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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Tragic Sense of History

A New York Review of Books piece from some years back, by Timothy Snyder, relates an event which gets at how difficult to untangle and judge historical events and resentments can be.
The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

“I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.
It's not hard to picture the ripples that went out from this event through the lives of those who experienced it. How did the Poles who had seen friends or family hanged by Jewish executioners that day react in the coming years when confronted with Jews who needed to be hidden from the Holocaust? Yet why did the Jewish man pulled from the ghetto and ordered to do the German's dirty work think he had hung "the right people" in doing the Nazis bidding? In part because some units in the Polish Resistance (of which the Home Army was the main non-communist group) did in fact kill Jews out of hand when they found them. And what was the reason that anti-Nazi resistance fighters were killing Jews? In part because some within the Jewish population had strongly supported the Soviets who invaded Poland just days after the Nazis did, and occupied the Eastern half of the country until June 1941 when Hitler turned on Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets had themselves engaged in mass killings of Polish officers and educated elites, but many Jews saw the communists as a far better bet than the Nazis (for obvious reasons) and aligned accordingly.

The other day I ran into a piece from the Jacobin Magazine taking strong exception to Snyder's brilliant (though incredibly dark) book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The charge? Snyder is unfair in portraying Stalin as nearly as bad as Hitler, and even more so Snyder is unfair to the communist partisans. Snyder writes repeatedly about how the violence of the communist partisans and the Nazi occupiers became a escalating cycle of violence.
When Soviet partisans sabotaged trains, they were in effect ensuring that the population near the site would be exterminated. When Soviet partisans laid mines, they knew that some would detonate under the bodies of Soviet citizens. The Germans swept mines by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields.

In general, such loss of human life was of little concern to the Soviet leadership. The people who died had been under German occupation, and were therefore suspect and perhaps even more expendable than the average Soviet citizen. German reprisals also ensured that the ranks of the partisans swelled, as survivors often had no home, no livelihood, and no family to which to return.
The Jacobin author answers with a historical anecdote:
[O]ne can only wonder what Snyder would have had Jews do instead. Faye Schulman was a nineteen-year-old girl living in a small town in eastern Poland when the Wehrmacht massacred her family along with the rest of the Jewish population in August 1941. Temporarily spared because of her skills as a professional photographer, she fled with the partisans at the first opportunity and, to her gratitude, was accepted into their ranks:
The fighting had ended. The partisans were returning to their bases, and I was with them and alive. It felt like a dream. I had been accepted into the Soviet partisans! I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me now, what kind of a life I would have. But I knew I was very lucky. I was now a partisan, no longer afraid of the Nazis. I tore off the yellow star of David. We started our journey into the woods.
“I resolved to volunteer for active combat operations, to fight for my people — for Jewish dignity and honor — and for an end to the Nazi killing machine,” Schulman added in her memoirs. Does this make her a criminal?
The question -- What would Snyder have had the Jews do instead? -- shows a mentality which I think is very common when people address a historical situation. Thinking in Hollywood terms, we ask, "Which side should she have joined?" As if history represents a sort of moral sporting match in which the primary question is whether one backs the right side. Reading within Faye Schulman's context, one understanding completely why why joined the partisans and was glad to do it. We might do the same if we had the courage. But this doesn't change Snyder's point that the actions of the partisans often brought down massively disproportionate retaliation from the Germans. And at a certain level, the Soviet leadership understood the cynical calculation that partisan activity both hurt the occupation forces directly, wiped out potentially disloyal "collaborators" when the Germans carried out reprisals, and provided a stream of new recruits to the partisans as Nazi retaliations left people with nothing but a desire to exact revenge against the Germans.

What we too often lack is a tragic sense: an understanding that people often do terrible things for understandable reasons. The actions are terrible -- understanding why they seemed reasonable to the perpetrator makes them no less so. But they were, at the same time, understandable. The perpetrator had reason to think the action justified.

To have a tragic sense it is necessary to set aside the idea of "good person" and "bad person", and instead think simply of persons. Persons who perform good actions and bad actions, for good reasons and bad reasons. Persons who do bad things yet not simply because they are "bad people" but rather because the bad things seem justified, perhaps even seem good, at the time.

This does not mean moral relativism or indifferentism. Sin is sin. A heinous act is a heinous act. A tragic sense of history is not indifference to its evils, or a willingness to see everyone as "basically good". Rather, it is addressing the past with pity and fear. Pit and fear are the feelings which the Ancient Greeks said that tragedy was mean to evoke. Reading about an event like the Wierzbnik hangings, a tragic sense causes us to feel both pity for those involved, for all involved, and also fear at how easily people no so unlike ourselves can be pulled into such a cycle of hatred and violence. Having a tragic sense allows us to identify with people on both sides of such a situation without making excuses for either. It also allows us to address both sides of a conflict as human beings, as creatures who share an essential nature with ourselves, rather than seeing one side as good and familiar and the other as wicked and other.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 16

Thanks to Melanie for hosting Guilt-Free Learning Notes!

Last week: we had Uncle D (whose name does not start with D) up all week, recuperating from back surgery, and Uncle D is an experienced watcher of Youtube videos, so we did some science:

It worked as advertised! After about 300 rubber bands later, the watermelon was visibly bulging. Then it cracked open. And then, after a few agonizing moments, it blew, just like that. Unfortunately, Isabel, who was filming, turned away the second before the explosion to say hi to the neighbor, so our exploding watermelon wasn't immortalized. It did, however, shoot a great rubber band ball at my brother.

We also finished Northanger Abbey. The kids really seemed to enjoy it, and were always able to describe the plot and the motivations. Julia in particular is turning into quite the Austen fan. She read Pride and Prejudice in the spring, and wants to be Elizabeth Bennet for Halloween. Isabel also followed closely, with great scorn for her name character, Isabella Thorpe. Any time things got romantic, Isabel was in the forefront of the action, cheering people on. I asked her what her favorite part of the movie was, after we'd watched that, and she said with gusto, "Catherine's daydreams!" Sigh.

Diana, 4, does not recognize many of her letters yet, so I thought we'd combine fun and games by teaching her and Jack War. They played avidly, and generally got the scoring right, but I don't feel like we made a lot of progress, as she generally just eyeballed the cards and guessed which one had the bigger number. Jack needs to work on writing numbers, so maybe Diana can get in on that.

A particular child has reached a crisis point with writing, and I'm going to have to stand over her every time she writes a sentence or a paragraph for the next week and nip any errors in the bud. Sometimes I feel like I'm handholding people through their educational process, but then I remember my parents standing over me, making me do everything right, and how I thought them severe taskmasters instead of soft touches who were giving me all the answers. Anyway, I'm not sure that letting her keep writing things incorrectly is the right way to instill grammar and craftsmanship. Practicing correctly is a good deal more helpful than practicing wrongly.

Speaking of practice, organ will be starting up again soon, and there's a review this Saturday. So this week is the time to catch up on all the playing we didn't do this summer. As I type, someone is practicing Christmas carols and show tunes from The Sound Of Music, which speaks to a catholic taste in music, if not what the teacher will be covering.

The big girls are very taken lately with a series of fairy tale retellings by Adam Gidwitz called A Tale Dark and Grimm, Through a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion. Each book links together a series of Grimm tales through brother/sister protagonists (Hansel/Gretel, Jack/Jill, Jorinda/Joringel) and all the gory bits from the originals are retained, with asides from the author begging you not to let little children read these horrible stories. Eleanor has been begging each night to be able to read them aloud to us, although she usually starts remembering at 9 pm as we're hustling everyone upstairs. The girls read them to each other in lieu of ghost stories. I thought that our next readaloud might be a good set of Grimms' Fairy Tales so that even the little ones have a good knowledge of the original tales, so that they have a basis for understanding all rejiggerings and spoofs and twists.

Today we went to the county fair, where we watched 4-H kids haul their goats through obstacle courses. That's my favorite part of the fair, and after that we explored the kids' favorite, all the crappy carnival rides. Then we toured the rabbit and poultry barn and soaked in the farmy goodness of it all, probably sounding like the worst city slickers to the polite kids tending their stock. At a different booth, Julia was entranced by the local Fred Astaire studio dancers performing a Latin Dance exhibition, and mentioned that she would like to try lessons there sometimes. I liked that idea. Ballroom dancing is more generally applicable in life than ballet, and the dancers were just better than anyone from our studio. I'd forgotten what a joy it was to watch good live dancing, but oh, could these people move! It made me wish for a moment that I were up there salsa-ing and merengue-ing, and I myself am only a wedding dancer and am not generally noted for my slick moves.

I feel like I really ought to be writing up notes every night, because I'm simply not remembering conversations we're having (unless they have to do with people begging not to have to read the rest of their book of very interesting tales about Charlemagne).


