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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 20 (the end)

Friends, this is it. After twenty chapters and 264,000 words, we reach the end of Volume One and the end of 1914.

Thank you for reading this as I write it. I'd very much appreciate any thoughts or feedback. In a day or two I'll post a google form with a few specific question on things I'd like to know as I prepare to revise this volume to submit it for publication. I'll also post a bit of teaser information about Volume 2.

But for now, thank you. I hope that you've enjoyed it.



Chateau Ducloux, France. December 30st, 1914. Christmas had passed in Chateau Ducloux, and that was as much good as could be said of that holiday spent under occupation. Food had been short. Fuel had been short. The occupying troops had staged a massive celebration, the more galling because the barrels of wine they tapped had come from the cellars of the town’s citizens and the geese they roasted had come from their farmyards. There were five more days until the feast of the three kings, and in search of a way to lift spirits, Grandpere had sent enquiries as far as Sedan and Charleville to see if in return for the various streams of black market produce now making their way from the farms around Chateau Ducloux into the cities, he could acquire enough candy for town’s children to celebrate Epiphany as they had in the past. Sugar, however, was very dear. The local candy factories had shut down, and imports were not arriving because of the British blockade.

There was one obvious solution to this, a dangerous one. For several days he had hesitated. Then he had asked the contacts that he normally avoided. The network which Grandpere and Andre Guyot ran, using Andre’s position as postmaster to pick up food which the farmers had hidden from German inventories and requisitions, storing the goods in the back room of the Mertens shop, and selling the goods to townspeople as well as middlemen who carted the foods into the nearby cities where fresh produce was even more dear, was the most common sort of black market activity, and in one sense the least dangerous. It was nearly impossible for the civilians to get by without occasionally buying food that had been hidden from German requisition, and even for the occupying soldiers it was useful to know where to buy butter or eggs or bacon that wasn’t under the control of the supply sergeants. But there was another black market, one which touched the common one at points but which dealt in stolen goods, petrol, weapons, military information, and people. Some its sellers became very rich. Others were shot.

Grandpere’s contact had given him the name of a German supply sergeant in a nearby village who was willing to sell provisions.

“Candy?” The sergeant had laughed in his face. “My friend, it’s a week after Christmas. I’ve already sold all the candy I could get my hands on.” He sniffed at the cigar that Grandpere had given him as an introductory offering, then lit it. “I tell you what I could do, though. White flour. And white sugar. How long since you’ve seen that in your village shop? It’s not candy, but get some good woman to make it up for you and the children can all have cookies for Epiphany. How’s that?”

White flour. For the last two months there had been nothing but brown flour to be had in the village, and even that was often stretched with feed grains, sometimes even with dried potatoes. As for sugar, the best that could be had was a dark syrup made by boiling down sugar beets hidden from the German harvest collection.

The supply sergeant stepped away and returned with a ten kilogram bag of flour, the fabric printed in German and stamped “Army Use Only”. Next to it he set down two paper wrapped blocks labeled “Pure Cane Sugar, 1kg”.

“How much?” Grandpere asked.

The sum was high, and the sergeant would accept gold coin only. It was an amount Grandpere had, however, and since the money came from the profits of his black market sales, it was in some sense town money. They were honest, modest profits, payment for the time and danger incurred. Yet if he gained from the war while so many lost, surely it was right to use some of these to buy the town’s children something they would not otherwise get.

He laid the coins out on the table.

“Now remember, if you’re caught, I’ll tell anyone who comes asking me about these supplies that you stole them,” the sergeant said as he pocketed the money.

[continue reading]

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Friendship, in Service and Idea

I got my alumni magazine in the mail, and lo, there was an article about women bloggers, and one of them was me. This was not a surprise, since I'd had a delightful conversation with the journalist a while back, but the timing of it all works well to provide a nice pre-Lenten jolt of mortification, since at this point I haven't written anything substantive for about two weeks. Oh, there is writing going on in the house, believe you me, but it is Darwin writing, frantically trying to finish his novel by... well, tomorrow, the day before Lent.

Unlike love, human creative energy seems to be finite, and we've found that we can only have one person at a time seriously writing. As Darwin has picked up the pace of his novel writing here at the end, my own pace of creativity has slowed and halted, because once his writing hits a certain critical mass and speed, the family energies go to maintaining that. And blogging, though not as involved a kind of writing as novel composition, does require some creative energy. At the moment, there's little to spare. It doesn't bother me, because the tables have been reversed in the past and will be in the future. When I'm in the throes of a project, he will keep the house running and provide creative support, the same role I'm playing now, and I'll be grateful to him as he's now grateful to me.

Back at the old alma mater, I studied theater, and the creative, collaborative energy that goes into putting on a show is the kind I rejoice in, which I why I think Darwin and I work well together as writers. But theater is my first love, and so it was a joy to me to make the trek with my three big girls to downtown Columbus, to see the touring production of The Sound of Music in a palatial theater with brocade panels and trompe d'oeil wallpaper and an iceberg of a chandelier dangling far above the heads of the orchestra seats. Not our heads, mind; we were up in the third balcony in row T. The view was glorious and the mountain air bracing.

And the show. Oh, the show. I have not seen a live professional production in this decade. I've directed, I've scraped together paratheatrical activities, I've led choirs, I've seen high school productions and grade school productions and community theater and innumerable hours of dance recitals. These have been fun, or madcap, or workmanlike, but all definitely amateur. There is nothing wrong with that, and much right. There must be amateur theater. There must be amateur most-things, or most people will never experience most-things. But the problem, as I've experienced it, is the cynicism that comes with constant immersion in amateurism. I hold everything up to the production in my head, and weigh it, and it falls short, and I wonder: is it that my standards are unrealistic, unobtainable? What if, in the end, I'm just a snob, demanding some level of excellence, of vision, that's just an ideal and an illusion? When I sit in the audience and watch a labor of love, and note all the ways I would have done things differently, when I'm always my own highest authority, I weary myself. And so, what happiness to sit back and watch the pros at work, to be able to relax and put myself in their hands because there is nothing to critique. To watch acting that is technically excellent yet unforced, to hear singing where technique and expression aren't constantly at war, to see a real design budget put to lovely, creative effect, and most of all, to see directing that is not just content to rest on the laurels of old Broadway standby, but instead peels back layers of schlock to find what's authentic in the most familiar scenes.

I remember mentally restaging Do A Deer after watching NBC's live broadcast in 2013, not because I think The Sound of Music is the world's best musical, or because I think Do A Deer is the be-all and end-all of songs, but because it's so often done poorly, inauthentically, and it drives me bats.

Here's the production we watched:



Maria is doing what most people do when they make up silly songs, trying to pull words out of the air as she goes along. The kids feed off her energy, and she feeds off theirs, and instead of the kids immediately lining up to belt out the song to the audience, they group up and sing it to each other, to see who's getting it right. Liesl hangs back, refusing to get involved because she's too old for this, snippily brushing past Maria to make her point, but the enthusiasm of everyone else keeps pulling her back to see what will happen next because she's not as aloof as she thinks she is. And I'm going to come out and say that I nearly cried tears of joy to see that a professional director has vindicated me in my opinion that Maria should use the Kodaly hand signs to teach solfege.


