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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Notes on Catholic Literature

After an uncomfortable weekend of false labor symptoms, the OB has cleared me to go to the Trying To Say God conference at Notre Dame, assuring me that I'm extremely unlikely to deliver my baby in an Indiana cornfield. So now that I actually believe we'll be going to a conference on the state of Catholic literature -- indeed, are driving up to ND today -- it seems a good time to chew over what exactly the hallmarks of a Catholic literature are. And since I had several hours yesterday sitting in the tire repair shop to meditate on the subject, here are a few starting points, not necessarily in any order.

  • Moral Realism. As Catholics, we believe in an objective reality, an immutable truth, and we believe that Catholicism is the systematic revelation and response to that truth. And we believe that humans can act in accord with that truth and move closer to it, or can act in opposition to it and stand in contradiction and defiance of it. Even authors who are not Catholic can tap into this truth of the human person, and the truths embodied in Catholicism, writing literature that takes a clear-eyed moral stance, holding some actions morally correct because they participate in truth, and some actions wrong because they are evil, or try to worm around the essential truth of the human person. And of course, plenty of authors who call themselves Catholics or claim to be writing Catholic literature can write fuzzy moral literature, trying to justify or gloss over moral truths.
  • Free Will. Our actions are not dictated solely by circumstances or nature or nurture. We have the ability to choose good or evil, and every moment is a fresh moment to participate in truth or reject it. 
  • Grace. We do not choose good entirely of our own volition. There is higher help to be had even at the weakest moments of human existence. Even characters who have consistently made evil choices are given the opportunity to accept this grace. Grace comes in many forms: small, sublime, gritty, painful, persistent, dry, consoling.
  • Sin. Our fallen nature means that even the best human will choose to act badly, and most humans aren't the best humans. Humans struggle to choose the good, often failing spectacularly. Many actively embrace a self-centered worldview, either through ignorance or by deliberate choice. Virtue can become more or less a habit, but it isn't a perfect defense against our inclination to sin. And often sin seems more pleasant or easier or more fulfilling than virtue.
  • The Physical World As Sign. Creation signifies a deeper reality. Humans, the pinnacle of creation, can also participate in God's creativity by becoming co-creators, either through our creative works or by direct physical participation in bringing forth new life. Our bodies have a moral significance, and our physical actions can embody love.
  • Quality. The usual formulation is "good, true, and beautiful". What God creates must be good, and if our human creations are to reflect his goodness, truth, and beauty, they must have these qualities. (Interpretations of beauty vary -- it can be stark, lush, simple, amazingly complex, painful, or gracious.) But in a Catholic literature, quality matters. Technique matters. Skill matters. Honesty matters. Truth without skill is cloying and one-dimensional. Skill without truth is hollow and ultimately unfulfilling. 
  • Truth Is Deeper Than Identity. Only God creates. I am not the sole creator myself, nor can I entirely define myself. My "identity", self-proclaimed or assigned by others, is not the core of who I am. Freedom doesn't consist in assembling the right labels, but in finding how I can participate in the deeper objective reality of truth, and rejecting any label or behavior or identity that draws me away from that truth.
Note that none of these ideas depend on Church sponsorship or affirmation, or having a bigger Catholic publishing presence, or building new platforms for new media, etc., though those are often the focus of discussions about how to revive Catholic literature. And yet any attempt to "revive" Catholic literature through Catholic presence in the media has to grapple with the fact that professed Catholics themselves often distort the truths that Catholicism claims to represent. Is Catholic literary culture defined simply by having members of the Church getting published and reviewed? Do organizations devoted to Catholic writing necessarily produce literature that's worthy of being called literature? Do programs that teach writing technique at Catholic institutions focus more on workshoppy technique to the exclusion of actual small-c catholic qualities?  I'm curious to see how these topics are addressed this weekend.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Agony in the 37-Week Garden

I've had the happy experience this week of becoming a proud auntie not once, but twice over, to a fine niece in New Jersey, and a fine nephew in Cincinnati. With these blessed events, along with the arrival of my nephew Robert in February, it's left to me to bring up the rear of the Baby Boom of 2017. I'm glad that my sisters-in-law are delivered of their nine-month ordeals and now get to hold their squishy sweet babies, but now that they've given birth, I  feel free now to write about my own impending labor without giving them undue worry in their last days of pregnancy.

I'm right at the 37-week full-term mark, but I expect to have three more weeks to prep for giving birth. I've been reading Susan Windley-Daoust's The Gift of Birth, a spiritual meditation on the Theology of the Body as reflected through labor and birth, and following her guided exercises. (You can read it for free online here.) I've been resting a lot lately, strangely comforted by this study that claims that the nine-month threshold for human pregnancy is dictated not by relative head-to-pelvis side, but by the metabolic limit of human ability:
Instead, gestation is determined by energy. Studies of mammals show that during pregnancy females reach their species’ “metabolic ceiling,” the upper limit of the amount of energy they can expend. In humans, the metabolic ceiling is 2 to 2.5 times the baseline amount of energy needed during rest. Dunsworth and her colleagues say women reach that limit by their sixth month of pregnancy. Then at nine months, the energy demands of a fetus go beyond this metabolic threshold. “Extending gestation even by a month would likely require metabolic investment beyond the mother’s capacity,” the team writes.
I've been around the pregnancy block a number of times by this point, so the milestones of late pregnancy aren't foreign to me. Some things are new and pleasant: never before have I had the flawless skin that supposed to be part of pregnancy, but it is some consolation for the aches and pains of the third trimester that when I look in the mirror, my face approaches poreless perfection. (My hair is marvelous, too.) They say that once a woman reaches a certain age, she must choose between a nice face and a nice ass, and right now I have a good basis for hoping that the rosy glow of my face distracts from the increasing girth of my lower half.

The front half of my lower half, along with the last occupant.

Also, my PUPPP has cleared itself mostly up. Just as the experts don't know what causes it, they don't know what makes it go away, but my itching has almost entirely ceased, and for that I'm most grateful.

Some new experiences aren't so pleasant.

The other night, I was leaning against Darwin with my arms around his neck, my stomach providing a rather large buffer between us, and despite whatever innocuous conversation we were having, a creeping anxiety began to tingle along the nerves in my fingers. After a moment I identified it: I had been in this position during a number of increasingly painful contractions during my last labor, and my muscle memory was responding in panic.

This isn't the only time this has happened lately. As we were sitting through the end credits of Wonder Woman, apropos of nothing my breath started coming faster and waves of anxiety washed over me. I felt flushed and panicky, out of proportion to what TS Eliot called the "objective correlative". Why? I had had a passing thought of going into labor, maybe a twinge or a cramp or some flashback, and although I could move and talk normally, it took fifteen minutes for the tension and the nervy tingles to subside.

I'm not afraid of dying while giving birth. I'm not afraid that I'll have to have a c-section for some reason, though I'd much prefer not to go under the knife. I'm not afraid of an adverse outcome. I rather expect things to be uncomplicated and straightforward as always, ending up with a snuggly little baby in my arms. I've had lots of practice relaxing and breathing during contractions. No, I am cravenly afraid of the excruciating pain. When I've tried to express this to friends, several people have said, "You've done this six times! What do you have to be worried about?" People, think. A man who has been on the rack six times is not eager to get back on a seventh time. I have a lot of experience with the standard progression of labor, and it almost always gets much worse before it gets better.

We give birth, or we die. There's no way through but out. I know all this. I'm no stranger to having a baby. Out of my six births, five have involved grinding, miserable contractions, culminating in the terrible moment of the baby tearing your body apart as you give birth. Perhaps this time will be better. Perhaps I'll try my first epidural. Perhaps lightning will strike again, and I'll have another painless labor. But my body is gearing itself up for the long ordeal, and each weird but painless Braxton-Hicks contraction or gas bubble or shift in internal pressure reminds it that the storm is coming. 

