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

Friday, January 17, 2020

Paying For College

We spent the other night filling out the FAFSA (Free Application For Student Aid) form for our eldest daughter, who is in the final stages of applying to go to the college were MrsDarwin and I ourselves went. The FAFSA collects information about how much income and savings you have, and informs you how much the federal government believes you can afford to pay towards your child's college education. This amount is then subtracted from the cost of the college you want to attend to determine your need, which is the amount which colleges are supposed to help you find some kind combination of grants and loans to cover.

Knowing that we have come to make a pretty good income, I expected that we would be responsible for paying a good bit more of our children's college costs than my parents were able to when I went to college. But at the same time, I had heard over and over again, "Don't worry, the published tuition is funny money. No one pays full price."

It was, thus, with some shock that I sat staring at the computer screen when, after several hours of Kafka-esque struggle during which I went through all the stages of modern disillusion other than turning into a giant bug, I completed the form and was informed by the FAFSA website that our "estimated family contribution" was somewhat over four months of my take-home income (and incidentally more than the total cost of tuition, room, and board for our daughter's chosen college.)

Now, there's a certain logic to this. The whole point of financial aid is to help people afford college who could not otherwise afford it. Thus, logically, we do not need financial aid as much as a family that makes half what we do. And there are, in truth, plenty of families that make half what we do, or even less. It is entirely just that the public money intended to help people afford college go to those people and not to us.

And yet, even people who make well above the median income don't tend to have significant portions of their income just sitting around as spare. People make decisions about what house to buy, what classes to enroll their kids in, what contributions to commit to make to their churches, etc. based on their income, and although with increased affluence comes increased flexibility, it doesn't tend to be 25% flexibility.

Of course, one very clear solution to this probably would have been to spread the college expense out over more years. Any financial planner would tell you that you should start saving for college early so that you can have the power of compounding interest working for you and also so that you can spread the expense over more years. However, this is where our particular history makes things a bit more difficult. For the first five years we were married (during which we had our first three children) our income was low enough and our family budget was so tight that we weren't successfully putting away savings for anything: retirement, college, emergency fund, nothing. Fortunately, during that period my mother put aside some money to help pay for the kids' college, and since that was fifteen years ago it's grown over the intervening years to the point where each of the older kids have almost a year's tuition in savings. That will prove a huge help, and it underscores that having a family that can help with such things makes a big difference.

Over the following five years, our income grew a bit and we were able to pay off some debts and start making basic 401k contributions. But even then, we didn't really have much money to put away for the kids college, and if our income was still at that level, the FAFSA would have assessed our family contribution as essentially zero.

Then over the last ten years our income began to grow pretty steadily. I changed jobs three times. We moved to Ohio and bought our big old house which gobbles up a chunk of money in repairs every year. We had more kids, bought vehicles large enough to carry a family with more than seven members, and yes, finally began putting away money to help pay for the kids' college. But because this growth in our earnings was fairly recent (and at first we used it to pay off debts and pay for family resources we hadn't had before) we didn't have that many years to save. We also didn't have that many years to re-adjust our thinking. I was still thinking of the conventional wisdom that "no one pays full price". And not knowing the precise nature of the FAFSA calculation, I was thinking that just as having seven kids lowers our taxes quite a bit, having seven kids would also reduce the amount that we were expected to cover out of pocket for college. (Hint: FAFSA gives you very little credit for having lots of kids.)

With a little more time, I might have realized that I needed to go on a crash college savings program. And indeed, when I sat down with a financial planner at our bank a month ago to talk about retirement savings, he looked at my summary of our family and said, "You have seven kids? Your biggest thing to think about right now is that you could have nearly a million in college expenses over the next twenty years."

And I laughed nervously because a million dollars is a number that one isn't used to talking seriously about outside of work, and I was still half thinking, "But no one pays full price..." We're having our follow-up meeting in a couple weeks, and I won't laugh off the college question this time.

It also strikes me that this explains a bit about a phenomenon which had seemed odd to me in politics: young adults from fairly upper-middle-class backgrounds being very, very attached to the "free college for all" plans being presented by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Well, if a lot of these people had parents who were too affluent to qualify for many grants or subsidized loans, yet committed to too much spending to afford to actually pay for their colleges, they ended up with a fairly large amount of debt in unsubsidized (higher interest) loans. So now they're out of college, with lots of debt to pay off, and looking up at their parents who are making a lot more money than they are and getting ready to retire soon. It's easy to see how such people would conclude the system is fundamentally unfair. And yet, from a progressive point of view, the way that the family contribution to college education is calculated is one of the most progressive taxes they could desire. People in the bottom 60% or so of incomes will be assessed virtually no contribution. And over a certain level of income, the calculation assumes that you can devote nearly 50% of all your incremental income to paying for college. Add that to taxes, and it's close to the kind of 1950s top marginal tax rates that progressives pine for.

My own advice, having gone through this experience is: If you make over $100k a year (the exact cliff point will depend a bit on your taxes, family size, etc.) or if you are likely to make that much by the time your kids reach college, you are going to be end up being assessed with a pretty hefty "estimated family contribution". Unless you're pretty confident that your child is going to be so strong on some recruiting criteria (academic, sports, arts, or what you will) that colleges will be throwing money at him or her for the privilege of getting him as a student, start socking away money in a 529 college savings account or an ordinary investment account and let the power of compound interest do some of the work for you. You may find that you are one of the "nobodies" who is asked to pay pretty close to full price for college. Also, of course, do some reasonable assessment whether college is the best fit for each child and what college options are more affordable. (In the case of this student, college does seem like the right next step, and the college she wants to go to is about as cheap as a private college gets.) But be prepared for applying for financial aid to be a pretty harrowing experience.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 5-1

It has been a while, and I've struggled with time and other obligations, started a new job, and got my earlier novel If You Can Get It accepted for publication in the fall of 2020. However, I've not been entirely idle on The Great War, and I am determined to finish it, as I believe it's the best thing I've written thus far. Some day I'll see this beast in print.

I've got a number of installments that I've written during the interlude, and starting today I will post one each Sunday while continuing to write more. My hope is that I can write fast enough that I won't fall behind this weekly schedule even once I'm through my backlog. Thank you to anyone who is reading along. I appreciate your patience.

Aisne Sector near Passel, France. July 12th, 1915. The officer bunker of the 5th Kompanie, 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment, served as a perverse memorial to the French homes which had once stood in the villages south of Passel. The entrance was hidden by a curtain of sacking hung across an opening in the woven wicker wall of the trench. Two steps beyond -- enough that stray shrapnel coming from any angle other than a burst directly in the entrance would find a resting place in the floor or walls -- there stood a door. An eight paneled door, solid oak, which had once graced the home of a doctor’s widow in Rib├ęcourt-Dreslincourt. The scratch marks where her Pekingese had demanded uncounted times to be let in were still visible in the finish of the bottom foot of the wood. But now the widow and the Pekingese were living with her daughter and son-in-law in Paris, the house was a shattered shell, and the door opened onto a flight of forty wooden steps that led steeply down into the ground, lit by several small kerosene lanterns hung from wood support beams above.

The room at the bottom was furnished with all the best that scavenging could supply. Several Persian rugs, of varying design and condition, covered the rough planks of the floor. Two large beds, complete with carven headboards and feather mattresses, stood against opposing walls, and against the third was a pair of Second Empire settees, their unyielding cushions upholstered in faded green velvet. A black enameled wood-burning stove, which had been the pride of a young housewife until her neighbor became the first in the town to get a gas one, stood in a corner, and its chimney pipe disappeared into the ceiling, running up through more than forty feet of earth to a hooded vent set in the ground behind the trench line. The walls were lined with wooden boards, and on them hung pictures: engravings, paintings, photographs.

Leutnant Weber did his work at an elegant little desk with curving legs and claw feet. On the table nearby stood crystal decanters, and on a shelf that served as sideboard were plates and cups culled from the remains of a half dozen different sets of china. A bookshelf was packed with handsome French volumes, which to Weber’s schoolboy French were readable. When word had got out that the kompanie commander liked books, the men took to outdoing each other in finding volumes bound in smooth, fragrant leather and stamped with gold. For themselves, bound volumes of the illustrated La Petit Parisien and photographs of unclad girls were of more interest, but they were proud to show their affection for the leutnant with elevated tastes.

Few of these men would have ever considered taking something from another’s home a year before, and yet none would have thought to describe what they now did so naturally as stealing. These little treasures, the leavings of people who had fled their homes before the flood waters of war washed over them, were just another part of the new world the men inhabited. These finds were theirs by right, a small compensation for the loss of freedom, of friends, of women, of time and space for themselves. They no more questioned their right to them than they questioned the authority of the officers who told them when to wake, when to stand guard, where to go, and when to attack.

And so when Walter was summoned to meet with Leutnant Weber, he came down the wooden steps into the round-the-clock dimness of the dugout, scraped his boots on the mat at the bottom under the critical eye of Weber’s soldier servant, sat in a wooden chair opposite the desk, and accepted a delicate china teacup full of steaming tea generously laced with cognac.

Continue reading...

MrsDarwin at the Movies: Star Wars and Little Women

We kept meaning to write a review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but the more reviews I read of it, the more I realized I'd completely forgotten about The Last Jedi. Total plot threads, simply deleted from my memory. I also realized: I just don't feel strongly enough about The Rise of Skywalker to have much interesting to contribute to the discussion. At this point I am so little invested in the world-building of Star Wars that whatever bizarro givens the Powers That Be want to toss out for why the Bad Guys Do What They Do just wash over me. Even the mega trade wars of the prequels made more sense than the strange rise of the First Order and collapse of the Revolution. (In no way do I mean to apply the word "sense" to the prequel scripts, though -- I remember blinking during the second prequel, what was it, Attack of the Clones?, and wondering what on earth was going on in the current scene and why I couldn't remember anything that had previously happened in the movie.)

Anyway, enough about the prequels, from anyone, ever again.

There were only two major plot threads in TROS I cared about, and I've blocked most else from my memory. One of them, the resolution of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo was exactly what I felt it ought to be, from a dramatic and tragic perspective. I was completely satisfied there. The second, the resolution of Rey and Finn, was not what it should have been, and was underwritten and underserved. I award no points to the screenwriters and director, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Just about everything else, you understand, I've already forgotten. Someone mentioned Chewie's medal, and I was like, "What?" Someone mentioned Lando, and I'd forgotten he was in it, for the very reason that his role was completely forgettable. Someone talked about Leia training Rey, and I thought, "Was THAT what was going on?", but I don't think you can blame me there, because the entire movie was so rushed and bits were crammed in piecemeal here and there.

