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

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Eye of the Piggy

Our skittish guinea pig, Hilda, took a flying leap from my daughter's arms into her cage, and scratched her eye. We've patted the bars of the cage, looking for any sharp spot or protrusion, without luck, but there it is -- poor piggy's eye is punctured and cloudy. Per the vet, we're giving her eyedrops three times a day, and painkiller twice.

Last night, as I was trying to drop the medicine into her squinty eye, Darwin said, "You know, I think her eye is shrinking."

And you guys, it is shrinking. I'd thought she was just squinting a lot, but no, her eyeball is getting smaller day by day. It fills me with a kind of horror to think about it. The vet had warned us that she might lose her eye, but I hadn't thought of seeing it happen bit by bit. We go back to the vet tomorrow for a follow-up. I don't think we need to take heroic measures to save her eye, even if such a thing is possible at this point. But we'll try to keep her as comfortable as possible as she heals.

It's not anyone's fault -- piggy has to be taken out of her cage so it can be cleaned; she is just a small fluffy pig who can't help being jumpy; what on earth did she bang herself on anyway? -- but it is sad to think that this small thing in our care is going to be maimed. Granted, her life is pretty sedate otherwise. She goes around her cage with her daughter Ruby. She sits in her house. Sometimes, if she is feeling feisty, she even flips her house, and then squeaks for someone to turn it back over. All these things can be done and done well with one eye. And other than her panic when we pick her up for her medicine, she doesn't seem to be suffering, as best we can tell.

We are not the most doting pet owners by any means, but we try to do well by these creatures in our house. The two old cats are sometimes frustrating, and the older one, at 19, seems well-nigh immortal, but we are responsible for them. Even when they pee on random fabric items on my floor, we don't hurl them outside. We buy them the expensive cat food because they don't throw it up. We even moved the litter box downstairs, to the far back corner of the kitchen by the washing machine, so that they'd stop pooping on the floor because they didn't want go up to the attic. It horrifies me to have a litter box in my kitchen, by my laundry. It drives me crazy to live in a house that sometimes smells like cat pee. When these cats die, we are done with cats. Done. But for now we have them, and we have to take care of them.

Lately, though, I've felt that I will indeed be judged on how I've treated our pets. Not on the amount of money we've spent on them, which is pretty negligible by pet-owner standards. Not for how often I've taken them to the vet, because they never go in unless they are in obvious distress. No, I feel like I will be judged on throwing the cat in the middle of the night because it's on my pillow, or for pushing it away when it stood on my puzzle trying to get me to scratch its head, or for the times I've called it stupid. Not because these are big things, but because they are little things, the littlest of the little, of no consequence to anyone or anything but my soul. The cats are God's creation too, and how I respond to them reflects upon me. I don't think I need to pamper them, but I need to at least respond to them as something that God thinks is good.

By the back door, there's a spider who's made its home in the old trellis on the porch. In days past I would have brushed the web away and smashed the spider if I could get it. But it's not harming me. It has a little hidey hole woven down into a corner of the trellis, and sometimes when we come out the back door it hides, and sometimes it sits out. I nod to it as I go past. Maybe it's catching bugs. Maybe it's just living, and as long as it's not in the house who cares? The back porch looks rather sloppy with the triangular web by the door, but it's of a piece with the rest of the place. God made it, and saw that it was good, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Individual Grief of Miscarriage

October 15 is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day, as proclaimed by -- I'm not sure really; I don't know who has jurisdiction to just proclaim a day and make it so. Simcha Fisher has written a lovely reflection on grieving a miscarriage and seeking physical reminders of a loss that leaves barely any physical remains.

I want to write about a different way to grieve, because there is no one right way.

I had a miscarriage at about 12 weeks, over the Triduum of 2005, a few months before we started this blog. I don't remember the dates without looking it up, but I discovered I was bleeding on Good Friday, at church. A friend took my almost 3yo and my 18mo home for the night, and all night long I bled and feared.

All day Saturday I bled and grieved, a process made more complicated by Darwin being so miserably sick that I had to drive him to the urgent care. I sat in the office and rocked myself in labor pains and cried into tissues while the doctor proclaimed that he had a double ear infection and bronchitis. She looked at my pile of tissues with trepidation. "I'm not contagious," I moaned. "I'm having a miscarriage."

"Okay?" she said, and backed out of the room without fulfilling my fantasy of prescribing me industrial-strength painkillers.

Darwin was barely conscious, so I had to drive him to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions. Focusing on the road was a nightmare of concentration and pain. Every stop light was a misery of waiting. When we got to the store, he had to go in, sick as he was, because I couldn't stand up without blood dripping down my leg. And while I was sitting there crying, the phone rang -- the lab confirming that I had indeed lost my baby.

Then I realized that the pain was subsiding, had stopped, and I stopped crying, and the grief died with the pain.

On Easter morning we went to mass alone, as the girls were still in the care in friends, and when we came home I passed the baby, painlessly, silently. We were able to open the sac and see and hold the perfect tiny body. Fingers, toes, little bottom, little nose, and a huge blue eye. We buried it under the rose bush in the back yard.

Friends told me to name the baby. Friends told me that I would be sad for a while, that I might cry at random times. I did none of those things. God knows the child's name, and one day so will I. Six weeks later I got pregnant with my daughter (now a beautiful, disciplined, ferociously effective 13yo) and I did not grieve my miscarriage any more. The next time, and the last time, I cried about it was a few years later, as I sat with a friend who'd just had her own miscarriage, and my grief was more for her than for myself.

It's not that I never think about Baby. I have, in the pocket of my bathrobe, a plastic model of a twelve-week fetus. It's a bit larger than my child, but it's very accurate to the little baby I held, except that some child has chewed up the plastic toes. Whenever I walk down the hall to the shower, I hold the baby in my pocket and remember, and pray for my child and all babies just beginning life in the womb. Sometimes the kids get out the plastic baby and talk about it. And I feel no pang.

It's okay to mourn a miscarriage for a long time. And it's okay not to mourn a miscarriage for a long time. There's no correct way to grieve, and no one should tell you how to feel. Every loss is individual. Baby's brief existence is a joy to me, unalloyed by grief, and there's nothing wrong with that. That doesn't make me a cold, hard person. It simply is what it is. I have my memories of a tiny body, and an immense blue eye looking up at me, and they are good and sweet.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Personal Influence

Everyone knows the shock of catching oneself on video, a charming exercise that combines the seeming objectivity of seeing yourself from the outside with the subjectivity of nitpicking your own presentation for flaws. I had this informative experience this weekend at the cast party for our show, as we watched last year's show and kibbitzed. I can't tell you anything about my performance, because all I saw was that although I'd thought at the time that I was standing straight, the video showed every leaden ounce of the ten extra pounds I was carrying then, weighing on the base of neck, pressing my head out in a cruel slump.

