often biased/incorrect "news" whether the stories are consciously made up or not.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Posts I'm Not Writing

So many things I want to post about, but when I sit down in the evenings I start fading fast, and find myself nodding off on couch or chair. God forbid I lay down, or that's it for the evening.

So, here's what I keep meaning to write about, when I'm awake.

* Love's Labour's Lost, one of Shakespeare's underappreciated works. It's very uneven, bouncing along merrily as punny diversion, and then slamming on the brakes in the last five minutes and becoming something much deeper and more interesting. The concept of the the year and a day -- that people, even lovers, don't just change on a dime, and can you really trust them if they do? -- is something that's been percolating in the back of my mind for a while. If I ever write another novel, that's likely to be the germ of it.

For Christmas my sister-in-law gave me the RSC's delightful performance of Love's Labour's Lost, set in 1914 just before WWI.

* After watching it, we had to get the RSC's companion performance, Love's Labour's Won, or, as we know it, Much Ado About Nothing. It's set in 1918, after the war (and staged with the same cast and country house sets). The kids adored it, especially Benedick's antics during the gulling scene. The setting was gorgeous and mostly effective, but Darwin was reminded of his beef that Much Ado really needs to be set in a milieu in which it is chillingly believable that these characters would kill each other at the drop of a hat, or throw a girl over publicly over an affair of honor without turning a hair. His idea is to set it in an Afghan or Iraqi setting (a friend suggested a Pashtun setting), with Claudio not the breathless young lover he's usually portrayed as, but a brash young buck. ("Like Marlon Brando in Streetcar," I said, "and he can yell, 'Heee-roooo!") Anyway, we worked out the whole concept, and if anyone's looking to direct a show, just call us up for some wisdom.

* We went to see Manchester By The Sea on Sunday afternoon. Casey Affleck definitely deserves the acting awards he's up for. It's been years since I cried in a movie theater, but I wept at this one. It's full of grief and people grasping at grace and not quite finding it because they don't know what they're looking for. It's a movie about people trying to bury past sins and sorrows by cutting off the past entirely and starting a new life -- a tack that never works, because you don't heal from sorrows by pretending that you can cut off part of your life entirely. These amputations don't work, and people come back into your life who have claims on you.

The next day, the first reading was about the Gerasene demoniac, a fellow who has caused a quantity of disruption and trouble in his neighborhood. When Jesus heals him, he begs Jesus to take him with him on his travels. Jesus refuses, and tells him, "Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you." The man may be healed in body and in soul, but the harm he has done in the past doesn't automatically disappear. He has to return and repair the relationships his actions have damaged, to apologize and rebuild trust and show his commitment to a new way of life without negating the old. (See the concept of a year and a day, above.)

No one in Manchester By The Sea can quite get this far, because it takes grace to wade through the pain this causes.

* Bodies are weird, and pregnant bodies are weirder, and the long and short of it is that I'm supposed to wear compression stockings for the veins in my legs so that years down the road I don't have to wear them all the time. Of course you can't take it with you, and my legs have never been anything to write home about, even when I was 18 and had Peak Leg, but it's hitting my vanity hard to think that at 38 I've torn myself up enough that my legs might be past salvaging. Then Anne Kennedy reminded me that Jacob's body was permanently altered and damaged by wrestling with an angel. Attempting the good is a perilous proposition, and, like Frodo, some hurts can never be healed in this world -- even if they're so shallow as bulgy veins.

On a related note, I recently had occasion to catch a fleeting glimpse of the stomach of a woman my age who'd never had children (a real person, I mean, not a character in a movie). It was... unmarred. The skin was whole and unlined, no silver tracks creeping up past her navel. I do appreciate all the blessings I have, and generally I pay no mind to my stretch marks because they're so familiar, and it is what it is, and I know that there are people who'd gladly trade smooth stomachs for seven lovely children, etc. And I do see unmarred tummies all the time around here, only they're young tummies ranging from perfect teenage girl waists to the tiny round tummies of my two smallest ones.

I wasn't envious. I was just surprised, and then surprised that I was surprised. What wonderful variety in people, that at the same age we should look so different, and be so differently marked by life experiences.

*Yawn. Going to bed.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2: Chapter 1-1

It's good to be back, friends, and here at long last is the first installment of Volume Two: The Blood-Dimmed Tide. This volume covers 1915 and 1915 and is, like the first volume, twenty chapters long, with each chapter broken into several installments.

