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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Prayer for my Beloved

Today is our 15th anniversary. How incredible to write those words: 15th anniversary. It seems like forever; it seems like no time at all.

O Jesus, I ask you to grant my love every good gift. Give him grace, strength, and wisdom; give him fortitude and prudence and charity. Give him riches, spiritual riches that will last into eternity. Give him peace and purity and patience. Give him rest.

And choose me, Jesus. Choose me to be the one through whom he receives these gifts. Allow me to be your way of loving him on earth. Keep us always united in your love.

May our marriage on earth be a sign of the perfect love of heaven, and may we come, with our children, into eternal life with you.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Drafting Women Is A Bad Idea, But It Doesn't Really Matter

When the Senate passed its latest defense policy bill, it included a provision to require women as well as men to register for the draft. There are a whole mix of different reasons that different factions are for or against this idea. Some on the left support it for reasons of equality, or on the theory that this would make it less likely for the US to get into future major wars. Some on the right support it as a sort of, "You want equality? I'll give you equality!" retaliation, while others oppose it as an upending of traditional gender roles.

I think it's a bad policy on the merits. In terms of gender roles, I don't think that it's a good call, and even in countries such as Israel which, as a matter of resource necessity, have historically included women in conscription, it's generally been found that actual infantry combat units function best when all male.

However, I'd argue that it's an empty gesture either way, because it's unlikely that the draft will serve a purpose in any future American war.

From the total French mobilization of the Napoleonic Era through the World Wars, major powers fought wars of national mobilization. Even as technology and mechanization changed the face of war from 1800 to 1945, the ability to put large numbers of riflemen in the field remained a major factor in fighting and winning wars. This is why major powers established systems of conscription. In France and Germany, there was actual universal conscription. Even in peacetime, the majority of young men spend 2-3 years (usually starting at age 20) in uniform as full time soldiers. They drilled, received weapons training, and took part in full scale wargames -- all this designed to assure that at any time the country could mobilize a large number of men who had received several years of military training at some point withing the previous decade. The US and UK did not have conscription, and had only small professional armies, but both instituted a draft during each world war in order to fill the ranks of the army with the millions of young men needed to field a modern army.

Of these mass armies, a large percentage (larger in WW1, smaller in WW2) were riflemen. However, even as the major powers were fielding the largest armies in history during WW1 and WW2, technology was advancing in ways which would gradually take the emphasis away from battles between massed riflemen.

The famous aspect of this involves flashy big technology: modern artillery, tanks, airplanes, helicopters, etc. However, even among infantrymen themselves the degree of specialization had increased tremendously. For example, in 1914 a French infantry platoon consisted of 60 men: 1 lieutenant, seven non-commissioned officers, and 52 riflemen. All of those riflemen carried the same equipment and were trained to fight in the same way. By 1918, however, that platoon had been reduced in size to 30-40 men, and rather than being an undifferentiated mass of identically armed and trained men, they were organized into different combat groups with different weapons and purposes: machine gun group, rifle grenade group, bombing (hand grenade) group. A fully trained set of combat groups functions as its own small combined arms force.

In the hundred years since, the infantry platoon has become more differentiated, more mobile, and far more lethal. This is a result of both technology and the specialized training which the professionalization of the US Army since Vietnam has allowed. As the amount of firepower that a small group of soldiers can lay down has increased, the need for huge masses of men has decreased. A modern squad of nine infantrymen can lay down more fire than a platoon or perhaps a whole company of 200+ men a hundred years ago. And with a small number of men able to deploy such a huge amount of fire, having large masses of infantrymen is actually a battlefield liability: a bigger and denser target.

The fact that technology and training have overtaken numbers as the key factors in combat can be seen in recent wars that the US has fought. In the Gulf War, the number of soldiers deployed by the coalition was only slightly larger than the size of Iraq's army, and in the Iraq War, the number of US and allied soldiers in the initial invasion was actually, on paper, smaller than Hussein's army. In both cases, however, the US and it's allies won massive, lopsided victories. An army of conscripts equipped with cast of Eastern Bloc weaponry was nowhere near a match for the training and technology of the modern US Army.

The two wars against Iraq are easily portrayed as between a large power and a small one, and as we can see by the results Iraq was by no means a match for US military might. However, in terms of army size and equipment, there aren't a large number of powers in the world that have larger conventional military capacity than Iraq did. Setting aside nuclear weapons (as one certainly hopes any future war would) there simply isn't a potential future foe which the US would need to institute a draft to fight. Not only do we have a vastly larger military technology edge over any future foe than we did in past major wars, but we maintain a much larger peacetime army than we did during back when we tended towards disarmament between wars.

If we did become involved in a major war with another great power, we might need to massively increase our purchases of military technology, but the number of soldiers we'd need to recruit would be comparatively modest. Since our superiority as a military power relies so heavily on both technology and training, drafting large numbers of short term recruits would arguably be counter productive, failing to give us the kind of additional manpower we would need.

As such, it would make more sense to abolish the selective service system than to add women to it.

Monday, June 27, 2016


Ah, screw it. I have several posts brewing, and I've been sitting here for half an hour trying to write something, but you know what? I don't really feel like it. Let me tell you what I do feel like.

This past week I have been a seething mass of anger and discouragement. This is more than just a bad mood. This is damn-the-world, welling-up-behind-my-eyes fury, a fury that has no outlet because it has no objective correlative. The kids are not being other than usual, the house is not hotter than it was this time last year. I face no financial worries or existential terrors. I'm just worn out with running a family of eight, and dealing with a body approaching 40 which doesn't act like a body approaching 30. (Those with bodies approaching 50 may feel free to laugh.) I accept that that most people have far more difficult lives than me. My problems and struggles aren't major or dramatic or even all that externally interesting, and yet they exist, and they're what I happen to be struggling with.

Going to confession this weekend has taken the edge off of my irritation, but hasn't made my problems go away. Grace is an interesting thing. Sometimes it lifts you completely out of the bad. Sometimes it just helps you to survive, to not say that thing on the tip of your tongue, but it doesn't actually make you feel better about being virtuous. Sometimes it makes you feel worse, because you did the good thing and you weren't rewarded for it. I like to think that God doesn't have to pat me on the head for doing what's right, only to find out when I don't get it that I feel like I deserve to have my head patted.

We're trying to fix up our screened-in back porch right now, so we can sit out there on summer days when it's too hot to eat in the house. The floor is covered with several layers of old paint. In many places, it's coming off most satisfyingly. A couple swipes of the scraper will bring up big layered chips, leaving a clean swath of concrete. But the section we're working on now involves a lot of finicky scraping. When you look at the floor after an hour of flakework, it seems unchanged, or worse than when you started.  The only evidence of motion is the pile of debris building up in the way of progress. In the middle of the project, with no end in sight, it seems futile to keep chipping away. We chip anyway, because we're committed to getting this done, but knowing that the work will pay off in the future doesn't make it fun now.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

11th Blogoversary: The Most-Viewed Posts

It's like us, this year, to have missed our 11th blogoversary, not because something big is happening, but because everything little is happening. We are doing nothing other than living life with six kids in a high-maintenance house, and it's fairly absorbing. These are the golden years.