This is why it's crucial to live in community and relationship. Left to myself, I see a photo or a video and immediately pinpoint what I see as the flaws. Look at my chunky legs, my strange posture, my shapeless face, my hair laying the wrong way. Who else would I judge so harshly, by appearance only? Which of my friends would I categorize by appearance, except as a delightful reminder of the personality within? Indeed, the only lasting effect we have on other people is the effect of personal influence, the witness of the totality of our life and convictions on those around us. And we will be heard and believed in proportion to our devotion, however quiet and unimpressive it may seem externally, to the Truth.

The newly ordained St. John Henry Newman spoke of personal influence as the unsurpassed, and indeed, the principal means of evanglization and of the transmission of divine Truth:
Such views of the nature and history of Divine Truth are calculated to make us contented and resigned in our generation, whatever be the peculiar character or the power of the errors of our own times. For Christ never will reign visibly upon earth; but in each age, as it comes, we shall read of tumult and heresy, and hear the complaint of good men marvelling at what they conceive to be the especial wickedness of their own times. 
37. Moreover, such considerations lead us to be satisfied with the humblest and most obscure lot; by showing us, not only that we may be the instruments of much good in it, but that (strictly speaking) we could scarcely in any situation be direct instruments of good to any besides those who personally know us, who ever must form a small circle; and as to the indirect good we may do in a more exalted station (which is by no means to be lightly esteemed), still we are not absolutely precluded from it in a lower place in the Church. Nay, it has happened before now, that comparatively retired posts have been filled by those who have exerted the most extensive influences over the destinies of Religion in the times following them; as in the arts and pursuits of this world, the great benefactors of mankind are frequently unknown. 
38. Let all those, then, who acknowledge the voice of God speaking within them, and urging them heaven-ward, wait patiently for the End, exercising themselves, and diligently working, with a view to that day when the books shall be opened, and all the disorder of human affairs reviewed and set right; when "the last shall be first, and the first last;" when "all things that offend, and they which do iniquity," shall be gathered out and removed; when "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun," and Faith shall see her God; when "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars, for ever and ever."
I read these words yesterday with stinging eyes, as I reflected on a recent interaction. A wonderful lady I know asked me where I went to church. She wanted her family to join a church and start going regularly, but she hadn't decided where.

"I go to St. Mary's," I said.

"I was raised Catholic," she said, "but I want to find something non-denominational."

And instead of suggesting that she look into Catholicism again, or try RCIA, or offering to join her at mass, I mentioned the names of several local non-denominational congregations to which other friends belong.

Now I believe in the truths that the Catholic Church professes, with my whole heart. I believe it possesses the fullness of truth, as we can understand it here on earth. I would die for the faith, and I hope I would suffer for it. But how do I know what history my friend had with the Church? How do I know what past influences may have made her want something else? How do I know what burdens she's had to bear that may have been made worse by particular Catholics?

How, for that matter, do I know whether I'm a good personal model for someone looking for a church? Do I come across as someone who makes the faith attractive, or (as has been implied to me before) a goody two-shoes whose life has little to offer to people in difficult circumstances? That happy marriage, all those nice kids -- what does MrsDarwin know about my broken background, my current suffering? What can her faith have to offer me?

What I did know was that she asked a question, and I listened, and answered to the best of my ability, and that St. Newman might agree that that kind of personal interaction is a better witness than all reasoning or eloquence. And I think he would agree that we cannot know the force of our personal influence, for good or for ill. How can we know the totality of ourselves? How can we truly have an objective view of what we look like to others? All that matters is that God works through our weakness to show forth his love and beauty and truth to the world, as Cardinal Newman says in his last paragraph above:
Let all those, then, who acknowledge the voice of God speaking within them, and urging them heaven-ward, wait patiently for the End, exercising themselves, and diligently working, with a view to that day when the books shall be opened, and all the disorder of human affairs reviewed and set right; when "the last shall be first, and the first last;" when "all things that offend, and they which do iniquity," shall be gathered out and removed; when "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun," and Faith shall see her God; when "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars, for ever and ever."

Friday, October 11, 2019

Immediate Prayer Request

Friends, requesting your prayers for a Cincinnati friend looking desperately for immediate help for a late-term, high-risk pregnancy. Please say a quick St. Thérèse prayer or Infant of Prague novena for this life-and-death situation. She says:

"My once-trusted obstetrician has a terrible office, and they dropped the ball on numerous important things. As I approach the end of pregnancy, everything they missed is coming to light and gathering into a pretty fraught situation here at 36 weeks.
The first issue is that I have tested extremely close to the diagnostic cutoff for a condition called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), which carries up to a 15% stillbirth risk. The only way to save babies whose moms have ICP is delivery at 37 weeks. I should have been allowed to speak to my doctor about this, but his office has prevented me from direct contact with him for over a month now.
The second issue is that I was not given the standard tests for anemia at all during this pregnancy, which allowed me to become severely anemic and affected my heart rhythm to the degree that I ended up in the ER—and also helps explain why I was basically unable to function all summer. I have been told over a week ago that I require immediate iron infusions at the hospital to help prevent hemorrhage during my c-section, but to this day, the obstetrician's office has not successfully put in the order for them despite repeat requests from both me and the hospital.
These little bureaucratic dysfunctions are adding up to serious consequences for me and my baby. I still have no c-section date scheduled, let alone one that takes into account the potential for ICP. I have attempted to transfer my care to well-respected high-risk obstetricians at nearby hospital groups and been told that their cutoff for new patients is 36 weeks.
As for the loop monitor drama, in case you're wondering—I finally got that successfully ordered and covered by insurance, and then had to cancel it days before due to all of these complications."

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Darwiniana: Gripe Session

Next week we return to our regularly scheduled programming. This week we didn't have the flu, but at a certain point I thought we did, and believe me, everything else went by the wayside. It's the sinus thingie with fever (confirmed by urgent care), and it's a week-long event, but that week has been staggered throughout seven children who are getting cabin fever. Bonus: the house has been thoroughly disinfected, and the urgent care doc told me that all OTC sleep aids are basically benedryl, so if you have children with feverish insomnia, take this to heart. 

Also this week: the big van died in the middle of our street. Haha, two alternators in two different cars in just over two weeks! We'll have it back after the weekend, I hope, and thank goodness that we're now a three-car family, but oof.

Also oof: the plumbing job to make our low-pressure shower run more smoothly initially had an estimate of $600. What was supposed to be a one-day job ran into complications, cost 50% more than estimated, and has left us with a hole in the bathroom wall, a shower with the water shut off, and a further estimate of $1200 to finish the work. NB: this is not the bathroom with the hole in the ceiling, where the shower works just fine.