Now that things are rolling, I hope to have the next installment up within a week or two.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. February 16th, 1915
Through some administrative oversight no one was on the platform to meet the new German commandant as he stepped off the 9:18 train from Sedan, the ample stomach under his military overcoat giving him the look of a field gray ninepin. There was something ridiculous, something trivial, about this event in comparison to what had come before: the men called up into the army, the refugees streaming south, the Germans who had occupied the town and set up their headquarters in the town hall. There was no hint that his tenure would end under a cloud of accusations that his corruption and incompetence had led to the unnecessary execution of two of the town’s prominent citizens -- accusations of sufficient volume and gravity that the occupation authorities were forced to make a rare gesture to public opinion and move him to another assignment.

A freezing drizzle was falling. The new commandant’s orderly shouted and gestured at the station master while Major Spellmeyer himself stood with his umbrella, sheltering his luggage from the rain. It was new luggage, covered in tan leather and fastened with polished brass buckles. He had purchased them to celebrate his promotion to the temporary reserve officer rank of Major. The suitcases were of the same design and finish as the ones that he had seen the bank’s vice president use when he had arrived from K√∂nigsberg to visit their branch. And here, through the slackness of this first assignment, their pristine finish was being spotted with rain. He would bring some order to this posting, that he resolved.

When at last the station master secured some transportation for them it was not a car or a taxi, such as the Major had expected, but an open farm cart. By the time they reached the town hall Spellmeyer was furious, and his new luggage was mottled all over from the rain.

He tried to make this displeasure clear to Major Dressler as the two men met to hand over the command of the town, but the regular army officer who had been the town’s commandant since August and who far surpassed Spellmeyer in both experience and seniority, being a professional officer with the permanent rank of major (even if an old one recalled from retirement) raised a hand to silence the new officer. For a moment the silence drew out between them, and Spellmeyer had time to reflect on how imprudent it would be to offend this man who was doubtless destined for promotion and a frontline command.

“It was an oversight,” said Dressler, shrugging the matter away. “There is a motor car in town and we have requisitioned it for army use. You will have it at your disposal in the future.”

Major Spellmeyer gave a nod combined with a slight bow and tucked away the lesson for future use: An officer does not apologize to his inferiors.

He must remember that. At the bank even the branch manager had not been so secure. The eddies of politics within the bank hierarchy were unpredictable. The man who was under you today might be promoted to some higher place tomorrow. In Dressler’s calm reserve Spellmeyer saw something nearly regal. He must learn to cultivate this himself. He was in command of a bataillon now -- a depleted, picked over, reserve bataillon with well under a thousand men, but a bataillon nonetheless, and the responsibility for governing a town and its environs as well. There was far more scope here than deciding which merchant’s line of credit should be extended and which should be forced to pay up or provide more collateral.

Major Dressler was talking, offering those thoughts he had not thought it appropriate to put in writing: about who among the French administration could be trusted, about the tactics for successfully conducting requisitions, about the necessity of maintaining some degree of goodwill among the population to ease the difficulties of governing.

“Perhaps this will all come more naturally to you. I hear you’re a man of business, and no doubt that’s what’s required here.”

Spellmeyer nodded gravely and let the words flow over him. No, this would be nothing like business. This would be his kingdom.

Continue reading...

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Becoming Truly Literate

Dutch fashion house Byborre creates a basic wardrobe based around the principles of the Dominican habit.
Byborre plans to make the patterns for each garment open-source, so that each piece can be produced with local materials – also making them suitable for the climate they're worn in. 
...Byborre plans to make the patterns for each garment open-source, so that each piece can be produced with local materials – also making them suitable for the climate they're worn in.
This is an interesting project, and the clothes have the simple elegance of well-constructed streetwear. And that is what they are: streetwear. This is not an actual redesign of the Dominican habit, nor does the order have anything to do with the project. (In this sense, it's reminiscent of an article we linked to some time ago, about a designer who created a fashion collection based on her habit design for an order of Anglican nuns. The designs are not the actual habit.)

It's dangerous to fully gauge the mind of the reading public by the comments on an article, and yet it was rather startling to see how many people were up in arms because they thought that Byborre was actually redesigning the Dominican habit for the order.