To commemorate eleven years, here's a roundup of our all-time most viewed posts -- not, in my opinion, our most interesting posts, but the ones that either went viral or have had a rich Google history:

1. So Baby Has A Skull Fracture: the saga of Pidge's soft squishy lump that turned out to be a skull fracture. Spoiler: everything ended happily, and Pidge turns six in a week or two, a big happy girl who sings and dances and loves to hang on Mama. We get numerous hits a week on this, even five years later. Children hitting their head you will always have with you. 2011, 15651 views.

2. How The Steamroller Will Hit The Church: A piece Darwin wrote a year ago about how the Church might be hit with marriage lawsuits. It was picked up by some Catholic news aggregator. 2015, 14452 views.

3. How Far Can We Go: my review of a book by the same title on premarital chastity. I liked it a great deal, and in fact need to get a new copy because I gave mine away. Not all commenters agreed with a prudential, individualized approach to handling premarital chastity, but it's the approach I'll recommend to my children. Also picked up by a Catholic news aggregator. 2012, 10079 views.

4. Fussing Like An Unweaned Child: Darwin meditates on walking the baby in the back of church. That baby is 10 now. Sigh. 2007, 6519 views.

5. How To Marry A Nice Girl: Oh Lord, Darwin mixed it up with the Manosphere. It ran to 95 comments worth of chestbeating. 2012, 3147 views.

6. African Rift Likely to Form New Ocean: This is a Google favorite of ours. 2010, 2248 views.

7. Is Capitalism Destroying the Family?: What messes up the family more, social policies or social norms? Again, picked up by a Catholic news aggregator; we can always tell because we get an influx of commenters who argue differently from our regulars. 2015, 2078 views.

8. Most People Have Tribes, Not Beliefs: Social media, Kim Davis, the pope. 2015, 1919 views.

9: Pope Benedict Baptizes Ex-Muslim Convert: 2008,1770 views.

10: Income Inequality: 1945 Edition: Darwin did some cost-of-living analysis after we watched The Best Years of our Lives. 2012, 1483 views.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Re-post: Cross-over Fiction

Every now and then we get to talking about something we've written here, only to realize how old the piece is. Tonight we were teasing our girls about the American Girl doll catalogue by recounting to them a story we'd made up about one of the dolls, and lo, turns out that post is from 2008. We revive it here:
You may know her as the bright-eyed Victorian beauty popularized by the American Girl series, but by 1912 Samantha Parkington was a seductive 18-year-old heiress traveling home from her European Grand Tour. Educated, liberated, and uninhibited, she had turned heads across the continent, but not until the voyage home did she meet her match in the capable arms of the son of the 15th Duke of Denver, 22-year-old Lord Peter Wimsey. (Peter, a recent Oxford graduate, has been sent to America by his uncle to forget the flighty but beautiful Barbara.) The ship on which their passions ignite? A vessel as immense as their desires, the majestic, unsinkable Titanic. 
Further development from the comments:
Lord Peter puts the ladies in a lifeboat, but Samantha gets out to rescue steerage passengers because she's a crusader and doesn't believe in steerage. (Samantha's aunt was also liberated; hence the lack of oversight.) Peter jumps off the ship and ends up standing on top of an upside down lifeboat (historically accurate: Collapsible B), while Samantha dies because I say so.
The girls were alternately fascinated and disgusted, which is probably most people's reaction to fan fiction.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Lessons of a Floundering Campaign

One of the interesting things about this year's presidential campaign is that extent to which it underlines something which one can otherwise miss: that a run for the presidency does not simply consist of a smart or inspiring would-be leader traveling the country and giving a lot of talks, but rather the creation and management of a whole start-up-type organization to both put out the campaigns message and turn out its voters. A successful campaign organization not only serves to get its candidate elected, but also provides the kernel from which the new administration grows.

Normally this goes on behind the scenes, but this year it's being thrown into the light because Donald Trump is completely failing to successfully create such an organization thus far, and it's beginning to show. The Washington Post writes:
While he could manage a stunning turnaround, at the moment Trump seems to have put together one of the worst presidential campaigns in history. Let’s take a look at all the major disadvantages Trump faces as we head toward the conventions:

A skeletal campaign staff. Trump succeeded in the primaries with a small staff whose job was to do little more than stage rallies. But running a national campaign is hugely more complex than barnstorming from one state to the next during primaries. While the Clinton campaign has built an infrastructure of hundreds of operatives performing the variety of tasks a modern presidential campaign requires, the Trump campaign “estimates it currently has about 30 paid staff on the ground across the country,” a comically small number.

Not enough money, and little inclination to raise it. Trump hasn’t raised much money yet, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do so; according to one report, after telling Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus that he’d call 20 large donors to make a pitch, he gave up after three. Fundraising is the least pleasant part of running for office, but unlike most candidates who suck it up and do what they have to, Trump may not be willing to spend the time dialing for dollars. Instead, he’s convinced that he can duplicate what he did in the primaries and run a low-budget campaign based on having rallies and doing TV interviews. As he told NBC’s Hallie Jackson, “I don’t think I need that money, frankly. I mean, look what we’re doing right now. This is like a commercial, right, except it’s tougher than a normal commercial.” It’s not like a commercial, because in interviews Trump gets challenged, and usually says something that makes him look foolish or dangerous. But he seems convinced that his ability to get limitless media coverage, no matter how critical that coverage is, will translate to an increase in support.

The Federal Election Commission filing which Trump's campaign just made for May shows how shockingly this lackadaisical approach is putting him behind the Democrats:

Despite raising $3.1 million and loaning himself another $2 million, Trump began this month with less than $1.3 million cash on hand.

Clinton, by comparison, raised $28 million and started off June with $42 million in cash. Bernie Sanders, with his campaign winding down, still brought in $15.6 million last month and had $9.2 million cash on hand.

