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

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Darwin Thanksgiving

I apologize for the thin reading around here. MrsDarwin continues to be on and off bedrest due to blood pressure issues. Three more weeks till the due date, and at this point we're very much hoping that BabyDarwin makes his appearance early.

With MrsDarwin off her feet, I was the primary cook for Thanksgiving, with help from our guests: MrsDarwin's father and an old friend from Texas whose husband is off at sea with the Navy over the holiday.

While not a foreigner to the kitchen, I'd never done a whole Thanksgiving meal before, so it had its challenges, but everything came out well in the end, though dinner was an hour or two later than I'd planned.


Even the pies were praised.


And in the end, both the difficulties and those who were here to help us through them were reminders of the many things we should be thankful to God for.

I hope all our stateside readers had a similarly enjoyable Thanksgiving. And for those who aren't celebrating Thanksgiving as a holiday this weekend, I hope you come across some good pie soon anyway. Because pie is, after all, one of the many signs that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day In, Day Out

The last few weeks have not been conducive to blogging. Between the normal exhaustion of the bed rest and blood pressure issues MrsDarwin has been going through in these last weeks of pregnancy, and the combined crunch at work of end-of-year work and trying to hire a new person for the team, I've found it really hard to find time for much of any reading or writing.

It's at times like this you realize how much we rely on having the two of us fully involved in order to make the house work. With the two of us, it seemed like there was plenty of time to talk over the wreckage of dinner after the kids bounced and shouted out of the room, talk some more while washing the dishes, then put the kids to bed and have some time for writing, reading or more talking. Now it seems to take the entire evening to do the dishes, make the kids clean up some of their day's mess, chase them up to bed, then finish cleaning up so that things are at about the same state they were the night before.

The oldest two kids have stepped up a bit. Our second oldest is a willing cook, though her experience mostly runs to baked treats, so I'll pre-prep dinners and leave her in charge of cooking them. (We have family coming in tonight, so I put together a massive lasagna last night and it's waiting in the fridge to be put in the oven this evening.) Each kid has an assigned chore too, and there's a tub of ice cream in the fridge from which those who have got their chores done before dinner can be awarded desert.

But with one parent mostly laid up, the trade-off of "it's more work to make them do work than to do the work myself" (not to mention more frustration) tends to kick in every so often. Obviously, what I'd most like is some idyllic existence in which I get home to a mostly clean house and have a peaceful dinner with my wife and offspring, then we all spend the evening in quiet activities and read-alouds. In practice, if the choice is between chasing around hectoring the kids into cleaning up the disaster they've made of the living room, and having them all go off to some other room while I clean up myself with the assistance of a beer and an audiobook, it's hard not to take peace over justice and good parenting.

And yet, all this shall pass. Eventually dumping buckets of toys on the floor will no longer be a favorite game. The baby will be born, go through the cute little bundle stage, the insane-bouncing-ball-of-little-boy-energy stage, and eventually move into the rational creature stage. MrsDarwin and I will be able to revert to being together and talking together as much as we'd like.

Meanwhile, today's lunch comes with a fortune cookie which tells me, "A charming friendship is in the making." Not a bad place for the bearing of a new child to end up.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King, Lord of the Dance

The Lord has blessed His people with peace; we did not hear this at Mass today.



And speaking of churchy music one can't sing with a straight face anymore, I now have a hard time with this one since Darwin composed some alternate lyrics:

"Thing a new thong unto the Lord,
Let your thong be slung from mountainous thighs."

Of course this sort of recomposing is nothing new, and can be done with more traditional hymns. No one has surpassed Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall, in which prisoners exchange information about a murder to the tune of O God, Our Help in Ages Past:
At last the hymn was announced. The organ struck up, played with great feeling by a prisoner who until his conviction had been assistant organist at a Welsh cathedral. All over the chapel the men filled their chests for a burst of conversation. 
'O God, our help in ages past,' sang Paul.
'Where's Prendergast to day?'
'What, ain't you 'eard? 'e's been done in.'
'And our eternal home.' 
'Old Prendy went to see a chap
What said he'd seen a ghost;
Well, he was dippy, and he'd got
A mallet and a saw.' 
'Who let the madman have the things?'
'The Governor; who d'you think?
He asked to be a carpenter,
He sawed off Prendy's head. 
'A pal of mine what lives next door,
'E 'eard it 'appening;
The warder must 'ave 'eard it too,
'E didn't interfere.' 
'Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.'
'Poor Prendy 'ollered fit to kill
For nearly 'alf an hour. 
'Damned lucky it was Prendergast,
Might 'ave been you or me!
The warder says and I agree -
It serves the Governor right.' 
'Amen.'
Amen, indeed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

False Alarm

No matter how much I enjoy fictional drama, like, say, Downton Abbey, I hate it in real life, so let me say from the get-go that everything is fine. Still pregnant, and now I'm home and comfy and contemplating my slippers and my fleecy blanket.

I stayed in bed until 9:30 this morning because I had a doctor's appointment at 10:00 -- one of these health screening deals for the insurance to see if I could hit some pretty numbers that could net us money off per month, something worth shooting for in these days of skyrocketing premiums. The late rising time was an attempt to keep my blood pressure low enough to get a reading the insurance company would take. It was my main concern; fortunately, they don't take your weight or waist measurements when you're pregnant. My blood pressure at the midwife's on Tuesday was 130/90, which is pushing up into less-good territory.

So the nurse takes me back and makes chitchat while I settle on my side to nudge my reading down even further. And she puts the blood pressure cuff on and pumps it up, and then is silent.

"Hon, your blood pressure is 150/100."

The unfairness of this rankled. I had done all I could! I'd been drinking the water! I'd been eating the protein! I'd been laying down -- except yesterday, but I had to be up then for the kids' last class and performance, and anyway, I'd spent almost 11 hours in bed afterward, and what more could I do? Meanwhile the nurse was lowering the lights and cautioning me not to try to get up myself and tiptoeing away to get the doctor, leaving me to blot my welling eyes on my shirt sleeve since I wasn't supposed to go get a tissue.

The doctor took my blood pressure again and gave me the Eye of Doom and made noises about life of the mother, life of the child, the dangers of preeclampsia, and possibility of emergency c-section as I wept into the crunchy paper liner on the exam bed. He made a call and told me to go to the hospital and check into Labor and Delivery, and asked if I was okay to drive. I thought I was, the hospital being literally across the street. I had to sit in the car for a moment and pray that I could calm down enough to call Darwin, who rushed home to pick up the kids (whom I'd left home alone watching a movie, under the eye of Eleanor! I was only supposed to be gone for twenty minutes!) and drop them off with a very kind and flexible friend.

I won't lie: during my sixty-second drive, my main thought was, "Does this constitute 'grave reason'?"

I'm sure it's not original to cry while walking the hospital corridors, but it's pretty ignominious when it happens to you. It's also hard to fill out paperwork when you can't see through tears, but the nurses were kind enough not to make a deal about it. I heard a newborn crying as I was led back to triage and  wondered if I'd hear my own baby crying soon enough. And I was tucked into bed and put on the baby monitor, and they took my blood pressure again.

128/84.

And again, I said, "Oh, that's not fair!" That's a better reading that I've had in weeks. And the pretty readings kept rolling in. 126/80. 113/75. Darwin came and we did a bit of data collection: the blood pressure went up slightly when I got up to go to the bathroom, and stayed down when I did. The final reading was 134/82 -- not the lowest thing in the world, but worlds removed from emergency c-section territory. And another doctor came in and said my labs were fine, and I was fine, and I should rest up but I didn't need to be on strict bed rest, and the nurse came in and read my discharge papers, including warnings that I should stop smoking if I was a smoker, and that I should call my midwife if I experienced any of the signs of labor, which I know by heart after going the rounds with five babies, and that was it. Thirty minutes of alarm and four hours of nothing-to-see-here.

Now I'm home and wondering: what do I take away from this? I am grateful, very grateful, that nothing is wrong and that it looks like baby can safely cook for four more weeks. I'm very happy to be home again (though I did contemplate taking a shower at the hospital because it's been so long since I've been in a bathroom which you don't have to prep five minutes beforehand by flipping on the ceramic wall heater and letting the water run in hopes that it will be hot by the time you step in). But is there some moral here except the unpredictability of life? Have all my high blood pressure readings been anomalies? Do I go back on bed rest? Will anything I do make a difference?

