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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Gun Insurance as Gun Control

I have a some more substantive posts on guns and gun control brewing, but this struck me as an interesting quick topic. Megan McArdle has an interesting post up where she discusses the merits (and demerits) of the idea being bandied about that gun owners be required to pay for liability insurance on their guns. The idea is that this would allow insurance companies to effectively price the deadliness of various types of guns into the price of the insurance, and that people would thus be deterred from buying more deadly guns without having to actually ban any guns.

Megan is highly skeptical of the idea. She points out a number of practical problems, notable the question of how you would get people most likely to misuse guns (criminals) to pay insurance premiums in the first place. Even if you could extract one premium at the time that a gun was first legally purchased, the owner could then stop paying.

I'm not sure this is actually the biggest practical obstacle (let me just say now I'm against the proposal, but I'm looking at it's plausibility because I think that it helps dissect some of the illusions that gun control advocates are under.) You could require that any time a gun is sold that the buyer undergo an insurance check and pay a one time insurance fee which would cover liability if that gun were used to kill anyone any time in the next 10 years. Sure, guns can sit around a long time, but it would take a lot of pre-planning to buy a gun more than ten years before committing a crime. This would probably the cover the majority of guns that undergo a legal sale prior to being used in a crime.

Of course, a lot of guns used in crimes aren't purchased legally or are never traced. If not traced, there's obviously no way to assign liability. If it was bought legally by one or more people within the last ten years, then you could make the most recent insurance company pay out.

There are currently about 300 million guns in private hands in the US. There are about 12,000 people who are killed with guns each year (obviously it wouldn't make sense to pay out for suicides as it would allow one to provide for one's family by committing suicide.) That means the chance that any one gun will be used to kill someone in a given year is 1 in 25,000. In ten years, that's a 1 in 2,500 chance. If we assume a payout of $1million to anyone killed with a gun, the average cost of ten years of liability insurance would be $400. Once you take into account the fact that often murder weapons aren't recovered, insurance companies would come up with a (probably lower) figure based on the characteristics of the buyer and the gun which would quantify the actual chance of liability with any given gun.

Now, $400 is a fair amount of money, but for ten years coverage it's honestly not very much. Moreover, I suspect that the result of applying actuarial probabilities would not be what the advocates of this idea expect.

Proponent John Wasic writes:

When you buy a car, your insurer underwrites the risk according to your age, driving/arrest/ticket record, type of car, amount of use and other factors. A teenage driver behind the wheel of a Porsche is going to pay a lot more than a 50-year-old house wife. A driver with DUI convictions may not get insurance at all. Like vehicles, you should be required to have a policy before you even applied for a gun permit. Every seller would have to follow this rule before making a transaction.

This is where social economics goes beyond theory. Those most at risk to commit a gun crime would be known to the actuaries doing the research for insurers. They would be underwritten according to age, mental health, place of residence, credit/bankruptcy record and marital status. Keep in mind that insurance companies have mountains of data and know how to use it to price policies, or in industry parlance, to reduce the risk/loss ratio.

Who pays the least for gun insurance would be least likely to commit a crime with it. An 80-year-old married woman in Fort Lauderdale would get a great rate. A 20-year-old in inner-city Chicago wouldn’t be able to afford it. A 32-year-old man with a record of drunk driving and domestic violence would have a similar problem.
...
Want to buy a single-shot World War II rifle? You’d pay much less than a semi-automatic handgun with a multi-round clip.

I'm certainly willing to bet that my bolt action WW2 rifles would have a very low statistical chance of being used in a crime. (Come to that, so would my semi-automatic WW2 era M1 Garand.) But here's the thing: The AR-15 "assault weapon" which was used at Newton is also a gun that is very seldom used in crimes. Sure, they're occasionally used in very spectacular crimes, but given that AR platform rifles are some of the highest selling rifles in the US, the ratio of people killed to number available is actually quite low. Further, the upper middle class middle aged woman who bought the AR-15 used at Newton would probably show as a very low risk profile. I'd be surprised if such a law would have tacked on more than one or two hundred dollar to the price of the gun -- and that's on a gun that already costs $700+.

The guns that would be most impacted by a law like this would be relatively inexpensive handguns. The last data I saw listed .38 Special revolvers as the most frequently used for crimes in the US. Also, cheap models are far more often used than expensive ones. The result of such a law would simply be to raise the price of less expensive (often, less "scary" from the point of view of gun control advocates) guns while leaving many of the ones that scare people most (so called "assault weapons") untouched. Cheap semi-auto pistols would become more expensive while the much derided Glock would not be impacted as much. As when it comes to profiling gun owners as opposed to weapons, let's be clear: The main thing would would be done by such a regime would be making it much harder for young male minorities living in poor neighborhoods to buy guns. That might be effective in a certain sense, but if advocates of such a law want to ban gun ownership by Black and Hispanic men, maybe they should just admit it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

When Your Taxes Go Up

With it looking increasingly likely that we will "go over the fiscal cliff" at least temporarily (once everyone's tax rates have already gone up, a whole different set of factors may come into play and make Congress want to reduce some people's taxes back down again) it's not a bad time to think about what effect we feel when our taxes go up. The obvious answer is "pain". As Megan McArdle points out, the best way to quantify this is not how much your taxes go up, but rather how much your take home income goes down:
[W]hen we're talking about policy, we tend to look at tax increases as a fraction of total taxable income, or as a fraction of the current tax rate. To see what I mean, think about two cases: one where the tax rate is going from 5% to 10%, and one where it is going from 50% to 55%.

If you look at this as a percentage of total income, these two tax increases are the same.

If you look at it as a percentage of the tax rate, then the first increase is much larger: it is doubling your taxes! While the second increase is only upping them by 10%.

But in terms of behavior, the percentage increase in the rate, or the percentage decrease in total income, is much less important than a third figure: the percentage decrease in your after-tax dollar. Most people think less about their nominal annual salary than about how much they bring home in each paycheck. And if you look at it this way, the second tax increase is much, much larger than the first.

Taking your tax rate from 5% to 10% decreases your after tax income by 5.26%. But by the time your tax rate is 50%, you're only keeping half of your income. So increasing the tax rate by 5% decreases your after-tax income by 10%: you used to take home 50 cents out of every dollar, but now you only take home 45 cents.

If you were surprised that Gerard Depardieu decided to leave France rather than pay the new 70% top rate, think of it this way: the rate increase was only 30%, but it was going to cut his income in half. Yes, that would still leave him with more money than you and I live on. But people don't think this way: if the government came and took half your after-tax income away, that would still leave you with more money than a middle-class family in Bangalore lives on, and you would still be hopping mad, not to mention panicking about how the mortgage was going to get paid.

On the Third Day of Christmas

I'm back in the office today, getting in some much needed time on a couple of big projects and saving my vacation days for later. However, the household is still pretty much on a holiday footing. Yesterday we had Erin of Bearing Blog and her family over for dinner and to stay the night. This brought the household total up to nine children and with six inches of fresh snow having just fallen the kids had a blast building snow men and sledding. MrsDarwin and I had a great time with Erin and Mark: we sampled beer, we managed to get all the kids down with relative peace, and we talked by candle light for an hour when the power inexplicably when out.

