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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Low IQ or Low Motivation?

There's a determinist line of thinking, in regards to education, which emphasizes that there's a limit to how much someone can be educated, and that that limit is set by the innate intelligence of the person. That level of innate intelligence is often considered to be measured by IQ. And there is, as with so many things, some basis for this. IQ tests can diagnose lack of mental ability, and lack of mental ability can mark out certain limits to how much education can accomplish.

However, it turns out that IQ tests (and many other measures of achievement) don't just measure innate intelligence, they also measure whether the person taking the test bothers to try hard enough to get it right. Paul Tough quotes some fascinating research along those lines in this except from his book How Children Succeed.
Consider a couple of experiments done decades ago involving IQ and M&M’s. In the first test, conducted in Northern California in the late 1960s, a researcher named Calvin Edlund selected 79 children between the ages of 5 and 7, all from “low-middle class and lower-class homes.” The children were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. First, they all took a standard version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Seven weeks later, they took a similar test, but this time the kids in the experimental group were given one M&M for each correct answer. On the first test, the two groups were evenly matched on IQ. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group went up an average of 12 points—a huge leap.

A few years later, two researchers from the University of South Florida elaborated on Edlund’s experiment. This time, after the first, candy-less IQ test, they divided the children into three groups according to their scores on the first test. The high-IQ group had an average IQ score on the first test of about 119. The medium-IQ group averaged about 101, and the low-IQ group averaged about 79. On the second test, the researchers offered half the children in each IQ category an M&M for each right answer, just as Edlund had; the others in each group received no reward. The medium-IQ and high-IQ kids who got candy didn’t improve their scores at all on the second test. But the low-IQ children who were given M&M’s for each correct answer raised their IQ scores to about 97, almost erasing the gap with the medium-IQ group.
The M&M studies were a major blow to the conventional wisdom about intelligence, which held that IQ tests measured something real and permanent—something that couldn’t be changed drastically with a few candy-covered chocolates. They also raised an important and puzzling question about the supposedly low-IQ children: Did they actually have low IQs or not? Which number was the true measure of their intelligence: 79 or 97?

This is the kind of frustrating but tantalizing puzzle that teachers face on a regular basis, especially teachers in high-poverty schools. You’re convinced that your students are smarter than they appear, and you know that if they would only apply themselves, they would do much better. But how do you get them to apply themselves? Should you just give them M&M’s for every correct answer for the rest of their lives? That doesn’t seem like a very practical solution. And the reality is that for low-income middle-school students, there are already tremendous rewards for doing well on tests—not immediately and for each individual correct answer, but in the long term. If a student’s test scores and GPA through middle and high school reflect an applied IQ of 97 instead of 79, he is much more likely to graduate from high school and then college and then to get a good job—at which point he can buy as many bags of M&M’s as he wants.

But as every middle-school teacher knows, convincing students of that logic is a lot harder than it seems.
Another study, which tracked high school and college students over subsequent decades, and included a test which in effect measured the willingness of the taker to take the time to get easy but tedious questions right, found that this motivation to do well even on a seemingly low reward test was just about as good a predictor of success later in life as measured IQ.

You would think this would be a hopeful sign: that many people who might otherwise appear to be destined to do poorly can do better if only they can be motivated to exert themselves. But as the article describes, attempts to motivate people (outside the confines of offering candy for answers on a fairly short test) are often surprisingly unsuccessful. There are already very strong incentives to try hard in school and in life, the problem is that the rewards are distant.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fish Heads, for fun and mental profit

I know that there are philosophical songs and then there are philosophical songs, but around here few pieces of music have occasioned as much discussion as Fish Heads, by Barnes and Barnes.


The list of conditions for what is or is not a fish head have led to great speculation as to which of our acquaintance may actually be a fish head in disguise.

For example, here are some of the conditions of fish headery:
a) they don't wear sweaters;
b) they don't play baseball;
c) they're not good dancers;
d) they don't play drums.

Some of the youngsters were a bit worried that Daddy might be a fish head, then, until it was pointed out that he does, occasionally, wear sweaters. In fact, most of us make the non-fish head category by virtue of our positive association with sweaters, although Julia is a good dancer, Jack has played the drums, and I have played baseball. Any one of these is sufficient to establish non-fish head status, but we like to be doubly protected.

What are the positive conditions of being a fish head?
a) roly-poly;
b) in the morning, happy and laughing;
c) in the evening, floating in the stew;
d) get into movies free;
e) can't talk.

Fortunately, c) bars Baby from being a fish head, although her dinnertime habits make one question.

But now, examine this statement: "Roly-poly fish heads are never seen drinking cappuccino in Italian restaurants with Oriental women (yeah)." There's a lot to unpack here. Do fish heads never drink cappuccino, or is the cappuccino ban only in effect when they are at Italian restaurants? What if they're at an Italian restaurant with Polish women? Or Oriental men? We're not given enough information to make broader statements, but with the help of Graph Jam, we put the statement into the form of a Venn diagram.

Let me anticipate correction by pointing out for myself that yes, I misspelled "cappuccino".
So we can say with certainty that if one meets all three of these conditions, one is definitely not a fish head. But wait! What happens if one meets all these conditions invisibly? After all, non-fish headery is contingent on being seen doing all these things.

Obviously, there are layers of richness here that we have yet to unpack.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On The Nature of the Liberal Arts, Broadly Understood

While I haven't been writing about it as much as I'd like, I've been thinking a lot about education and higher education in particular, in reaction to Bearing's series on Post-Secondary Education.

One of my difficulties with the whole line of discussion is that I don't think that college, or education more generally, should be thought of primarily in terms of return on investment or preparation for making a living. Certainly, it can be useful for that. College has become something of a signaling mechanism in our society for "this is an educated, able and adaptable person with a certain ability to stick to something and self motivate (at least enough to graduate)", and as such people with college degrees have doors open to them which people without can find it harder to open. However, despite that, and despite the ever-increasing drum beat of "you must go to college to get a good job" and it's unrealistic (and thus dangerous) cousin "if you go to college, you will be sure to get a good job", I think the purpose of a college education ought to be to become a more fully educated person in the sense traditionally described by the Liberal Arts.

Hopefully, a few readers have just sat up and thought: "Wait a minute, are you saying that only a liberal arts education fulfills the goals of going to college? What about math and science? Should everyone be liberals arts majors?"

No, I'm certainly not excluding math and science. And indeed, I think one of the problems with the way that we often think these days about "liberal arts" and the nature of education is that we tend far too much to equate "liberal arts" exclusively with fields such as languages, literature, history and philosophy.

As one generally reads in a brief essay on the topic, the term "liberal arts" goes back to Roman antiquity, and designates the arts appropriate to a free man. Further, the term "art" had a meaning more along the lines of "craft" or "skill". So the liberal arts comprise the crafts and skills appropriate to a free man. Brandon, I thought, summed this up well at Siris a while back:
The word indicates a kind of craft; it's a productive skill, and one who learns a liberal art becomes an artisan, shaping, and making, and adapting things to good and useful and beautiful ends. Liberal arts are distinguished in one way from servile arts, which are devoted to making oneself useful to other people, and in another way from the manual arts, which make material products (handiworks, things that can be manufactured, things made and shaped by hand). Thus liberal arts are the crafts that involve making those intellectual and imaginative constructions that assist each person in thinking and determining his or her own ends as a free individual. The liberal arts in this sense are literally the arts of free reason.

And it cannot be emphasized enough: they make things, and these things, along with the products of all the other arts, are what make up the material of civilization.
You get a sense of this looking at the traditional list of liberal arts. You have the Trivium which move from the more mechanical to the more abstract: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic

The Quadrivium have an opposite progression from the more abstract to the more applied: Mathematics, Geometry, Music, Astronomy Especially once one keeps in mind that to the ancient and medieval authors who compiled this list of seven, music was at least as much a science as an art, being heavily based on mathematics and conceptions of pattern and proportion (in a conception of the universe where everything from the movement of the heavenly spheres to the operation of the human body was understood in terms of pattern and proportion.) Astronomy included observational astronomy (though an awful lot of what we now know about the universe was then unknown) but also involved all of the measures and calculations that people performed using the movement of the stars and planets: navigation, calculation of orbits, predictions as to conjunctions and eclipses, etc.

We don't live in a medieval world anymore, and many aspects of our understanding of the world have changed. I'm not here to present a plan for education based on somehow applying the "Seven Liberal Arts" to modern education. Rather, I think it might be useful to think a bit about what made these the arts of a free man (as opposed to service arts or manual arts) and how we might apply that concept to our modern world.

At the most basic level, it seems to me that these liberal arts have in common that they are more general learned skills that emphasize understanding and adaptability. They are not trained skills suited only to accomplishing a specific sort of task.

In more modern terms, an understanding of subjects such as: mathematics, statistical analysis, relational database structure, or a programming language (and the more conceptional background of what a programming language is and how it works) would fall in the category of liberals arts. They are adaptable skills rooted in general knowledge which a "freeman" might well use in the process of building civilization.