Just kidding, there's one other thing I do remember: Poe's conversation with the girl in the mask, and then she lets him see her eyes, and he asks if he can kiss her when he's escaping, and even at the end when she smacks him down the viewer is satisfied because there is some chemistry going on.

...Which is largely what the movie lacked everywhere else, except between Kylo/Ben and Rey because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are spectacular actors, and John Boyega should sue for having the character with the best set-up and the least payoff. 

And that's enough about Star Wars, from anyone, ever again.


Today we went to see Little Women, and while we were there some crazy driver did a hit and run and sideswiped our massive van, sitting innocently in the middle of a long line of cars parallel parked on the street. The van is huge and it is steel. We're dented, but we're indestructible, and taking a swipe at us is going to hurt you a lot more than it will hurt us.

Which is about how I felt about Greta Gerwig taking on Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. It was a visual treat (except for the damn flowing hair -- costumers, please, have your 19th century women pin up the tresses, please, for my sake) and shot on lush location. And it was well acted, by the women. Saoirse Ronan is a nice spicy Jo, Eliza Scanlen gives even gentle Beth a bit of character, and Florence Pugh is my current favorite actress and she went all out on Amy. (Emma Watson was the weak link in the non-American cast of sisters.) And I'm going to say right here that I cried through most of it because it's Little Women. But my tears dried up well before the ending. And I think that the way the movie jumps in time, framed by Jo's publishing ventures, is almost calculated to make sense only to people who are already quite familiar with the plot.

I say the plot, not the book, because this version of Little Women feels like it was made essentially for people who read or encountered Little Women at a pivotal point of development and intensely identified with Jo and who now consider her a proto-saint of the Smash the Patriarchy movement. The careful attention that the book pays to the development of character and to the sense of the passage of time is truncated here. Moments that are worth spending time on -- conversations about the impending death of Beth, moments when characters other than Laurie profess their love, moments when characters other than Jo get to show their mettle -- are here elided or done away with altogether, and the result is a strange melange of strong female characters and underbaked males with no character at all. 

Greta Gerwig is so bound and determined that Jo not be tied down to the horrible fate of marriage and romance that she has found it necessary to take Alcott's charming, idiosyncratic, honorable, unique Prof. Bhaer and genericize him into a cipher, a handsome fellow with an indeterminate European accent who is given few lines and less motivation. The actor does his best with the bits he's given, but what he's given is not enough. John Brooks is served worse, and along with Jo we're not quite sure what Meg sees in a fellow allowed only a few desperate lines of dialog, none of which ever flowed from Alcott's pen. Father March is a non-entity, not there even when he's there. Fortunately, Mr. Lawrence is allowed some character, and Chris Cooper is allowed the space to develop it, in a lovely performance. 

Indeed, I wonder if in the unhappy way that many movies allow only males to develop personality and interests and relegate women to the background, Little Women will stand as the beginning of a wave of women-centric movies that feature background men with no characters. And no one is richer for that.

Time is a real problem for this movie. With the exception of Florence Pugh's Amy, whose hair does the aging for her, the aging process is inexplicable. When Laurie proposes to Jo, they look no older than they did when they first met. There's no sense of how much time elapses before Meg gets married. The Civil War is an afterthought, featuring most significantly in a scene in which Marmee utters a Michelle Obama-esque sentiment about never having been proud of her country -- a sentiment that Greta Gerwig doubtless shares, which would have horrified Alcott. 

I would also like to see the historical research that goes into Jo spreading out the pages of her novel on the floor and moving them around exactly as if they were, say, screenplay scenes being arranged into the best structure.

Ah, Jo's novel. There's the rub. No Little Women production has been made stronger by having Jo write the proto-Little Women -- something that Alcott did herself in middle age, not in her early twenties. The reason for that is bound up in what's going on in the novel at that point, something that doesn't fit well into a two-hour screenplay. Jo has turned from writing after realizing (based on Prof. Bhaer's insight) that she has not been serving her talent well by churning out racy genre puff pieces. In her hiatus, she learns at the school of suffering, caring for Beth in her last days and her parents in their mourning. When she begins writing again (at her father's urging), it is small pieces, short stories, little poems -- small but honest. The very littleness of them is part of a new humility on Jo's part, a maturation that doesn't require talent to be expressed in huge bombastic displays. And it is, in fact, one of these little poems that bring Bhaer to her door -- the first piece of hers he's actually seen. The quiet longing expressed in a simple line or two gives him hope that she might want more than friendship from somebody.

And when he comes, the novel spends time to allow him to develop friendships with her family, to be of service both in practical ways and in companionship. And when Jo and Bhaer finally do profess their love, under a dripping umbrella in the pouring rain, it is in a completely unromantic, impractical, comic, honest way, absolutely in character for both of them.

A way which bears no resemblance at all to the storified, glammed-up, boring version in the movie, which is shown as being a bit of unbelievable romantic fluff that Jo has thrown into her novel for the sake of selling it to the public. The fictional Jo March is nowhere near as interesting and human a novelist as Louisa May Alcott is. And to my mind, that's detrimental to what Greta Gerwig is trying to say about women and their talents and their opportunities. The ending was a sad disappointment in my eyes -- so much lost potential wasted on message. The titles at the beginning might well have said, "Little Women, by Greta Gerwig", because it's much more her vision than Alcott's. And long after Gerwig's vision has been forgotten, people will still be reading Little Women, by Alcott.

Alcott will endure, long after being sideswiped by Gerwig.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Precept upon Precept, Line upon Line

Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
for it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.
--Isaiah 28:9-10

This year I'm teaching 7th grade Sunday school. I like it; there's less pressure than teaching confirmation year, and less focus on ticking the sacramental boxes. Most weeks I have less than 30 kids in class, and there are usually three other adults to help monitor.

In November I was gone for a weekend at a wedding, and the next week one of the other adults said, "The sub who was here, did anyone tell you about her class? She was just so..."

I waited eagerly to see how someone else's teaching style would compare with mine.

" amazing! She played this game and got the kids moving. They had to cross to the other side of the room if the answer to the question was yes, and they were things like, 'Have you ever been bullied?' 'Do you want to be confirmed?' The kids had to think, and they were really involved. It was so fun."

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a fun teacher. I cannot think of games. I can talk engagingly, for the kind of people who like that sort of teaching, but crafts and games don't arise naturally to the top of my head. My 6th-grade son loves his class this year, and I asked him why. He said that they start every class with an ice-breaker, and it's a lot of fun. (His teacher is also fantastic, so that helps.)

I came across this passage from Isaiah during Advent, and felt like it summed up my experience teaching religion class at the parish level. Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line. This year in particular I have moved away from the text of our books. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's too wordy. I have tried to make my classes less like "school" and more like a chance for kids to encounter truth and interact with it. Even so, I feel like my attempts to engage seem to them like precept upon precept, line upon line. Someone with a game beats someone with an idea every time.

To that end, I've been trying to shake myself up. Last class we played Eucharistic hangman. This week, we're getting a rare chance to tour the sacristy (since our Sunday morning class overlaps the mass schedule), as part of thinking about the sacrament of holy orders. I'm hoping that ability to see and touch vestments, to get a feel for the work of a priest, will spark an interest in vocations, or at least make someone see that the idea of a religious vocation is not preposterous. Will that linger and take root when my words have dried up and drifted away? I hope so.

And I keep reminding myself that the word of God is living and effective, that the Spirit takes our efforts and grows them beyond our ken, that it doesn't matter if I ever see a return from this work. And that I'm not locked into my preferred style, that there are a wealth of resources to help me find games, activities, whatever will break through to my kids.

And I've been asking the intercession of St. Bernadette, who was no great shakes at her catechism but was a great saint anyway. I think she knows these kids better than I do. I hope I'm more flexible and understanding than her teachers.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Little Women: The Development of a Writer

I finished re-reading Little Women on Friday.  I can't actually recall for sure whether this is the first time I've re-read it all the way through as an adult.  (I've read sections of it to the kids, but not all the way through.)  As middle and high schooler I definitely read it several times, and liked it, but it's not a book that I'd continued to read regularly through adulthood.

I wrote earlier about the themes of family and marriage in the book. That continued to stand out to me in the latter part of the book. Indeed, it's interesting to see how Alcott positions the three sisters differently to examine different types of marriage and aspects of marriage. Meg and John's experience is fairly universal, and the things they struggle with in early marriage (balancing expectations and time in a sustainable way, spending within their means, continuing to have a relationship as a couple with young children) are very universal struggles that most couples will encounter. Amy and Laurie have the most attractive courtship, and here Alcott takes the opportunity to show how even among the courtship of the rich virtue can be followed: with Amy goading Laurie into getting over his self-pity and laziness and Amy overcoming her initial determination to marry the much richer Fred Vaughn for money so she can take care of her family. Even so, the chapter "My Lord and Lady" where we see Amy and Laurie planning the charitable works they will champion as leading members of society is grating in the way that watching people who have everything way too easy making a example of their planning always is. I think it's perhaps to a certain point that in the final flash-forward chapter, we see Amy and Laurie with their daughter, Beth, who like her namesake is in delicate health. Dealing with the universal pain and worry of a child's ill health gives the couple a chance to show their virtue in much more human way than their plans to create charities to help those living in distressed gentility. And Jo. She and Professor Bhaer as the couple in whom we see an example of two people who share a common set of intellectual and artistic ideals, and a common dream for how to live them out with the school for boys they want to create together.

And yet, in think-pieces about the novel and its recent adaptation, I keep seeing Professor Bhear being described as a dour character who squelches Jo's artistic ambitions and as a "problem" character whom Alcott was forced to introduce to satisfy the insistence by her publisher that she marry off all her surviving characters. I'd like to argue that far from showing Professor Bhaer as an obstacle to Jo's development as a writer, Alcott actually shows him as a positive influence on her maturation as a writer. And in this sense, Professor Bhaer shows himself a much more suitable partner for Jo than her youthful friend Laurie would have been, as Laurie would never have provided her with that encouragement to produce better writing.

When we first meet Jo, we see two types of writing that she's been doing, the "operatic tragedy" which the girls act out in Chapter 2, and the "little book" which Amy burns up which is described thus: "Jo's book was the pride of her heart, and was regarded by her family as a literary sprout of great promise. It was only half a dozen little fairy tales, but Jo had worked over them patiently, putting her whole heart into her work, hoping to make something good enough to print."