This is a thing! A real way people teach children to sing! And someone else, one of the pros, came independently to the same idea I had, because the idea itself is good. Perhaps you remember the beginning of a new friendship, the point at which you realized that someone was interested in the same things you were, not because they wanted to impress you or mimic you, but because the things, the ideas themselves, were genuinely interesting to the other person. The basis of the friendship, in fact, is that both people can say, without reference to the other, "This thing is true and good." C.S. Lewis talks about this in The Four Loves, how two people sharing an end outside themselves creates a real bond. It is one of the lesser ideas, in the universe of ideas, that The Sound of Music is improved by the use of actual techniques for teaching children to sing, but it is a good idea for all that, and to know that someone at the high end of the profession also thinks so is a boon to me, a little zap of affirmation that even though my creative energy is sluggish right now, it is real and it is good.



Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 19

In this installment we see the last of Walter for this volume.

Only one chapter left, in which we return to Philomene in Chateau Ducloux one last time for a new year, a letter, and a funeral.




Cologne. December 20th, 1914. The two massive structures on the west bank of the Rhine in Cologne might have seemed to exemplify the spirit of two different ages of man. The cathedral, with twin Gothic spires, reached five hundred and fifteen feet into the heavens. Across a small square was another structure, as earthly in its purpose as the other was ethereal: the city’s main train station had a stone facade and clock tower which did not look out of place amid the historic buildings that surrounded it, but its true wonder was the massive curving span of steel lattice and plate glass which enclosed in elegant modernity seven lines of track and the wide platforms between them. However the contrast, at least in terms of time, was illusory. The foundations of the cathedral had been laid in 1248 and for the next two hundred years the walls slowly rose until the building, even unfinished, dominated the skyline. Yet money for the project had run short, and from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, the bell towers stood half-height, topped not by steeples but by a crane which itself became a city landmark. Meanwhile masses were held in the eastern third of the building, roofed over and enclosed from the elements by a temporary wall.

It was not until the creation of the united German Empire, the youngest country in Europe and yet one deeply invested in its medieval heritage, that this Catholic cathedral was at last finished, with the help of funds provided by its Protestant emperor. Wilhelm I attended the dedication himself in 1880, and when he did so he arrived in the royal train at the station which stood a short walk across the Bahnhofsvorplatz from the cathedral.

Walter arrived on the 06:20 train from Berlin. Back to the east, over the Rhine bridge his train had just crossed, the first hints of approaching dawn were lightening the horizon, but through the glass-paned lattice overhead he could see the stars still shining in the sky. The second class sleeper compartment to which the transport officer had given him a ticket, in deference to the red sergeant’s tabs which now adorned the collars of his tunic and greatcoat, had been a far cry from the cattle cars in which he and the other enlisted men had rolled across the Rhein almost five months before.

It was not only in rating better train accommodations that Walter had felt the difference of experience and rank. During the last few months he had become accustomed to the respect which his experience, even more than his rank, earned him among the enlisted men. They knew that he had been there since the long march across Belgium and the bloody fights along the Marne and the Aisne, and that he was one of those who could keep moving under fire, but would also stop to help those who were struggling. However, when Leutnant Weber had sent him home for a two-week training course, Walter had found that among civilians his status as a promoted soldier back from the front brought him a sort of adulation that was wholly new to him.

That he was a hero to his younger brother was perhaps no surprise. Erich had asked for details of Walter’s experiences at every opportunity, and in trying to satisfy that desire on his first visit home Walter had discovered that he did very much want to tell someone about his experiences, and yet that Erich was not the person with whom he wanted to be honest about the battlefield. The thirteen year old’s ideas of war were formed by the back issues of The Good Comrade, in whose well-thumbed pages he reveled in adventure stories that seemed inevitably to include a lost dispatch, naval code, or secret map which fell into the hands of the boy hero, allowing him to assist the square-jawed men of the Imperial Army and Navy in saving the empire from the clutches of whatever threats loomed against Kaiser and Fatherland. It seemed unfair to tell the boy about the horrors of war -- of helping a man wash his friend’s brains off his face, or of the distant, haunted look of someone who had been under artillery fire past the point of his endurance -- yet even more wrong to tell him about the inexplicable rush which at times came with combat, the feeling of being armed and fleet-footed and ready to deal death at a moment’s notice.

Nor could he have been that honest with his mother, who had clung to him and cried and demanded to know why he could not stay in the family’s flat while in training rather than reporting to the barracks the next morning for the start of the training course. He’d promised to spend the whole day with them on Sunday, but insisted he would not be able to get away in the evenings, even as his mother assured him repeatedly that she could easily cancel her work to be with him. She needed the money, however willing she was to give it up in order to see him, and after just an hour at home Walter knew that he would be happy of the excuse to spend only visits there.

Instead, he had spent his evenings after training with the other non-commissioned officers in the course, visiting the beer halls and the music halls. There, middle-aged men eager to bask in the empire’s glory were happy to buy them drinks and hear their stories about the war. Some soldiers satisfied their audience’s desire to hear heroic paeans to Germanic arms, and others enjoyed the shock which resulted from telling in the most unvarnished terms possible the real nature of battle.

There Walter had discovered that he drew the attention of women who would never have given him a second look when he was wearing a factory worker’s jacket. And having had his first taste of this attention, he had followed the lead of other NCOs he saw in the capital, and purchased an officer’s great coat. This was not a violation of regulations so long as he sewed on it his sergeant’s collar tabs, but its better cut and double row of buttons cut far more of a dash, as did the new ankle boots and close fitting leather gaiters, also a style normally worn by officers, with which he replaced the big, clumsy, enlisted man’s marching boots in which he had tramped across Belgium.

Now he found there were sympathetic ears and arms for the choosing.

[Continue Reading]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Topping Out

We're coming into that time, at work, when we have to put down goals for the next year, which will in turn provide the basis for our performance assessments at the end of the year. I've been in my current job for three and a half years now, and although that's not a terribly long time to be at the company, it is longer than many people within the company stay in one role. Moving from job to job within the company is fairly common, and people consider it to be a good way to get to understand lots of different aspects of the company.

No one, however, is particularly eager to see me move around to another job, because running the pricing team is seen as specialized enough that they're concerned if I moved elsewhere there wouldn't be someone else who could do the job as well. At the moment, that's fine with me. I have three great people working for me, and we all get along very well. I enjoy my work, and people seem to think that I do well at it.

And yet in an odd sort of way, this takes some getting used to and represents a change in my life, at least professionally.

My BA is in Classics. I never went to business school, never took a course in finance or marketing, and never got an MBA. The way that I got where I am now is a crooked path, the turns of which are mostly defined by looking around for things that weren't going well, problems that needed to be solved, and then offering to help. Along the way, the selling point I've always tried to push is: I can learn quickly.

We need a database for product information? Okay, let me go look at a book on database design. Need a website? No problem, I'll pick up a book and figure it out.

In a department in which most adhoc reporting and analysis is done in Excel, I apparently pass for an Excel guru. Every so often people ask me for advice on classes to take in Excel, but I've never really taken one -- and so far as I can tell virtually none of the other "experts" have either. We're just the people who read the help files and Google around trying to figure out how to do something.

So I picked up skills and I picked up responsibility and I was always looking for what new thing I could do in order to get ahead.

But somewhere along the way, I learned pricing. I originally got a job on a pricing team because the manager needed someone who could build a database, and he knew that I was good with databases. By the time I'd build our pricing tools, I'd learned a fair amount about pricing. So long as you can think analytically about problems that have several different dimensions, learning about pricing is honestly not hard. With my high school level math skills and my self trained database and Excel abilities, I'm able to pass for an expert now that I've had almost ten years of experience in it. Maybe anyone can do that. Maybe that's how paternal grandfather managed to turn a WW2 era job dealing with building airplanes into a career in aerospace engineering without ever actually going to college. But not everyone does do it. I did, and now I'm "the pricing guy" around here.

