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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Death before Birth

I have not watched any of the Center for Medical Progress's expose videos on Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a company which handles the disposal/redistribution of body parts from aborted babies. There is an argument from some quarters that everyone ought to see the videos, ought to have to come to term with tiny arms and legs being nudged around in dishes, ought to hear laughing employees declare, "Another boy!" as they examine what's left of the poor innocent.

I don't need a video to show me what preborn babies look like. I held one in my hand ten years ago, a wee eight-weeks-developed baby, my own. I don't know why it died, but it looked perfect. It (I don't know whether it was a girl or a boy, and I don't prefer to assign it an arbitrary gender) didn't even fill up the palm of my hand. Baby had all ten fingers and all ten toes, but what has always stayed with me are the big beautiful blue eyes.

I know that some parents want to give a conditional baptism to a child who's been miscarried. We didn't. The baby had died two weeks before I miscarried, apparently, and baptizing a two-weeks-dead body seems a mockery of the sacrament. We had no doubts that God had taken the little one to himself.

The baby's existence and death didn't have to be justified on the grounds of becoming medical research material.  It was never "useful". It did not further the aims of science. And because the baby was human, it deserved a human burial. So we buried it, the only gift we were able to give the baby in its brief lifetime.

I did not take any photos of my baby, but you can see a sweet little eight-week-old baby here. It looks just like mine did. I don't need hidden videos to convince me that abortion is an evil evil business, and I don't want to see these dead little one dismembered when it's hard enough to see a dead little one intact.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trust to be Pro-Life

Tristyn Bloom has an interesting piece (actually from a while back, but I just ran into it) which makes the point that the perceived need for abortion in our culture is in part tied to our society's deep belief in the importance of planning and controlling our lives.
I think the reason people continue to defend abortion is because, essentially, of existential terror: fear of what will happen when something unexpected, uninvited, unplanned bursts into our lives demanding action. I think that is a crippling psychological problem that doesn’t even rise to the level of morality, that we can’t just tell people to suck up and get over.

We often hear that a problem with young people today is that we are irresponsible. We don’t have a sense of duty. We don’t have a sense of order. We’re immature. I think that the problem is actually the opposite.
To accept that life would be the irresponsible choice, and that’s the framework from which a lot of people are operating. They see themselves as accepting consequences, as responsible. They have a semblance of a moral framework and we can’t ignore that just because it’s completely the opposite of our own. And this isn’t just about whether or not you accept a child. I think that we are so enslaved to a plan, and a routine, and a vision of our lives, we can’t embrace the unsettledness, openness, flexibility, and folly it takes to have an actually pro-life culture in every instance.
If you look at even the language used — “unplanned pregnancy” because that is the strange case. The normal case is the planned pregnancy. And this is understandable in two ways. One, it’s a concession to comfort and the economy of family. Not everyone in the pro-life movement is against contraception, for example. But the other, I think, is a psychological necessity because two, in a certain sense we are very unwilling to admit that we are all essentially accidents.

Especially for secular people, or people with different theological assumptions, that is what the creation of life kind of amounts to. Scientific materialism seems to force us to admit this. And I feel that on some level modern parents compensate for this meaninglessness by investing their child with meaning through planning. You were chosen. You were fated. You were designated. They are compensating for the meaninglessness of the way conception happens by choosing it on their own and by actively bestowing that significance upon them. We are the little gods of our own children. And we extend this to everything in our lives. In our education. Where we live. What we do. How we eat. Everything imbued with meaning by the fact of being chosen. And these choices, in turn, define us back to ourselves.
We live, historically speaking, in a particularly rich and safe time. That's good. We're peculiarly fortunate compared to many who came before us. Yet it allows people to convincingly imagine much of the time that if they do everything right, that nothing will go wrong.

We have contraception to make sure that we don't get pregnant before we're ready. We have various forms of fertility technology which are supposed to assure that we can have children when we want to. We test and scan and try to identify any "defective" children before birth so they can be eliminated.

From a Christian point of view, I think that can wander into the idolatrous. In the end, we did not create the world. We are responsible for our own actions, but don't control the world or the things that happen to us.

A lot of the Christian life as it's translated into modern middle class America is very prudence focused: Wait until you meet the right person so that your marriage will last. Don't have sex until you get married. Find a job that will allow you to support a family.