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers bemoaned this inability of many people to actually interpret what they read:
The education that we have so far succeeded in giving to the bulk of our citizens has produced a generation of mental slatterns. They are literate in the merely formal sense -- that is, they are capable of putting the symbols C, A, T together to produce the word CAT. But they are not literate in the sense of deriving from those letters any clear mental concept of the animal. Literacy in the formal sense is dangerous, since it lays the mind open to receive any mischievous nonsense about cats that an irresponsible writer may choose to print -- nonsense which could never have entered the heads of plain illiterates who were familiar with an actual cat, even if unable to spell its name. And particularly in the matter of Christian doctrine, a great part of the nation subsists in an ignorance more barbarous that that of the dark ages, owing to this slatternly habit of illiterate reading. Words are understood in a wholly mistaken sense, statements of fact and opinion are misread and distorted in repetition, arguments founded in misapprehension are accepted without examination, expressions of individual preference are construed as occumenical doctrine, disciplinary regulations founded on consent are confused with claims to interpret universal law, and vice versa; with the result that the logical and historical structure of Christina philosophy is transformed in the popular mind to a confused jumble of mythological and pathological absurdity.
I sit beside my eight-year-old son as he reads aloud, in part to listen for and correct technical errors like skipping letters in words or guessing at a word based on the beginning, but also to discuss with him the meaning of what he reads. My job would be poorly done if I ensured that he could interpret phonemes without giving him the mental resources and training necessary to interpret the sense of the words put together. (Indeed, sometimes I find that he can accurately recount to me the story he's working on even though he gets some of the individual words wrong -- something akin, I guess, to those mind games in which 5-10% of the letters in a paragraph are scrambled, but you can still make sense of it.) Without being able to understand and engage with ideas, to confront them and refute them if necessary, an education in literacy prepares children for little more than a lifetime of reading Dan Brown novels and outrage "news" sites.

This kind of education is necessary, critical even, to prepare children to become adults, and to prepare adults to fulfill their duty of participating in the political life of the country. Without being able to interpret what is read, a person can not engage in the basic discussion necessary to maintaining the polis. This election cycle and administration have moved us several giant leaps for mankind away from any standard of reasoned discourse, but it isn't unique in enthroning rhetoric. Even Socrates, back in times BC, was calling out rhetoric as a form of flattery, a fine content-free smorgasbord of words mimicking reason and virtue in politics just as "health food" and fad diets and artificial sweeteners mimic actual healthful practices in eating.

  Brandon Watson puts it elegantly
The first and most basic and most essential form of politics is reasoned discourse. This follows directly from the fact that human beings are rational and therefore social creatures; it is the actual structure of functional civilization; and it is a requirement for any just society. If you have any political view -- and I mean any political view, however clever the sophistry and rhetoric with which you fancy it up -- that does not treat reasoned discourse as the heart of civilization, then your view is a politics of coercion and violence, based on a principle that might makes right. At this level there is no third option: either politics is, in its foundations, by reason or it is by force.
...It is by interacting rationally that we receive common good as a legacy; it is by interacting rationally that we form common good as moral progress; it is by interacting rationally that we protect and preserve common good against political corruption. If you have any political view, if you perform any political act, that does not recognize rational communication as the fundamental kind of politics, you are not on the side of justice, no matter how loudly you insist that you are. Indeed, you are not on the side of justice even if you are advocating a thing that happens to be just; you are simply a snake in the grass. In anything and everything, the just will give shared reason its due. Anything else is sophistry -- literally, in fact.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Army's New Modular Handgun

In news that probably mostly circulated in military and gun enthusiast circles, the US Army announced its pick for a new standard handgun last week. Sig Sauer will manufacture a variant of its P320 pistol for the army, replacing the M9 standard issue pistol manufactured by Beretta, which has been the standard duty pistol since 1990. (The M9 replaced the far longer serving M1911 Colt .45 pistol which served the US army from 1911 to 1990.)

In some says, the new Army pistol is very similar to the old one. It's assumed the standard issue version will fire the 9mm Luger round which was also standard in the M9 and across many NATO military pistols. Standard magazines are available with a capacity of 17-22 rounds, only slightly more than the 15 rounds magazines standard on the M9. In terms of the type of round it fires and the speed at which it can fire, there's no real difference between the pistols.

However, in another sense the P320 (its military designation has not yet been announced, though the procurement program under which it was selected was called the MHS: Modular Handgun System) is a much more modern type of firearm, bringing to handguns the same features which have made the M4 Carbine the basis for one of the most popular rifle/carbine designs in the world.

Sig Sauer designed the P320 around a polymer frame. This makes it lighter than an all-metal pistol such as the M9 or the M1911. When soldiers are already carrying a lot of gear, having a pistol that weights ten ounces less is an advantage. However, polymer framed pistols (most famously the Glock pistols which are carried by many police forces) have been around for a long time. (Contrary to myth, polymer frames were adopted for handguns because they're lighter, they present no advantage in hiding from metal detectors because other parts of the gun are still metal.) What is different about the P320 is that it is a completely modular handgun. This is what the Fire Control Unit (the central mechanism of the gun which carries the serial number and thus is considered by the ATF to be the legal gun) looks like:

P320 Fire Control Unit

That fire control unit forms the functioning core of the pistol. It goes into the polymer frame, and the barrel, slide, etc. fit around it. The pistol is designed so that a non-gunsmith can take it apart and put it together again in minutes without needing any tools.