Speaking of the bathroom with the hole in the ceiling: the living room ceiling under that shower has started to bulge. We are familiar with bulging ceilings, which means plaster that must be replaced. Fortunately, the bulging plaster is held in place by paper, which we suspect that previous homeowners put up to hide previous water damage to the plaster. Cost to repair: unknown as yet, because I'm turning a blind eye to it until other things are paid for.

Ah, fall! Time to bake some bread! That is, if you have a functioning oven. But this past Saturday, while the girls and I were at the theater, while Darwin was doing some baking, he noticed a bright flash in the oven. Opening it, he saw a spark, like the flare from a welder's torch, moving along the bottom heating element. As it traced its way along the wire, the wire seemed to melt. Very interesting. Also now very unfunctional. We are told that this is an easy part to DIY, which is good financially but disappointing from the standpoint of having bought this thing as a placeholder for the good gas stove we'd like to get one day, and it's not dead enough to replace yet.

None of these things are insurmountable, and most of them are predictable, especially the old moneypit problems. In the grand scheme of things, none of them are really terrible. Most of them can be solved with money and time, both of which we have. Yet it does feel oppressing to have them all come at once, and in a show week, natch. But it's been lots of little opportunities to die to self, and that's better than no opportunities to die to self.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A Waffle Making Dad

This was one of those very parental mornings. The little kids had been passing around one of those viruses all week that manifested itself in fevers at night and no detectable symptoms during the day -- the sort of thing you can't take to the doctor with any satisfaction and which doesn't even slow them down much during the day. Last night the malady made the jump to the older kids as they came back from the first performance of their show with MrsDarwin. Thus there were calls and visits from various people during the night. At few times were there less than two small to medium children wedged into our bed with us. MrsDarwin dealt with much of this. Through long years of being a single income family we've fallen into a routine where I wake up easily to my alarm and to strange noises during the night, while she wakes up to sounds of children. This fits with the fact that I get up early and head off to work, while the kids tend to sleep till 7:30 or 8:00 and thus allow her to get another hour or two of rest.

So having slogged through the night, I got up with the alarm to make breakfast. MrsDarwin had to leave to teach religion class by 9:15, and whichever kids were healthy would be going with her. In honor of general civilization, I try to make sure the family gets a hot breakfast at least one day out of each weekend, and usually that day is Sunday. This morning I made waffles and bacon, with the earnest help of the five-year-old who loves to stand on a stool and help add and mix ingredients in any such project.

 Now it's the moment of quiet, where I've got everyone fed, settled the sick ones down to rest, got MrsDarwin out the door (fed, coffeed, with all her stuff) and there's a pause of relative quiet -- "Dad!" Comes a cry from the other room. "I had a spill." -- before I need to get the next set of logistics going to cover mass, errands, getting people to the play, to youth group, making dinner, to bed. So I'm writing. Why not?

Some time ago, I recall another Catholic guy having written something about how one of the benefits of marriage is that it domesticates young men. Given that many within the Catholic blogging world seem to have been trying to catch up on fifty years of previously scorned feminism over the last five years, this inevitably caught him a fair amount of grief. "It seems like you're asking women to pay an awfully high price to teach men to make waffles," quipped one critic.

Well here I am. Waffle making man. It's not always waffles. My breakfast repertoire for feeding all the kids stretches to pancakes, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, homemade bagels, hash, and egg-sausage-bake. If I'm just making a breakfast for MrsDarwin and myself I make an omelet or eggs, but many of the kids don't like eggs, and it's hard to make an omelet big enough for seven kids anyway.

I've read compelling writing by women writers about the emotional labor they do to keep a family going. I wouldn't claim that for my tribe, we waffle making dads. We're not particularly emotional. But we try to do our labor. We make weekend breakfasts and dinner once or twice a week when we're around in time do to the prep. We do the "you'll have to talk to your father when he gets home" conversations, and the careful diffusing conversations with daughters entering their teens who at times decide that their mothers don't understand them at all and Dad is the only person they will listen to. We mow the lawn and take the trash out and get the oil changed more or less on time. We pay the bills and track the finances and deal with a host of practical issues while having the unfortunate tendency to assume that everything is okay in people's emotional lives unless they actually tell us otherwise.

The waffle making dad can seem like a pretty out-dated archetype these days. The up to the moment guy is a sensitive feminist ally who admires kick-ass women and decries male privilege -- a sort of Joss Whedon about the house. Of course, waffle dad replies, the danger there is that he might... turn out to be like Joss Whedon.

I'm not sure how to address that whole set of ideals and concerns, the people who snappily say that women are giving up a lot to teach a young man to make waffles, so I'll just leave that to one side. My words are to the young men of the world. And I'll say: being a waffle making dad is not a bad aspiration. In a world that can't seem to make up its mind what, if anything, it wants from masculinity, many of the archetypes available out there are not great.

There's the "crusading knight of the West" archetype which gets a lot of play in traditional circles. I like my history as much as the next fellow, but let's be honest with ourselves: Constantinople fell some time ago and getting too caught up in the idea of being a knight while in fact working 9-to-5 (or more realistically, 8-to-6) just starts to look like being involved in a roll playing game.  Heaven forbid, you may some day be asked to fight for what you love, but don't stake your sense of self an mission on that possibility.  The small daily struggles are more important than the possibility of huge risks and sacrifices that may never actually come.  Then there's the super-sensitive feminist ally archetype, but if there are any of those that aren't secretly creeps, I'll be the more surprised.

The former archetype endorses a semi-mythic hyper masculinity in search of some sort of great deed to accomplish. The latter attempts to defuse criticism by essentially becoming "one of the girls". Neither of these is doable. What is doable is to work your job and take care of the needs of those you love. Being a stable support to your family and getting things done that add to their security and comfort is something that you can do and that is, in the end, probably close to being the most worthwhile thing you can do with yourself.

I remember my father making pancakes for the family as a weekend breakfast. I remember him patiently letting me help mix them up as a child when it would surely have been easier to do it himself. I knew his patient service to us in that way, as in others, was a sign of his love for us. Those breakfasts were not just breakfasts, they were a symbol of the quiet toil and support with which he cared for us. I don't think there are many better ways to be remembered.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go do the dishes.

Friday, October 04, 2019

History That Wasn't: The United German Republic of 1919

I've been reading Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, a history book dealing with ways in which the collapsed of the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia created regional conflicts and tensions that in turn led to WW2. It's a very worth reading book, especially if one's prior exposure to the topic is limited to the summary that often ends up in textbooks claiming that the war guilt clause the reparations were the primary things which played into the rise of the Nazis.