And how is it that I ended up with the one OB-GYN in the US who had not heard of the Downton Abbey episode (spoiler alert) which featured death by ecclamptic seizure?

Book Review: Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt

There's something a little disorienting about knowing someone both in person and in writing -- odder about knowing someone much better in writing than in person. I remember Kyle Cupp as the slightly awkward looking guy with a ponytail and long dark coat who was writing his thesis on Tolkien as literature and had a crush on one of my wife's co-workers at the college bookstore. Somehow, however, this slight Steubenville acquaintance was enough to allow me both to feel that I "know" him and also to experience a certain indignation when we disagree. Of course, this sort of subjective perception and simultaneously felt familiarity and otherness is exactly the sort of thing that would warm the cockles of Kyle's post-modern heart.


Thus, when I was given the chance to review Kyle's book, Living By Faith, Dwelling in Doubt: A Story of Belief, Uncertainty, and Boundless Love, I couldn't resist. (Plus, well, you know... Free books.)

Living by Faith is a slim volume which is in parts devastatingly effective writing. It is part memoir, part philosophical/religious testament.

To my mind, the former is the stronger part. Kyle tells, in nested narratives, both the story of his whole life, and interspersed within that the story of the short life and Kyle and Genece's daughter Vivian, who was prenatally diagnosed with anencephaly, and who they thus knew would live only a few hours after being born (if she survived to birth at all.)

Kyle's observations about his developing faith and understanding as a child, with parents of different faiths who later separated in divorce, are well drawn and interesting. (I hadn't realized till reading the book that Kyle also spent his youth in California. We even experienced some of the same earthquakes.) We tend to think of divorce and religiously divided relationships from an adult vantage point, but Kyle explains the way in which the experience of these divisions shaped his understanding of faith and truth for the rest of his life.

The sections on Kyle and Genece's difficult pregnancies, miscarriage, and particularly about Vivian's short life are particularly well written. As a parent, having experienced miscarriage and the early loss of close family, I had just enough in common with Kyle's experiences to feel fully how much deeper he had drunk of that bitter cup. Kyle is honest, unpretentious and frank about the sufferings of a parent going through loss. There were times when I had to set the book aside for a moment until my eyes cleared, but I'm very glad I read it. The human honesty of these segments is powerful, and his love for his wife and for his faith (which he clings to even as he questions it at times) is inspiring, but never mawkish.

The more philosophical and religious sections I in some ways found less involving. One of Kyle's primary points, which he returns to throughout the book, is that faith is an act which one may make definitively, but that faith is also always in the context of doubt, because we know neither the whole of the truth about what we believe nor can we fully know the extent to which our choices (including the choice to believe) are pure.

My own reaction is somewhat like the scene in the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radioplays where Arthur Dent responds to the news that the Earth was built by mice as a giant science experiment by saying, "This explains a lot of things. All my life I've felt that there's something terribly wrong with the world but that no one would tell me what it was." To which Slartibartfast replies, "No, that's just completely normal paranoia. Everyone has that."

Kyle is at great plains to express his doubt and uncertainties, but many of these uncertainties strike me as necessary ones and I can't escape the feeling after reading the book that Kyle is actually a somewhat more devout fellow than I am -- for all his protestations of doubt.

For example, Kyle writes:
Nevertheless, in the domain of my religious faith, I prefer to cast certainty into the outer darkness. But first, maybe I should define what I am rejecting. I reject the unwillingness to allow that there may be truth beyond what I know or think I know. This kind of thinking is especially dangerous in the spiritual realm because the spiritual is unseen and ultimately ineffable -- otherness is its essential feature. (pages 89-90)
This doesn't strike me, however, as setting some unusually high standard in living with doubt. Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who does not "allow that there may be truth beyond what I know" is setting himself up as God, since only God can actually know all truth. Slightly later he expands:
We can speak of truth as one thing, as it is in itself apart from all thought about it. We can refer to truth in this way, but in practice, no such truth enters our experience. We perceive reality from where we stand and interpret reality by way of our dispositions, presuppositions, and ideas about it. We then take these limited perceptions and interpretations and formulate them into words based in part on our purpose and our audience. (page 105)
Again, this may be phrased in a somewhat post-modern way (and I know that Kyle is a big reader of post-modern philosophy) but what he's saying about the relation of our experience of truth to truth itself is something one could get from Plato as well. Kyle talks a great deal about having to accept his doubts and embrace uncertainty, but I mostly get this impression that this is only in relation to a sort of certainty which no one can have (or ought to think he has.) It's right and important to recognize the limits of our knowledge, as Kyle does, but I'm not sure that doing so needs to be such a source of concern. I'm not clear that it's a dangerous choice so much as our only choice.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sumer Is Icumen to an End

Hello, friends! I've missed you! I'm emerging from my rest-tirement because today is the last day of our co-op, which means that the girls are frantically finishing up their projects on Egypt and Belgium (they have their mother's last-minute work ethic) and I'm curious to see whether my homeschool choir will actually be able to sing Sumer Is Icumen In in rounds and whether Santa Lucia will sound as operatic before an audience as it has in practice.

This is a bit fancier than we're planning to get, but the round sounds good.



(Digression: Ezra Pound wrote a parody of Sumer Is Icumen In, about his love for winter:

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.)

I am up and about today with the help of my friend, Mr. Protein. Apparently Mr. Protein is very handy for things like regulating albumin in the blood so that the fluid doesn't leak from the blood vessels into other parts of the body, and he comes in portable, highly compact, barely palatable forms as bars and shakes that the kids have no desire to steal even though they look like candy and chocolate milk. Mr. Protein gives me energy and keeps my ankles trim, and I hope he keeps the bottom number of my blood pressure from rising above 90.

Four more weeks to go...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Surely No Woman...

I'm never sure to what extent discussions on Facebook between major blog personalities (at least, major in that small pond which is Catholic blogging) are considered acceptable fodder for public discussion. Those who make their blogs semi-professional publicity venues seem also to maintain thousands of Facebook "friends", and the comment threads on their statuses can run to hundreds of comments, so I tend to assume that their acceptably public. However, in this case, the discussion that got me thinking yesterday seems to have vanished along with its 100+ comments, so I'll keep things general since it's primarily the general line of thinking on which I wanted to comment.

A well known Catholic male blogger posts on a Catholic female blogger's wall: What do you and your readers think about [pro-life tactic]. I've had a number of pro-lifers tell me that anyone who opposes this tactic is not pro-life, but I can't imagine that any woman would support an idea which so clearly is based on humiliating women.

Leave the merits of this aside: So far as I could tell, most of the fuss in this particular situation (including the position of the male blogger) stemmed from people who didn't actually know much about the real-life details. What I think is interesting here is an assumption one too often gets, that women are a monolithic group of people who we can expect to all share the same insights into some given topic.

For instance, recall back at the height of the clerical abuse scandals when you would hear people going around saying, "If women had more leadership power in the Church, they never would have allowed the covering up of child abuse."

These kind of statements are made by people who think of themselves as standing up for the dignity of women. But in the process, they assume that women do not in fact have the variety of independent thought that men do: Oh sure, men might be for or against abuse, for or against some political position that I'm against, but surely no woman would support this!

Why not?

Even if you think that a belief or practice is strongly anti-woman, it's almost certainly the case that at least some women support it, and indeed support it strongly. That's not because they're class traitor or hoodwinked by patriarchy -- it's because they're persons capable of forming their own beliefs and opinions -- even opinions you dislike. This doesn't mean that people can't argue that some belief or practice is "anti-woman" or "offensive to women" or some such, but don't expect that this means that no women will support the very thing you're opposing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Real Adjunct behind "Death of an Adjunct"

A month back, it seemed like everyone I knew in academia (and some general sympathizers) was posting links to an editorial called "Death of an Adjunct" which told the heartrending story of an 83-year-old Duquesne adjunct who died of a heart attack shortly after having not had her teaching contract renewed. This image summed up the fears and tribulations of many of those who are unwillingly trapped in the non-tenure-track world, and the editorial (written by a labor lawyer trying to unionize the Duquesne adjuncts) quickly became a rallying cry.

At the time, I couldn't help wondering if there was more to the story, simply because while being an adjunct can be a fairly bleak dead end for those who were counting on a tenure track position, it's unusual to see an adjunct who is in her eighties. Further, heartless creature that I am, I could imagine reasons why a university might not choose to renew the contract of a teacher in her eighties. While being no less persons for it, many people in their eighties are not all that efficient and effective on a daily basis.