Because all the parts which define the frame size, the barrel length, even the caliber of the pistol are modular parts which connect to the universal fire control system, this means that if the owner (whether a gun enthusiast or a company armorer) owns a full range of modular parts, in minutes he can change the one gun from a small framed sub-compact which could fit in a pocket to a large framed full size pistol. He can even switch calibers from 9mm to .45 Auto or .40 S&W.

Sig Sauer modular parts for P320

This is a huge advantage for the army, in which adding another gun means stocking all the parts to repair and maintain it. If a special operations force wanted to carry .45 pistols, an armorer would have had to support some entirely different gun (Beretta makes .45 pistols, but special ops teams often carry an M1911 or a Glock) for their needs. If some personnel wanted a pistol which was smaller and lighter, that too would have to be an entirely different pistol. With the P320 modular system, however, an armorer could simply swap out a few parts and support a wide variety of needs. In this respect, the new modular handgun system will be very much on a par with the lego-like customizability which has made the civilian AR-15 version of the M16/M4 system so popular.

Beretta M9 9mm Service Pistol

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Read Something

Yesterday I found myself with five minutes to spend in the library by myself. The book I wanted wasn't in (and won't be for a while with nine holds on it), so I wandered through the new book section, scanning the shelves for anything I recognized from WSJ book reviews. Alas, the only title I could both remember and locate was not something I felt like reading. 

What did I feel like reading? I narrowed it down as I rejected various options.
  • a slender volume
  • something fairly light
  • not Austen fanfic
  • not by Margaret Atwood
  • not about people having affairs
  • not part of a series
  • not about politics
This via mostly-negativa did not net me a book from the new books section, but it did help me clarify that what I probably wanted to read was Barbara Pym. But my time was up, and I had to leave emptyhanded. It's not like I don't have books at home to read, heaven knows.

Speaking of books to read, we made a pilgrimage down to IKEA to replace the shelves that have stood so faithfully since we've been married. "Stood" is not accurate anymore; they lean in a distinctly non-reassuring fashion now, supported by each other or what furniture is wedged next to them. IKEA is not the ne plus ultra of furniture, sure, and the style isn't exactly in sync with our house, but when you need sturdy bookcases yesterday, it's useful.

Now our living room is full of cardboard flatpacks waiting to test our screwdrivers and our patience. I've made noise about how we need to weed down our books -- it pains me to let any go, but we have books that are missing covers, missing pages, falling apart, etc. Those are the easy choices, I guess, but harder to discern are things like the large number of Landmark and Vision biographies, dating to mid-century. I remember devouring those as a child, but it is pulling teeth to get our children to read a biography. Why? Is it the vintage style of these particular books? Why do they detest biography so much? Is it worth the occupied shelf space? 

In other book news, my eight-year-old son has decided to read his first big book, and of course it's Harry Potter. As I make him read aloud at intervals (one of the few qualifications for a reading teacher is the ability to repeat, "Read every letter", or "Look at the word," as many times as necessary without losing patience), I'm struck anew by how poorly written it is. Rowling is a storyteller, but she's no stylist. 

At least he's reading.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women Making History

Well, it's not the first time a women's protest has been about sex. In 411 BC, Aristophanes's play Lysistrata involved the women of Athens and surrounding city-states going on sex strike until their long-suffering husbands signed a peace treaty and ended war. And certainly throughout history women have been demanding their sexual rights. Lysistrata complains that while the men are off waging war, young women are languishing at home, only getting older. It's not fair, because while old men can still marry and have children, women have a definite window of opportunity. The men at war are depriving the women of their right to marriage and children.

There's a rich Biblical tradition of sexual protest as well: Genesis 19 recounts how Lot's daughters, cut off from civilization, get their father drunk and have sex with him so that they may bear children by hook or by crook. Genesis 38 tells the story of Tamar, whose first two husbands refuse to give her children through primitive forms of birth control. And since her father-in-law Judah (the ancestor of Jesus) won't marry her to his third son and give her the right of having children, she disguises herself as a prostitute, has sex with Judah himself, and conceives that way. Ruth demands her right of marriage (and children) from Boaz by making herself attractive and laying down near him as he sleeps, and then making her request when he startles awake. (Ruth is praised for her initiative by the elders of the city, who compare her to Tamar in her audacity.)

So, two thousand years later, women are still protesting and demanding their sexual rights, wearing pink pussy hats in lieu of rich robes and perfumes of Araby, and those rights are still centered around children. In this particular culture, however, women aren't demanding that men stop withholding children from them. The explicit demand, the entire official purpose of this modern protest is the right to kill the child. Sex is not connected with the stability and the relative immortality of bearing children to perpetuate a name and a family, but with immediate gratification, with expressing oneself, with reducing the richness of womanhood to nothing more than a vagina.