I handle the panic attacks the same way I'll handle the contractions: breathing, counting, praying. Even Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemani, so I think I'm allowed to be increasingly anxious about my own lesser impending passion. There's a lot of toil to go before I get to say, "It is finished."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Personality and Homeschooling

We all had a summer cold last week. While the kids took it easy and vegged out in front of The Great British Baking Show, I took the opportunity to do a little homeschool planning for next year. For some people, planning involves actually opening books, counting chapters, scheduling out work, etc. For me, it involves reading about philosophies and going down rabbit holes doing personality research.

Recently my second daughter took a Meyer-Briggs test and determined that she was an ESFJ. Reading up on the ESFJ type, many things fell into place for me. (Although of course a generalized personality profile isn't going to get everything right, there was enough that rang true on this site that I found it overall helpful.) Her personality is almost the opposite of mine. We approach many things from different angles, and often end up frustrated with each other.  Understanding her strengths and weaknesses helps me to give her a better educational experience.

We went the round of personality tests with the older three girls (15, 13, and 11) and discovered different results.

Eleanor: INFP
Julia: ESFJ
Isabel: ESTJ

For reference: I am INTJ and Darwin is ENTJ.

For some personality fun that even the younger ones could get in on, the kids found a site that sorted them into their Hogwarts houses:

Eleanor: Ravenclaw
Julia: Hufflepuff
Isabel: Gryffindor
Jack: Slytherin
Diana: Ravenclaw
(I'm guessing that William is Gryffindor, based on his willingness to do just about anything, no matter how reckless. Maybe that's just being three, though.)

I'm putting myself in Ravenclaw because that's what I like.

All this knowledge is well and good, but how does one apply it to homeschooling? Simply Convivial has a page devoted to how personality type affects your homeschooling style, which was fascinating even for the kids to apply to themselves. But for me:
INTJ - the determined homeschool mom. 
INTJs are the most rare type among women, but you will find them disproportionately represented in the homeschool world. That's because they have zero tolerance for stupidity, they have drive, and they prefer to be unconventional and do things their own way. An INTJ will always create a system that is consistent with her principles, but following-through on it quickly becomes tedious and draining. Likewise, she has a keen awareness of the underlying worldview or principles she encounters, but her sense of her physical surroundings suffers the more she exercises her attention to ideas. 
Strengths: confidence, problem-solving, ability to turn theory into practice, fostering independence in her children 
Difficulties: handling noise & hubbub, obsessing, showing affection, noticing emotional or physical cues 
Style: nothing scripted, everything researched, decisions made based on their own priorities and principles; generally focused on reading & writing with few outside commitments or activities or also likely to be STEM-invested.
As with everything, it's not 100% applicable, but pretty close. For example, I don't have difficulty picking up on emotional or physical cues. I simply choose to overlook them if I don't want to reward certain histrionics with notice, or if they are out of proportion to the situation. But I do carefully note when outbursts or frustrations seem to coincide with being sick or hungry, or with monthly cycles, or whether some people just need a nap or quiet time. It's not hard for me to pick up on emotional cues, and it's not hard for me to ignore them either.

But four functions are not enough to understand personality. Let's kick it up to eight.

These four functions — intuition, sensing, thinking, feeling — are actually eight. Each of them can be introverted or extroverted, used for internal operations or external activity.
Here’s a handy chart to help summarize this information:
How you learn and what you notice (by cognitive function).
Each of the Myers-Briggs types has a primary function, a secondary function, a tertiary function, and an inferior function. Every primary/secondary pair has one introverted and one extroverted function, one perception and one decision function. The lower two will be sort of a mirror pair of the top two.

How you decide the right thing to do (by cognitive function).
This is key to understanding how to manage energy for your type.
If everything you do requires you to act outside of your primary function, you will be worn down quick as anything. It’s extra work to use anything other than your top one or two functions.
Again, applying this to my children, it seems to account in some key ways for their personalities, in ways that make me laugh out loud with recognition.

So for me, my functions are:

Primary: Ni -- introverted intuition. Perspective is key; wants deep insight.
Secondary: Te -- extroverted thinking. Effectiveness is the goal; wants to do what works.
Tertiary: Fi -- introverted feeling. Authenticity is the goal; wants to act with conviction.
Inferior: Se -- extroverted sensing. Sensation is thrilling; wants verifiable information.

Looking at the bottom two functions, the tertiary Fi explains why I've never been able to make Latin work in our homeschool. It seems so authentic! But just feeling like "real homeschoolers do Latin" is not enough to make it stick for me. And the inferior Se says everything about my avoidance of hands-on science experiments, and why last year's time-intensive lab-heavy science curriculum was dropped within weeks. And it speaks to why co-ops wear me out and make the rest of the day dead time.

On the other hand, the primary Ni fits perfectly with my readaloud culture and love for big ideas and the big picture. The secondary Te explains why we keep coming back to certain workbook math curriculum and phonics pages. They just work.

The next step to create a plan based on this information. I've been reading through some planning series at edsnapshots and flipping through the posts at Simply Convivial. Also, even if you're not battling serious illness or physical inconvenience, there's a lot of good advice and perspective to be gained from Brandy Vencel's series, The Low-Energy Mom's Guide to Homeschooling, which contains the post where I found the eight function personality chart above.

You'll notice that none of this is about specific curriculum choices. That comes later, to my mind, because if there's one lesson I learned over this past year, it's that you have to know who you are and how you function before you go throwing just anything onto the bookshelf.

Monday, June 12, 2017

1918 in History and Wonder Woman

Over the weekend MrsDarwin and I had a chance to catch the Wonder Woman movie, which the eldest three children had already watched and enjoyed on opening weekend. I enjoyed it a good deal as superhero movies go. It's not a genre that I'm deeply into, but I do enjoy light hearted action spectaculars, and super hero movies are where a lot of that acting, directing, and writing talent are directing their energies these days.

Within the range of superhero movies I thought this was better written, acted, and directed than most. Gal Gadot is not only visually striking brings an innocence and warmth to the Diana/Wonder Woman character which really carried the movie. While Diana learns during the course of the movie that saving humanity from self destruction is not as easy as she initially thought, her idealism becomes deeper rather than jaded as she gains a clearer view of what people outside of the isolated island of the Amazons are like. There's a key way in which I think the ending could have been more interesting in that regard, rather than sticking with the traditional battle-between-gods ending of a superhero movie (in this case, literally, since the world of Wonder Woman is one in which a modified Greek pantheon actually exists) but I'll address that in the spoiler section after the break. Overall, a good movie and I'd recommend it.

One of the interesting things about this Wonder Woman is the choice to set it in 1918. The comic book character originated in 1941 and her early adventures apparently involved fighting the Nazis as well as various criminals. The movie's creators explained the decision as follows:

When Heinberg and producer Zack Snyder were first breaking down the story structure for the film, WWI was appealing for a few reasons. “It’s the first time we had an automated war,” Heinberg says. “The machine gun was a new invention. Gas was used for the first time. New horrors were unleashed every day.”
“World War I is the first time that civilization as we know it was finding its roots, but it’s not something that we really know the history of,” [director Patty Jenkins] adds. “Even the way that it was unclear who was in the right of WWI is a really interesting parallel to this time. Then you take a god with a moral compass and a moral belief system, and you drop them into this world, there are questions about women’s rights, about a mechanized war where you don’t see who you are killing. It’s such a cool time.”