Last year about this time I sat down with a mentor and former boss to talk about career moves, and I started talking about how I needed to make sure that someone on my team was developing into someone who could replace me, so that I could in turn rotate to some other job in the company and develop the generized experience that would allow me to be promoted. He basically said two things:

1) If you're a specialist, why do you think that you need to move into some other part of the company instead of sticking with your specialty?

2) If you were promoted, you'd be a vice president. Do you want any of those jobs and do you think you can do one them?

I've been chewing on these for nearly a year.

The first took a lot of getting used to, because although I'd got my last two jobs on the basis of having experienced in pricing, at some level I still thought of myself as a generalist. I was a generalist when I started doing pricing work, and I still have the same ability to learn that I had back then. But what I did with that ability to learn things was to learn a specialized field and get promoted a couple times on that basis. I was hired to be the head of pricing at my company, so maybe it's time to admit that I'm now a specialist.

The second has also taken some reassessment.

Graduating in the middle of the burst of the .com bubble, with a degree in Greek & Latin, I had more than a few people tell me that I would be able to ask "Do you want fries with that?" in three languages, who of which were dead. In other words, I had no marketable skills. My first jobs didn't pay a whole lot, and we were living in Los Angeles where our one bedroom apartment was costing us over a thousand a month. (I'm sure they cost even more now, but where we live in Columbus you could still get a place for half that.) So understandably, I was very, very focused on getting ahead. I'm not sure I ever answered a potential boss's query "Where do you want to be in three to five years?" with "Your job," but it's always what I thought.

For a long time, my definition of doing a good job in my career has been "getting promoted."

Well, here I am. I manage the pricing team. And as I look around at the people who are a level above me, I'm not sure that I'm particularly qualified or eager to have their jobs.

This may be as high as I go.

It's not a bad thing. Honestly, it's a great job. It pays well, and the work is interesting. But after always thinking about the future in terms of "When can I take the next step up?" it's odd to think that this might be the end of the line. Yeah, experience changes thing. If there comes a point when I've been running the pricing team here for ten years instead of three, I'll probably be deeper into a lot of issues and consulted on more things. There would be a gradual expansion of responsibility. Or perhaps someday I'll end up going to another company to run their pricing function, with all the challenges that come with mastering something new or building a new team. And no matter what, there's always more to learn, more projects to work on, more ways to apply the basic skills and techniques of my professional discipline.

But there may not really be any "up" in a formal sense from where I am. And in the process of adjusting to that knowledge I've been realizing how much of my thinking about work over nearly twenty years has been built around the idea of advancement. I need to learn to think in other ways.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton
On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry
John Adams, David McCullough
Sirach
On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius*
The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope*
Mythology, by Edith Hamilton*

2. What book did you just finish?

Wisdom
Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope
The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell
On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner
How Fiction Works, by James Wood
A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending To, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire, by John Biggins
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser

3. What do you plan to read next?

La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), by Honoré de Balzac
Medusa's Web, by Tim Powers

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Big surprise here: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. I'll read it when Brandon picks it as his Fortnightly Book

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Iliad, translated by Caroline Alexander

6. What is your current reading trend?

Interesting stuff my friends recommend.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 18

This is the first of three closing chapters. Here we leave Henri.

In the next chapter, hopefully up by the end of this weekend, we'll see Walter celebrating Christmas in the trenches.

And this brings the novel past 251k words. I hope you enjoy it.



Paris. December 9th, 1914. “And so, how is your war? Are you on leave or is this a business visit?”

Henri kissed his father on both cheeks, then sat down across the cafe table from him. “A business visit of sorts. A few of us front line officers from the regiment were ordered back to the depot to give our reactions to the new infantry tactics manual which the general staff is preparing.”

“And what does that mean to those of us who are not initiates in the military arts?”

This was the problem Henri had suffered from throughout the trip. Looking out the window of the cafe, he could see people hurrying along the gray streets, sheltering under umbrellas from the cold December rain that was falling. A British officer, walking down the street in his khaki uniform, was the only hint that everything was not as it ought to be. Looking at those familiar streets, it was difficult to recall the world of trenches and raiding parties, of artillery barrages and machine gun emplacements, as anything other than a fevered nightmare, a dangerous alternate world into which he was in danger of slipping back at any moment, but one fundamentally apart from the world of Paris.

Paris was the regimental depot, and it was less than three hours by train from the front lines, so it was reasonable enough for the officers to return to Paris to review and discuss the draft of the infantry manual. And yet, once in Paris, the instincts and practices they had honed to stay alive during their stints in the front line seemed a distant and foreign experience. How could they make men here understand what was required there? And yet it was only through this near impossibility that the military project could be accomplished.

“In the Transportation Ministry you have policies and procedure manuals, don’t you?”

“Of course. And memos and circulars and any amount of bird cage lining which appears in my basket at intervals.”

“And yet, for the manager of a train station in a small town, he has to read those circulars carefully before lining his dear parakeet’s cage with them, because only by keeping up with all that paperwork will he know how to do his job in the way that the Ministry is directing, yes? For you, in the offices here in Paris, perhaps it’s all a joke, because you have people at the next desk and at the cafe to talk to about how things should be done. But for someone far out in the provinces, that paperwork may be the only connection he has, and if he did not read it he would not run his station properly and everyone would suffer.”

Etienne dug one of his half-smoked cigar stubs out of a pocket and rolled it between his hands before lighting it. “Point carried. But we’re not speaking of a rural train station, where the station master needs to know the signals and the proper channels to inquire for lost luggage. Surely you’re not going to tell me that soldiers consult a departmental memo in order to determine the best way to plunge a bayonet into the enemy or charge into the cannon’s mouth?”

“No, but contrary to what the newspapers might tell you, we spend very little time plunging bayonets and charging into the mouth of cannons.”

“Yet how else shall we win the war?”

It was impossible to make a civilian understand what happened at the front line. In a sense, he had more in common with the men on the other side -- although they would be happy enough to kill him and bring their own war closer to its conclusion -- than he did with the men and women who sat here in their Paris cafes. And yet, for all the troubles in his family, or perhaps because of them, Henri had never kept secrets from his father. If he did not try to make him understand, he would be allowing the war to take that from him too.


[Continue Reading]

Friday, January 29, 2016

"Moral Juvenalia"

Leah Libresco is reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (on my say-so!) and has some interesting thoughts on being unfiltered vs. being sincere:

It’s common to assume that things spoken in anger or without thought are the truest — they seem like little biopsies of the soul, letting you see what’s really underneath. But I hold strongly to the position that artifice counts as authentic, when it’s deliberately chosen. The person who’s boiling with anger and chooses not to give it free rein is being truthful when they don’t lash out at me — I’m getting a glimpse at what they’ve chosen to do with the raw stuff of their reaction.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Call me Qoheleth

My current segment of my "read the Bible in a year" program has me working through about five chapters a day of Wisdom literature. This left Proverbs chapter 31 out of my daily reading two days ago, and as it was late and I didn't feel like confronting the ideal wife, I decided to tack it onto the beginning of the next day's session.