Fortunately, a real reporter apparently had some of the same curiosities, and went and wrote an in-depth piece on Margaret Mary Vojtko, the adjunct in question, for Slate. It's highly worth reading.

The Vojtko who immerges from the article is a fully rounded person rather than simply a personification of an issue: The daughter of Slovak immigrants and depression-era steelworkers, a devout and traditionalist Catholic, a woman who get her undergraduate degree in her thirties and her masters at 40, but never managed to finish the dissertation for the PhD she took the classes for her in mid 40s. Nonetheless, as an adjunct with a Masters she taught several classes (including a graduate class "French for Research" and several classes on medieval history) for over twenty years. However, she found it difficult to contemplate retiring (and never saved for it) and developed a hoarding habit which eventually left her two houses uninhabitable.

Conservatives may sympathize with the university for wanting to cease hiring a teacher who reportedly refused to use technology to interact with her students (even as this became the norm) and became unable to tell when they were cheating right in front of her, but liberals will be less than thrilled with her beefs with the university and the students:
As a traditional Catholic, Vojtko felt that the university wasn’t as religious as it should be. Staunchly pro-life, she was indignant when Duquesne held bioethics panels that suggested that contraception and abortion might be morally defensible. She also thought that Duquesne’s mission statement —which includes “Duquesne serves God by serving students”—was sacrilegious. Sébastien Renault, a close friend of Vojtko’s, remembers her saying, “It’s bad theology, because it doesn’t work this way. You don’t instrumentalize God. You serve God first. And the more you know him and love him and serve him, then you will serve the students.”

Renault says that although Vojtko was a devoted teacher, she becamse increasingly frustrated by her students, whom she came to see as self-absorbed and disrespectful. Duquesne students aren’t required to take classes on Catholic theology, and Vojtko thought religion should play a bigger role in their education. She didn’t hesitate to share her opposition to abortion, premarital sex, provocative clothing, and gay marriage with her students. She suspected some of her colleagues resented her moral principles and her “cleanness of life,” according to Renault.
Read in full, Vojtko's story lacks easy answers. You can sympathize with the university's desire to get her out of teaching, and it turns out that the university both provided her with alternate housing and attempted to provide money to fix problems at her house (including the furnace going out during the winter -- which she refused to let any of various parties that offered to help fix.) At the same time, you find yourself admiring and sympathizing with this indomitable lady who didn't want to give up her job or allow other people to run her house.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I'm Going To Be One Of Those Old People

As a kid, I used to live in awe and fear of the kind of older couples who had their houses set up perfectly and would give kids entering the house that look said, "You wouldn't dare make a mess in here, would you?"

I used to wonder, "What was it like having these people are parents? You must never have been able to do anything!"

The other day, as I was trying to catch up on chores after the kids were in bed, I realized I want to be one of those old people. Not because my house is always neat, but because it never is. When I no longer have people in the house who pull books off the shelf for fun and leave apple cores under the radiator, I'm going to organize everything and relish the fact that it stays organized -- for whole days at a time. I'm going to put nice things out on shelves and tables and glory in the fact that no one will knock them over and break them. I'm going to organize my library by subject and the shelves by author, in the confidence that no one will throw them all on the floor looking for pictures or pile them helter skelter on the couch while looking at the first sentence of page forty-five in each to determine the nature of her future love life.

The kids can be in fear and awe of me and wonder what it was like to have me as a father.

The revamped Sense & Sensibility, reviewed

Passionate discussion was had here over the idea of re-writing Austen to fit into a modern framework, touched off by news of Joanna Trollope's forthcoming modern-day Sense and Sensibility. How'd that work out for her? The WSJ reports

No book series could be both so unnecessary and yet so inevitable as the "Austen Project," which, beginning with Joanna Trollope's "Sense & Sensibility" (Harper, 362 pages, $25.99), will bring out "reimaginings" of Jane Austen's six canonical novels. Why does Ms. Trollope need such a fancy imprimatur? Writers have been exhaustively reimagining Austen's fictional worlds for years in an unstoppered gush of adaptations, prequels, sequels, modernizations and alternate narratives. Her characters have starred in board books for babies and fan-fiction erotica. Her settings have been the site of zombie invasions and murder mysteries (including by eminences like P.D. James). And this doesn't even take into account the cottage industry of Austen-themed self-help books, dating manuals, travelogues, recipe collections and social-science monographs—or the critical studies that try vainly to explicate the international infatuation. 
Amid such a flourishing garden, Ms. Trollope's "contemporary retelling" is a rather drab shoot. Just as the title is unchanged (save for the ampersand—some kind of nod to modern times?), the characters keep the original names and play out an identical drama: Thoughtful and guarded Elinor Dashwood and her impulsive sister, Marianne, fall in love with compromised men, console each other when their hearts are broken and are finally rewarded with happy endings. 
Ms. Trollope's present-day updating offers novelties like text-messaging and YouTube scandals, as well as the frisson of seeing Elinor utter mild profanities. But the writing isn't so much modernized as simplified, like those Shakespeare editions for grade-schoolers that provide colloquial "translations" on facing pages. Egged on by her rakish suitor, John Willoughby, Marianne in Austen's original cruelly gibes at her principled but unglamorous admirer, Col. Brandon, saying: "Add to which, that he has neither genius, taste, nor spirit. That his understanding has no brilliancy, his feelings no ardour, and his voice no expression." In Ms. Trollope's version this becomes: "He's not a fruitcake. He's just very, very dull." 
The book's halfhearted rendering seems ominous for the series as a whole. However absurd the profusion of Austen homages may have become, most of the adapters have been genuine Janeites, whose zeal infused even the silliest spinoffs with charm and personality. With the Austen Project, a spontaneous movement looks to have become officially franchised. This puts it in league with recent cynical estate-commissioned sequels such as William Boyd's 007 novel, "Solo," or Sebastian Faulks's Wodehouse pastiche, "Jeeves and the Wedding Bells," about which the best you can usually say is that they don't manage to spoil your enjoyment of the original.
Doubtless this comes as no surprise to anyone wincing at the thought that text message alone is enough to modernize Austen, or to rejuvenate any canonical text. It seems to me that a far more successful (or at least righteous) approach would be for an author to ask: what is it about Austen's novels that are universal? What is the underlying appeal of the story, and are there elements of modern life that reproduce the tensions and the constraints that the characters confront? Are there any parallel structures nowadays to the social conventions, legal restrictions, and etiquette that kept the course of true love from running smoothly for Elinor Dashwood et al.? And if so, can the author explore those with enough zest to make the plot hum?

It sounds like Joanna Trollope doesn't have quite the deft touch with human nature of her more famous literary ancestor.

The same column also reviews a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants.

It would be a pity if the taint of commercialization stopped readers from picking up Jo Baker's intelligent and elegantly written "Pride and Prejudice" adaptation, "Longbourn" (Knopf, 331 pages, $25.95). Ms. Baker's novel is about the Bennet family's household staff—Longbourn is the family home—particularly a housemaid named Sarah, whose love affair with a newly arrived servant takes place simultaneously against Elizabeth's courtship and marriage. 
Through the brief quotations from "Pride and Prejudice" that open each chapter, Ms. Baker makes it clear that maids, cooks and footmen are omnipresent in the classic and yet are taken for granted not only by the Bennets but by Austen herself. From the point of view of their overworked help, even Austen's most lovable heroines cannot escape appearing cosseted and self-regarding (more heretically, "Mr. B." is implicated in a paternity scandal). Ms. Baker at times belabors the quotidian unpleasantness whitewashed in Regency romances—we regularly find Sarah rinsing soiled linens or emptying chamber pots. But the emotional imbalance between upstairs and downstairs is affecting. Darcy, in his famous declaration to Elizabeth, called love a force that left him "properly humbled." But to Sarah, who has had humbling enough for a lifetime, it's the distant promise of fulfillment and self-worth. 
Her elusive interest, an enigmatic ex-soldier named James Smith, widens the perspective of the story even further. Although the visiting militia in "Pride and Prejudice" exists purely to tantalize the foolish younger Bennet daughters, Ms. Baker reminds us that they were veterans of ugly battles in the era of Napoleon. To James, the cozy world of the Bennet family is marked by an "innocence as deep and dangerous as a quarry-pit." "Longbourn" reveals these messy backdrops while still, in fitting tribute, inventing a touching love story of its own.
A "paternity scandal" implicating "Mr. B"?  This novel may share names and settings, but we're working anymore with the characters Austen actually wrote. Let's remember that there's a paternity scandal in Sense and Sensibility too, so it's not as if she's too squeamish to touch sexual immorality. I'm curious as to whether the mysterious Mr. B is Bennet or Bingley -- guessing the former from the context, but I confess myself insufficiently intrigued to search out the book and find out.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Man is not the Measure of Marriage

You see these articles going around ever so often which seek to advise people on how to achieve a happy marriage by explaining who marriage is "for". It's not for you. It's for your spouse. Seek to make your spouse happy, and all will be well. Or perhaps it's not for either of you but for children. If you both seek to form a good family for their sake, it will all work out. I suppose it's only a matter of time until someone writes that it's actually for society -- though perhaps not as that is not exactly the spirit of the day.