It's also obvious that it was visually interesting to the film makers, letting them use a steam-punk palette blending the Edwardian and the modern that contrasts strikingly with the fantasy-Hellenic ethic of the island of the Amazons. 1918 is a year short of a hundred years ago, and as such it's edging into the mythic past of popular memory. World War II, by contrast, is still "grandpa's war" to a lot of people, and as such still has a prosaic quality to its appearance. And the Great War famously stood on the threshold of modernity. When Diana visits a department store in London, she's shown clothing that wouldn't be much out of place in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. (Actually, one of the later Holmes stories, "His Last Bow", involves Holmes catching a German agent as the war is beginning in 1914.)
And yet we also see airplanes, tanks, poison gas, and a fairly fanciful version of one of the German heavy bombers which were used in the latter part of the war.
Yet I wish that the filmmakers had incorporated a bit more of the actual historical dynamics of 1918 into the movie. It would have fit well, and perhaps even helped round out a final scene which was one of the few somewhat weak writing choices in an otherwise well done movie.

First the history:

By the spring of 1918 the major powers had been at war for nearly four years. The mobile and incredibly bloody months of fighting in 1914 had brought both sides of an exhausted standstill and the troops had dug defensive position, the trenches which are the primary visual impression that we have of World War One. During 1915-1917, both sides took turns trying to break the stalemate through building up their industrial capacity to allow attacks using hitherto undreamed of quantities of munitions, new battlefield tactics, and new weapons such as poison gas and tanks. But each new development by one side was met by new counters by the other, and so rather than the hoped-for breakthrough both sides had been forced to content themselves with waging a campaign of human and material attrition, hoping the other side would run out of men, munitions, and food first.

In 1917 two potentially game-changing things happened. Imperial Russia fell to a series of revolutions, the last of which delivered the communist Bolsheviks to power. The communist leaders negotiated a separate peace with German, taking one of the key Entente powers out of the war and giving German vast swaths of Ukraine and Poland from which to draw food. However, the United States also joined the war, declaring war on German in April 1917. While peace on the Eastern Front meant that Germany could shift many of its troops from the East to the West (potentially giving them a large enough numerical advantage to stage a war-ending offensive) the entry of the US into the war promised that over the next 1-3 years millions more troops could be added to the Entente side, shifting the balance of power distinctly in their favor.

To try to end the war before the US became a major factor, Germany staged a massive offensive on the Western Front beginning in March 1918. These smashed through the French and British lines, advancing up to thirty miles and putting Paris under serious threat of occupation for the first time since 1914. However, the battered French and British troops still had enough fight left in them to inflict massive casualties on the attacking Germans, who also suffered huge difficulties keeping their troops supplied as they advanced over the broken landscape of the Western Front. The Germans suffered nearly a million causalities during the attacks, and ended them an exhausted force. With fresh (if inexperienced) American troops pouring in, the Entente began their own offensive in August 1918 and during the next three months retook all the German gains from the spring offensives, then drove them back another fifty miles, ejecting them from virtually all of France and from parts of Belgium.

At the end of September, General Ludendorff (the quartermaster general of the Imperial Army and the right hand man of supreme commander General Hindenburg, and recrafted into a villain in the Wonder Woman movie) declared that a collapse of the line might be only hours away and the army's general staff encouraged the civilian government to seek an armistice with the Entente. The civilian government proceeded to open negotiations, but these were made slow by the fact that Wilson wanted the Kaiser to abdicate and be replaced by a fully democratic government while the British and French wanted a peace that looked a lot more like a German surrender than the high minded phrases of Wilson's fourteen points had suggested. In this sense, the British and French were simply noting what the German high command had also seen: that the German army was increasingly a beaten force. They knew they could crush the German empire militarily fairly soon if there was no armistice, and though there was eagerness to end the war (and the horrifically high casualty rates which the resumption of mobile warfare had caused) sooner if possible, they wanted to make sure that the fangs of their enemy were fully pulled if they were to lay down arms.

Throughout October the allied armies continued to advance and the negotiations continued. At the last minute, objecting to what he saw as the harsh terms of the armistice, Ludendorff changed his mind in late October and insisted the German army should fight on. However, by this time it was clear that the German Empire was in a state of near collapse and revolution. On November 8th a delegation of German officials crossed the lines to negotiate the final terms, though they were in little position to push back against allied demands. On November 9th the Kaiser abdicated and a republic was declared. At 5:00AM on November 11th, they agreed to the armistice, which was to be effective as of 11:00AM that same day (deemed to be as soon as word could be got to all positions on both sides.)

The Wonder Woman movie is set in these final days of the war and involves an attempt by the movies villains to prolong the war just as it is coming to an end. However, aside from the fact that an armistice is being discussed an a character named General Ludendorff is trying to prolong the war and achieve a German victory, the setting is more of a generic WW1 than the particular moment of fall 1918. When Wonder Woman encounters the trenches of the front line, her guide tells her that despite heavy fighting these lines have moved only inches in the last year of fighting. The negotiations for an armistice are ongoing, but in the movie world it seems to be a general agreement of both sides to stop fighting, rather than an allied victory. I think there are some interesting choices the writers could have made to incorporate more history and at the same moment strengthen a weakness of the ending.

Spoilers to follow:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death Comes for the Guinea Pig

Last Saturday evening we were running all over the house, straightening up for a Pentecost potluck. People were yelling at each other, tripping over each other, bossing and objecting and protesting. Added to that was the mechanical noise -- the dryer, the dishwasher, the vacuum I was pushing around the dining room, sucking up dinner debris and the hay around Piggy's cage. Piggy, whose given name (not given by us) is Big Electric Piggy, has been a resident of the dining room for the four years since her cage was put there temporarily while her owners across the street staged their house to sell. They moved, she didn't, and ever since we've been the bemused caregivers of a guinea pig.

Piggy is a harmless creature and doesn't do anything novel, so I thought it odd that she was laying on her side kicking her back feet in a way I'd never seen before. A second later, I realized that she was convulsing. I called for Darwin, and he and everyone came running, and the evening abruptly shifted gears.

While Darwin snuggled Piggy in a towel, the oldest googled for information about guinea pigs and convulsions, discovering in the process that the life expectancy for piggies is 4-8 years. Piggy was at least 10 years old, though nobody knew for sure, so the prognosis didn't look good. Everyone took turns patting her head and telling her she was a good piggy, and after about ten minutes she grew very still and her eyes became glazed and opaque.

A shoebox was found, and a grave was dug, and Piggy was interred with all due ceremonies. The mourning continued on, with younger children wailing for the lost pig, and stuffed animals needing to be located and tucked in with everybody for comfort -- Piggy more essential in death than she ever was in life. In the morning, grief was assuaged, and we went on as usual, but without the little presence in the corner of the dining room to give an amiable squeak every now and then.

The kids are already asking for another guinea pig, but I'm not willing to add another animal into the house before the baby is born. But I do think we'll get another piggy soon. She was a good and gentle creature, and probably more missed now by the parents than the children. I told the kids, the night she died, that she was probably nibbling grass now in the Garden of Eden, and why not? Piggy was the least offensive creature that ever lived, and the primal paradise seems about the right place for animal souls. I hope she's adding her small squeak to the celestial harmony.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

D-Day: Planning, Chaos and the Human Decision Maker

I was reading this old Atlantic piece by WW2 army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall, in which he recounts the fates of several of the hardest hit companies that landed on Omaha Beach 73 years ago today.

D-Day is a fascinating intersection of complex, detailed planning and completely unpredictable, seemingly chaos-driven, human choices and experiences. Massive amounts of planning, logistics, and training went into getting the American, British, and Canadian troops to the Normandy beaches, delivering them in effective landing craft and providing them with the necessary equipment. The attack plans, the naval bombardment, the areal bombardment, the parachute drops-- all were meticulously planned.