Two thousand years from now, who will be making history? What will sexual protest be about in 4017? Probably something as inconceivable to modern women as abortion on demand would have been to the ancients. We're constantly lectured by bumper stickers that "Well Behaved Women Don't Make History" -- because only women who make noise, who make love, who dare to wear pussy hats have any chance of carpe diem-ing, while the meek inherit the housework. And yet, what woman has had a more outsized impact on history than the Blessed Virgin Mary? Her sexual protest involved questioning even an angel itself: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" She stands -- alone, not amidst a supportive mob of you-go girls -- and asserts her virginity against God Himself offering her the gift of being the mother of the Messiah. And God honors her courage, granting her both the child and the virginity.

Throughout her life, Mary stands not amidst, but against the crowd. She stands at the foot of Jesus's cross, quiet against the howling of the mob. (Every mob demanding its own will ends, in effect, by shouting, "Crucify him!" -- a good reason why the assembly at Mass faces the image of the crucified Christ, to remind them that they come to serve his will, not their own.) Her protest is silent and internal, unless she is addressing God Himself. There she is not shy about making demands: "Son, why have you done this to us? Don't you know your father and I have been looking for you?" "They have no wine." She makes no waves. She makes no splashy headlines. She makes no strategic alliances with evil. And yet she has changed the lot of more women for the better, has garnered more sexual respect and rights for women, than any other woman in history. Perhaps the key is in the only recorded bit of advice she utters: "Do whatever he tells you." In that is contained the key to sexual freedom, and every freedom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lo, a Baby

Behold, Fatty Norman at 15 weeks!

(All in-utero babies here are Fatty Norman -- Fatty for Fatty Lumpkin, the pony in The Fellowship of the Ring, and Norman for Spiny Norman, the giant hedgehog from Monty Python. This particular baby is also Septimus.)

Can't tell you yet whether the youngster is a boy or a girl, but it's certainly a wriggles. I saw lots of good elbow and footsie action, and a few barrel rolls. Hands, feet, head, heart, tummy -- everything seems to be where it ought to be.

...On an unrelated note, heaven forbid I should post a shot revealing too much of my exterior, but look, here's the inside of my uterus, for pete's sake.

In what looks like the world's worse Freudian slip, when asked on the form to indicate my sexuality, I started to circle "Homosexual". There's nothing more exciting in that than that I've never been asked that on a form before, and as I wasn't paying great attention to all the stuff I was checking, I went for an answer starting with an "H" before I realized what that answer was. The doctor didn't ask about it.

I still haven't fully made my up mind what to do about birth, but I liked the doctor (especially when he said that he didn't like to put people on bedrest). I liked the nurse. I liked the lady who drew my blood, even. I suppose I should go on a hospital tour and look at the L&D wing like a newbie. I think I can skip the Lamaze class, though.

But the doctor thinks that I can make it through to the end and only gain as much weight as I did last time, which is great considering I started this pregnancy 40 lbs. heavier than I was the last time around. (Bed rest was a big contributing factor to that weight gain. Hey, you try laying stationary for a month and see where it gets you, even without being pregnant. Then try taking the damn weight off.) He recommended exercise -- not just walking around the block, but real exercise. And you know what? I can exercise. I can do this thing.

All right, gang! Let's get out there and have ourselves a baby!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Seven Quick Takes

1. Today I sat my third-grader down in front of Khan Academy for a refresher on how borrowing in subtraction works (good news: he remembered quickly, so I guess we'll retry that math test), and spent all my school time utzing the first-grader through her lessons. I pulled a page of sentences from the reading program she's taken against because I needed to test some sight words (good news: she recognizes "you" and "the", finally). She stamped and pouted through the first half, and ended up sitting on the floor.

"Look," I said. "We can spend all day in this room at this table trying to get through this page. Do you want to do that?"


"Or, you can work with me and look at the page while you're reading, and we can be done very soon."


"I'm going to count to three."

Bottom in the chair.

"All right. Let's get this done fast. It's 12:58. I'm writing it down. Then we'll write down the time you finish and see how fast it goes. Are you looking at the page?"

She started reluctantly, but read faster as we reached the end, and finished the six sentences by 1:02. Success

2. Then it was math: writing number sentences based on word problems.  Stamp, stamp.

"Let's check this out. 'Matt has 8 pens. He gives 3 away to Sal. How many pens does he have left?'"


"It says he gives three away, and then asks how many he has left. Are those addition words or subtraction words?"

She sulkily drew a minus sign in the bubble.

"Okay, how many does he start with? And then how many do we take away? Let's try it with fingers."