A "servile" approach to these same areas of knowledge could be taken, if instead of focusing on an education which is general and adaptable, one focused on training very specific ways of dealing with very specific situations. To draw on another area: Learning to express oneself clearly and persuasively in writing is a liberal art. Medical transcription is a matter of training. This does not, of course, mean that medical transcription is something unworthy of being done. It's simply that learning to do it is a matter of training. Perhaps someone who has pursued a liberal arts education would end up taking training to work in medical transcription. The liberal arts background might be of any amount of help to the person who becomes a medical transcriber, but it is not the business of the liberal arts to train someone in so specialized a field.

Now clearly, by this sort of definition "liberal arts" is a very wide range of subjects. I don't think it likely that in our increasingly complex world someone would be likely to master all of them, nor is that needed. Breadth is certainly desirable, and I think it fits well with the understanding of the "skills of a free man" that I'm describing here, but different people have different aptitudes, and I don't think its necessary or even desirable to try to push everyone pursuing a liberal arts type of education to master everything that might be thought of as a liberal art. What I do think is important to consider, however, in thinking about education in relation to the liberal arts is the approach which emphasizes a general though thorough understanding of a subject, and the adaptability which comes with that, as compared to the very task-specific kind of learning which is more properly termed "training".

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rating Party Platforms

Ranking high in the well-done-quixotic-endeavors category, Brandon of Siris rates the GOP, Democratic, Libertarian and Green party platforms on all aspects other than politics, offering categories for judging including: Preliminaries, Preamble, Organization, Internet Accessibility and General Informativeness. Not being a partisan hack like me, Brandon is well suited to this task and pulls it off with aplomb. I was desperately tempted to post his conclusion and award for best platform, but really, in all fairness, you need to click through in order to get that.

...We also see the usual difference between Republican and Democratic party platforms, regardless of which party is in power: the Republicans tell us how great they are, and the Democrats tell us how bad the Republicans are. This joint effort to insist that every election is all about the Republican Party is one of the clear proofs that bipartisan cooperation is not dead in this country.
...
And here we see the real dividing lines between the parties: does the platform have a statement of principles or values? Libertarians have principles, but no values. Greens have values, but no principles. Democrats and Republicans have neither principles nor values. This is a step back for the Republicans, who in previous platforms would list values, even though they were somewhat random and had nothing to do with anything else in the platform.
...
The Republicans have the best cover sheet for the PDF version, but it was not a heavily competitive year for cover sheets -- the PDF for the Democrats has no cover sheet at all, the Greens have no easily accessible PDF, and the Libertarians, while jazzing things up with a little blue and gold, can't really compete. The Republican cover sheet is, however, very, very red.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Surfing With Mel, and a giveaway!


The Korrectiv has spawned its latest project: Surfing with Mel by Matthew Lickona. It's available as a $0.99 e-book on Amazon, so unless you're not ready for the prospect of Mel Gibson ranting at God and man with Mel-level profanity, what are you waiting for?
On April 11, 2012, TheWrap.com published a private letter from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to director Mel Gibson. The letter chronicled, in alarming detail, their disastrous attempt to collaborate on a film version of the Biblical Book of Maccabees. The media flare-up that followed focused on Eszterhas’ characterization of Gibson as an angry, Jew-hating sociopath, but largely ignored the spiritual crisis at the story’s heart. Using the letter as a map, Surfing with Mel sets out to find some meaning within the madness, and winds up outlining a darkly satirical and deeply profane portrait of two men at war with each other, with their pasts, and with God. 
About the Korrektiv Press series Lives of Famous Catholics: Writing in his journal about the celebrities of his day, the author John Cheever observed that "we have a hierarchy of demigods and heroes; they are a vital part of our lives and they should be a vital part of our literature." We agree, which is why the Lives of Famous Catholics series seeks to explore the life of faith by the light of the famous.
Remember how we went to Wisconsin on summer vacation and participated in the hysterically funny world-premiere reading of this project? If they gave out Oscars for Best Reading of a Short Story in Script Form around a Citronella Candle in the Wilds of Wisconsin, that evening definitely would have netted a Best Actor nomination for the fabulous Mr. O'Brien, who does the best Mel Gibson impression ever, and Best Supporting Actor for Darwin as Joe Eszterhas, Mel's long-suffering collaborator. (In the Art Imitating Life department, I read Joe's wife, Naomi.)

In honor of those two roles, we're going to give away two free copies to lucky commenters, so leave a comment to be entered into the drawing, and we'll have the kids pull the winning names from a hat tomorrow morning. Or you could just pony up the $0.99 and start laughing now.

(And over at The Korrectiv blog, the clever commenters are already up to their usual literary hijinks churning out a sequel.)

Will Money Make Everyone Virtuous?

One of the many divides among modern Catholics is between what we might call the "moralizers" and the "justice seekers". "Moralizers" are those who emphasize the importance of teaching people moral laws and urging them to abide by them. "Justice seekers" seek to mitigate various social evils (poverty, lack of access to health care, joblessness, etc.) and believe that if only these social evils are reduced, this will encourage people to behave better.

Moralizers tend to criticize the justice seekers by pointing out that following moral laws is apt to alleviate a lot of the social evils that worry the justice seekers, arguing, for example, that if one finishes high school, holds a job and gets married before having children, one is far less likely to be poor than if one violates these norms.

Justice seekers reply that the moralizers are not taking into account all the pressures there work upon the poor and disadvantaged, and argue that it's much more effective to better people's condition than to moralize at them (or try to pass laws to restrict their actions) because if only social forces weren't forcing people to make bad choices, they of course wouldn't do so.

(I'm more of a moralizer myself, but I think that we moralizers still need to take the justice seeker critique into account in understanding where people are coming from and what they're capable of.)

One area in which the justice seeker approach seems to come into particular prominence is the discussion of abortion. We often hear politically progressive Catholics argue that the best way to reduce abortions is not to attempt to ban or restrict them, but rather to reduce poverty and make sure that everyone has access to health care. There's an oft quoted sound bite from Cardinal Basil Hume (Archbishop of Westminster) to this effect:
“If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it’s needed, she’s more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn’t it obvious?”

You'd think that it was obvious, but I'm suspicious of the idea that having more money or resources makes us better or less selfish people (an idea which strikes me as smacking of a certain spiritual Rousseauian quality that doesn't take fallen human nature into account) so I thought it would be interesting to see if there's any data on this.

I was not able to find data on the relationship of abortion to health insurance, but I was able to find data on the relation of abortion to poverty, and it turns out that the Cardinal, and conventional wisdom, are wrong.

It's often pointed out that a disproportionate number of abortions are procured by women living below 200% of the poverty line (that's about $22,000/yr for a single person). This causes people to conclude that poor women are more likely to abort because they can't afford a child. As it turns out, however, poor women are less likely to abortion an unwanted pregnancy than non-poor women.

The numbers I'm looking at are from this study by the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood -- hardly an anti-abortion source) which looks at pregnancies and abortions for unmarried women aged 20-29 from 2001 to 2008.

The study looks at unmarried women in three economic groups: Those living below the poverty line (around $11,000 per year), those living between the poverty line and 200% of the poverty line ($11,000 to $22,000), and those making more than 200% of the poverty line. For convenience, I'm going to look at the two most extreme groups, those living below the poverty line and those who make more than 200% of the poverty line. The middle group falls pretty much in the middle on all statistics.

The first thing you see is that poor women get pregnant a lot more than better off women. The pregnancy rate for unmarried women living below the poverty line was 277 pregnancies per 1000 women in 2008. For unmarried women making more than 2x the poverty line, that rate was 56 per 1000 women. So poor women are five times more likely to get pregnant.

Now, the first thing that most people would guess is: Poor women must have a lot more unintended pregnancies. They can't afford birth control, or they hadn't had good sex education, or for some other social reason they're not able to control their pregnancies.

Well, it turns out that for unmarried women between 20 and 29 a majority of pregnancies are unintended, but poor unmarried women have a lower percentage of unintended pregnancies than better off unmarried women. 67% of pregnancies of 20-29 year old unmarried women living below the poverty line were unintended in 2008 while 73% of pregnancies of unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line were unintended.

Even so, surely a woman with more means is going to be more able to support an unplanned child than a truly poor women, right? Well, she may be more able, but that's not, on average, what she chooses to do. Unmarried women living below the poverty line aborted 48% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. Unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line aborted 62% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. So an unmarried woman living at more than 2x the poverty line is 30% more likely to decide to abort an unplanned pregnancy than an unmarried woman living below the poverty line.

Unmarried women are far more likely to abort unintended pregnancies (51% aborted) than married women (17% aborted), but unfortunately the Guttmacher report only provides income breakdowns of unmarried women, not married women. However, that does at least mean that the data we're looking at is not thrown off by the fact that a much greater proportion of poor women are unmarried than better off women.

So it turns out that the conventional wisdom is wrong on all fronts. A smaller percentage of pregnancies are unplanned for poor women than for better off women. And a smaller percentage of poor women who have unplanned pregnancies abortion than better off women. The only reason why a disproportionate number of abortions are obtained by poor women is that they get pregnant far more frequently than better off women.