And although Trump had claimed he might self fund his campaign, it sounds more like he's using his campaign to fund himself, making large payments from the campaign to his own companies, allegedly to pay for travel and hosting events:
Trump spent $6.7 million in May. That’s down from $9.4 million in April, but it’s actually a pretty stunning amount when you consider that he’s not advertising or building a serious field operation. So where did all the money go? Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy report that the campaign paid out more than $1 million to Trump-owned companies and to reimburse his own family for travel expenses. Here are some of the campaign's biggest expenditures:

  • Campaign swag and printing - $958,836: Hats, pens, T-shirts, mugs and stickers
  • Air charters - $838,774: “Nearly $350,000 of the money spent on private jets went to Trump's own TAG Air.”
  • Event staging and rentals - $830,482: This includes the fees for renting facilities such as the Anaheim Convention Center ($43,000) and the Fresno Convention Center ($24,715). But the biggest sum went to Trump's own Mar-A-Lago Club, which was paid $423,317. Meanwhile, the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, got $35,845, while the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fl., was paid $29,715. And Trump’s son Eric’s wine company received nearly $4,000.
This lack of organization on its own is going to hurt his campaign, reducing turnout in a GOP which already includes a lot of people (myself included) who loath the presumptive nominee. But it also provides another, subtler reason not to rally round the party banner. In normal times, a vote for the Republican nominee is a vote for the party. Sure, someone like McCain or Romney had significant weaknesses, but they at least followed the rule of having a large campaign organization full of the best among GOP policy makers and operatives. You weren't just voting for the guy at the top of the ticket, you were voting for the whole organization, many of the members of which agreed with a conservative Republican like me more than the actual nominee did.

Even now, if the party could somehow manage to sedate Trump, surround him with party operatives, and possess him with the re-animated spirit of Romney, I might be persuaded to vote for him -- so long as we could be sure that the brain of The Donald would not escape from whatever jar it was imprisoned in and come back like some rampaging alien to wreck chaos upon the government. But Trump's failure to build a credible campaign organization doesn't just mean that he'll have a much harder time making a half creditable run for the presidency. It also means that he lacks the apparatus through which the party might provide the assurance of continuity with the policies and demeanor which previously loyal GOP voters such as myself desire. Rather than getting to elect a basically solid party, headed by a not-to-exciting candidate, we're being asked to vote for a volatile loose cannon all on his own.

The Destruction of Sennacharib

 Today's first reading is 2 Kings 19:9-11, 14-21, 31-36. It tells the story of King Hezekiah, praying for deliverance against the arrogant Assyrians, whose King Sennacharib has declared that if the God of Israel says he will save his people from the Assyrians, he is lying. Hezekiah takes the letter and spreads it before God, praying for his assistance and mercy, and God answers with words of comfort. And not just words: in the night, the host of the Assyrians dies suddenly in their camp. Sennacharib must retreat back to Assyria, where he is struck down by his sons.

Lord Byron wrote a famous poem inspired by this event.

The Destruction of Sennacharib 

  The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Monday, June 20, 2016


A week or two ago, I spent an evening trying to navigate some of fatherhood's choppier waters: talking to a young teen in whom a mild correction had triggered a tearful crisis. The details in these matters do not bear repeating because the grievance is never about the actual words or actions which triggered the scene. "You warned me that joke was straying from sarcastic into rude," turns into, "You always criticize what I say. You do it in front of other people all the time. You do it just to make me look stupid."

While I don't remember specific grievances of my own, I have the feeling that I enacted similar scenes with my parents back in the day -- though given the differences in personality and sex my scenes involved storming rather than sobbing. It may in part be out of embarrassment that I've lost the details to memory over the years, that I remember the type of scene but no real details, but perhaps it's in keeping with the fact that these scenes are not really about the flash point, but rather about the difficulties of relating to those great archetypes in human form in our lives: mother and father.

What caused the tears was not that I had offered a correction, it was that in that mild correction loomed something able to cause strong feelings: Father's disapproval. Sure, maybe that teasing was taking things a bit far. She would have been willing enough to concede that. But not when it came with the idea that she was somehow being disapproved of or held up as imperfect by Father.

We gain a lot, as parents, from the mythical place that he hold in our children's lives. How else can we keep order among this fast moving, strong willed group of small people with few inhibitions that charge around our houses at breakneck pace, often outnumbering us, were it not for the fact that to them we are those massive all encompassing figures: Parents.

On that particular evening, as I sought to stem the flow of tears and make sure that the message which had started the tempest was not lost in its reconciliation, I was trying to set Father with his capital "F" aside for a moment and provide a little bit of low pressure advice: You're not in trouble. I'm not disciplining you. I simply want you to understand, as you move into adulthood, what will pass for polite behavior among adults and what won't. It can be a tricky thing, and I stumbled at it many times myself when I was your age. And when I stumbled I sometimes insulted people or made myself look foolish. So while I'm not blaming you, I want to tell you when you're treading off the path so that you can learn with as few mishaps as possible how to get along in the world you're emerging into.

But of course, even as I tried to explain this -- and how Mom and Dad won't always be looming figures in charge of every aspect of your life, but rather simply other adults who care about you and have history with you and have a lot of experience in the world because they're older than you -- I could feel that looming figure of Father making the conversation more fraught.

I think at some level I used to imagine that in the process of becoming a parent one would become truly different, that there would be a dividing line and having crossed it I'd feel at one with the outsize place I have as 'Dad' in my children's view of the world. After all, I'd been a kid, and I knew that Mom and Dad were huge, nearly all-knowing figures.

There is no satisfying dividing line, however, no sudden infusion of parental wisdom, just a lot of people who somehow go from little bundles that just want to eat and sleep to talky small persons (full of at times tempestuous emotions) who call me Dad.

The long term, nagging lack that death imposes is the fact we can no longer talk to our loved ones. As a Christian I believe that my father's soul lives on, and in the quiet after receiving communion I pray that his soul is freed from any remaining need of purgation and admitted into the light of the Beatific Vision.

But although I believe my father hasn't ceased to be, I can't talk to him, can't hear his reaction to my own experiences of the last ten years. When he died my oldest child was three. Being the father of a three year old is very different from being the father of an adolescent. As I experience what it is to be the father of older children, events from my own teens come into new focus. But because death separated us, I can no longer call up and ask what the other side of those experiences is like.

The result is that a father lost while still comparatively young remains in some sense that more archetypal figure of childhood. I talk with my mom fairly often about various adult topics: finances, jobs, cars, parenting. We've completed the transition to adults with a lot of history together. There's a level of mystery pealed back from our interactions when I was young, because we've not talked about them as fellow adults. But while Dad was in no way a distant or mysterious figure, my relation with him is still trapped in childhood and young adulthood, and it always will be. This is all the greater challenge as I try to follow his example with my own children. If it's hard to live up to the example of a good father, it's harder still to live up to the figure that one's father represented while young.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The AR-15 as an Open Source Success Story

Since the horrific mass shooting in Orlando over the weekend, the US has been convulsed with another of its recurring "conversations" about gun control. Invariably, this involves gun control advocates demanding to know why any sane person would want to own an "assault rifle" such as the AR-15 (one of the weapons used in the Orlando shooting was a rifle related to the AR, sharing some parts with it), while gun advocates reply that the "gun grabbers" don't know what they're talking about and AR-15 type rifles are the most popular in the US. To illustrate this divide, gun control advocates sometimes mistake the initials "AR" in the AR-15 designation to stand for "assault rifle", while the NRA loudly proclaimed they might as well stand for "America's rifle" because of its popularity. (In fact, "AR" stands for "Armalite rifle" after the manufacturer which originally designed the rifle adopted by the military as the M-16 rifle and more recently the M-4 carbine.