And so on. She was figuring it out but not loving it. Each successive problem drew fresh moans. Eventually I took to having her dictate the answers while I wrote. So on to the last problem.

"Jan has 7 cats. She gives 2 cats to Nick..."


"Did you count that up?"

"I know it in my head."

I raged. I yelled. I crumpled up the finished paper and threw across the room as she collapsed into proud giggles. Then she ran off, and I sighed and collected the phonics book for the next round. Fortunately, she likes phonics.

3. The first-grader wants to learn cursive, so we have a notebook in which each day I write a letter and have her copy it and practice joining it. If she wants to write cursive, we'll do cursive.

4. Obviously, sometimes something you're doing with your children is simply not working, and you need to pivot. And children all learn in different styles, so that needs to be taken into account. But in general, I've found over the years, with my own children, that when they balk and fuss at schoolwork, it's simply that they'd rather not be doing schoolwork. A sentiment many people share, I'm sure, but it's not going to fly when you need to learn to multiply or read. I don't think that education needs to be tedious all the time, but sometimes learning is work and just needs to be done. And sometimes the discipline of keeping your bottom in your chair until you finish your work is acquired by your mother repeatedly placing the bottom in the chair until the work is complete.

5. And later on, this can translate into older children having the discipline to supervise their own work and schedule, while their mother instills discipline into the younger ones.

6. Speaking of older kids and their work, I say again that although the lesson plans from Catholic Heritage Curriculum have worked out well for the big girls, the actual materials are so frustrating that we certainly will be doing something else next school year. It's so Catholicky. Everything in every subject must be explicitly tied to the Church. This is one path for children raised in fervently religious homes to fall away when they're independent. No truth is allowed to stand on its own merits. It must become a pious bludgeon for Catholicism. And eventually the children learn to associate the truth of Catholicism with the bludgeon and not the piety.

Not in my house.

7. To be honest, a lot of our time lately has been spent watching Studio C sketches on Youtube. This is a group out of Brigham Young University, and they do clean SNL-style sketches that are consistently hilarious.

Learning some history:

Watching some TV:

Discussing the cinema:

Spoiling a BBC series:

What Harry and the gang really want:

Conservatism Even In Service of Radicalism

I've been reading this piece on What Every American Should Know and this section struck me particularly in terms of how cultural conservatism (not in the sense of "culture war" but in fluency in the history of our culture) is necessary even for radicalism to be effective:
Hirsch was taken by some critics to be a political conservative because he argued that cultural literacy is inherently a culturally conservative enterprise. It looks backwards. It tries to preserve the past. Not surprisingly, Hirsch later became a fan of the Common Core standards, which, whatever their cross-partisan political toxicity today, were intended in earnest to lay down basic categories of knowledge that every American student should learn.

But those who demonized Hirsch as a right-winger missed the point. Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change. Indeed, in a notable example of the application of cultural literacy, Hirsch quoted in his book from the 1972 platform of the Black Panther Party:


When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
He cited another passage, from the Black Panther newspaper:

In this land of “milk and honey,” the “almighty dollar” rules supreme and is being upheld by the faithful troops who move without question in the name of “law and order.” Only in this garden of hypocrisy and inequality can a murderer not be considered a murderer—only here can innocent people be charged with a crime and be taken to court with the confessed criminal testifying against them. Incredible?
These samples demonstrated for Hirsch two important points: First, that the Black Panthers, however anti-establishment, were confidently in command of American history and idiom, comfortable quoting the Declaration of Independence verbatim to make their point, happy to juxtapose language from the Bible with the catch phrases of the Nixon campaign, wholly correct in grammatical and rhetorical usage.

And second, that radicalism is made more powerful when garbed in traditionalism. As Hirsch put it: “To be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Government vs The President

I ran into a somewhat interesting piece on the Trump/CIA strife the other day, from an author I don't normally read, Glenn Greenwald:

IN JANUARY, 1961, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address after serving two terms as U.S. president; the five-star general chose to warn Americans of this specific threat to democracy: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” That warning was issued prior to the decadelong escalation of the Vietnam War, three more decades of Cold War mania, and the post-9/11 era, all of which radically expanded that unelected faction’s power even further.

This is the faction that is now engaged in open warfare against the duly elected and already widely disliked president-elect, Donald Trump. They are using classic Cold War dirty tactics and the defining ingredients of what has until recently been denounced as “Fake News.”

Their most valuable instrument is the U.S. media, much of which reflexively reveres, serves, believes, and sides with hidden intelligence officials. And Democrats, still reeling from their unexpected and traumatic election loss as well as a systemic collapse of their party, seemingly divorced further and further from reason with each passing day, are willing — eager — to embrace any claim, cheer any tactic, align with any villain, regardless of how unsupported, tawdry and damaging those behaviors might be.