What this underlines is something that should be fairly obvious to anyone with a Christian understanding of fallen human nature: Having more money and resources does not make us better people. Those who are better off are just as capable of doing wrong than those who are less well off. Indeed, in this case, it appears that people who are better off are more likely to do wrong than those who are less well off.

Does this mean that we shouldn't work to alleviate poverty or to make sure people are able to get the medical attention they need? Of course not. But this conventional wisdom that people only do wrong things because they're not well off is simply not the case.

UPDATE: Okay, I'm realizing that due to some odd formatting on the Guttmacher study, I hadn't realized that their data is split into two halves. First they provide overall rates of pregnancy, unintended pregnancy and abortion for all women 20-29 and break that data down into married and unmarried women. However, all of the demographic breakdowns which are provided in the lower section of each table are for unmarried women only. So the percentage of pregnancies which are unintended and the percentage of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion which I quote in the article are for unmarried women only. I've edited the article appropriately, but am leaving this update separately to make the changes clear.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If You Can Get It -- Finished Novel Table of Contents

Here are links to all the sections of the novel, in order, for easier reading in future.

After putting it up in readable form, I think I need a break from the project for a couple months. There's a short story that I want to finish up, and MrsDarwin is busy with outlining and other preparation for her own new novel which will start posting in November. Once I've got that distance, though, I need to decide whether this is pretty much just what it is (a blog-published serial) or whether I should revise and expand it a bit (no, I don't think I'd be changing the ending, just fleshing out some parts in the beginning and middle and making sure things are more consistent all the way through) and either try to get it published or self publish it (either as a print on demand hard copy or just as an inexpensive ebook). If any one wants to venture any advice or opinions on the subject, I'd welcome comments on it.

Not So Orphan Opening: August NaNoWriMo Edition
If You Can Get It - 2
If You Can Get It - 3
If You Can Get It - 4
If You Can Get It - 5
If You Can Get It - 6
If You Can Get It - 7
If You Can Get It - 8
If You Can Get It - 9
If You Can Get It - 10
If You Can Get It - 11
If You Can Get It - 12
If You Can Get It - 13
If You Can Get It - 14
If You Can Get It - 15
If You Can Get It - 16
If You Can Get It - 17
If You Can Get It - 18
If You Can Get It - 19
If You Can Get It - 20
If You Can Get It - 21
If You Can Get It - 22
If You Can Get It - 23
If You Can Get It - 24
If You Can Get It - 25
If You Can Get It - 26
If You Can Get It - 27
If You Can Get It - 28
If You Can Get It - 29
If You Can Get It - 30
If You Can Get It - 31
If You Can Get It - 32
If You Can Get It - 33
If You Can Get It - 34
If You Can Get It - 35
If You Can Get It - 36 (The End)

"Restless for Good Art"

The Dominicana blog sums up why I haven't been interested in seeing any of the new breed of highly-commercialized Christian films
If this is the dynamic of art—reaching into reality, being changed by it, and revealing that transformative truth to others—then we can understand why books, films, or paintings that only serve as a vehicle for spreading an idea fail as art. Formally speaking, they are more akin to propaganda, even if they use the material of art. Writing a song because I want more people to buy my brand of toothpaste may be a valuable commercial move, but it is not art. Making a movie because I want more people to acknowledge St. Augustine as the greatest doctor of the Latin Church may be laudable catechesis, but it won’t turn into art.
I know I won't be seeing Restless Heart, the movie about St. Augustine -- the film seems to have re-written his life as a simplistic thriller.
We can learn a lot about the problems of Catholic filmmaking from Christian Duguay’s new film Restless Heart, a dramatized account of St. Augustine’s life and conversion. As a film,Restless Heart has its high points, even if in general it suffers from poor pacing and uninspiring dialogue. As a biography of a great theologian, the film fares worse; recognizing the difficulties in staging most of Augustine’s life (How does one film a gradual conversion from Skepticism to Neo-platonism?), Restless Heart blithely invents a more exciting history for him, turning the troubled young professor of rhetoric into a hotshot lawyer with a devil-may-care attitude who, after cooperating in a massacre of Milanese Christians, miraculously converts and triumphs over all his adversaries, notably including a scene in which all the heretical Donatist bishops in North Africa agree that the Roman Church has the true faith, and seal their conversion with group hugs.
Drama springs from change, which makes the Christian life of constant change and conversion uniquely dramatic. But when the primary "Christian" paradigm of art becomes one of trivializing and sensationalizing Christianity to fit into a mass-market package, then the true interior drama of being transformed through the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) is lost.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I'm On A Bus

Oh wow, I've never had any desire to learn Dutch, until now:



Rebekka from Denmark, tell us what this says, and how we can hitch a ride on this wonderbus.

h/t Korrectiv

NB: I leave it to stand as evidence of Homer nodding, but Rebekka reminds me that Danish, not Dutch, is spoken in Denmark. Yeah. I knew that.

If You Can Get It - 36

And here it is. The final installment. Final total is 67,960 words.

Forgive the self indulgence, but if you've read all the way through, even if you normally just read in an RSS reader without clicking through to the blog, please leave at least a brief comment. I'm curious how many people have been following all the way to the end. (If you want to leave more detailed feedback, I'd certainly welcome that too.)

---

It was Lent, and Katie threw herself into it with the enthusiasm of the neophyte. She fried fish on Fridays. She went to Stations of the Cross with Paul on Friday nights. She placed an Operation Rice Bowl carton on the kitchen counter and trimmed the food budget in order to stuff it with change. She stopped making desserts except on Sundays, the change which Kristy found hardest to adjust to, despite the minor satisfaction of seeing her morning consultations with the scale confirm the accusations she had long leveled against Katie’s baking.

As Easter neared, the preparations for it began to take over increasing amounts of Katie’s time. Easter dinner was to be at their parents’ apartment, and Kristy, Katie and Paul were to be in attendance. To the same extent that Katie’s new religiosity had led to a slight asceticism of cuisine over the the last few weeks, Katie was determined that Easter should be a notable feast. To this end, she seemed at particular pains to discover dishes that would require the maximum amount of preparation in the days before. Kristy volunteered to bring wine and a salad, and considered herself fortunate to be spared of further worry, though as she saw less of Katie she began to wish that she had agreed to become involved in projects such as pickled eggs and homemade ravioli if only in order to be included.

The Thursday and Friday before Easter arrived, and Katie seemed to contrive to spend virtually all of the evenings either away at church or going about somberly with a book by the pope about the life of Christ.

Work provided no effective source of diversion. Half the office seemed to have taken vacation. Brad wandered in to Kristy’s office at three o’clock on Friday and advised, “It’s dead around here. Unless you’ve got something really important you’re working on, just clear out and get a start to your weekend.”

Easter vigil did not, in itself, hold great allure to Kristy, but it was a relief that she would, at least, be included in the main event of the day along with the rest of her family. Katie and Paul were going out to dinner together before the vigil, and Kristy had invited Pat and Tom to have dinner with her, both for company and so that her mother would not have to cook amidst the elaborate Easter preparations already under weigh. Thus, late afternoon found both sisters getting ready for the evening.

“Do you have a cardigan I can borrow that would go with this dress?” Katie asked, bursting into Kristy’s room without knocking as Kristy was standing in her bra and slip, contemplating the relative merits of two different dresses.

“There’s a light pink one that might go. Second drawer down on the right,” Kristy said, her head disappearing into her own dress. Once dressed and adjusted, she turned back to Katie to see her rooting through her makeup drawer. “Wrong drawer.”

“I found the cardigan. I just thought maybe you’d have some lipstick that matched it.”

“Feel free,” said Kristy, shaking her head but smiling at the same time.

“Oh hey,” said Katie into the makeup drawer. “Hmmm. No. Not that.” Sounds of more pawing around followed.

“Are you seriously wearing those scuffed old flats?” Kristy asked, surveying Katie’s outfit more critically.

“I don’t want something really high,” Katie said, contemplating the shade of coral lipstick she had just applied.

Kristy disappeared into her closet for a moment. “How about these,” she said, reappearing. “Kitten heels. The shade matches your dress better. And they look new. I liked them but I don’t have anything to wear them with.”

“Oooh. I like those. Okay. Hey, can I use this eye cream?”

“No. That’s for wrinkles, and it’s really damn expensive.”

“I might get wrinkles some day. I used the face wash of yours from the same brand and it felt really good.”

“You work yourself up some wrinkles and let me know. Now get out. I want to finish getting ready.”

“Okay. Thanks for the shoes. And the sweater.”

Kristy shoed her out and shut the door behind her, feeling like she was back at home after a long absence.



Dinner with her parents was a quiet affair, and at their insistence they left for the church with plenty of time to spare to be assured of getting a good spot. Mass was to begin at 10PM, but there was already a significant crowd gathering at 9:30 when they arrived. There was, it seemed, to be some sort of blessing of the Easter candle outside before the mass started, and so the congregation was assembling on the patio in front of the main doors, enjoying the unusually warm April night air.

Kristy and her parents had been standing there for only a few minutes when she heard an excited squeal of, “Kristy!” and turned to receive a sudden and fierce hug from Katie.