Things are likely to continue rather low key around here for the new couple days, as we have family visiting. However, more posting and more Stillwater are coming. We hope you are all having a happy and blessed Christmas.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Fantasy Lives of Wives with Beehives



Just when you think trends, and the television shows about them, couldn't get any more vapid, here we have Wives with Beehives, a program about women who want to party like it's always 1959.
One place this breezy portrait of such women doesn't lead is to the sight of hair done in a beehive. There are other stand-out hairdos, to be sure, some clearly the product of fevered fantasies about the '50s, but nothing approaching the style the title mentions. That should have been the first sign that this TLC production about a group of Los Angeles housewives who pride themselves on adherence to the manners, morals and dress of the 1950s might be a bit short in the authenticity department. There would be others in regular succession.  
...That clothing plays a central role in the concerns of the four women introduced here, whose reasons for their choice of lifestyle are all roughly similar. Dollie, who had a difficult childhood, wants order, and also a world like the one she connects with the '50s, when men were men and women were women. Unlike today—when, she charges, men have surrendered their masculinity. As she speaks a scene unfolds in her living room by way of illustration, showing her husband striding purposefully to a table lamp to change the bulb—presumably an example of male assertiveness. How many manly husbands does it take to screw in a light bulb?... 
Amber, who also wants a stable and peaceful life, wants no children and may, it's suggested, be trying to overcome memories of her strict religious upbringing. Fifties fashion of all kinds is central to her life, if this report is to be believed. She prides herself on her cocktail parties featuring appropriate taste treats of the era: deviled eggs and cheese puffs. The dressing room that holds her huge vintage wardrobe is the largest room in the house—a fact that would likely have been incomprehensible to an American homemaker of the '50s. 
Shelby, married to a U.S. Navy man, is proud to feed her husband what she considers 1950s meals when he's home on leave. Potato-chip casserole, freezer-box pie and blue Jello, etc. She believes, as does the elegant Leslie, that the values of the '50s will keep her family intact.
As it happens, I know some women who were housewives in the Fifties -- my grandmothers and Darwin's. Strangely enough, what they've told me of their lives has very little to do with girdles and bullet bras, and more do to with raising children and trying to manage a household. By 1959, the total fertility rate in the United States was 3.7 children per women. At the end of the decade, my paternal grandmother had four; my maternal grandmother had 11. Of course these were times before easy, reliable birth control (that part of the morals of the 50s seems to be lost), but my grandmothers -- and Darwin's grandmothers too -- were all faithful Catholics, a demographic that transcends passing fashion and architectural trends.

Darwin and I lived for eight months in his grandmother's home, built in 1952. It had the formica table and the tile countertops and the vintage stove and ancient carpet. It also had a microwave, from a later period -- an innovation that Grandma H loved, because contrary to TLC's stereotype of the 50s housewife, she didn't love to cook. She also spent a great deal of time caring for a disabled child in an era in which many criticized her for not institutionalizing the little girl.

His other grandmother, Grandma R, was a Navy wife and moved seven children around the country. When her children put together a cookbook for Grandma and Grandpa's 50th anniversary, what they remembered were not her potato-chip casseroles and freezer-box pie but her meatball soup, her beans, her mole, her fideo, her tamales, her salsa, her pork and green chiles.

My Grandma D didn't spend her days crafting jello molds or bundt cakes for her husband; she had eleven children to raise, and, living in Baton Rouge, the family had a black cook who made great regional dishes like red beans and rice. She stayed petite and slim and elegant into her eighties, and though she is lovely in the old family photos, it has less to do with the styles of the time than with her own ladylike grace.

Grandma E was a thrifty Irish homemaker who raised her family near first Boston and then Philadelphia, who battled a hereditary blood disease before the advent of modern medicines that could keep it under control. She had no extra room in her house for a "huge vintage wardrobe", and she never threw cocktail parties. She still brooks no nonsense, and would find the idea of living a fantasy life based on the accoutrements of a certain decade ridiculous.

And this doesn't take into account the lives of other women in the period -- single working girls, WWII widows, women who crammed large families into small apartments, women who didn't have husbands who would keep them safely insulated from the cares of the world. Women who couldn't afford the latest styles, and didn't have the time or servants to wash and drip dry huge wardrobes. Women who knew that magazines such as Vogue and Good Housekeeping and Mademoiselle and TV shows such as I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet crafted just as whitewashed and unrealistic an image of contemporary life as Martha Stewart Living and The Real Housewives of Orange County do now.

Do you want to know who lives the life of a stereotypical 1950s housewife? I do. I raise lots of children, keep a welcoming (if not always neat) home for my husband, go to church every Sunday, and have the occasional cocktail. I also, like my grandmothers before me, wear what's current because that's what I can find without going out of my way. Like my grandmothers before me, I'd give my eyeteeth for a some better household technology (although for me, "having eyeteeth pulled" is just an expression -- it was far more literal for them and their children).  Like my grandmothers before me, I don't have time to carefully build up a pretty fantasy life in order to have a stable family -- I'm too busy actually living and caring for the real thing.

Anyone who's interested in a reality show depicting a family life that would have been more familiar to women of the 1950s should check out Jennifer Fulwiler's new show, Minor Revisions.




Apocalyptic Counter-Indications

People, please. You knew the world wasn't going to end yesterday when this didn't happen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stillwater - 26



Refreshed and completely meditated out, Esther roared back into Stillwater like a gathering hurricane, ready to whisk up everything in her path and spit it out transformed into a complete Stillwater Fellowship Ball. The scheduling of the Ball was left to Esther, and for a number of years she had chosen to hold it in late August — a miserable time of the year to dress up in voluminous layers of antebellum costume in Louisiana, but also a time when few other big society events competed for attention. 

Her big concern this year was vacant role of Queen of the Fellowship Ball. The eldest Spencer daughter at home usually filled the post, and for a number of years Sophia had reigned uncontested. Now that she was married, Olivia should have acceded to the throne, and indeed, Olivia had long dreamed of the day when she would supplant Sophia in the spotlight and descend the curved staircase in a rustling gown to greet her subjects gathered in the grand rooms below. 

Now that the great occasion was at hand, however, Olivia was strangely recalcitrant. She’d signed up to be an exchange student in Brazil this semester. She wasn’t going to fly home just for the Stillwater Ball. She had better things to do than worry about who would be Queen of the Fellowship Ball — Esther could do it for all she cared. This was exactly what Esther wanted to hear. Technically the naming of the Queen fell to Richard Spencer, but he had always paid little attention to the finer details of the Ball, preferring to let Esther manage the whole thing as long as she didn’t bother Cheryl to make any decisions, which suited them both admirably. It was certain that Cheryl had no desire to be the Queen — she could barely stay up for the entire length of the Ball. There was only one obvious contender, and that was Esther herself. Her seamstress friend in Plaquemine was making her a lavish dress, and she had secretly commissioned Alys to design a new tiara for this year’s Queen, “whoever that may be”.


As Alys had been invited to this year’s Ball, she had, in turn, given Melly a commission to alter one of the old dresses for her. Together they climbed up the tightly spiraling attic stairs, nestled against a tall window in a back service corridor, and emerged into a hot, dusty, cavernous space. Even in the middle of the day, the low windows barely illuminated all the way to the high rafters. Melly pulled the chain of the light fixture near the neat racks of garment bags, but the naked bulb made little impact on the dimness. 

“I can think of a few that might fit you fairly well,” she said, sorting through the bags and holding the tags to the light to read the labels. “My mother made these for Sophia when she was younger, so maybe they’ll fit you now.”

“Because I have a figure like a little girl?” 

“No!” Melly protested. “I didn’t mean that… It’s just that Sophia is taller than you, and has more… It’s just that she’s bigger,” she finished lamely.

“I know I’m not busty,” Alys laughed. “You won’t hurt my feelings by saying so. You pick the one you think will be best for me.”

Melly considered for a moment. There was no question that Alys would be attractive in anything short of a burlap sack, but it was hard to have to pick the dress in which she would captivate Malcolm at the Ball. Yet she knew exactly which dress would suit Alys perfectly, and with a small sigh, she lifted it carefully from its bag and held it up for her to inspect. It was an off-the-shoulder gown of ice blue taffeta, trimmed with pointed lace along the low neckline and the waist of the bodice. A ruched overskirt of a slightly deeper blue fitted trimly over the hips, and the full underskirt had three tiers of gathered pleats at the hem. The whole effect of the dress was one of alluring innocence. Alys was delighted. 

“Oh, this is so authentic!” she gushed, holding the dress to herself and admiring the effect.

“Well, not exactly,” said Melly. “These aren’t exact reproductions, and this dress is a melange of different styles. This overskirt is a look from the 1870s, but it’s not as snug as dresses then would have been. Ladies used to wear pretty tight corsets — even though you’re supposed to wear a corset under this dress, the modern ones won’t squeeze you nearly as much as an authentic corset would. But if you want something truly historical, there are some much older dresses in the way back.”

“I’m not even going to look at another one,” Alys declared.  “I wonder what shoes I should wear?”

“The next question is actually what you should wear under it,” said Melly, pawing through the racks in search of the right bustles, corsets, and hoopskirts. “Let’s find that, and then we’re done up here.”

“But what about you? Do you already have a dress?”

“Well…” The truth was that Melly had been avoiding the very thought of the Fellowship Ball. Ordinarily it was a joyful occasion for her, since it brought her beloved brother Reńe, the current Stillwater Fellow, back to her for a whole weekend. However, this year the prospect of Malcolm and Alys whirling gracefully around the floor, gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes (or sardonically, as the case might be) had been weighing heavily on her, and she’d considered just skipping the whole thing. Her hesitation was answer enough for Alys.