There's a fair amount in this piece that I don't agree with. I'm far more in line with the foreign policy establishment take on Russia, the Middle East, etc. than Greenwald is, but nonetheless I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about the dynamic he points out here, precisely because I'm inclined to prefer the polices of some of the non-elected experts who are at odds with the incoming president.

The background here, the storm of the moment, for those not following the daily news cycle, is that during the election a person with a background in intelligence, who was working first for anti-Trump candidates in the GOP primary and later for Hillary, assembled a "dossier" of anonymously sourced accusations about supposed Trump perfidies which allegedly put him under the power of Putin and showed him up as a bad person generally. This dossier was known to the Hillary campaign and was sent to various news outlets, but no one published its claims because no one could verify its claims. However, as part of the escalating strife between the incoming administration, people at the CIA successfully made the dossier news by first briefing both Obama and Trump as to the contents of the dossier, and then leaking to the press the "news" that the two had been briefed on it. Although the claims remain unverified, the fact of the briefing itself was considered news, and so the whole tawdry list of claims was finally published and discussed in various news outlets, starting with Buzzfeed.

Various people have sagely nodded that "this is why a president should never pick a fight with an intelligence agency". It's true that a president should not pick a fight with one of his intelligence agencies (or any other essential part of the government -- house divided against itself and all that) but if one means that statement in the sense of "if a president doesn't get along with the consensus in the CIA, the CIA will use it's perceived authority to try to destroy him" that actually represents a rather problematic situation in a democracy.

I'm not much of a populist. I think that experts are very often just that, experts in their fields. Yes, they can have agendas which sometimes blind them to the facts (see the school of Sovietologists who thought that the USSR was healthy and likely to be around for decades to come -- right up to the point where it collapsed.) But while not every opinion advanced by an expert will be good, on topics which require a lot of detailed knowledge about, say, what foreign governments are up to, you need a fair amount of expertise before forming an opinion is even worthwhile. So, for instance, it may well be that the experts at the CIA have bad ideas as to what to do about the civil war in Syria, but at least knowing what groups are engaged on which sides and why (as they experts do) is a prerequisite to having an opinion worth listening to on the topic.

I'm sympathetic to the plight of people who have spent their entire careers understanding complicated problems so they can advise the president, who know find themselves faced with someone in that office who likes to brag that he already knows more about such topics than the experts, despite the fact he's known to source his knowledge from places like the National Enquirer. And spending my life in offices, which have their own sort of internal politics, I also understand the reasons why people will say things like "Don't diss the admins. You can't succeed without having them on your side."

And yet, foolish though the recently elected president may be, the precedent of having unelected officials within the government try to destroy or route around a chief executive they don't like is terrible. No matter how incompetent or misguided our president may be, it's deeply worrying to move towards a system in which the government's powerful bureaucracies take on and try to get rid of elected officials they don't like. We as voters have no way to either replace those bureaucracies nor to redirect them. Our system of government relies upon them following the orders of the executive and the legislature. If they begin to see themselves as above that, we risk a tyranny of 'the experts' which would probably do none of us (in the long term, not even the experts) any good.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Back to Life

It's second trimester here -- the website tells me that at 14 weeks, baby is 3.5 inches, from head to toe the size of an 8oz filet mignon -- and I'm alive again. Alive! My nausea has mostly vanished, and my energy has mostly returned. Yesterday I had moments where I could even forget that I was pregnant, if it weren't that clothes fit oddly. I'm in that brief sweet spot between morning sickness and when The Vein starts acting up. This means walking, leaving the house, stretching, as much exercise as I can manage -- any physical activity to counteract the two months I've just spent as a sedentary lump, atrophying and packing on the avoirdupois.

So far I am holding that avoirdupois barely below the Number of Dread. My goal, though this may be ambitious, is to try to stave off tipping the scale until the third trimester. This doesn't involve some dangerous diet plan. I'm trying to avoid sugar and other empty calories, sure, but my main goal is to Move. Even the the most basic quantity of exercise does measureable amounts of good. Anyway, I have a motivating factor -- to avoid bed rest as long as possible. The month I spent in bed with William was good for my blood pressure, I guess, but it had effects that lingered even three years later. God preserve me from round two.

I haven't felt kicks or flutters, but being a grand multipara, I know the feeling of barely shifting gravity and pressure in the midsection which means a tiny thing is swimming. Although most of my pretty obvious stomach is fat and the strange displacement of internal organs, there is a legitimate bulge of baby there. So I'm the good days of feeling okay and not just looking fat, and I'm trying not to waste my time.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Towards a Conservative Christian Writer's Manifesto

It's 2017, and one of my plans for the new year is to sit down four nights a week to bang out words on The Great War, Volume Two. I expect to begin posting installments some time this month.