“Look! Look what— Paul— Look!” Katie, who was almost bouncing up and down in her excitement, disengaged from the hug she was giving Kristy enough to show a left hand which sported a slim gold band holding a tiny solitaire. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Katie asked.

Kristy’s first, if quickly suppressed, thought was how much smaller it was than the diamonds she was used to seeing on women at work, but she assured Katie that it was beautiful and asked how it happened. Katie, however, had already turned to show the ring to her parents.

Paul ambled up, smiling proudly though looking somewhat awkward.

“Katie was just telling us,” Kristy said. “Congratulations!” She gave Paul a quick hug. “And on Easter. Was she surprised?”

Paul nodded, his smile approaching a grin. “I thought, feast of new life, starting a new life together, you know… I asked your father for permission last week, but he said he wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“You asked Dad for permission to propose to Katie?” Kristy asked, without thinking to prevent her disbelief from sounding in her voice. “What did he think of that?”

Paul shrugged and shifted from one foot to the other. “He seemed a little surprised. But pleased.”

At that moment Katie seized Kristy by the shoulder. “Kristy! Come here. I want to tell you and Mom how it happened.”



Discussion of the engagement, in one form or another, took up all of the Nilsson family’s attention until the mass began.

The mass was long, and the first half of it was lighted only by candles. A whole sequence of readings traced biblical history from the seven days of creation to Jesus Christ. By turns listening to these and looking over at Katie — who was so obviously trying hard to pay attention yet continually drawn to look at Paul or at her ring — Kristy found herself thinking back over her own recent history.

Last April she had been busily working toward the PocketDJ launch, with her only thought of Katie and her parents being that she would not have time to make it to Katie’s graduation in May. Katie’s unexpected arrival. Two new jobs. China. Moving back to Illinois. Christmas with Katie and her parents. Paul. And now Paul and Katie getting engaged. The hopes of a year ago now seemed remote. And yet the news which made it seemingly impossible for Katie, sitting next to her, to stop smiling, even as she tried to look piously attentive to the mass, was for Kristy the final step in returning to the old way of things. Katie would get married and move out, and once again Kristy would be alone.

When Katie had first arrived it had seemed a temporary disruption is the organized and satisfying life that Kristy had created for herself. Now the prospect of Katie leaving seemed like the breakup of a family. Katie would go on to form a real family, living out on Paul’s farm in the broken down old farm house he was fixing up, and probably having lots of babies. And Kristy…

What will I do? Kristy found herself wondering as they all knelt. She looked over at Katie. Happy in love and deeply involved in the liturgy going on before them. Having all the things I lack. Things I’ve shied away from or just never found.

Why should Katie, a sister so much younger that they’d barely known each other, have created this deep attachment? How was it that the household formed by Katie’s sudden phone call, by Paul’s handyman ad, and by her parents’ house selling so much faster than expected: Why had this household of chance made such a deep impression when neither of the people she’d chosen to share a roof with had worked out? Had the necessity of getting along with someone familiar and long cared about, but unchosen, somehow been the key to forming a household when trying so hard to choose just the right person had failed?

The priest was raising up the host. Katie, beside her, was watching raptly. Kristy thought she could see the gleam of tears in her eyes.

“Behold the Lamb of God,” he said. “Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”

The congregation responded with words that seemed unfamiliar from Kristy’s previous experience, and incongruous in the situation, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

The priest consumed the host, and row by row the congregation came up to receive communion. Kristy reflected on the words as she sat watching Katie and Paul and her parents go up to receive.

The blessed did seem to be the ones going up to the supper of the lamb. Having all these people come under her roof over the last year had brought her soul a certain healing, and inspired in it a hunger for more.

Lord, she thought, in an unfamiliar, prayer-like mode. I’m really not sure I’m ready to have you under my roof. I’m not even sure what that would mean, yet. But I need someone under my roof if my soul is going to be healed. That much I’ve learned this year, whatever else is to come.



Mass concluded, and each went their separate ways. Pat and Tom to their house, Katie and Paul, to whose happiness midnight still seemed early, to find somewhere to talk for another hour or two before parting for the night, and Kristy back to her empty house.

Sitting on her bed, she thought over the string of memories and desires that had been crystalizing in her mind since that hesitant half-prayer as she watched the rest of her family go up to communion.

Kristy pulled out her phone, scrolled through the contacts, and for several minutes sat contemplating the name long familiar but with a new possibility of significance. At last she pressed ‘Call’ and waited, half hoping, half fearing, that there would be no answer.

“Kristy? It must be late out there.” There was an edge of concern in his voice. “Is everything okay?”

“Hey, Dan. Yeah, everything’s fine. I know it’s late. It’s just, I’ve been thinking, and…” Her wont had never been to intentionally expose what might be seen as weakness, to ask for that which might justly be refused.

“What?” Dan asked, his tone one of searching curiosity, clearly aware that she was hesitating over something.

The words from earlier that night ran through her mind: Enter under my roof. Say the word and my soul shall be healed.

She drew herself together. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

-- The End --

Sunday, September 16, 2012

If You Can Get It - 35

It's almost 5AM. I know I'm going to regret this in the morning. But I wanted to make sure that I reached this point so that the next section can finish it.

Sorry for the rough editing, especially near the end.

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Saturday was a restrained day. Katie slept late the next morning, and when she did rise stayed mostly in her room. Kristy cleaned and organized and even resorted to checking her work email, but while over the last month work has been a constant source of pleasant distraction and anticipation when she found herself alone, with her pitch done at both Home Depot and Lowes she now wished she could be basking in the familial glow that had been so plentiful over Christmas.

Noon came. Kristy went to check on Katie and found her in bed, the covers pulled up to her shoulders, reading a book.

“Are you doing alright?” Kristy asked.

Katie shrugged and only have lowered her book. “I’m sorry I went to pieces at you last night. I was really tired. And kind of upset.”

“What happened? Do you want to talk about it?”

Katie raised the book again. “No. Not really. It’s just… Relationship stuff.”

Kristy waiting to see if any more information would be forthcoming, but nothing was. “Can I get you anything?”

“Cocoa?” asked Katie from behind the book. “If you don’t mind. You don’t have to.”
“Sure. I’ll get you cocoa.”

In the kitchen, Kristy pulled down cocoa, sugar and vanilla from the cupboard. Measured, mixed, heated, stirred. Then brought the steaming cup back to Katie, who sat up in bed with her back to the wall, pull the blankets up over her knees, and sipped.

“Thanks. This is good.”

Kristy smiled, unexpectedly warmed by the offhand compliment. “Is there anything in particular you’d like for dinner?”

“Mmmm. It’s so cold today. There’s stew meat in the fridge and onions in the pantry. How about beef stew?”

“That’ll make the kitchen smell good all day,” Kristy agreed. “Maybe I’ll put the rest of that bottle of wine from last night in it. Didn’t you make a stew with red wine once?”

“Yeah. There’s a recipe in that Black Cat Bistro cookbook of yours.”

“Okay.”

Kristy returned to the kitchen with a new sense of purpose for the day, found the book, and began chopping ingredients.

An hour later, the pot fragrantly simmering on the stove and Kristy contemplating the newspaper over an afternoon cup of coffee, there was a knock at the kitchen door. Kristy opened the door to find Paul standing on the step, holding a bouquet of flowers.

“Paul, hi. Come on it. It’s cold! I don’t want to stand with the door open.”

“Thank you.” Paul knocked the snow off his boots against the door sill and stepped inside. Kristy closed the door behind him. This flurry of activity past, Paul stood awkwardly, still clutching the flowers before him — not, Katie noted, roses, but a mix of gold, yellow and red flowers with pieces of fern arrayed around them.

“Are you here to see Katie?”

“Yes. I… want to talk to her.”

“She’s been in her room all day,” Kristy said, circling around the island to the stove, to give Paul an unencumbered path through to the living room and the bedroom beyond.

Paul seemed to hesitate. “Do you think I should just go back to her room?”

“She was watching her phone all last night hoping you’d call or text. I assume she wants to talk to you.”

Paul set the flowers down on the counter, took his coat off, hung it on the hook by the door. Kristy noted that he was wearing khakis and a blazer like on Christmas, rather than his usual jeans. He took a slow breath, buttoned his blazer, then unbuttoned it again, started for the kitchen door, then turned back, picked up the flowers and left again.

“The door on the right,” Kristy called after him, unable to repress a slight smile as she did so.

Time passed, and Kristy suddenly began to feel awkward sitting in the kitchen, as if sitting with her newspaper and coffee, waiting, made her a spectator or spy in relation to whatever was going on in Katie’s room. She went to the stove, stirred the stew, washed the few things that were in the sink, and looked around for something else to occupy her. Stew for dinner. What else would Katie make if she were in charge of the kitchen for the evening? She examined the fridge and then the pantry. In the pantry, a plastic bag full of green apples caught her eye. Pie. Katie would definitely make pie. She pulled the copy of Joy of Cooking off the shelf.

When Katie and Paul appeared the dough was chilling in the refrigerator and Kristy was occupied in peeling apples.

“What are you doing?” Katie asked, setting the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen counter and putting on her coat and hat.

“Apple pie,” Kristy responded.

“Isn’t that on the list of things that make you fat?” Katie asked, grinning.