Aside from often coming off rather saccharine, the problem with these attempts is that they seek to find the measure of good (in this case, good in the context of marriage) in another person.

Obviously, in a marriage, your spouse is a key element. You two will be responsible for making each other happy or unhappy, united or divided. And the particular feelings and preferences of your individual spouse are important as far as the details of how a loving marriage is expressed. One woman may be made to feel most happy by surprise gifts of flowers and offers to watch the kids while she goes off to have some time away with "the girls", while another cares little about gifts and flowers and girl time, but very much cares about her husband being home to spend time with her as much as possible. One woman very much wants her husband to take her out somewhere she can wear a nice dress and heels and that lipstick that she bought last week, and another really hates it when she feels that she's being forced to dress up. One could identify the same variety of desires among men. In these little details, there is necessarily a great deal of variation because there are many sorts of people and one clearly ought to make the effort to learn what one's spouse wants and meet those desires and not some other arbitrarily chosen set.

However, while the way one may work out one's love toward one's spouse will vary a great deal from marriage to marriage based on the desires and circumstances of each couple, what makes a good marriage is not simply "making it about the other person" or "doing what your spouse wants". If doing good within a marriage simply meant doing what your spouse wanted, then that would lead us to the contradictory idea that if you spouse wanted something that was bad, it would be good to do bad. For instance, in the formulation that marriage is "for" making your spouse happy, if your spouse was in fact deeply selfish and could only be made happy by you acting in a way that was destructive to you, the "marriage is about making your spouse happy" dictum would suggest you should go ahead and behave self destructively in hopes of making your spouse happy. In fact, if we take moral law at all seriously, such a course of action would not only damage you, it would damage your spouse as well, since being the cause of wrong action is itself damaging.

Marriage is for virtue, not for your spouse or for the kids or for society. Virtue entails, among other things, working for the happiness of your spouse, to the extent that that happiness is ordered towards good things. But it is virtue which is the defining element, not simply the desires of your spouse. There can only be one source of Good, and that can never be another of us imperfect human beings.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

They're Not Writing Songs Like That Anymore

Last night the bedresting MrsDarwin was watching the 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey.  I wandered through during one of those Austen movie, posh-dancing scenes, and suddenly doubled over laughing.  MrsDarwin raised an eyebrow in my direction, and once I recovered my composer I was able to explain.

The music being used for the elegant dance was a tune that I knew from one of the odd pleasures of my youth, a somewhat unusual CD entitled How the World Wags which featured low brow music from the 1600s. The particular song being used in Northanger Abbey was entitled "Seldome Cleanely".

The song opens:
DRaw neere you Countrey Girles,
and lissen unto me,
Ile tell you here a new conceit
concerning Huswifery,
concerning Huswifery,

Three Aunts I had of late,
good Huswifes all were they:
But cruel death hath taken
the best of them away,
O the best of them away.

O this was one of my Aunts,
the best of all the three:
And surely though I say it myselfe
A cleanly woman was she,
A cleanly woman she she.
And the tone is pretty well set by the verse that I remembered and which allowed me to find the full lyrics via Google:
The smallest candles end,
my Aunt would never loose:
It would helpe to make her puddings fat,
With the droppings of her nose,
Really, Seldome Cleanely is just a bit rambunctious. The real star of the album was the rather more famous Pox On You For A Fop by none other than Henry Purcell. Enjoy!

The Concentrated Life

Back in my college days at Steubenville, there was a vocations fair that came through with dozens of religious orders setting up booths and passing out literature to students who might be considering the religious life. My roommate came back to the room with a flyer which said, "Are you called to the priesthood or the consecrated life?"

"I thought this was really interesting," he said. "What do you think they mean by 'the concentrated life'?"

"The consecrated life," I said. "Being a monk or a friar."

He looked at the flyer again. "Oh, I get it. Consecrated. I misread it. I thought they meant 'concentrated life'. Like maybe because you don't have a family so you really devote yourself to whatever it is that you're working on. Concentrated."

The phrase has stuck with me over the years, and I found myself thinking about it last week when I was sent off with a bunch of other "directors and above" at my company for training. One of the things that invariably strikes me when I spend time with people who are a step or two higher up the corporate ladder than I is how much time they spend on their jobs. It's not just that these folks mostly arrive at the office by 7:00 AM and work till 7:00 PM (though those extra two hours I don't give the office are precious to me) but that work and work's problems seem never to be far from their minds.

On my mental back burner I tend to have blog posts or fiction projects or things to do around the house or some book I'm reading. I don't typically have work there. As people who've met me in person know, it's not hard to get me off on some rambling disquisition about pricing and marketing and various companies, and sometimes a gnawing problem will stay with me, but in general when I leave the office building and put on my audiobook in the car, I leave thoughts of work behind. Indeed, given the chance, I'll have some writing or reading topic on the mental back burner simmering even while I'm at work.

Now I'm back from training, the work load is escalating, and I'm trying to fill a hire an additional person onto the team. I'm still trying not to routinely work more than ten hours a day, and to keep my mental back burner when not at work for my own concerns, but something has to give. In an attempt to strike some sort of balance, I'm trying to figure out to how to empty myself of non-work concerns when I arrive and focus completely on work while I'm here. (Which includes not reading around the internets while eating lunch or taking a quick break.)

We'll see if the semi-concentrated life works.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rest on the couch and Rest in peace

I thought I was done with my bed rest, and I hope I may not have to go it full time again, but I've started to swell up again after a trip to Cincinnati for the funeral of an old friend of the family, so here I am again on the couch, listening to Darwin do all the housework while I experiment with posting from my phone. Sigh. Five and a half weeks to go…

In a sense, I can cast it all up to the late friend of my family. Before my freshman year of college, when my parents couldn't afford the whole portion of tuition, our friend and her husband offered to cover the balance. And of course, I met Darwin three weeks into the school year and our future relationship was just about set in stone from that first meeting. So thanks to my generous friend, I am now stuck on the couch under the weight of my sixth child -- and this is likely the least effect of her lifetime of charitable works and constant prayer.

Please say a prayer for the souls of Charlotte and Charlie, and don't hesitate to call on them if you need some intercession or assistance. They had a lot of practice catching God's ear while they were on earth; I can only imagine how effective they are now that they're constantly in His presence.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Final Bed Rest Update

Final bed rest stats: from Wednesday morning to Saturday morning I lost seven pounds, consisting almost entirely of excess fluid in my calves and ankles. While I've already regained a small bit, I'm not worried, because my ankles remain normal, and anyway, baby's porking up in these last weeks. I'm assured that this should be a sign that my blood pressure has also dropped.

I spent some of my downtime working on Stillwater outlines, and though I'm 5000 words down, I'm still writing. I should have a new installment sometime this week.

Substantive blogging can commence now that Darwin is back home. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

I'm Too Sexy For This Post

Well, it's been about thirty hours, give or take, since I started my extended vacation in bed, but what do you know: bed rest works. Since yesterday morning I've dropped three pounds -- that's three excess pounds of fluid, in my calves and feet. Three pounds. I can see my feet again. Not just the swollen sausage-like appendages that have moved me around for a while, but feet. Real feet, with sinews and bone structure and actual ankles. I also have calves again, and they too have bone structure and muscle. You guys! I've still got muscle!