My brothers' band, which has kind of a driving rockabilly sound when they're not playing Irish music (and sometimes when they are), introduced me to The Band, and the couple of songs they cover regularly have become staples here. On my mind lately is Ophelia, to which I still don't know all the words but howl along with obligingly whenever it comes up on shuffle. It's so stuck in my head that I've even been trying to pick it out on the piano despite my undeveloped ability to improv. So here, I want you all to listen and groove along to the horns and the bass and Levon Helms on the drums.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Stay-At-Home Mothers Decided to Make Some Music. You Won't Believe What Happened Next.

...Actually, you will believe what happened, because it's not all strange.

We spent the weekend with Elizabeth Duffy and family and her brand-new gorgeous kitchen. Elizabeth's husband is a craftsman by avocation, and he and Darwin spent many productive hours out in his barn on Sunday working on a spur-of-the-moment project, a custom screen door to replace our barbarous aluminum thing in our kitchen, with gaps in the panels so large the cat escapes through them. Saturday night Darwin talked about the difficulties he'd had trying to find a replacement at Home Depot for our oddly-sized door, Joe said he had wood that size out in the barn, and on Sunday they set to work planing, routing, and dry-fitting poplar pieces into a frame that we'll finish at home. Darwin loves woodworking when he has a chance to do it, and it was a real pleasure for him to work with a friend who has such a mastery of his craft, not to mention an amazing complement of tools and machinery.

While the fellows were building in the barn and the kids were charging around playing baseball, Elizabeth and I sat on the patio with our nursing babies and our drinks and talked writing shop, and discussed how to revive the quality of the blogging community against the cheap controversy-mongering of the Facebook and Twitter, and delighted in our mutual discovery of Anne Kennedy, and sighed at how the big boys and girls are still on this side of childhood, unconscious of each other except as team mates and Monopoly adversaries. And we had our own spur-of-the-moment artistic moment: "Hey, let's play some music!"

Both of us had years of music lessons, Elizabeth on cello and me on piano, so we passed babies to the fathers, who were all sawdusty from the barn, and hitched up chairs and tuned instruments. And then, the music. It wasn't the heavenly choirs, but it was a moment of adult artistic collaboration. It was practice, and error, and "Let's take it from this measure," and "What if we played it this way?", and "Hey, do you know this piece?", heedless of the chaos swirling behind, and occasionally on top, of us. It was honing and trying it one more time to get it just right, and laughing when I inevitably played the major chord at the end instead of the minor.

ANd meanwhile, the life of the house when on. The kids were happy, and we were happy, even as we tried take after take to get a good recording. And in the end, none of them really took because either there was too much commotion in the background, or I played the wrong thing in the more complicated sections, or the sound was off, or the baby's head was in the way of Elizabeth's bow. Whenever we watched a take, we had to laugh at our desperate expressions as we focused on just hitting the notes in harmony, being amateurs out of practice. But oh, was it fun, and the Darwins ended up leaving about three hours later than we meant to because it seemed like the perfect take was just within our grasp. As we left, Elizabeth and I were wishing we could convene a regional mothers' chamber orchestra for everyone who still remembers the thrill of the ensemble.

Anyway, here's a snippet of us playing Handel's Sarabande. Cello, piano, chorus of howling children.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Herbert Hoover Slept Here

I swept my porch today. That doesn't sound very exciting, and it wasn't. It's only noteworthy because the porch is made of some soft stone -- sandstone, perhaps? -- that is eroding away piece by piece, and the pieces collect in the well of each eroding stone and become rather treacherous underfoot, and when you finally sweep them away you see just how badly pitted the whole surface is. We are going to have to Do Something sooner or later, probably sooner, but what something is a matter of debate. Do we try and pry up the worst stones from their concrete bed and replace them? Patch the bad areas with concrete, which would be cheap but would look terrible? Do we rip out the whole stone porch, installed in 1929 when someone renovated our house from Basic Victorian to Tudor Revival? Every time we confront this issue, we come to no conclusion except that whatever happens, it's going to be expensive.

This house. This old, beautiful, complicated money pit of a house. Did I ever tell you how we settled on it? We looked at the house across the street, a cute foursquare much smaller that this one, but so charmingly fixed up. It had only four bedrooms, none of which were quite big enough for bunkbeds, but the price was so right. So right, in fact, that the house was going under contract that day. As we stepped out, we noticed the big Tudor with the For Sale sign, from which workmen were hauling old carpet. "Look at that!" we said. "Why wasn't that one on our list?" we said. It was not on the list because it was out of our price range, but we looked at it like big suckers, and we fell in love with the confusing floor plan and the upstairs hall lined with eight glossy six-panel doors (four bedrooms, two closets, the attic, and what had been the back staircase). The price came down, due to a few factors like the crumbling asbestos we had to have removed before we moved in, and the fact that the house had been on the market for four months and the heirs didn't get anything until it was sold, and since they had to split the proceeds four ways it hurt each one less to come down on price -- but it was still a large financial step up from our suburban box in Texas, even for a family getting a raise. And that's okay -- someone has to live in these older houses, and someone has to pay for the upkeep, and we're glad to spend our money in a way that surrounds us with beauty while keeping the kids from getting too dependent on modern luxuries like air conditioning or three-prong outlets or bathrooms that are warm in the winter.

Every time we start making lists of future improvements, it's easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. How much is it going to cost to restore all 11 diamond-paned windows which have warped out of shape? Do we find out where the leak in our shower is, which will require us to rip up tile embedded in three inches of concrete and will pretty much necessitate the entire renovation of the room, or do we just keep schlepping down the hall to the princess bedroom bathroom to wash? How long do we watch that patch on the ceiling in the back bedroom before we have someone in about it? How many slates have to fall off the roof before we call the roofers again? How many go-rounds will it take before we can find the leak in the chimney so we can fix the crumbling plaster walls in the kids' bathroom? When can we renovate that bathroom so we can actually use the space efficiently? When should we refinish the floors downstairs, and can it wait another two years? But the paint on the trim outside can't go another winter without being touched up, or we'll start to lose wood underneath. What about the support wall under the back porch, which seems like it could be buckling? What about the peeling paper on the ceiling in the living room? The peeling paper in the hall? Do we buy curtains, which will necessitate getting curtain rods specially made for the bay in the living room, or do we paint the living room first? And then there's the porch, crumbling above and eroding below, and how much is that going to cost?

That's just the maintenance on the place, regardless of the family chaos. A few years ago we went on a tour of the local historical society, and when I asked the fellow if he had any old photos of our house and gave him our address, he said, "Oh, I'm coming to your place today to take a picture for our Presidential Delaware project." Turns out that when our house was owned by Arthur Flemming, the president of Ohio Wesleyan University in the 50's, Herbert Hoover came to give a speech on campus, and he stayed the night in the house, probably in the princess room where we put all our guests because it has its own bathroom.

This is Hoover and that is Flemming, but the building in the background is not our house.

(Arthur Flemming is most notable for his tenure as secretary of health under Eisenhower, during which he touched off the Great Cranberry Scare, which actually made a Cracked countdown. Of more consequence to us, he must have been the one who renovated the kitchen in 1948, which blueprints are still in the house and will be of material aid to us when we fix it back from the misbegotten 1990 remodel.)

At home after learning of our past brush with greatness, I stood in the stairwell and I surveyed the dust in the corners of the stairs and the big girls' room with clothes and toys dumped all over the place, and my bedroom with the baskets of laundry piled up, and the dents in the glossy doors from Jack pounding them with a tap shoe, and the fine tracing of spiders' webs on the hammered-iron chandelier, and I thought, "This cannot have been how the house looked when Herbert Hoover was here." Wikipedia tells me that Arthur Flemming had five children, and then so did I, so I couldn't use that as an excuse. Of course, at that time the house probably had servants, unless Flemming was the one who demolished the back staircase to put in that crappy pantry in the kitchen, and left the small hole in the dining room floor where the servants' bell used to sit near the foot of the lady of the house. There's still a servant's bedroom in the attic -- the boys will go up there when they're old enough -- and there's one end of a speaking tube in the attic stairwell, communicating to nothing anymore, and the old house telephone box is still in the back hall across from the attic door, though the kitchen end of it was taken out (I don't know whose renovation to blame for that). But we don't have servants, only kids, and we are not ready, at a tidiness level, to have the former leader of the free world lodge at our house for the evening.

We're not even ready to have the neighborhood walk up our front steps. Not last year but the year before, I was prevailed upon to put the house on the local Christmastime home tour, for which they sell tickets and all. I immediately regretted this outburst of hospitality, because although I'm willing to take anyone on a tour anytime, I can't, in all conscience, expect people to pay money for looking at a house that is so obviously big family, especially when the nice neighborhood association lady asked how much decorating we did for Christmas and dropped gentle hints about how some people on the tour liked to take the occasion to do some renovating and redecorating. A few weeks later, however, I was off the hook again -- the lady stopped by and was all apologetic, but wondered: did we think we would be having the porch repaired before the tour? Because there were many elderly people who looked at the old homes, but it might not be safe... We parted with mutual goodwill, she because I hadn't been offended, and me because I was off the hook with all the Joneses.