One of the fascinating things that he covers is that in 1918-1919 as the Austrian and German successor states were being put together primarily under the leadership of Social Democratic parties (in the climate of the place and times, think of social democrats as being the stable middle ground between communists on the left who wanted actual revolution and the imperial/military right which in many cases didn't want parliamentary democracy at all) many social democrats in both Germany and Austria were pushing for a union of the two countries into a single German-speaking nation. This seemed to be in keeping with Wilson's 14 Points, and it would have both provided Germany with something to focus on other than its territorial losses to Poland and Austria a way to continue to exist as a stable country after being stripped of its primary agricultural and industrial areas through the dissolution of the empire. Austria in the winter of 1918-19 was a rump state with a third of its population in Vienna and not nearly enough agricultural land to feed its starving people.

The allies did not want to allow the unification of Germany and Austria even if it seemed in keeping with the principle of national self determination, because it seemed impossible to explain how they had fought and died to defeat German militarism only to green light the creation of a larger and more unified German state than they had faced in 1914. And yet, it's possible to imagine that if the Social Democrats had been able to deliver a united German Republic as a channel for national aspirations, this would have given them the credibility to stabilize and lead the country into a better future.

With unification definitively denied, uniting the countries became an aspiration of the far right and another example of how democratic government could never provide a path to the national greatness for which many people yearned in a period of defeat.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Action Movie Nationalism

The long leg of my flight back from France was nine hours, and although I spent a lot of that reading, as the time zones slip by and the hours stretch out, I don't have the stamina to read that entire time. Eventually I turned to my seat-back video screen and the selection of movies to choose from. There wasn't much on the list that I was eager to see, but one title jumped out at me as something that I'd read about when it came out, a Chinese action movie called Wolf Warrior 2. Sitting on a plane for nine hours is dead time anyway, so I sacrificed two hours to Wolf Warrior.

It's not unusual for action movies to present a good deal of a country's idea of itself.

Independence Day famously has the US leading the entire world in freeing itself from alien invasion on the 4th of July, with the fighter pilot president giving a world-wide speech about how today will now mark independence for all. The movie conveys a strong sense of America as symbol of world leadership, can-do spirit, and freedom.

Numerous cold war era movies from the Rambo franchise to Top Gun conveyed a sense of how Americans saw themselves in the world and in contrast to their enemies.

Wolf Warrior is a sort of funhouse mirror version of this effect, as it is a product of the artistic imagination of the Chinese Government (currently celebrating seventy years of dictatorship over the world's most populous country.)

 Set in Africa, the movie follows Leng Feng, a former member of an elite commando unit of the Chinese People's Liberation Army called the Wolf Warriors. Kicked out of the army after beating up a crowd of construction workers and their sniveling boss, who was seeking to demolish the home of a fallen Wolf Warrior, Feng is now working as a freelancer in Africa. There, his friends among the workers in Chinese built and managed factories and in a Doctors Without Borders style medical mission come under threat from a bloodthirsty group of revolutionaries struggling for control of the unnamed African country where the action takes place. Behind these revolutionaries lurk (perhaps predictably) the core villain, an even more bloodthirsty group of American and European military contractors who seek to rule the country and get control of a deadly virus and the vaccine for it which has been discovered by a Chinese doctor working at the medical mission.

Massive action scenes ensue, with Feng getting together with an American doctor love interest who seeks peace and speaks fluent Chinese, a grizzled fellow veteran of the People's Liberation Army, and a spoiled but earnest young Chinese man eager to hear the sounds of AK-47s in the morning to lead a mostly nameless and faceless group of African characters in fighting off massive numbers of revolutionaries and mercenaries. A brave Chinese ambassador and a stick-to-the-rules Chinese navy commander fill out other keys roles in the cast and plot. They're eager to rescue Feng and the Africans he's taken under his protection, but only if they can do so with the full authority of the UN, where we are reminded multiple times China is a member of the security council.

What's fascinating here is seeing how the movie (which with $847M in Chinese domestic box office was one of the largest grossing movies of 2017 despite getting virtually no play beyond China) portrays China: as a brave people willing to stand up for themselves against a bloodthirsty West, tough and proud, but also generous in bringing medicine and technology to the developing world while rigorously obeying international law.

There are clearly a good many contradictions between that image and the Chinese regime which not only killed millions of its own people in the 1960s, but even today is known for using political prisoners for slave labor and organ harvesting, while silencing political opposition on the streets of Hong Kong and through some of the world's most effective internet censorship. But given that the Chinese film industry is under direct government guidance, what we definitely see in a movie like this is the image of China which the government would like to project to its people and to audiences abroad. Not, primarily, in the US and the rest of the developed world, but in the developing world in which China would like to position itself as a leader and protector against the existing international players.  And that image is clearly one of a global superpower which would like to edge out the existing ones, particularly in regards to the developing world. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Lingua Franca

I'm at a sales meeting this week with one of the product teams from work. Location-wise, this would be nothing exciting to say at previous companies I've worked for, but this company is much more global, and this particular sales team is based at one of our tungston carbide plants in a town outside of Lyon, France. So the sales meeting is being held at a hotel which was a private house build around 1820 on the foundations of an older fortified house, surrounded by rolling French countryside.

Last night I was sitting over after dinner drinks with a half dozen other attendees. Our group consisted of: 1 from Germany, 1 from Australia, 1 from Italy, 1 from India, 1 from China, 2 from France, and 3 from the US. We all spoke English, as it was the one language that all of us knew. It's also the company's official language. Perhaps that's not a surprise, given that a year ago it was purchased by a US investment company and now is headquartered in the US, but back when the company was owned by a Swedish mining conglomerate, the official company language was English as well. Even now, the majority of people working for the company are not American.

English, however, is no longer just a language for catering to Americans. It's become, in a phrase which is ironic as I write in France, the Lingua Franka of international business. When the Chinese sales manager and one of the French operations engineers talked to each other over a smoke break, they did so in English, because it was the one language they both spoke. Even among the French, Italians, and Germans, English was often their most fluent common language, and you'll overhear them speaking in it even when none of the Americans are present. Their own languages are exclusively reserved for when they're talking privately with people from their own countries.

You would think this provides Americans (and Australians and Indians -- and Brits if we had any) a distinct advantage. Not so, one of our French hosts informed us last night. To paraphrase roughly, he said, "You get up there, and you think you know everything because you speak English. And you speak too fast, and tell a joke no one understands, and use slang, and use three different words that mean the same thing just to show that you know them all. And you don't realize that half the room doesn't understand a thing you are saying. They don't want to hear your fancy English. They want to hear the English they understand."

And indeed, international business English is not necessarily spoken with any special love for the language or the culture, it's spoken because it's the most convenient for all involved.

So this afternoon when I gave my hour-long presentation on pricing strategy, I asked people to let me know if I was speaking too fast and I made a conscious effort to speak slowly and clearly. It went well.

