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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Story Material

I find myself oddly yet powerfully drawn in by Betty Duffy and Ross Douthat's reviews of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom -- oddly because it seems utterly plain to me from their reviews that I would not only fail to enjoy the novel but be actively annoyed by it, but powerfully because it tugs at one of my persistant questions about non-genre writing in this day and age: Is there anything worth writing about?

Douthat remarks:
What if Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters had been bright young graduates of Bowdoin or Colgate or Dartmouth, with protective parents, impressive résumés, and no pressure to wed for anything save love? What if Theodore Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths had been an ambitious young investment banker, with no need to marry money (or murder his mistress!) to secure his place in the sun? What if Anna Karenina had simply divorced her husband when she tired of him? What if Mr. Rochester had dumped his deranged wife and married the au pair, consigning the first Mrs. Rochester to the care of a generous welfare state instead of his attic?

They might have been no happier. Consider the musings of Patty Berglund, a privileged, prosperous, and liberated daughter of today’s liberal gentry, whose marital difficulties supply much of what drama there is in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.
No happier, indeed, but possibly less interesting than a Lizzie Bennet or a Rochester, no? A bit more self-indulgent, irritating, and entitled? And thus a little bit harder for a reader to care about, in the absence of the external obstacles and pressures—class and wealth, cultural convention and social stigma, to say nothing of religious and ethical taboos—that generate most of the conflict, and most of the sympathy, in the novels of an Austen or a Brontë, a George Eliot or an Anthony Trollope?
And yet the sprawling, tangled, tragic, comic, trivial and inspiring canvas of experience which make up intergenerational family life across a swath of time seem like the one thing which, even in our own time, should be completely fascinating. Franzen's book does not sound like one I want to read, and yet just reading the description of his failure makes me very much want to read someone who has succeeded at the project. I wish I thought I knew how (and had the time) to write such a thing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NFP and Fasting

When trying to explain the Catholic understanding of sexuality to someone "outside", I almost invariably find myself falling back on analogies relating to diet and gluttony. It's a natural comparison, and while modern society has lost any sense that it's reasonable to have any less sex if you want to have fewer children, people are able to get more righteous then ever over the point that if you want to be fit you must, must, must eat moderately and exercise more.

Indeed, diet and exercise may be the one thing relating to sexuality where modern culture understands a great deal of self denial. After all, one of the motivations for all this diet and exercise is, I think one may honestly admit, to look better while naked.

Which leaves the obvious question: Why has a Church which finds itself swimming against a quickening current in regards to its teaching on birth control nearly totally abandoned any sort of severity in regards to fasting?

Sure, we're an "Easter people" and all that, but maybe some rigorous self denial for the sake of religion would help us with some rigorous self denial for the sake of our faith. I've been pretty much as bad as the next fellow on this -- doing the mental calculation of whether I can make one more cup of coffee and still make the hour fast before mass or falling to the "I'll say some extra prayers tonight as a sacrifice instead" temptation on Fridays outside of Lent when meat is all that appears on the menu. But this is, after all, part of the problem. The constant NFP lament is "Look, we played by the rules all those years before we were married. Why does there have to be frustration now too?"

If virtue is a habit, perhaps it's time to form some more habits around denial of appetite.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Saying The Wrong Thing

In a sense, NPR's decision to fire commentator Juan Williams, for saying, as a guest commentator on Fox's Bill O'Reilley show, that he finds himself feeling nervous when he sees people on an airplane flight dressed in traditional Islamic attire, is entirely explicable and normal. Most cultures punish people for saying or doing things that violate cultural taboos. It is most unquestionably a major cultural taboo of the American Left (of which NPR has long made itself both spokesman spokesperson and totem) that one may not admit to being scared of non-white people who show signs of belonging to particular cultures through their dress or demeanor. Thus, you can admit to being scared of a white person in a religious t-shirt because you're concerned about "right wing violence", but you can't admit to being scared of a non-white person dressing in a way that suggests to you correlation with criminal or dangerous activity.

Williams violated this taboo when he talked about being nervous when he saw people in traditional Muslim attire on airplane flights and so it's not surprising that NPR chose to ritually drive him out.