I thought about that today as I wielded my broom. Someone in 1929 had thought it was the cat's pajamas to lay sandstone instead of the fusty old wood and concrete the neighbors had, and here I am 85 years later sweeping up the crumbling stonework while the neighbors' walks and porches continue in reasonable repair and period charm. I wonder what renovations future owners will curse us for making? Will anyone complain because I painted the insanity green tileboard in the downstairs bathroom in a checkerboard pattern? Will someone be mad because we took out the ugly 40's-ish chandelier in the library and replaced it with a vintage fixture from 1925? Will someone one day be scraping the paint in the front bedroom to find the iron-hard layer of beige under the green and the blue and the awful yellow and the blue primer that we've had up for half a year in readiness for the top coat? Will people miss the wallpaper in the princess bedroom after it finally all peels off? We can't afford to put the kind of money into renovations that the 1929 owner did (and I wonder if they were glad they spend it before the October crash, or if they wished they'd held on to the cash), but I think we can maintain the old pile in a way that respects both the history of the place, and the very present reality of six children and their tap shoes making their marks for future generations to study.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Prodigal Son Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Elizabeth Scalia has a deeply misguided piece up today dealing with the mini controversy swirling around Cardinal Dolan agreeing to be Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade on the first year that it will include a homosexual advocacy group among the organizations marching in the parade.

Unlike some, I don't think this is a particularly big Catholic story. The St. Patrick Day parade long ago ceased to be any kind of religious procession, to the extent it ever was more a religious event than an ethnic celebration for a group which happens to be, in origin, mostly Catholic. The Grand Marshal role is a ceremonial one and has been extended to the Cardinal as a courtesy. I don't think that the Cardinal is obligated to turn down the honorary position because of this latest devolution in the parade, but I do agree with Msgr. Charles Pope's (since pulled but linked to here via Google cache) post saying that he ought to. The diocese's involvement with the parade at this point does nothing to raise the parade, and a certain amount to lower the diocese.

This isn't exactly unfamiliar territory. Read a bit about the history of the various festivals, plays and parades of the medieval church, and it seems like such things followed a cycle. First they served a real purpose, giving a faithful a way to celebrate and learn more about their faith. Then they simply became fun. Then they became actively debased and the clergy started trying to stamp them out again. Rinse and repeat. There seems to be a natural course of things which, on this event, we find ourselves at the end of.

Scalia, in her above linked post, seems to imagine that the Cardinal is performing some kind of evangelization. She links his actions with those of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a parable so constantly mis-used that it begins to seem that someone should draft one of these online laws of discourse in which you immediately lose when you cite it. She says:
Well, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has, at least in New York City, long been a trooping of the sinners, but let’s think for a moment about those muddy circumstances, again, and the story Jesus told, the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Recall, the wastrel son of a rich man asked for his inheritance, and then he squandered it so thoroughly that he was stuck feeding the pigs, and growing hungry. The son thought,
“How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
Reread the last two sentences. It didn’t matter why the son was seeking inclusion; the father did not know whether he was coming home repentant or full of swagger. Motivation did not matter. And the son was still a long way off. All the father knew was that the son had made a move toward home, and it was enough to send the father running out, to meet him.

I’m not sure a bishop has a choice but to run out to meet prodigals, regardless of motivating factors. The father wants everyone to come home and be with him. Once they’re at the doorstep, they may be encouraged to come in; once they’re inside, they can be talked with, nurtured, fed, encouraged, formed, and made whole. This cannot happen as long as they are off in the faraway places.

The key here, aside from the father running out to the prodigal son, is that he ran out while the son was still a long way off.
They key is actually that in the story of the prodigal son the son is returning. There's no indication of return, for any reason, in this situation and in many in which the parable is invoked.

Jesus could have told a parable in which the father went and ran after the prodigal son's party set shouting, "Hey guys! Hey guys! Can I come too? I'm a cool guy too!" and imagined that perhaps by coming along he would evangelize the party-ers -- using words only if necessary (to paraphrase the famous yet bogus St. Francis quote.) He could have told a parable in which the son comes back, unrepentant, and offers to throw a party at the father's house, making the father an honorary master of ceremonies. He could have told a parable in which the son comes back, the father rushes out to meet him, but the son turns out to only be returning to wash his laundry and borrow some more money.

However, these are not the parables that Jesus chose to tell, and it's kind of useless to speculate on how the parable might have gone and what the lesson might have been had He done so. The parable we actually have is a parable about repentance and how to respond to it. In that parable, the prodigal son comes home with the intention of repenting, and the father welcomes him extravagently, even though it offends his other more upright son. This is how we, as Christians, are called to act. Indeed, failure to thus welcome back the repentant is a sin. It may damn us.

Does this mean waiting until the repenting sinner is behaving just perfectly before letting him in the door -- whether the door to the church or the door to our community? No. Indeed, as a wise friend once pointed out, most converts are heretics for a while. In other words, real people don't go from disagreeing with the Church (in word or in action or both) to being fully faithful over night. They change through a process (whether fast or slow) of conversion. They may not be able to accept the whole truth at once, but even if they think they do, most people don't "get" the whole truth at once, and so even with the most sincere intention of now following the Church's lead, many new and in-process converts don't.

What converts do do, however, is want to follow Christ. What those who repent do do is want to turn away from sin.

Inviting a cardinal to be honorary chair of your event, while you run it exactly as you like, is neither an act of conversion nor repentance. It's just a case of asking a high profile figure to lend his name to your event. He's not required to go along with your request out of some Christian duty to do everything we're asked because that's what the father in the prodigal son did.

No, what the cardinal should do is prudently consider what the best action would be in this case and then do it. And I would submit that it would be prudent to pass up this particular honor on the theory that the St. Patrick's Day Parade long ago ceased to have much of anything to do with St. Patrick, and instead became a festival of green beer (most surely an abomination against God and man) and leprechauns. There's nothing which the Church can do to prevent those who run the parade these days from inviting gay advocacy groups to participate in the it. (Nor were they in the past able to prevent those involved in violent Irish nationalist groups from participating.) But there is certainly no evangelistic value to holding an honorary position of authority in the parade, and no reason to lend the diocese's stamp of approval to activities of which it should not approve.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Week of August 31

Melanie is starting a new link-up called Guilt-Free Learning Notes, so that all us slackers can get with the program and actually keep a record of what goes on. I need all the accountability I can get, so here goes.

This year we're trying out a new thing: having Darwin write up weekly school assignments for the big girls. This is going well. Julia, 11, likes to know what she has to do, and to get it done. Eleanor, 12, needs the list to help her keep on track for getting anything done. I like being able to tell them to go check the list, and no, you're not going to play outside with friends until your work is done. We start our day with the Morning Offering and the Prayer to the Holy Spirit (my go-to school prayer), then we read the Mass readings, a reflection from the One Bread, One Body booklet (edited by my dear dad), and a chapter of Northanger Abbey. Then it's assigned schoolwork while I help the younger children, then dance on some days.

So, this week. Monday was Labor Day, so no work. Monday night I stayed up all night finishing Stillwater, so Tuesday was not exactly a lost day, but a sloggy day. Eleanor did not finish all her work; the little ones floundered around. I had not much patience. We might have had a good conversation, but I can't remember it now.

This week in history the girls were reading about Islam. Darwin has picked some challenging reading selections for them from high-school and college textbooks. The girls are floundering a bit with these, so I'm trying to have good discussions with them about what they're reading. Mostly, they remember that Mohammed had a daughter named Fatima.

Math is It's a popular option, and everyone works hard without complaining anymore, but it's not hands-off for me. I often sit by each girl (and Jack) as they do math, answering questions, helping to demonstrate the concepts, aiding in problem solving... They work the problems in their math notebooks; we need to work on neatness and organization. Their problems are all over the page, probably something that would have been trained out of them in school where you have to turn papers in all the time. Jack needs to work on writing his numbers.

Watching the big girls with their schedules, I think I need to write a weekly schedule for Isabel, 8. I feel like she gets lost in the shuffle of big girls with harder subjects and the little ones who demand a lot of attention.

The little ones demand a lot of attention, and yet I feel that they're not getting a lot of productive attention. I do reading practice with Jack (100 Easy Lessons, fourth time around), but we're not doing as much story time and fun reading time together. Diana, 4, sits in, and I have noticed her picking up some concepts, but I can see I'm not going to be able to lump her schooling in with Jack's. Jack needs far more writing practice than he gets.

Everyone needs more writing practice than they get. Eleanor has a natural facility with storytelling, but Julia struggles a bit in the translation from thought to written word. I'm trying to be mindful of handwriting practice, too, because wow.

We haven't started any poetry memorization or copywork or science or art appreciation.