Natural Family Planning, which the Church urges Catholics to understand in order to allow them to exercise prudence when necessary in spacing their children, requires a great deal of self control and prudence when used by fertile couples to space children out.

None of these are bad, they are all good exercises of prudence, but in a certain sense it can mean adopting the prevailing culture's emphasis on control.

Now, as in all things, there's an opposite extreme. Some Christians hold that any attempt to exert prudence in regards to having children is wrong, and married couples should make absolutely no effort to space their children. I think this represents a failure to use the prudence and reason which God has given us. It's all very well to trust God to provide for us, but one of the ways that He provides for us is by giving us the capacity to make wise decisions.

The golden mean in this regard is to live prudently, yet at the same time recognize that by exercising ordinary prudence we in no way inoculate ourselves against the unexpected. The fates are capricious, and having exerted prudence in no way guarantees that we shall be be safe from them. The better that we are able to understand that, the better we will be able to embrace the unexpected turns which the embrace of life entails.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 13-1

I'm back from the summer break as rested as one can be while writing a novel and training for a half marathon. My goal is to post sections at least once a week. This one begins Chapter 13 which returns to Natalie in Russian Ukraine. There will be a total of three installments of Chapter 13.

Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 18th, 1914. Sister Levchenko pushed open the door to the small sitting room where Natalie and Elena were having an afternoon cup of tea while trying to discern the war news from the oblique reports of the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

“Nowakówna. Nikolayevna. Make a up bed immediately. There’s a new patient being brought in.”

She hurried away without waiting to hear the other two women’s response. The gray wool uniform dress and large red cross on her white apron gave her authority over the voluntary aides as complete as that of any doctor.

“There wasn’t a hospital train due today,” said Natalie, as they cleared their cups and saucers from the table.

Elena shrugged. They were the only volunteer aides that day. If they had to prepare a whole ward it would have taken over an hour at breakneck pace. One bed, however, was a quick task to practiced hands.

They spread crisp white cotton sheets which gave off the smell of disinfecting wash -- a small which at first had seemed harsh and chemical, but now conveyed a wholesome purity to their nostrils. Blood, dirt and infection conveyed danger; chlorine and carbolic solution were the weapons against those foes.

“Do you ever think of becoming one of them?” Elena asked, smoothing the regulation grey wool blanket.

“Who?” Natalie asked, tucking the bottom corners beneath the mattress.

“A red cross nurse.” Elena moved the big canvas-covered frames into place, turning the bed into its own private niche, ready for its patient. “They do all the real work. We might as well be maids, and they’ll be just as happy to have real servants when all the respectable ladies have tired of playing white-clad angel. The nurses are the ones who have the skills to make a real difference.”

“But surely-- You can’t just become a nurse. There must be a great deal of training.”

“Oh, a great deal. Even on a war footing, several months worth. But people do it. They’re not born nurses. My cousin Sonia took the training during the 1904 war and served in a hospital in Moscow.”

“Well, of course, but what I meant was--” Natalie felt the heat of blood rushing to her face, as if she had just provided a very poor answer in class while the other girls looked on. “Surely it’s not as simple as just taking some training and becoming a nurse. Don’t you have to be… the right sort of person?”

The words sounded wrong in her ears even as she spoke them, and she flushed again. The shade of difference, the idea that there was something Other about the professionally trained nurses -- whether some authority gained at nursing school or a natural air of command which destined them for a higher order -- this distinction was impossible to define and yet it put a chasm between her and the nurses as wide as that among between the doctors and the orderlies: between the men who cut and cured and ordered versus the men who carried, cleaned and did as they were told.

Throughout her upbringing in the convent it had been a principle as clear and unquestionable as the laws of motion which held God’s creations in their orbits that she was a member of that order in society which obeyed. Obeyed graciously, obeyed genteelly, obeyed the higher call rather than the lower, to be sure, and perhaps within that realm of obedience exerted authority over those temporarily or by birth of even lower status: children, servants. But the basic principle remained.

Leaving the convent, meeting her father, these had for a time given her the trappings of a higher station, a new Paris wardrobe, first class rail cars, a beautiful hotel room. Yet even these had seemed a window on another world, a world in which she still possessed no rights or authority. Her brief command of waiters and taxi drivers had not made it seem any less against the laws of nature for her to disagree when her father told her that she must never see him again or when Dr. Luterek held her to account for his son’s pursuit of her.