A bit later, we actually get a chance to read a piece of Jo's fiction writing, which is reproduced in their Pickwick Portfolio newspaper. "A Masked Marriage: A Tale of Venice" is very much in the operatic tragedy genre.
Gondola after gondola swept up to the marble
steps, and left its lovely load to swell the
brilliant throng that filled the stately halls of Count
Adelon. Knights and ladies, elves and pages, monks
and flower girls, all mingled gaily in the dance.
Sweet voices and rich melody filled the air, and so
with mirth and music the masquerade went on.
"Has your Highness seen the Lady Viola tonight?"
asked a gallant troubadour of the fairy queen who
floated down the hall upon his arm.

"Yes, is she not lovely, though so sad! Her
dress is well chosen, too, for in a week she weds
Count Antonio, whom she passionately hates."

"By my faith, I envy him. Yonder he comes,
arrayed like a bridegroom, except the black mask.
When that is off we shall see how he regards the
fair maid whose heart he cannot win, though her
stern father bestows her hand," returned the troubadour.

"Tis whispered that she loves the young English
artist who haunts her steps, and is spurned by the
old Count," said the lady, as they joined the dance....
When Jo succeeds in getting her first stories printed it's in a newspaper which says that it "didn't pay beginners, only let them print in his paper, and noticed the stories. It was good practice, he said, and when the beginners improved, anyone would pay." What we learn of "The Rival Painters" is fairly vague, but it sounds like it's probably of similar genre to "A Masked Marriage".
"The Rival Painters."

"That sounds well. Read it," said Meg.

With a loud "Hem!" and a long breath, Jo began to read very fast. The girls listened with interest, for the tale was romantic, and somewhat pathetic, as most of the characters died in the end. "I like that about the splendid picture," was Amy's approving remark, as Jo paused.

"I prefer the lovering part. Viola and Angelo are two of our favorite names, isn't that queer?" said Meg, wiping her eyes, for the lovering part was tragical.

"Who wrote it?" asked Beth, who had caught a glimpse of Jo's face.

The reader suddenly sat up, cast away the paper, displaying a flushed countenance, and with a funny mixture of solemnity and excitement replied in a loud voice, "Your sister."

"You?" cried Meg, dropping her work.

"It's very good," said Amy critically.

"I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!" and Beth ran to hug her sister and exult over this splendid success.

Dear me, how delighted they all were, to be sure! How Meg wouldn't believe it till she saw the words. "Miss Josephine March," actually printed in the paper.
Jo's next step on her writing journey is inspired by a contest in a newspaper that prints sensation stories:
It was a pictorial sheet, and Jo examined the work of art nearest her, idly wondering what fortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen, with unnaturally small feet and big eyes, were stabbing each other close by, and a disheveled female was flying away in the background with her mouth wide open. Pausing to turn a page, the lad saw her looking and, with boyish good nature offered half his paper, saying bluntly, "want to read it? That's a first-rate story."

Jo accepted it with a smile, for she had never outgrown her liking for lads, and soon found herself involved in the usual labyrinth of love, mystery, and murder, for the story belonged to that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author's invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the stage of one half the dramatis personae, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall.

"Prime, isn't it?" asked the boy, as her eye went down the last paragraph of her portion.

"I think you and I could do as well as that if we tried," returned Jo, amused at his admiration of the trash.

"I should think I was a pretty lucky chap if I could. She makes a good living out of such stories, they say." and he pointed to the name of Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury, under the title of the tale.

"Do you know her?" asked Jo, with sudden interest.

"No, but I read all her pieces, and I know a fellow who works in the office where this paper is printed."

"Do you say she makes a good living out of stories like this?" and Jo looked more respectfully at the agitated group and thickly sprinkled exclamation points that adorned the page.

"Guess she does! She knows just what folks like, and gets paid well for writing it."

Here the lecture began, but Jo heard very little of it, for while Professor Sands was prosing away about Belzoni, Cheops, scarabei, and hieroglyphics, she was covertly taking down the address of the paper, and boldly resolving to try for the hundred-dollar prize offered in its columns for a sensational story. By the time the lecture ended and the audience awoke, she had built up a splendid fortune for herself (not the first founded on paper), and was already deep in the concoction of her story, being unable to decide whether the duel should come before the elopement or after the murder.

She said nothing of her plan at home, but fell to work next day, much to the disquiet of her mother, who always looked a little anxious when 'genius took to burning'. Jo had never tried this style before, contenting herself with very mild romances for The Spread Eagle. Her experience and miscellaneous reading were of service now, for they gave her some idea of dramatic effect, and supplied plot, language, and costumes. Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it, and having located it in Lisbon, she wound up with an earthquake, as a striking and appropriate denouement. The manuscript was privately dispatched, accompanied by a note, modestly saying that if the tale didn't get the prize, which the writer hardly dared expect, she would be very glad to receive any sum it might be considered worth.

Six weeks is a long time to wait, and a still longer time for a girl to keep a secret, but Jo did both, and was just beginning to give up all hope of ever seeing her manuscript again, when a letter arrived which almost took her breath away, for on opening it, a check for a hundred dollars fell into her lap. For a minute she stared at it as if it had been a snake, then she read her letter and began to cry. If the amiable gentleman who wrote that kindly note could have known what intense happiness he was giving a fellow creature, I think he would devote his leisure hours, if he has any, to that amusement, for Jo valued the letter more than the money, because it was encouraging, and after years of effort it was so pleasant to find that she had learned to do something, though it was only to write a sensation story.

A prouder young woman was seldom seen than she, when, having composed herself, she electrified the family by appearing before them with the letter in one hand, the check in the other, announcing that she had won the prize. Of course there was a great jubilee, and when the story came everyone read and praised it, though after her father had told her that the language was good, the romance fresh and hearty, and the tragedy quite thrilling, he shook his head, and said in his unworldly way...

"You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money."

"I think the money is the best part of it. What will you do with such a fortune?" asked Amy, regarding the magic slip of paper with a reverential eye.

"Send Beth and Mother to the seaside for a month or two," answered Jo promptly.

To the seaside they went, after much discussion, and though Beth didn't come home as plump and rosy as could be desired, she was much better, while Mrs. March declared she felt ten years younger. So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her 'rubbish' turned into comforts for them all. The Duke's Daughter paid the butcher's bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and the Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.
It's perhaps significant that Father, who is always the voice of truth and wisdom in Little Women, observes that "You can do better than this, Jo." I think from a writing perspective it's worth pausing on why. I think there's a tendency (especially among people who themselves grew up feeling persecuted for writing or reading genre fiction, which is at times accused of being trash fiction simply because of its subject matter is magic or the future or what have you) to assume that Jo's father and later Professor Bhaer object to these more sensational stories simply because they deal with fantastical subject matter. However, it's worth noting that Mr March has been supportive of Jo's previous writing, which was also fantastical in its settings.  I think that the objection is two-fold.  I think that Alcott (and the characters who tend to speak the truth as she sees it) does think that there's potentially a morally corrupting influence in stories which focus primarily on the lower passions: revenge, despair, hatred, etc.  But more importantly, I think that it's obvious to the more discerning readers that Jo is writing of things about which she doesn't know very much. As the narrator says, the story was "as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it."  Jo is writing about dark stuff in hopes of making her story exciting, but she doesn't actually know much about these human experiences, so she's having to fill the gaps by extrapolating and using examples from other books.  She'd tell a more human story if she focused on feelings and experiences she actually knew.

Jo's next literary experience is with the publication of her novel.  Her travails will sound familiar to anyone who's struggled with writing.  After shopping it around to several publishers, she finds one who will publish it "on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired."

She hesitates on what to do, and ends up agreeing to shorten it while taking everyone's advice at once:
[W]ith Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone's advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.

Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.

"You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it's so contradictory that I don't know whether I've written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?" cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. "This man says, 'An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.' 'All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'" continued the perplexed authoress. "The next, 'The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.' Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don't believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don't see how this critic can be right. Another says, 'It's one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.' (I know better than that), and the next asserts that 'Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.' 'Tisn't! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I'd printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged."

Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author's best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.
The story moves on to other topics are Jo recovers from the experience of publishing her novel, and the next step we hear is when she is staying in a boarding house in New York (where she makes the acquaintance of Professor Bhaer) and she goes to the offices of a newspaper called the Weekly Volcano and offers them a sensation story in the mold of those she wrote earlier. The publisher offers to take her stories but wants changes.
"We'll take this (editors never say I), if you don't object to a few alterations. It's too long, but omitting the passages I've marked will make it just the right length," he said, in a businesslike tone.

Jo hardly knew her own MS. again, so crumpled and underscored were its pages and paragraphs, but feeling as a tender parent might on being asked to cut off her baby's legs in order that it might fit into a new cradle, she looked at the marked passages and was surprised to find that all the moral reflections—which she had carefully put in as ballast for much romance—had been stricken out.

"But, Sir, I thought every story should have some sort of a moral, so I took care to have a few of my sinners repent."

Mr. Dashwoods's editorial gravity relaxed into a smile, for Jo had forgotten her 'friend', and spoken as only an author could.

"People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don't sell nowadays." Which was not quite a correct statement, by the way.
Jo changes her writing to suit his demands since she has little experience with the kind of life he wants to see portrayed, she turns to research.
Mr. Dashwood rejected any but thrilling tales, and as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose. Jo soon found that her innocent experience had given her but few glimpses of the tragic world which underlies society, so regarding it in a business light, she set about supplying her deficiencies with characteristic energy. Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons. She studied faces in the street, and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her. She delved in the dust of ancient times for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us.
Alcott herself made a living off writing sensation stories prior to her breakout success with the much more realistic Little Women, and so whether we agree with Alcott in her feelings about sensation stories I think it is only fair to assume that she is documenting her own experience in saying that Jo is feeding her imagination of "dangerous and unsubstantial food". Further, though, I think it's also fair to assume that Jo is probably not writing very good work. She's not writing about people she knows much about. "[S]he went abroad for her characters and scenery, and banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses appeared upon her stage, and played their parts with as much accuracy and spirit as could be expected. Her readers were not particular about such trifles as grammar, punctuation, and probability...." So I think it's fair to say that from Alcott's authorial point of view, Jo is doing badly in two respects: morally she's indulging in base emotions, and artistically she's portraying locations, people, and emotions of which she knows little and thus can't make an accurate portrayal.

Contrary to a number of articles floating around (probably inspired by various film adaptations) Professor Bhaer never actually reads one of Jo's sensation stories. He does, however, chance upon a copy of a paper that prints sensation stories (not the one Jo writes for, and her stories she has printed without a byline anyway because she's embarrassed at the idea of people finding out what she's writing) and the following exchange occurs:
Mr. Bhaer caught sight of a picture on the hat, and unfolding it, said with great disgust, "I wish these papers did not come in the house. They are not for children to see, nor young people to read. It is not well, and I haf no patience with those who make this harm."