What I like best in the week, and what I feel has been an unqualified success, is our morning(ish) routine of Bible and read-alouds. We discuss the Mass readings and the saint of the day, work on reciting the books of the Bible, and then read and discuss a chapter of Northanger Abbey. The girls are really following along well and picking up on motivations and themes, and they're becoming very good storytellers with a quick ear for the patterns of the story they're hearing. NA seems particularly accessible to young ears, especially since I can tell them about the conventions of gothic novels. They like Catherine Morland a great deal and often beg for extra chapters. This coming week we're going to finish the story and then watch the new BBC adaptation. I'd not wanted to show it to them before reading the story, partly because the movie makes some changes that seem too easy to me, and also because of the little gothic fantasies that the movie Catherine indulges in. I have two girls on the verge of romantic fantasy territory, so I really wanted to work the book's discussion of how foolish these fantasies are before we saw the movie's imagery.

We started dance this week. Yeah, lots of dancing going on. Organ doesn't start until October, but we have to get back into piano practice soon.

I know that interesting things happened this week, but I can't remember them all now. We watched scenes from Master and Commander. We prepared the house for a week's visit from my youngest brother, who will be recuperating at our house from back surgery. We talked about Harry Potter, and the Fibonacci sequence. We had several necessary conversations about honesty. We went to First Friday mass and the playground. We discussed how writing the last paragraph of a narrative is like solving a mystery because you pick up the clues from the beginning and middle and wrap them all together.

My big revelation for the week: I spend most of my day trying to hide from my kids. After each interaction (establishing someone in her lessons, doing reading with Jack, ending a fight, etc.), I find myself seeking out quiet minutes of nursing, or standing in the kitchen with a cup of tea and the paper, or shutting myself in the bathroom, or simply sitting in the living room shutting out the noise. I guess I've always done this, but I never noticed how often I try to get away from them. This did occasion some reflection on whether I should put them in school, but I don't think that would actually solve anything.

Also, this isn't news to me, but: I hate leaving the house. Packing six kids in the car, hustling around wherever we need to hustle, maneuvering this van around, getting people and their stuff and groceries or library books or sweaters or the diaper bag back inside, and I'm wiped. It is hard for me to maintain a day of schooling when we have to go out. I am tired and I just want a break afterwards, and the baby wants to be held all the time and people won't stop appealing to me.

Fine, I'll say it: I'M AN INTROVERT. I have to recharge my energy after leaving the house or dealing with my children. I don't know when I turned into this person, and I'm trying to figure out how to not become a total recluse in the prime of life, especially because the kids like to get out of the house now and then. I'm still trying to discern how I should structure my day to make the best use of my strengths and keep myself from retreating too often and leaving the children to run feral.

A Booming Economy of Cruelty

Every so often one reads the someone saying that it's a tragedy so many people died in the American Civil War when slavery was an institution that would have died out on its own soon anyway. Given a progressive view of history in which bad old things naturally die out over time, this might seem somewhat credible, but in recent years scholars have increasingly done interesting work around the economics of American slavery which suggest that slavery has hardly on its last legs in the 1860s. A recent contribution to this area is Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told, reviewed interestingly by the WSJ here.
Slavery's defenders often portrayed the South's "peculiar institution" as the antithesis of money-grubbing Yankee capitalism, rooted in an idealized agrarian hierarchy of white master and enslaved African that had been ordained for all time by God and natural law. Indeed, they often insisted that it was a supremely charitable endeavor that saved the slave from his own innate barbarism, asserting, for example, that they had to provide for elderly, infirm and immature slaves whether they were productive or not, as if they were members of their own family—albeit of a very inferior sort. As the wealthy South Carolina planter and politician James H. Hammond condescendingly put it in 1845, in a truculent rebuttal to attacks on slavery made by a British abolitionist: "We must therefore content ourselves with our dear labor under the consoling reflection that what is lost to us is gained to humanity." Abolitionists were contemptuous of such self-serving nonsense, but they too tended to see slavery as an economically inefficient, and morally reprehensible, hangover from the premodern past.

In "The Half Has Never Been Told," Edward E. Baptist takes passionate issue with such assumptions. He asserts that slavery was neither inherently inefficient nor a counterpoint to capitalism. Rather, he says, it was woven inextricably into the transnational fabric of early 19th-century capitalism. Banks and financiers fed it with the investment it needed to continue expanding and were rewarded with handsome profits from the labor of enslaved millions. Although crashes, depressions and market fluctuations inevitably affected the slave-based economy, large-scale investors in slavery consistently earned handsome profits, at least in the rich cotton-growing regions of the Deep South.

The morality of slavery rarely if ever entered into the business equation. As the number of slaves in the U.S. swelled from just under one million at the dawn of the century to about four million at the time of the Civil War, investors consistently demonstrated their confidence in slavery's profitability. As the historian Walter Johnson has eloquently put it, slaves represented "a congealed form of the capital upon which the commercial development of the [Mississippi River] Valley depended. . . . The cords of credit and debt—of advance and obligation—that cinched the Atlantic economy together were anchored with the mutually defining values of land and slaves: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without slaves, land itself was valueless." The value of the dollar, Mr. Johnson adds, "as often as not . . . turned out to be backed by flesh rather than gold."

As early as the 1820s, says Mr. Baptist, slave owners commanded the biggest pool of collateral in the United States: two million slaves worth more than $1 billion. "Not only was that almost 20 percent of all the wealth owned by all US citizens," Mr. Baptist writes, "but it was the most liquid part of that wealth, thanks to the efficiency of markets manned by professional slave traders." Slaves were a uniquely flexible commodity: There was a ready market for them everywhere in the South; they could be either sold or leased; they could be moved from place to place under their own power; and unlike tools and buildings, they naturally reproduced, adding to the value of their master's investment.

Read the rest
The slave economy was also expansionist, with proponents supporting the acquisition of Cuba by the United States and a general southward expansion into more climes suited to the plantation model. It's hard to imagine that slavery would have remained economical to the present day. But there was clearly a lot of steam left in the engine as of 1861, had the Civil War not brought it to a violent close.

There's been an interesting sidebar to the issue in that The Economist ran a review (which they've since officially withdrawn) which sounded almost 19th century in its rationalizations of the "peculiar institution". Baptist has written a response to the review incident in Politico, in which he blames the review on "market fundamentalism".
In the last couple of decades, the Economist and its suspender-wearing core readers have usually been reliable allies of market fundamentalism—the idea that everything would be better if measured first and last by its efficiency at producing profit. I, on the other hand, argue in the book that U.S. cotton slavery created—and still taints—the modern capitalist economy which the Economist sometimes seems to prescribe as the cure for all ills. I’d like to think we all agree that slavery was evil. If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?

I hesitate to make the argument "nobody says that", because you can usually rely on someone to say almost anything, no matter how wrong, but it does at least strike me as very obviously wrong to assert that if something is profitable, it must be moral. Morals and economic efficiency seem to be clearly different worlds. Whether something is profitable and whether it is moral are two questions which have no bearing on each other.

For an in depth discussion of the economics of slavery, I'd also suggest this EconTalk from some years ago, in which Russ Roberts interviews Stanley Engerman, co-author of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery

With God, The World is Less Known but More Knowable

Kyle Cupp has a new blog over at Patheos, where he's had some interesting posts going up. One that I've been chewing over for the last week is entitled God Is Not An Explanation, and in it Kyle pushes back on the idea that a theistic universe is a more explicable one.
[I]t troubles me that I cannot explain God. I want, for example, to be able to give myself a rational explanation for why a loving God would reveal matters of eternal life and death through obscure and ambiguous speech, signs, and texts. I can’t. I throw my hands in the air, and not as a prayerful gesture. Put aside the problem of evil; the very idea of the bible vexes me! Has there been a book that’s received as many varying and conflicting interpretations as the bible? Another holy text, maybe? If God is the ultimate author of Sacred Scripture, he sure didn’t seem to be going for clarity.

Along with atheists, I actually think the universe makes more sense without God. A godless world, if it is a finite material world, is a world that can in theory be explained. Maybe. If God exists, however, then creation is insolubly problematic. Fundamentally so. You could say mysterious if my phrasing sounds too heterodox.
I'm not clear whether I disagree with Kyle here or not. There's a sense in which a strictly material world would make more sense, but only because there would simply be less to know. Picture, if you will, that it was revealed to you that Hamlet really had been written by an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of typewriters. In a sense, this would instantly clear up all the mysteries regarding what Hamlet is about and what its message is. It would the not be about anything and it would have no message. Any meaning we chose to find in a randomly generated Hamlet script would be entirely of our own creation, and so in a sense it really wouldn't matter what we decided it meant.

Similarly, if God does not exist and the universe is strictly material, a lot of questions that people have struggled with over the centuries get very simple answers: What does it all mean? Nothing. Why do we exist? No reason. What is our purpose? There is no such thing.

In one sense, this is all very explicable. In another, it is no explanation at all.

No matter how simple the monkey explanation of Hamlet is, it's profoundly unsatisfying as an explanation because Hamlet seems like it means something. Similarly, it morality seems to me like it means something. The afterlife seems like it means something. The absolute seems like it means something. Saying, "Nope, none of that exists," does certainly close off a lot of questions, but it doesn't necessarily seem to me like it does so in a way that suits the evidence -- the evidence being our sense of meaning, or morality, of the divine.