What I find rather less believable is the extent that people have managed to work themselves up into a near-Victorian case of the vapors over the idea that someone could be made nervous by this kind of thing. Though admittedly, some people have managed to find mildly amusing ways of channeling their outrage such as the website Pictures of Muslims Wearing Things.

Perhaps I'm an cynical sort of fellow but it strikes me that beneath all this protest is an uncomfortable truth -- those in the secular left most outraged at Juan Williams daring to say such a thing (especially as a self-identified liberal and African American serving as the "balanced" part of the "Fair & Balanced" on the hated Fox News) feel just a nervous on flights with people in traditional Muslim garb as Juan Williams himself does. They don't admit to it, and they know that (as has been pointed out many times now) none of the people who've actually attempted to disrupt flights have been wearing anything other than normal Western clothing, but they do know that people who are Muslim have attempted to hijack or blow up flights in recent memory and that wearing certain types of clothing is a way of identifying oneself culturally with Islam. Although they may know intellectually that the individual person they are seeing is highly unlikely to be a threat (terrorists may not be brilliant, but they're smart enough to try to blend in when staging an attack) seeing someone in traditional Islamic garb reminds them that there are in fact people out there in the world who wish they could blow up the plane they are on, and that makes them nervous. Depend upon it.

Frankly, these folks are selling their ideals of tolerance short when they pretend that they aren't made nervous by the dress of certain cultures, whether that's an Arabic-looking man in a dishdasha or a young black man with low slung pants and a couple gold chains. Tolerance lies not in never having an emotional reaction to seeing someone, but rather in whether one treats all people as innocent and equal until proven otherwise.

Friday, October 22, 2010

No Straight Line

Something which struck me with particular force while reading Jenn's recent (very good) post about answering people who ask in relation to children, "Do you want more?!?" is that one thing we are typically not very good at is imagining the future as much other than a straight line extrapolation from the present.

This seems particularly important as regards family. Right now my ideas of what it means to be a parent are fully formed around what it means to be a parent of kids ranging from 8 through newborn. Living in close proximity to my father-in-law and MrsDarwin's older siblings on weekends since we moved to Ohio, however, it has been driven home to me how very different things will be in 10 and 20 years. Decisions we make now can have quite an effect on out lives ten or twenty or more years hence, but at the same time we actually have very little ability to understand what it will be like to be us that far in the future.

I tend to think of parenting in terms of having young children around the house, but looked at from the perspective of our entire marriage we will spend more time with adult children than with young children.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Your humble correspondent

Lookit me, posting on my own blog!

Believe me when I say I've missed you. I have composed numerous rants and half-posts in my fertile little brain, only to find that my current internet connection doesn't always deign to let me log in and post. And time is of the essence --I'm not exactly living the single mother lifestyle, since I have my dad and brother to help me out in the house during the week when Darwin is in Columbus, but there are many duties that now fall to my lot which consume a great deal of time and energy. Blah, blah, blah --who isn't overwhelmed? I keep reminding myself that statistically, I'm one of the most fortunate people in the world, in history. Most of my daily inconveniences are of the petty variety. I prayed that I could realize that there were worse fates than having one's son spill lemonade all over himself and the floor right before a road trip, and lo and behold, it turned out to be the feast day of St. Issac Jogues.

Since my email isn't always doing it for me, I've tried to turn to more traditional forms of correspondence --to whit, the letter. However, I've, run into the singular problem that no one sells stationery in Ohio. I seem to recall that in Texas you could walk into Target or Staples or any store of that I'll and find yourself in the midst of plenty of lovely writing paper and fine writing implements, delightful to the senses. In Ohio I've found no stationery so far, but everyone wants to sell me journals, scads of them. From which I can only deduce that the good citizens of Ohio want to write, but only about themselves? I'm making another foray tomorrow, to a Barnes and Noble in an expensive part of Columbus. Eons ago, when I worked at a Barnes and Noble in L.A., we used to be heavily stocked with stationery. If I strike out there, I'll just resort to snitching my dad's printer paper, I guess.