And yet the story of many of the units which went ashore is one of chaos: Boats foundering, boats landing in the wrong place, men drowning or wounded in the water.

The breakthroughs off the beach are seemingly a combination of unbelievable courage and complete chance. Many brave men full of initiative were killed without any chance to lead up and off the beach. Others escaped horrendous fire by seemingly random chance and led the way inland.

Those who trained the men in the first waves might have had a good idea which men had the most leadership and courage, but they had no way of knowing which would have the opportunity to use those skills.

Does this mean the work of the planners and trainers was all for naught? Was the operation really simply a matter of chaos and chance? Was it the sort of battle in which the work of the staff and logistics officers were useless while the day was won by the bravery of individual grunts, NCOs, and junior officers?

The answer is that all elements were essential to the success: the grunts, the planners, the supply lines, and a dose of luck.

The planners could not have known which men would have the chance to make it through the storm of fire on the beaches, but they were responsible for getting enough men there, on time and with the right equipment, so that whoever did have the opportunity to lead men off the beach would be able to do so. The plans for a huge operation such as this can seem mechanistic: put all the pieces in place and expect them to move through the planned motions like pieces on a game board. However, these are thinking pieces, responding to the situations they face with fear, bravery, leadership, or paralysis. At each individual point, the success or failure of the attack was the result of the very individual actions and reactions of the Allied attackers and German defenders. And yet it took incredible planning to put all those men there, with the confidence that in the chaos of the day enough of them would win through.

Itch Report

To all who made recommendations for treating poison ivy, my grateful thanks. I'm sorry to report that the Zanfel didn't do anything for my case except to pop the innumerable sensitive blisters on my forearm. On the other hand, my 11yo, who used it on her face, cleared up very quickly.

The poison ivy on my arms lingered on for another month. Finally I went to the urgent care and was given a prescription for a steroid cream, Benedryl, and Pepcid. (Something about Pepcid is supposed to disrupt the poison ivy? I didn't find that it worked all that well.) Everyone knows that oral steroids are the fastest way to clear up poison ivy, but they're also a class D drug in pregnancy, and certainly counterindicated for someone as far along as I am. Like I need baby getting any bigger!

The cream didn't work much better than a placebo, to be honest, and the patches on my arm looked like I'd been badly burned. I eventually switched from the steroid cream to a scar cream to try to mitigate the permanent damage. Now, seven weeks later, I'm finally healing up. My blotches are still visible, but much milder and smaller than they were. Much as having a body wears me out, it's remarkable to watch it healing itself from the edges in. The texture of the skin is creeping back to normal, even if it's still sensitive and itchy when brushed.

All well and good, but then, as the poison ivy was first showing signs of healing, I broke out in itchy spots elsewhere: stomach, upper arms, the backs of my thighs. This itch, friends, was misery. I still have a scab on my shin where I scratched the skin off in a frenzy. I laid awake at night, rotating through the inventory of scratching, wondering what on earth was going on. It wasn't poison ivy anymore. This was something new, and unfair, I thought, considering that I'd just been through one iteration of itch.

One day my daughter wanted to see what the baby looked like, so I pulled up a pregnancy website and read about 34 weeks. After we cooed over the baby image, I read down the rest of the page and came to: 
If you notice itchy red bumps or welts on your belly, and possibly your thighs and buttocks as well, you may have a condition called pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP for short). 
Up to 1 percent of pregnant women develop PUPPP, which is harmless but can be quite uncomfortable. See your healthcare provider so she can make sure it's not a more serious problem, provide treatment to make you more comfortable, and refer you to a dermatologist if necessary. Also be sure to call her if you feel intense itchiness all over your body, even if you don't have a rash. It could signal a liver problem.
I consulted Dr. Wikipedia and did a little self-diagnosing. 
Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP), known in United Kingdom as polymorphic eruption of pregnancy (PEP),[1] is a chronic hives-like rash that strikes some women during pregnancy. Although extremely annoying for its sufferers (because of the itch), it presents no long-term risk for either the mother or unborn child. PUPPP frequently begins on the abdomen and spreads to the legs, feet, arms, chest, and neck.[2] 
Papules and plaques usually start appearing on the abdomen (although not on the umbilicus/bellybutton) and often spreads to the legs, chest, underarms, etc. The face is usually also spared and does not seem to become affected. 
Skin distension (stretching) is a common factor in PUPPP, which is more common in mothers with large fundal measurements and/or those who are carrying large babies, twins, and triplets. The papules and plaques often first appear within stretch marks.
Certain studies reveal that this condition is more frequent in women carrying boys, although no formal research has been conducted. Statistics cite that 70% of PUPPP sufferers deliver boys. Some researchers think it has to do with male DNA interacting with the mother's body causing irritation. 
PUPPP's occurs in about 1 in every 200 pregnancies and is not always easy to diagnose.
My children are delighted to think that I may be carrying twins or triplets (dream on, kids).

When I next went to my OB, I mentioned it, and had my self-diagnosis confirmed, every internet researcher's dream. My many friends who sell essential oils will be glad to know that the OB said that the only thing he'd ever heard of that helped the PUPPP itch was lavender oil (properly diluted), and that I've already acquired some lavender oil, but thanks anyway. And it does seem to work! I slather myself up each evening, and my itchiness is generally appeased.

I'm beginning to think, though, that we should just name baby Spot.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Reading, Translating, and Decoding

As we wrap up a year of family German classes (fulfilling foreign language requirements for the old kids and providing a chance to for me to check off something that I've been wanting to learn in order to help with research, etc.) I find myself taking stock of my abilities in the language. What I want, even more than the ability to converse fluently (which I have little opportunity for) is the ability to read in German relatively well. Right now I'm at something of a halfway stage. I know enough of the grammar and the most common words that I can translate a passage, with ample help from a dictionary to look up words I don't know. (Honestly, I'm usually just typing unfamiliar words into my phone or computer, because it's faster than turning pages to learn meanings.)

However, as I was working through a couple pages of German this way the other night, it was striking me that aside from my vocabulary issues there's still something fundamentally different about what I'm doing in comparison to how an actual German reader would deal with a text. What I'm doing right now might be better termed decoding, because in some ways I'm still turning things into a more standard English structure as I figure them out.

For instance, the use of a past continuous is very common in German, and a standard sentence order in that case is: [Phrase denoting time or place] [helping verb: a form of sein (to be) or haben (to have)] [subject] [object] [past participle].

Laying something like that out in English might go like this:

Early in the morning had we on the train to Berlin to ride.

Of course, in English we'd keep the verb together, and a natural order would be something like:

We had to ride on the train to Berlin early in the morning.

Now, these are easy enough words that I'd make it through fine on my own and wouldn't even be consulting the dictionary, but throw in a bunch of vocabulary and I find myself going back to my old schoolboy Latin habits. Latin, of course, also has the habit of saving the verb for last. We all get the explanation during the early weeks of our first Latin class that this creates a sense of anticipation as you want to find out what is being done by the subject to the object in the sentence. However, I virtually always did what a lot of beginning decoders of a foreign language do: I would identify my subject, then jump to the end of the sentence and wee what my verb was, then go back and pick up the rest of the sentence. In essence, I was transforming the sentence into English sentence order as I went along.

This is fine for getting the sense of what's written, but it strikes me that if you stick with this, you never really move into thinking in the other language the way a speaker or reader of it would. Germans, I would assume, are not constantly jumping to the end of the sentence to see what the participle is. They see "hatte" (I had) or "war" (I was) and then they just hang on until they reach the end of the sentence and find out what I was or I had been doing.

Perhaps speed and vocabulary is a good part of what helps here. When I'm reading in English, even a weird sentence order doesn't leave me hanging so long that I get confused or frustrated and go searching for my verb. I'm moving fast enough that I take in all the parts and assemble them into a sensible whole.