I always feel a bit guilty at these kind of events that I'm not fluent in any other languages. I could stumble through some German if someone was really patient with me (and would stand a better chance at reading it) and I can manage a few phrases of French and Spanish, but my foreign language ability is below the English ability of anyone in attendance. One can get all down over American laziness about this, but of course, we don't have the motivation. When your language is the language of international business and travel, all you have to do is show up.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Repost: The Boy and the Frog Potty: A Fable

Suddenly Paul (age 2 and 2 months) has shown, not only an interest, but an ability to go potty, and let me say that I HAVE EARNED THIS AFTER YEARS OF POTTY-TRAINING RELUCTANT 3-YEAR-OLDS. But Paul, though a great babbler and a many of many single words, is not fully conversant, so when I tell him the potty story below, the only response I get is "EW, YUCK!", which he uses at every available opportunity.


Once upon a time, there was a little boy, and his name was William. One day he sat on the frog potty. And along came a kitty.
Kitty said, "Whatcha doin'?"
William said, "I'm sitting on the frog pot."
Kitty said, "Why don't you go on the kitty potty?"
And William said, "What's the kitty potty?"
And Kitty said, "I poop and pee in my litter box, and then I kick sand all over it."
And William said, "EW, YUCK!"

Along came a dog, and the dog said, "Whatcha doin'?"
And William said, "I'm sitting on the FROG POTTY."
And the dog said, "Why don't you go on the dog potty?"
"What's the DOG POTTY?"
"I run around and poop outside, and then my owner has to pick it up in a bag."

Along came a duck, and the duck said, "Whatcha doin'?"
And William said, "I'M SITTING ON THE FROG POTTY."
And the duck said, "Why don't you go on the duck potty?"
"What's the DUCK POTTY?"
"I just swim around, and poop in the water."

Then along came a big boy, and he said, "Whatcha doin'?"
The big boy said, "Why don't you use the big boy potty?"
And William said, "What's the big boy potty?"
"I go poop and pee on the toilet, and then I wipe myself, and then I flush it down."
And everyone clapped!


Once upon a time there was a little boy named WILLIAM, and he was sitting on the FROG POTTY.  And in came the cat and said, "Whatcha doin'?"
"Why don't you go on the kitty potty?"
And William said, "What's the kitty potty?"
"I poop in the litter box, and then I kick sand over it."
And then along came the dog, and he said, "Whatcha doin'?" And William said, "I'M SITTING ON THE FROG POTTY!" And the dog said, "Why don't you go on the dog potty?" And William said, "What's the dog potty?" And the dog said, "I run around outside and poop, and my owner picks it up and puts it in a bag.
Then along came a cow, and the cow said, "Whatcha doin'?" And William said, "I'M SITTING ON THE FROG POTTY!" And the cow said, "Why don't you use the cow potty?" And William said, "What's the COW POTTY?" And the cow said, "I stand around and poop in a field."
Then along came Jack, and he said, "Whatcha doin'?"
"Why don't you go on the toilet?" And William said, "How do you go on the toilet?" And Jack said, "I pee on the potty, and then I flush it, and it's all gone!" And everyone clapped and cheered!
And then William went peepee on the frog potty, and everyone clapped and cheered! Let's see, did you go pee like a big boy?

Once upon a time, there was a boy named WILLIAM! and he was SITTING ON THE FROG POTTY! and along came a cat.
Whatcha doin'.
Why don't you go on the cat potty.
I go in the litter box, and then I kick sand on it.
Then the dog came, and said Whatcha doin'.
Why don't you go on the dog potty?
I go outside, and my owner picks it up and puts it in a bag.
Then along came a... an earthworm, and he said Whatcha doin'.
Why don't you go on the earthworm potty.
I chew up dirt, and then I poop it out in the soil.
Then along came Jack, and he said, "Hey Billy, I'm going potty now. Want to watch?"
Willie, don't touch that toilet seat! Thanks, Jack, that was good. And everyone clapped and cheered. YAY! And then William went peepee on his frog potty! And everyone said he was such a big boy, and they cheered and clapped and kissed him. YAY! BIG BOY! Okay, William, are you going to go potty now?


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Job and Transportation Woes -- And Yet

Darwin is currently at cruising altitude over the dark, cold Atlantic ocean, winging his way toward Lyon, France, for a week of business travel.

And I, on my first evening of single parenting, am decompressing after having to rescue my brand-new driver after the battery died in the minivan -- as she was driving, in the dark, down a deserted road. Fortunately this was an incident which technology (in the form of cell phones) removed almost all the danger, and yet, as I ponder our aging cell phones which barely hold a charge anymore, I realize how fortunate we were.

Still, I have a dead minivan sitting in the parking lot of a rather sketchy industrial park. Tomorrow we go down and see if the thing just needs a jump, or if darker forces are at work. And yet I cannot be angry about it, because my daughter is safe and sound at home.

This past Sunday, Ida, the 4-year-old daughter of Ben Hatke -- illustrator of Angel in the Waters, and author of the Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels and the Mighty Jack graphic novels -- was kicked in the head by horse, and later died of her injuries. And as they left the hospital where their daughter died, the family found that their vehicle was also dead.

If you've ever read and enjoyed any of Hatke's books, please consider donating to the family to help cover the medical and funeral costs for little Ida.

Last year, Ben Hatke illustrated a short picture book about Job, written by Regina Doman after her own little son died in an accident. It's an accessible and appropriate way to introduce children to the difficult story of Job. If you are looking for a way to discuss suffering with your children, check out The Story of Job.

And pray for your family, especially those farther above the Atlantic than the Titanic is beneath it.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tears, Idle Tears

I haven't time to write a short post, so I'll write a short post anyway because I wish I had time to write a long post.

First, have a chart:

Several weeks ago a friend touched off a lot of discussion by sharing this image. As I looked at it, I realized that I myself was a perfect "Freeze", and had been so for much of my life. I bought and read the book this was based on: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving" by Pete Walker, about dealing with trauma that results from not just a single bad incident, but the trauma that is built up by children having to adapt to parental neglect or abuse.

More recently, I've been reading Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are, a book about women's sexuality. Do I recommend it? Yes, with caveats. It contains a lot of valuable, necessary, relationship-changing information about women's psychological approach to sex that is important for everyone to know. At the same time, the author has no use for sexual morality, particularly Judaeo-Christian morality (which is ridiculously misrepresented in the book). Her school of sexual morals is "Whatever floats your boat", and there's a dearth of acknowledgment about the reproductive repercussions of sex. That said, someone with a firm moral grounding who is able to sift through the chaff will find much here that can be of immediate application.

The result of all this is that over the past four weeks, I've cried more than I have in the past quarter-century (or longer).

This is a good thing, I guess. The books tell me, and I acknowledge that it's probably the truth, that it's necessary to complete a grieving cycle instead of packing everything inside. And grieving is going to hurt, and it's going to be raw, and tears are an effective way to accomplish that.