“Oh no, we are not leaving this attic until we find you a dress,” she said, taking charge. “And since I find it totally creepy up here, we’re going to do it pronto. Come on.”

Alys threw herself into the racks with purpose, gathering up whatever garment bags were in reach preparatory to examining each one.

“Stop! Stop!” cried Melly, unable to countenance the havoc being wrought on her carefully constructed organizational scheme. “You’re looking in the wrong area. Even Sophia’s old dresses are too big for me.”

“Then you show me where to look.”

Melly carefully hung up all the bags while Alys, on Melly’s advice, looked through a far rack, repository of an older selection of ball gowns made for a some more petite woman than the current crop of Spencer girls. Melly had always selected the most basic dresses for her costumes on the theory that the attention of the ball should be directed toward Sophia and Olivia, and away from herself, as much as possible. Alys had no such qualms. She emerged grinning and victorious, waving a half-zipped bag.

“Okay, I think this should be it. At least, it seemed ideal in the dark back there — let’s see it in the light.”

By the window, Alys displayed a gown of ivory silk woven with subtle stripes.

“I think you’re tiny enough to pull this off. I’m betting on you having pretty shoulders, though.”
Melly fingered the beautiful fabric. The wide neckline stretched to short tight sleeves of lace, and the tiny waist tapered down to a narrow point above the full skirt. Cascading bands of trim and silk dipped in a V across the bodice and swept close along the shoulders. Would Malcolm notice her shoulders? Would he think they were pretty?

“Oh, check it out!” Alys was examining the other side. “The back laces up. I call that sexy.”

“Do you know, I… I think this was someone’s wedding dress,” Melly murmured, blushing at her thoughts of Malcolm and putting him resolutely from her mind.

“Well, the bride is hardly going to ask for it back now, is she?” asked Alys reasonably. “Let’s grab our unmentionables and go try these things on.”


 The Ball was fast approaching when Melly received an unwelcome surprise. 

She and Malcolm had barely been driving together during the summer — the heat added an extra layer of discomfort to the whole awkward process for Melly, so Malcolm took Alys out instead. With her natural adaptability, Alys made the car her own when she drove, and her gleefully conspiratorial grins at Malcolm as she roared down River Road made that gentleman feel more reckless and liberated than his naturally serious nature had allowed before. Anything seemed possible when she was driving. They might tear up the miles to New Orleans and buy a suit of armor or an elephant’s foot in one of the venerable antique emporiums off Bourbon Street. They might head out at twilight across the endless bridge over the Atchafalaya Basin and find themselves in Mexico by sunrise. They might trace the Mississippi north and wind up in godforsaken Minnesota. None of these wild whims had indulged as yet, but with her, it seemed like excitement was just around the corner.

However, one afternoon a few weeks before the Fellowship Ball, Alys wasn’t in, and as Malcolm entered the basement door to head upstairs, he saw Melly in the family room, her head bent over Alys’s dress. She looked tired and pale, and he reflected guiltily that he had not even tried to get her out of the house in some time. She was always so quiet and patient and uncomplaining that he hadn’t kept as much of an eye on her health as he should have done. Surely it wasn’t good even for her to spend all day shut up in the house sewing.

“Hey, Melly,” he called. At the sound of his voice she immediately looked up, and her welcoming smile banished some of the wanness from her face.

“You’re always in here sewing,” he said, sitting on the arm of the couch.

“I have to finish this before the ball.”

“No, I mean you’re always in the family room. You have to carry everything downstairs to work on your projects. Do you like it better down here than in your room?”

She looked back at her work. “It’s warm up there sometimes.”

Somehow he didn’t like to see her shrinking back to her sewing. “Come on,” he said, taking the dress and putting it aside, “you need to get out. It’s not good for your eyes to spend so long staring at tiny stitches. Let’s go driving. It’s time to get you on bigger roads. We’re going to go up the highway instead of River Road.”

“Just let me get my hat and sunglasses.” Ordinarily she might have protested this new route, but now she was galvanized by the thought that perhaps it was because she was so resistant to stepping out of her comfort zone that he now turned to Alys for companionship. And she was tired of sitting alone in the house without him, and today his concern for her health, fraternal though it might be, was enough to make the dread prospect of driving less onerous. 

Her technical driving skills in the big Morgan had improved, and she was able to start the car without stalling now. But she still did not enjoy being behind the wheel. There was no affection between her and the Morgan, nor even the respect one has for a worthy adversary. She still feared that the car had yet another trick hidden away, and she felt deeply its treachery in purring like a kitten for Alys while balking under her command.

“There’s nothing wrong with your driving, Melly, except that you’re not confident behind the wheel,” said Malcolm, confidently. “You know what you have to do, but you’re tentative.”

“Yes,” said Melly tightly. “I’m tentative because I’m steering a huge pile of metal down a road toward other huge piles of metal, and if we collide, there will be one super-huge metal pile and no more me and you.”

“At the speed you’re going, the only metal we’d damage in a collision is our fender, maybe.” He regarded her from the front seat. “You could go faster, Melly. You know how to drive now. You could probably even get your license if you wanted to.”

“I don’t want to.”

“But you could. Think of all the things you could do if you could drive yourself.”

“If someone would lend me a car, you mean.”

“You could get your own car.”

“My own car?” Melly took her eyes off the road for a moment to see if he was teasing, but his face wasn’t twisted in amusement. “How would I get a car?”

“Buy it. How many dresses have you sewn or altered over the years? People pay good money for that. Start charging for the work you do — you deserve it. Then save up for a used car.” This time he did smile. “An automatic if you’re tired of dealing with the clutch.” 

The possibility of making money from sewing had never seriously occurred to Melly. She thought of her mother and the years she’d spent at various bridal shops. Of course she must have been paid, but it had always seemed like the family had barely scraped by on that money. Come to that, her mother had been paid for sewing at Stillwater — five years’ worth of Stillwater Fellowship Ball gowns in the attic were testaments to her skill. Had Esther been in charge of paying her? Yet Esther had never offered Melly any money for any of the gowns she’d sewn or altered for the Fellowship Ball. And Sophia’s wedding dress had cost her hours upon hours of wearisome work, yet neither Sophia nor Esther had seemed to think her time was worth very much. But perhaps she had owed them that work; perhaps that was the price of staying at Stillwater.

“At least Alys is paying me,” she murmured.

“Is she?” Malcolm’s eyes glowed, and Melly realized that she’d spoken aloud. “I’m not surprised. She has a lot of respect for your talents, Melly — she’s told me so several times. And she really believes that talent should be recognized and developed. Goodness knows she’s told me that often enough when we talk about the school.” He settled confidentially, and Melly tried to look as encouraging as two-way traffic would allow. “I can’t always understand her, though. I’m really starting to believe that she likes me. She practically told me the other day that the reason she took a second six-month lease was because she liked being near me.”

“She seriously said that?”

“Well, as seriously as she says anything. And that’s the issue. She’s so…” Malcolm surveyed the humid landscape, searching the levee, the cane fields, and the wisps of cloud drifting in the blue sky for words to describe Alys’s ineffable qualities. Melly waited patiently for inspiration to strike.

“We’re so… different, almost completely opposite. She’s so funny and bright and she sees everything so sharply. When I’m with her I feel free, and all my worries and obligations come off my shoulders for a while. But that’s the thing — it’s so easy to laugh at everything when I’m with her that I don’t know how seriously she takes our relationship, or if she even thinks we have a relationship. I feel like I weigh things down enough as it is — the last thing I want to do is ruin everything like always because I just can’t lighten up.”

Melly seethed at the unjustness of this self-assessment. “You don’t ruin anything by being sincere and responsible, Malcolm. That’s called being mature. You shouldn’t ever let anyone make you feel ashamed of it.”

He gave her shoulder a grateful squeeze. “You’re such a good friend, Melly. I’m so glad I have you to talk to. You always say the kindest things, and you’re always right.”