I used to be a great letter writer back in the day. By "great" I mean "prolific", not "talented". Darwin and I used to send each other tomes of agonized love, rich with all the cliches of the genre. I believe I fancied myself a great stylist. Upon sorting out our closet preparatory to the move, I found a box (a shoe box!) full of this old correspondence. As I paged through his letters and mine, I felt a sensation akin to that of the unfortunates subjected to the Total Perspective Vortex. Passages that once seemed so eloquent and incendiary now paraded with all the grace of a herd of hormonal elephants . The most engaging bits were the parts I tossed off as stupid filler: minutiae about family life or the weather or work. The most fascinating letter of all was one Darwin sent me from Greece, simply describing the place and his travels there. And I burned with shame to recall that at the time I'd sulked because I thought he didn't write enough about ME.

I've got a long way to go before I can even compete in the humility stakes with the big dogs like St. Isaac Jogues, but I guess it's a consolation that at least I still have a whole hand to write with. As I keep telling myself, things could definitely be worse.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Memoirs of a Facebooking Man

[with all due apology to Siegfried Sassoon]

For quite some time I held aloof from Facebook, considering it the domain of those who couldn't live without reading updates on what their friends were eating for lunch or what music was playing on distant people's iPods, but in the end I succumbed.  There were people I wanted to keep in touch with who were on, and in the end it proved to be a good way to provide distant friends and family with the sort of "here's a cute kid picture from today" or "listen to what the girls said" kind of news which doesn't fit at all within our editorial mandate for the blog and seems to inconsequential to actively mail to people.  Somehow the fact that one can, in a few moments, provide some photo or anecdote to everyone of one's acquaintance, but leave them to see it only if they look for it, provides a similar experience to being in more regular personal contact.  One knows what people are up to and it allows a sort of inconsequential chit-chat which a relationship maintained over intentional communications such as phone calls and emails generally lacks and yet which frequent person contact usually includes.

In this sense, I've found Facebook surprisingly useful, and it's allowed me to remain far more connected with distant friends and family than would otherwise be the case.

And yet, it doesn't take long on Facebook to realize that "social networking" lacks one of the most basic elements which allows social interaction to be harmonious. On Facebook, links and status updates posted to one's wall are visible to everyone in one's network.  Which, of course, runs counter to the most basic rule of having more than two friends in the world: you don't talk about everything with everyone. 

This is a problem that plagues more than just the frat boy who pauses to consider whether the "Here's me and the guys when were were so drunk we couldn't find either our pants or the sorority house" would offend his fiance's mother.  Unless you have somehow managed to attain a network of friends and family who are all in near harmony in regards to their beliefs and opinions, you must either stick to the most bland of "Stopped to have lunch at a great deli.  Look at this pastrami sandwich!" updates which will offend no one other than your college friend who is now a militant vegetarian and animal rights activist, or else at times post things which offend others. 

For instance, because I tend not to discuss religious or political issues at work except with people I know and trust very well, I've made it an absolute rule never to be connected with any work acquaintances on Facebook.  Yet even so, one is likely to read the political jokes Cousin Melchior thinks amusing about how all people in your political party suffer from sexual dysfunction, and which he couldn't help sharing because surely none of his friends would think otherwise, view the video of a cat being torn apart by mad beavers which your old college roommate thought was hilarious, and see the article which Aunt Mildred believes everyone should read on the importance of sterilization in a crowded world.

None of these people, in all likelihood, would have brought these topics up with you individually, or perhaps even at a social gathering in which you were present. They're think of "their friends", whoever that group of people is whom they are most used to addressing such things to. And yet, in the process, they send these things out to an array of other friends and relations whose reactions are likely to be very much other than what they intend.

This kind of accidental exposure is the sort of thing which makes one feel like being more ideologically and culturally selective about whom one is acquainted with. The old college friend whom it's interesting to catch up with, or the cousin's new husband who was so hilarious at last Thanksgiving, suddenly becomes someone you'll feel much more ill disposed towards next time you meet him (if you won't avoid him entirely) when you find out that he holds your deeply held religious, moral or political beliefs in contempt -- or merely that he has an offensive sense of humor. And while there's a smug satisfaction to thinking, "Well, at least I know now what he's really like." Acquiring the knowledge necessary to like people less is not necessarily a desirable thing. In many cases, it may be better not to know about the elements of one's friends' lives which one would find dislike-able.