As I've been researching and outlining, I've also been giving a certain amount of thought to the broader question of what it means to be a writer who is a conservative Christian, and why it is that we conservative Christians seem to be pretty thin on the ground in the arts. The following is a brief attempt to sketch out that thinking into a manifesto of sorts on how and why Christians should approach art, necessarily in the context of writing since that is the only area I can claim to have knowledge of.

The foremost purpose of fiction is to tell the truth. Not, obviously, in the sense of only describing things that have actually happened, since fiction, even when describing real events, involves making up details, but rather in the sense of describing people, experiences, choices, and consequences in a manner which reflects the true nature of the human condition.

Perhaps this sounds rather sober and heavy duty. Can't fiction just be fun? Can't it show us fantastic worlds far from where we live now? Of course it can. The realism which I'm encouraging here is not necessary a pedestrian realism (though I think that the small scale dramas of everyday life deserve more attention than they get) but rather the realism of showing people, whether in a Cleveland suburb or in a galaxy far, far away, reacting to experiences and making choices in a way which seems real. This basic realism which allows us to recognize and identify with the characters is part of what allows the story to seem enjoyable to us. If we cannot recognize the characters to some basic degree as seeming like real people, we don't get to participate in the story and enjoy their unfamiliar settings or adventures.

Many Christian writers seem to suffer from a temptation to focus heavily on Conveying The Big Truths. This often comes out in the form either of showing a very neat sort of conversion story, in which exposure to Christians and their arguments leads to conversion which in turn leads inevitably to happiness, or in massive (sometimes literally apocalyptic) clashes between good and evil in which at last good wins out completely, resulting in the birth of a better world.

Do these sort of stories, however, really reflect truth? Perhaps in some sort of very basic, words-on-the-page sense. That five-page theological argument that the earnest young heroine has with her bad-boy love interest, resulting in his total conversion, may accurately describe in written phrases the theological concepts in question. But how true to life is it that one or two theological arguments result in a conversion? How true to life is it that a conversion, however attained, results in someone's life and relationships immediately coming together into complete happiness? How often does a conflict, however bad the enemy, result in a new era of peace and blessedness?

Arguments often do not lead to conversion. Changes in life are often difficult and come with reverses as much as obvious improvements. Titanic conflicts leave many lingering wounds and successor conflicts, both internal and external.

If as Christians we are committed to the truth, including the truth about lived human experience, our fiction should reflect these less neat realities. If we develop and resolve the stories we write with a sort of pat wishfulness, we create a distance between our writing and any reader who does not share our ideas of wish fulfillment. Readers who don't fully share the author's view will think, "Oh, that's a Christian story. It doesn't reflect my experience," while even readers who do share the author's ideas will simply have their illusions and desires reinforced rather than having to face the full reality of the world.

Not only does wish fulfillment do poor service to our Christian duty to truth, but in our own beliefs we actually have a much more compelling source for potential dramatic material. If we take Christian ideas of virtue and vice seriously, then everyday actions, far from being uninteresting or trivial, can have eternal consequences. The way we treat each other, the small acts of selfishness or generosity, the chance encounters with strangers and the casual kindness (or cruelty) with which we treat those we see everyday -- all of these gradually form us into someone with a habit to the good, or a habit to the bad. This is one of the things that I've come to find very compelling about Tolstoy's writing in War & Peace. While the books is packed with huge, world-shaping events (and occasional whole chapters of historical philosophy which I wish had just been cut) the characters' development arcs are shaped not by these big historical events but by seemingly trivial actions: the way in which old Prince Bolkonsky can turn something as seemingly innocent as his woodworking hobby into a means of psychological warfare against his daughter; the way in which Prince Andre's aloofness and unwillingness to forgive even the smallest transgressions, such as the 'silliness' of his socialite wife, gradually builds into a cancer on his relationships with all his loved ones; the way that Pierre's kindness and lack of decision interact to define all the events, big and small, in his life.

A Christian understanding of sin and virtue naturally lends itself to this kind of moral realism in fiction, and this same moral realism, in which every decision a character makes forms that character for good or ill, creating their character development throughout the story, makes for interesting drama because drama is based on change.

This is what I believe Christian fiction writers should commit themselves to: to realistically portraying the decisions and experiences that people have, and to showing the way in which all of these seemingly small choices shape character in eventually big ways. This is the kind of writing which can quietly convey a Christian understanding of how the world works, and can do so in a way that is interesting to readers whether or not they share the author's beliefs, because stories about character choices and change, realistically portrayed, are inherently interesting to us as humans.