Melly was torn between exhilaration at his words and despondency at his intentions, and her conflicting emotions might have brought tears to her eyes if at that moment the car behind them had not honked with lengthy insistence. She jumped and looked at the speedometer — sure enough, she had let her foot slip while listening to Malcolm, and was tooling along at a leisurely 40 miles an hour. Her pulse began to race as she took her eyes from the road long enough to glimpse at the rearview mirror and saw that the car behind her was right up on her back bumper. Clutching the wheel, she jabbed at the accelerator. The Morgan, glad of this chance to roar, leapt ahead with a speed that alarmed her. Again the horn blared, still immediately behind her. Panic twisted her stomach. Should she go faster? She was driving the speed limit now. 

“Why won’t they pass me?” she hissed.

Malcolm squeezed her shoulder again, and his voice was oddly light. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. They’re just teasing you.”

The car had pulled up alongside the Morgan, and the driver leaned on the horn. Melly risked a sidewise glance and saw Alys waving at her from the passenger seat of her own car. The driver gave her a comic salute, and much to her dismay, she recognized Ian. She glared at him for a moment before remembering that between the sunglasses and hat, he was hardly likely to discern the nuances of her disapproval. Staring straight ahead, she held the Morgan exactly at the speed limit. Ian charged ahead and maneuvered in front of her, and settled down to exactly the limit as well. With a sigh, she realized that she was going to have to follow him all the way home.

“So she was picking up Ian at the airport today!” Malcolm said. “I didn’t know he was coming in. That’s like her to want to surprise us all. Now we will have some fun.”

Melly’s reaction to this development was so exactly opposite his that she felt it hardly worthwhile to say anything. Was there no way to rid themselves of Winters for good?


Ian, in his turn, glanced in the mirror at the sedate Morgan and its primly upright driver. “How on earth does Malcolm Spencer end up in a classic roadster driven by Audrey Hepburn? I didn’t know he had it in him.”

Alys rolled her eyes. “You know it’s his own car, and of course that’s Melly, idiot.”

“Melly?” Ian scrutinized the face in the mirror more intensely. There was indeed a resemblance to the quiet little girl who had always seemed to be underfoot whenever he’d tried to sneak off with Sophia, but now he noticed her finely modeled face and the pretty mouth pursed with irritated concentration. “When did she grow up?”

“She looks the same as she always did, only now you notice it because you didn’t expect to see any good-looking girls this time around,” scoffed Alys.

“But how can she be old enough to drive?”

“I think she’s almost twenty, dumbass.”

“Sweet nineteen and never been kissed.” 

Alys looked at him sharply. “You leave her alone. I like her. She’s a good kid.”

“But she doesn’t like me. And I want her to like me. I want everyone to like me.”

“You’re so vain,” said Alys indulgently. “You have to be loved by everyone. I guess she could use a little something to bring her out of herself, but don’t you dare break her heart, or I’ll be mad at you. She’s not Sophia, you know. She’s a nice girl, not that you’d know the type.”

“I wouldn’t break her heart,” he protested, grinning. “I just want to soften it up a little. Make her smile at me, see her light up when I come into the room, have her cry a little when I go away again. That sort of thing.”

“Oh, that’s all, is it? You must be developing some restraint in your old age.”

“See? I’m already working hard on my nice guy cred.” 

Alys shrugged. “I wash my hands of you. With this big ball coming up, you’ll probably have a chance or two to make a good impression if you behave yourself.”

Ian’s boyish face could hardly have been more compliant. “That’s all I ask.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An Angry Note

Found on the floor while I was cleaning up the front bedroom

torchers
torchers
stuped
extra
stuped
spelling
book

Who Is The Hobbesian?

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, anti-gun advocates came out quickly and loudly arguing that new gun control measures were necessary. Gun rights organizations such as the NRA wisely kept their mouths shut for a while, having learned (correctly) that no one wants to hear from them in the wake of a mass shooting, but given the plentiful and often strident anti-gun rhetorical coursing through the media and social media, pro-gun advocates started answering back and provided their own solution: If some trained and armed person had been present, the attack could have been stopped.

This seems to be one of the basic divisions of thinking that inevitably comes up in the gun control debate. Gun control advocates argue that killing could be avoided if the availability of guns were reduced. Gun advocates argue that violence can be reduced by making sure that there is someone nearby to respond to violence (and that the knowledge that there are likely armed citizens or off duty law enforcement around will deter crimes.)

Occasionally this "more guns" argument even comes from somewhat surprising quarters. Left-leaning writer Jeffrey Goldberg writing at The Atlantic this month argued that since the US has so many guns in circulation (and a sufficient cultural attachment to them) that it would never be possible to make the US gun free, it would be better to make sure that there are significantly more well trained citizens with concealed carry licenses.

Alan Jacobs over at The American Conservative states a common objection to the "more guns could prevent violence" point of view:
But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)
It seems to me that in many ways this reaction underlines a divide in how people think about society and order -- one that generally falls along the left/right axis, though since Jacobs is writing for TAC I would assume that in some sense he calls himself a "conservative".

Jacobs says that the "more guns" approach to dealing with crime implies a “war of every man against every man”. In keeping with this view, he instead advocates reducing the availability of guns in order to make sure that however much every man way want to make war against every other man, he can't do so as lethally.

However, it seems to me that the "more guns" solution does not in fact assume a Hobbesian reality, it assumes that the vast majority of people do support and wish to enforce an orderly society, and thus that members of that society can and should be allowed to have the power to protect society against those who seek to disrupt with it violence.

Jacobs believes that guns should be restricted precisely because he believes in a Hobbesian war of all against all. The "more guns" suggestion, on the other hand, seems to imply a basic social solidarity -- that most people are and desire to be law abiding. The more Hobbesian view holds that the tools of force should, as much as possible, be restricted only to those who represent state authority -- an authority which externally imposes order on a society which would otherwise be violently anarchic. The "more guns" partisans believe that an orderly society is fairly natural, and that members of it simply need to be given the tools to enforce that order against a small minority who would disrupt that order.

Or course, if the disagreement on guns boils down, among other things, to a fundamental disagreement about human nature, it's obvious that agreement and resolution would be very difficult.

ADDENDUM: Since the recent surge in discussion of gun control has touched off by the mass murder at Newtown, it's probably worth stating as a side note that although in general I'm sympathetic to allowing more citizens to get concealed carry permits (given some appropriate level of background check and proficiency) it seems to me that those suggesting that this is the clear solution to schools shootings are probably over-reaching. Schools shootings are incredibly rare (statistically, an average US school will be hit with a mass shooting every 12,000 years) and I don't think it's necessarily reasonable to form a lot of school policies around such an unusual event. Plus, I suspect that not many school teachers are the sort who want to carry weapons.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Miau!

We are improving our addled minds by watching trained singers yowl at each other. It's very edifying.

This is the Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti by Rossini. "Miau" translates, roughly, as "Meow".



Note to fans of the Betsy-Tacy books: this is the Cat Duet that Betsy and Tacy sang every year.

And because we can't let well enough alone, here are two other versions we particularly enjoyed.




Sick Daze

We are struck with the revolving cold, which is slowing going around the family. Darwin has remained (and will remain, I hope) immune, but so far everyone else is in some stage or other of invalidism. I spent yesterday in bed, sleeping as much as possible, while the kids either slept off their own colds or sat rapt in front of the computer. Thank goodness that Netflix streams entire seasons of Tintin and Phineas and Ferb.

Today different people are in different stages -- some more energetic, some laid quite low. All I've done today is sleep, break up the occasional fight, and address Christmas cards. It's not a bad life, actually, when my sinuses aren't either too blocked or too drippy.

I'm grateful, actually, that this didn't hit us in November, or I never would have reached my 50,000 words. Stillwater fans, I'm still writing, but the past week with this cold creeping upon me has been very unproductive. I'd find myself staring stupidly at the screen, wondering how to construct this difficult sentence: "She raised her head to look at him." Then I'd check Facebook, because surely someone there would know. Then I'd go to bed.

***

For your listening pleasure: Must The Winter Come So Soon, from the opera Vanessa by Samuel Barber, sung by Susan Graham:



Anna Egan and I are going to try to record this over the Christmas holidays. If it's passable (more a comment on my playing than her singing), I'll post it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Distortions of Dignity

Leah at Unequally Yoked has a post about various feminists responding to the way some comic artists distort the feminine form to amp up sexual attributes, generally at the expense of anatomical realities. Whether or not you want to follow all her links, I'm in favor of people casting a critical eye on any medium which glorifies pornification: the exaggeration of one trait or characteristic for the purpose of sexualizing it.