But here's the thing. I hate crying. I hate it not just because it's messy and draws attention to itself, but because what the authors would consider a real, cleansing cry -- and it's always an ugly-cry with me -- is so draining. It leaves me with a headache. I don't feel better. I feel drained and weary and almost deadened. Some people love tears. I hate 'em.

What to do with this? I don't know, in this space and time. I said I only had time for a short post, and this is it. Processing must happen, I suppose, and I have the perfect supportive environment and husband. If only there were more privacy! (She says on the internet.) If only when one felt like grieving, the external circumstances were perfect. If only, when one had peace and quiet, one could schedule in the emotion and the reaction.

So I make a gift to you of all these resources. Go forth and have your own ugly cry, and your own red eyes and splitting headache. I'll pray for you.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Morals of Classical Liberalism

In this moment where conservatives are trying to figure out what principles they might be about in a post-Trump world, the self described "illiberal" Catholic right has taken it upon themselves to argue that the entire idea of classical liberalism is itself morally bankrupt and must be abandoned. We must instead, it is argued, pursue a political philosophy more in line with the old throne-and-altar ideas of a century or more back.

I'm not among those who thinks that the order of the past was clearly wrong. To each time its own thing, and there are things to admire about the Catholic kingdoms and empires of the past. However, there are also things to admire about the classical liberalism of which I think the United States, in its better moments, is an example, and it for that classical liberalism that I would like to speak up.

In a piece defending Sohrab Ahmari's notions of government, Susannah Black writes against classical liberalism, saying that in an attempt to avoid sectarian strife, it preaches of gospel of privatized religion which is not to be allowed to touch the public square:
OG liberalism wanted privatized religion, tamed religion, in order to avoid a reprise of the 30 years’ war, where men died for public claims about God. To avoid this, OG liberalism privatized those claims, attempted to tame the love that men have for the good– which is a terrifying love.

The French political philosopher and architect of the European Union Alexandre Kojève wanted likewise to make a world that was safe. It would be a world, specifically, where no one ever loved anything as much as the Nazis had loved Germany– and thus a world without eros or thumos, a tame world.

This is what the current right-liberal critics of postliberalism are worried about: the releasing of that energy back into public. But it can’t be kept out. That’s inhuman, and it simply doesn’t work. Men will love. The problem is what they love.

The problem with the Nazis was not that they loved, but that they were idolaters. The weapon against bad-illiberalism is not liberalism, but good-illiberalism. “Love God,” Christ says, “and your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s what postliberalism seeks to do, politically. “Do not love– at least not politically. That’s private. Hedge your bets. Be safe,” says liberalism– particularly right-liberalism; left-liberalism has some of the love of the public good that is in genuine leftism.
Bringing the Nazis into this seems to me an unforced error. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that the problem with the Nazis was that they loved Germany too much. The problem with the Nazis is both that they hated others too much and that the things they did could never be done rightly in support of any cause. To roundup, imprison, and murder millions of those whom the state decided to hate is something which no state should do, for any reason. These are actions that would taint any belief, even if it were a more right belief than the exhaltation of "Germanic" identity. But let's set aside that odd move and assess the accusation against classical liberalism.

Is the point of classical liberalism to privatize religion, the belief in the highest good, in order to tame the love that man has for the highest good and thus avoid the strife that could result from such love?

Perhaps a certain soulless kind of classical liberalism may think this way, but if the illiberal right is going to get to pick their favorite illiberalism, I think it's only fair that we who support classical liberalism from a Christian perspective may pick our best liberalism. And in that best Christian version of classical liberalism, I would say that the reason we hold the state should grant people freedom of religion and expression is not because religion is too unimportant to be regulated. Rather, we hold that man should be given the freedom to believe (rightly or wrongly) because we believe that it is against man's dignity to force him to attend a state church or to punish him for following some other creed.

The reason I do not want the state to insert itself into our choice of religion and our most basic moral actions is not because I think those actions are hedged off from the public square, too unimportant to be the subject of politics. Rather, it is because I think that our worship of God is too sacred to allow the state to dictate it. We are made in the image of God, and God calls upon us to worship Him. I do not believe that the state should insert itself into each person's seeking of the highest good. The state is too low a beast for that. Allow it to stick with determining the best tax structure. Let it pay for road and trains and determine what other states we should ally ourselves with. But it is no surprise that our religion is larger and crosses all the world's borders, for it is dealing with a truth larger than any nation can control. The state should step back and give room for each person to pursue the sacred, not because the sacred is too unimportant for the state, but because it is too important for such a mean tool to shape.

Porch, Altered

 Yesterday I had my first opportunity to speak to my contractor and mention that I wished the porch blocks had been sectioned differently, but I knew there was nothing that could be done about it now. And he said, "Do you want me to saw new lines?"


So we marked off where I wanted to see the bigger blocks broken up, and I approved the lines, and that afternoon he came back with a saw and cut new sections.

The handrail has been set back in.

Dear readers, I feel much more satisfied, and I thank you for your forbearance with my drama. I feel like I've been a difficult person to live with this week. I've had to make my apologies to Darwin for brooding and moping and being self-absorbed.

I try to make it a practice, when something gets lost or broken or otherwise put out of commission, to react as I would have wanted to if the thing suddenly turned up or could be repaired. I don't feel like I followed my own internal rule this time. I didn't know that the porch could be altered, sure, but now that it has been, was my week of angst appropriate? How mortifying to be only human.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Happy Update on the Porch

So, after my dramatic porch lament:

My contractor stopped by, and I expressed my concerns about the shape of the blocks. He said that once the concrete cures, he can saw new grooves to break up the shapes, and together we marked where the cuts should go. The whole interaction went pleasantly, and I'm feeling much more at peace about everything.

Monday, September 09, 2019

The Amphibious Landing That Wasn't

I've been listening to James Holland's book The Battle of Britain for the last few weeks, and enjoying it very much. (Thanks to whoever recommended it -- sorry I can't remember who that was.)

I'm near the end, and thus hearing about the events taking place exactly 79 years ago, in early September 1940, as Hitler was making the decision whether or not to stage an amphibious invasion of Great Britain. One of the things that has really been striking me is that German planning at this point in the war involved the incredibly methodical Wehrmacht attempting to follow the directives of Hitler, who was a very improvisational leader.