I've never been what you would call willowy, even on my best days. My figure is best described as "hourglass", and my legs are not the finest portion of my anatomy, at least not in these post-Rubenesque times. But as I considered my trim little ankles tonight (Julia: "Mom! Your ankles are skinny!"), I have to say: I'm pretty hot stuff. I am lookin' fine. In the absence of three extra pounds of fluid and with the fading of the spider veins, my legs are pretty presentable. Eat your heart out, J. Crew models.

This is the kind of weight loss process I can get behind. Lay in bed all day and watch the pounds melt off! Too bad it only works in particular situations, and too bad that I'm going to have to get off my left side eventually and do the sorts of things that make my legs swell, like stand up. But I'm reassured to know that I'm still there under all this baby.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Assymetric War, Assymetric Objectives

Posting is a bit sparse for me at the moment, because I'm off on a leadership training course for work. (For those who read the novel last year, this is the course which the LeadFirst training which Kristy was sent off on was based on. I've elected to jog with the general rather than run with the seals, as I'm told the seals will be keeping an 8min mile pace for three and a half miles, while I generally can only keep up that fast for a mile and a half.)

The consulting company putting on the course is made up primarily of retired military, and so a lot of the talk we heard in the opening discussion today about their information-based leadership philosophy was drawn from examples in Iraq and Afghanistan. This got me thinking a bit about how the nature of war is in part determined by the objectives of the two parties. Assymetric war, such as we fought in Iraq against the insurgency (after the old style war against the Baathist regime was over) and the war we continue to fight in Afghanistan, is in part assymetric because the two sides have different objectives.

The US came into Afghanistan with two objectives: Topple the Taliban and set up a more stable and friendly government.

If our opponents there (Al Qaeda, Taliban, various tribal groups) had the same set of objectives (defeat our army and set up a stable government there) the two sides would fight a traditional war. If your army was not capable of winning such a war, it would make sense to surrender and stop fighting. However, perhaps in part because it's clearly not possible to win a conventional victory against the US military and in part because our opponents in Afghanistan are willing to settle for a country with no functioning state but instead just power wielded by local armed bands and tribal groups, our opponents in Afghanistan have settled on "keeping the US from achieving its objectives and making staying costly" as their primary objectives. With those objectives, it doesn't matter if they lose most encounters with US troops. It doesn't matter if they can't take and hold territory. So long as they're keeping the US from enforcing peace and order, they're gaining their immediate objectives and making progress towards their long term objectives.

It's the asymmetry of the objectives which makes it possible to wage war with a drastically mis-matched force.

There's a tendency to act as if this is a fairly new phenomenon, but arguably it's very old. With all the World War One reading, it strikes me that one of the things that make Serbia such a hard nut for Austria-Hungary to crack was that for Serbian nationalists, making the Austrians fail was an objective they were willing to fall back on even when it became clear that defending the Serbian state which had existed before the war was no longer possible. Russia faced this in even starker terms trying to control the peoples of the Caucasus in the 1800s. Even going back to the Classical world, this was one of the defining characteristics of the people the Romans had trouble conquering. If there was a tradition of a government of sorts, the Romans could defeat that government and replace it, but tribal people's whose only objective was to throw the Romans out were far harder to conquer. The Roman's ability to crush any formal state they might set up didn't matter to them because they didn't insist upon a formal state.

Now I Lay Me Down...

So I'm trying this little thing that's going to wreak a bit of havoc with my NaNo word count. It's called "bed rest".

That's not what the midwife said, technically. She said my blood pressure is pushing up to borderline (122/90, if it means anything to you), that I was on my feet too much (which anyone who knows my current sedentary habits would find a stretch), and that I needed to be off them. For three days. And it doesn't count sitting with my feet up; I have to be on my side. "You can get up to go to the bathroom," she said. Three days of rest and lots of good protein and several gallons of water should turn it around, she said. And that's what we want, because otherwise jeopardizing my ability to have a home birth, blah blah, increased risk of preeclampsia, blah blah. I can't get all exercised about preeclampsia, because Downton Abbey we ain't, but I did have some question as to whether my feet and legs actually had any more swelling room, so fine. It would be nice to see my ankle bones again. And I can't really get any of my shoes on except the kicks I wore around all summer, which are getting a bit light for the cool weather.

Obviously I'm fudging now, because I'm sitting at the computer writing this post, but that's because I thought, "Oh, I'll write on the iPad in bed, using the wireless keyboard," but it turns out that Darwin accidentally took that with him on a business trip to Washington DC, a trip which, coincidentally, is over the same three days I'm supposed to be supine. I like these charming touches; they prove that God has a sense of humor. The big girls are helping, of course, but I'm telling you right now that I can't see running a five-child household single-parent style for three days without being on my feet for just a titch longer than it takes to go to the bathroom, even if we've canceled classes and are eating easy canned pork and beans instead of the jambalaya I wanted to make for dinner.

On the other hand, the kids happily watched six hours of DVDs today (the old Pride and Prejudice series, so it's all right) and did their chores nicely and went to bed with only the slightest fuss about who slept in which bed. Some families, apparently, have this thing where a child sleeps in the same bed every night, but it seems that's not how we roll here, at least not until that front room finally gets painted. And maybe I'll finish my interlibrary loan book. And I'm going to take several technological leaps backward and try writing with my quill pen on foolscap, which is so crazy it just might work.

In the meantime, take a gander at someone else's finished novel: USA Today is running an exclusive book trailer for Cruel Beauty, Darwin's sister's debut novel, out in January. Also, she has a website, so take and read.

Stillwater - 41

Behind on word count, alas, but these extended periods at the computer are making my legs and ankles swell up in a less than pretty fashion.

***


Later that afternoon, Melly heard one more knock on her door, and there was Richard again, struggling with a hefty box.

“The workmen can’t make it out here until next week to run the ductwork into this room, so here’s a window unit to keep things livable until then.”

“You didn’t have to get an air conditioner for one week!” said Melly.

“Well, it’s here now, so I hope you’ll use it,” said Richard as he cut open the box.

Melly reflected as she lay listening to the sounds of installation. Here was Richard putting in her air conditioner himself when there was so much work to be done with the harvest fast approaching, and here she was stuck in bed, doing nothing. Admittedly, she was sick, but she was on the road to recovery, and if one of her goals was to stay here at Stillwater, she needed to make sure that there was a reason for her to be there. But what could she do? Sure, she could hem a pair of trousers or alter a dress or sew couture ball gowns, but what good was that to the business of the place? Perhaps Esther was right: Melly was simply a child around the place. She didn’t pull her weight. She wasn’t useful.

Well, she’d better be ready to counter Esther’s disgust when she heard about Melly turning down Ian’s offer. She’d better have a strategy. She’d… she’d learn the sugar business! She would be Richard’s right hand woman, ready with the facts and figures and the futures and the weather report. And she’d be free, so that was pretty useful for the budget. All this would mean that she’d need to improve her imperfect — okay, non-existent — knowledge of sugar production, but that work too would prove that she was serious about her role at Stillwater. Finally she’d earn her keep and be acknowledged as a full member of the household.

Richard broke into her reverie as he was leaving to say, “By the way, I’ve told Esther that this job offer has nothing to do with her, and that she doesn’t have any say about it. If she brings it up to you, feel free to tell her to mind her own business.”

Alone, in the new and delicious cool of her transformed room, Melly wept fresh tears of gratitude and vowed that she would make sure that no one (with the exception of Esther, maybe) would have any reason to regret that she’d stayed at Stillwater.


When Malcolm came home from the school that evening, Richard met him at the door to give him an account of the day’s happenings before he could hear the angry version from Esther, the confident version from Ian, or the snuffly version from Melly. Malcolm agreed fully that there was probably no less congenial place for Melly to live than New York City, but to Richard’s surprise he thought there was a lot more merit in the suggestion than either Richard or Melly would have allowed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It might do Melly some good to be off on her own.”

“You want her to leave?”

“No, I don’t. But she doesn’t seem to believe that she’s capable of much or that she can stand on her own two feet, and maybe that’s the result of being treated for years as the youngest and weakest here.”
“Melly is as adamant as I’ve ever seen her be about anything that she can’t do this job and that Ian is just making fun of her by making the offer.”