Leah applauds these initiatives, not just because they encourage objectification, but because
I’m glad that people like Albers, Girl in Four Colors, and Escher Girls are speaking up and making it easier for guys who intend to be nice guys to notice when the culture is leading them astray.
I think there's a lot to admire about the work of calling attention to the ways in which the culture encourages an overtly sexualized view of women, but the phrasing here, "making it easier for guys who intend to be nice guys to notice when the culture is leading them astray", troubles me. I've noticed this formulation in several discussions lately: "I know you think you're good guys, and you want to be nice, but you just need to be set straight". It seems to me to be, in attitude, very much related to the equally problematic assertions I've seen men make in discussions of modesty: "I know that even nice girls don't realize how much they distract men by their clothing/body language/etc., so let me set you straight." Both of these are not only really patronizing statements, but also set up relationships between men and women that either set the sexes in opposition, or put repentant offenders into the position of being useful idiots trying to placate an offended constituency: "Oh gosh, I'm so sorry I didn't realize how the culture was making me sexualize these poor women! Gee, I didn't know that the way I dressed was making these poor men sin! You're so right!"

A man shouldn't not sexualize women because he wants someone to think of him as a "nice guy"; he shouldn't do it because it's wrong and degrading. A woman shouldn't dress modestly because men are too weak to control themselves; she should dress modestly because she is inherently worthy of respect. I cannot force you to think virtuously, but I can behave virtuously myself.

This is an important moral distinction because choices not based on what is right and good often just channel bad behaviors into other areas. Simply eliminating unrealistically sexy drawings of women won't automatically mean that illustrators believe that women have an inherent dignity and deserve to be depicted as more than a collection of variously shaped attributes and a sultry glance. It doesn't mean that suddenly men who had been consuming these images will begin to treat their wives or girlfriends or co-workers or internet interlocutors as the image of God. The images are a symptom of the problem, not the cause -- people don't have less regard for the dignity of others because they are inundated with sexy images; they create and consume sexy images because they already lack that regard.

Of the comic illustrations, Leah says
What these illustrations are eroticizing is the absence of a woman’s consent to be interacted with sexually. They’re promoting her own interest and pleasure as irrelevant to the man’s enjoyment, instead of amplifying it as lover and beloved both will the other’s good.  
I would actually take this a step farther. The problem with with pornifying women in any context is not that the woman does not consent. "Consent" does not equal "good". Women and men consent daily to affairs, to make or watch pornography, to degrade themselves for money or the enjoyment of others. And these things are wrong -- no consent ameliorates that. For that matter, the harm done by a sexualized comic image is not that the image can't consent -- that's ludicrous -- but that the illustrator, in creating, and viewer, in partaking, are making harmful moral choices which have consequences in how they then think about and treat other people.



Hobbit Thoughts

No Darwins have seen The Hobbit yet. There are various reasons for this. One of the main ones is:


But also, although I was mostly a fan of Jackson's LotR movies when they came out (though even then I took exception to moments in FotR such as the deeply silly wizard-break-dancing-fight, Arwen Warrior Princess and The Momentary Possession of Galadriel by the Special Effects Demon) in the years since the sheer visual thrill of seeing Jackson's often stunning visuals on the screen wore off, and I've come to cringe at much of the dialogue and plot/character changes in the LotR movies. While I'm eager to see The Hobbit (and will be starting a lightning re-read of the book with the older kids this weekend in preparation for perhaps taking them to see the movie during the Christmas-thru-New-Years break) one of the things that concerns me is that it sounds like The Hobbit has, to a great extent, been turned into a mini-LotR Jackson style.

This worries me a little as The Hobbit is a rather different book than The Lord of the Rings. In LotR, the War of the Ring is one of the two major plot lines of the book (the other being the related quest to take the ring to Mount Doom.) Thus, while in some ways Jackson sought to make the book more focused on big battle set pieces, the book itself is heavily focused on war and that which surrounds it. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a journey and adventure story. The dwarves do not set off expecting war, and even at the end they don't really expect it to come upon them in their stand-off over the rights over Smaug's treasure. The Battle of Five Armies comes upon all of the characters (save Gandalf) unawares, and Biblo himself is such a small part of it that we have to hear an account of the battle after the fact since his witness to it is fairly useless in knowing what's going on.

From all I've read and seen, Jackson decides to structure the Hobbit movies much like he did with LotR, starting them off with a historical background section in which we see epic battles that set up the current situation, and creating ongoing rivalries and tensions that make the various events of the story more warlike and build expectation for the final battle. This strikes me as a potential problem in that "journey" is a story worth telling in and of itself, and I think that The Hobbit gains rather from the fact that actual war is something which comes about rather unexpectedly at the end. That, after all, is like life. Rather more so, indeed, than big epic struggles leading up to a final showdown. And while I don't object to the latter, that too is a good story, I do object to the recent tendency to turn every fantasy or historical story possible into a Titanic Showdown Between Sides plotline.

Stillwater - 25


When Malcolm arrived home from work, he saw Alys and Melly sitting out on the wicker porch chairs and strolled over to join them. They had vacated the cottage after the roach incident — not because they had less fears of seeing a roach outside, but because after Melly’s burst of bravery, neither she nor Alys had felt like getting close enough to the thing to sweep it up. Alys had brought out some supplies and was showing Melly how to bend the delicate gold wire to just the right curve for earrings. 

“Hello, ladies,” Malcolm said, brightening at the prospect of the two of them together. “You look industrious. Nice pliers, Melly.”

“There’s a manly observation for you,” Alys said to Melly. “Here we’ve gone and sweltered for hours in the heat for the sole purpose of hearing one word of concern pass his lips, but no, the first thing he notices are the tools. “

“People have sat on hot porches before now and lived to tell the tale,” said Malcolm unsympathetically. “How’s the work coming?” 

He picked up an earring of twisted and coiled gold, and glanced from it to the twists and coils of Alys’s golden hair.  “This is pretty. How much can you get for it, a hundred bucks?”

“That’s how much you know,” Alys scoffed. “It would behoove you to brush up on your jewelry buying skills one of these days. A finished pair of those will only set you back about $500.”

“$500! For what? A little bit of pliers work? I could do that. Melly could do that.”

“Melly did do that,” said Alys. “Aren’t you always telling me that people underestimate Melly? Physician, heal thyself.”

“It wasn’t that difficult,” Melly protested. “I just followed Alys’s design, and did what she showed me.”

“Anyway,” Alys said, waving at the earring, “this is only a basic entry point item. A piece with gemstones can command up to $1000, but obviously I’m not going to toss those around outside on the porch.”

Malcolm sat down. “Well, I’m impressed, with both of you. I think you two have more creativity in your little fingers than I’ve displayed in my entire life.” Again his eyes rested on the wisps of hair curling at Alys’s neck. “How do you come up with your designs?”

“I know what rich people like,” Alys laughed. “And I cater to them, because my goal is to stay rich.”

“You’re already rich. Surely you don’t work just for money.”

“Who works but for money? Everyone who works, works for money.”

“Malcolm doesn’t,” said Melly.

“I’m not poor by any means,” said Malcolm. “But it’s true that working on and for the school is never going to make me rich. I’m fortunate enough to do something I’m passionate about without having to worry much about how I’m going to support myself.”

“Good for you!” said Alys. “You’re passionate about about using your talents to make a small difference in the middle of nowhere for next to no money. Who will play you in the movie version?”

“But I’m not in it for fame and fortune. If I was, I wouldn’t be teaching.”

“Isn’t there a saying about hiding your light under a bushel basket?”

“I’m flattered that you have such a high opinion of my abilities, but how do you know I have any more talent than anyone else?” Malcolm asked her. “You’ve never seen me teach. What leads you to think that I’d be more successful teaching at a large wealthy school than a small poor one?”

“You may not be a better teacher that way, but you’d reach more people,” Alys argued. “Anyway, I’d bet good money that you’d be better than anyone who taught at the private school I went to. You’re smart, for one thing.”

“I’m glad you think so,” said Malcolm, turning the earring over in his fingers, then looking directly at Alys. “I’d be sorry if I thought I didn’t have any chance at all.”