Now, I'm not sure that Kyle and I really disagree here, but I think it's worth being clear that while God is not a pat explanation in, God is indeed the answer to a great deal, even if in ways that leave us with questions because He is beyond our capacity to fully understand.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Nine Year Old and the Uzi

If you spend time on social media, it's been hard to miss over the last couple weeks the story about the nine-year-old girl whose parents took her to a shooting range outside Las Vegas where she was allowed to shoot an fully automatic Uzi machine pistol, which she then lost control of and accidentally shot (fatally) her instructor. Everyone seems sure this Says Something About America, and there've been endless articles, posts and tweets trying to get at exactly what that is.

Less exploitive than some is this piece from Time which seeks to compare this event to the appalling situation a while back in which a single mom was thrown in jail for allowing her similarly nine year old daughter to play at a public part while the mother was working her shift at McDonalds. However, less exploitive than some is a low bar in a media-wide outrage fest and at several levels the piece is rather ill conceived, starting with its opening:
You should be absolutely terrified that a 9-year-old’s constitutional right to fire an Uzi trumps your right to decide at what age your kids can play at the park unsupervised.
For starters: a nine year old does not have a constitutional right to fire an Uzi. Period. End of story.

A nine year old cannot legally buy any kind of gun or ammunition, and Uzis (at least, any one like this which is capable of fully automatic fire) are incredibly highly regulated. Owning a machine gun requires a special license which involves extra background checks and inspections of how you store the weapon. Very few are allowed onto the civilian market at all. That's why if people shoot them at all, they do so at supervised shooting ranges which have gone through all the legal hoops to license the weapons, and then allow you to try them for a steep rental fee.As a result, fully automatic weapons are virtually never found in use by criminals at this point in the US. They are an example of a class of weapons which has become virtually absent from the crime seen due to long term regulation (since the 1930s) and also the fact that they're impractical and expensive for civilians to shoot. So not only does a nine year old not have a right to fire an Uzi, but for eight years courts have upheld very severe legal restrictions on fully automatic guns in general, indicating that no one else really has a constitutional right to fire and Uzi either. This story has proved cathartic to some gun control advocates who simply love a story which reinforces their "guns are scary and evil!!!" instincts, but honestly, this is not a story that relates much to gun control one way or the other.

Another thing that struck me about the Time article is the redemptive power which people increasingly put, in our current society, in the idea of throwing someone in jail. It says:
Arizona police officials have said no charges will be filed or arrests made. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office concluded the incident was an “industrial accident,” and have contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate, according to published reports.

Let’s compare that to a story from earlier this summer, regarding a different 9-year-old, one in South Carolina.

Debra Harrell is a working mother who faces a common problem for parents when school lets out for the summer: finding affordable child care. The McDonald’s employee couldn’t afford to have someone watch her 9-year-old daughter, so the girl was playing on her laptop in the restaurant during her mother’s shifts. However, when that laptop was stolen from their home, Harrell armed her daughter with a cell phone in case of an emergency and let her go unsupervised to an area playground. Another parent noticed the girl there alone and contacted the police, at which point Harrell was arrested and charged with child neglect. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years behind bars.

I agree that we live in a crazy world when a majority of Americans believe it should be illegal to allow your nine year old to play outside unsupervised, and a scary number still say the same about twelve year olds. I don't think that mother in South Carolina should have been jailed. Indeed, I think one of the major problems in our society is that we make far too many things illegal. Which brings me back to the Time article, which seems to implicitly believe that someone should have gone to jail for the shooting accident with the Uzi in Arizona. Clearly, there were several people using very, very poor judgement which led to the accident. The shooting range had a minimum age of eight, and apparently didn't contemplate the fact that some of the guns they had available for tourists to shoot were much harder for a small person to control than others. The parents apparently assumed it was just fine for their nine year old to try shooting a machine pistol. The instructor (now dead) who should have known better if the parents didn't apparently also thought this was an okay idea.

In general, shooting ranges are very safe places. Your child is less likely to be injured (or injure someone) going to a shooting range than going to a swimming pool or playing some sport like soccer or football. However, in this case, several people who should have known better used bad judgement. One of them is now dead. Does it really make anything better if we as a society find someone to put in jail to make us feel better? Is there anyone here who acted with criminal intent? And yet there seems to be a deep sense in our society that if something bad happened someone ought to go to jail for it.

Do we need new laws in the wake of this shooting accident? I don't think that it would do any harm to restrict shooting ranges from allowing fully automatic weapons to be shot by anyone under some given age which tends to align with having a large enough physical structure to handle them. (14? 16?) However, it's important to realize that we're talking about an incredibly rare occurrence. If anything, this reminds me of the case which got a lot of discussion some years back where a seven-year-old girl died (along with her father and a flying instructor) while flying an airplane. Say what you will about whether letting a seven year old fly an airplane is a good idea, it's a sufficiently infrequent occurrence for there to be a desperate need to legislate about it. Similarly, shooting ranges honestly do not want to have their instructors accidentally shot. In general, they are very, very good at enforcing safety. One hopes that people will have learned a few lessons from this incident (if they're not too busy fending off attacks from anti-gunner on "our disturbingly warped gun culture") and will adjust accordingly. And in all likelihood, that's about all it will take.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Stillwater - 55 (Afterword)

So many of you have written to me with guesses about the source for Stillwater that it almost seems anti-climactic to have a big reveal, but here it is:

My battered copy of Mansfield Park. I bought one of those cheapo print-on-demand versions because I knew I was going to destroy the book during this process, and I was right. You can see all my notes and markers sticking out -- or some of them anyway, because Diana got a hold of it at one time and pulled about a quarter of them out before I could stop her.
The genesis of this project was rather odd. I was considering a prospective Shakespeare reading with friends, and I was reflecting that it could be even more fun it instead of just reading it, we were to act it out. I wanted to get into it, to stage a scene and talk about motivation and really get into it, and in the midst of all this blue-skying I thought, Yes, but do I really want to play a love scene with someone other than my husband? Not just theoretically, but do I want to actually be in someone else's arms, pressed up against someone else's body, acting like I love him?  I was surprised by how intensely uncomfortable I was with the idea. I'd been a theater major. I've kissed guys onstage (far less exciting than it sounds), I love acting. But this wasn't a formal project with a director and the safety of a theater. It was a party with friends, probably with a lot of alcohol flowing, and I just didn't like it. And then I realized: Oh my gosh, it's just like Mansfield Park! 

I'd read Mansfield before and had not thought that much about it. That's hardly unique; it's the least-popular Austen novel, and certainly one of the least-loved. And the theater interlude is one of the whipping-horses of the book. Oh, those prigs, afraid of doing a play! Wow, times have changed! But people haven't changed. Morality doesn't change. And I realized, as clearly as I should have the first time I'd read the book, that the problem with the theater in Mansfield Park is not primarily the social matter of making a big set out of Sir Thomas Bertram's house while he was in Antigua. The problem is the dicey boundaries it allows, the real physical and emotional repercussions of putting oneself in intimate dramatic situations without the safety of real theatrical oversight and direction, especially when two people are simply looking for a social excuse to get physical.

As I reconsidered Mansfield Park in the light of my own theater concerns, I began to see that it was not as bounded in the past as it's accused of being. I read it again and focused on the moral questions, and I was struck by how intensely modern they were, under their very period trappings. And then I started to wonder: what are the universal elements of the book? Could this story be told now? And the answer, to the best of my abilities, is Stillwater.

Some things were obvious right away. Fanny Price is the quintessential introvert. Mansfield Park needed to be some kind of establishment that could support itself and had a lot of history behind it, so a southern plantation was ideal. (Plus, my mom is from Baton Rouge, so I spent many summers in Louisiana and Mississippi.) `I worked out a few points in my mind, and then I consulted the only person (as I thought then) who liked Mansfield Park: the polymath Brandon Watson, the only person I'd ever heard defending Fanny Price. Brandon's contributions are too numerous to mention, but much of Rene Arceneaux's academic brilliance is directly traceable to Brandon's excellent suggestions and advice.