Sure enough, the good wife is showing me up.  I'm very sure that the heart of my husband trust in me (verse 11) and that I do him good and not harm all the days of my life (12). But: "She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens" (15), and I thought of all the days (every day) I'm not up early, my maidens don't have a list of homeschooling tasks and follow me around asking, "What should I do, Mom?", and I'm staring at the pantry at 5:00 wondering what's for dinner. 

"Her lamp does not go out at night" (18): Got that one covered! I wonder if we have a reputation in the neighborhood for having lights burning through the night, since Darwin and I tend to be up on the extremely late side of late.

"She looks well to her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness" (27). Before I searched for a deeper spiritual meaning in this, I made a quick review of my day to see if I'd actually been standing around eating bread at any point, because that sounds like something I'd do. At any kind of metaphorical, allegorical, anagogical, or eschatological level, I eat the bread of idleness all day long. It's probably the best description of my life ever. Forget clothing my family in scarlet against the snow, or buying fields and planting vineyards or wearing fine linen and purple: by this verse alone I fail the Proverbs 31 Good Wife Challenge. 

This is of long standing, of course. When we were freshly married, fresh out of college, many of the young wives I knew were making meal plans and had cleaning schedules and kept spreadsheets and scrapbooked and arranged knick-knacks and, you know, did stuff to make their houses orderly and welcoming places. And I never did that any of that, partly because I don't have the temperament for it, and partly because I'd lived off campus my senior year of college and had managed living with other adults just fine without meal plans and crafts. And I was right, I think, to reject the idea that just doing busywork meant that your household was well run, but not so right to reject organization just because the methods of other people didn't appeal to me. In many ways, I still want to live as if I'm single, or married with no children. I want to read when I want to read. I want to be alone when I want to be alone. I want my household to run itself. It doesn't. 

But in my reading, I had to move on from Proverbs 31, and on the page immediately facing it was our old friend Qoheleth, the Preacher, wise King Solomon himself, writing Ecclesiates.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun.
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.
Ecc. 1: 2-11
Qoheleth and I understand one another (or at any rate, he, being the wisest person ever, understands me, and I recognize him because I see him in myself). He has applied his wisdom to trying to understand the world, and he succeeds at a certain level, but every time he's considered new solutions to the problem of "What's it all about?" he comes back to one answer: every work of man is vanity, unless that work comes from the hand of God. But even there Qoheleth reaches and falls short. He's inspired and his sight is keen, but he's still human, and he can't transcend his Old Testament limitations. Wisdom can only take you so far.

I was pondering wisdom, as I read through Psalms and Proverbs. If Wisdom is so excellent, where do the other gifts of the Spirit fit in? Why isn't Wisdom all we need, with every other gift flowing from it? The answer is, I think, it its very precedence. Wisdom extolled as the very first of God's deeds: "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth" (Prov. 8: 22-23).  Wisdom, for all its perfections, is still created. It is a gift from the Spirit, but not a fruit of the Spirit; something the Spirit gives, but not one of the direct fruits of having the Spirit. Qoheleth is wise, but wisdom without "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control" (Gal. 5:22-24) becomes weariness, disillusionment, disgust, isolation, and heaviness of heart. Wisdom is the first created, but Love is the Uncreated, the Creator, the essential foundation of all virtues. The Father and the Son are co-eternal, because without Sonship there is no Fatherhood, but Wisdom is subordinate. What is created can be unmade, as Qoheleth observed with sorrow. All things will fail, and in the end, when every work is forgotten and every motion stilled and every thought dismissed as so much chaff, only Love will endure. If the virtues are rooted in love, they will endure too; if not, they are vanities.

Come to that, though, the brisk activity of Mrs. Proverbs 31 can also carried out independently of the fruits of the Spirit, and such a woman is a terror.







Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 17-4

This closes out Natalie for Volume One, as we see her get a leg up on her new duties as a Red Cross nurse in a field hospital.

There are three more chapters to go, but they're all single installment chapters so just three more installments to put up: Henri, Walter and Philomene in that order.


Near Tarnow, Galicia. January 10th, 1915. The Tatar driver clucked to his two horses and the horse cart turned back onto the road, where frozen ruts caused the vehicle to bounce viciously. Natalie turned and craned her neck to see Anna. For a moment the other nurse looked after them, then with a last wave she turned and started towards the cluster of buildings and tents which marked the 7th Field Hospital’s second unit.

The wind bit, and Natalie pulled the blankets, still warm from covering both nurses for the last few hours, around her more tightly.

“How long until we reach the first unit?” she asked.

The driver shrugged, but after a moment he answered anyway, “Perhaps an hour if there’s no trouble.” His Russian was strongly accented but understandable.

“What sort of trouble?”

“Shelling. Broken axle. Drunken soldiers.”

If the previous week was any indication, the last of these might be the most likely to appear, though surely they could be little real danger while Natalie sat next to the large, sober Mohammedan with his coiled horsewhip resting across his knees.

When he had arrived at the medical depot that morning to drive Natalie and Anna out to the two field hospital units, Anna had demanded to know why someone had not come to get them sooner, her tone colored with the sense of outraged order which Natalie had become so familiar with over the previous week.

In reply the Tatar had offered his characteristic shrug. “Christmas. All the Christians have been drunk. Now the Austrians attack, so time to sober up maybe.”

It was a strange, drawn out, increasingly lonely Christmas which had dogged Natalie throughout her last days in Kiev and now into her first week in occupied Galicia, a Christmas muddled by the clash and mixture of East and West.

The Lutereks, as Poles and Roman Catholics, celebrated Christmas on December 25th of the Gregorian Calendar, a reform of the ancient Julian Calendar which the pope had introduced in the 16th century and all Western nations had adopted by the middle of the 18th. Not so Mother Russia, which still abided by the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. Thus when the Lutereks went to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas to celebrate mass on the night of Christmas Eve, and the doctor stayed home from the hospital the next day to spend the holiday together with Borys before he left to join his regiment, for their neighbors and the Orthodox Church Christmas was still thirteen days away.

For Natalie too it had been Christmas, but though as a little girl living in the convent school she had often imagined what it would be like to live in a real house with a family on Christmas, now she had slipped quietly up to her room as soon as she got back from Christmas Eve mass, determined to avoid causing any scene by discomforting Madame Luterek as she prepared to send her second son to war. Remembering the joyous shouts and scrambling from bed to bed in the convent school dormitory as the girls came back from Christmas mass and opened the ‘charity bundles’ containing candy, illustrated cards, and little toys piously assembled by the ladies who supported the convent -- the hugs and confidences and best wishes for the coming year scribbled in autograph albums on that night of the year during which the sisters’ tolerance was nearly limitless -- Natalie for the first time in many weeks took the miniature of her mother and her old wooden doll, Lalka, into bed under the pile of blankets which kept her warm in the upstairs bedroom.

In the days leading up to the holiday, she had been waiting for a letter, hoping that perhaps the spirit of the season and the letter she had sent to her father’s lawyer, telling him that she was leaving her work as a governess and joining a field hospital, would inspire her father to write to her himself. Even if it remained true that she could not see him again just one letter, a few sentences written with tenderness, would be a treasure. But no. The letter which had arrived in that morning’s post was a formal one written by a legal clerk, expressing approval for her service to the Motherland and providing a credit draft which she could take to a bank in Kiev to get money for the clothing and equipment she would need.