Melly bent studiously over the wire she was shaping, but she couldn’t avoid noticing the sudden silence as Alys, her blue eyes caught by Malcolm’s gaze, for once failed to make as quick a rejoinder as usual.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sh*! Chesterton Says

Elliot Milco has stirred the pot over at First Things with a brief post entitled Against Chesterton Quotations:
I was wandering through Facebook and noticed a quote by G.K. Chesterton at the top of someone’s profile. The quote was exceptionally stupid. And I thought to myself, So many people repeat these little quips, and so many of them are awful. So I decided to start a collection. I made it through the first two pages (of sixteen) devoted to Chesterton on a popular quotation website. Here are a few of the stupidities I found...
Milco then proceeds to highlight a number of Chesterton quotes and voice objections against them. Some of these are, I will admit, a bit of a stretch. For instance:
“Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”

Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.
It strikes me that both Chesterton and Milco are, arguably, saying something quite valid in their opposing quips. And while it's possible to take Chesterton wrong -- taking "unlovable" in a more literal sense to mean something which really ought not to be loved (say: cruelty) -- I think it's moderately clear that his quip is meant to be taken more or less as a brief restatement of what Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount:
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?
Nonetheless, I think he scores some fairly direct hits on Chestertonian tropes. Some of these are evocative but poorly reasoned on Chesterton's part. For example:
“People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”

By this logic, the works of E.L. James must be extremely true.
Certainly, fiction can convey truth in a very compelling way. However, let's be honest, the fact that something sells a lot is not proof that it is more true (as Milco points out in his response) and furthermore I don't think it's really the case that people read novels because they are "more true" than non-fiction. When people choose novels over non-fiction, I think they usually do so because novels are more fun than non-fiction. (These days non-fiction actually sells more than fiction does, but I don't know if Chesterton's factual claim was correct then or not.)
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”

Poets go mad quite often, and they seem much more frequently to end up totally absorbed in their own creative “genius” and independence than chess players. Maybe the fault is in imagination and not in logic. Or maybe the idea of ascribing some intrinsic danger to either of these faculties is idiotic.
Chesterton's little fantasy that it is ordered thinkers who go mad and fantasists who are sane is one that comes up frequently in The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel which I enjoy for unrelated reasons. However, although it is, like many of Chesterton's ideas, evocative in a way, it's also a deeply unrealistic conceit. Order is not something that leads one away from truth and from God. God is ordered. From these quotes one could almost imagine Chesterton is endorsing the clearly foolish idea that God and reason are opposed, were it not that one knows Chesterton elsewhere attacks that idea with equal charm, as in the Father Brown story in which Father Brown immediately detects the thief dressed as a bishop because the thief denounces reason. Moreover, the conceit rests on something to which Chesterton quotes too often seem to owe their being: a completely made up fact. The one thing that makes this forgivable is that I rather doubt Chesterton himself thought it was clearly known and true that mathematicians and chess players go mad more often than poets and artists -- he just said it because he thought it illustrated an interesting idea regardless of its factual accuracy. The problem is, I'm not sure that the many people who throw this quote and ones like it around realize this.

Chesterton is a good writer, and I enjoy some of his works very much (mostly his fiction.) He is also very skilled at forming memorably paradoxical quips which contain a certain degree of truth. This is great, so long as one values Chesterton for what he is rather than what he is not. The problem is when his quips and paradoxes are imbued with a nearly scriptural authority, a weight they were never designed to bear. While he can be very good and thought provoking light reading, Chesterton was not a rigorous philosopher or theologian, and since his specialty was paradox there is the difficulty that many of his most memorable sayings are, while surprisingly true, also (by the nature of paradox) half wrong.

Because Chesterton quotes are so memorably clever, they are too often are taken out of context and thrown around as if one need merely quote something clever Chesterton said and the issue has been settled. If only to combat this frequent misuse (though also to underline some of Homer's more awkward nods) Milco's exercise, however cheeky, strikes me as a needed corrective.

To indulge in a bit of Chestertonian paradox: The problem with too many internet Chestertonians they take Chesterton too seriously -- becoming like his madly logical clerk or chess player in rigorously applying some superficially applicable Chesterton quote to each situation. Milco's tilt at the Chestertonian windmill is, perhaps, the more Chestertonian exercise.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More Educated People Don't Have As Many Children As They Want

Razib has an interesting post up inspired by the TNR article discussing the problems of older parenting which everyone is talking about at the moment. The most interesting element in Razib's piece, to my mind, is when he does some quick original research into the fact that more educated people tend to have fewer children:
[T]he General Social Survey asks people about the ideal number of children they’d like to have, versus the actually number of children they do have (CHLDIDEL and CHILDS). To remove demographic confounds I limited the sample below to non-Hispanic white women age 45 and up between the year 2006 and 2010, and compared across educational attainment.

It struck me as very interesting that the desired number of children reported by women of different education levels was very consistent, it was only the number of children actually had that varies.

The Road Goes On, And On



Anthony Lane reviews The Hobbit in The New Yorker:
In “The Lord of the Rings,” the errand of Frodo, though epic in execution, was plain enough: to destroy what would, in the wrong hands, cause irreversible harm. It was like stopping the Nazis from building an atomic bomb. But what the dwarves want, in the pages of “The Hobbit,” is gold, and their lust for it corrodes the quest and tarnishes its valor. That is what lusts do. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, who deplored the vanishing of the Latin Mass, believed in the existence of evil and in the struggle to be delivered from its claws. It is there in every shimmering scale of Smaug, the dragon; deprived by a mouse-quiet Bilbo of a single precious cup, he falls, Tolkien writes, into “the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but never used or wanted.” Ouch. The dwarves, in their small way, are no less possessed, and the joke is that a hobbit, who wishes nobody ill, should help to lead them into temptation. So many twists of the spirit, in such little space. In my old paperback, Tolkien gets the whole thing done in two hundred and eighty pages, nineteen chapters in all. And how far has Jackson travelled, after almost three hours of cinema? The end of Chapter 6. The corrosion has yet to bite.
***
For pathos, though, we still have Gollum, the damned and slimy soul (voiced again by Andy Serkis), who lurks in the dark and loses what he loves. Bilbo finds it: “His hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel.” That is the account given by Tolkien, who knew that turning points were all the more momentous for being unadorned, but Jackson, with so much room to spare, cannot dare to underplay the crux. Instead, before Bilbo stumbles upon the ring, we see it slip from Gollum’s safekeeping, tumble in refulgent slow motion, and, on impact, give a resounding clang. (If Jackson ever films “Othello,” wait for Desdemona’s handkerchief to hit the ground like a sheet of tin.) “All good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf says to Bilbo before they set off, and one has to ask whether the weight of embellishment, on this occasion, makes the journey drag, and why it leaves us more astounded than moved. And yet, on balance, honor has been done to Tolkien, not least in the famous riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, and some of the exploits to come—dwarf-wrapping spiders, a battle of five armies, and the man who turns into a bear—will surely lighten the load. As Bilbo says, nearing the end of the book, “Roads go ever ever on.” Tell me about it. 

La Guadalupana

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Only 13 years after the Conquistadors marched into Mexico, less than 40 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, and requested that he ask the Spanish bishop that a temple be built to her there on Tepeyac Hill. When the bishop asked for a sign, Mary asked Juan to pick the roses on the hill, which were blooming despite it being December, and arranged them in his tilma with her own hands. When Juan returned to the bishop and let the roses fall from his cloak, they revealed an image of Mary, rich in Aztec and Catholic symbolism. The bishop had the chapel built. The Franciscan missionaries who had sailed with the Conquistadors had made little headway into the Aztec culture in the decade of their ministry; within ten years of the apparition, nearly nine million Mexicans -- practically the entire population of the country -- had converted to Catholicism.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas, but Mexicans, understandably, have a great devotion to her. One of the reasons I love watching this rendition of La Guadalupana is the incongruity of seeing two huge pop stars singing a Marian hymn with actual conviction. Perhaps the closest equivalent we'd get to that in America is seeing country singers belt out Amazing Grace, and even then it would be more of a personal statement of faith than a national expression. There's something so compelling about the Mexican devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that it almost makes me wish I had some of that heritage, so she would belong to me in some more visceral way than the universal Catholic appeal. (I felt the same traveling through Italy, envying my Italian friends their link to the land that I couldn't share.