Could a few months training reverse all this and make her the ultimate female authority over a ward of patients and their care? Was she meant to wield such power and responsibility? The idea was by turns alluring and terrifying.

“You two, don’t stand there, turn the bedclothes down.” The ward sister had entered, all action and command, followed by two orderlies carrying a stretcher.

Natalie obediently helped turned down the sheets. As the orderlies gently slid the apparently unconscious men onto the bed, she recoiled at the sight of a head like an obscene newspaper caricature. The soldier had a massive, discolored swelling above his left brow. She knew it must be the result of some massive blow to the head, yet the way it distorted his forehead, and the dark patches of internal bleeding pooling around his eyes, gave the man the look of a cartoon drawing of an intellectual with swollen brain and weary eyes.

“Soldiers who brought him in said the cart horse was startled by a motor,” she heard one of the orderlies explain to the other. “Caught in the head by a falling barrell. Wonder he isn’t dead already.”

The nurse began issuing orders rapidly, and Natalie rushed away, first to fetch bandages and gauze, then for a basin of disinfectant. As she fulfilled these requests she watched the nurse’s swift and confident movements, thinking of Elena’s question and wondering if she herself could ever dress a man’s injuries with such calm professional skill.


The new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had kept them busy throughout the afternoon, and Natalie had stayed an hour past her usual time. Madame Luterek never waited tea when someone was late, but any tardiness was displeasing to her. No letters had arrived from Konrad in almost two weeks, and although this left his mother in a state at once desperate for news and terrified at what it might bring, the extended silence also meant that no letter addressed to “My Lovely Natalie” or “That Little Governess” or whatever teasing endearment might next come to the young lieutenant’s mind had arrived to embarrass Natalie, enrapture Sara and Lena, and set Madame Luterek casting baleful glances at the young governess she remained convinced must somehow be at fault for capturing her son’s attention. This calming of the household tensions was welcome, and Natalie had no desire to spoil it by doing anything to upset Madame Luterek.

[continue reading]

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Martian: Old Fashioned, Hard SF

I first heard about Andy Weir's SF novel The Martian because its publishing history is pretty much a dream given form (a shining beacon in space?) for someone like me:
In 2009, Weir started posting the story chapter by chapter on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free. The early version of his self-published book attracted a lot of science-minded readers, and they offered feedback.

Weir is a space nerd, but he says chemistry is not his area of expertise.

"Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts," Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that's crucial for Watney's survival.

Word of the book spread, and readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. Some had trouble downloading it though, so Weir put it on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing.

That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said, and readers started leaving positive reviews on Amazon. In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.
So a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover.

Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

So yes, he scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low to mid six figures, The Washington Post reports.

"In fact, it was such a sudden launch into the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it," Weir said in an interview on his site. "I actually worried it could all be an elaborate scam. So I guess that was my first reaction: "Is this really happening?'"
Up until college, Science Fiction made up a significant portion of my reading diet, and the classic "hard SF" in which engineering and science problems are used to drive plot and action was one of the sub genres I enjoyed most. There's always a certain fascination to problem solver stories, and while hard SF is sometimes bashed within the field as having shallower characterization, I tended to think that authors were often better at portraying fairly "ordinary" people trying to solve exotic engineering problems than successfully imagining exotic character and cultural problems in far flung futures.

In the end, I mostly walked away from the SF/F genre entirely. Most of what I read now is mainstream or historical fiction, but I retain an affection for science fiction even though I don't keep up.

When I picked up a copy of The Martian at the library, I ended up reading the whole thing in a day. It was a blast. No, the characterization is not deep. But the thing is just such a fast paced and fun problem solving yarn that you can't hold that against it. Even if you are not yourself interested in the details of how to make a near future expedition to Mars, the wise cracking main character and his constant struggle to survive will pull you in.

The novel opens as follows:

I'm pretty much fucked.

That's my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it's turned into a nightmare.

I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record... I didn't die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can't blame them. Maybe there'll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, "Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars."