The unfiltered nature of social networking online quickly makes on realize how much one filters social interactions in real life, and how much social cohesion relies on not sharing everything you're thinking with everyone you know.

Incarnational Word Choice

Word selection is one of those odd things -- it can evoke a lot of meaning in ways that are hard to define, and so we often find ourselves having strong reactions to a phrase for reasons that are too instinctual to get at very clearly.  One of these, for me, is the phrase "Christ Event" when used to describe Christ's life, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection. 

Whenever I hear the phrase I have a strong negative reaction towards the speaker or writer, and the closest I can get to explaining why is to say that talking about "the Christ Event" rather than "the incarnation" or some other more traditional phrase suggests to me some sort of distancing from a traditional understanding of what the Incarnation is.

Yet, I'm unable to quantify what I even think is being rejected.  It just feels and sounds wrong.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dr. Johnson, Call Your Office

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw wrote a column for the NY Times about how increasing taxes on those who make over $250,000/year may result in those people deciding to work less, and raised rather more anger in the process than he might otherwise have done by using himself as an example. UC Berkley economist Brad Delong fires back with a blog post in which he declares, among other things, that if people are primarily motivated to write news paper columns by thoughts of money, then they won't write good columns and without good columns the republic will be no more:
Greg says that it's worth it for him to write columns if they generate $2000 in net bequeathed wealth in 2040 but not if they generate $1,000. But that shouldn't be why anybody writes columns. Indeed, if people write columns not because they are driven to inform and educate their readers but rather because it is a way to make money to leave to their children--well, then those columns will be written not to inform but to entertain, and so they will be worthless as sources of information and education (rather than as sheer entertainment) to their readers.

I do not think society can survive if the voices writing on political-economic issues in our public sphere are doing so not to inform but merely to entertain. I think that society can only survive if those who write columns are driven by a geas to make Americans better-educated citizens but rather to leave more wealth to your children. We ought to write columns not because we think our children will need extra money in thirty years, but because we think our fellow-citizens need better information now.
Of course, Samuel Johnson disagreed, and said rather more pithily that none but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Johnson doubtless knew what he was talking about, having lived by writing for much of his life, and suffered grinding poverty at times which DeLong can at best only imagine. When Johnson was granted a royal pension such that he no longer had to write for a living, he pretty much stopped writing. More pity for us, for who could not desire that Johnson had left us more of his writing.

Yet for all that DeLong's writing ideals sound much more high flown than Johnson's, I think what he says about the relative quality of writing for pay versus writing out of a selfless desire to inform is pretty clearly false. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the motive that led to it, and mediocre writing is mediocre no matter how idealistic the writer. If one doubts this one need merely consider how many people still read Johnson 250 years later -- and contrast that with the likelihood that anyone will read DeLong 250 years hence.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is The US Destroying the Middle Class?

With a certain frequency, commentators see fit to worry as to the extinction of the US middle class. One among these, it seems, is one Edward Luce, who composed a piece on "The crisis of middle-class America" for the Financial Times. The piece profiles two families making about $70k/yr each, and worries as to the future of them and families like them. Both are, by coincidence, families of loyal Democrats, and the piece sports the requisite concerns about the potential dangers of tea party barbarians howling at the gates of the US order.

I feel myself in an odd position in regards to such stories. The particular definition of "middle class" picked for the story is a family income threshold which five years ago was frustratingly above our families income, and which now is embarrassingly below it. In this regard, I recognize myself to be uncharacteristically fortunate. However, having recently made a good deal less than this (and coming from a family which never exceeded such a total, even adjusting for inflation) I feel that I have some familiarity with the sort of middle class world being discussed -- while I can't escape the feeling that this seems a very squalid and foreign world to the Financial Times writer.