Kristy shrugged. “I thought you’d like it. And now that you mention it, I haven’t had any lunch today…”

Katie finished buttoning her coat. “We’re going for a walk. We’ll be back in a little while.”

“Okay.”

Rolling out pie crust proved more challenging that Kristy had expected— or at least, doing so without the dough either sticking to the counter or developing cracks that caused it to tear apart when she picked it up to put in the pan. At last, the pie was complete, if somewhat lopsided and patched. She put it in the oven and set about washing up.

It was as she was finishing with the clean up that Kristy noticed that the bouquet of flowers was still lying on the kitchen counter near the door. She searched through cupboards, found a vase, filled it was water, put the flowers in, and placed it in the center of the island.

The pie was cooling on the counter by the time that the kitchen door opened. Katie stepped in, then paused to exchange a brief kiss, which became a longer kiss, with Paul on the threshold. At last she stepped back. “Goodnight, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Katie pushed the door closed with her shoulder and stood leaning back against the door, hugging her arms to her and rubbing them for warmth.

“You guys were out there for more than an hour. You must be freezing,” Kristy observed. “Do you want some tea or something to warm you up?”

Katie nodded.

Kristy started the electric kettle, and after a few minutes Katie ducked into the other room to hang up her coat.

“So,” said Kristy, once both sisters were grasping mugs of hot tea. “Did you two make it up? Is everything okay?”

Katie stared down at her mug rather than meeting her sister’s eyes, and took so long before answering that Kristy was beginning to think that she would not answer at all. “Things are okay,” Katie said at last.



There were no more scenes like on Friday night. Katie seemed unusually restrained but not visibly unhappy. Paul came and picked her up the next day just after noon, but she was back by nine o’clock. Over the following week Katie either stayed home entirely or else went out for a couple hours after dinner with Paul. Most nights, however, Kristy could hear the low murmur in the next room of late night phone conversations going long past midnight.

Katie also seemed to be on a reading tear. Gone, however, were Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and books on farming. Now Katie was working her way through a succession of religious titles.

“Why all the religion books?” Kristy asked one evening, on coming home to find Katie making dinner with a book propped open on the counter and a can of Little Kings in her hand. “Didn’t you cover all that stuff in college with your Religious Studies major?”

“It’s not the same kind of thing. We studied religion as a phenomenon. That’s not the same thing as understanding the theology and morality and spirituality that people live by.”

“Did you have some kind of a religious argument with Paul?” Kristy asked, looking over Katie’s shoulder at the book. Then she turned to the fridge to see if there was any beer to her own taste. “Did he want you to start going to church if you guys are going to stay together.”

“No!” Katie objected, closing her book loudly. “Paul would never do that. He takes his faith too seriously to try to force it. No, he—” Katie seemed to stop and gather her thoughts, then continued in a quieter tone. “I realized that being in a relationship with Paul I’ll be living with the practical implications of his beliefs, so I figured that I needed to understand those beliefs a little better.”

“Does it make that big a difference? I dated a vegetarian once; I didn’t have to go read a bunch of books about vegetarianism. I just knew when we went out we had to go to restaurants with good vegetarian options.”

Katie sighed and opened the book again. “It’s not the same. Paul’s faith doesn’t just affect what he’s willing to do, it informs his ideas about what a relationship is and what it’s for.”



“I’m going over to Paul’s house for the afternoon tomorrow,” Katie announced on Saturday evening, emerging from her room after a several-hour-long phone call. “I’m going to make dinner for him there, so you’ll be on your own for dinner. I’ll be back around nine.”

Kristy shrugged. “I’ll come up with something.”

She contemplated the Netflix envelopes sitting by the TV and the prospect of a long quiet afternoon, then went back to her room, shut the door, and called her mother.

“Kristy, this is a surprise.”

“Hey, Mom. I know it’s kind of last minute, but I was wondering if you and Dad would like to come over for an early dinner tomorrow. Katie’s going off with Paul for the afternoon and evening, and I don’t have much going on. Seemed like it would be nice to do something with family.”

“Well, sure. We’d be happy to. What time? Is there anything I can bring?”

“Oh, how about two o’clock and we’ll eat at three or something. Don’t worry about bringing anything. I’ll come up with something.”

“Sure, that sounds wonderful. How’re you doing? We haven’t talked in a while. Katie told me about your big Home Depot thing at work.”

“Well things have been a lot quieter at work since I got the big box accounts sold. Katie’s been around a lot more the last week than she has been since she and Paul got together. I hope she’s okay. She seems… different.”

“I think she’ll be fine. She’s just,” Pat paused and her tone suggested she was choosing her words carefully. “She and Paul are just working through some religious and moral issues.”

“Has she talked with you about it?” Kristy asked, surprised that her mother seemed at least as conversant in the topic as she.

“Well, yes. Katie and I have talked it over a few times.”

“Wow. I didn’t think— I mean— It’s great that you two are getting along so much better.”

“I was real glad she felt comfortable talking to me about it. She’s grown up a lot while she’s been living with you. Your father and I are very proud of her.”



This routine held through the rest of February, with Tom and Pat coming over for dinner with Kristy on Sundays while Katie spent the afternoon with Paul.

The first Saturday in March was unusually warm for Illinois. The sun was so inviting that Kristy had gone out to the nursery and returned with several bags full of bulbs, which she spent the afternoon planting in the beds along the front walk. She had just finished one side when Katie, who had been inside reading all morning, suddenly issued from the house and drove off quickly in her red Focus. It was almost an hour later that she returned, her eyes red as if she had been crying.

“Are you okay?” Kristy asked.

“Yes!” said Katie, with a smile that was completely at odds with the redness of her eyes. “Oh, Kristy, I feel wonderful!”

“Umm… Why?”

“I realized I was only holding back now because I was scared to start. And I looked at the schedule and saw that confessions were going on right now, so I drove down to St. Anne’s and went to confession. It took half twenty minutes and I cried my eyes out by I feel so good.” The last two words were delivered with an emphasis that was almost a dance step.

“You feel good because you went to confession?” Kristy asked, skeptically. “I remember doing that as a kid. I hated it.”

“So did I, then, but… I just feel new. And clean. And it’s sunny out. And spring. And… I’m going to call Paul and see if he’s free to have dinner! I feel like celebrating.”

Kristy shrugged. “Um, okay. I’ll see you later.”

Katie had already turned away and was pulling up Paul’s number on her phone as she walked inside.

Kristy continued working down the walk planting bulbs. Just as she was finishing Paul’s truck pulled into the driveway and Katie came rushing down the walk, dressed and made up. She leaned in the driver’s side window to give Paul a long kiss, then ran around the truck to climb in the passenger door and they were gone. Kristy stretched, took off her gardening gloves, and went inside, intent on a cold beer.



The next morning Paul arrived shortly before nine rather than after noon. Katie rushed out to the truck and was gone until nine o’clock that night. She brought back with her a little icon of the Virgin Mary which she hung in the kitchen, next to the liquor bottles, on the stretch of wall between the countertop and the wall cabinets.

“Don’t you want to have that somewhere nice in your room?” Kristy asked.

“No. I want it in here where I work,” Katie replied.



Kristy’s initial fear had been that Katie’s sudden return to religious practice would result in her becoming even more quiet and reclusive than she had been the last few weeks. Instead, this seemed to mark something of a return of the old Katie. Monday morning, when Kristy came into the kitchen to grab breakfast on her way to work, she found Katie already there, a can of Little Kings in hand, frying up bacon and eggs.

“You’re starting early,” Kristy observed.

“I thought you’d like a hot breakfast.”

“It smells great.”

“Coffee should be ready too,” Katie said, gesturing towards the maker with her beer can.

When she got home that night, Katie was again in the kitchen. The stereo was blasting dance music, and Katie swayed to the beat as she ladled out French onion soup into a pair of bowls.



Other changes were more peculiar. Katie had purchased a package of little votive candles and would occasionally light one in front of the icon in the kitchen. That Sunday, passing through the kitchen, Kristy noticed that the candle in front of the picture had been left lit. She blew it out and thought no more of it until that night when Katie came back, pulled a beer out of the fridge, popped it open, and then squawked, “What? You put out my candle?”

“Um, yes,” said Kristy, looking up from her laptop where she sat in the living room. “You left it burning.”

“It was supposed to be burning!” Katie objected, coming into the living room and planting herself in front of her older sister.

“What are you talking about? You weren’t even here.”

“Exactly. I lit it in front of the icon before I left so that if I was tempted while I was gone I would remember that Mary was watching over me and stop.”

“You lit a candle in front of a picture so that the Virgin Mary would make sure you didn’t get in trouble with Paul while you were gone?”

Katie nodded firmly. “And you blew it out. Why can’t you leave my stuff alone?”
“Katie, that’s weird. No one does that.”

“What do you mean weird? I had a roommate in college who used to put a gold Buddha in the center of the room and smoke pot while listening to Pink Floyd. How is lighting a candle weird compared to that.”

“Lots of people do weird shit with pot,” Kristy stated. “No one lights a candle in front of a picture so they don’t go too far with their boyfriends.”