And it'll be right, probably. 'Cause I'll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let's see... where do I begin?
There you have it: smart aleck, occasionally profane, but a fun character voice, and a person who is stuck in a terrible predicament. On the sixth day of a manned visit to Mars in the near future, the crew has to cut short their planned fifty day stay and make an emergency evacuation when an unexpectedly heavy sandstorm endangers their habitat. In the process of the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is struck by a falling antenna, knocked off a precipice, and his suit ceases to show life signs. The rest of the crew has to go ahead and make the evacuation without retrieving his body.

Except that he isn't dead. The debris that punctured his suit destroyed the life signs monitor, but his blood from the injury froze around the puncture, closing the leak and allowing him to still have oxygen to breath until he regains consciousness. By the time that happens, however, he is the only person left on Mars, with no working communications equipment and no hope of rescue until the next mission arrives in about four years.

The movie is coming out in October, and I'm hoping it will be as fun as the book. In the mean time, I might pick up a copy so I can read it again.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do Over

I am 36 years old, and I've been Catholic all my life. And I don't have a prayer time. I have said the rosary on and off through the years, and I still struggle with it, because it's not interesting to me. I like Liturgy of the Hours, conceptually, but time and again, I've flamed out in my attempts to say it regularly. I do read the Bible, as part of daily mass readings with the kids, but that's fallen by the wayside during the summer. My one regular prayer is Sunday Mass, and that's required. Meatless Fridays. We do those too.

It's not that I don't pray during the day. It's that I don't have a regular, prioritized time for prayer. As I move through my day, as I wash dishes (by hand; the dishwasher's been out for three months), as I sweep or vacuum, as I'm asked a million questions I don't know the answers to, I do turn my mind and heart to God, and I try to meditate.

And then I screw up again. As in, just now while I was writing "I screw up again," I snapped at a child for interrupting my writing time.

Darwin and I were talking the other night about how just being in the same place isn't enough. If the only time we ever spent with each other was in the dinner-to-bedtime routine chaos, we'd see each other and talk to each other, but we'd never be able to go deeply enough into anything to maintain a good friendship. We'd start to become strangers. We rely on our quiet time after the kids go down (or are at least banished upstairs) so that we can strengthen the foundation of our relationship on which the chaos is built. A relationship needs the chaotic times too, I think, so that each person can truly see and appreciate the quality of the other, but it also needs breathing time.

I'm trying to find that breathing time again for prayer. I recently went on retreat, and one of the points made was that if prayer is not routine, it is not a priority. I thought about that all weekend, came home and discussed it with Darwin, and we agreed that we needed to make a change, again. And in the way of all post-retreat life, I regressed. I did not say morning prayer. I did not make more effort. I probably made less.

But this morning, I had to make a choice between slacking off and sweeping the floor, and by God's grace, I chose to sweep the floor. A moment ago, I had the choice to answer a child patiently or impatiently, and by God's grace, I chose to answer patiently. My mind went off to places it shouldn't have been, and by God's grace, I picked myself up and went back to what I should have been doing.

I need prayer. I need it. But I also need to remember that God is I AM, and that every instant I have a new opportunity to start over and make the right choice. When I turn my mind to him and beg for help to change, even as I'm sinning, I can be transformed in the twinkling of an eye, because his mercies are renewed every morning, because now is the acceptable time. So I failed at saying the rosary or morning prayer, over and over again. All that means is that I have another chance to try again. So I'm stuck in some stupid sin. That means I have the opportunity to ask God for his grace, again. All failure is a opportunity to lean on God one more time. The Christian life isn't about being perfect. It's about relying on God completely, because it's clear that our own strength isn't enough.

The only time to be a saint is now, and the only real sainthood is starting again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Orphan Openings: Unless A Grain Of Wheat Fall To The Ground

The initial coolness was like the peace of death. Before, she had felt and tallied Brian's every thoughtless act or wounding word. Now, real and perceived grievances all beaded up and rolled off of her like rain down a marble monument. It was so liberating to put the pain behind her, to move to a state in their marriage in which she could hide herself away and play the role of wife. They still did all the same things. They got up, danced around each other in the bathroom, went to work, had dinner together, had sex. The sex was better than before, actually, because now there was a corner of her mind where she could watch herself and improve her performance and adjust her mental game when necessary.