“Ian’s problem is that he’s too enthusiastic about any project he’s starting. He dives right in thinking that his personality is a drug and everyone he meets is an addict. You can get away with that approach with Rene, because goodness knows he’s a bit like that himself, but it’s never going to work with Melly. You can’t expect to win her over by springing your jack-in-the-box surprise plans on her. Maybe if Ian had started leading up to the idea of working in New York six months ago he would have gotten somewhere this afternoon. ”

“But she’s more than ready to go along with any Rene proposes.”

“Well, of course. She’s known him for twenty years. And maybe twenty years from now Ian will be able to bulldoze Melly into any project he likes, but not unless he can pull it back a bit now. I really can’t see her ever accepting, but if he’s so convinced that his project can’t do without her, he might do better if he could convince her that’s he’s really serious not just about this offer, but about life in general. I could step over to the cottage and mention it to him.”

Malcolm failed in the main object of his visit, which was to catch a glimpse of Alys — she didn’t come downstairs at all — but he found Ian a willing audience, ready to hear any advice about the best approach to Melly. He was all the more urgent because it was beginning to look like he would need to get back to New York sooner rather than later to start the whole process, which he explained it in great and technical detail, rolling. Malcolm, who didn’t understand half of the steps involved and was finding the suspense of Alys’s non-appearance wreaking havoc on his ability to pay attention to the account of what a sausage factory the modern cinematic process had turned into, suggested that they go over to sit and have a beer at the big house. Ian, who had his own hopes of seeing the beloved, was game.

In the family room they found Richard, Cheryl, and, to Ian’s delight, the recovering Melly. It was a peaceful scene: Richard, off in a corner, was indulging in a spy novel and every so often casting bemused glances at Melly struggling diligently to absorb the information in the latest issue of The Sweet Spot, the industry publication of American Cane. Cheryl, tucked in a recliner, was reading her bible, her lips silently moving with the rhythms of King James’s English, so familiar from her childhood. She looked up when Ian complimented the intensity of her attention.

“I’m not much of a reader,” she admitted. “I’d always rather listen to a book. I just get more out of it that way. Pugsy and I are listening now to Chicken Soup for the Doggy Soul. Sometimes I ask Melly to read to me, but she’s not feeling up to it tonight.”

“I’d be happy to read it to you,” said Ian. “Where would you like me to start?”

Cheryl flipped through the pages and handed him her bible. “This is my favorite.”

Ian scanned down the page, sat up straight, and began to read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”

Melly had intended to pay no attention to this revolting turn toward piety, but she had forgotten that Ian was a trained actor and that when he chose to exert himself, he could make his voice a thing of beauty. The passage was one she’d read aloud herself, but never with such skill or power. As determined as she was to ignore him, the pages of sugar production tables lay abandoned in her lap as Ian gave life to the elegant poetry of the evangelist. She was rapt, held in thrall by the fascination of Word and voice mingling in a tide of creative energy, drawing fresh meaning and nuances from phrases she’d thought she’d known by heart.

Ian read four chapters, then laid the bible down and smiled at Melly, who instantly turned away, the spell broken. Cheryl dabbed at her eyes.

“That was just wonderful, honey,” she declared. “You sound like you were raised up on good preaching. Did you ever read at church?”

“I haven’t, no,” said Ian. “But it all sounds almost familiar. I guess it’s hard not to know bits and pieces of the Bible if you have any kind of education. I’d heard about water turning into wine before, but I never knew where the reference came from.”

“You’d never read that chapter before?” asked Malcolm.

“No, that was a cold reading. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever read the bible in my life. It’s very Zen — I like it.”

“Well, you sounded like you’d practiced it for years. You should try reading it again.”

“Maybe I will from now on,” said Ian, glancing toward Melly. “But I can’t imagine sticking with it for long. I would read it as long as it seemed beautiful or inspiring or cultural, or as long as I could get some shock value out of it, because I guarantee none of my friends in New York have held a bible in their hot little hands, but then one day I’d realize that all that poetry was telling me that I was living a bad life and needed to change my ways, and I’d bail and let it gather dust on my shelf. Or not gather dust, if it had a pretty cover.”

A skeptical murmur was heard behind the raised pages of The Sweet Spot.

“What?” said Ian, leaning over the back of the couch to look over Melly’s shoulder at the glossy four-color process graphs and charts.

“Nothing,” she said, sorry to have been so obvious about paying attention to anything Ian said tonight.

“You can’t just say nothing. You think I’m wrong about something, and you’re over here scoffing at me, and I want to know why.”

“No you don’t,” said Melly, bending over her pages. “It seems more like you want to tease and joke than have a serious discussion of anything.”

“There you’re wrong. I want very much to know why you disapprove of me and how I can change that.” He whisked the magazine from her hands.

Melly sighed. “It’s really nothing. Please give that back. I’m reading it.”

“But you weren’t reading a moment ago. You were listening, and objecting. Why? Because I was being flip about the bible?”

“No.”

“Because I said I’d let it get dusty? It is against your religion to let the bible get dusty? I’m asking seriously.”

“Because,” she said, stung at last to criticism, “I thought that it was the first time I’d heard you say anything so self-aware.”

With that she clammed up, apparently consumed with the greatest interest in last year’s sugar yield. Ian would have been glad to tease more out of her, but after another moment of his questions she picked up her magazine and bid everyone good night.

Malcolm, the only one who’d been sitting near enough to hear the low tones of the discussion, raised his eyebrows and wondered when he’d ever heard Melly stand up for herself like that. Perhaps going away wouldn’t be so bad for her after all, but Ian would need a good deal of persistence if he was going convince the disinterested Melly of that. Still, Ian must have been firm in his convictions about her fitness; although Malcolm was a great admirer of Melly’s many good qualities, he himself wouldn’t have given a second interview to a candidate so clearly averse to the job.

Ian’s aims were deeper than Malcolm knew, but he wasn’t discouraged in the least by Melly’s manner. How boring, how ordinary it would be if she gave in all at once! But she was anything but ordinary. She was exquisite, and he meant to have her. Ian’s appetites had always been more passionate than sensitive, and as he’d always had good luck in stirring up echoing passion in women before, it was almost impossible for him to imagine that he could not make Melly love him whether she wanted to or not. Indeed, her resistance gave his pursuit the frisson of novelty. And now he was in a race against time before he needed to get back to New York. Although he sighed at the thought of leaving her, even for the short time before she’d surely be joining him, he began counting out the days left for seduction.

***

It was a stretch to say that Richard had put the fear of God into Esther — indeed, their religious conceptions were different enough that they wouldn’t have agreed on what the “fear of God” was, anyway — but she did follow his instructions to the letter: she stopped talking to Melly. She did not actually ignore Melly’s existence, but she was haughty and coldly deferential and withdrew in a pointed fashion whenever Melly entered a room. Melly didn’t mind in the least: this was a small price to pay for the benefit of not having to listen to Esther’s scolding. She rather wished Esther would have given her the silent treatment years ago. Richard kept an eye on them both, and was increasingly satisfied by what he saw.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Stillwater Index, first half

Several readers have asked about having a Stillwater index to catch up on the story. Here are the the first 38 posts preceding this year's NaNoWriMo push.

Stillwater - 1
Stillwater - 2
Stillwater - 3
Stillwater - 4
Stillwater - 5
Stillwater - 6
Stillwater - 7
Stillwater - 8
Stillwater - 9
Stillwater - 10
Stillwater - 11
Stillwater - 12
Stillwater - 13
Stillwater - 14
Stillwater - 15
Stillwater - 16
Stillwater - 17
Stillwater - 18
Stillwater - 19
Stillwater - 20
Stillwater - 21
Stillwater - 22
Stillwater - 23
Stillwater - 24
Stillwater - 25
Stillwater - 26
Stillwater - 27
Stillwater - 28
Stillwater - 29
Stillwater - 30
Stillwater - 31
Stillwater - 32
Stillwater - 33
Stillwater - 34
Stillwater - 35
Stillwater - 36
Stillwater - 37
Stillwater - 38

Stillwater - 39
Stillwater - 40
Stillwater - 41
Stillwater - 42
Stillwater - 43
Stillwater - 44
Stillwater - 45
Stillwater - 46
Stillwater - 47
Stillwater - 48
Stillwater - 49
Stillwater - 50
Stillwater - 51
Stillwater - 52

Being More Like Europe

It's consistently interesting to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's posts about reading history because it's fascinating to watch someone actively encountering new ideas and being shaped by them. Right now he's reading Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a book that's sitting on my own to read shelf (waiting for the time when I'm not immersed in reading pre-war and war.)