Added to this sense of class conflict is that Luce seeks to build up his story with juxtapositions of facts which sound like they mean more than they do. For instance, he says:
People in Europe and Canada are subjected to the same forces of globalisation and technology. But they belong to unions in larger numbers and their healthcare is publicly funded. More than half of household bankruptcies in the US are caused by a serious ­illness or accident.
Now, all of these individual facts are true, but they are assembled in a way which suggests things which are not. For instance, you might get the impression from this that it is the cost of medical care which causes most bankruptcies in the US. However, it isn't. Most people who declare bankruptcy have at least some medical bills, but it is often not the size of the bills but the fact that their income has been disrupted by missed work due to an illness or accident which leads to the series of problems that ends in bankruptcy. This is why illness remains a major cause of bankruptcy in Canada just as in the US, despite the fact that health care is state funded in Canada.

And while it's true that US workers have much lower union membership levels than in many European countries, it's not as if the workers in heavily unionized countries in Europe (Greece? Spain?) are not experiencing any uncertainty. Indeed, if anything, the global recession and financial crises has been hitting harder in many of the countries with the most comprehensive union systems and welfare states, and this has been causing greater anxiety because people have planned their entire lives around fixed work and pension benefits remaining in place indefinitely.

Another standard concern is inequality. Certainly, inequality is something which rubs us Americans the wrong way, and as is often observed: inequality is currently at its greatest levels since the "gilded age" of the 1920s. From the sound of the complain, one might imagine that the 20's were some world nadir of inequality, but in fact, although it's true that in the 20's the rich had been getting richer for the last several decades, while an agricultural depression had been afflicting the half of the country which still lived in rural areas for nearly a decade by the time the stock market crashed, the early 20th century was in many ways much less unequal than the centuries which had come before, and certain gave more opportunity for people to move between economic classes.

I was struck recently by the degree of economic and social inequality which used to be utterly unremarked upon when reading Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. (To my great annoyance, the Columbus classical station plays NPR news during the commuting hours, which is precisely when I could use a little musical serenity, but the happy result of this was that I heard an interview/book review of Bryson's latest.) The book centers (perhaps a strong term for its wandering course) around a country vicarage built in 1851 in England which Bryson lived in while writing the book, and while edging gradually into a history of house design and home life, it pauses to examine the history of income trends which allowed the vicar of a rural parish with 250 parishioners too build such a beautiful and lasting structure. The vicar who build the house in 1851 had an income as vicar of 500£, an amount which was 25x the average English household income at the time and which translated into modern terms is $400,000k/yr.

This was real social and economic inequality, of the sort which has predominated through much of history. By comparison, I'm not sure that the degree of variance between the 1920s, the 1950s and today represents a great deal of change, other than the ability of the global market place to make a truly tiny number of people exceedingly rich, and of the global media to then publish the foibles of those rich people widely enough to fuel to our collective envy and astonishment.

Objecting to Columbus

I wonder, at times, if what annoys us is in some ways a better insight to where we stand ideologically and culturally than what we advocate.  People tend to put a fair amount of thought into what they choose to actively defend, yet often someone who is scrupulously evenhanded in their advocacy displays partisanship in their dislikes.  Those who insist that both parties are so bad and so corrupt that they don't like either one often tend, nonetheless, to criticize one far more often than the other.

While I'm not sure how this fits into this more general observation, it occurred to me today in scanning headlines that while I am in no particular fashion a Christopher Columbus booster, those who relentlessly attack the institution of Columbus Day annoy me, even if left to myself I would never think of actively proposing a national holiday specifically to honor Columbus.

What may be discerned from this I am not sure.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Not Our Own

It's been a rougher than average weekend, perhaps in great part because MrsDarwin and I had been away house-hunting for the last three days. We don't feel particularly like we just had a three day vacation, because it was a pretty hectic three days, with work hours spent apart, and most of the time spent in a real estate agent's car. But regardless of whether we felt rested, the children felt like they'd been with relatives and off-routine for the last three days, and although grandparents and aunts and uncles are more fun than Mom and Dad, deviations in routine and personnel seem always to create extra anxiety (or at least misbehavior) in the young.

Thus it was with a sort of resigned frustration (and after having already navigated explosions related to mass and fashion) that we realized both that we would need to go get the week's groceries for the Cinceinnati household before making dinner, and that it was necessary to take the baby (who might cry if left with non-nursers), the two-year-old (who was feeling clingy after being without parents for three days), and the four-year-old (who had been blameless all day and felt that she had lacked attention as a result). Needless to say, we would much rather have spent the hour at the grocery store along together, or with only the comparatively inert baby, and our fears were justified when behavior at the store was just as antic as we had feared it would be from the two older of our three companions. They, of course, had a blast. It was just we who would have rather forgone the opportunity to spend an hour chasing small children in and out of carts and putting back things young helpers believed should be in our cart.