The question of why exactly AR-15s are so popular is doubtless complex, with different people being drawn for different reasons. With over ten million AR-15s in civilian hands (though given the number of owners I run into on gun boards who own 3+ this doubtless represents well under ten million Americans who actually own one) and the number of homicides committed nationwide using rifles of any kind in the hundreds, mayhem is clearly not the only motive.

One of the things which particularly upsets critics about the AR-15 as a rifle for civilians is its military origin. While the civilian AR lacks the fully automatic mode which military M-4 Carbines have (fully automatic mode allows the rifle to fire continuously as long as the trigger is pulled down -- at least for the three seconds or so it would take for the rifle to empty its standard thirty round magazine), it is a semi-automatic weapon and thus can fire as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger. Other less notorious semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols can of course do exactly the same thing (which gun advocates are quick to point out when proposals to ban "military style" weapons are put forward) but the AR-15 and its relatives are the ones which have the appearance and reputation to make them look particularly alarming to gun control advocates in this respect.

The same military pedigree is, of course, one of the attractions for many AR owners and shooters. As critics have pointed out at some length, many advertisements for these "tactical" types of guns make appeals to testosterone in one way:

Or another:

While "tacti-cool" looks are certainly a factor in the AR's popularity, as is the design's connection with America's military, I'd argue that there's also an interesting intellectual property and innovation explanation for the popularity of the AR platform.

The last phrase there, "AR platform" is the key, because the "AR-15" is not really just one model of gun. The trademark for the term "AR-15" is owned by Colt, which purchased the rights to the trademark from Armalite decades ago. However, the term is used far more generally to refer to any civilian rifle built around the specifications of the M-16/M-4 weapons system. Since the "mil spec" design is not protected by any patent, hundreds of manufacturers, large and small, have a standard platform for which they can built complete rifles or just specialized parts. The gun rack at a store might contain AR-15s ranging from $500 to $3000 in price. Some are light "tactical carbines" with military style 14.5" barrels made legal by a permanently attached flash hider or muzzle brake which takes the total barrel length out to 16", some are target rifles with heavy 20" or 24" competition barrels. Some have plastic molded handgrips, others have aluminum handguards with rails for mounting accessories.

Hobbyists often assemble their own rifles from parts (as, full disclosure, I am myself currently engaged in doing) and in doing so they can put together a "franken gun" with favorite (or most affordable) parts from a variety of manufacturers, and do so in the confidence that a lower receiver from one manufacturer, an upper receiver from another, a barrel from the third, and a handguard from yet another will all fit together perfectly and function as a whole, because they are all built to fit together according to the same basic military specifications that are available to all.

An AR-15 can be assembled using swappable parts from many manufacturers.

The standardization of this mil spec design allows guns very, very different from any military rifle to be made primarily with AR components. Swapping out the barrel and upper receiver can convert the rifle to shoot an entirely different cartridge from the military standard .223. Several manufacturers even produce parts which can replace a few parts to turn an AR into a precision bolt action rifle.

Guns are durable goods (my other four rifles are all over fifty years old and still function just fine) and one of the things which people consider in selecting a rifle is whether parts and ammunition for it will continue to be available in the future. In general, this has led to rifles having a fairly low rate of technical change and a fairly small number of major manufacturers. If you buy a rifle from Winchester, Remington, Marlin, or Ruger, it's a good bet that those same manufacturers, and often that very same model of rifle, will still be around in 20 or even 50 years. (Among top hunting rifles, the Winchester Model 70 bolt action was introduced in 1936 while the Remington Model 700 has been in production since 1962.) A shooter who purchases one of their rifles can expect to be able to get parts and service for it for decades to come. But what of some small startup company offering an innovative design? Will they even be around in ten years?

Perhaps due to such questions, for many years the top selling rifles were usually from the same big, old companies. The AR platform removes such worries, however. Buy an AR put out by some small start up with interesting new technology, and even if they aren't around in a few years there are dozens of other companies selling compatible parts. The result has been a boom in small companies making parts which AR hobbyists find exciting, and far more variety and innovation than is normally seen in the firearms industry.

It seems clear to me that a good share of the reason for this is that the "mil spec" guidelines for how an AR has to be designed, guidelines which make all mil spec parts compatible, created an environment in which innovation could thrive. And yet, the context for this innovation was a specification designed by a government agency: the department of defense in collaboration with manufacturers such as Armalite and Colt.

In the software world, this is the kind of situation that developers work hard to achieve. You want enough different people to work on a software platform that there are lots of programs that can work on the same platform and build on each other's strengths. If everyone builds their own proprietary platform, there's much less innovation. But getting the common platform takes a lot of work. There's a value to everyone in having the commonly shared technology for everyone to work off of, but getting there involves both getting people to share their work for free in some cases, and also keeping them from "branching" the project -- adding their own cool features which are not compatible with other aspects of the platform.

In this case, it's the set guidelines of the military specification and the tremendous prestige which the mil spec design has with gun buyers (the idea that the military design represents durability and effectiveness as well as the ability to fit together with other mil spec parts) which minimizes "branching" within the AR world. Manufacturers will innovate within a specific area (say a competition grade trigger assembly with a unique design or a chamber designed to make extraction of the spent shell more smooth and easy) but if they fail to produce parts that still work seamlessly with other mil spec parts, buyers tend to reject the design.

I'm not sure how this approach could be applied to other areas. This may be a case in which the prestige of the open design platform has a unique hold on customers which would be hard to reproduce elsewhere. But it does, I think, help explain the unique hold which the AR platform currently has on American gun hobbyists. The massive variety of rifles and customization options that have sprung up have simply made being an AR hobbyist far more interesting than focusing on virtually any other rifle. Indeed, the only platform which has even close to the amount of customization and variety which the AR does is a much older military design: the M 1911 .45 pistol.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stillwater Prologue, Revised

In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, established the Stillwater Fellowship to provide an education for poor but deserving young men. Such philanthropy was an uncharacteristic turn for a man so ambitious that he’d built the largest, most elaborate house on the river simply to spite an upstream rival, so of course it came with a catch: the Stillwater Fellow had to live within the bounds of Stillwater land. John’s charity had tightly circumscribed limits; he didn’t intend to go to expense educating his neighbor’s freedmen or local white trash.

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

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

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

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

Old John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. In 1942, American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature pink and green package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The patched shell of the house was restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor, and the grand front rooms were opened for tours.  The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.

World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when the boys came back, they didn’t return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Spencer largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. The scholarship, owing to its restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since who knew when, but there were no such restraints on the annual dinner, so that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the purpose of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball seemed to be nothing more than that the good times should roll, as extravagantly as possible.