And so she had spent her first Christmas like many other days: a full shift worked at the hospital and then a meal with Elena at an inexpensive cafe. Remembering her Christmas Eve night, alone, huddled under the blankets with her tokens of family, she had been particularly reluctant to say goodnight to Elena, who had just accepted a certified nurse’s position at a new military hospital on the outskirts of the city, and when the waiter began to make it clear to them that customers with such a paltry bill must cease lingering over their empty plates, the two had gone back to Elena’s little flat to make tea and sit next to the gas heater with blankets around their shoulders.

It had been late when she returned to the Luterek’s, stealing up the stairs in hope of disturbing no one, but Sara had appeared on the landing and drawn her into the nursery for a last goodbye with the three young people, before Borys caught the morning train to the front.

[Continue Reading]

Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday on the Links

It's Friday, end of the line, and though ostensibly you're clicking around looking for a post with an opening paragraph, a topic sentence, three supporting paragraphs, and a closing thought, you really just want entertaining links. I provide.

***

Most important: Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship, is here!

A roundup of obscure SNL sketches. Look, I most emphatically do not vouch for every sketch in this post, but I do recommend:
O.J. Jury Selection
Family Flix (the big girls and I watched this twice and howled like a Rocket Dog)
Beauty and the Beast. (Maybe this isn't funny, but I laughed a great deal.)
George Washington Returns
What's in a Name (if you can ignore Lady Gaga's bra).

Speaking of names, Brandon has a very good post about "God" as a Name, regarding the Wheaton professor who was fired after saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.

Brandon also has up a fascinating trio of posts about St. Paul's quotations of the pagan poets.
"We are his offspring."
"For in him we live and move and have our being."; "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”
“Bad company corrupts good character.” 
ADDENDUM: "It is hard for you to kick against the goad."

If you have the stomach for horror movies, Eve Tushnet writes about the best of last year's horror movies, from a Catholic perspective. I have a sneaking desire to see Crimson Peak, but I couldn't do it in the theater. I can only watch horror movies at home, behind a pillow, with Darwin at my elbow, and then in bed with me afterward in case I hear noises at night. I don't care who knows I'm a wuss.

You can buy the habit for a new Anglican Catholic order of nuns.

Photo of Julia Sherman, designer, by Julia Sherman, photographer.
Looks incredible, but might be out of your reach if you've taken a vow of poverty. I'd totally wear that dress, though.

Trump: the Nikabrik candidate.

Speaking of things presidential, the Hottest Heads of State. And I have to say that Rutherford B. Hayes must have cut quite a dash when he was swanning around Delaware, OH (where his birthplace is now the site of a commemorative BP station).

Don't just go translating the Red Book of Westmarch and think that the Tolkien estate is going to have nothing to say about it. 
"When I entered the Hobbit Studies program at the University of Chicago in 2003, I wasn’t planning to write my own translation. Like most of my peers, I was content to lead a quiet scholarly life, writing my dissertation on Adûni phonology and having friendly debates over second brunch about whether or not Balrogs have wings (they don’t). The best I really hoped for professionally were a few publication credits and a full-time lecturer job at a small Franciscan college." YEAH, I KNOW WHICH COLLEGE YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT.

What would a linky post be without a little Hamilton action? This fall, Great Performances will be airing a documentary about the making of Hamilton, on PBS. 

Here's Vulture's set of Hamilton posts, including an article about the Reynolds Pamphlet and a link so you can read the original yourself (speaking of Hamilton action).

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 17-3

I was sitting here thinking that I might not actually be posting tonight, when I realized that what I really needed to make my story rhythm work was a hard stop between what you see here and the final Natalie scenes. So I am posting, but there will still be one more installment of Chapter 17 to go up in the next day or two.

This makes finishing by the end of the month a little harder, but it's not yet impossible. It's going to be a low sleep and high caffeine couple weeks to see how this goes.




Kiev, Russian Ukraine. December 16th, 1914. “You have received the Red Cross certification?”

Natalie took the certificate from her bag and laid it on the desk. “Yes. I passed the certification exam at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital last week. I’m to formally receive the Red Cross medal on Sunday at the cathedral.”

The greying man in the uniform of the army medical service gave the certificate a cursory glance, but it was Natalie that he was primarily looking at through the round lenses of his wire rimmed spectacles.

“You’re very young, Sister Nowakówna. We are looking primarily for experienced nurses.” In his tone the word ‘experienced’ became an accusation.

“Even before beginning certification, I was working full time as a voluntary aide. I’ve been serving in the hospital since August.”

“And that is admirable, young woman, but it is only four months.”

There was no reply to this. It was indeed four months, but they were months during which all that came before seemed to have receded into a distant past. Could she really have gone through all this and still be inexperienced?

The medical officer shifted in his chair and began another tack. “I wonder if you understand how primitive the conditions at a field hospital can be? This is not a city hospital. Staff are housed in whatever accommodation is available. Sometimes tents.”

“I’m not accustomed to luxury, sir. I am an orphan, brought up in a convent school. And I am prepared to face adversity in order to serve Russia and help care for our wounded soldiers.”

The medical officer gave a sniff and pushed the certificate back towards her.

It was clear that he was dismissing her, but she had to find a way to change his mind. In these last two days the notice that the field hospital units required nurses had changed from an idea, a daunting, distant idea, into a need.

“Doctor Luterek at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital will vouch for me, sir. So will Sister Levchenko. She is the matron in charge of my ward and of the training program.”

He blew out his cheeks and pulled the certificate back towards him again, giving it a second look. “Are you prepared to leave immediately?”

“Yes. Tomorrow if need be.” If she did not have to spend even another week trapped between the protective concern of Borys and the angry accusations of his mother, she would the happier for it.

[Continue Reading]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Modern American Great Novelists

(after discussion of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller) ...The generous critic might hold up numerous other writers as important artists -- John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, James Purdy, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy Davenport, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, to name a few. How many of them will outlast the century? Perhaps Malamud, certainly a powerful artist at his best; conceivably Guy Davenport, if sheer precision and uncompromising artistry count, but his output is spare and his work goes underadvertized; possibly Eudora Welty, because of one superb novel, Losing Battles, a handful of stories, and her secure position as Southerner and woman in our college American literature courses; possibly Joyce Carol Oates, for a few excellent short stories; possibly Salinger. But I suspect that what I've typed above is a list of inflated reputations. Some on the list will die quickly, of pure meanness -- Porter, Coover, and Gaddis -- and some will die of intellectual blight, academic narrowness, or fakery -- Pynchon, Updike (or most of his work), Barth.
--John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978

So. It's 38 years later. Who on this list is still remembered, or if remembered, hailed as one of the canonical American writers? Of all the above mid-century authors, I've read snippets of Eudora Welty (my mother is from the South), and I started Salinger's Catcher in the Rye but found it too precious to read more than a few chapters. I've received vaccinatory quotes from John Updike, which have protected me from even wanting to read any of his output. Sure, I recognize a lot of the names, but as for reading them? No.

Mid-century names not on the list: Flannery O'Connor (d. 1964, in plenty of time to have been noticed by Gardner, notably one of the only mid-century authors featured in my American Novel college course, beating out even Eudora Welty), Walker Percy (mentioned once in Gardner's book).