“Well I do,” said Katie defiantly, taking a swig of Little Kings. “And next time I’ll thank you to leave my candle alone. It’s not hurting you.”



Late that night, after she had retired to her room, Kristy called Dan.

“Please tell me,” said Kristy, after the usual greetings had been exchanged, “that when you started becoming religious you didn’t start doing insane shit.”

“Um…” said Dan. “Perhaps a definition of ‘insane shit’ would be in order?”
Kristy described the incident with Katie and the candle.

“Well,” said Dan with evident mirth, “I think I can promise you that I’ve never lighted a candle in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary — whatever other ‘insane shit’, to use your evocative phrase, I may have done.”

“I make a joke of it,” Kristy said, her tone turning serious. “But with Katie having a boyfriend and turning religious, it’s been lonely. Sometimes I feel like everyone else is just crazy, but other times it’s like being blindfolded while everyone else is sightseeing. Everyone is talking about things that I don’t have any experience of.”

“That doesn’t entirely change,” Dan said, his tone sympathetic now. “I’ve often heard people talk about religious experiences that are completely foreign to me. Even aside from faith, some people just feel and respond to symbols and words more than others.”

“So if you don’t have all kinds of religious feelings, what made you go back to being a practicing Jew?”

“Ask an easy question why don’t you,” said Dan with a wry laugh. There was a pause, and Kristy was on the point of withdrawing the question with apologies. “I guess the best way I could describe it is: I became convinced that there was something out there beyond just me that I had to acknowledge, something more than my everyday. And not just something abstract, but something that cared about me. And at the same time, I had this inescapable feeling that being a Jew was something that wasn’t just a matter of chance. It was something in my blood and in everything I’d been brought up to. Like the way the language you’re brought up speaking is the language you always think in even when you learn another language. I realized that when my parents and grandparents when to temple, they were talking to that… whatever it was that was out there. And that as a Jew the only way I could acknowledge it was by going with them and learning to be a better Jew. I know that probably sounds pretty irrational, but it wasn’t exactly something I reasoned my way into at first, that came later. At first it was just something I knew.”

“No, that’s… Thank you,” said Kristy, surprise and slightly uncomfortable with the honesty and completeness of Dan’s answer.

Silence stretched on for several minutes and at last Dan broke it with a lighter note. “So, the last time we talked you were talking about settling down with a Nice Catholic Boy. How’s that going?”

Kristy found herself laughing wildly for a moment.

“What?” Dan asked.

“The Nice Catholic Boy, that’s right… The Nice Catholic Boy is the guy who’s dating Katie. He’s the reason she’s become all religious.”

“Your sister stole the guy you were interested in?”

“Or he stole her. Take you pick. Somehow in all my plans I missed the point that he might have ideas of his own. Says a bit about my own self involvement.”

“Well… Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Kristy felt a lump rising in her throat but swallowed it down. “My interest in Paul was just… Just one of those crazy ideas one gets from time to time. I’m not upset about that. He and Katie are happy and they seem to be good for each other. The only thing that’s hard is that I see so much less of both of them now. The way it always is when a couple gets together. Though I’m still seeing a lot of my parents, and that’s good.”

“It must be nice to be back near family.”

“It is. I hadn’t thought it would mean much to me, but it really is. I miss all of you back in California, though. I know I was always pretty selfish about my social life — only showing up for things or calling people when I needed company. But I hadn’t realized how much I relied on the circle of acquaintance I had out there. The new job is great. I really love it after Aspire and AppLogix. But it seems like everyone at work my age is married and talking about their children. The single people are all kids right out of college. And I don’t know anyone else. I didn’t think about it at first, because I was busy and I had Katie around for company. But with her spending all her time with Paul now… I miss all you guys.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, even without having uprooted and left everyone, I miss having you around.”

“Thanks.”

The call soon wound to a close. Once she had changed and gone to bed, lying under the covers in the dark, Kristy couldn’t help dwelling on the closing exchange of the call.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Benefits of Trade

A quick economics education link for your Friday: Mark Bellemare of Duke University writes about an in-classroom exercise to demonstrate how trade "makes everyone better off".

The Trading Game is pretty simple. Before the start of every semester I have to teach principles of microeconomics, I look at the number of students enrolled in my class, and I head out to the nearest dollar store to buy an equal amounts of trinkets.
...
I go around allocating trinkets to students at random.

I then ask students to assign a value to the trinket they have just received ranging from 0 to 10, with higher values meaning cooler trinkets.

We then go around the room recording those values. Because students often bring their laptops to lecture, it is easy to find a volunteer to record those values, but you can have a teaching assistant do it. Once all values are recorded, total welfare (i.e., the sum total of the values students assign to their trinkets) is announced.

I then tell students that they have five minutes to trade voluntarily between themselves, insisting on the fact that trades must be voluntary (i.e., no stealing) and cannot involve dynamic aspects, or credit (i.e., no “I’ll give you my cool dinosaur if you give me your awful trinket and you buy drinks on Friday night.”)

Once students are done trading, we once again go around the room recording the values they assign to their trinkets. Once all values are recorded, total welfare is announced once again.

And that’s usually where the magic happens. When I ran the Trading Game last week, my class’ “aggregate welfare” went from 128 to about 180, if I recall correctly, and you could just see that it had become obvious to students that (in this context of well enforced property rights) trade not only left no one worse off, but it increased aggregate welfare.
This exercise has apparently been around for quote some time and been done, with variations, by lots of teachers. It seems like a very good classroom exercise. I find myself wondering if it would somehow be possible to do a version that would mirror the classic The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp paper dealing with the benefits of middle men.

If You Can Get It - 34

62,500 words. Two more sections planned.

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Katie and Paul were evidently at that ecstatic early stage in a relationship when it is impossible to spend enough time together. Katie left the house early on Saturday and did not return until after midnight. Sunday, Paul stopped by in his truck, on his way back from church judging by his clothes, and Katie immediately rushed out. Kristy contemplated the empty house for several minutes, then called her parents and invited them over for brunch, throwing herself into a chopping and frying until they arrived and the house felt comfortably populated again.

It was not until Kristy was getting ready for bed that night that Katie returned, giving a call of, “I’m home, Kristy,” and then flopping onto the couch with a contented sigh.

Kristy padded out in her bare feet. “Have a good day.”

“Mmm hmm,” Katie responded, snuggling back into the embrace of the couch.

“Are you hanging out with Paul again tomorrow?”

Katie’s expression lost its glow. “No. He has to go work on installing a furnace. Running ducts and stuff. Nothing I even know how to help with.”

“Too bad. Will you be around for dinner?”

Katie nodded. “Paul says he’ll work late and has to be up early again the next morning. I won’t get to see him all day.”

“Well, maybe we can catch up over dinner, then. Do you want to cook, or would you rather we go out?”

“Oh, I’ll cook.” Katie rolled onto her side and put an arm under her head.
“Good night, then.”

Kristy returned to her room, hearing the TV start up back in the living room.



“So,” Brad asked as Kristy sat down for their weekly one on one meeting Monday afternoon. “Did you run with the SEALS or jog with the General?”

“I ran with the SEALS. For all it gets talked about, they honestly set a pretty standard pace. I’d feel bad bragging about it.”

“It’s grown into legend because of all the guys who have attempted it despite not having run a mile since they were in college. No need to brag, but I’d advise letting it drop every so often. So, aside from the SEALS, how was LeadFirst?”

Kristy shifted slightly in her chair. “There was some good generally applicable stuff, but to be honest it’s not closely related to what I’m doing right now.”

Brad nodded. “It’s a bit like going away to camp. More a life experience than job related training.”

“However,” Kristy said. “I was doing some thinking about my big box problem and I came up with an idea I want to run by you.”

“Shoot.” Brad leaned forward, his elbows on his desk.

“So, the big challenge, as I see it, is to move some volume through Depot and Lowes without disrupting our existing retail channel too much.”

“Correct.”

“I started thinking about means of differentiation, and here’s what I came up with. Let’s put together a couple of gift sets which include both the tool itself and all of its accessories, and place those with Depot and Lowes for the holiday season only. We could allow them to offer a substantial discount which would bring the price with accessories down to slightly less than we’d normally have as the MSRP for the tool, and we’d provide a good basket of trade collars so they can advertise the heck out of it and drive traffic from Black Friday through Christmas. We can authorize the rest of the retail channel to discount during the same period, but we’ll tell them that the gift sets are exclusive to the big box retailers. After the holidays, we tell the big boxes that they can sell the line either in store or online (I’m betting they do online exclusively) but they have to abide by MSRP or we’ll cut them out of next year’s holiday deal. End result: we get to move a bunch of big box volume but do it with a differentiated product and keep it seasonal, so we don’t disrupt the channel too much.”

Brad leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “This is good, Kristy,” he said after a moment. “This is really good. It’ll take some good work with the buyers to pull it off, but this actually stands a good chance of working if it’s pitched right.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Kristy said, with more relief than she allowed to show.
“I do. Now, there’s still stuff to get past. First off, we need to get buy-in here. That’ll take some work, because anyone who’s been around the industry for a while has been bent over a barrel by Home Depot (sometimes even by Lowes) once or twice. People will try to tell you it can’t be done, but I think you just need to get it pitched right. Now, that may mean that you need to go out to Mooresville and Atlanta. The channel account team doesn’t have experience with the big boxes, and the last thing you want is to hear after the fact that they screwed up your pitch.”
“I’ve never negotiated with buyers before.”