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Boy and the Frog Potty: A Fable

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?


Monday, June 13, 2016

Living Off Script

I made a lightning trip down to Texas last week -- two very long days in the car to earn one day on the ground -- in order to attend a funeral. The father of some good friends of mine had died suddenly of a heart attack.

It's common in those sort of situations to say, "He died too soon," and it's true. While we never positively want to be separated from our loved ones, there's a point at which we can say though still with some sadness, "He lived a long life and died peacefully at home. It was a good death." Even if death itself, at least as we know it, is a result of the Fall, a sorrow and a trial, there is a sense of death sometimes coming in its time, after a full life, and alternatively there is the sense of a death that comes far too soon.

In other aspects of life as well, when we talk about something going wrong, it is in comparison to how things ought to be. In this model of how life is supposed to be, marriages have no more than a certain degree of conflict, people live out long lives before dying of ailments that involve little suffering, and people suffer neither from major financial reversals nor major disabilities.

From this comes a natural human desire to make comparisons. "I have suffered this great reverse. My life is not following the script for 'the good life'. I have it worse than others."

I'm not always a nice person, and as a result I indulged in this a fair amount when my father died ten years ago. I particularly remember someone thirty years older than me going through the always difficult social process of offering condolences by saying, "I'm so sorry to hear about your father. I lost my own dad last year, so I know how hard it is to lose a parent." And I, bitter with feelings of loss, smiled and said thank you while thinking, "You had thirty more years. You should be happy."

Some of that is just the emotional equivalent of the drowning swimmer striking out at the person trying to same him. Scared and desperate, we sometimes hit whatever comes close. But as time and distance have allowed me to examine those sorts of feelings more, I've come to think there's another factor at play as well.

We have, implicitly, a script for how life is supposed to go. We know where our own lives fall short of the script, and we sometimes feel a particular commonality with others who have experienced the same problems. But at some level, when we don't know all about someone else's life, it's easy to fill in by assuming that their lives follow the script in all aspects that we don't specifically know about.

If we don't know much about someone's life, we fill in with the "happy life" script and are surprised if any evidence comes up to the contrary.

There's a retired couple who live next door to us. We don't know them particularly well, but they seem to have a happy and quiet routine. Our school room window faces the window into their kitchen, so at times when I was wading through a frustrating evening, I'd catch a glimpse of them having a quiet dinner together at the table in their kitchen and think: It must be nice to be them. They visit their children and grandchildren, they don't have the chaos and screaming of small kids. They're alive and together in their seventies. Will we ever live long enough to enjoy that time?

It was some time later that I heard from someone that the wife had been widowed while young and raised her children alone for some time before meeting her current husband and marrying again. I'd been allowing myself to think as if their lives had perfectly followed the script simply because they were people I didn't know well, and so I had filled in with the generic ideal.

Of course, the fact is that ideals do not exist in real life. While the script for the good life to which we compare our lives when they fall short represents the model to which our lives are "meant" in some sense to fit, the comparison point to which we refer when we say that things are not happening as they should, it's not a script that anyone's life actually follows. No one simply lives "the good life" in full. So while it's entirely valid to think of ourselves as suffering a lack when we our lives deviate from this ideal in some way, it's wrong to imagine that pretty much everyone else is living out the good life and it is only we who are suffering reverses. If we don't know of that problems that someone else has suffered through, it may simply be because their sufferings are not visible to us, not because that person has it all good.

This is not to say that all people have the same number of difficulties to deal with. Some people do suffer much harder lives than others. But all of us are living off script. Even if others have not suffered the same things as we have, even if we can't see the particulars problems they face, no one is simply living the good life by default.

Losing Sight of the Good

It is an acedia day with me.

It is the kind of day on which I cannot separate the good from flawed human efforts. The sort of day in which hypocrisies stand startlingly bare. I find it almost impossible, through my own efforts, to attribute benign motives to anyone. The range of human behavior, stripped of grace, stands forth in all its pettiness.

"Stripped of grace," I think, is key. We are dependent on God's grace to be able to see the world in its full array of glory. When we withdraw ourselves from the grace, or, for a period, we feel that that grace is withdrawn from us, how contemptible life becomes.

And without a doubt there are people who behave contemptibly. But when even innocent things become appalling to me -- Good grief, can that pregnancy announcement be one bit cheesier? -- I have to pull back and examine myself, not the world around me. When I can't view the world with charity anymore, the problem is not with the rest of creation, in which God has put so much good, but with my soul.

I think that it is a mercy that God only reveals to me the state of my own soul, and then imperfectly, as through a glass. Because of that, it's imperative that I treat others with the same mercy I hope to have extended to me. When I feel the grip of acedia, there's nothing wrong with retreating for a while, and acknowledging that the world is the Lord's. I change nothing by my words or actions, and acting under my own steam, I may do more damage than good. St. Therese said, "O blessed silence, which gives so much peace to the soul!"

Lord, give me the gift of silence, when I can find no other gift.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

In Which I'm Not All That Useful

On Monday I took the kids to the library. There was a display there, just where children need to pass to get to the kids' section: "Pride! Books for LBQT+ Teens". At least two of the covers featured people in various states of undress, but the one that struck me the most had a smooth, hairless torso posed suggestively. It was a sexualized image, and dehumanized -- no face deemed necessary. It bothered me on several levels, which I continued to hash out through the afternoon and into the next day.

Were the library to put up a table with books about and for teen girls, to help them feel confident in being a girl, I would expect that no librarian with any sense would include books with sultry covers featuring a mostly nude body. Girls are encouraged nowadays -- and it's a good trend -- to see themselves as more than sex objects, as more than a body on display for the viewing pleasure of other. They have worth in themselves, in their own right, but they don't always feel secure of their abilities, their talents, and their value. They look to role models, to parents, and yes, to trusted sources like the library, to give them clues as to how they should see themselves. And since teen girls are not the only patrons of the library, a teen girl table in what is supposed to be a neutral public space signals to the general public what are appropriate methods of relating to teen girls. A sexualized book cover in that kind of display is unacceptable.

Every teen is trying to make sense of where he or she fits in the world. Every teen tries to make sense of his or her body. Every teen has to deal with emerging sexual impulses, and the fact that although other people can be arousing, the purpose of a person is not simply to arouse. Does it really help create a culture of love and respect for what is considered to be a vulnerable group if one of the acceptable images the library is promoting is one of pure sexuality? Does it help others to see this group as fully human in their own right if sex has to be used to sell them?

And the placement of the table right by the children's area shows questionable judgment, to put it mildly. Parents do have the right to expect that the library, of all places, will not be pushing material with a sexual agenda onto their children in a way that can't be ignored. Our library's summer reading lists have not been great, but in that case, I can either throw the list away or talk to the kids about why I think this or that book is not a good selection before the child reads it. In the case of a visual display right by the kids' area, there's no way to avoid it except by not going to the library -- not an acceptable option for an institution funded by my tax dollars.