As an interesting bit of arcana, here's my initial email laying out the scope of the project:

We're all NaNoWriMo here: Brendan is running his now, and I'm doing some advance planning on my November project. I'd like to solicit your good opinion and advice, because what I'm thinking about is doing a story based on Mansfield Park, to see if it's possible to make the characters and situations intelligible and sympathetic to a modern audience. The idea came to me in a dream (or in that half-waking state which is more convenient to call a dream, anyway), and I think I have some of the major obstacles worked out, but I need to bounce ideas off of people who know the story well and can see the right kind of modern parallels to characters and action. Brendan and I have been talking it through as he listens through the book on his commute but we need some fresh insight. 
What I am NOT looking to do is write fan fiction, or a blow-for-blow retelling in which every event in the book is laboriously translated or paralleled. Rather, I want to explore what is universal in a story that does not have a lot of obvious modern resonance. I also don't intend to announce that I'm using Mansfield as a springboard. I want to see who knows the story well enough to pick up on what I'm doing. It's too bad to spoil it for you, because we knew that you would figure it out quickly, but I have to have counsel, so you're the sacrificial reader here. 
What kicked me off was the famous theater incident. It seems like such a relic, something that works in the context of Austin but is silly today -- who has moral qualms about putting on a show, right? But I think that it can be made very vivid, and the moral dangers very clear, by examining the seduction that is enabled by the physical and emotional ambiguity of acting without the clear boundaries of a stage or a director, especially when two people who are attracted to each other (Henry and Maria) suddenly have the liberty of the script to express themselves combined with the tension of their interactions being "just acting!"
It seems key to keep the large independent house dynamic. I'm thinking of setting my story in an old plantation house in the Deep South, partly because it's one of the few American milieus that can provide same old money setting, and partly because I think I have enough of a feel for the South to write it convincingly (and with the least research). I don't have a definite timeframe, but it's more modern rather than less; I don't really care to get into the racial politics that a historical setting necessitates. I like a plantation because running it is still big business but there's a strong historic and romantic and financial connotation that an old family farm just doesn't have. The heat of summer in the south is also a nice corollary to winter in England. 
In this world, Fanny doesn't particularly have to be a niece. Right now I'm thinking that she is the daughter of a former caretaker of the estate and is of Cajun background. She's not on the same standing as the wealthy plantation family and obviously doesn't have a hereditary share in the money, but she's not exactly second-class either. I want to give her one of those beautiful French names that are so common in Louisiana, then trim it down to a nickname as diminutive and childish as "Fanny", but I can't find just the right fit, though I've got several contenders. I'm imagining her family living now in a shotgun house in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, spilling out of rooms and living loudly. Her father is ex-military, a big tattooed Cajun guy who sits on his porch drinking or heads down to the bar for a beer and a po'boy -- just the sort of man calculated to intimidate Fanny. 
Fanny is an extreme introvert, that's obvious; and nothing is more popular right now than to be an introvert. I'm hoping that with some sensitive writing it should be very easy to make her character an appealing one to the readers. She holds a position of some ambiguity in the family: she's not staff, she's not a relative, but she's been in the house so long that she has standing of a sort.  One of the challenges I'm facing is that Fanny, as written by Austen, does not change over the course of the story. She's the constant, in fact, and the action swirls around her. That's fine for Jane and the early novel, but for a modern novel it won't do, and so I'm thinking hard about Fanny's character arc, and how I can structure my story to give her the right kind of change while still staying true to Fanny. 
A lot of this will be bound up in how the other characters are presented, and how the plot develops. The Crawfords are very interesting, and are coming nicely into view for me. I think that Henry Crawford is an artiste, a true talent who only needs to take on projects every so often to keep the money rolling in. Documentary film-making and landscape design are both careers that fit with Henry, and indeed, he could do both (film-making instincts might help with the theater incident, and landscape design stems from his help with Mr. Rushworth). He and Mary run with a fast, artsy set, which makes them glamorous and exciting, and also gives a nice contrast to the big house and Fanny's mores. There's not a huge modern parallel to the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry, but I do see some tendencies in his pursuit of her despite her repeated refusals that change these scenes from sexy to disturbing. This could be doubly so if what's going on is not that Henry is asking Fanny to marry him, but is, say, offering her a job with his production company, with undertones of seduction that only she is aware of. It's not the thing now to push someone so strongly into marriage as Sir Thomas does with Fanny, but I think the same attitude would be very understandable to modern readers if Fanny, who lives on the beneficence of others, is refusing what is clearly a lucrative and attractive position, especially when people are fighting so hard now to find good jobs. 
I picture Henry and Mary as being related not to an admiral but to some extremely well-known and prestigious scholar, on the level of Peter Singer or Louis Gates -- somebody with a great deal of influence, but not known for his moral propensities. This comes into play for William -- military careers are not based on preferment anymore, but academic careers can be, and if William, a promising young fellow with no connections, can be thrown in with Uncle Crawford, whose recommendation alone is enough to push through a book proposal or put a resume on the top of the stack, he is made. (This is also why Maria's elopement with Henry can elicit such publicity even in this wired age: nephew of celebrated academic runs off with newly-married wealthy southern belle!) 
Edmund is still a bit of a puzzle to me. Picking up on the irreligious Mary's attitude toward him and his general elevated moral character, I see him as an ex-seminarian who has come home to work for the family concern. In what capacity I'm not clear -- I don't know how far I need to mirror the book in Mary's distain for the clergy, since being a clergyman then was more of a career than a vocation. Ideas I'm playing with include having him take a necessary but uninteresting role in the family business, such as accountant, which might be seen as a waste of talent to Mary's artsy sensibilities, or having him be a teacher at one of the local schools. He has some of Fanny's introversion -- one of the closest fits for his character as presented in the book was the model of the stoic cowboy -- a man of fairly few words. I dunno about that yet, though. 
I'm also in the throes of picking out the major and minor plot points and figuring out how tightly woven they are to the basic story, and what I need to preserve, toss, or alter.
This note is approaching book length itself, but I hope you'll be inspired to help up hash out a story that will be a good novel as well as an interesting exercise. 
Cheers, Cat

I cannot enough give enough credit to Brandon as Philosophy of Austen expert, story doctor and consultant, and researcher extraordinaire (he went and read Lovers' Vows, the play in Mansfield!). He probably could have written this himself, but I got to the idea first, so ha ha.

Of course I must thank Brendan, Darwin himself, who listened to me talk about this thing endlessly, and who helped shape the story at every turn. Often when I was stuck, I would ask him, "What would Chris Dalton say? or Ian? or Richard?" and he'd start monologuing. (The bit where Chris talks about how he memorizes his lines was a direct transcription of a hysterical performance.) And Brendan worked out Stillwater's business model for me, helped me clarify motivations and character traits, read almost every section over and made the most invaluable suggestions, brought me coffee and bourbon, and helped me with everything short of the actual writing. He also ran the house every night for two years (we'll just count all the pregnancy-related house-running he did in my writing tally) and handled innumerable irritations so I could stare at the computer night after night. I love you, my dear.

My children will always remember when Mom was writing a novel and would let them watch movies all the time. This is what being a homeschooling family is all about. I could never have written this (not in two years, anyway) if I'd had to get up at a time every morning and have lunches ready and take people to school. The kids got used to morning computer time because Mommy was up until 3 AM writing again, and to be honest, they probably wish I'd start another novel so we could live that way all the time. But I love them, so I'm going to make them do some schoolwork instead so they'll one day be well-rounded adults who write novels and neglect their own children.

Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues and Joyce Tarpley's Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park were the kinds of books I was looking for before I started this project. Even reading them halfway through the writing was a great help and encouragement. I've been wanting to recommend Sarah Emsley's series An Invitation to Mansfield Park, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of its publication, but was waiting until now so I wouldn't tip my hand; I'm looking forward to commenting more there now that I'm out of the throes of composition.

Thanks to my aunt, Mary Orens, master seamstress, who gave me detailed instructions on how to do that zipper thing I described, and to Julia O'Connell, who told me where in Brooklyn someone like Alys would live, and to everyone on Facebook who gave me advice on driving a manual (which I still have never done), and to my mom for her Southern inspiration, and my dad and his 4 AM texts whenever a new post went up, and to the community of Mansfield Park lovers who came out of the woodwork to tell me they'd gotten it, and how much they loved MP. I had no idea but I'm so glad. And thanks to the people who told me they were waiting to read Mansfield Park until I'd finished with Stillwater. Welcome to the original, my friends. Sorry I made you wait so long.

And I've been dying to discuss this for two years, so if you have any questions about why I made Stillwater choices, please ask! Although it wasn't my goal to match Austen point for point, I often found that I could pull in even the most minor throwaway details. The ending of Mansfield Park is famous denounced as unsatisfying; I tried my best to keep the emotional logic of Stillwater intact in the last section, but I dug into Austen for language and structure and clues to help justify my choices, there and throughout. In certain places I diverged from the book's timeline or plot in order to maintain the internal integrity of Stillwater as a novel, but I always attempted to keep to the spirit of the story.

And here's the completed index to the whole novel.

If you've been reading along, please leave a comment! I am planning to clean up the manuscript and submit it, and I'd love to know how big an audience the initial publication here had. Your support and encouragement has been invaluable to me.

-- Cat Hodge

I keep thinking of things to add: Stillwater was based on Belle Grove planation, near White Castle, LA. Belle Grove was the largest house on the river, but a decline in sugar led to a decline in the house, and it sat empty from 1925 to 1952, when it was destroyed by fire. The American Historic Buildings Survey took a number of photographs of the house in the 1930s, when it sat abandoned and decaying; they're exceptionally haunting, and are easy to find on a Google Images search. Belle Grove was just three miles down the river from Nottoway, which we toured last May.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Stillwater - 54

7 AM -- a true record for the last installment!

Tomorrow or the next day I'll post an afterward, with discussion of the Oh-So-Secret Source, but I've been writing this for two years, and the past 10 hours, and now I am going to bed.