Jo glanced at the sheet and saw a pleasing illustration composed of a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper. She did not like it, but the impulse that made her turn it over was not one of displeasure but fear, because for a minute she fancied the paper was the Volcano. It was not, however, and her panic subsided as she remembered that even if it had been and one of her own tales in it, there would have been no name to betray her. She had betrayed herself, however, by a look and a blush, for though an absent man, the Professor saw a good deal more than people fancied. He knew that Jo wrote, and had met her down among the newspaper offices more than once, but as she never spoke of it, he asked no questions in spite of a strong desire to see her work. Now it occurred to him that she was doing what she was ashamed to own, and it troubled him. He did not say to himself, "It is none of my business. I've no right to say anything," as many people would have done. He only remembered that she was young and poor, a girl far away from mother's love and father's care, and he was moved to help her with an impulse as quick and natural as that which would prompt him to put out his hand to save a baby from a puddle. All this flashed through his mind in a minute, but not a trace of it appeared in his face, and by the time the paper was turned, and Jo's needle threaded, he was ready to say quite naturally, but very gravely...

"Yes, you are right to put it from you. I do not think that good young girls should see such things. They are made pleasant to some, but I would more rather give my boys gunpowder to play with than this bad trash."

"All may not be bad, only silly, you know, and if there is a demand for it, I don't see any harm in supplying it. Many very respectable people make an honest living out of what are called sensation stories," said Jo, scratching gathers so energetically that a row of little slits followed her pin.

"There is a demand for whisky, but I think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest. They haf no right to put poison in the sugarplum, and let the small ones eat it. No, they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing."
After this discussion, Jo sits down with her stories and reads them over again.
As soon as she went to her room, she got out her papers, and carefully reread every one of her stories. Being a little shortsighted, Mr. Bhaer sometimes used eye glasses, and Jo had tried them once, smiling to see how they magnified the fine print of her book. Now she seemed to have on the Professor's mental or moral spectacles also, for the faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay.

"They are trash, and will soon be worse trash if I go on, for each is more sensational than the last. I've gone blindly on, hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money. I know it's so, for I can't read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?"
I think it's important to recognize that Jo comes to this conclusion on her own, in private, and that there's no pressure from Bhaer having read her stories or asking if she has stopped writing them. And given that we've seen her pushed into writing in this fashion by an editor with a very specific idea of the sort of story that he wants (and idea that does not match the type of story that Jo was originally writing) I think that to a great extent what we're seeing here is Jo realizing that she's stopped writing the kind of story that she herself can respect and like.

Jo then briefly swings, pendulum like, in the opposite direction and tries writing heavily didactic stories, in a section which is clearly also written with the sharp satiric pen of Alcott's experience in the publishing world.
Jo wrote no more sensational stories, deciding that the money did not pay for her share of the sensation, but going to the other extreme, as is the way with people of her stamp, she took a course of Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More, and then produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning, for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. She sent this didactic gem to several markets, but it found no purchaser, and she was inclined to agree with Mr. Dashwood that morals didn't sell.

Then she tried a child's story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it. The only person who offered enough to make it worth her while to try juvenile literature was a worthy gentleman who felt it his mission to convert all the world to his particular belief. But much as she liked to write for children, Jo could not consent to depict all her naughty boys as being eaten by bears or tossed by mad bulls because they did not go to a particular Sabbath school, nor all the good infants who did go as rewarded by every kind of bliss, from gilded gingerbread to escorts of angels when they departed this life with psalms or sermons on their lisping tongues. So nothing came of these trials, and Jo corked up her inkstand, and said in a fit of very wholesome humility...

"I don't know anything. I'll wait until I do before I try again, and meantime, 'sweep mud in the street' if I can't do better, that's honest, at least."
I have a personal soft spot for Jo's conclusion here, because it's similar to a decision I myself made about writing fiction while I was in college. I'd spent my high school years writing a few dozen short stories and a three novels, and during that time I'd gradually improved to the point where I'd finally had a couple of short stories published, though in non-paying markets. But as I assessed my increasingly competent writing at the age of twenty I concluded that I was mostly writing clever variations on what I'd read in other books. I didn't yet know myself and the world well enough to be writing based on my own knowledge of people. And so I decided to set it aside until I knew more.

Jo doesn't wait as long to start writing again as I did, but she has plenty of difficult experiences in the meantime, with her rejection of Laurie and her nursing of Beth through her final illness. It's as Jo is struggling to fill Beth's place in the March household, consigning herself to a "little way" of small duties helping others, that Mrs. March sees her unhappiness and encourages her to start writing again. And this time, Jo writes from the heart and from experience and finds a success that surprises even her.
Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once.

"I don't understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?" she said, quite bewildered.

"There is truth in it, Jo, that's the secret. Humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it, my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success."

"If there is anything good or true in what I write, it isn't mine. I owe it all to you and Mother and Beth," said Jo, more touched by her father's words than by any amount of praise from the world.

So taught by love and sorrow, Jo wrote her little stories, and sent them away to make friends for themselves and her, finding it a very charitable world to such humble wanderers, for they were kindly welcomed, and sent home comfortable tokens to their mother, like dutiful children whom good fortune overtakes.
She does not, at this juncture, write a story equivalent to Little Women, though many adaptations show her doing this. Alcott does have her heroine do this, but not until twenty years of story time later, when in Jo's Boys, the sequel to Little Men, which is the sequel to Little Women, there is a chapter entitled "Jo's Last Scrape" in which she writes a book apparently similar to Little Women and like Alcott experiences a surprise best-seller which at last makes her and her family financially secure.

However, Jo's writing does touch one reader particularly deeply. When Professor Bhaer arrives to visit, and the two of them at last declare their attachment to each other and become engaged, Jo asks him what brought him from New York to visit her, and he pulls out a poem of hers that he read in the newspaper. This is, in fact, the first time that Bhaer has read her writing, and he is moved by it to come and see her. I think that's a good a testament to the maturation of Jo as a writer as any, and also a sign that when he spoke to Jo about the problems with sensation stories, he set her back on a path toward writing truer and better things, things that were truly the best that she was capable of. As such, it's probably appropriate to close with that poem which brings Professor Bhaer back into her life and causes him to say that he is eager to read all of the book in which she keeps her compositions.

Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
All fashioned and filled, long ago,
By children now in their prime.
Four little keys hung side by side,
With faded ribbons, brave and gay
When fastened there, with childish pride,
Long ago, on a rainy day.
Four little names, one on each lid,
Carved out by a boyish hand,
And underneath there lieth hid
Histories of the happy band
Once playing here, and pausing oft
To hear the sweet refrain,
That came and went on the roof aloft,
In the falling summer rain.

"Meg" on the first lid, smooth and fair.
I look in with loving eyes,
For folded here, with well-known care,
A goodly gathering lies,
The record of a peaceful life—
Gifts to gentle child and girl,
A bridal gown, lines to a wife,
A tiny shoe, a baby curl.
No toys in this first chest remain,
For all are carried away,
In their old age, to join again
In another small Meg's play.
Ah, happy mother! Well I know
You hear, like a sweet refrain,
Lullabies ever soft and low
In the falling summer rain.

"Jo" on the next lid, scratched and worn,
And within a motley store
Of headless dolls, of schoolbooks torn,
Birds and beasts that speak no more,
Spoils brought home from the fairy ground
Only trod by youthful feet,
Dreams of a future never found,
Memories of a past still sweet,
Half-writ poems, stories wild,
April letters, warm and cold,
Diaries of a wilful child,
Hints of a woman early old,
A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing, like a sad refrain—
"Be worthy, love, and love will come,"
In the falling summer rain.

My Beth! the dust is always swept
From the lid that bears your name,
As if by loving eyes that wept,
By careful hands that often came.
Death canonized for us one saint,
Ever less human than divine,
And still we lay, with tender plaint,
Relics in this household shrine—
The silver bell, so seldom rung,
The little cap which last she wore,
The fair, dead Catherine that hung
By angels borne above her door.
The songs she sang, without lament,
In her prison-house of pain,
Forever are they sweetly blent
With the falling summer rain.

Upon the last lid's polished field—
Legend now both fair and true
A gallant knight bears on his shield,
"Amy" in letters gold and blue.
Within lie snoods that bound her hair,
Slippers that have danced their last,
Faded flowers laid by with care,
Fans whose airy toils are past,
Gay valentines, all ardent flames,
Trifles that have borne their part
In girlish hopes and fears and shames,
The record of a maiden heart
Now learning fairer, truer spells,
Hearing, like a blithe refrain,
The silver sound of bridal bells
In the falling summer rain.

Four little chests all in a row,
Dim with dust, and worn by time,
Four women, taught by weal and woe
To love and labor in their prime.
Four sisters, parted for an hour,
None lost, one only gone before,
Made by love's immortal power,
Nearest and dearest evermore.
Oh, when these hidden stores of ours
Lie open to the Father's sight,
May they be rich in golden hours,
Deeds that show fairer for the light,
Lives whose brave music long shall ring,
Like a spirit-stirring strain,
Souls that shall gladly soar and sing
In the long sunshine after rain.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Marmee and Marriage in Little Women

With some trepidation (stemming from having seen and disliked the director Greta Gerwig's previous movie, Lady Bird) we're planning on going to see the new Little Women movie, and since it's been a long time since I last read the book, I've been giving it a re-read.

The conventional wisdom on Alcott, to which I subscribed as a young reader, is that she writes great character scenes so long as you can ignore the preachy bits. And it's true that some of Alcott's causes have aged better than others. The temperance movement, a key cause of Alcott's as well as more strident reform-minded novelists, is retroactively tainted by how poorly Prohibition worked out, and it's hard to see it in its period context as alcohol isn't nearly the societal scourge that it was in the 1800s. Dress reform (another other Alcott's topics, which gets significant play particularly in Eight Cousins) is also more amusing than anything else these days. Alcott's other key issue, abolitionism, has aged much better, but it probably comes into her books the least.

However, as I'm re-reading this time through, I'm re-examining the view that the "preachy bits" are incidental to the story and represent a period lapse on Alcott's part. Rather, I'm starting to think that in these sections Alcott lays out the themes that are driving the story. Take this section I read last night, which comes from the end of Chapter 9, "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair". Meg has just returned from spending two weeks with the wealthy Moffat family, where among other experiences of high life she overhears some of the older ladies speculating that Mrs. March is seeking to entrap Laurie into marrying one of the March girls in order to gain access to the Laurence family fortune. Marmee says that she regrets having sent Meg off to be exposed to such thinking.
"Mother, do you have 'plans', as Mrs. Moffat said?" asked Meg bashfully.