So continuing to improve my vocabulary is probably part of what it will take to move from this decoding or translating approach to actual reading, but the other part is to develop some greater flexibility of mind such that I don't find it hard to simply process the sentence in the order that it comes, rather than mentally rearranging it to its "correct" order.


Jen Fitz has a great response post on developing natural reading ability in a foreign language.

Bearing also has a great response post about techniques for addressing alien grammar.

Boy, all this engagement is also like the old days of blogging. I should write about language learning more often!

Friday, June 02, 2017

One Impossible Thing, Before Breakfast

8:30 am, Friday. Summer.

One child in the bedroom, on the laptop, with earphones on, after bellowing, "Get out!" at siblings.

One child in the shower, bellowing "Part of Your World".

One child sitting on the floor, sifting through the container of the guinea pig's "cereal".

Two children on Netflix, watching Weird Wonders of the World.

And one child standing at my shoulder as I try to write out a grocery list.

"Mom? Is it true that the man pees into the woman, and that's what makes a baby?"

"Wha...? No, he doesn't pee."

"Then what does he do?"

"It's a different fluid, called sperm. The sperm is the seed that fertilizes the woman's egg."

"So he pees sperm into her belly button?"

"No, not the belly button... And he doesn't pee."

"So, the man basically doesn't do anything?"

I struggle to keep down a shout of laughter, but my face is fighting me, just as it did the other day the second after I demanded, "Why did you call your sister 'buttface'?"

The child knows something is up. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing. The man has to put his private parts into the woman to get the sperm in her."

"In her bottom?"

"No, where she pees. The baby has to go in the same way it comes out."


"Yes, isn't it? And that's why only married people who love and trust each other should do anything to make a baby. Now let me make my list if you want to go to the picnic today."

Well, it is pretty bizarre when you think about.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Way We Live Now

We've been writing this blog for twelve years (the first post was June 8th, but I'm lousy at remembering any anniversaries other than our wedding, so I might as well that that in now.) I've never been a good diarist. There are a half dozen books or computer files in which I managed to keep up a journal for a few months. I think the reason I always failed at such endeavors is that I could never find it interesting for long to write about myself for an audience of just myself. Writing is a form of communication, and if it's not being shared with others, who are you communicating with?

I think that's why the blog has generally been a fruitful endeavor for me. There is some sense of writing to communicate with others, but none of the restrictions of writing for a specific market. It's allowed the topics to meander over the years to whatever interests us at the moment, and it's allowed the blog to survive times when we've very little time to write.

It does also provide a window on my own past, though. Twelve years ago when I wrote that first post we had only two children, and I'd only recently secured what I thought of as my first "real job" because it was salaried (rather than hourly) and actually paid enough for us to live on (a virtue with which my jobs back in California had only flirted.) I recall we thought of ourselves as very busy back in those days, and I did indeed work some very long hours as well as still doing some web programming work on the side for extra money. Yet to judge by the number of posts back in 2005 and 2006, we must have had more time than we thought, as we put up more posts back then than at any time since.

I've been feeling old (or more properly: middle-aged) lately, and it's a feeling that I mostly enjoy, though it seems to leave me writing less. Our oldest daughter is fifteen. She'll be starting to learn to drive come the new year. Girl number two is thirteen and the third is a tall and leggy eleven. (Sometimes I think she'll be the most conventionally beautiful of the older set -- other times I think that our current conventions of beauty are based on eleven-year-olds.)

We don't do sports in our family (dance, drama and cub scouts provide enough activities to dodge around between) but the girls agreed to a regime of running this summer, working up to a 5k or something longer. So this morning I roused them out of bed at a quarter to seven and we jogged a mile and three quarters. They were good sports about it, and a week into the regime are starting to build a little stamina, but the early mornings come hard to teens and near teens who don't normally have to get up and catch a school bus. We're a family of night owls, and one of the reasons why I chronically feel that I have no time is that with the long summer daylight it's often nine o'clock before we get the little ones in the from the yard and ten before they're in bed. Then it's eleven or later before the older ones settle down. If I'm to have some quiet time to write and such after the rest of the family are down, that time now starts about 11:30pm. Perhaps it's no wonder that this novel is progressing more slowly than the last one.

Last weekend we watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with the older kids. It's a fun movie, though not greater than the sum of its parts. One moment that's always really stuck with me is where Indiana Jones and his father are talking and the senior Jones says, "You left just as you were getting interesting." That's one of the things that makes this time so satisfying even if it is very time consuming. The older children are starting to relate not just as kids doing kid things which we need to keep an eye on, but as other people with their own interests and abilities. It's not all even sailing. They're still inexperienced people with strong moods that they don't always know how to keep under control. Still, dealing with one of them having a bad day is a lot more like trying to talk sense into someone at work having a bad day than it is dealing with a toddler having a bad day. And it's genuinely fascinating (if occasionally frustrating) to see these people emerge with their own interests and talents, not necessarily similar to our own. For all my regrets at not having time (or only getting time by cutting my sleeping hours down to six or less) it's a good stage of life.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


No, we have not dropped off the face of the earth. But we've mostly finished with schoolwork, and we had a long weekend, and... oh, just have some clickage.

1. First up, a clip from that classic crime drama, Bohemian Rhapsody.


2. The kids are all signed up for the summer reading program at the library, the sort of thing where you track your reading in fifteen-minute implements, and at six hours and twelve hours you get prizes. This is the sort of thing that makes me realize: I would not have been a good scientist. I don't mind doing stuff, even stuff that takes a lot of time or repetitive work, but I'm terrible at keeping records. I don't want to track how many hours I read. I just want to read.

The smaller kids and I were going to do a science project where we planted seeds in cups, and then put them in windows on different sides of the house, and kept track of what days we watered and rotated them to see which area was the most beneficial. Well, we did water our plants, and rotate them, and all the good stuff you need to do -- but after the first day we didn't write anything down or mark our charts.

People themselves are motivated to keep their reading logs, because prizes, but the ones who are going to have a harder time are the ones for whom I have to help keep time.


3. Speaking of reading, we just finished our readaloud: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). This is one of my favorites, but I'm sad that I've reached a point where I can read about the can of pineapple without dissolving into choking tears of hysteria.

Now taking recommendations for a good summer readaloud.


4. Time to go to the beach. Anne Kennedy has you covered:
So, helpfully, right there on the main page, were 12 things you need, NEED for your summer trip away. I’m just going to list them real quick and then offer my own alternative list. The twelve things you need, NEED for this summer are, in order 
A Brightly Colored Bikini (Hahahahahahaha) 
The Perfect One Piece (obviously, because you can definitely get the perfect one piece. It is possible to do that. You just need to go to like a store or like the internet and just pick anything out because it will fit, it will, and when you’re wearing it, its perfection will keep you from wanting to die. It’s going to be great. Just go out and get it, that perfect one piece, go on. Why are you crying?)

5. Speaking of things that make you want to die, which Shakespearean corpses spend the longest time languishing on stage? Here's a handy chart.


6. Speaking of things worth dying for, yesterday I actually got up and made a dessert: a chocolate semifreddo. It's lot easier than making homemade ice cream, and very very tasty.

I don't know if the WSJ article will unlock for you all, so here's the recipe.

Dark Chocolate and Toasted Almond Semifreddo
Note: The eggs in this recipe are not fully cooked.

Active Time: 15 minutes Total Time: 4¼ hours (includes freezing) Serves: 8

½ cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate (63% cacao or higher), melted, warm but not hot
¾ cup toasted, coarsely chopped almonds

1. Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap. Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. In bowl, whisk together sugar, whole eggs, egg yolks and a pinch of salt until very pale and thick, 4-6 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Use an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment to beat cream to soft peaks. Set aside ⅔ cup of whipped cream for serving and chill, covered, in the refrigerator until needed.