As recently as the end of May, it had looked as if France and Britain could be knocked out of the war at the same time with the massive envelopment which trapped French and British armies in a pocket in Belgium and northern France, encircled by the Panzer force which had cut across the Ardennes. However, due to strife among German generals and Hitler meddling in command, the British were able to evacuate most of their army (and some of the French) from Dunkirk, albeit leaving most of their heavy weaponry behind. Even then, many prime ministers might have sought an accommodation, which Hitler apparently expected.  But Churchill was not many prime ministers, he was the leader who had been raring to fight Hitler for years. And so, in July 1940 Hitler ordered his high command to come up with a plan to make a massive amphibious and airborne attack against Britain in August or September. They not only planned the operation, code named Sea Lion, but pulled together over a thousand barges to transport troops and staged the invasion force in French port cities, ready to go at Hitler's command. The first wave of the invasion was to be approximately 125,000 men, only slightly smaller than the 150,000 men that the Allies would land in France almost four years later on D-Day.

The difference in planning was huge, however. The Allies spent a year planning the Operation Overlord landings, from 1943 to 1944. They developed landing boat technology specifically for the landings, built massive portable portable harbor facilities which could be towed into place and then used to land the supplies that would keep the beachhead fed and armed, and perpetrated a massive deception designed to fool the Germans into expecting the invasion to be in Calais rather than Normandy.

That accomplishing such a massive landing with so little preparation was such a gamble is perhaps proved by the fact that even Hitler, the ultimate military/political gambler, flinched at trying to pull it off. He allowed himself to believe that Britain could be bombed and starved into submission by the combination of the Luftwaffe and the u-boat wolf packs and instead turned to planning a land invasion of Russia, a massive land operation which was much more the style of operation the Germans were comfortable with than a huge seaborne invasion.

Still, it's fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Hitler had made the opposite decision. Making an amphibious attack across the English Channel on barges, against the opposition of the Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force which was not nearly as weakened as the Germans had convinced themselves, would have the potential for spectacular failure. Amphibious landings are hard even with meticulous planning and huge advantages. Hitler's claim that attacking across the channel would be no different from a river crossing on a broad front suggests a level of delusion comparable with his invasion of Russia the next summer. Had he gone forward, might the German Army (which contrary to popular belief was actually pretty worn down after fighting first Poland and then France) have failed in the cross-Channel attack and brought Hitler's string of victories to a sputtering end? It's a fascinating question. I'm not sure someone has done a clear-eyed alternate history about how things might have gone if the Germans had actually tried their hastily planned invasion, but it would be a great read if someone did.

Set in Concrete

Once upon a time there was an old house, harmonious in its elements. This house had a stone porch, with many steps and levels.

Once upon a time, the stone porch had been strong and elegant, devised and constructed by master masons. Now it languished. After ninety years of service, it eroded with each passing season. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful, if only in the eyes of its mistress. And it was still in harmony with the house.

But the day came for it to be replaced. With much sorrow, the mistress -- of comfortable means, but not as wealthy as the homeowners who made such grand renovation plans in the heady days before the Stock Market crashed --- opted to reconstruct the porch in concrete. Her one request of the contractor was the porch should look as much as possible as it used to be. Of all things, she begged, she wanted the porch to look like it was made of stone. Such things were possible. She had seen it done elsewhere, with molds. Of course, said the contractor. It would be done.

Two days before the porch was poured, the mistress eyed the wooden forms warily as the contractor explained how he would texture the porch in one all-over stone pattern. The mistress demurred. She wanted the porch to look like stone. Many stones. Just as it used to be. Of course, said the contractor. But to stamp the stone with molds would cost more than his original estimate. What he could do was to etch lines in the newly poured concrete to make it look like large blocks of stone. It had been done elsewhere. He showed her photos. With trepidation, she acquiesced.

And the porch was poured over the ancient stone.

And here, friends, is where we leave tedious fairytale diction for the realm of the now. I have a concrete porch, one that is competently constructed and poured and will stand attached to my house for the next ninety years, indestructible. Never again will I have the option to improve my dear old stone porch. And I do not love it.

You tell me -- you tell me! -- whether any mason in the world would shape stone this way, huge L-shaped blocks. You tell me whether any mason worth his salt would lay stone in such a pattern, unstaggered or so barely staggered that it's an insult to proportion. You tell me whether this looks like stone blocks, or like a middle-schooler's simulacrum of a Mondrian grid.

I ask this explicitly because I find, to my horror, that it seems I am the only person bothered by this. No one loved the old decaying porch but me.Visitors ooh and aah over the new construction, congratulating me on well it turned out. These sincere and well-meaning compliments ring in my ear like someone leaning over your loved one's casket, exclaiming, "They've really fixed her up! She never looked so good when she was alive!"

That's just the word, alive. The stone porch was in sad need of repair, but it was gracefully alive. The concrete porch is shiny, regular, and dead, a huge slab of McMansion slapped on to my elegant old home. And no one sees it but me. No one grieves it but me. Even my loving husband, seeking words to comfort me as I lay in bed, stiff and quivering with rage, said that he didn't think anyone else would be appalled by it or think that I had ruined the whole facade of the house. "But if it bothers you, of course we can have it altered."

My marriage has never been so sorely tested.

At first my anger was pure and righteous, devoted solely to the cause of aesthetic integrity. But anger never stays unalloyed. All things became causes of fury to me. I bit my tongue. I retreated to my room. Sometimes I wallowed in my anger willingly. Othertimes I was consumed by it, even when I longed to be free of the burden. I could not dismiss it at will. And I realized that if I wanted to receive communion on Sunday, I had to be relieved, because my heart had become as hard as the concrete. So I hied me to confession on Saturday afternoon.

And you know what? I didn't feel instantly better. But the workings of grace had begun. I no longer feel sick to my stomach. I can look at the porch without crying. But I still mourn the beautiful thing that is lost forever, and I grieve the soulless thing now in its place. I'm still trying to find the right words to tell the contractor that his work is sturdy and professional as far as concrete goes, but that I am not satisfied with the admittedly unalterable surface. Instead of judging 99% of my acquaintance to be aesthetic cretins, I'm trying to be gracious whenever someone pays the new porch a complement. I'm trying to get used to it, because I'm going to have to look at it every day for the rest of my tenure here.

And I imagine that ninety years in the future, as archeologists poke at the crumbling concrete, one will beckon the other over. "Stanley, look at this!" he'll say. "There was stone under this concrete. Stone! Can you imagine? What idiot would pour concrete over stone?"

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Problems on a Spectrum

I was driving to the airport last week, setting off on my first business trip to Europe, and as I did so I was mentally running through the list of things that I had meant to do before departing and trying to think if I had done everything. It was thus that I realized that while the other toiletries that I had needed to use one last time and then pack (toothbrush, deodorant) had made it into my bag, the hair gel had not. Oh well, I would find some while I was traveling. Then I began to think about pulling my final things together downstairs. I remembered putting my laptop on the table and then bustling off to grab some other things. Had I put it into my backpack? I couldn't recall, and if there was one thing that I couldn't get through the trip without, it was my laptop. Better to check while I was still only ten minutes from home. I pulled into a parking lot, checked the backpack (where the laptop was indeed safely stowed) and then continued on to the airport only two minutes to the worse.