Now began a time of comfort for the years the locust had eaten.

Richard was the first to mark the change. Malcolm flew up to Dallas for a whirlwind visit on Sunday, the day after the successful, if scaled-down, Christmas Fete at Stillwater. The last time his parents had seen him was at Thanksgiving, right after Sophia’s scandal broke over them. Two weeks ago he had been gaunt and stooped with care. Now a weight had been lifted from his soul. He smiled and joked with Dick without the slightest hint of pedantry. He did not merely tolerate his mother; he respected her. To Richard he gave the greatest balm a father can have: that of seeing his children truly happy. This was the first solace.

A graveness clung to Malcolm as he told Richard about his trip to New York, but it was a graveness of reflection, not of mourning. And he was full of the news of the week: how Melly had appeared like an angel and given the house tour from memory; how Melly had sorted through Esther’s documents and seemed to know exactly what they all meant; how Melly had managed the caterer and the florist and the chair rentals, and had managed to come in under Esther’s budget. Leonie featured in these stories too. Leonie had been indefatigable, and could accomplish through innate management skill and sheer force of personality what Melly could through years of understudying Esther. But for the most part it was Melly. Melly and Leonie had taken over their family’s old cottage. Someone at the Fete had asked Melly about the Stillwater Fellowship, and she had said, firmly, that the Fellowship was vacant. Melly had bought a car with her scholarship money; now he could finally finish teaching her to drive. Richard delighted to hear Melly this and Melly that, and he delighted in the miracle, only now sinking in, of Esther gone for good and Melly home for good. This was the second solace.

Dick, who had sunk into a melancholy, unrelieved even by the news that he might be able to quit Dallas by Christmas, could feel the warmth that Malcolm brought from Stillwater, and he wanted to draw it to himself. He tried a small jest, remarkable only for its lack of vulgarity, and was overcome by how merrily it was received. Richard saw the two of them, laughing together as brothers should laugh: this was the third solace.

There would still be sorrows in store, of course. Chris Dalton moved on, even to the extent of inviting the Spencers to his wedding to Hazelwood’s first female groundskeeper, but Sophia resolutely refused contact with her family. She seemed eager to shut out any reminders of her great humiliation at the hands of the American public, and that exclusion extended to those who did not love her as well as her Aunt Esther did: her father and mother, her brothers and sister. Richard could occasionally get news of her through Esther’s lawyer, but Sophia seemed to feel that the main way to obliterate the indignity of the past was to cut every tie that bound you to it.

That evening, Malcolm was back at Stillwater, almost drunk with exhaustion. It was an unseasonably warm evening, and he and Melly sat in the dim gallery with the windows open to the breeze and the cloud-filtered moonlight and the rustle of the still-leafy branches of the live oaks. Nature was in a muggy state of expectation; Melly was fit to burst. She had barely spoken to Malcolm all week, except on business; the zaniness of the Fete prep had allowed for very little private or personal conversation. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, had been a mess of logistics and re-direction; Saturday had been the Fete itself; Sunday he was gone to Dallas first thing, and he had said nothing to her about Alys all week, except that he’d been to New York last weekend.  Malcolm was not naturally reserved, and he wasn’t a good secret-keeper, but his unusual pitch of spirits combined with no news one way or the other alarmed Melly. He must have worked it out with Alys, and he didn’t want to tell her yet. Maybe they’d gotten engaged. Why would he hide his engagement? She beat off various speculations until she was almost mad. But on Sunday night they sat in a sympathy of fatigue, and looked out over the stubble of the cane fields, and Malcolm told her how he had broken with Alys.

Melly listened unobtrusively, letting him pour out his conflicting feelings of disillusionment and pity and relief and guilt at feeling relieved. She ached for his weariness of body and soul. After being buoyed through a hectic week by his initial relief at Melly’s homecoming, Malcolm was crashing hard. Reality was sinking in: Alys was gone, Alys on whom his hopes and dreams and desires had been fixed for the better part of a year. His dogged trek down the wrong path was over, and now he was free to choose rightly. But the freedom wasn’t the same as the choice. Alys’s last barb had hit its mark and left him unsure of his way forward. He wasn’t even sure any more that he should be going forward. 

“I nearly went back to her,” he said. “Maybe if I’d just tried harder, if I’d given it one more shot, I could have broken through her walls. But what if she’s right? Maybe I did make a mistake in leaving the seminary, and this is how I have to learn the hard way.”

“No,” Melly soothed. “Don’t start second-guessing yourself tonight. It’s late, you’re tired, everything looks bleak. You need to give yourself some time.”

“Time! That’s all I’ve done, is take my time, and in the end I was still deceived. But you knew about Alys right away, didn’t you? And you always knew about Ian too. How are you always right about everything, Melly?” he cried, his voice thick through his hands covering his face. “Tell me what I should do next. I don’t know any more.”

Melly sat very still next to him, her own breath catching in the sudden hush of the night. She yearned to comfort him, to stroke his hair or his neck. Every nerve in her body resonated with a new, daring conviction that at this moment Malcolm was hers for the taking. There was no obstacle between them any more. Alys had occupied his heart, but now she was gone, and it was swept clean, empty and unsecured, ready for her to march in and take possession. He was too vulnerable to reject her. All she had to do was reach out her hand and he would fall into her arms. That was what she had wanted for so long, wasn’t it? It was hers if she could just make her move.

A fresh rush of wind pushed the clouds past the moon, flooding silver light through the tall paned windows and casting a lattice of crossed shadows over Malcolm’s back. Her move. What a cold and predatory sound those words had, a manipulative, calculating, reboundish sound. Was this how she was going to prove her undying love for him? His friendship with her had been founded on kindness, right back to the day he’d helped her down the attic stairs. What kindness was she about to perform here, forcing this intimacy when he was too battered with grief to resist? Sure, she could justify herself with pretty fantasies about the future of such a relationship — and chances were that it would work out just fine; she and Malcolm were well-suited to one another; there was no reason that they shouldn’t be happy together — but even these seemingly harmless scriptings were another way of treating Malcolm as a figure to be controlled and posed. In reality, in the present, she knew that no matter the odds of future success, she must not start a life together with Malcolm in this way, with this action. 
She set her eyes straight ahead to avoid being tempted by the appealingly vulnerable droop of his shoulders, and with an effort that wrenched her heart, she stood up and closed the windows against the first hard flecks of rain.

“How can I know your vocation if you don’t?” she said to the writhing branches outside. “And you wouldn’t really want me to make that decision for you, in the end.”

Then she did turn to him and hold out her hands.

“Come and eat something,” she said briskly. “You never had dinner, and everything looks hopeless when you’re hungry.”

He sighed, but he let her pull him up. “How appallingly practical you are. Food never healed a broken heart.”

She marched him down the hall double-time to escape the temptation to patch up his broken heart right then. “You, sir, have obviously never been to a Cajun family party.”

Dick was indeed back for Christmas, and the occasion inspired some rearrangement of the house. Despite the convenience of the elevator , it was deemed most practical to put him on the first floor, in the old housekeeper’s rooms behind the kitchen, which had been Richard’s office. This meant that Richard finally moved back into the owner’s office that Esther had inhabited for so long, and all Esther’s things were moved down the back hall into Melly’s old bedroom behind the library.

“And that’s fitting,” said Richard, “because Esther’s job will go to Melly and no one else.”

The absence of Esther Davis marked an epoch in Richard’s life. At his darkest moment, the suffocating burden of her ambition, a burden which he had willingly taken on years ago to spare himself the hassle of managing his own legacy, was lifted off his back. And in a brilliant stroke of grace the house had not just been emptied of the management, but was filled once again with his legacy: his natural children and the children of his charity. At dinnertime he looked down the table and saw sons and daughters once more, the brothers living for once in a kind of harmony, and the sisters bringing fresh life to the place. Richard had not thought that he could be more pleased to have Melly home, but her sister showed off whole new facets of her. Leonie took after Rene’s side of the family, of course, but not being Melly’s older brother, she didn’t command quite the same puppy-dog devotion as he did. It was a revelation to hear Melly bantering with Leonie, but then, Leonie was a catalyst for revelations. Melly was a smooth blue pond, still and deep; Leonie was the whole damn Mississippi. She busted up Dick, and challenged Cheryl, and they respected her. She debated with Richard as if she didn’t find him the least bit forbidding, and the novelty of this made him wonder when he had taught his natural daughters to be so unnaturally reserved in his presence. Melly had been a quiet steady light in the house all these years, but Richard was beginning to think that they also could have benefitted all around from Leonie’s bluntness.