I felt that I needed to go and speak to someone at the library about this, but the thought of it made me anxious. I'm not a confrontational person, and I felt that I needed some pretty incontrovertible arguments over a weighed social issue like this, in which any dissension can get you labeled a hater or bigot. But yesterday we did go back to the library, and I sent the kids over to play in the children's area while I waited to talk to one of the librarians at the desk in front of the kids' books, right by the display. My heart sank as I looked at the display. The book I'd particularly objected to wasn't there. Had I imagined it? Remembered incorrectly? The only book on display with a nude cover was this one.

I weighed whether I'd object to this particular image in any other circumstance. Would I have a book like this in my house? Possibly, depending on the subject material. Would I be upset if my kids saw it sitting around? I think they'd be uncomfortable knowing that the lady was bare-chested, but is it morally objectionable? 

I didn't really have time to make a clear judgment call. One of the librarians freed up and asked if she could help me -- not the comforting older lady I'd hoped to speak with -- and I had to act, so I grabbed the book off the display, feeling hypocritical and idiotic. I expressed my concern, using the example above of girls' empowerment, and the lady was quite polite and said she'd take the book off the display, but that I'd need to file an official complaint form if I wanted it to go farther. I thanked her for listening and went to sit in the children's area, feeling sick and despondent and useless, rather the same way I do when I give money to someone begging on the side of the road. I'd wanted to stake a clear moral position with an incontrovertible piece of evidence, and here I was reduced to the level of people who complain about witchcraft in Harry Potter or Greek statuary. What I should have done, if I'd thought of it at the time, was to mention the book I'd seen before and object to that, but without the physical item in hand to prove my point how could the librarian know that I wasn't just telling a story? I'd tried to do what I thought was right, and I'd made a fool of myself. I know that grace builds on our actions, however ridiculous, and that God sees the heart, but I felt alone and stupid. 

It's rare that we get to ride in on our chargers, conquering with aplomb and striking opponents speechless. More often, our attempts to live the Christian life are broad and fumbling, imperfect, folly to the Gentiles. We diminish ourselves in the eyes of others -- which shouldn't matter, but it does. "For your sake we are being slain all the day long." Only in heaven will we know what fruit our silly actions have borne, what God built with our strawless bricks. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In the Twinkling of an Eye

Darwin has covered our obligation to blog about current events.

Simcha Fisher examines the need to find someone to blame as a way of maintaining the illusion that good people are able to control their lives.

Bearing has the best response of all:
True or false:

It is irresponsible and negligent for a parent to take a picture of his or her small child in public, especially at a crowded, dangerous place like the zoo. Every photograph of grinning, sticky-faced siblings, posing in front of the aquarium or the cat house, is evidence of the crime of child endangerment.


Well, let's think about what has to happen for a parent to take a photo of her child in public. First the parent has to let go of the child. She needs both hands to manipulate the camera or the smart phone. Then she has to step a few feet away -- maybe a dozen feet or more, certainly out of arms' reach. She has to take her eyes off her charges for long enough to select the proper settings or apps before finally locating them in the viewfinder. Once the picture is taken, she may pause to stow the camera away before returning and once again securing the child in a firm grip.

She lets go. She steps several feet away. She looks elsewhere. It is long enough.


I think we can extrapolate from the evidence (many small children at zoos, the existence of preschool educational programs at zoos) that it is widely believed (whatever some folks may think) that a zoo is a good place to take small children for a fun family outing. So to go so far as to say "well, of course you don't take a 3-y-o to a zoo, that's for older children" is, shall we say, OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM of thinking.

The notion that no reasonable parent would ever enter a situation where a 3-year-old might escape her notice long enough to get into serious trouble is a little more understandable, given the low amount of experience that many people have with the wide variety of three-year-olds. Most people only ever parent zero to two of them.

Some commenters who take a position closer to my own have been focusing on "It's not possible to keep your eyes on a three-year-old 100% of the time so they can't escape." I'd like to point out that we don't really WANT mothers (it's always mothers, isn't it) to do what would be necessary to prevent three-year-olds from escaping. Because we would have to do more than just watch them all the time. We would have to grip them all the time. That is why I began by having you think about picture-taking, how it is an utterly normal thing for parents of children to do at zoos, take their child's picture; and how the act of taking a picture contains within it all the possibility that allows for an escaping child.

There's this strange thing about children: they want to explore the world around them. They will pull and actively try to escape you. The zoos, along with science museums and other places that attract children, incidentally, have this odd feature (often, not always) -- they have exhibits here and there that seem to encourage children to explore the environment. "Please touch," they will have signs up for the petting zoo, or they will have fish tanks that are down near the eye level of toddlers, or they will have buttons to push and things like that. It seems almost as if the zoos.... EXPECT there to be three-year-olds with their parents, three-year-olds who are not buckled into strollers! I think the last few times I've been to the zoo I've even seen groups of preschoolers on a field trip, not with their parents, but with teachers and chaperones!

Life is unpredictable, and pivots in an instant. A dear friend of ours dropped dead of a heart attack on Saturday while mowing his lawn. He was 63, a year older than my mother, and had been a surrogate father and grandfather for us while we lived in Austin. Last weekend, his family did not expect that within the week, they would be attending his funeral.

On Sunday, a dear friend and mentor of mine lost her husband, age 66, to cancer of the esophagus, two days after she'd buried her mother. He had suffered for many years and was extremely ill, but last weekend my friend could not have expected to lose her mother and her husband within four days of each other.

Last weekend we had almost nothing planned for this weekend. We did not expect that Darwin and the two big girls would be making a sudden run down to Austin to attend one funeral while I take everyone else to Cincinnati to attend another. One hears it said that we are not promised tomorrow, but we're not even promised today. In most cases, it is a gift to fall asleep in the same world you woke up in.

Of your courtesy, please pray for the souls of Tim and Frank, and for their grieving widows, and for the children and grandchildren and friends they leave behind.

Sometimes Bad Things Happen to Good People (and Gorillas)

Last Saturday, a four year old boy on a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo with his family somehow managed to get through a barrier and then fell fifteen feet into a gorilla enclosure. There he attracted the attention of a male gorilla named Harambe, who (perhaps in part agitated by the shouts of the frightened crowd) dragged the boy by his foot, back and forth across the enclosure. When zoo keepers were unable to lure the gorilla away from the boy, they made the decision to shoot and kill Harambe lest he kill the child before they were able to tranquilize the gorilla.

Needless to say, no one wanted things to end this way. The parents certainly did not want their child to fall fifteen feet and then be dragged around by a four hundred pound gorilla. The zoo did not want to have to kill one of their prized animals. Even the two non-rational actors in the situation -- the four-year-old and the gorilla -- surely didn't want things to go the way that they did.