3. Use a rubber spatula to fold chocolate into egg mixture and then quickly but gently fold in whipped cream, stopping when cream is about three-quarters of the way mixed in.

4. Add almonds to chocolate mixture and quickly but gently fold in until completely incorporated. Transfer mixture to prepared pan, cover and freeze for at least 4 hours.

5. To slice the semifreddo, turn it out onto a serving platter and peel off plastic wrap. (You can do this step ahead of time and store, covered, in the freezer until ready to serve.) Slice and serve with a dollop of the reserved chilled whipped cream.


7. If you're looking for some summer enrichment for your teens, Brandon Watson is running an Introduction to Modal Logic series which we've been working through with the 15yo.

For more philosophy:


8. The older girls are going out tonight for auditions for the community theater production of Godspell. I'd be right up there with them if I weren't a) 8 years past the age cut-off for this particular show, and, more crucially b) going into labor the week of the performances. This is how you can tell what's important to me. If it were sports or dogwalking or a summer job, I'd be all, "Kids, we just can't do that this year. I'm going to have a baby, after all." With theater, I'm all, "Sure, I may be having contractions, but the show must go on! You'll get there somehow!"

I'm very sad, though, to have missed another opportunity to fulfill my lifelong dream of belting out this number, originally sung by Sonia Manzano, who later went on to find fame as Maria on Sesame Street.

Break a leg, girls!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tragedy, Comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy

MrsDarwin and I got a chance to go see Guardians of the Galaxy on Mothers Day afternoon. In what increasingly seems our standard model for blockbusters, the eldest three kids had already seen it, and we were getting the second shift a week later.

I enjoyed the movie. It had a lot of the elements I enjoyed from the original, and Baby Groot is as cute as promised. In some ways, the story was tighter and more compelling than in the original. And yet, with the writing success, there was something a little darker to it as well that I've been trying to think through. Joseph Moore had a interesting take that I'm mostly in agreement with (contains spoilers) over at Yard Sale of the Mind.

Here's what I've come to in a spoiler-free take. There was a lot that was enjoyable about the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It grabbed me right from the first scene, where Chris Pratt's Peter Quill puts on his headphones and dances his way across an alien cave (at point point picking up a reptilian rat-like creature and singing into it as a microphone) on his way to steal a mysterious ancient alien artifact from a ruined city. It was a great scene, and it followed by a confrontation with some minor bad guys who have never heard of Quill's self-assigned galactic criminal nickname "Star Lord" give us a feel for the great music, the fantastic settings, and the likable loser of the main character who we follow through the rest of the movie.

While the plot eventually brings us a pair of bloodthirsty warlords as villains and an ancient relic powerful enough to maintain or destroy the universe, the characters we follow are mostly comic and have a certain kind of small scale which often goes with a comic character. In the action scene which introduces us to Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot, we have a comic fight scene masterpiece in which despite the variety of swords and ray guns being used, no one ends up much hurt. None of the characters have a principled aversion to violence. Gamora's rap sheet includes working as an assassin, and Rocket Raccoon is a thief with a fondness for huge energy weapons. But rather than epic heroes fighting massive battles, our characters are small time criminals who stumble into a situation where they end up saving the galaxy.

Odysseus takes revenge on the suitors

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot

In this sense, they're well suited to a comedy in the classical sense. The ancient Greeks (and to a fair extent the Romans who followed their example) wrote tragedies and epics about great warriors and rulers, and comedies about ordinary small scale people. While Greek Old Comedy (typified by Aristophanes) focused on cultural and political satire, though still dealing mostly with people of small scale rather than great figures, Greek New Comedy (and the Roman Comedy written in its image) focuses on the quibbles of ordinary people: jealous wives, philandering husbands, lovesick youths, wily slaves, etc. make up the stock characters of the New Comedy world. By contrast, tragedies (like the epics whose mythological characters they use) focused on the doings of the great, and their deeds which at times were terrible. So, for instance, we have Oedipus, the son of a king and queen who on hearing a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, have baby Oedipus's ankles pierced and tied together (so he can't crawl) and the baby exposed on the hillside to die. Oedipus is, however, rescued and eventually raised by another king and queen, before hearing as an adult the same prophesy. In an attempt to run away from the prophesy, he ends up killing his real father, marrying his real mother, and when all this comes out his mother hangs herself and he gouges out his eyes. So we see the elements: Oedipus is of noble birth. Terrible deeds are done.

While it's not the same, epic in some ways shares these elements. The heroes of the Iliad rack up massive body counts which struggling with powerful emotions (jealousy, revenge, love) and they are all royal or noble. The Odyssey spends much of its time on recounting a journey, but the action set piece is when Odysseus returns home and exacts revenge against the suitors of his wife and the maids in the household who have consorted with them, revenge so bloody that Athena herself has to intervene at the end to keep Ithaca from spiraling down into total war as the victims' families seek revenge against Odysseus. There are humorous bits in the Odyssey -- such as Odysseus blinding the cyclopes and telling him that his name is "Nemo" (no one) with the result that the wounded cyclopes runs about telling everyone "No one is attacking me!" but it's still kind of dark and violent humor.

This is part of what strikes me about Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, and it's why even though I enjoyed it I found myself wondering if it's heading in directions I'm not going to like in the end. Rather than being comic criminals, the Guardians are now, well, 'The Guardians of the Galaxy'. They have a stature. And even though they're still the wise cracking characters we like, they're no going around hiring themselves out to do big galaxy saving work. As heroes go, these aren't people with quiet ordinary lives who are sometimes pulled aside to do big things, like the hobbits of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. They're more like a comic, for-hire version of Homer's epic warriors: larger than life, skilled in battle, and possibly descended in part from gods.

There's a scene, a really well filmed scene with great music, in which characters who have been wronged (and wronged badly) go on a revenge spree which is close to being a space fantasy version of Odysseus's clean up in the banquet hall. It's a satisfying scene. It's an epic scene. It's a scene in which scores of people are killed because they had it coming. But it's not exactly light hearted.

This familiarity with violence is part of what gives this movie a less light tone. In the original movie, as the Guardians are escaping from a prison space station, Quill is tasked to take the prosthetic leg of another inmate as part of the materials needed for the escape. Even as a big fight with guard robots is going on, he ends up transferring a large sum to the inmate to buy the leg from him, rather than simply taking it from him. Repeatedly in that movie Quill tries to talk, bargain, dance, or pay his way out of dangerous situations -- it's part of the small time crook charm about him that he's always looking for ways to wiggle out of situations short of pulling out a laser gun and blasting away. This is part of what makes him seem more a comic character (one engaged in the small time finagling of life) rather than an epic hero bent on making hundreds die in Homeric fashion with the taste of cold bronze between their teeth. And that's what has changed in the second movie. Now are characters are all Homeric scale killing machines. They still have wise cracks, and they actually have a deeper and more compelling set of human attachments than they did in the first movie. But they are no longer the small characters of comedy but the big characters of epic. And in so they fight big battles, exact terrible revenge, and deal with dark fatherhood issues.