Richard had reason to rejoice not just in Melly and Leonie, but in the third child of his charity, Rene. Ever resourceful, he had seized the opportunity of Carson Winter’s morning show scandal to send the producers a video of himself in full Rene mode refuting Winter’s claims about marriage. The producers, knowing when they had good entertainment on their hands, aired it, launching Rene into internet fame. He started his own blog and Youtube channel, and NPR did a feature on his most-viewed episode, “Pillow Talk: From The Symposium to Sartre and Simone Beauvoir”. A book deal followed, and Richard was amazed and gratified to find, when he opened the cover of the autographed copy Rene sent him, that the book was dedicated “To Richard Spencer and the Stillwater Fellowship, for being the first to pay me to philosophize elsewhere.” And of course, Melly’s renunciation of the Fellowship was not the death knell for the scholarship. Richard made the obvious next choice of a non-Spencer Stillwater resident and sent Leonie up to St. Mary’s College in the fall, where she studied Business Administration with a minor in Experimental Psychology, or, as she described it, “messing with people’s heads”.

Richard could never quite dismiss the feeling that he’d failed his oldest daughter, but he did have the happiness of seeing Dick and Olivia growing closer to their family again. Suffering had taught Dick patience, and it had taught him introspection, and in the process of healing he built both his physical and his spiritual strength. He began to be dependable and trustworthy, and could refrain from making the first obnoxious comment that passed through his mind. No amount of mental rejuvenation, however, could change him from being Dick, or quash his fondness for gross-out comedies, or always suppress his instinct to tell, at the least provocation, a salacious joke.

Olivia always felt that Joao Acevedo had saved her from being drawn too far into Ian’s dangerous charms, and Joao, in his turn, always claimed that Ian had chosen the least attractive of the sisters. Despite the bumpiness of their impulsive beginnings, their life in Brazil was happy enough. She’d had little enough in her life to prepare her for the accelerated maturity demanded by an unexpected pregnancy, but she was lucky enough, she liked to say, that her child had the best father, and now the best country, in the world. Joao’s aunts and cousins and sisters gave her a crash course in the care and feeding of babies, and she had all the support which the baby’s doting American grandmother could buy. And when tiny Barbara made her grand entrance, she surprised her mother by the fierce protective love she inspired with the first gleam of her black eye, and she surpassed even Cheryl’s proud expectations for the adorability of her very own grandbaby.

Ian Winter came to despise every reminder of the notoriety which his morning show fiasco won for him. Each tawdry attention reflected the cheapening of his brand: interview offers from the National Enquirer, an invitation to appear on The Bachelor, any number of propositions from thrill seekers and social whores. He could afford to separate himself for a time from the scene of his humiliation, though he didn’t choose to go so far as Tibet, and during this retreat he spent many bitter hours replaying the moments that led to the loss of Melly. 

Even he could immediately understand how she would be repelled by a man who’d occasioned a divorce, but as he began to take steps backward, each incident seemed to have been preventable if he had rejected the step before: he would not have fled with Sophia if they had not been caught on the morning show, but they would not have been caught if they had not gone in the first place, but they would not have gone if they hadn’t been so fucking crazy, but would not have been so fucking crazy if he had not tried to put her in her place at that party he should never have attended. And the chain did not stop there. He began to see that each action in his life had been a decision point, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and that each poor decision on his part had led to a gradually coarsening judgment. How far back could he trace this? To his uncle’s influence? But as he examined each link in the chain of his life, he could see past the influence of Carson Winter to times when he’d followed his uncle’s example against the faint internal warnings of… of conscience, maybe. How would it have affected him to have done what he knew to be right rather that what was expedient, or fun, or gratifying, or easy? 

What if, for example, he had not tried to seduce Melly? Would she have respected him enough to be friends? But then, she had always mistrusted him because of the way he’d flirted with the engaged Sophia. But what if, from the moment he’d come to Stillwater, he had always made the choice that she would approve of?  It was harder to stay honest tracing an imaginary chain forward than tracing an actual chain back, but he made a serious attempt. What if he had not pursued Sophia in New York? What if he had kept to his plan of winning Melly’s approval? What if he had won her love? What if he had married her? What if he had continued day after day influenced by her goodness? Through the rents that pierced the haziness of this hypothetical future, Ian could catch glimpses and snatches of a strange, luminous existence, one in which he did not live primarily for himself, one in which goodness was to be sought and achieved with the intensity that he’d reserved for pursuing his curiosities, his pleasures, his ultimately unfulfilling schemes. This existence, this new way of happiness, attracted Ian more than a little. It frightened him too by its contrast to his own life so far, and it repulsed him with the increasingly persistent demand that his life would need to turn in a radical way to approach it. But Melly had impressed a desire for this happiness on his soul, and from this point on every road he followed seemed to twist him around and force him to confront it from new and startling angles.

Like her brother, Alys was haunted by the idea that there was a whole way of life that hovered just beyond every idea of relationship she’d ever had, a way somehow marked by Malcolm Spencer’s repressive religious attitudes. Her Park Slope friends had plenty of experience in helping a girl to get over her heartache, but Malcolm’s language of giving and receiving and begging and not using began to take hold in her brain and forced her to reevaluate her every action and interaction, day after day after day. By that time she had grown so weary of her own vanity, her own ambitions, her own friends and loves and disappointments that she was ready to be open to the next instance of true kindness she encountered, to try and make sense of Malcolm’s model of love. But it was long before she could forgive him for rejecting her, and longer still before she could realize that she had never been rejected. 

Malcolm had not rejected Alys. He knew that she did not understand him, and he knew that he could not marry her, but he did not reject her. He cradled her memory in his heart, and felt and treasured its sting. But love that is not constantly nourished turns, not to coldness, but to indifference, and even a well-tended memory fades to sepia in time. Malcolm’s memory of Alys was suspended by a single strand of sentiment, with no similarity of mind, spirit, heart, or culture to bind it tighter. As the lure of Alys grew weaker and weaker, there was no way, and no reason, for him for him to resist the very attractive, very compatible, very real presence of Melly.

Every love is unique, but Malcolm Spencer falling in love was a Malcolm afflicted with a profound lack of originality. His thoughts were a perfect phrasebook of the sincerest cliches. It was incredible, but he didn’t even know when he first knew. It made so much sense, he wondered that he’d never thought of her before. They had been friends for so long. They had always been close. He could tell her anything. She was good and sweet and amazing and wonderful, and absolutely gorgeous. Why hadn’t he noticed this before? Had she always looked like this? Why had he thought that Alys was more beautiful than Melly? Blue eyes were all right in their way, if you liked that sort of thing, but only hazel eyes were worthy of being Melly’s eyes, etc. Malcolm had never been a hasty man in matters of the heart, but all the groundwork of loving Melly had been in place for years. Once the idea took hold, there was no obstacle to check its rapid progress. Indeed, all he wanted was the most natural moment to tell her every wonderful thing about herself and to present his case as clearly and persuasively as he could. 

When that moment did present itself, Melly was sitting in her favorite place, on the spiral staircase leaning on the sill of the stained-glass window, her chin cupped in her hand. The red and blue light illuminated her hair and her cheeks as she gazed out, wrapped in the mystery of her thoughts. Malcolm, stumbling upon this perfect moment unprepared, steeled his spirit. This was the conversation he had never been able to have with Alys. But surely it couldn’t be so hard to talk to Melly. It never had been, before. He would go up, and sit next to her, and just lay the whole thing out.

She turned her head to him as he stood hesitating with his hand on the bannister and his foot on the first step, and she smiled at him, a clear open welcoming smile that transfigured her face beyond mere beauty into loveliness. He found himself halfway to her before he realized that he had not worked out what exactly he was going to say. At the far side of the window he halted and looked through a red pane, searching for just the right language to clothe his love. It was crucial to tell her everything, to persuade her of how right it was that they should be together, how wonderfully suited they were to one another, how perfect she was, how little he deserved her but how impossible it was not to speak. This was a good time, a reasonable time, a prudent time to speak. His every future happiness depended on his having the strength to speak.

She was there beside him, quiet and all-consuming, and he took a deep breath and prepared to declare himself.

“Melly,” he said, but somehow the melty little flecks of color in her eyes, green and golden and brown, stole away of all his eloquence.

“Melly,” he whispered. And her face was suddenly alight with hope, and her smile could no longer hide the whole delightful and astonishing truth, and she reached out her hand and touched his.

And though the reader may be assured that at a later time every word was exchanged that needed to be exchanged, for once Malcolm Spencer found that no words were necessary.

In the fall, John Spencer’s portrait presided over the drawing room as it had done for many a Stillwater Ball over the years, and Lavinia Spencer’s calm face looked out once more over a man in formal dress sweeping a lady in a gown across the dance floor. But this event was too select to be a Ball, and too joyful to be a society affair. It was a blessed convergence of genealogy, the moment when Mr and Mrs Spencer watched from the walls and Mr and Mrs Spencer sat together in little gilt chairs with a black-eyed baby snuggled between them as Mr and Mrs Spencer waltzed for the first time. It was the strengthening of the main house for one more generation, the foundation of a house yet to be built, and the gracious, extravagant, unmerited recompense for the old sinner’s one act of charity.