As we were checking out, I was thinking to myself, "We should have just left them, even if they would have been upset about it. this is madness. One of our last hours together for a week, and it's been completely frustrating."

When I realized: As parents, we are not our own. It would have been a lot easier and pleasanter for us to have taken only the baby, and faster too. But as parents, we gave that up a while ago. Sometimes we need to go the less satisfying route when it's the one which the kids need.

It certainly won't be the last time I learn that lesson. It doesn't come naturally. But although it's often most important to come up with the most efficient and low stress ways of parenting, at others it is important to do things that aren't the most efficient, or that are actively frustrating at the time, and to do them with good grace, because we are no longer our own.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mid-Week Quick Takes

Doing a post composed of fragments had seemed a good response to our generally fragmentary lifestyle of late -- of course the difficulty is, a fragmentary lifestyle also makes it difficult to recall various writable snippets long enough to get them down.

* * * *

While not usually an early adopter, I did indeed fall to temptation and pick up a 3G iPad the other night. It is indeed very useful when learning a new city and house-hunting. During the last week I'd staged a series of practice commutes where I'd leave work at the usual time and head out immediately to one of the neighborhoods we're considering looking for houses in, thus finding out how the rush-our commute is. The first couple of these expeditions were performed pre-iPad, with the result that I'd get there, drive around aimlessly for a bit (perhaps seeing by chance one house that looked familiar from and then drive back. With the iPad, it became easy to look up the most interesting houses, drive around to them, pull up images of the inside, etc. Very useful.

Other uses of the iPad are subject to a bit of learning curve. I was seriously banging my head against the wall over the difficulty to getting insertion points where I wanted them sans mouse or arrow keys, until I found out that the odd little magnifier the pops up if you tap and hold on a piece of text allows you to precision-place your cursor.

* * * *

While I'd imagined that I'd have huge amounts of time for reading, writing, etc., single existence during the week (at least when interspersed with looking at neighborhood and making the two hour drive to Cincinnati twice a week) has not actually proved to result in as much free time as I had at first imagined. Though in the first couple days when internet wasn't even connected yet I did venture out once to Blockbuster and rent a DVD. Not wanting to watch anything MrsDarwin and I had been planning to see together, I tried Sin City, which some of my comics-oriented friends had recommended. As a piece of neo-noir and art direction, it was fairly interesting, but for whatever reason it interfered with my suspension of disbelief that all women in Sin City are apparently employed as either prostitutes or strippers, and all men are police, criminals, politicians or clergy. And given that absolutely no one in Sin City appears to put any stock in religion, why does the last category even exist in the first place?

* * * *

Suspension of disbelief is an odd thing. Something which bothered me all through reading A Soldier of the Great War, despite the fact it was a fairly minor detail from the first 20 pages, was that the main character (supposedly someone with great familiarity with the outdoors, nature, etc.) tells another character when preparing for a night walk that they should take a rest and then begin their hike when the moon rises because will rise late, but it will be a full moon and provide plenty of light.

Well, of course, when the moon is full it always rises at sunset. You can't have a full moon that rises late at night. Given that the book relies in many places on forms of absurdity or exaggeration, this initial, unintentional mistake put me at a distance from the work which later instances of unreality tended to exacerbate. Rather than evoking deeper points, many of the instances of absurdity or exaggeration later on simply left me feeling like the book was unmoored from a sense of the real.

* * * *

Though in many ways the discipline of pricing is similar in all consumer-based businesses (business to business pricing is similar, but works a bit differently) it's been interesting making the change from pricing computers and consumer electronics to pricing fast food. I don't know if it's just that technology has achieved a sort of second-nature status for me, but it seems to me that marketers in the restaurant business make it their business to know a lot more about the details of producing food than marketers at my old company bothered to think about technology.