"Yes, my dear, I have a great many, all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat's, I suspect. I will tell you some of them, for the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours right, on a very serious subject. You are young, Meg, but not too young to understand me, and mothers' lips are the fittest to speak of such things to girls like you. Jo, your turn will come in time, perhaps, so listen to my 'plans' and help me carry them out, if they are good."

Jo went and sat on one arm of the chair, looking as if she thought they were about to join in some very solemn affair. Holding a hand of each, and watching the two young faces wistfully, Mrs. March said, in her serious yet cheery way...

"I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace."

"Poor girls don't stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward," sighed Meg.

"Then we'll be old maids," said Jo stoutly.

"Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," said Mrs. March decidedly. "Don't be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time. Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidant, Father to be your friend, and both of us hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives."

"We will, Marmee, we will!" cried both, with all their hearts, as she bade them good night.
It's easy to pass over this as Alcott doing some moralizing on behalf of 19th century ideas of what women were fit for, but I'd like to argue that this is perhaps the central thematic point of the book.

First, let's be clear that this is not just Alcott passing on some cultural general wisdom from her time. Indeed, Mrs March is laying out a view of the ends of marriage which is directly opposite to elite practice in her time and place. We've just seen, earlier in the chapter, what society expected young women to do: use their attractions to capture the most wealthy and well born man possible and secure him permanently via marriage.  After that, if the marriage isn't as happy as it could be, well at least you have money and status, and that provides its own consolations.  It's the 19th century equivalent of the "don't have a serious relationship till you've got your advanced degree and your fulfilling professional career all squared away" wisdom that dominates today's elite circles.

What Mrs March says here (and I think with Alcott's clear authorial endorsement) is that this is not the way to form a worthwhile marriage. What is? Her words can seem a little generic. "To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience.... I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace."

The phrases "to be loved and chosen" and "a good man" are too easily taken as cheap. Isn't every romantic comedy about people being loved and chosen? Not as Mrs. March uses the terms. Think about the way in which the workings of her marriage were described by her at the end of the previous chapter, in which she reveals to Jo that she long struggled to master a vicious temper.
"Poor Mother! What helped you then?"

"Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own. A startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply rebuked me more than any words could have done, and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy."
"I thought I'd grieved you."

"No, dear, but speaking of Father reminded me how much I miss him, how much I owe him, and how faithfully I should watch and work to keep his little daughters safe and good for him."

"Yet you told him to go, Mother, and didn't cry when he went, and never complain now, or seem as if you needed any help," said Jo, wondering.

"I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? If I don't seem to need help, it is because I have a better friend, even than Father, to comfort and sustain me. My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning and may be many, but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother."
I think what's being described here is a relationship in which Mr and Mrs March work to help each other grow in virtue. Mrs March believes that Mr March is someone who both recognizes what it means to live in virtue and helps her in her struggle to become more virtuous.

These conversation may seem like extraneous little discussions with Marmee, but they're actually central to what makes Little Women such an enduring classic. What does everyone love about this book? It's about four sisters who all have very different personalities, yet who love each other deeply and respect and help each other. It's fun of course, with the plays and the stories, the Pickwick club and the comic pathos of Amy's will. But what makes these hijinks so fun to read about is the love these characters all have for each other. And where does that come from? It begins with the relationship of Mr and Mrs March, and the way that they have raised their daughters. The closeness which draws Laurie into the family's circle is not an accident, it is a result of the active love the Marches all have for each other. Marmee believes the most important thing that she can give her daughters is the desire to build similar families of their own. This remains a counter-cultural insight.  Society points to all sorts of means of proving worth and status.  However, it's through the family that we create and form new human beings.  There's no more important thing in all the world.  And the March girls do all learn this lesson, in their very different ways. Indeed, that is central to why Jo rejects Laurie's proposal in the second half of the novel. In that scene she says:
"I agree with Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we were so foolish as to..." Jo paused a little over the last word, but Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.

"Marry—no we shouldn't! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like."

"No, I can't. I've tried and failed, and I won't risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don't agree and we never shall, so we'll be good friends all our lives, but we won't go and do anything rash."
She and Laurie have plenty of affection. They have fun together. In the sort of romantic comedy in which the story considers a relationship to be complete once people "get together" that would be enough.  But it's not enough for the kind of marriage which Marmee is endorsing here, in which after "getting together" the couple need to help each other grow in virtue despite all obstacles over many years.

What she's saying here that they lack is that ability to help each other grow in virtue. They have strong wills and short tempers and find it hard to take correction from each other. When they disagree they tend to storm at each other, and Jo believes that during the course of a long marriage they would no longer quickly recover from those storms, but begin to build resentments instead. It's notable that the man she does marry, Professor Bhaer, is perhaps the only person outside the March family who has the ability to help Jo see how she can grow in virtue without provoking explosions along the way.

This marriage ethic is not the reason that people read Little Women.  Indeed, like the foundation of a building, you can admire what stands above without ever noticing it.  Given that many readers wish that Jo had married Laurie and/or despise Professor Bhaer, clearly many people may enjoy the book while actively disagreeing with this approach to marriage.  And yet, I'd be prepared to argue that the engaging relationships between the sisters and between them and their parents, which are what draw people to the book, are in fact the result of this marriage ethic which Alcott puts forth here.  It's the heart of Little Women, and an adaptation which fails to realize that will ultimately remain a shallow adaptation.

On a personal note, it also helps remind me of how I came to the book.  My mom is a huge Alcott fan, and I met the books through her.  As I think about the centrality of Marmee's marriage ethic to the book as a whole, it occurs to me that Mom's affection for Alcott's central message doubtless formed her own marriage, and that her marriage formed her affection for the books.  In this loving, collaborative relationship of two people working towards the good, I see my own parents reflected and I realize why this is one of the books Mom introduced me to as a formative age.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Come Sing O Magnum Mysterium with Me

Gentle readers, if you are anywhere in the central Ohio area and love to sing choral music, tomorrow is your lucky day. I have realized that if I want to sing the great stuff, I'm going to have to put it together myself, and so I am hosting an O Magnum Mysterium sing. I figure if I canvass everyone I know, I can manage to scrape up four parts, even in late December while everyone is traveling. I can sing soprano, alto, or tenor, but I'd rather just pick one.

So! Tomorrow, Sunday December 29, from 3-6, at the Darwin Manor, we will be working through O Magnum Mysterium and then making beautiful polyphony as we sing it down perfectly. Then we'll have a potluck to feed hungry singers. If you are at all close, and if you love to sing, send us an email at

I expect you all here.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Boxing Day

1. Thank you all so much for praying for Roma. She was able to come home before Christmas! She's healing so well -- her swelling around her face has gone down (though her big black eye isn't quite gone yet) and you can't see it, but her head is stitched up like a half headband. She's definitely back to her old self again.

2. When you live in a family of amateur photographers, you're lucky enough to get some great family photos, but the flip side is that you have to wait around while the photogs tinker with the light and settings. I present: The Darwins take a Christmas picture.

3. Some little boys get overwrought on Christmas Day because of candy and loot, and need a calming interlude with their new Totoro.

4. Some boys turn 6 on Christmas Day, and have to put up with their sisters snapping their picture before they can blow out their candles.

5. Some people get a book on Christmas Day, and want to read and ignore the rest of the world, including the daughter taking the pictures.

6. But Christmas flowers make up for a lot.

 7. As does good tea in a Swedish mug with an invisible girl climbing a staircase.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Pray Roma Home for Christmas

Friends, here's an update on Roma from last night:
Roma's neurosurgeon said "she is rounding third and heading for home." They have removed her shunt. She should be able to go home by Tuesday or possibly tomorrow [today] if she drinks well and walks around. She is still miserable, but is healing very nicely. Thank you all for your prayers and please keep them going.
It's not guaranteed that she'll be home for Christmas if she doesn't eat and drink as much as the doctors want, so please pray that her appetite would be good and that the family (including Roma's two little brothers who are camped at their grandparents' house) would be able to be together for Christmas.

And thank you all so much for your continued prayers!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Market in Skin

There was an article going around the other day about actress Ruth Wilson's departure from the Showtime drama The Affair. (MrsDarwin tells me that we saw Ruth Wilson in an adaptation of Jane Eyre, but to be honest I hadn't really heard of The Affair, which doesn't sound like my kind of show.) Her reasons are worth reading about:
While Wilson was said to have understood that signing on to an adult drama at Showtime called The Affair would likely involve some disrobing, she ultimately took issue with the frequency and nature of certain nude scenes. Sources, many of whom declined to speak on the record, say Wilson was often asked to be unclothed in scenes where there seemed to be no clear creative rationale for the nudity other than for it to be "titillating," as one person involved with the production puts it. Another source overheard Wilson ask on set, referring to a male co-star, "Why do you need to see me and not more of him?" Wilson had, of course, signed a nudity waiver when she tested for the pilot, but a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson notes that performers must still "provide meaningful consent and be treated with respect and dignity during production." Sources say Wilson expressed her concerns repeatedly only to receive push-back and be labeled "difficult."

Those insiders add that Wilson felt Treem, in particular, pressured her to perform such scenes. "There was a culture problem at the show from the very beginning and a tone-deafness from Sarah Treem about recognizing the position she was putting actors in," says one source with firsthand knowledge of the production. "Over and over again, I witnessed Sarah Treem try to cajole actors to get naked even if they were uncomfortable or not contractually obligated to."
This reminded me of the stories that went around a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke describing herself both as having to become more outspoken to avoid doing scenes she was uncomfortable with and also feeling uncomfortable at some of what she'd agreed to do in early seasons:
Emilia Clarke has revealed that she once refused to perform a nude scene on the set of a project, despite being told that it would “disappoint” her Game of Thrones fans.
“I’m a lot more savvy [now] with what I’m comfortable with, and what I am okay with doing,” she explained. “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, the sheet stays up’, and they’re like, ‘You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans’. And I’m like, ‘F*** you.’”

Clarke also revealed that she felt overwhelmed by what she described as the “f*** ton of nudity” in the first season of Game of Thrones.

“I took the job and then they sent me the scripts and I was reading them, and I was, like, ‘Oh, there’s the catch!’” she remembered. “But I’d come fresh from drama school, and I approached [it] as a job – if it’s in the script then it’s clearly needed, this is what this is and I’m gonna make sense of it… Everything’s gonna be cool."

She continued: “So I came to terms with that beforehand, but then going in and doing it… I’m floating through this first season and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what any of this is. I’ve never been on a film set like this before, I’d been on a film set twice before then, and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want and I don’t know what I want.