I still enjoyed the movie. It's a well made and fun movie, and it has more of a heart in many ways than the original. But it seems to me that it's also edging away from comedy and towards being the same kind of big epic full of world bestriding heroes that we see in the other Marvel franchises. And even though I enjoyed the movie, I'm a bit sorry to see that happen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Others

Ian McEwan's celebrated novel Atonement tells the story of a young girl named Briony Tallis who, fancying herself a writer and jumping to create narratives in her head, miscontrues a series of events between her sister and the young man who becomes her lover. Based on the story she's created in her head, she later concludes that she's witnessed the young man raping her cousin, despite being unable to see the perpetrator, and her false testimony sends the man to prison. Later in the novel, a repentant Briony encounters her sister and the man, and humbly accepts an oddly theatrical comeuppance and shaming. And still later, at the end of the book we discover that Briony has grown up to be a respected novelist, and has written the earlier section to atone for her deeds and to create a new, happier ending for the wronged pair.

A fascinating literary experiment, and McEwan is a skilled enough writer to make it almost plausible, but the problem is that now the reader doubts everything in the book. What is true? What is false? Is the whole novel a construct of Briony's imagination? Which pivotal details really did happen as presented? Does McEwan even know which parts of his story are real, and which are imagined?

And this is only fiction we're examining.

There's been a lot of discussion of Alex Tizon's April cover article in the Atlantic about Lola, the woman who lived with his family and raised him, and whom he came to realize was not simply a live-in helper and maid, but a slave. The article is well worth reading: beautifully written, soul-searching, and all the more poignant for the fact that Tizon died suddenly in March.
Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding. 
To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said “please” and “thank you.” We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be. 
After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
Tizon passed away in March, just as the Atlantic had decided to run Lola's story. We can't turn to him for more details of Lola's life, or why, even acknowledging the complex web of obligations to his mother and the cultural differences between the Philippines and America, he didn't do more to emancipate Lola from a life of abuse and humiliations. (His parents maltreated her emotionally and physically, in front of the children. The family didn't even give her a place to sleep.) We hear very little about his four siblings, despite his account that his brother, eight years older, was outraged at Lola's treatment. In this article, Tizon seems to be trying to atone for his family's moral culpability for Lola's slavery, and to give an honorable, fair account of both this meek, gracious woman and of his complex, contradictory mother.

It turns out that this was not Tizon's first eulogy for Lola. In 2011, the year of Lola's death, he contacted the Seattle Times, his employer, about running an obituary for Lola. Susan Kelleher, the reporter assigned to the piece, spoke with Tizon and, based on his account of her life and his anecdotes, wrote a moving account of Lola's life and devotion to the Tizon family. This week, Kelleher wrote a horrified correction and apology after reading Tizon's Atlantic article with the salient details he didn't choose to reveal to her in 2011.

Tizon was a career journalist, so writing was hardly foreign to him. It sounds as if he wrestled for years with how to tell Lola's story, how to do justice to her and grapple with his own complicity and responsibilities to her and to his family and to the truth. And yet in the end, each attempt to acknowledge Lola ended up revealing more about Tizon himself than about a woman who, ultimately, never was given the opportunity to tell her own story. His atonement is as layered and convoluted as Briony Tallis's attempts to reconstruct her own complicity in a crime she didn't commit, and as contradictory as her literary versions of atonement.

But this isn't fiction.

It is a rare person, a rare writer, who, in trying to recount or account for another person, can truly tell that person's story. Often when we speak of other people, we are speaking of ourselves, viewing that person's life through the lens of our own experience and emotions, baggage and convictions. Tizon's Atlantic article suggests an honest grappling with his family's history and legacy, but read in the light of the initial obituary for Lola (for which he alone contributed all the biographical information), it seems like another draft of Atonement. In the obituary, Lola's many virtues and beautiful devotion are made much of -- even the time that Lola took a beating from the mother's father for the mother's misdeed! -- without the critical information about the slavery that formed her character and compelled that devotion under threat of punishment. Tizon's guilt impels him to mold and remold the clay of Lola's life, but the stories are ultimately constructed in his own image. He writes of his surprise at reading his mother's journals:
Before she died, she gave me her journals, two steamer trunks’ full. Leafing through them as she slept a few feet away, I glimpsed slices of her life that I’d refused to see for years. She’d gone to medical school when not many women did. She’d come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She’d worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institution for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together—shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another’s homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Lola leaves no personal account of her life, being unable to read and write until the last years of her life. All we know is what Tizon tells us. And Tizon himself wrote movingly about the underdog, as the Atlantic note about his death tells us:
The Pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon built an exemplary career by listening to certain types of people—forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never before been asked for their stories. Alex’s wife, Melissa Tizon, told me recently that her husband was always impatient with small talk, because he believed that all people had within them an epic story, and he wanted to hear those epic stories—and then help tell them to the world. “Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story,” he liked to say. 
But in trying to tell the truth of Lola's story, he reveals more about himself than her -- not just because their lives are intertwined, but because he is both grappling with and trying to excuse his own part in it.

"Blessed are the pure of heart," Jesus says in the Beatitudes, "for they shall see God."  The pure of heart, who see Truth, are perhaps the only people who can speak the truth of other people. Everyone else sees facets of that truth through the lens of their own biases. In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan tells Shasta, "I tell no one any story but his own.” It seems that we can tell no story other than our own, no matter how hard we try.

If you know someone in similar circumstances to Lola, or suspect that someone may be living in forced servitude, please contact the National Human Trafficking Referral Directory, or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Poison Ivy, Again

Looking back through the blog archives, I see that I chronicled the 2011 bout of poison ivy, and the 2012 one, but not the 2015 round that left my daughter and me with faces and eyes so puffy we eventually had to go to the doctor and get a prescription for steroids. We walked around with our faces blotched pink with calamine, and people shrank from us in horror in the grocery store. Here, a memory:

This looks a lot more photogenic than it actually was.
2017 brings its own case, though again with the same two protagonists. My 11yo and I were out trimming weedy branches off of the trees along the side of the driveway to make the property line look neater. The neighbors recently suffered a death in the family, and we wanted to clean up and do a bit of the yardwork they might not feel up to in the days of grief. And in the course of this good deed, as we were cutting down the brush and shoving it into big brown bags, I came across a dead vine with sprigs of three shriveled leaves. Immediately we backed away from the project, cast the vine (held by the shears) into a distant corner of the lawn where some hidden poison ivy still lurks, went inside, lathered up, and scrubbed hands, faces, shears, everything.

Too late. 

My poor 11yo has it on her face, though not as badly as in 2015. She had to powder over it for her dance recital on Saturday, a tender procedure as one of the properties of the poison ivy rash is to be very sensitive to even the slightest touch. My face is untouched, but I have a large patch of coarse, densely packed blisters on my left forearm, which puff and ooze and look generally scabrous. Poison ivy developing as it does, slighter patches are still erupting. I have a single large blister on my left palm which is almost pretty in its bubble-like perfection. Also, I have it on the backs of my ears. Why? How? Who knows?

The other day some child and I were watching an icky video featuring makeup jobs that approximated the great sicknesses of yesteryear: smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculous, and something else that looked disgusting. We don't see many buboes or smallpox blisters these days, and cosmetics have gone a long way toward evening out the effects of various kinds of ugly scars. However, sometimes there's nothing for it but to go out of the house with a suppurating wound, and endure the looks. In the grand scheme of things, we have it pretty well. Our poison ivy will clear up and leave no trace, and the pain is not too bad. And now we have something minor but substantial to offer for our neighbors' true agony.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

An Illustrated Guide to Getting Off the Couch

Sure, you could go see Guardians of the Galaxy this week if you need laughs and drama, but it's going to be a lot cheaper to come to my house and watch me try to get off the couch from a supine position.

Someone who never has any trouble getting up off the couch.

First, I have to get close enough to the edge to get my legs over it. This might mean rolling over, a stop-motion form of animation in which I maneuver by degrees to my side. Bystanders start to titter nervously, and someone asks if I need a hand.

"No, I'm good," I say as I grab the edge of the couch and jerk myself over.