* * * *

I've been taking advantage of all my driving time between Columbus and Cincinnati to work quickly through some audio courses from The Teaching Company which I'd got hold of a while back. For some reason, I'd always been heavily biased against the idea of audio courses -- the idea just seemed so middle-brow. But some years back someone lent us a copy of How To Listen To And Appreciate Great Music, which is one of The Teaching Company's flagship courses, and we were very, very impressed. Since then I've managed to borrow from the library or pick up (on sale or used) a number of their courses and while the quality and biases vary (as with real college courses) I've found most of them quite interesting.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Mystery and Cultural Mores

My internet connection and I have been fighting with each other since the move, with the result that I've found it necessary to turn to other forms of entertainment. Namely, the paperback mystery.

Now, there are paperbacks and there are paperbacks. I was irritated to hear someone brag about the vast amount of books crammed into her home library, when I knew that the vast majority of those books were Christian romances and 17-part fantasy series. The mysteries I've been reading are drawn from a cardboard box of books that my sister inherited from my grandfather. There are several different authors represented: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series, Catherine Aird for your British fix, and Mary Roberts Rinehart, considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it", though Wikipedia informs me that she never actually used that formulation. I've been working my way through Mrs. Rinehart's corpus, which I find ideal for entertainment purposes: she likes twists and turns, and she doesn't provide enough information for the reader to solve the crime before the sleuth du jour, so one might as well just relax and go along for the ride.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote from about 1909 to 1945 (at least, that's the span of the volumes I've read so far) and her works are decidedly popular -- the back of one of the books touts her as the "top suspense writer of all time!" That's in terms of sales, I suppose; I can appreciate her style but I've definitely read better suspense. More fascinating to me is the window she provides on the cultural attitudes and assumptions of her day. These are not scholarly novels, nor historical recreations: each is set in the present and reflects, I assume, the standards of the day.

What shocks me (more than the shocking crimes!) is the rampant sexism in the books. I've experienced precious little discrimination in my time because I'm a woman, and the strata of society I've always moved in is pretty uniform. Given that milieu, it's easy to forget that the reason people fought so hard to combat the glass ceiling is because there were such deep-seated prejudices -- prejudices that have been so successfully eradicated, in some segments of society, that now I have the luxury of dismissing those who cry "Sexist!" as the press conference poseurs they usually are. However, I find myself blinking in amazement when, in a 1942 volume, the nurse protagonist is frequently called "Good girl!" by the police inspector, who clearly has feelings for her and at one point threatens to turn her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of danger. The nurse, a no-nonsense type, reminisces at one point about her training in the hospital, when she had to fend off the interns intent on making a pass at her or backing her into a dark closet for a kiss. She presents this as a simple memory of fact, not as a grievance or a sensational anecdote. This is not PC, and for once I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. (And I haven't even touched on the racial attitudes on display.)

Frequently, the females at the center of the cases are either spinsters, which means they can be fairly competent, or the lovely brunette in need of assistance from the capable investigator: "She thrilled to the protective tone in his voice," and all that. Mrs. Rinehart writes amusingly, and her books are jam-packed with plot, and for that matter I find plenty of cultural complaints with books written in 2010. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, but I'm glad that the literary over-idealization of the helpless beauty and the paternal protectionist attitude is a thing of the past.

Technical Temptations

This mischievous voice keeps telling me that a 3G equipped iPad would be the perfect house hunting tool, since you could carry it with you to look up directions, look for house listings near where you are, plan itineraries on the hoof, etc.

Doesn't help that the expenses of moving remove all sense of sticker shock. "I mean, sheesh, it's under a thousand dollars and if it make house hunting more efficient..."

Friday, October 01, 2010

There Is No Shire Party

If imitation is a form of flattery, it must be some sort of testament to a writer's skill when partisans of both sides of an issue become intent upon placing each other as the villains of the same work of fiction. Some examples of this are, perhaps, unsurprising. The original Big Brother of George Orwell's 1984 is such a wonderfully universal government baddie that it is little wonder that those on both the right and left see each other as being like it.