Also -- and as I've come to depend less on artificial cynicism, I'm not ashamed to admit it -- Juan Diego here always makes me a bit misty-eyed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Single Rant

It's Tuesday, and you need a good rant. Brandon's got you covered in his response to the inane Atlantic article positing that Single People Should Get Weddings, Too:
What irritates me about the whining is that I did not sign up to be in the Kiddy League of Life. We do not all get consolation prizes whenever things do not go our way, and we do not all get trophies whether we win or not. The world does not exist to validate us. Moreover, we are all perfectly capable of handling this fact. And even to suggest that single people need to be treated in such infantile ways, spoon-fed through a state of life that by definition can be handled by anyone and which, considered in itself, has no standards of excellence that have to be met, is an insult to all single people everywhere. I don't care how lonely you feel. Get over yourself and do something important, and then maybe you'll get a pat on the back.
Of course, it's possible that the only weddings the unmarried Atlantic authoress has attended have been overwrought, overfinanced occasions that serve as self-aggrandizing gift grubbing for couples who make enough money to buy their own toasters and have been living together anyway. But that doesn't negate the fact that marriage itself is more significant that a made-up celebration of singleness called "La Quinceañera Doble." (This event, partially financed by the author's parents, leads the reader to wonder: if she ever does get married, will Mom and Pop be expected to shell out again, or have they already coughed up enough for life events?)

Weddings are also not celebrations of individuals, but of new family units, formed from existing family units, which is why, although every couple at some point dreams of eloping, it's actually really selfish and offensive to do so. Yes, even if you, like everyone else, think your family is crazy.

Stillwater - 24


At this time Alys was busy in her cottage workshop, creating the pieces for her jewelry commission, but though the work demanded a great deal of time, her mind was often free to wander. More and more often, she found herself lighting on the subject of Malcolm Spencer. She didn’t know if she even wanted to be attracted to him. What was in it for her? The Winters were nomads in body and mind, never content to stay in one place or on one subject; Malcolm seemed determined to stay at Stillwater for the rest of his life and waste his talents in a small local school. His desire to teach made little sense to her — education was too earnest a field for Alys. She didn’t understand him, but she enjoyed being with him. There was no reason for anything to go further than that. Anyway, she was busy with her commission and needed to work steadily to meet her deadline.

But she was restless and bored, yearning for his company. Afraid that her pace of work would slip, she sought out Melly as company while she worked. Melly was a nice kid, a little shy but a good distraction from the tedium of wirework or soldering, especially when Alys could give vent to her feelings by bringing the conversation around to Malcolm.

Melly went to the cottage with an uneasy mix of feelings. She didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with Alys. They had little in common, and though Alys was accomplished at never letting a conversation flag, her method of flitting lightly over a variety of topics rather than delving deeply into any subject left Melly, who had no gift for banter, drained. 

Alys greeted her at the door, looking cool and flawless in a thin linen dress. She had pinned up her golden curls with jeweled pins from her own collection, and, to Melly’s surprise, sported a pair of glasses. Melly hadn’t realized that Alys had been wearing contacts all this time, but she wondered in passing if the glasses were merely a prop for getting down to business. She tried to suppress the mental image of Alys as a Barbie doll: Working Alys, complete with glasses!

Melly had not been in the cottage since her family had moved out five years ago, and she found it hard to recognized the shabby, cramped quarters in which the Arceneauxs spent so many noisy hours. The battered wood floors were now painted a glossy green to present the illusion that the cottage was merely a gracious extension of the porch, if the porch had been air conditioned and meticulously smothered by Esther in full-on English Floral curtains and cushions and throw rugs. Alys had put her own touches here and there, and the place had taken on an air of light elegance. Melly wondered whether that aura was a reflection of Alys’s innate taste, or merely a projection of the rarefied environs in which she usually moved.

“I guess this is like coming home for you,” Alys remarked, twisting and shaping wire for earrings as she and Melly sat in the small manicured living room of the cottage. “Didn’t Malcolm tell me your family used to live here? This cottage is absolutely charming. I can’t imagine why you ever left.”

“It didn’t look much like this when we lived it in.”

“Well, thank goodness for that! I mean, I appreciate everything Esther’s done, but every time I look at the decor here I feel like I ought to be hosting tea for the Cotillion, and I left all my tacky hats in New York. But your mom sews, right? She taught you? So she was probably able to upholster the furniture the way she preferred. I bet you had the cutest curtains.”

Melly thought of her mother at the end of the day, exhausted, collapsed on the ratty couch in front of the old flickering TV, with a house full of big boys fighting and babies screaming for her attention. She thought of the sheets tacked up over the windows in the house in Baton Rouge.

“My mom was always too busy taking care of us to do much extra sewing,” she said guardedly.

“Kids must be a crazy lot of work. I’m amazed that Mrs. Spencer had so many. It’s hard to imagine her doing anything that requires that much extra effort. But you know, Mr. Spencer seems like a real traditionalist. Maybe it was his idea — he probably just told her to close her eyes and think of puppies.”

Melly found herself snickering and clenched her jaw hard until the impulse had passed. 

“I’m glad you enjoy being at Stillwater,” she said. 

“I do, and I’m surprised. I never imagined I’d find myself staying in deepest Louisiana outside of Mardi Gras season. The heat is ridiculous — every time I step outside I gain a new respect for hellfire. I’ve accepted air conditioning as my personal Lord and Savior. Malcolm will be so pleased to hear that I'm getting serious about religion. But what I can’t understand is why people would settle down here in the first place. I know Stillwater has been around for ages, but why would anyone even build a house in a backwater like this?”

“I suppose that you might call this a backwater,” Melly said, restraining herself from snapping by trying to match Alys’s goodwill in making conversation and not her snark in choosing her topic. “That’s how Stillwater got its name: from the back waters that eventually became isolated pools. And this is good farm land, and people like to make money from cash crops even when it’s hot. Those who were rich enough could build houses designed to keep them cool. That’s why the ceilings of Stillwater are so high.”

Alys was working away with her head cocked at an attentive angle, but Melly could tell cash crops were not a subject in which she had an abiding interest. 

“But ‘backwater’ doesn’t generally mean right on the river,” she continued, feeling trapped on a doomed conversational course. “The real backwaters are out in the bayou. I went out on the bayou once, with my pawpaw in his pirogue, and we watched the sun rise over the cypress trees…” 

She faded out, and Alys didn’t revive the topic. 

“I was going to make some coffee,” she said, rising and smoothing the fine lines from her linen dress. “Come with me and we’ll get a snack.”

The kitchen was serviceable, if tight. Melly could remember how her mother had scolded when all of her children chose to be underfoot in the cramped space. With the prospect of paying guests, however, long-overdue renovations had been effected, and Melly found the result to be positively airy, and certainly cleaner than she’d ever seen the room. She paused in the doorway, lost in memories of her family.

A terrified shriek yanked her from her reverie. Alys had scrambled onto a chair and stood rigid with terror as a immense roach ambled across the floor. 

“Oh my God, is that a roach?” she hissed in tightly controlled hysteria. “I’ve never seen one before. It’s hideous. Do they fly?Oh God, I think it’s going to fly!”

The roach hesitated, seeming to sense her fear. Its antennae, as long again as its body, twitched repulsively. Alys stared in sick fascination at the barbed legs and glossy chitinous body. 

Melly strode across the floor and, with a yelp, planted her shoe on the roach with an appalling crunch. Alys shrieked. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the ragged breathing of the two. 

“What the…,” Alys whimpered. “That was amazing. How on earth did you do that?”

“Sometimes, if you know what you have to do, it’s best not to think too much about it,” Melly said, with a shudder. The lump under her foot made her skin crawl. She lifted her shoe tentatively. With a quivering of its antenna, the roach scuttled out. To the accompaniment of Alys’s renewed yells, Melly stomped down again with feeling and ground her foot down with finality.

Alys slumped down in the chair. “I could never do that. That was fucking heroic.”

“You could if you had to,” said Melly, with an edge to her voice. 

“Yeah, but you seemed like an old pro. I would have called an exterminator and not come back into the house until he was gone.”

“What if you couldn’t afford an exterminator?”

“Then… then I’d die!” Alys laughed weakly.

Melly felt almost sorry for her. A life of wealth and privilege seemed to have given her no instinct for how to survive in the real world.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Existential Toilet

Watch it again, if you can bear the existential strain.



Exactement.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Stillwater - 23


Just a short section this time. For Annie M. -- she knows why.