“Regardless of there being nudity or not, I would have spent that first season thinking I’m not worthy of requiring anything, I’m not worthy of needing anything at all... Whatever I’m feeling is wrong, I’m gonna cry in the bathroom and then I’m gonna come back and we’re gonna do the scene and it’s gonna be completely fine.”

She went on to explain that it was only while working with Aquaman actor Jason Momoa, who played her on-screen love interest Khal Drogo, that she realised that she could set her own rules about how much of her body she was willing to show.

“It was definitely hard,” she said. “Which is why the scenes, when I got to do them with Jason, were wonderful, because he was like, ‘No, sweetie, this isn’t okay.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhh.'”

I've seen part or all of several prestige dramas from HBO, Showtime, or more recently Amazon or Netflix. In general, the writing, acting, and production values are much closer to movie levels than they are to normal network television. And yet, one of the things that has struck me in watching these series is that the makers often throw in explicit nudity and sexuality as if it's an expected enticement for the audience. For instance, in addition to actual sex scenes, The Sopranos had as a plot point that Tony Soprano's gang owns a strip club, and thus it wasn't unusual to have an unrelated conversation have a strip routine going on in the background. I heard complaints that in Game of Thrones, exposition scenes that the showrunners seemed to think might otherwise be boring were often set in a brothel.

It's fairly common for people with conservative moral values to criticize the nudity and sexuality in series like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, and for more culturally progressive people to tell them to stop being so puritanical. However, the accounts of these actresses point to a problem with prestige dramas which should be fairly understandable through the ways that progressives often talk about the injustices of markets. What both women describe is a situation in which actresses wanting to have a career are expected to agree ahead of time to on-screen nudity, and then pressured into doing scenes which they themselves feel to be exploitative. And yet, it's hard for actresses who want to have serious drama careers with those studios to say no. There is a large supply of people wanting to do this work, and if the production companies want to insist on doing nudity as a precondition for employment, it's fairly easy for them to say, "Do it or we'll find someone who will." This doesn't mean that actresses can't say no, but it means that saying no will often mean saying no to having a serious career. It's a situation in which "allowing" people to do nude scenes effectively means that many people will be put under excessive pressure to do so.

On the question of watching this kind of show, I suppose I'm something of a moderate. I think that sufficiently mature adults can often (though not in all cases) watch shows that include this kind of content without much harm. And yet, what asking about whether the audience is harmed by watching such content ignores is that the content has to be made in the first place. Perhaps conservatives tend not to address this one as much because it's often taken as a working assumption that Hollywood is populated by godless heathens.

However, I think it's worth considering that even if it's often okay for mature adults to see this kind of content, it's significantly less okay for the people making it -- not because it's too sexy and pleasurable, but because it's too exploitative. Making the original scenes can be harrowing. I've read from multiple sources that scenes involving sex or nudity make for awkward and unpleasant filming days. In the Ruth Wilson article linked above, there are complaints from various cast members on The Affair that people who didn't need to be there invited on set for nude scenes and that footage of those days was shown to people outside the production. Additionally, some people associated with the production allege that the writing of content was at times used to exact a sort of revenge against actresses. When Wilson insisted on being written off the show after the fourth season (and an incident that involved one of the directors showing off nude images he'd kept on his phone from on set) the showrunner initially wrote a scene in which Wilson's character was violently raped and murdered. Only after Wilson's refusal to do the scene was the scene downgraded to a murder that did not involve sexual assault.

Even after the scenes have been filmed, cast are stuck dealing with the fact that those images of them are permanently available to the public -- some of whom do not fit the category of mature adults. I recall reading some years ago an interview with a Game of Thrones actress in which she recounted having fans ask her to sign pictures of her that showed her naked. She said she initially felt it was a huge violation of her privacy, and then realized that they had all seen her naked anyway. But what I think this goes to show is that even when the filming itself is done as respectfully as possible, it can result in later uncomfortable situations that the cast may not have thought of or may not continue to feel as good about as when they initially did the scenes.

I'm not necessarily arguing that all such content should be uniformly banned. However, when studios are faced with a situation where some of their audience expect some nudity in every episode, and the rest of the audience is willing to quietly tolerate it as part of the genre, studios will proceed to put the nudity in so as to satisfy those who specifically want it. And as studios work to satisfy the mature content demographic, they'll create a casting environment where it's very hard for actors to say no to doing uncomfortable and exploitative scenes. If one is to weigh the experiences of those who have regrets about the content they were pressured to film and those who don't, it seems to me that few actors would look back on a career and think, "Gee, I really wish I'd been able to do more nude scenes over the years."

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Post-op Roma

An update on Roma from her mom. Thank you so much for your prayers today!
Thanks so much for the prayers and notes today! The surgery, we think, was successful! Lots of recovery ahead and definitely things to watch, but Roma is already back to her opinionated self, so that's encouraging. :) I can't tell you how humbled and grateful we are for all the support - no idea how we will ever be able to express it adequately. We do not deserve you!! Please do continue to pray that the cavernoma is 100% gone. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Deo gratias!

Strange Plots 21


And so, a stranger came to town.

And got an AirBnb. Yes, even Titusville has realized that “safe as houses” means vacant houses. And since the town isn’t large enough to sustain a hotel (anymore; the old inn where Abraham Lincoln definitely did not sleep is now a nifty arts center), and some people like to go to Florida for the winter, there’s both supply and demand. Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and I were able to rent an old bungalow for two nights so that we could spend Christmas in Titusville.

I did say “Mom and Dad”, and that requires some explanation. When I said that I was going to Christmas mass in Titusville, Grandpa decided that he would like to come to. And since he didn’t want to drive up early on Christmas morning, he decided that we would stay the night. When Mom saw us looking at cute lodgings, she jumped in and took over the whole process (and paid for it too, so Grandpa and I shrugged and let her do her thing). Believe it or not, I think that when we had our Thanksgiving fight and I asked her if she was jealous because I was cutting out of the Ramirez gathering, it triggered some kind of introspection. Maybe it was that she was really jealous of not having a family gathering of her own to go to. Maybe she’d always felt awkward and out of place with Dad’s big happy family. Whatever the reason — I didn’t ask; we weren’t on those kind of terms again yet — she decided that she and Dad were coming to Titusville as well to explore Grandpa’s heritage, and (though maybe she hadn’t gotten this far in her introspecting) her own.

I was okay with this. I had not talked yet with Grandpa about Vin’s speculations about the gritty past. Every time I thought about it, I choked up at the thought of an old man hearing this from his granddaughter. Better let Vin explain it, and better that Mom should be there for Grandpa, and Dad be there for Mom. And Vin be there for me.

I’ve been coming to the realization that I’m not the most sympathetic person in the world. Yeah, I know I’m brash. I’d always thought it was my best quality. I tell it like it is. I don’t believe in BS. What you see is what you get — take me or leave me, and if you leave me it’s your problem. But I’d never cared before if I was left. Now it was different. Vin was doing a fine job of driving himself away from me. I didn’t want to do anything to bump him farther along.

I was going to have a chance to practice my less-brashness. Vin’s parents had invited us all to come over to their house after Christmas mass. I considered warning my folks about the particular brand of dysfunction they were about to encounter, but then I thought, why spoil all the fun? I’d already had my initiation into weird Titus family holidays. Maybe Mom would think more kindly of the Ramirez gatherings after this year.

For as close as we’ve lived to the mountains all my life, I don’t recall us ever taking a day trip up into the forest or checking out an overlook. The route was new to everyone but me, and I drove because I knew exactly where to slow down to showcase the most dramatic views. Everyone was impressed: Grandpa deeply, Dad easily, Mom against her will. Then I cruised along the scenic route through Titusville to show off the bricks of City Hall and the gazebo in the square and the neon lights of the diner. I detoured the few blocks past downtown so I could show Grandpa the mission church of Sacred Hearts where he was baptized. Grandpa almost hung out of the window like the little boy he never got to be, consuming every detail of the compact church. I hoped his heart would hold out through the holiday.

Our bungalow was just off of the main drag, a classic little 1920s deal with a porch and a trellis. As Mom unlocked the door, I was all prepared for woodwork and a tile hearth and some built-in bookcases, all the Arts-and-Crafts magic, but what greeted us was nothing. I mean, of course there was furniture there, and a floor, but the place had been renovated by some enterprising investor. Every trace of individuality the house had ever possessed had been methodically stripped off and replaced with greige drywall and laminate flooring and open space and a statement chandelier. It looked like every mid-level hotel lobby you’ve ever seen, and even the ones you haven’t seen but it doesn’t matter because they all look alike.

When Kay and Vin showed up not long afterwards to meet my parents, Kay was befuddled.

“This used to be the Wilson house,” she said, poking her nose in all the closets. “I remember coming over here in high school sometimes. It was old and cramped and beat-up, and tacky as all get out, believe me, but it had so much character. It was alive, kind of like your great-aunt Bertha with her dentures and her one good eye and her coral lipstick. I guess someone bought it to flip and gutted it. What a shame. A lot of history, just vanished.”

“I don’t think it’s so bad,” my mom ventured. “It’s got a dedicated laundry room.”

“So it’s soulless yet sterile,” Kay retorted. I could see the gears in Mom’s head cranking the etiquette meter over to “laugh and nod”. I think she was having a hard time adjusting to being polite to an adult version of me.

When all six of us gathered at the table with our complimentary white wine and holiday cookies to talk over our family discoveries, Vin produced the photos first. He’d gone back to the Historical Society and snapped photos in defiance of the crabby docent, and now he pulled them up on a tablet and enlarged them for elderly eyes.

“Erin and I have found the common maternal ancestor,” he said. “This is Tamar McGrath Sanders, Kay’s great-grandmother and Aaron’s mother. T. on the baptismal certificate.”

“McGrath?” Kay exclaimed. “We’re McGraths now?”

“You’re the McGraths,” I said. “There’s no other McGrath line but you.”

Kay and Grandpa, heads together, pored over the portrait, while Mom looked at it on my phone.

“I can’t see any resemblance,” Mom said, skeptical. But Grandpa patted Kay’s cheek gently.

“It’s you,” he said in wonder. “I see you, honey. My mother looks like you.”

“It is me!” Kay was brimming over, like everyone else, and she and Grandpa hugged each other and laughed and hugged some more.

“The Tituses and the McGraths at peace,” I murmured to no one in particular. “Looks like dreams do come true.”

“But hasn’t this portrait hung on the wall at the Historical Society for years?” Mom protested to Kay. “How had you never seen it before?”

“I don’t spend my spare time at the Historical Society,” said Kay. "How did I know to look for it? How did any of us know to look for it? Every clue to this family tree has been hiding in plain sight.”