But even death is not static. Repose becomes decay. She had thought that she was preserving the marriage by closing herself off. One day she realized that Brian had ceased to expect anything from her. He had become other to her, and now she was other to him. They were two people in a house, partners in management, marking the time with manners. She had died to him, but she had not counted on him dying to her. It was frightening to realize that she was interchangeable.

One day at the office she stopped by Sofia's cubicle to drop off a report. A faded inspirational poster was tacked up to the divider, a backlit image of a stalk of wheat with the caption, "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

"What does that mean?" she asked Sofia.

"I don't know? It was my dad's, it used to hang in his office. I think it's that... the wheat can't grow unless it's transformed? The grain by itself doesn't change, but when it's planted and starts to grow, it bursts open and warps out of shape and is destroyed, and in the process it becomes something bigger and better, something it never could have become on its own. It has to die to go on living."

"That sucks."

Sofia shrugged. "Most living feels like dying anyway."

"But it doesn't really die," she said. "How can it grow into a plant unless it's alive?"

"I guess the grain of wheat part of it dies."

"That's pretty lousy for the grain," she said, unreasonably annoyed on behalf of an anonymous seed.

"It's not like it was going to last forever on its own. Get planted or get eaten."

"And those are the only two options?"

"Or decay in storage," said Sofia, turning back to her computer.


On her way home she picked up Chinese food from a place Brian liked. At home she pulled out dishes and candles and plated everything up just like she'd read about in an article about reviving the spark in your marriage. Brian called her as she was throwing away the containers.

"I'm going to be late, babe," he said. "The project is running late, and you know how it is. Don't wait for me to eat. I'm just going to grab a sandwich somewhere up here."

It was like him to spring this on her. Several cool replies simmered within her, and she considered which one would be most effective.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground...

"Okay," she said. "What if I come up there and eat with you?"

"You want to come all the way up here?" he said. "I'm only going to have about ten minutes."

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

"I don't mind. I'd like to."

"Um, okay. Sure, if you want."

"Thanks." She swallowed. "I love you."

There was silence on the line for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited.

"Yeah, you too," he said shortly. "See you."

She picked up the plates and started scraping them in the trash, wondering at the strange bitter pang of the first blade of wheat piercing through the confines of the dead husk.

Fake Map of Tribal Nations Takes Social Media by Storm

In one of those strange eruptions of social media interest, a person going by the name of liminalsoup uploaded to reddit a map for an alternate history that he's planning to write, about a world in which Europeans never reached America, and a few days later someone uploaded the map to Facebook (falsely describing it as a map of where tribes had been prior to Columbus) where it proceeded to get hundreds of thousands of shares.
I had seen it going around on Facebook, where I'd noted that the Comanchees hadn't been an independent tribe in pre-Columbian times, nor had they been in the Oklahoma/Texas area in which they later became famous. Other friends pointed out other issues with the map. The actual derivation of the map, with the author trying to decide where to put various tribes in an alternative history in which American Indians continued to live on their own for another 500+ years, makes sense of a number of these oddities.

As I started to search for the map, wondering about its mistakes, I stumbled across a real attempt at a map showing tribal locations which had been publicized on NPR just a few weeks earlier. Ironically, though this map was put together by someone of Indian ancestry and was an attempt to show where tribes originally were can list them by their own names (rather than names given to them by Europeans), and it apparently didn't catch the imagination of social media the way the fictional map did. (I say ironically because the person making the mis-attributed social media posting of the fictional map captioned the image: "America before colonization.... I've never seen this map in my entire 25 years of formal education. Not in one history book or one lesson. This is not a mistake... Representation matters!!! #NativeHistory #BeforeAmerica")

[full high resolution image here] Actually, you can kind of see why the fictional map caught on in a way that the real one didn't. It's simple and easily grasped, with clear boundaries and mostly recognizable names. The real map is full of unfamiliar names, many in small type, and lacks boundaries.

Thinking of history from another perspective is difficult. It's not uncommon to see guilt-ridden modern attempts to address the European discovery, conquest and settling of America "from a Native American" perspective, but if that attempt at perspective is to show "that thing which Europeans came and messed up" you're already in some sense dealing with a perspective centered on European events.