Brad shrugged. “I can’t say it’s fun. I did it a few times when I was with the business development team for Stanley. The formula for Home Depot works like this: You go in with a great pitch. The buyer makes you do exactly what he wants instead, and then when he’s through with you he says, ‘Thank you for doing business with Home Depot. I’ll be happy to screw you again next year.’ But you have a solid pitch. The beauty of it is that if they won’t talk, you walk. You’ll do fine.”

Kristy did not find this prediction wholly reassuring, but there was a strong allure to making the pitch herself, and she certainly had no desire to put all the work into preparing the line review and then have the account team give it all away when she wasn’t even there.

“If you think I can do it, I’m happy to give it a try.”



The next few weeks saw both sisters consumed by their different concerns. Katie continued to spend as much time as possible with Paul, which given his work schedule usually involved rushing off each evening at around the time that Kristy got home from work, and on weekends resulted in her near complete absence.

For her part, Kristy was busy producing a seemingly endless series of PowerPoint presentations as she and Brad worked to convince Schneider & Sons leadership that pitching the holiday gift set idea to Home Depot and Lowes represented the best way to begin a presence at those retailers. By the end of January, with internal support secured she, Brad and the account team flew to Mooresville and received a conditional approval: Lowes would agree to the conditions of the holiday offer so long as Home Depot would abide by the same conditions.

In the first week of February, a week that in Johnson, IL set record lows, Kristy flew to Atlanta, where the high was in the mid fifties and even the low was still above freezing. She and Brad were instructed to meet the buyer at Rooster’s Barbeque, where he gazed at them balefully over a basket of chicken wings as Kristy explained her program. When she had finished he considered the matter for the space of four chicken wings. Then he announced, “I will take the cordless drill, the router, the circular saw and the band saw, if you can offer 11% trade from Black Friday through Christmas.”

Kristy looked at Brad. Brad responded that they could.

“Well then,” the buyer intoned. “Thank you for doing business with Home Depot. I look forward to talking with you next year.”

He turned back to his wings and Kristy and Brad left. Before starting the rental car, Kristy stopped to email the buyer at Lowes: “HD is in for drill, router, circular saw and band saw at 11%. Are you in too?”

Before she boarded the plane back to Chicago she had received a reply, “We’re in.”



It was almost eleven when Kristy arrived home that night. Katie’s car was parked outside and the lights throughout the house were blazing, but Kristy saw no sign of her sister in the kitchen or living room.

“Katie?” she called. There was no response.

She pulled a bottle of wine she had been saving for some appropriate occasion out of the pantry, uncorked it, and carried it and two wine glasses into the living room. She poured a glass for herself, took out her phone, and texted: “Just got back. Trip was a big success. Got a glass of wine with your name on it. Are you going to be back soon?”

On hitting send, she immediately heard the amplified Ding-Ding of Katie’s phone sounding in her room. Half wondering if Katie had, uncharacteristically, left her phone in her room, Kristy went to her sister’s door.

“Katie?” she called again, opening the door.

Her sister was half sitting, half lying on the bed, looking at her phone. As Kristy opened the door, Katie tossed the phone into a corner. “Oh, it was you texting,” she said, flopping back down on the mattress and pulling the pillow over her head.

“What’s wrong?” Kristy asked, stepping over discarded clothing and shoes on the floor to sit down on the bed next to her sister.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the pillow in a muffled voice.

“Is something wrong with you and Paul?”

The pillow was pushed aside and Katie glared at her.

“Did you two break up?”

“No!” Katie objected, sitting upright.

“What’s wrong then?”

“We were— We love each other so much… I thought—” Katie kneaded and twisted the pillow. “I don’t know if he doesn’t love me as much, or— Up till then he seemed to want it as much as I did— Ohhh!” This last rose to a wail. “I just don’t understand Paul!”

“Katie, what happened?” Kristy asked, in her most gentle tone.

“Nothing!” Katie shouted. “Nothing fucking happened. Nothing, nothing, nothing!”

The pillow was hurled after the phone and Katie collapsed back on the mattress with anguished sobs which gradually diminished until Kristy heard her say in a very small voice, “Is he too upset to even call?”

Kristy gently rubbed her sister’s back and asked questions in a soothing voice but could get no further explanation. After some time, Katie’s breathing became regular and her clenched hands relaxed. Kristy quietly got up from the bed, retrieved the phone, and put it on the bedside table, within reach. Then she left the room, turning out the light and closing the door softly.

Back in the living room she stood looking at the empty glass she had brought out for Katie. At last, she refilled her own, and took it with her into her room.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Prayer Request

Dear readers, may I ask your prayers? My grandmother fell yesterday and hit her head and was on the kitchen floor for twelve hours before my aunt found her. She is in the ICU now, conscious and able to answer questions, but early tests have revealed some brain swelling. She and my dad were supposed to be leaving tomorrow for a week at Cape Cod, but instead he's going to be spending that vacation time at the hospital with her.

It seems so surprising -- I just saw Grandma two weeks ago at my niece's baptism, and she was so bright and conversational and alert, as spry and sharp as ever. We spoke of the books we'd been reading, and of raising children, and we sang some of the traditional Irish songs together. I haven't ever lived near Grandma, and I haven't seen her frequently these many years, so it was pleasant to sit and talk with her not just as her grandchild, but as an adult relating to another adult. I had hoped that we might have many more such opportunities. 

If You Can Get It - 33

This installment brings the total to 60,500 words.

--- Chapter 9 ---

Pat and Tom rose early the next morning so that they could go to mass before the broadcast of the Rose Parade began, a ritual to which Pat was as deeply devoted as watching the ball drop in Times Square the night before. Kristy had intended to sleep in, but having wakened briefly, she found herself unable to get back to sleep with Katie in bed next to her.

The main rooms were silent and orderly. Pat had evidently cleaned up from the party after the sisters had gone to their room the night before, or else had embarked on an early morning cleaning frenzy, as everything was spotless and in its place. Looking at the cabinet frames that now lined the walls of the kitchen, Kristy found herself thinking back over the past week and the familial glow which had filled the house: Tom and Paul working in the kitchen, had seemed, she now realized, not unlike father and son. Pat and Katie seemed to have found a new common ground in working in the kitchen together. Far from the disaster she had half feared in bringing four people into the small house over the holidays, the last week had been the most enjoyable family time she could recall. Tomorrow their parents would move out, into their new apartment, and she herself would fly off for three days of LeadFirst training. The kitchen would probably be done by the time she got back. And if Paul and Katie proved to be a lasting couple they would doubtless withdraw increasingly into their own world in the manner that couples invariably did. A sense of loss struck her, and with it the impractical desire that somehow the experience of the last few days could be continued indefinitely.

This last morning with the four of them together seemed to call for some celebratory gesture. Her eye fell on an open cardboard box sitting in a corner in which the cook books which Katie used most heavily were in semi-storage. She pulled out the copy of Joy of Cooking and started paging through. Waffles were her father’s realm, into which she dared not tread. Muffins? Pans were packed. What could go on the cookie sheet? She flipped pages until her eye fell on scones. “Bake 15-17 minutes.” With If she hurried they could be done just as her parents got home. Perhaps they would watch the Rose Parade together.



It was still fully dark when Kristy rose the next morning, getting ready as quietly as possible so as not to wake Katie. Her roller luggage was waiting for her by the front door. She had only to wrestle it down the icy walk and load it into the BMW’s trunk. Breakfast could come at the airport.

Doubtless you, like any other American with the slightest familiarity with the news, have heard of General Benjamin Palliser: famous for his leadership of the war in Afghanistan and far more so for his sudden ejection from that post after explaining all too candidly in a major interview his differences with the administration over the conduct of the war. Fitzgerald claimed that there are no second acts in American lives, but when he said this he was no doubt unaware of the creation of Palliser Associates: “Providing combat tested organizational awareness and leadership solutions to today’s ever-changing business environment.”

Rumor abounded at Schneider & Sons as to how exactly the company had become one of Palliser Associates first clients. Some claimed that Gus Schneider IV and General Palliser frequented the same glider club in the Colorado Rockies. Others maintained that the connection stemmed from the General’s always rumored, never yet realized, political ambitions. Whatever the origin, for three years now the three day LeadFirst Management Boot Camp seminars had been a staple of the Schneider experience, providing just the right combination of useful content, mockable buzzwords, and memorable “team building” physical activity (and the resulting colorful injuries) to be an endless source of anecdote and commonality among “all Schneider leaders of director level and above, as well as select manager level leaders in strategic lines of business.”

Kristy had experienced team building and leadership exercises ranging from cooking classes to rock climbing, from group mediation to personality analysis, but to her Silicon Valley-formed experience this blend of management consulting and military trappings was wholly novel. She found herself wondering if Palliser Associates drew any of its clients from the Coasts, or if this was a uniquely Middle-American business experience.