“And speaking of hiding in plain sight,” said Vin, swiping to the family photo in front of the mayor’s old house, “here are the fathers with Tamar. Aaron Moore and Demetrius McGrath.”

The photo had to be sent to everyone separately because everyone wanted to study different faces. Grandpa kept hovering back and forth between Aaron and Tamar, devouring the now pixelated images with 85 years’ worth of longing. Mom mostly looked at Aaron Moore, blowing up the photo until it was practically not a face anymore, and comparing it to Grandpa. But Kay, although she focused on Demetrius, needed more explanation.

“I understand Tamar and Aaron Moore because of the evidence of the baptismal certificate,” she said. “But how are you sure about Demetrius?”

“We know that you share a maternal ancestor who can’t be further back than Tamar, but is not Lavinia,” said Vin. “Demetrius is the missing link between the two.”

“DNA, whatever.” Kay dismissed science. “It’s the feud part that has me wondering. How did the Tituses and McGraths have a child together, and no one ever knew about it?”

Vin pulled up another photo on his phone, this time the sweet face and neat braids of Lavinia. He cleared his throat, and swallowed, and looked at me and looked away. “This is where it gets ugly,” he said.

You’ve heard of people wringing their hands. I was doing it now, a big raw bundle of nerves, all my anxiety back in full force as I looked at the these two wonderful people in front of me. They’d been yearning all their lives to learn the truth about their families. I couldn’t bear to see them devastated by the charbroiled bones in the family closet. Vin talked, laying out as dispassionately as he could both the facts and his wild theories. But dispassionate isn’t good enough when you’re talking about rape and revenge and illegitimate children and abandonment and murder and lynching and immolation. Grandpa and Kay were silent as they took in the pieces of the gruesome story, with a silence that was more horrible to me than wailing or gnashing of teeth or the invocation of family curses. They were wishing they’d never taken a DNA test in the first place. They were thinking that maybe it was better not to exist than to come from such a line of evil. Maybe Vin was right. Maybe our meeting — the best thing that had ever happened to me — was not worth all the pain and misery and sorrow that was going to ensue from our revealed history. And still no one but Vin said anything.

Finally I cracked under the strain.

“Oh Grandpa, I’m so sorry!” I flung my arms around him, rather awkwardly since we were sitting side by side in dining room chairs with slippery fabric covers. “Is it too awful? Do you hate us for finding out all these terrible things about your past? Do you think there’s some kind of curse on our family?”

And Grandpa, whose own thin crust of stoicism had cracked so easily over the past few weeks, broke his profound silence with no trace of despair or grief.

“Of course not, honey.” He patted my head just as if he were calming a riled-up pup and even scritched me behind the ears. “I’ve had 85 good, hard years. I was married to your grandmother for the best 50 of those years, and I still have the finest daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter I could wish for. Nothing I learn about my past can change that.” He swiped through the photos again, looking at each face. “All this history helps me understand where I came from, but it doesn’t taint anything for me. It’s not like any of it was my fault.”

He reached across the table for Kay’s hand, and she gave it to him willingly. “And if I hadn’t taken my test, I’d never have met my cousin. At my age, family is what matters most. I’d have endured a much more horrible history to finally be able to see and touch someone related to me.”

“Amen,” Kay murmured, squeezing him in benediction.

“So you don’t think we’re cursed?” I snuffled.

“Cursed?” Grandpa seemed genuinely confused. “Why would you think that?”

“What about what it says in the Bible about the iniquities of the fathers being visited on the third and fourth generation? Some people might call that a curse.”

Kay gave me the eagle eye. “And where did you get that pretty bit of proof texting?”

“Vin said so.” Vin rewarded my tattling by kicking me under the table.

Kay turned the eagle eye on him. “I’d hoped you’d learned a little more scripture than that on Sunday mornings, Vincent. Don’t you remember the other half of the verse, about how the Lord shows mercy to the thousandth generation to those who love him and keep his commandments?”

“No, ma’am, I’d forgotten that part,” said Vin meekly.

“You didn’t want to remember it!” I flung at him along with a good kick of my own, more vigor than impact. “And I told you that this whole history didn’t mean anything to you and me.” Kick. “I told you we could start fresh.” I would have kicked once more for good measure, but this time he trapped my feet between his ankles. “I bet even if I’d quoted scripture about mercy to the thousandth generation you couldn’t have heard me because you were so hung up on the idea of a family curse when you were really just dealing with your own insecurities.”

“I seem to recall another verse I did learn in Sunday School,” Vin remarked to Kay. “Something about better a corner of a rooftop in peace, than a fine house with a contentious woman.”

“Oho, and I’m the contentious woman in the fine house, right?” I snorted.

“I don’t know as I’d call this a fine house,” said Vin, but his ankles were still pressed against mine.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve only ever lived in the vast metropolises of the New River Valley, but I had never been to a Catholic church that had only one Christmas mass. Father Leonard had said midnight mass elsewhere on his circuit, and two earlier Christmas morning masses at two different parishes. Sacred Hearts was his last stop for the day. If he was exhausted, he hid it well as he greeted Vin like an old buddy.

“I still can't get over the idea,” I said to Vin as we shuffled into the pew, followed by Grandpa, Mom, and Dad, “that you were raised religious-ish, yet you’ve never been to church on Christmas Day. If you’re Catholic, you go to church on Christmas and Easter even if you don’t go any other day of the year.”

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” he replied, and then he out-Catholicked me by putting down the kneeler and kneeling down. “Just watch — I’m picking up all the tricks.”

Father pulled out all the stops on Christmas, with incense and singing his dialogue, but Vin thwarted my attempts to explain things to him by having mastered the missalette in previous weeks, and following along in sections of the book that I didn’t even know were there. I was starting to feel superfluous, but then he was caught out by the Gloria, which he hadn’t heard in Advent, so I retained my home court advantage.

“Is this special for Christmas?” he whispered.

“No, it’s every Sunday. Except Advent. And Lent.”


The first reading was about how beautiful on the mountain were the feet of him who brings good news. Was it irreverent to apply that to Vin? I wasn’t sure what the good news he brought was, exactly, but “mountains” and “beautiful” seemed a good fit. And then I felt a gentle pressure against my foot, as if someone next to me was also inspired by the scriptures. I just avoided melting by quickly scanning the other readings for prophetic passages about Vin. And I felt convicted of impiety when I noticed that unlike me, Vin actually was paying attention to the epistle and the gospel.

As we knelt before Communion, he whispered, “Is it all right if I go up, since it’s Christmas?”

“You mean take communion?” I said, scandalized. “No. It’s sacrilegious if you aren’t Catholic.”

He looked so hungrily toward the altar that I took pity on him. “Little kids who haven’t made their first communion cross their arms like this and get a blessing. You’re allowed to do that, if you want to.”

And to my surprise he did, and back in the pew he knelt instead of sitting. I couldn’t be shown up in church on Christmas by a Protestant, so I knelt up as tall as I could, and closed my eyes instead of watching people’s shoes shuffle past. I knew I should have been praying in thanksgiving or contemplating Christmas blessings, but what kept running through my mind was Vin’s verse yesterday about the contentious woman. Better a corner of a manger in peace, than a fine house with a contentious woman. O Lord, don’t let me the contentious woman. Let my feet on the mountains bring peace, and let Vin find them beautiful. Amen.

Father Leonard waited for us after greeting his various sheep. “Welcome home, Mr. Aaron Moore,” he said, catching Grandpa up in a hug both warm and solemn. “Come with me and see.”

And Grandpa did see, in black and white (now aged to brown and cream), the first record of his existence and his parents. He ran his fingers tenderly over the slight texture of the ink that linked him to A.M and T. Mom too, had to see and touch. Something about the physical reality of of the registrar broke something in her.

“It’s real,” she cried, clinging to Grandpa. “I didn’t believe it was real until now.”

“I understand you are going out to see the burned house now,” Father Leonard said, packing a kit with a stole and holy water and a prayer book. “I would like to come with you, if I may.”

Vin and Father drove before us as we went through town to the old Titus site. I wished I knew what they were talking about, but it probably wasn’t me. The joy of Grandpa seeing his name in the baptismal register was draining away, sapped by the increasingly oppressive journey to the Titus house. This trip was worse than the first time I went out with Vin. Then I hadn’t known what lay at the end of the path, so the path had felt like an adventure. It wasn’t an adventure anymore, and it wasn’t fun either.  The horror of the house so dead that even almost 100 years later it still stifled a family’s normal growth and healing poked little needles of dread all along my arms.

Maybe if I were a better actress I could have played off my moodiness for laughs, but instead it infected everyone else in the car. By the time we were rumbling down the long shadowy drive, the silence was thick and tense. Even Vin’s puns would have been better than this homesickness. Grandpa had lost his mountain-going eagerness and was hunched up in himself, and I wondered if this place would kill him.

But again, as the grim house came into view, it was Mom who was overwhelmed by the physical link to the past. You’d think Grandpa would have been overwrought, seeing the place where his mother died a fiery death, but again it was Mom who could not bear the reality of the rotting shell of the house. Father Leonard comforted her with low words that sounded like music as he put on his stole.

“Are you going to perform an exorcism?” Dad asked, suddenly a good deal more involved than he’d been all day.

“No,” said Father, “I’m going to bless this house, and the family that comes from it.”

“Can you do that?” Vin asked, hesitant to make any pronouncements about a rite not his own. “Is it appropriate to bless it if it's not really a home anymore?”

“More appropriate, I think, than,” —here Father flipped through his pages— “the ‘Blessing for a Blast Furnace.’”

We bowed our heads. He sprinkled us with holy water, and asked God to have mercy on us and wash us with hyssop so we would be whiter than snow, and invoked the angels to watch over and protect all who lived in this home. Then he made the sign of the cross over us, and even Vin blessed himself. It was short and it was simple — so simple it was almost ridiculous for Father to have ridden all this way to say a quick chilly prayer. But Father didn’t seem to feel like he had wasted his time.

“I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord,” he sang to himself, inspecting the ruins. The rest of us walked around with Grandpa, briefly because it was cold and threatened to snow. And oddly enough, the place that had seemed so full of horror and grief was now just dead — not deader than dead like before, but merely dead, ready to be consumed by nature and become part of a larger cycle of life. The Titus had gone out of the old Titus place. I’d thought that Father was only blessing the battered pile of boards that sheltered nothing, but it was more than that. He’d also blessed us, we who were the House of Titus and the House of McGrath and the House of Moore, and we were able to smile in the face of despair.