If one were to assemble a list of modern American novelists (or, to continue Mr. Gardner's work, American novelists of the last 40 years) who are notable for writing moral fiction and likely to join the pantheon of classic authors, who would be on that list? I turn to you all because my reading of the moderns is spotty. I know many people who would include Marilynne Robinson. (I read Gilead and had opinions on it, but I find I'm in the minority.) Friends like Mary Karr, but she's not a novelist. Jonathan Franzen, but again, I haven't read him, and people I trust tell me that he's full of it. So, who's it to be for the Americans on future lists of Great American Authors? Or do we just write off the 80s, 90s, and Aughts as a low point in American literature?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 17-2

The next Natalie installment is done, complete with nursing exams, ice skating in the city square, a dying revolutionary and an embrace suddenly interrupted.

A breakneck pace is required to bring this volume in by the end of January. I'm hoping to finish and post the third and final installment of this chapter by Monday night or Tuesday.


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. December 7th, 1914. The second week of December marked the end of the Red Cross certification program at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital. Written examinations were on Monday. They had three hours to write treatment plans for a set of hypothetical cases.

As the clock marked the hour, Sister Levchenko placed a poster-sized printed sheet on the easel at the front of the room, on which was written the case with a small diagram. They took up pencils, and began to write. After fifteen minutes, Sister Levchenko rang a handbell. Pencils down. She placed another case on the easel. Natalie turned over a fresh sheet of paper, took up her pencil in cramped fingers, and began again.

After the cases they were given a thirty minute break during which the fourteen women taking the test nervously sipped tea in the other room and discussed the questions. Was that fifth case typhoid fever? How could it be when it didn’t mention swelling of the abdomen? Natalie soon took herself away to a corner of the room and tried to shut all sound from her mind. No discussion now could change the answers she had already written, and she wanted instead to recall everything she could of the many diagrams and names they had memorized over the last ten weeks.

Sister Levchenko stepped in and rang a bell, summoning them all to the second half of the written examinations. Now every fifteen minutes a large diagram was placed on the easel, labeled only with a set of numbers: the muscles of the body, the bones, the soft organs, surgical instruments, types of bandages. On their papers they wrote out the numbers and began to fill in the name of each. By the end, the last few terms were swirling and stooping in Natalie’s mind like vultures over the carcass of her knowledge. The sphenoid bone. The name was clear to her, but was it that part of the head or the stubbornly unlabeled bone in the wrist?

Time was up. She turned her papers in and walked away.

“Do you want to get a cup of tea? Perhaps some pastries?” asked Elena.

Natalie looked at her, drained. She wanted to share the feeling of struggle and accomplishment with someone, but there was nothing left in her, a vessel poured out and dry.

“I’m sorry. Not today.”

It was early to return, still not quite dinner time when she reached the Lutereks’ house. As if in confirmation of her mood, the December sun had already gone down and the streets were in dim twilight. Perhaps she could take a nap before dinner. Or just go to bed.

Sara bounded into the hall from the sitting room when she heard Natalie enter.

“Oh, what do you think? Borys is coming home!” She waved a piece of army stationery. “He’s finished artillery officer training and has two week’s leave before he reports to his unit. He’ll be here for Christmas!”

Natalie stood and stared at her. Borys was one of the kindest, most amusing men she knew, and yet she felt nothing at this news, nothing at her friend and former pupil’s excitement.

Sara was still talking, rhapsodizing about the times they would have over Christmas.

“I’m sure I’m very excited to see Borys again, but after the Red Cross examinations I have a headache. I need to lay down.”

As she went she heard Sara offering sympathy, but already Natalie was hurrying up the stairs. Still dressed, she collapsed onto the bed on which she had found it so difficult to sleep the night before and found that now sleep was mercifully easy.

Tuesday was a fallow day before the panel examinations, and there was nothing to be done. When she awoke, Natalie looked at the little stack of brown and green cloth-bound books on her table and knew that consulting them further during this one day would be no help in the type of examination she would face the next day. If the weather were warm, this would be the day to cast all things aside and ask Sara and Lena to go with her for a picnic in one of the parks, but snow had fallen during the night, and the mask of frost over her little window was lit brilliantly by a clear, cold day.

For a long time, longer than she could remember doing before except when sick, she lay under her pile of blankets watching the light shift subtly on that pattern of frost, as the sun rose higher in the sky. Then, of a sudden, everything became intolerable. She shivered into her clothes and was glad that she saw no one as she slipped down the stairs and out of the house.

The city was bustling. Soldiers were everywhere, yet these happy, smiling, talking, gawking men seemed of another order than those who lay in the rows of beds inside the hospital.

Instinct and the pressure of the moving crowds brought her towards the city center. A stand was selling hot potato pancakes, and she bought three, carrying them inside her muff for a while, where they gave off a delicious warmth. At intervals she would take one out, eat a few bites, and return the rest to her muff to continue warming her hands, until the last few bites were barely warm, but still savory of potato and onion.

The cold of the last two weeks, more appropriate to January than early December, had allowed the city to pour the skating rink in St. Michael’s Square early. Booths and stands surrounded it selling food, drink, and all manner of things which a soldier visiting the big city for the first time might want to buy, for himself, for his relatives back at home, or for the girl he met here.

[continue reading]

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"For the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love"

"Despite the labors of academic artists and those sophisticates who are embarrassed by emotion, it seems all but self-evident that it is for the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love that we pick up a book at all. Except in the classroom, where we read what is assigned, or study compositions or paintings to pass a course, we read or listen to or look at works of art in the hope of experiencing our highest, most selfless emotion, either to reach a sublime communication with the maker of the work, sharing his affirmations as common lovers do, or to find, in works of literature, characters we love as we do real people. Ultimately, in fact, plot exists only to give the characters means of finding and revealing themselves, and setting only to give them a place to stand. As for "thought," the element so quickly dismissed by Aristotle, it is simply what the characters say or would say if they were wiser and had our distance from the story. In art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good -- for the characters in particular and for humanity in general -- because we care. The artist who has no strong feeling about his characters -- the artist who can feel passionate only about his words or ideas -- has no urgent reason to think hard about the characters' problems, the "themes" in his fiction. He imitates human gesture in the movements of his puppets, but he does not worry as a father worries about the behavior of his son; and the result is a fictional universe one would not want one's loved ones forced to inhabit."

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction

Feeding the Life of the Mind

I was talking recently to a young woman who said that she used to read a lot of classic literature, but now that she was in law school, she did so much heavy reading for her classes that now she only felt up to reading fairly weightless stuff in her down time. Mystery series involving chefs, with recipes in the back, that kind of stuff.

It strikes me that my life demands the opposite task. I spend most of my time doing necessary, but exceptionally mundane tasks, things that don't demand great intellectual exertions. And, too, I'm inert by nature and sedentary by inclination. I need a daily kick in the pants to get me moving, and a daily kick in the brain to get me thinking, and a daily kick in the spirit to get me praying. If I spent my downtime consuming a lot of literary cotton candy, I'd get mental cavities, and eventually, holes in my head where my wisdom teeth rotted out.

That's not to say that everything I read is Grade-A, but I try to keep up a steady diet of substantial books for my own health. Darwin has been urging me for a while to keep a reading list on Goodreads, so now I can track what I've read since the beginning of the year.

Finished:
Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair, by Frank Hauser
At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess In Victorian England, by Walter Dean Myers (a Christmas present to my 13-year-old, that I picked up and read while standing in her room)
Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
How Fiction Works, by James Woods

In progress:
On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner
The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis (again, and again)

Readalouds with the kids:

Just finished:
The Life of Moses, by Gregory of Nyssa
The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux

Just started:
On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius
The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

Just before the turn of the year, I read Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller.