Most of the American Indian cultures in North America were hunter gatherers, and virtually none had writing systems, so the number of written records and archaeological traces we have to work from are fairly small. Even in Mexico and South America, where there were more complex farming societies and several civilizations which left writing behind, we have less to go on than the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (which themselves are fairly alien to us.)

The native societies as they were encountered by European explorers and colonists were not necessarily in continuity with their pre-European past, because contact with Europeans had touched off massive plagues which wiped out some very large number (it underlines our ignorance of pre-Columbian America that we have no very good idea what percentage, but estimates range up to 90%) of the indigenous population. (Europeans had built up immunities to a number of diseases that were unknown in the new world until their arrival.) The tribes that we met were a sort of post-apocalyptic survival of those plagues.

I suppose someone has tackled this and I just haven't run into it, but it seems like there could be an interesting "first contact" novel for some SF writer to tackle, if you tried to re-imagine the human population experiencing the kind of things which the indigenous populations of the Americas did when they came into contact with Europeans: alien induced plagues causing massive death around the world, very small numbers of aliens with very advanced technology making small incursions in some areas but not getting to others, disruption of the world's political alliances as some countries align with the aliens in order to get help and support against others, the aliens not always having a clear idea of the disputes that they're being pulled into taking sides in.

As with the fictional map, perhaps a fictional approach like that would actually provide the best window that modern Americans could have into what that sort of disruption must have been like from the other side.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fair Labor vs. Owner of the Vineyard

One of the comparisons people can't help making in discussing the Gravity Payments $70k minimum wage which I wrote about the other day is the parable of the vineyard:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off.

He went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16

Christianity Today had a brief piece making the allusion, which also came up in the NY Times followup. The reference isn't necessarily complimentary to the workers are Gravity who have objected to the new wage structure, rather like being accused of being like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

I think it's an interesting Biblical allusion to bring up, because in many ways I think that social justice advocates (by which I mean those who self consciously think of themselves as such, not the wider world of those who care about justice in society) would not like a labor market which functioned in the manner of the Parable of the Vineyard.

Before discussing that, however, it's a good idea to start by looking at what the actual purpose of the parable is. Jesus often told parables in which some everyday, secular example was used to make a point about secular reality. Sometimes the secular example isn't even an example of virtuous behavior. For instance, in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Jesus describes a dishonest employee who, when he realizes that he is about to be found out and fired, embezzles even more money from his employer in order to give out favors to various other people. The steward does this so that he will have friends to take care of him once he's fired, and the point of the parable is that we cannot serve two masters and that we should therefore give away possessions now while storing up treasures in heaven. The dishonest steward is presumably about to be fired because in the past he's taken from his master's wealth for himself. However, when he realizes that there's about to be a reckoning he steals not for himself but to help others, realizing that it will be only the care of others that will help him once he is jobless. I think few would take this tale of sharp dealing literally and conclude that we should embezzle in order to help others. But part of what makes the parable memorable is that Jesus takes a very realistic example of sharp dealing in the business world -- something his listeners would intuitively understand -- and reframes it to be a description of how we should relate to the next world and to God.

The Parable of the Vineyard is also dealing with the next life, as it states right at the beginning, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." Christ tells us that even those who come to "the vineyard" (which we take to be conversion and the life of following Christ) will receive the same reward (heaven) as those who have labored in the vineyard all day. This may seem unfair (as the complaints of the all-day workers indicate) but that's because we're judging by human standards in which we "earn" our rewards. Heaven is unearned. It is a freely given gift of God to all those who are willing to receive it. And because it is not earned but given, we are wrong to think we can quibble about whom it is given to based on who "worked more" for it.

The words of the vineyard owner are key here, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?" The vineyard owner has complete dominion over his money. He gives it as he chooses. The workers who have worked all day are in no position to argue with him as to how he disposes of his money because they have no right over it.

Now this is where turning around and using the parable to talk about actual labor markets gets interesting. In a sense, the parable assumes what we might describe now as a libertarian attitude towards work and payment. The vineyard owner tells the all-day workers that they have no right to question how much he pays the other workers, because they have received as much as they agreed to work for. If he is generous to the others, that's his business. The implication is that the money of the vineyard owner is totally his own, and as long as he fulfills his explicit agreement with the all day workers, they have no ability to question his actions.