***

The wedding was over, and with it went Dick and Esther. Dick, who knew his father’s eye to be upon him, had conducted himself with the utmost decorum at the nuptials, escorting his mother down the aisle with the gravity of a butler, making pleasant small talk with various elderly relatives at the reception, and, by a supreme effort, avoiding the bar and the more slinky of the bridesmaids. His behavior was duly noted. Richard complimented his son and sent him back off to Baton Rouge with a grave handshake and some sound and immediately forgotten advice.

Esther, who had put in at least as much wedding work as Sophia and far more than Cheryl, took a well-deserved holiday before diving into the planning for the autumn Stillwater Fellowship Ball. The plantation tours had been on hold before the wedding; now she packed up all the wedding gifts and delivered them to Chris’s mother at Hazelwood, then headed up to Mississippi to spend a week at a Buddhist meditation center. 

“It’s this big old Victorian house with twelve bedrooms, and it’s all been restored and modernized, but it’s still as charming as can be,”  she told Cheryl. “The big parlors have been turned into meditation rooms — all the stained glass and woodwork is just so relaxing. I was thinking that we could really do something like that at Stillwater, maybe in one of the cottages. Do you know how much they charge for one week? We could ask three times that, and get it, too.”

“Oh, Pugsy would look so sweet meditating. Wouldn’t you, puppy poodles?”

Pugsy seemed in no hurry to attain nirvana, so that was as far as Cheryl’s interest in the idea went.


This would have been a perfectly blissful time for Melly, except that she found herself the confidant of both Malcolm and the returned Alys. Even this would not have been intolerable for someone who loved listening as much as Melly, but that Malcolm and Alys wanted to talk about each other.

Malcolm was particularly smitten. In his life he had progressed responsibly from Catholic high school to college seminary to major seminary, never breaking out of his “good kid” mold. In Alys, with her fast driving and her easy sarcasm and her bright beauty, he was suddenly getting his first taste of the fun, easy youth he’d never had, and it was addicting.

“I feel like I’ve been asleep for years, and now I’m waking up,” he asserted during the resumed driving lessons, as Melly wrestled with the big Morgan at the only stoplight in town. “Alys is so vibrant and funny and… and she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She’s able to laugh at everything. Do you know how refreshing that is?”

The roof of the car was up, but the shade made little difference. In the heat of June the Louisiana humidity pressed on them in a smothering embrace. Melly, her hair escaping damply from the mass tucked up under her big hat, was thoroughly unrefreshed, nor was she laughing at the Morgan just then. 
“And what happens when you want to talk about something serious with her?”

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he confessed. “But she’s so perceptive; she’s such an accurate judge of character. I really think she understands you better than anyone at Stillwater. You should have heard her go on about the way Aunt Esther bosses you around — I could wish other people paid half as much attention, for your sake. Don’t forget to dance on the pedals, Melly, and then you won’t keep stalling out.”

Driving had not become any dearer to Melly with the passage of months, but she was becoming familiar to the locals and was generally allowed to restart the Morgan without being hassled. She was beginning to think, however, that it might be preferable to be honked at than to hear Malcolm cataloging Alys’s perfections all the way home. 

“She’s so genuine. Even when she’s laughing at someone, there’s no malice in her. Growing up in her uncle’s house, I’m surprised she’s as sweet and pleasant as she is — you haven’t read any of his books, but he’s so intellectually dishonest that he’d argue both sides of any question and call you a hypocrite for agreeing with either one.”

“That sounds like a bad way to grow up, but I don’t know if it’s better to laugh at a question than to argue it, even on the wrong side.”

“Well, we’ll bring her around. You’ll be a good influence on her — if anyone can give seriousness a good name, it’s you.”

Melly pondered this backward compliment as she piloted the Morgan down the driveway toward the carriage house. Clearly, “seriousness” was a quality Malcolm admired, and yet he had just been extolling Alys’s ability to bring him out of his own tendency to be too serious. Mockery, which was abhorrent to her, was Alys’s prime mode of humor. Not only was Melly unsure how she could change to better fit Malcolm’s ideal of the attractive feminine personality, she didn’t think that trying to become less herself for his sake was even a good idea. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

Also Not Stillwater

Not writing good stuff yet, but I've started drinking, so that's a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, for your listening pleasure, I present: I Will Survive, interpreted a la The Andrews Sisters.



When I hear this sort of thing, I wonder what I've done with my life that my own sisters and I are not internet tight-harmony sensations.

The version of I Will Survive that I know best is not Gloria Gaynor's original, but Cake's cover from their Fashion Nugget album.



Although this video is censored, be aware that he chooses a different descriptor for his "stupid lock".

Writing now. Really.


Not Stillwater

There will be more Stillwater, I promise. Events called me away from writing this week, but I am once again slogging it out at the computer. Unfortunately, what's currently on the page is about as coherent as the Hungry Birds Twitter account, but I know you all will be too kind to mention it.

Speaking of incoherence:

The neighbor gave us a big stuffed Pikachu a while back. I hate this thing. It's larger than life and twice as ugly, and it kicks around the floor collecting dust until someone uses it to whomp her siblings. The six-year-old loves it because it's soft and gaudy and a link to all the Japanimation she never sees at home. The other week, she was sent to the office for insisting to her religion teacher that I read to her from a Pikachu Bible.

"Oh?" says the teacher. "Your mom's upstairs. I'm going to ask her about it. I want to see this Pikachu bible."

"She didn't bring it," says Miss Six. "She only reads it at home."

In the car on the way home, she was utterly unrepentant, and indeed, kept digging herself in deeper.

"What on earth possessed you to tell your teacher that I read you a Pikachu Bible?" I asked.

"I said: 'It is the Nab of Pikachu translation'," she declared proudly.

"Oh, the Nab, huh?" At least she's reading, right?

The moment we arrived home, she was bursting through the kitchen door yelling, "Dad! Did you hear I got sent to the office for saying that Mommy read the Nab Pikachu Bible?"

At least I'm pretty sure that this is a first in the "Sent to the Office" files.

Here is Pikachu and the Nab Bible



Thursday, December 06, 2012

Sudden Compassion for the top 1.5%

[UPDATE: Here's what I get for writing a post fast without checking my memory of long-ago read books -- I went and attributed a book to Susan Estrich which she didn't actually write. Post corrected and thanks to Catholic Bibliophagist!]

Susan Estrich, a liberal commentator, is proud of the fact that she supported Obama's re-election, but she hopes that Obama won't take that re-election as a sign that he should, you know, support the tax policy which he campaigned on so hard when running:
Within days of winning the election, President Obama announced that his victory gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the "rich."

Come again? This was a two-and-a-half-point election. It reflected a painfully divided electorate. The only mandate I saw was to unite a divided country.
...
I did not vote for Obama because I think I am paying too little in taxes.

Like many people I know, I am "rich" by Obama's standards. I pay more taxes, percentage wise, than Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett, because I earn virtually every penny of my income.

I work. And yes, all those deductions that allow the truly rich to not work, or at least to not work all the jobs I do, make me angry.

I am all for closing loopholes. I am all for ending deductions for things I don't even understand. But I am not for putting a low cap on deductions that would make it all but impossible for the charities I support to raise funds. I am not for putting a limit on the mortgage deduction that would mean, as a practical matter, that "middle class" (not rich) people in California would be priced out of the housing market, and the charities I support would not be able to raise what they need to survive.

And frankly, I don't think I'm alone. As a matter of fact, on this one, I don't think 51 percent of all Americans are to my "left" — if that's how you define the higher tax constituency.
It may be that 51% of Americans are not to Estrich's left on tax policy (though if so, it's no thanks to her) but what she seems blissfully unaware of is that although most of her acquaintance may fall in the $250k+ income range, this is a very, very rarified income strata for most Americans. High incomes have taken a hit during the recession, so the recent figures jump around a bit, but to be hit by Obama's proposed tax increase on those making $250k/yr or more, Ms. Estrich is certainly within the top 5% of households and may be within the top 1.5% of households. (Wikipedia claims 1.5%. This fun little tool at the NY Times suggests 3%.)

House Republicans are in a pretty weak position trying to negotiate with Obama and the Senate in order to avoid going over the Fiscal Cliff. I'd been starting to wonder if it was necessary for Republicans to cave to Obama's desire to let the "Bush tax cuts" expire on those making over $250k in order to avoid even worse concessions. I continue to think that might not be the best thing for the economy, but after reading Estrich's column I will at least feel a certain satisfaction if rates do go up.