On the list:
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton (another of my daughter's Christmas presents)
Cromartie vs.the God Shiva, by Rumer Godden (my brother-in-law sends me Rumer Godden books on gift-giving occasions, and I enjoy her style)
Areopagitica, by John Milton
Common Sense , by Thomas Paine
The Federalist Papers, by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

And of course, sitting on my nightstand like a big albatross is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman , and his poor mother is still in labor with him, and may be yet for a few years, at the rate I'm making it through.

***

As Darwin ramps up to the end of his novel, I've been writing less, simply because we can't sustain that dual level of writing energy in the house. But I've been trying to read more, not just the above books, but (as part of a program of reading the entire Bible in a year) several Psalms a day through the Christmas season. I started in Advent with Isaiah; next I go on to the Wisdom books. Monday through Friday I read the daily Mass readings with the kids and discuss them.

For years, I've tried the rosary, the chaplet, the Liturgy of the Hours, and none of the forms of prayer has ever become second nature to me. But reading, reading I can do. So this year, I'm going to read the Bible. The Word of God is living and effective. It goes forth and does not return empty-handed. Reading scripture stirs up all kinds of fascinating insights and connections for me, and though I chew on them during the day as a kind of prayer, I don't write them down. Humility or laziness? Perhaps that's the next form of discipline to embrace.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 17-1

It took a week to turn this installment out. My goal is to write two more installments, finishing this chapter, by Monday night next week (which conveniently is a holiday for me.) If I can do that, it's still possible to finish Volume One in January. If not... It's likely to spill into February.

Today's installment returns to Natalie, who is studying to become a Red Cross nurse in Russian Ukraine, despite difficulties both with one of the doctors instructing her and Madame Luterek.

After this chapter, there will be three shorter, one installment chapters to wrap up the volume. Those will take us to the end of 1914. However, keep in mind that this is Volume One of a trilogy. I have the next to volumes, and be assured that there is a clear end. This will not turn into one of those "trilogies" with five and counting volumes. But we have a ways to go. When I close this volume, as preview I'll put up the teaser summary for Volume Two.


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. November 19th, 1914. “Sestritsa, a drink of water.”

The soldier’s face was red and flushed against the white of the pillow case. Natalie pulled back the cuff of her wool dress and pressed the inside of her wrist to his forehead. Hot. Infection was setting in.

“Sestritsa, please!” His voice was hoarse, little more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry.” She took his hand and felt him squeeze back tightly. “It’s still another day until you can have water. I know it feels terrible, but the drip they give you every morning will keep you hydrated.”

This last clearly meant nothing to him. He shook his head and licked already chapped and bleeding lips.

“Water. Please, Sestritsa.”

She felt his forehead again. Yes, very hot. The long ropes of intestine which Doctor Natov had so carefully clamped and stitched at each perforation must still have become infected, and if this soldier was like the others who took infection after such an operation he would likely die within a few days. And yet the instructions were strict: no food or water to be taken for seventy-two hours after the operation to give the intestine time to heal.

The bottles of saline solution would keep his body from dehydrating; it was the lack of something to wet his mouth that was causing his misery. Natalie fetched a few squares of gauze from the bandaging supplies, dipped them in water, and gently wrung them out.

“Here.” She put the little wad of dampened gauze into the soldier’s mouth. “Suck on this. It will help you feel better.”

She sat and held his hand. His mouth and throat were working, drawing what little moisture there was from the gauze.

“I know it’s hard, but try not to lick your lips. It only dries them out more.”

The soldier nodded, continuing to chew and suck on the gauze.

What harm would there be in giving him water if the fever was already setting in? He would feel better now and he would be dead in a few days anyway. But no, she must not allow herself to think that way.

Gradually the soldier subsided and his eyes began to close.

“Let me have it back, soldier. You don’t want to choke on it.”

He turned his head and let the wad of gauze fall from his mouth, then settled back into the pillow. Natalie picked the gauze up and took it to the waste bin, then continued her progress down the line of beds in the enlisted men’s ward. Some needed to use a bedpan. Some needed a drink of water. Some needed to be shifted on their beds to relieve cramps and prevent bedsores. Each man needed some little task for his health or comfort. And all the time she was glancing at the clock, waiting for two-thirty when the time she hoped for and dreaded must come.

[Continue Reading]

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Beren and Luthien: A Couple Adventure

I've been listening to The Silmarillion during my commute lately. Being almost more an outline than a narrative, it's an odd experience listening to it, but I haven't read it in 12 years, so it's nice to get back to it.

On a side note, finishing the story of Baren and Luthien and having half in my mind all the recent Star Wars fan discussion of whether Rey is so competent that she doesn't need the male characters to be in the story, several things struck me:

1) The story of Beren and Luthien is about a couple. It's not primarily the story of one of the two, in which the hero wins a consort at the end. Nor is it a story in which two individuals figure out during the course of the narrative whether they can be a couple and unite at the end. While Beren has adventures before he reaches Doriath and meets Luthien, those adventures make up fairly little of the story. Also, while the love of Beren and Luthien is central to the story, it's not central as a source of conflict. There are not points where one doubts the love of the other. The conflict is all externally driven. (Perhaps this isn't surprising given the Tolkien wrote the tale both inspired by his marriage and as a sort of ideal for it. On their shared grave, JRR and Edith are identified by their own names, but also as Beren and Luthien. Tolkien wrote the first version of the story while he and Edith were apart because he was serving in WW1.)


2) The biggest deeds in the story (the rescue of Beren from the pits of Sauron, stealing into Angband to take the Silmaril from Morgoth's crown, etc.) are done by the pair of them together, and could not have been completed by either one alone.

3) Luthien is a character who shows incredible strength personal strength, both facing extreme adversities and also engaging in direct struggle against Sauron and later Morgoth (Sauron's master and essentially the Satan of Tolkien's universe, but one with a kingdom of terror on Middle Earth far mightier than Sauron's Mordor in Lord of the Rings.) However, she does not do this as the sort of "badass female character" which is so prevalent in modern popular fiction. Indeed, there's not a significant point at which she takes up any kind of weapon. This is partly in keeping with the fact that the Silmarillion is told in a mythic manner in which wielding swords and engaging in physical combat is often a lesser form of striving (indeed, one of the mistakes of the Noldor is in imagining that they can use physical war to conquer Morgoth without the help of the Valar.) At the gates of Sauron's fortress, Sauron attacks Luthien after taking on the form of a wolf. He's fought and pinned by Huan, the hound from the deathless realm across the sea, but it's Luthien who then by force of will compels Sauron to give over command of his fortress to her, and then casts him out of his body, leaving him nothing but a spirit. Similarly, when Beren and Luthien go to Angband to wrest the Silmaril from Morgoth, it's Luthien who puts the wolf Carcharoth who is guarding the door to sleep, and later even Morgoth himself. Yet in no way is Beren a background tag-along character, given that he both defeats Celegorm and Curufin (two of the most powerful elven lords) when they try to kidnap Luthien, and also hunts and kills Carcharoth himself, not to mention that it is Beren (a man) who succeeds where all the mightiest of the elves have failed in taking back one of the stolen Silmarils. Beren and Luthien are both "strong characters" but their strengths are different and complementary.