Let's take another example of wage dissatisfaction which social justice advocates often point to: A worker is slogging away earning $10/hr which is the wage that he agreed to when he took the job. Then he finds out that the CEO of his company is being paid $20,000,000/year, on the order of a thousand times as much. Why, he asks, is that person paid so much when I'm paid so little? In this case, the answer, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go," is not going to be very persuasive.

Indeed, I think we can probably agree that the wage structure of the vineyard owner would not pass muster with any labor union negotiating a vineyard maintenance contract. And yet, unionization is often advocated by Catholics as a means to achieving greater social justice.

Heaven is utterly God's to give. We have no right to heaven. We have not earned it. God does not have an obligation to us.

However, the vineyard owners is an imperfect analogy in that he does owe a reward to his workers. And, indeed, the sense of fairness which I think we are generally right to have doesn't even give him total discretion over his money and how he dispenses it. Yes, depending on how strongly we want to take the right to private property (ironically, those who wrap themselves in the term "social justice" would often take the view that his ownership of his money is comparatively weak, and that he does not actually have the right to dispose of his money however he wants) he may or may not have the complete legal right to pay different workers different hourly wages, but at a minimum if he chooses to pay some workers ten times the hourly wage as others for the same work, workers may well feel that his behavior is unfair and not want to work for him. (Even if, as the owner's words point out, they are not making any less than they initially expected.)

It seems to me that implicit in our sense of fairness in a situation like this is an idea of a certain amount of social ownership of the money to be used as wages. Say the owner has $1000 with which he is to pay ten workers. Workers are going to expect to that the money available for wages be divided in some fashion which matches their sense of fairness.

Let's talk about an imaginary vineyard. This vineyard pays $10/hr and hires laborers to work days of up to twelve hours. (Hey, it's ancient Israel. Life is hard.) Five workers are hired at 6:00 AM to work a full day. Five more are hired at 9:00 AM. Five at noon. Five at 3:00 PM. Five at 5:00 PM. The work day ends at 6:00 PM. 155 man hours have been worked. The expectation is that $1550 will be paid out at the rate of $10/hr. If the vineyard owner instead pays out $3000 (giving each of the 25 workers a full day's pay of $120) he sends to the workers the message that the pot of money to be divided for the day's work is not $1550 but $3000.

Here's where I'd argue that the sense of fairness which we might normally identify as right-leaning in our politics works of a sense of social ownership and responsibility which more left-leaning people should understand.

When the workers realize that there is a larger pool of money to be divided, they believe that it should be divided according to rules which they consent to via their sense of fairness. They don't think that the money is strictly the owners to do with as he sees fit. If he decides to pick out five of the workers at random and pay them far more than the others because he likes their looks, the other workers will be angry. Even if they don't have any formal process of negotiating how the money is to be distributed, they want the money divided in a way that they can consent to as being just. Not only just in the sense of "it's his money, he can do what he wants with it" but in the sense of "that is a manner of division which I can agree with."

Now, what triggers the desire to re-negotiate the division of wages in the parable is when the vineyard owners effectively puts a bigger bag of money than expected on the table. The workers expected $1550 to be paid out. When he goes to pay out $3000, they feel that they should have a voice in how that money is divided. They feel that they should have an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their employment.

If the owner had stuck to the acknowledged hourly wage, probably no questions would have been asked. There's an implicit agreement that the wage represents some compromise between how much the vineyard produces and how much the workers need to get by. But various things might break the equilibrium, and what is perceived to break the equilibrium could vary depending on someone's politics.

For instance, in our modern world, if a company produces very high profits or pays its executives very high salaries, some people (many of them on the left) will take that as an indication that there is money on the table, and they will want a chance to negotiate how that money is divided.

In this news story about Gravity Payments and its $70k minimum wage, there was apparently a sort of equilibrium in which people were making their old salaries and the owner and his brother were both making about $1 mil per year while also earning profits of over $2 mil. However, the status quo with $4 mil going to either executives or profits was accepted until the owner decided to take a significant portion of that money and use it to increase the salaries of the lowest paid employees. Then, some employees decided that they wanted their voices heard in how that "extra" money was to be divided.