However, one of the odder (to me) manifestations of this trend is the tendency of those on both right and left who are of a certain SF/F geek stripe (and political and genre geekdom do seem to go together more often than one might imagine) to identify themselves with the Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and to identify their opponent with the modernizing and destructive elements who take over the Shire under Lotho Sackville-Baggins and "Sharky" (Saruman) while Frodo and his friends are away, and who are driven out in the Scouring of the Shire.

For those less familiar with those aspects of the story that didn't make the movie version: While Frodo and this three friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are off on the quest to destroy the One Ring, Frodo's cousin Lotho uses the influence and affluence of belonging to one of the Shire's leading families to run the Shire into a bit of a ditch. Most of the crops are exported, including nearly all the pipeweed, leaving Hobbits themselves with little left for themselves. Various "improvement" projects are undertaken, such as knocking down the picturesque old mill on the river in Hobbiton and putting up a large new brick structure which belches smoke and pollutes the river. Many trees are cut down, and dreary-looking brick buildings are thrown up. When people complain, "big men" (non-Hobbits) are brought in, and the previously harmless core of sheriffs is used to institute a half-penny police state. Finally, a shadowy figure known as Sharky is heard to have taken over, and Lotho is not heard from much, though he is said to still be in charge.

When Frodo and his friends return, the sheriffs attempt to arrest them for being out after dark and not following rules. However, they quickly unite with old friends such as Farmer Cotton (father of Rosie, whom Sam eventually marries) and his sons and raise the Shire. There is a brief battle between hobbits and the big men in the employ of Sharky, and it turns out that Sharky is none other than Saruman, who has slunk away from Treebeard's custody to cause what suffering he can for the returning hobbits by destroying the Shire as much as possible. Saruman is killed, despite Frodo's attempts to forgive and spare him, and the four friends devote much of their energy in their first years after returning to setting things to rights again in the Shire.

At first glance, you can see elements which both rightists and leftists can use to pin the spoiling of the Shire on those like their opponents. For the rightists, Lotho and Sharkey set up a "big government" with a centralized authority publishing rules on everything from when you're allowed out on the streets to the quantities of beer and fuel which can be consumed. Market freedom is also restricted, with the central authority collecting all production for "sharing", which mostly results in it being shipped out of the Shire for sale in order to line the pockets of those in charge. I think it's fair to say that Tolkien sees centralized power, economic planning and redistribution of resources enforced by the government as usually being tools for corruption rather than means towards the common good. He also clearly has a certain kind of limited government ideal (though not a classically liberal rights-based one) in that the right order which he sees are returning is one in which the King of Gondor keeps marauders away from the Shire and yet leaves it an essential un-governed area, while the post of Mayor in Hobbiton is a mainly honorary one whose duties center around presiding at banquets.

At the same time, leftists point out that one of the primary grievances against Lotho and the big men he brings in to run the Shire is that they set about maximizing production and exports while disrupting society and destroying the environment (cutting down trees, polluting the river and air, building ugly brick structures and generally making noise). They see this as an indictment of 'big business' and an endorsement of environmentalism. Further, the very same intrusive rule making and enforcement which rightists see as symbolizing intrusive "big government", leftists see as the jack-booted police tactics of rightists.

Perhaps there is some extent to which both sides can be seen as having valid points here, but I think the thing which one should be most clear on is that Tolkien's societal vision expressed in the Shire is one which does not fall within the spectrum of either modern leftism or modern rightism. In letters and interviews, Tolkien described himself as being a bit of a Hobbit, and in many ways the Shire represents an idealized version of the English country village life which Tolkien remembered from the turn of the century, when he was 8-10 years old. The Shire represents an admixture of Tolkien's memories of the few years of his childhood spent in a country village, in an area on the cusp of modernization, with a vaguely medieval era.

There is, in modern America, no political faction in support of a return to a pre-industrial society and economy -- and this is probably just as well since such a return is arguably both impossible and undesirable. There is, I think, real value to questioning whether all that is new is necessarily good and examining what we are giving up as we discard the old for the new. However, there is not (and arguably cannot be) an ideology in favor of returning to a Shire-like existence -- in part because such a society never existed in the first place. Further, I would argue that modern ideology, by its nature, is out of keeping with Tolkien's societal vision. The very idea of having an ideology is something contrary to the society portrayed in the Shire.