However, we live in a time and place in which there is a particularly deep belief that bad things should not happen. Thus, if something bad does happen, it's because someone is to blame. Some say the zoo was negligent. And others, a seemingly increasingly vicious group, have concluded that it was obviously the fault of the child's parents.

The internet was already boiling with people sure that someone whose child slipped away and got into a gorilla enclosure must be a terrible parent when the mother involved made the mistake of trying to explain herself in a Facebook posting. By Monday the threats and harassment of the family had become so bad that the Cincinnati Police Department felt it necessary to step up protection and monitoring of the situation.

Some of this is, of course, simply the kind of internet mob mentality which seems to be a fixture of the modern social media world. People feel that they are "doing something" about an upsetting situation by venting online and engaging in online harassment of people they perceive as bad. But what's more significant, I think, is the need to see the parents as bad in the first place.

Perhaps one element in this is that people do not want to think that a bad thing could happen to them. "I'm a good parent." The thinking goes. "I watch over my kids. I do my best. I don't want to think that anything bad could ever happen to my children." And so, to keep that fear at bay, it's necessary to think that anyone to whom something bad does happen must somehow have asked for it.

Maybe these parents were negligent, and maybe they weren't. There's no way for the denizens of the internet to know. Whether the boy's parents could have kept a better eye on him or not, the fact is that no situation is foolproof. I doubt that any parent, no matter how conscientious has never had a child slip off for a moment or do some unexpected, dangerous thing. The thing is that these uncounted slips, these near misses, are usually just that: misses or very minor accidents.

Most of the time, these near miss events result in nothing, just like the other near misses in our lives: the knife which falls from the counter but just misses your foot, the car you see in your blind spot just a moment before you start to change lanes, the deer who hesitates on the side of the road but then doesn't jump out in front of you. Perhaps some perfect degree of care could have made each of these near misses less likely to happen or less likely to go badly. But it's usually not the degree of care or preparedness which is responsible for saving us, it's the fact that most bad things that could happen don't. There are constant openings for catastrophe which don't quite result in calamity. Often we learn from these to be more careful in some way, but even so, the near misses are made less frequent, not completely eliminated.

It's not primarily virtue or preparedness which determines whether a near miss turns into a real life catastrophe. It's mostly chance.

So yes, the zoo should look at their enclosure designs, and parents should be mindful of where their children are. If these things can make an incredibly unlikely accident even more unlikely, that's good. But at the same time, it's important to realize that sometimes fate just deals everyone a really bad hand. Unlikely bad outcomes are still just that: unlikely, not impossible. And it's really not possible to work every single possibility for catastrophe out of a situation.

Sometimes bad things happen, and it's not because someone is at fault. It's just because sometimes bad things happen.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

Before she wrote "The Six", Jane Austen penned Lady Susan, a slender epistolary novel of 41 letters and a brief Conclusion. Lady Susan is different from Austen's other heroines. In other novels Lady Susan's daughter Frederica might have been the main character; Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is the best example of what Austen could do when she chose to flesh out a girl in Frederica's situation. But in this, her first adult work, Austen chose to tell the story of the villain of the piece.

Lady Susan Vernon is a Bad Actor. Beautiful, persuasive, resourceful, unprincipled, she's an advanced practitioner of the art of "gaslighting". She has an explanation for every rumor about her behavior, any negative appearance, and she gives them so very charmingly and with such authority that it's hard to contradict her. Her main objective is to do what she likes, and she's willing to sacrifice the happiness of her daughter if she herself can be well taken care of. She never admits defeat. Her moral and tactical flexibility is astounding.

Lady Susan, a recent widow, comes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, having summarily left her last visiting situation after attracting all the men and alienating all the women. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, mistrusts her based not just on rumors but her own experience, and her fears grow as she sees her brother Reginald, formerly wary of Lady Susan's reputation, fall under her spell. Lady Susan intends for her young daughter Frederica to marry Sir James Martin, a fellow as idiotic as he is rich, despite the gentle Frederica's horror at the match. Lady Susan juggles an increasing number of balls to keep all her schemes afloat, aided by a friend in London, her faithful correspondent Mrs. Alicia Johnson, but eventually the besotted Reginald has evidence enough that the lady is not as blameless as she protests herself to be, and Lady Susan must retrench in such a way that finally frees her daughter to marry whom she pleases. Through it all Lady Susan remains essentially unchanged. She has no moment of moral awakening, no stand on principle against the opinion of the world; in fact, she delights in standing on unprinciple against the opinion of the world. She leaves unhappiness and discontent in her wake, but the combined force of a happy family renders her powers neutral at best. Where there are moral cracks, Susan is able to take hold like a vine; where there is a strong and united facade, she peels herself off and seeks looser soil.

Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress) has fleshed out the episodes of Lady Susan in his new movie Love and Friendship, which Darwin and I saw on Friday evening. It's exceedingly enjoyable. Whitman has an affinity for Austen and her sly observational humor, and he has a broad canvas to work with, since the novel itself consists more of the outlines of action than clearly delineated scenes. I think he did a quite creditable job. The story is told faithfully and with wit, other than a slight twist at the end which is not in Austen, but perhaps not out of keeping with the story and characters as Austen has presented them.

Kate Beckinsale is exquisite as Lady Susan. She never misses a beat, and she glides across the screen with the absolute poise of a lady of a certain age and experience. The wheels in her head are always turning, especially on the few occasions when she's being thwarted. Darwin would have preferred that she'd looked a bit older, like her friend and yes-woman Mrs. Johnson (played as an American by the underutilized Chloë Sevigny), but I was pleased to subscribe to the idea that a woman of 37 can be as flawless as all that. Lady Susan, unlike many of Austen's other villains, does not suffer the pangs of conscience because she barely has a conscience. (Her closest analog in this regard, is, I think, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, if Lady Catherine were charming and a sexual predator who had to fight for security.) Yet for all that, she is not particularly happy, and by the end she has lost the power to manipulate the people who know her for the liar she is.

Lady Susan is so memorable in her manipulation that we keep hearing her words in the mouths of other characters. Every other character in the movie is more religious than she is, and yet it is her Biblical allusions that others keep quoting, or misquoting. (I found it ironic that Lady Susan is the only one who knows the order of the commandments.) And as she is a master of words, her words take root even as they twist the truth. A scene involving Frederica consulting the parish curate about the correct interpretation of the commandment to honor one's father and mother is Stillman's, not Austen's, and yet I thought well done, and a fine character moment.

Several moments in the film were laugh-out-loud funny, mostly involving Sir James Martin and his pristine cluelessness. Sir James is the prototype of Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton, but he has almost no dialogue in the book. Stillman has penned some inspired silliness for Sir James, and actor Tom Bennett never lets it flag. Also marvelously done was a scene in which Catherine and Reginald's father reads a letter to their mother, not omitting the punctuation. (We see few enough happily married older couples in Austen that I found this moment rather poignant.)