Someone may be thinking, "that sounds pretty OCD". I have a close relative who has actual, diagnosed OCD. Having lived with the experience of that person's serious OCD, I can tell you that it's actually very different. Not totally different in feeling, perhaps, but very, very different in effect. My mind likes to run through lists of things that may have gone wrong or been forgotten, especially when I'm already under stress. It will throw up questions like "Did you forget to pack that?" But when those questions come up, I have the ability to answer them clearly in my mind, and decide whether it's worth the time to check them based on a quick cost-benefit analysis. For my relative with diagnosed OCD, that ability to control worries such as that is much less developed. He'll end up doing and checking things multiple times because he can't shut down the concern that he might not have done them, or done them right, or done them enough. Getting out the door can take an extra twenty minutes as everything is done and checked multiple times. It's close to paralyzing. So what is really being talked about is not just having a mind that constantly runs through details and asks, "Is this right?" it's lacking the ability to keep those questions in their place and prevent them from taking over your life.

I think this is probably the case with a lot of mental conditions. In some ways, it can make those conditions feel more familiar: Oh yeah, I have those feelings too! But in another sense it's very different from actually having the debilitating effects of one of those conditions.

Often the feelings or thoughts we might associate with a particular mental problem are common, if not to everyone, at least to a lot of people. But what makes that condition a problem is when one not only has those thoughts but also has a decreased ability to dispatch them. On the one hand, this can give us a sense of common sympathy for those who suffer debilitating effects from some particular mental condition. Often we can see in ourselves similar thoughts and think, "Yeah, I kind of suffer from that too." And yet, while there are genuine similarities, it's important to remember that it's the ability to control these thoughts and feelings that is often what turns a mode of thinking into an actual debilitating problem. If you haven't suffered the overpowering feeling that you must give in to OCD-type questions, checking something again and again, you may have felt the stimulus of worrying about some topic, but you haven't felt what it is that people with serious cases of OCD actually suffer from.

Of course, the ability to resist giving in to problematic feelings is itself something that exists on a spectrum. Some people simply find it takes a lot of energy to overcome some particular set of fears, thoughts, etc. Others find it nearly impossible. But I think recognizing both the urging and the ability to manage it as two separate aspects of a mental condition is key to understanding whether one has the condition oneself or simply shares a few tendencies that way.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Family Economy

I'm fortunate enough to have Labor Day off, which gives me time both to rest up after a week of business travel and put in some much needed last minute work on preparing the older kids' homeschool plans for the next few weeks. (One of the advantages of homeschooling is that within certain limits one sets the rules, and one of ours is that school doesn't start until September, with the day after Labor Day serving as the first day of school.) That also gave me the unusual chance to go to mass alone with MrsDarwin, slipping off to weekday mass in the morning, and to think a bit about what work means in the context of our household.

For a number of years now I've worked in the American corporate world. These kind of jobs are often idealized. I've heard earnest MBAs tell me how this is the kind of work that they've always wanted to do and that they're inspired to be "part of the team". And while people sometimes put in long hours or spend a lot of nights away from family while doing business travel, they do it in comfortable hotels, doing work that doesn't leave you physically aching at the end of the day. Sure, meetings and bureaucracy can be tiresome, especially if one doesn't learn how to navigate them, but in general it's mentally engaging work, and it's work that society tends to treat you as respectable for doing. And it pays well. So in just about every significant way, it's a good deal. I'm very fortunate in those respects.

And yet, it often throws me when coworkers tell me that they'd probably do this work whether they needed the money or not, because they need the sense of purpose and the mental challenge. I particularly hear this from female coworkers when they learn that MrsDarwin raises and teaches the kids at home full time. "God bless her. I couldn't stand to do that. I need to get out of the house and away from the kids and do something important and challenging or I'd go nuts."

I'm not here to tell people how to organize their families. Ten years ago when I thought I had a lot more figured out in life, this would have been a piece on the importance on the single income family and one parent devoting himself or herself to raising the kids full time. But from the older me, my point is more general: work has a purpose in our lives, and that purpose is to provide us with the necessities of life and if possible some reasonable amount of comforts as well.

If I didn't have to pay our family's bills, I would not be spending all those hours every week sitting in an office. I like my job, it's interesting and fulfilling as jobs go, but it's not my purpose in life.

When God described to Adam and Eve the fallen world in which they would have to make their way among the consequences of original sin, he told them that a living would now come at the cost of the sweat of the brow. We labor for our food, our shelter, our clothing, and our possessions. We labor to take care of the young, the old, and ourselves. We labor directly, preparing their food, changing their diapers, cleaning their messes. We labor indirectly, earning the money that will allow us to compensate others in return for the goods and service they give us which we in turn need.

In some sense, all the work we do is to give someone the things they need or want.

This can be very direct, as when I change the two-year-old's diaper. Or it can be very indirect, as when I work with the our segment manager for rotary cutters to come up with a pricing model which allows our company to charge a manufacturing plant a per-cut price rather than a several-hundred-thousand-dollar capital investment for a carbide-edged cutting roller machine which in turn is used to cut out diapers on a high speed production line, which allows someone to buy a box of inexpensive disposable diapers in a supermarket, which allows them to change their baby's diaper -- and my part in all of that allows me to earn the money to buy a package of diapers for my own offspring. In the end, whether I'm working in the office or around the house, my purpose is the same: to provide for the needs of myself and others. There are things I do for the enjoyment of them -- writing here among other things -- but going to the office is not among them.

Too often, I think, in our work-obsessed middle class culture, we think of a job (a compensated "professional" job) as inherently ennobling. Those who work directly to care for those who depend on us are seen as somehow not doing "real work". Yes, we nod and call them selfless, but in some sense it's often implied that what's selfless about their caring work is that they've chosen to do something less important, less rewarding, less worth while because someone has to do it. They've drawn the short straw and accepted their lot cheerfully.

But I think we should think of work in a more basic fashion. Work is how we provide for the needs of others. The work we do around the house provides the necessities and comforts for our families. The work we do "on the job" earns the money which allows us to pay others for the things we need -- and for them to acquire the things they need in their turn. Even the creative work which I might otherwise think of as recreation (for me, at least) such as working on the community theater production or writing this post, is intended at root to provide others with the relaxation, the insight, the enjoyment which they need. To speak of the economy is to speak of the unimaginably complex network of interactions through which millions of people make these exchanges with each other. This can ennoble seemingly tedious work, but it also cuts seemingly noble work down to size. At root, we work to provide for the needs of others, whether we work for money or just to get something done. And so within the family, where we need both money and the direct care of others (and need to decide at times whether in some cases we will provide direct care or pay someone else to do it for us) we should do so with not some over-reverence for paid work, but with an eye towards providing the best case as best we can for all involved.