In this post he writes about the point, an overlooked one, that European social democracy is to a great extent the result of Europe's wars. The post is worth reading, but I'll just quote the sum-up at the end, because it's the "make you think" piece:
When I was younger it was popular for my leftie friends to ask "Why can't we be like Western Europe?" We probably can. A good first step, it seems, would be fighting a genocidal war which results in massive relocations, more ethnic homogeneity, the near-extermination of one of our minorities (one guess at who that would be) and the reduction of our major cities to rubble.

Stillwater - 40

5773/50,000, slightly ahead of schedule.

***

Richard Spencer sat in his office, staring blindly out the window overlooking the vast emerald field of sugarcane ripening for next month’s harvesting. He had not been prepared for the onslaught of Ian’s enthusiastic plan, and his thoughts refused to muster neatly into efficient ranks. First Rene, then Melly: Ian certainly knew how to provide for his friends. There was nothing wrong with this seamstress job for Melly. It was a promising opportunity for her, better than anything Esther had proposed, and one that took advantage of her impressive sewing skills. There was nothing underhanded about the offer, either. Ian had an actual working production company with industry creditability, the job was his to give, and he had the budget to make Melly independent, which was more than Richard could do for her. Ian had asked for Richard’s help in persuading Melly that this was the right step for her. She didn’t believe in herself. She was scared to take the leap. She needed the support of trusted friends. Ian had expected to find her here already in the office, discussing the prospect with Richard. Surely Richard, who had spent his life in business, could help her see that this was a chance not to be missed, that it could only lead to good things and wider horizons and a real career?

Richard had admitted as much to Ian, and had promised to talk to Melly and lay out the pros and cons of the job. He acknowledged the rightness of Ian’s arguments in the current silence of the office, and he was irritated with himself that his gut response was to reject the whole idea out of hand as ludicrous and entirely unfeasible. Of course this was the right step for Melly. Anyone ought to be delighted to have such a good chance land in her lap, especially in this job market. There was no reason for him to feel so empty at the thought of Melly not at Stillwater but up north in a big city — in New York, the most northern of northern cities. Shy Melly, who hated unfamiliarity, who was terrified of leaving home. Of course she was terrified! What opportunities had he given her to stretch herself over the past five years? Esther was right. He still sheltered Melly like a child instead of encouraging her to face the hard decisions of maturity. Even now, he realized he was waiting for her to come to him, to ask his advice, to depend on him to make this big decision for her.

He forced down his selfish desire to keep their quiet, cozy life at Stillwater intact — Melly, Cheryl, himself, and often Malcolm, living in perfect harmony together — and went with a heavy heart to persuade Melly to do the right thing against his better judgment.

***

It seemed to Melly that she was to be spared nothing that day; even the retreat of her bedroom was not inviolate. Why did people have to knock all day when every little sound ricocheted around her skull? Talking to Ian had sucked most of the energy out of her body, and what little was left was being sweated out of her.

“Come in,” she said, not bothering to get up and open the door. It creaked open, and to her surprise, there was Richard, a great believer in privacy, who had never set foot in her room or even in the back corridor in all Melly’s five years in the house.

“Hello, Melly,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, but I wondered if I could come in and talk to you.”

“Yes, of course,” she said automatically, though she knew why he was there and would rather have sucked lemons than be required to give reasonable answers at this moment.

Richard took a step into the room and turned to close the door, but was arrested by the heat.

“My goodness, Melly, it’s too hot in here,” he said. “Let’s shut the windows and put on the air conditioner.”

She raised her head a fraction of an inch from her pillow, then let it flop back down, too tired to be evasive. “I don’t have one.”

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Stillwater - 39; NaNoWriMo 2013

Because effing NaNoWriMo is the only thing that will induce labor on this novel.

***

Ian had taken Rene Arceneaux to New York out of sheer exuberance and genuine conviviality, but the potential of the visit hadn’t escaped him. Rene was a struggling young academic, brilliant but obscure, who could well, through lack of connections, find himself languishing in the bowels of wherever struggling young academics languished. (Ian wasn’t quite clear on what happened to less successful philosophers than Carson Winter, but he knew that anything his uncle’s circle spoke of the plight of their grad students and adjuncts with social indignation and great displays of the kind of enlightened gratitude one showed the household staff for scrubbing the toilets and attending to other distasteful but necessary work.) Ian, however, had connections, and once he saw what a hit Rene made in New York, he dropped a private word into his uncle’s ear. Wasn’t there anything…? As it happened, Carson Winter had been pondering along the same lines. He might not agree with Rene, but Winter could recognize talent when he saw it. And Rene was talent packaged up in a brash young principled Cajun persona, which happened to contrast nicely with Winter’s own role as the elder statesman of relativism.

Wheels were set in motion that very weekend. Several of the friends Winter had invited to hear him debate Rene were, like him, founding members of the prestigious Society of Philosophical Inquiry and Theoretical Ethics. The annual conference was coming up, and Winter, as the keynote speaker, had little trouble in convincing his associates that what the conference really needed this year to spice things up was a counterpoint paper by Rene Arceneaux, a novel discovery in the world of deontic logic and a diversifying element to boot. The benefit of being a New York Times best-selling author and of having his own philosophical society was that Carson Winter was not bound by the red tape that tied up so many lesser mortals. The result was that Ian received a note Tuesday morning informing him that Rene Arceneaux had just been extended an invitation to present his opposition to Carson Winter’s latest book immediately following Winter’s own speech.

A chance like this could be the making of a young academic, and if anyone deserved the break, Rene did. Ian was genuinely happy for his good fortune. Goodness knew how often over the past week he’d felt convicted by Rene’s energy and enthusiasm, his cheerful attitude and his willingness to work. Almost he wished that he had taken the path of scholarship and discipline, that he might have savored the sweets of the intellectual life. This mood couldn’t last, of course; Ian enjoyed his own easy life too much, and privilege had its rewards, one of which was wrangling perks for his friends.
Still, Ian was never one to let friendship get in the way of a good thing, and it had always hovered in the back of his mind how pleased Melly would be if Rene were to land such an opportunity and how sweetly grateful she would be to him for arranging it and bringing her the news. Rene was the way to Melly’s heart, and Ian’s heart swelled at the thought of the joy he was about to give her.


So it was that on Tuesday morning, immediately after he heard the good news, he dashed straight for the big house and banged on the basement door. Almost immediately Cheryl opened the door, Pugsy in her arms.

“Isn’t it a good thing I was just going upstairs?” she said, bestowing a smile upon him, and Pugsy too favored him with a cordial grimace. “Now Melly doesn’t have to get up to get the door.”

“Is she down here? I have to talk to her.”

“She’s on the couch, poor baby.” Cheryl stepped into the elevator. “Since you’re here, you ought to make her a cup of tea.”

Melly, dreading fresh confidences from Alys, had raised herself up on her elbow at the intrusion. She had spent far less thought on Ian than he had spent on her, and in his smitten state he found her gentle confusion at his presence to be adorable. He dragged a chair to the couch and sat by her side, nudging away the basket of soggy tissues.

“I know I should make you your tea right away, but listen to me for a moment first. I have some news for you about Rene, good news! And I had to make sure that you were the first one to know.” He was babbling, he must sound like an idiot, but he couldn’t help it, especially now that the mention of Rene’s name focused her Audrey Hepburn eyes on him. “I just heard from my uncle this morning. You have no idea — or maybe you do, of course you do, you’re Rene’s sister — how impressed he was with Rene. I’ve never known him to say so many flattering things about someone without owing them any favors. He thinks Rene has potential, lots of potential.”

“So Rene convinced your uncle that he was wrong?” Nothing was beyond Rene, of course, but Melly was awestruck at this display of his persuasive power.

“Wrong? No, absolutely not. Who could convince Uncle Carson of that?”

“But how can he want Rene to have more attention if he doesn’t think Rene is right?”

“It’s not about being right. Rene is a fresh new voice in the field. He’s exactly the sort of guy who can make philosophy cool. Disagreeing loudly with my uncle is the best thing he could have done. It makes him controversial, and controversy is compelling.”

Melly rested her head on the couch, struggling to understand Ian’s point. “Well, I’m glad that you had an exciting trip.”

“It’s not just the trip! Melly, Uncle Carson has invited Rene to speak at his national philosophy conference! This is huge for Rene. It’s the beginning of his career! You and I know how smart Rene is. Now people with connections will know. With my uncle’s backing, Rene could get a job offer out of this, or even a book deal if he wanted. Here, look at this!”