On arrival at Dulles, Kristy collected her baggage and found the middle-aged man who stood holding the LeadFirst sign— undefinably military looking in his crew cut, khakis and dark blue LeadFirst fleece. Several other seminar attendees already stood waiting, though no others from among the Schneider & Sons contingent attending this time were present.

A paunchy attendee in polo shirt and blazer sidled up to Kristy, wheeling his luggage behind him.

“Hi there. Joe Smith. Insure America,” he said, inspiring in Kristy curiosity as to whether he spoke exclusively in two word sentences.

“My name’s Kristy Nilsson. I’m from Schneider & Sons.”

“You gonna run? With the SEALS?” he asked.

“I hadn’t decided. It sounds like fun, but I’ve heard the history jog with the General is very good as well.”

“I heard that too.” He sucked in his gut slightly each time he was about to speak, perhaps out of some self consciousness, but resulting in the impression he was slightly out of breath. “I want to try. But heard it’s tough. Running with SEALS though. Can you beat that?”

Kristy allowed as how this would be difficult to beat and looked around for someone else to talk to.

“My company sends everyone here,” he continued. “Hear it’s a great experience.”

At that moment, Kristy saw another woman approaching the group and hastened to introduce herself to her.

When the half dozen people on the driver’s list were all assembled, they all piled into a shuttle bus and drove off. The seminar was evidently to be a study in contrasts. Each attendee was handed a “briefing paper” assigning him or her to a “squad” and listing activities for the next two days. As they were driven to LeadFirst headquarters in Arlington, VA, video screens in the shuttle bus played a talk delivered by General Pallisar propounding “strategic awareness” and emphasizing that “in our global economy, as on the modern battlefield, information is the most powerful weapon.” After the General’s talk, they saw another video in which instructors in athletic garb with whistles around their whistles around their necks propounded the importance of “working hard, playing hard” and team building.

With all this build-up, Kristy had almost begun to expect the shuttle bus to stop in front of corrugated metal barracks and to spend her night in a bunk bed. Instead it pulled up in front of a picturesque Homewood Suites whose gracious lobby featured a “Welcome LeadFirst!” sign. She took her bag up to her room and consulting her briefing paper saw that she had free time until the “Welcome Dinner with General Pallisar and LeadFirst Team” in a couple of hours.

Skimming over the rest of the schedule for the rest of the seminar, she saw that in addition to the near legendary “06:00 Physical Training: Participants to choose between 3 mile run with the SEALS or historical sight seeing jog with General Pallisar,” there were a mix of physical activities and seminar topics ranging from the banal to the arcane.

“Strategic Awareness and the Power of Information”
“Leadership and Knowledge Networks”
“Rope Course”
“Building an Understanding of Routine: Lessons From de Vigney:
“Conquering the Infoscape”
“Team Building: Relay Race by Squads”

A note at the bottom of the briefing paper advised her, “LeadFirst emphasizes a holistic approach to leadership building incorporating knowledge building and physical activity. We strongly encourage all participants to take part in physical training and contests. However, participants are encouraged to know their physical limits and avoid unaccustomed exertion which may lead to injury. The attached waiver must be signed before participation in any physical activities.”



Although LeadFirst had concluded after lunch on Friday, and the time change was with her as she returned home, it was nearly eight o’clock by the time Kristy arrived at the house on Friday evening. She had texted Katie from the airport. No response had been forthcoming, but she had, nonetheless, allowed herself to hope that she would see the windows glowing with light as she pulled up to the bungalow and that the smell of Katie’s cooking would waft out to meet her as she opened the door. The house, however, was dark.

She turned on the light, dragged her luggage over the threshold, and shut the door against the cold, then took a long moment to look around the kitchen. The newly finished cabinets gleamed and the smells of wood and varnish was heavy in the air. The kitchen had that showroom quality which a room has so briefly after it has been finished, and loses quickly upon use. She opened cupboards and drawers. Most of them were still empty. Work had evidently finished that day and Katie had not yet begun unpacking the kitchen wares.

After wandering admiringly around the kitchen for some minutes, she took up her bag once again and rolled it back to her room where the began to unpack. As she was finishing she heard the door open and close and, returning to the kitchen, found Katie taking off her coat.

“Sorry, I just got back,” Katie said. “I haven’t thought at all about dinner. Doesn’t the kitchen look great, though? Paul just put the hardware on the cabinets this afternoon.”

Kristy nodded. “Have you eaten?”

“Not really. I had a late lunch with Paul and then we were out at his farm. Sorry I didn’t respond to your text.”

“Well I’m starving,” Kristy said, starting to pull her own coat back on. “Let’s go out to dinner. And you can tell me about what’s been going on while I was gone.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Which Fahrenheit 451 Really Burns Me Up

You know me. I read whatever's sitting around, just because it's sitting around and because I like to procrastinate. And so I found myself, when I should have been doing something else, standing in my front hall all afternoon reading Fahrenheit 451, which came in a box of stuff from a friend. I'd never read it before, but I knew it by reputation as THE last word on censorship and haters who burn books. Surely a book acclaimed by so many voices must have something to say to me, as I stand reading it in the hall.

"It's fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan." So says Guy Montag, fireman, whose job is to start fires rather than put them out, fires that consume books. Books are verboten: society has not the patience to read and books might give offense to minorities or make people feel stupid. Burn 'em! There's plenty to entertain the masses -- in fact, the segment of society the reader glimpses seems to do nothing but be entertained. But a spark of rebellion is ignited in Montag's breast by the precocious Clarisse, who thinks. Suddenly Montag is intrigued by the books he's spent a decade burning, and then he connects up with Prof. Faber, a decrepit ex-academic (for the liberal arts have been drummed out of the universities along with the books) and then stuff goes up in flames.

Bradbury is a stylist, I'll give him that. Style upon style upon maddening style. Nothing happens but he can not spin it into a gossamer web of abstraction and introspection. Books burn, people attempt and commit suicide, men run for their lives, and cities are bombed to ashes, but we are remote from it, held at an arm's length by such an inundation of words that one can hardly wonder at his fictional shuttering of liberal arts colleges if this is how Bradbury thinks the intelligentsia write.

And such intelligentsia! So far above the mundanes in understanding! "Pity, Montag, pity," Professor Faber tells our hero. "Don't haggle and nag them; you were so recently of them." The condescension of the poor impotent elites drips through the pages and and scorches our fingers. Sweet ethereal seventeen-year-old-and-crazy Clarisse, who sees more than you, or perhaps is your proxy. Dear Professor Faber, who reminisces with a sigh about "the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill", as if it wasn't that the one thing you can count on, apocalyptic future or not, is that actors will always be with us; who can play the stock market and invent listening devices in his bedroom but who hasn't the sense to market his invention to an apparently media-hungry populace to finance his own revolution. Oh you sinister Fire Chief Beatty, trying so hard to be menacing with your carefully-memorized quotes, but unable to rise above the level of a low-rent O'Brien from that other famous dystopian novel published the year before Fahrenheit 451. The countryside-full of towerless academics who have photographic memories and the ability to obtain or manufacture pheromone-altering philters, whose damn silly wilderness lectures give an idea of what damn silly places their classrooms must have been.

And such a future! Under Communism, the Poles used to joke, "The future is certain; the past is always changing." Bradbury's future reads like the past, but an altered, uncertain past, with the futuristic quaintness of the fire department's Mechanical Hound, and malignant goverment agencies which resemble no oppressive regime ever. What a visionary vision of the masses as sheeple, so confused by the scary concept of a legion of books contradicting one another because, you know, contradiction is an unfamiliar concept because people have never contradicted each other or themselves. Bradbury, whose fiery imagination apparently couldn't encompass the Kindle, does impress with such prophetic touches as full-wall televisions, interactive entertainment, and (perhaps most prescient) the ever-present earbuds piping constant noise to numb the listener. But these can't drown out the essential arrogance of the conceit that the world must be consumed by fire in order for They Who Carry Knowledge to rise up and resume their rightful places as intellectual saviors of the stupid masses who quiver with indignation at the slightest touch of complexity.

So, yeah. I found myself moved to irritation, not wonder, by this precious fable. And I wondered: whence the book's enduring reputation? Is it that Bradbury drops the names of all the right authors? Does he display just the right mixture of pity and contempt for the great unwashed? Is it that since everyone likes the frisson of feeling that his lifestyle is under attack, librarians everywhere swooned at the great persecution to come and so recommended Fahrenheit 451 beyond its merits? Am I simply a crank who doesn't know great literature when it wallops me over the head with its importance?

All these are burning questions. Let's read a snippet from the interview with Bradbury at the back of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, and see how he suggests that I, or other apathetic souls, might come to "appreciate the power of the word in a culture that is increasingly dominated by the visual":

"Hand them a book, that's all. Science fiction, fantasy -- my books have changed a lot of lives. My books are full of images and metaphors, but they're connected to intellectual concepts. Give one of my books to a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't like to read, and that boy will fall in love and start to read."

There you have it. Bradbury's solution to literary poverty is to read more Bradbury. Unfortunately, I'm too burned out from barbecuing sacred cows to deal with more of their award-winning output.