Once I can get a leg over, I need to get vertical. Sometimes this is accomplished by utilizing the aforementioned hand, but sometimes I like to do things the hard way, or there's no one around to haul me up. Then I tip myself slowly off the couch until the force of gravity acts on my belly and pulls my feet to the ground. Once feet are on the floor, I can continue rolling and slowly, slo-o-o-wly straighten up. If I go too fast... haha, just kidding! I don't go fast anymore.

When I'm vertical, I need to reset my pelvis before I can walk. This process can be compared to bellydancing, minus the seductive allure.

Not this.

You see, in this stage of pregnancy one's joints loosen up. Not loosen up as in "limber, like a Russian gymnast". No, the sensation is more like, "I'm not sure if my leg is still attached, except that it hurts to move." (Come to that, it probably hurts to move if your leg is not still attached.) Once the pelvis is shaken about and quasi-realigned, I can stagger around, gradually working up to an agile shuffle.You can't really blame me. Baby does weigh almost four pounds.

What a 32-week baby looks like

What a 32-week baby feels like

Friday, May 12, 2017

Some Number of Takes

Tossed off in the moments before we have to leave for the dance recital rehearsal.

1. Need to feel good about your weight? Find out how many cheetahs you weigh! Or what percentage of an elephant you are, or how many raccoons with bowling balls in a trench coat it would take to equal you. My Animal Weight gives you all this pressing information, and many more options.

2. If you follow the new genre of live musicals on TV, you'll be interested to learn that NBC's next production will be Jesus Christ Superstar, airing on Easter Sunday 2018. Now, I confess that I listened to JCS plenty in my teens because I loved Judas's opener, but the theology of it is sketchy enough that I think it's a rather questionable homage to the holy day. Not that I think the finer points of theology really concern the bigwigs at NBC, of course.

3. If you had told me thirty years ago, back when I was, oh, eight, that one day I would just order pizza for dinner because I didn't feel like cooking, I would have been flabbergasted. Those were the days when, if you wanted pizza, it was an occasion. You got your shoes on, and you drove down to Pizza Hut, and you sat at a table under a pseudo-Tiffany fixture hanging on a chain, and drank soda out of tall red plastic cups. Pizza was delivered to your table in a metal pan. You ate pizza maybe once a year, maybe more often if you finished your Book-It program at school.

Now, I look at the empty fridge and think about sitting for two hours in a high school auditorium watching the dances I'm just going to watch again tomorrow, and I think, "Yeah, Dominos." Served from the box onto paper plates, and maybe I'll break down and order a two-liter too, all off the Dominos app on my phone. Truly, I have come up in the world. When I was a kid, we just would have eaten box mac 'n cheese with hotdogs cut up into it, and we would have liked it, gosh darn it.

4. Speaking of things that happened a long time ago, my oldest turned 15 on Wednesday.

We got married seven weeks after graduating from college, and got pregnant a month later. Most of my friends my age have oldest kids several years younger, due to marrying later or waiting to have kids or whatnot, a fact my oldest children always reflect on when we go to visit people and there are no kids their age. I guess I'm a fairly young mom of a 15-year-old, but I don't really feel it these days with the aches of being 32 weeks pregnant. Perhaps when I'm 40 with a 17-year-old and a 2-year-old, I'll be positively spry.

5. Someone made the tactical error of putting stage makeup on the 6-year-old before brushing her hair. Now the eyeliner is all over the place, and we'll have to start again.

6. We have to walk out the door right now.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 3-1

We return to Natalie in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. The installment is a bit longer than usual (which in part explains why it took a while to get done) but I hope people will find it worth the wait.

Near Tarnow, Galicia. March 26th, 1915. For most of the Russian Third Army, the fourth week of March, 1915 was remembered because on the twenty-second the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemyśl finally surrendered. Situated in the Habsburg half of Poland, the stronghold on the River San had been completely surrounded by Russian forces since October, yet its garrison of a hundred and twenty-five thousand men had held out all through the winter. A symbol of the tenacity and disfunction of the empire it defended, the garrison had withstood artillery bombardment and increasing starvation while issuing its daily orders in fifteen different languages: Poles, Austrians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs, and Jews united only in their willingness to resist the Tsar’s army. And yet at last, supplies had run out and the hundred thousand surviving defenders had been led into captivity. Before the Russian army, the way was open to march south across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary, or West into the heart of German Silesia towards Breslau and Dresden.

At the seventh field hospital’s first unit, however, that week was recalled as the week during which Doctor Sokoloff collapsed with pneumonia and after several days of feverous delirium was sent home on the next hospital train to recover his health. This left the field hospital to be run by four certified nurses, including Natalie as the newcomer; the staff of orderlies, nurses’ aides, and housekeeping sisters who did much of the work but provided little of the medical expertise in the hospital; and one surgeon: Doctor Sergeyev.

Sokoloff had always been the more reclusive of the two doctors, deferring to the eminence of Sergeyev’s Moscow training and retreating to his room with one of his small collection of books whenever he was not on duty. And yet the mere fact of the second surgeon had been enough to provide balance.

“I’ve done with him,” announced Sister Travkin. She poured herself a cup of tea from the samovar. The field hospital had remained in the same place for more than five months now -- a result of the winter weather and the lack of success achieved by either side’s winter offensives -- and during that time all that could be made comfortable had been. The nobleman’s hunting lodge which had been requisitioned for their use had been well furnished, yet there was no place for upholstered chairs and Persian rugs in operating theaters and ward rooms that must be scrubbed clean with carbolic solution every day.

The women’s dormitory had originally been a stable for the owner’s thoroughbreds. Its floor planks were now scoured as clean as any kitchen floor, and the common sitting area was made comfortable with rugs, chairs, and tables taken from the house.

“What’s wrong?” asked Natalie.

“He must go to bed. There’s nothing more to be done about the wards. We are quite capable of seeing to the patients for the rest of the night and there are no more expected. But he’s prowling around like an angry cat finding fault with everything, and I’ve simply done with him. He’s had more than enough out of that medicine flask of his and it’s making him more surly by the hour.”

Continue reading

Monday, May 08, 2017

Darwiniana, Big and Small and Big

We had a lovely day for a lovely girl's confirmation.

Julia Thérèse Josephine Bakhita

Three lovely big girls.

Julia and her aged parents
The oldest of the three big girls is turning 15 on Wednesday. The youngest Darwin is also pictured, although like the Holy Spirit, you know him not through seeing him, but by his effects: the bulging maternal midsection, the softening of face and swelling of hips and veins in the wrist.

I will say, in honesty, that for all the ills of pregnancy, there are some compensations. I'm at that stage one hits in late second/early third trimester where my hair is happy every day and my skin glows. And baby kicks with great vigor and regularity, which is lots of fun except when he decides to rotate a shoulder right above my pelvis, or brace his feet and stretch himself out, or tickle.

I am starting to have weird dreams. The other night I dreamed I had to drive myself to the hospital in labor, during rush hour, in my big van, and that I had to give birth in the van with my kids delivering the baby. I woke up wondering why I just didn't plan to have a homebirth again. I don't actually think that's likely to happen. Still, this is why I've stopped reading stories now about how other women give birth. If I start to think about labor and delivery, I have a stress reaction, kind of like how the guy in the dungeon doesn't think much about his coping strategy for the next time the guards drag him off to be racked. Just get through it when it happens, and at least there's a baby at the end.

I want to write more. I want to read more. I want to be more creative. But I keep falling asleep, because all my energy is going to growing this pup, who will one day be as tall as his big sisters and engage in his own creative endeavors (hopefully after potty training, of course). Meanwhile, I expand in every direction but intellectually. My outlook for the future centers on delivering the live weight before I can drop the dead weight.