Ian handed Melly his phone and leaned over her shoulder as she read the forwarded conference invitation to Rene. Apparently Carson Winter was capable of greater literary feats than his books had suggested — Melly found his style and subject to be completely felicitous, and close enough to her own opinion of Rene’s worth to be highly gratifying. She read and re-read the note, scrolling up and down and nodding at anything Ian said without hearing any of it: that he was so happy for her sake; that he wished there was more he could do; that her happiness had been as important to him as Rene’s happiness; that he wished there was more he could do for them, for her…

“I have to go tell Richard,” she said, struggling to her feet. “I can’t believe how nice your uncle is. He doesn’t sound one bit like he does in his books, at least the way Rene tells it. Do you think Richard already knows? Maybe Rene called him. But I would think Richard would have told me about it immediately. So maybe Rene hasn’t called him because he doesn’t know yet. Maybe he hasn’t checked his email yet. Should I call him?”

This happy stream of chatter had carried her over to the elevator before Ian could stop her.

“Melly! Wait a minute! Don’t go yet!” He jumped up and seized her hand just as she was about to step in, and she realized that she was holding his phone.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, flushing as much from being grabbed as from embarrassment. “I should have asked. I wanted to show this to Richard, but Rene can send it to him later.”

“I don’t care about the phone,” said Ian, pulling her gently back to the couch. “You’re welcome to take it to Richard. You can keep it if you want. But that wasn’t all I wanted to say to you. Rene will be going to New York. I want you to come too.”

“For the conference? Won’t I be in his way?”

“No, not for the conference. Not just for the conference. I’ve done something for Rene, now let me do something for you. In fact,” and now he flashed her a smile that seemed to invite her into a conspiracy, “the main reason I wanted to get Rene to New York was for you, to convince you that I’m not such a terrible person.”

“I don’t think you’re a terrible person,” she said slowly, willing herself to believe it. “You’ve been very kind to my family, and I’m grateful. I don’t know how we can repay you for being so thoughtful. But I also don’t know what I’d do in New York.”

“Work with me. Be my partner. I need you.”

Her startled face was all the encouragement he needed to pour out his plan to her. She would be his costume designer, his wardrobe mistress, his guide for his new production. He needed someone with her expertise. No, he needed her. There was no one else who would do. She would learn on the job. She had so much talent, she was an exquisite seamstress, he’d worked with professionals who didn’t pay half as much attention to detail as she did. She was taken for granted here at Stillwater. No one seemed to realize how exceptional she was, but in New York, Ian would make sure that she was appreciated and rewarded. It was perfect, for both of them. They could help each other so much if she would only come with him.

Melly’s face throbbed painfully as this ridiculous scheme unfolded. She had been impressed by his good offices on Rene’s behalf, but it was like Ian that he could do nothing from pure motives. Even his altruism was the set up for him to have some fun at her expense. But she would not be rude, not when the reminder of his real kindness to Rene was still glowing on the screen in her hand.

“I think you’ve made a mistake,” she said, groping around for her box of tissues so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “I’m… I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for Rene. But he deserves that. I don’t deserve this. I can’t possibly be qualified.”

“You’re more than qualified.” He slid nearer to her. “You don’t believe in yourself and no wonder: no one here seems to believe in you either. But I do. Give me the chance to prove it.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I can’t go to New York.” She whispered as fiercely as her sore throat would allow. “I’m happy where I am.”

“Are you?” His voice was as husky as her own. “Are you happy here? There are so many ways I could make you happy in New York.” He took her hands, tissue and phone notwithstanding.

“I… I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she said, extracting her tissue, and her hands, from his grasp. “I have to blow my nose. Maybe you could go make that tea.”

“Melly.” He was too close, and her feverish skin ached at the awful pressure. “You’re avoiding me. Will you come with me to New York?”

She’d seen that intensity in his eyes before. It was the expression he’d had when… when he’d looked at Sophia. She had the sudden and terrible conviction that she needed to get away from him right now.

“No. I can’t.” She got up, but he was right beside her all the way to the elevator.
“Why?”

“It wouldn’t work.” The elevator refused to respond to her rapid staccato on the up button. Open, she begged silently, please open for me.

“I think it would. I think you know it’s the only thing that will work. We will make it work.” His confidence was appalling. Why would he keep on pestering her, when she’d told him no already, and more than once? How could she make him believe her? She sought for an answer he might accept.

“You’re not serious about this. I know you’re not.” The bell dinged, the door opened, she escaped in, but he stood blocking the doors from closing.

“I have never been more serious about anything in my life. Melly, promise me you’ll think about.”

“I can’t.”

“Promise me.”

“I need to go upstairs.”

“Melly, please. Just think about it.” To her horror, he started to step into the elevator with her.

“Okay, I promise, but I want to go now.” She found his phone still in her hand, and she tossed it at him. As he stepped back to catch it, the door closed with merciful swiftness and the elevator swept her up to the sure solitude of her own room.


Ian stood outside the elevator, reliving the entire interview, his face bright with memory and anticipation. Melly was perfect. She had no false pride. She didn’t try to seduce or bargain or grab what she could for herself. The thought of her confusion at his offer and her hesitant refusals made him catch his breath. He would make her believe in her own precious worth. He would show her how genuine his love was. How could she believe him yet when this was all so new to her? So few people treated her with any regard at all. He was going to change all that. But first, he had to make her see that her best interest, her only option, was to go with him to New York.

He went up to the first floor in his turn and knocked at the door of Richard’s office.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Postmodern Jukebox: Call Me Maybe

Some popular music for your Friday night:



My stars, the guy on the piano is clever.

The Dead Are Not Gone

Today is the feast of All Saints (so if you're Catholic go ahead and have some meat on Friday but don't forget to go to mass as it's a holy day of obligation) when we celebrate all those (known and unknown) who are with God in heaven and tomorrow the feast of All Souls, when we pray for the dead, that those still being purged of sin in purgatory will soon achieve heaven. This touches a point about the Church which is too easily forgotten on most days in our modern world: we are still connected to the dead by the Church. Within the one Church, we have three groups:
  • The Church militant here on earth, fighting the good fight (Or running the good race if you hate military metaphors, but then, it's not called the Church Running)
  • The Church suffering -- those souls in Purgatory who are destined for eternal happiness and union with God but are in the process of burning away that attachment to sin, to self above God, which remains from life
  • And the Church Triumphant, unit with God in heaven
This isn't just some cute way of classifying people, it emphasizes that the Church spans death, and that through it we remain united with our loved ones who have died. People don't leave the Church through death and go on to heaven, like some graduation ceremony. (I suppose following that analogy, purgatory would be high school, which perhaps has some merit as an image.) Rather, the Church consists of the entire Body of Christ, living, suffering and united with Him in heaven, all at once.

The importance of this is easily forgotten in these times in which death is thought of as an aberration -- suitable for movies and the news and for the very old put safely away in hospitals, but not of concern to the young vibrant people who we all like to think we are. This is the society in which the human interest columns assure us that sixty is the new forty, and forty is the new thirty, and so on. But in fact, death is the one sure thing in life. Even more sure, pace the late Twain, than taxes -- though those are pretty sure as well.

When we're recently lost someone we love, we experience a sense of being cut off -- one which diminishes with time but never fully goes away. "I'll have to tell him about that," we think, and then remember. For several years after my father died, whenever I went to type an email into my work laptop, and started to type in an address beginning with J, the email client would suggest, "Jon Hodge"? I used to imagine typing up a long email to him and sending it off, explaining, asking, finding the comfort of communication again. I never did -- because while I always thought of it in terms of a story or movie in which a reply would somehow come to such an email to beyond this earth, I knew that in reality I would only get an error message.

We can't communicate with our loved ones who have died. But the desire to do so, I think, is not a mere habit from before or yearning for the impossible, but a sign that at some deeper level we understand we are not meant for separation but for union. We are meant for the Church Triumphant, into which God gathers all of us that will come. We are meant to be united with each other and with God in eternal communion.

Celebrate today our connection, through Christ and His Body the Church with those who have gone before us to the Father, with all the multitude of saints in heaven. And tomorrow, pray for our dead, that they may soon, or perhaps already be, among that joyous multitude which we hope one day to join.