“What will your parents say when they find out you’re engaging in pagan Catholic rituals?” I asked Vin, joking.

“What, indeed?” he said, and he was not joking.

As he and Father got in his car, I stood with my heart newly thumping out of my chest. “Oh my sweet Jesus,” I murmured in adoration, “this thing is going to happen. This is really, literally, actually going to happen.”

So I was floating on cloud ten by the time we'd dropped Father back at church and gotten to Vin’s parents’ house. Not everyone had it so cushy. Vin took on the responsibility of making introductions to his mom, who was performing today in the key of chatty.

“Mrs. Ramirez, this is my mother, Heather Titus,” said Vin. “Mom, this is Linda Ramirez, Erin’s mother. She’s a professor at Tech.”

“A professor! That must be so much work. All that grading, right?” Heather playfully slapped Mom on the arm. I could see the frost forming on Mom at the point of contact. “I took a few semesters of college before Dan and I got married. I had the densest Spanish professor — you would not believe how inflexible she was. My first semester, I had this friend who was going through a crisis, dealing with some mental health issues, and I was just under a lot stress putting in the time to support her. So I’d missed some classes, and the day I showed up was the day of the midterm. And I asked her, politely, if I could reschedule mine, because I’d been so busy with my friend and I just wasn’t in the mentality to focus on Spanish. It was like I’d asked for her firstborn child. And she got snippy and said that the schedule had been posted on the syllabus, like I’d had time to read that. Professors always think their class is going to be your one priority. I mean, I cared about the material. I just needed some understanding that life happens. But I guess professors have to live in their ivory tower, right? Are you guys hungry? Come on, I’ve got appetizers laid out on the island.”

And she bustled into the kitchen and started clattering dishes around, leaving the rest of in the hall in various states of incredulity. Dan, having had more time than anyone else to become inoculated to this level of tactlessness, didn’t let us petrify.

“Hey, it’s great to see you all!” he exclaimed. “Did anyone catch the game on Monday night?”

And Dad, who had caught the game on Monday night, allowed himself to be led off to the den for some post-mortem, taking Grandpa with him. Kay entered a second later and pulled up at the sight of Mom’s shell-shocked expression.

“Oh boy, is it bad today?” she muttered to Vin.

“She looks like she’ll be on company behavior,” Vin said cautiously.

Kay was not relieved. “That’s almost more wearing than when she’s acting up because then she won’t go away.”

“Also, you never know if or when she’ll crack.”

Kay turned to Mom. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to stay past dinner, and dinner is always right away. Come on, let’s go get it over with.”

“Are there drinks?” Mom asked plaintively.

“Not in this house,” Kay scoffed. “We’ll bust out of here and I’ll bring some of the good stuff to your place.”

At the table, we sat at our place cards: Grandpa and Kay across from each other at Heather’s end, Vin and me across from each other, Mom and Dad across from each other at Dan’s end. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go around the table this time and say what we were all thankful for. Heather had other plans.

“Mr. Aaron, it’s our tradition that the senior member of the family leads us in a blessing. Would you do the honors?”

Grandpa, unaccustomed to leading public prayer, stood up and cleared his throat as if he’d been asked to address the U.N. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Bless us, O Lord…”

“…And these thy gifts…,” chimed in the Catholic contingent, from sheer muscle memory, and Vincent Titus, from very conscious memory.

“That was pretty,” said Heather uncertainly, into the awkward silence that followed the final sign of the cross. “Is that your family blessing? How did you know it, Vin?”

“Google,” said Vin. “Mr. Aaron, can I serve you some ham?”

Plates were filled and forks were plied, and conversation got going again. It was comfortable down at Dan’s end with Mom and Dad. At the other end, Heather said, “It must be a lot of work for your pastor up here to have church on Christmas. Does he mind missing out on spending time with his family?”

“I think they’re in Nigeria,” I said. “So he wouldn't see them anyway.”

“Lagos,” Vin said to me.

“What country is Lagos?” Heather inquired.

“Father Leonard told me that’s where his family lives,” said Vin.

“Oh,” said Heather, contemplating her son having a conversation with a Catholic priest. “Erin, Vin’s gone to church with you, so you ought to come with us some Sunday!”

“I’d have to see how the times line up,” I said as non-committally as I could. “I can’t miss mass.”

“Well, but turnabout is fair play,” sang Heather. “Of course we don’t do church on Christmas, so it was easy today, but maybe you could trade off next time you’re here on a Sunday. We have a great young adults group. I keep telling Vin he should try it.”

Vin indeed looked as if he’d been told that, many times.

“Or Vin could just keep coming with me. He seems to like it,” I countered, and got jabbed under the table by both Kay and Vin.

Heather blinked. “Likes going with you? To the Catholic church?”

“Gosh, seconds anyone?” Dan shouted down the table.

“Vin, have you gone to the Catholic church before?” Heather asked, innocently.

Vin was unable to tell a lie. “I’ve gone with Erin during Advent.”

“What’s Advent?”

“The four Sundays before Christmas,” I said. “Vin’s seen all the Advent candles lit.”

“But now Christmas is over,” said Heather, brightening. “And it sounds like you’ve solved your family mystery and showed everyone the Catholic baptism book.” She smiled at her clever boy sleuth and his mystery-solving prowess. “So there’s really no reason anymore to go to Catholic church instead of our church. Is there, honey?”

“It’s beautiful,” said Vin, with the brevity of one who devoutly wished a conversation to move past him.

“Religion and politics!” Kay chuckled, a tad too heartily, and jabbed me again.

“Idols can be beautiful,” Heather declared with fierce maternal conviction. “But we don’t worship them because they’re beautiful."

"Good thing we don’t worship idols at all, then,” I retorted, willing to suffer jabs for my faith. “We don’t worship anything but God.”

“We’re all brothers and sisters in the Lord!” said Dan. “Pie?”

Heather had caught me out, and she was triumphant. “You worship bread. I read about it.”

“It’s not bread!” I asserted, ready, like the martyrs, to die on this hill. “It’s God!”

“It's an idol!” Terror for her son drove Heather into battle mode. “Human words don’t make bread into a god! Vin, you tell her so!”

But Vin now wore the fixed daze of someone contemplating a flame. “‘The Word became flesh.’ That’s what the gospel meant,” he marveled. “I kept wondering about it all morning, why that was the Christmas reading instead of the traditional nativity story. It’s not an idol. It’s the Word made flesh. I knew it was something, but I didn’t know what.”

No one had expected that answer, and so no one had any reply ready, pacific or combative.

“Anyway,” I said, playing my trump. “Vin has to come to church with me because the children will have to be raised Catholic.”

No one jabbed me this time because the whole table was too busy staring, even Vin jolted from his pious reverie.

“You two are engaged?” Heather screeched.

“No,” I admitted. “But it just makes sense.” Now I was appealing directly to Vin, the ideas pouring out as fast as I could translate inspiration into words. “See how it works? We’re the end of the line. We draw the whole family together into one. And when we have a baby, he — or maybe it would be a girl — will be Titus, and McGrath, and Moore, all together. This is how we heal the family curse, if there really is one. We end the hate with love. But the children have to be Catholic. You have to promise that, or we can’t get married.”

Vin stood up from the table. “Will you excuse us?” he asked at large, coming around and taking my elbow and steering me out of the room. “Go ahead and have your pie. We won’t be back.”

He stopped us at the closet and handed me my coat and purse.

“Where are we going?”

“My place.”

“Okay.” I struggled into my sleeves. “Is it still icy?”

“I salted.”

We got in his car and drove a ways toward town in silence. Then Vin let out a breath he seemed to have been holding since we left the house.

“You are a liability, I can see that right now,” he said.


“You give everything away up front. Isn’t the great rule of showbiz that you’re supposed to leave them wanting more?”

“We’re not showbiz,” I protested.

“Except when we blow up Christmas dinner."

I thought I would laugh, and then I tried it and it didn’t come out quite right. My zeal had congealed in the nippy air. “Are you saying you don’t want any more?”


The Christmas-lit houses drew closer together, and congregated along the main street. City Hall and the square were strung with white bulbs, pure and warm. We turned away from the brightness down Vin’s alleyway, where the darkness gave me some cover for speaking again.

“I’d promised myself that I’d be less abrasive so that I wouldn’t do anything to drive you away, and now I’ve had a blowout theological argument with your mother and gotten you accused of being Catholic, and you know what? I’m not even sorry.” I swallowed. “Mostly. I know it’s not civilized of me and I ought to have a stiff upper lip and communicate solely through raised eyebrows, but I’m a big hot emotional mess and I say what I think and I can’t help it.”

We parked, and he got out and opened my door and offered me a hand.

“I don’t want you to help it,” he said, and instantly I was a different and much more thrilling kind of hot emotional mess.

“Why not?”

“Because you wear everything on your sleeve. I always know what I’m getting with you, and I find that refreshing. Like the reading this morning.” He put his arm around me in case the salt hadn’t made the stairs perfectly safe. “How beautiful on the apartment stairs are the feet of her, announcing peace.”

“Me, bringing peace. That’s new,” I said, just to keep conversation going, soaking up everything he’d said about me.

“Do you want to know what’s not peaceful?” he said, angry, but not at me. “Living with someone who never speaks her mind. Living with someone who forces everyone else to try and adapt to her moods and whims without ever coming out and just saying what she wants. You want to know what’s a family curse? That’s a family curse.”

“You are obsessed with the family curse.” I rolled my eyes, even though he couldn't see it in the dark. “You’re going to drive yourself insane.”

 He put his key into the lock. “Nonsense. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. I want to try something different from my parents, and I expect a better result.”

I could have sworn there was no way to be pedantic and arousing at the same time, but Vin seemed to be a devotee of the school of stupidly logical seduction.

“Oh, have we decided we’re going to get results now?” I demanded in the doorway, not following him inside. “Why are you so cool and collected? Is this how it’s always going to be? I’ve basically told you that I love you, and you take it in your stride with witty repartee and don’t even have the decency to be honored, or insulted, or even flustered in any way, shape, or form…”

I might have gone on pounding my head against that particular wall for any amount of time, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t talk any more, because he pulled me in and was kissing me against the closed door, and he was flustered indeed, and then I was even more flustered. We clutched and stroked and knocked our teeth together once or twice like fools, and everything was more ridiculous and breath-taking than I’d imagined it would be.

“This,” he whispered in my ear once we came up for air, “is how it’s always going to be.”

“Only if you promise to raise the children Catholic.”

“I promise,” he said, holding onto the fourth finger of my left hand, “that I’ll make my first communion before any of the kids do.”

And that’s what happened when a stranger came to town: the ending of one story, and the beginning of another.

The End.