This last point also ties in to the sort of world which Tolkien has created, which is a world in which not every problem can be solved at the edge of a sword. Beren is brave, a skilled warrior, an honest man and keeper of his oaths, a tracker in the wild, a friend to birds and beasts, and is willing to suffer great pain. Luthien inspires deep loyalty (the loyalty of Huan is several times key to the success of their quest), she is perhaps even more brave (when they come face to face with Morgoth it is Luthien who faces him while Beren is hiding in disguise), she has a strong will and strives with fallen angelic creatures such as Sauron and Morgoth, her songs can exert power over others, she senses at a distance what is happening to those she loves, and she heals. There are points where Luthien would have been killed or kidnapped but for the physical protection of Beren, and others where Beren would have died of wounds, been left in captivity, or been daunted by wills beyond his strength but for Luthien. Both at times seem much more vulnerable than the other, and both at times seem much stronger. However, they're never in competition with one another. Because again, the fairly unique thing about this story is that it's a mythic adventure story undertaken by a couple as a unity.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 16-3

I suppose it's getting de rigur at this point to say that this is both longer and later than I'd expected... The novel now totals 230,000 words.

Jozef confronts the future of his love affair, joins a new regiment, and finds a new home.



Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. December 14th, 1914. Even when she had been there, Jozef had seen little of Klara during the days when at the country house. And yet, knowing that she was gone, that she would not slip, cat-like, into his bed at night, made the house seem empty and fruitless. He left on Friday, two days earlier than planned.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse, and so Henrik offered the use of the automobile. It was warmer to sit under a pile of furs and blankets in the enclosed vehicle as the chauffer slowly navigated the icy, rutted surface of the road into town than it would have been to make the journey on horseback, but the hours spent sitting, trying to stay warm, also provided little respite from thoughts of how the week’s leave should have ended.

He and Klara could have had four more days together, days the more happy for the knowledge that he would be getting a commission within the week. Perhaps the three days when he was gone had seemed as empty to her as these last few had to him. But no, she had been visiting the Revays for the last two months, and he had only been asked to the house twice during that time. Was waiting three days for him really so much worse than the waits between their assignations at the hotel? Was she angry that he had not agreed to wait until after their week together to sort out the problem of his commission? Even if so, why leave? Surely having some days together was better than none at all.

Why was Minna prepared to face such difficulties for Friedrich: staying with him in the hospital, caring for him at the flat, absorbing his bursts of anger and frustration, and all the while wanting to be with him and care for him? And yet Klara had not been willing to wait three days. Was Minna a better or more loving woman? Was Friedrich a person more worthy of love and devotion than he was?

He had always done everything that Klara asked. He had listened to her difficulties, and he had offered to help in every way that he could think of. What had he left undone that Friedrich had done, or was this yet another way in which Friedrich somehow drew to himself a good fortune which others did not receive? No, that was unfair to the friend who had suffered so much. It was an affront to envy the good fortune of a man who had lost his legs and so much else. And yet, why? Why did Friedrich find constancy and devotion and not he?

With these and similar thoughts Jozef spent the ride back into town. Nor did his arrival bring immediate respite from such musings. He had two more days of leave before his name appeared on the duty roster again. With all the other cadets gone, and the reserve regiment and Honved reduced to those most determined to find some way to sit out the war on their own terms, there was little truly congenial company as he waited to see if Baron von Goldfaden would succeed in wielding his influence. It was a relief on Monday to once again be assigned duties and spend the day inspecting the integrity of tinned beef and dried vegetables which had recently arrived in monumental quantities.

When he returned to his rooms before dinner there was an official envelope lying on his pillow.

He tore it open and skimmed down it rapidly to assure that it did not express regrets, then returned to the beginning to understand the real import.
You will report no later than December 21st to the 7th Regiment of Imperial Royal Uhlans, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Galician Regiment, temporarily headquartered at Krakow, there to assume the duties of a provisional Leutnant of Uhlans.

The rest hardly mattered. He had an assignment. In a week’s time he would be in Galicia, serving in an active duty regiment.

[Continue Reading]

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Orphan Openings: Christmas Presents

Of course everyone was more secretive because it was Christmas time, and everywhere the echo of muffled giggles and running feet hinted at mysterious doings afoot. Children disappeared into rooms and slammed doors as Marie hauled laundry or half-unpacked boxes up stairs and through corridors. Somehow nine children seemed like a lot more when they rambled around a huge old house than when they were all jammed in the small living room of the unlamented heap they used to call home. At least the kids had been easier to count then. Now it was impossible to tell who was who between all the mops of tangles disappearing with packages into empty rooms. Empty rooms! Such a novel concept before, but in this house, there were plenty of places for a child to hide away.

Up in the attic, Marie didn't dare search through the opened boxes for the Christmas decorations lest she disturb someone's cleverly hidden present cache. Still, there were plenty of sealed boxes up there to go through, stacked amid the detritus of previous homeowners: magazines, records, dress-up clothes, books, and even a photograph of the original family to live here. The stiff sepia-toned parents were slightly too blurry for Marie to feel that they looked on her in judgment, but the young girl stared clear-eyed at the mess, ringlets carefully arrayed over her dark dress.

"Never saw this much chaos in your life, huh, kid?" Marie muttered, and then felt bad at the thought of one child rattling around in this pile, between the great rooms downstairs and the small servants' bedrooms on the third floor. Well, the old place had life aplenty now. Three middle girls in three separate bedrooms, wrapping, though at a glance who could say which one was Rachel, Melanie, or Nell? A quick peek in the nursery revealed two little boys who were either Pete and Joe, or Joe and Pat, or Pat and Pete crouched over some legos. A teenager reading huddled under a blanket in the living room -- was it shaggy John or shingled Mary Alice? And then the kids had met the neighbors and were always vanishing next door and then popping in again with friends in tow, leaving Marie with the disconcerting feeling of there being at once too many and not enough children underfoot. At least the baby was always easy to track: small, attached to someone's hip, and definitely bald.

At last the tree was up, the house was decorated (thanks to the kids), and the presents were stacked, but Marie felt even less settled in the house than when they'd first moved. She never thought she'd miss having no personal space, but now the only time everyone was gathered in one place, all accounted for, was at dinner time. At least in the old house she'd had some kind of sense of where everyone was at any given moment. Now children could isolate themselves, someone always sneaking off alone to throw off her mental headcount. Even Dan confessed himself defeated, laughing on Saturday afternoon as he tried to tally his children in the confusion of rooms and neighbors.

"Be grateful," he told Marie as he kissed her in the kitchen. "This is a great neighborhood. I think I saw one of the neighbor kids behaving nicely in the library when our own were upstairs shrieking in the bedrooms."

Marie wondered how her house must sound to the other mothers on the street.

At least on Christmas Day, the noise and fighting were confined to the family. Presents had been opened and abandoned, dinner was made, the kids had set the table, and Marie even took a few moments upstairs to put on a fresh sweater and some lipstick before entering the fray. The dining room resounded as kids jockeyed for coveted positions. There had been fighting, for in the twilit living room Nell, or Melanie, or Rachel sat with her back to the world, contemplating the glowing tree and refusing to budge. "Grant us peace," Marie sighed as she opened the dining room doors. A burst of Christmas cheer greeted her, and everyone sorted into their spots. At the head of the table opposite her, Dan; four tousled heads down each side; and in the high chair, sweet bald baby, leaving Marie standing by the one empty chair, her own, stifling the summons she'd been about to give to the small ringleted presence still behind her in the living room.