In Austen, the main stumbling block to personal and romantic happiness is the moral obstacles in her characters' paths. Once those are cleared away, she assumes that two intelligent lovers of good will will be able to handle any other smaller impediments themselves without her having to draw all the lines for us. Here, as in any Austen novel, the main point of the story is not romantic resolution, but moral resolution. In Lady Susan, the main part of the action is finished once Lady Susan's character is finally exposed to young Reginald and he breaks with her, with the Conclusion pulling together the loose ends in a fairly cursory way. Stillman picks up on this, I think; we never even see a kiss from our young lovers. But as Virtue is practically the antepenultimate word, I think that he understands Austen's point better than most of her cinematic interpreters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Body of Evidence

I was standing by a mirror in the dressing rooms at Kohl's, glancing at my reflection, as I do sometimes, when I noticed an odd bulge in my foot. It was the big vein, puffing up at the end of the day, but only on my right foot. I raised it, wiggled it, rotated my ankle this way and that, but there I was, with one bulgy foot.

I was at Kohl's because I was taking teenage daughters to buy bras. They own bras, you understand, but there have been growth spurts. My heart twisted a bit as I picked out larger cup sizes for them to try and helped hook the bands and settle the straps over smooth young backs sprinkled with a few blemishes and pimples.

My ten-year-old has the body of a nymphet, lithe and willowy, just shy of the thicker curves her older sisters have developed. It's the body type Hollywood pushes, a prepubescent slenderness. Last week she was miserable because she was losing a molar the long way. The tooth wouldn't release, and it kept twisting and cutting her gums. Finally, it came out when she swallowed, and there it was, with two wicked sharp roots over the stout ivory chomper.

Bodies are weird. There's nothing permanent about them. St. Francis was right to call the body "Brother Ass" -- you mainly notice it when it's not doing the thing you want, which is often enough that you forget all the things it does right until those fail too. My body is full of oddnesses, mostly legacies of six pregnancies, but also hair in odd places, nonstandard toenails, a stubborn plantar's wart. I sometimes envy the angelic nature, how they can just be without being confined by the earthiness and frustrations of having a body.

But Christ suffered in the flesh. God himself provided the sacrifice: Himself. He drained himself to his last drop of blood. The body is meant to be immolated, completely offered up, in pregnancy or in works or in fasting or in sickness or paralysis or bedridden in a lingering old age. God himself has provided the sacrifice.

My oldest daughter and I have been working out together for almost a month, to a half-hour video six days a week. We are burning calories, the instructor tells us. Think about why we're working out -- for your significant other? To fit into that dress? These are lowest-common denominator reasons. Who doesn't want to look better? But why do I burn? It's a difficult act of trust, to keep exercising even though my body stubbornly refuses to show any change, to believe that it matters whether I burn even without any evidence. Even if my body should never recover its previous form, if it is simply part of me now to carry fifty more pounds than I did on my wedding day, surely it's better to move than not to move, to sweat than not to sweat, to give than not to give. Maybe the fruit is not borne in my body but in the body of the teen sweating next to me, or the baby who keeps trying to hang on my back while I attempt push ups.

Burn, baby, burn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Plot, or Why We Keep Turning Pages

There's an interesting piece at The Guardian on the pleasures of plot in novels (and in TV as well).

Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, “What will happen next?” as, “What has already happened?” The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.
Plot has lost its prestige. Only a few of those novelists who feature on Man Booker shortlists give us plot-reliant fiction. Those who do – such as Michael Frayn and Sarah Waters – are sometimes underrated for their skills. It is notable that Ian McEwan, a leading literary novelist who is deeply interested in plot, and in playing tricks with a reader’s expectations, has gone to spy novels for the machinery of two of his most carefully plotted novels, The Innocent and Sweet Tooth. His reader can feel confident that everything is part of a plan that pre-existed the novel. Yet this rare skill leads some critics to suspect him of chilly manipulativeness.

I strongly agree on the importance of plot in making a novel gripping and pleasurable to read. I may, however, have a slightly broader definition of plot than this author does. He uses as many of his key examples mystery-like plots -- both actual mystery novels and novels in which the presence of some mystery is gradually revealed and then solved. For instance, in Dickens' Bleakhouse, we have multiple mysteries: the identity of Nemo, the history of Lady Deadlock, the parentage of Esther, etc. We gradually realize these are mysteries, and then we realize they are connected, and at last we find the answers.

However, "solve the mystery" is not the only way in which plot moves forward. Indeed, one of the rather audacious elements of plot which I recall, was in an author this piece lists as relying little on plot, Anthony Trollope. In Barchester Towers, there's a point where the reader and the whole town are in suspense as to which of two suitors a pretty young widow will marry, and Trollope brazenly tips his hand to the reader, telling the reader in authorial voice that she will marry neither, and that if his readers are following only in order to find out some fact which could be ascertained by flipping ahead a few hundred pages, then he's failed. It's the process of seeing how events will move from the present point to the heroine's delivery that will provide the interest. And indeed, it does.

Even in a good thriller this is the case. The enjoyment of a good mystery novel is not ruined by knowing who the killer is. Good plotting is not just the careful planning of the mystery and the slow revelation of the clues up to the last moment when all comes into focus. It's also the manner of the journey.

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a "character driven" or "theme driven" novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is "the events which happened in this character's life", for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character's life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, "Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved." Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it's that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

Monday, May 23, 2016

We're In The Play!

This summer, we're in the play!

It has been a dog's age since I auditioned for anything, but the older four and I walked down last week and auditioned for the local community theater's production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All we knew about the show was Flying Car and Ian Fleming (and now, after watching the movie, we feel we still don't know much about it), but we went, and we sung and danced and read, and generally struck a blow for the dramatic honor of the Darwins.

We came pretty much unprepared. The audition notice was pretty minimal, so I wasn't sure if they were going to teach us something to sing. As it turned out, other people had brought music, so we just winged it acapella. Julia sang "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof, Eleanor did an awesome rendition of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, Isabel (who was coming down sick) opted out, and Jack sang, "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Blah Blah, happy birthday to you!" I mashed together a few verses of "No Way To Stop It" from The Sound of Music, and actually remembered the words. We learned a short dance to "Me Ol' Bamboo", and we read scenes with gusto. I don't know that we were the most talented people there, but we were the ones having the most fun.

Since they were casting everyone, we were all cast! Isabel and Jack are in the children's chorus, Eleanor and Julia are in the adult chorus and dancers (on account of the years of dance we've paid for) and I am adult chorus and Mrs. Phillips, the secretary who makes Caractacus Potts's life miserable at the Scrumptious Candy Factory. Darwin is the Gracious Kid Wrangler who makes this possible by watching the two small fry. Full steam fake English accents ahead!

Everyone block out your calendars and venture up to see us perform on the weekend of July 22-24.