Obviously, the sorts of things which people consider to put money "on the table" will vary, and the sorts of distribution which people consider fair will also vary greatly. But what I do think is fairly universal is that people have a sense of fairness which does not actually see an employer as having absolute ownership and discretion over the money he spends of wages. In the human world, the vineyard owner's argument for why the all-day workers should not object fails to address this sense of fairness, because the analogy which Jesus is making to to salvation, something which is in no sense earned. As such, comparing workers to object to some new salary arrangement at a real life company to the grumbling workers in the parable is not actually a very good rhetorical move.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why Gravity is Having Trouble with its $70k Minimum Wage

Back in April I wrote about one of those stories which launched a thousand hot-takes: The CEO of Gravity, a small (120 person) credit card processing company in Seattle, had decided that he would establish a $70k minimum wage for his company, both as a blow against income inequality and because he's read some research that raises up to the $70k threshold have a much bigger impact on personal happiness than raises thereafter. This caused a massive media sensation, and a lot of people thought that it said something Very Important about where American business was heading and how much could be achieved if only CEOs were less selfish.

Gravity employees aren't all making $70k yet, although the news it all at once the company plan which was put in place phased the wage increases in over three years. However, some employees have already seen raises of around $10k/yr and the company is experiencing significant transition pains, and the NY Times has an interestingly detailed follow-up story describing them.

A number of pieces were written at the time criticizing Gravity Payments' move. One that I linked to and discussed was by Joe Carter writing at the Acton Institute, whose piece was descriptively titled: "Why the $70,000 Minimum Wage is Doomed to Fail" It presented two main arguments. First, that Gravity Payments would lose business to competition, since any company which had a lower average wage and offered the same service could easily take customers from that. Second, that those currently making less than $70k/yr in pay were probably providing the company with value below $70k, and so therefore these employees would become net losses to the company, and thus the most likely to be cut when the company ran into financial problems.

Since I deal with pricing analytics professionally, this kind of story fascinates me. However, I took a bit of issue with Carter's approach in that while at an Econ 101 level, his criticisms are accurate, it's a lot harder to know whether these specific problems will apply in any given real world situation.

Recently I did a pricing analysis on a fairly small company which sells consumer electronics. They have four main models of their product, and their product is fairly unique. There aren't direct competition for their products, although they do, of course, face what we call "share of wallet" competition, which is basically to say that consumers have to decide whether to spend money on their products or on some other thing that they might buy which isn't in any way a similar product in function, but is also a kind of cool household gadget which people buy when they have the money for discretionary spending of household electronics toys. The results that I came up with were that they should significantly reduce discounting (and thus in effect increase price, on average) on their most expensive models. The reason is that their most expensive models were selling more than their middle priced models with similar features. This suggested that a lot of consumers perceived the value of the top model as being significantly above it's price. If they increase the after-discount price on this top model, more consumers would trade down to the mid-range models. They would have a more even distribution of sales between their models and higher profits overall. Now, normally, if you increased the price of a product by 20-30%, you'd expect to lose a lot of sales to competition. Indeed, even a very small increase can cause a lot of people to buy less or to move to competition in a highly competitive area. This is why the editorials we read every so often explaining that all McDonald's or Walmart has to do in order to pay all their employees better is increase prices by 5% show a lack of understanding of what happens when retailers like that increase prices. (A few years back I did pricing for one of the big three fast food chains, and believe me, small price increases can cause big reductions in purchasing by consumers.)

While there are a few basic economic tendencies which are at play within most pricing questions, it takes a lot of familiarity with the specifics of a given company's situation to understand which ones will be at play and how. This made me hesitant to confidently assert that Gravity would run into problems because of its $70k minimum wage, because I didn't know the dynamics of the particular business in question and whether this unusual approach to compensation would work. (The answer to whether this could work for all companies is simple: No.) Reading about how things have worked out thus far, I think it's interesting that none of the problems are of the simple Econ 101 type which were being predicted. They're mostly far more human.

The first major impact was simply the onslaught of attention. CEO Dan Price admits that he partly made the move in the way he did in order to score some positive publicity, but it's hard for anyone to predict the kind of pressures which a news story going viral can produce:

The move drew attention from around the world — including from some outspoken skeptics and conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who smelled a socialist agenda — but most were enthusiastic. Talk show hosts lined up to interview Mr. Price. Job seekers by the thousands sent in résumés. He was called a “thought leader.” Harvard business professors flew out to conduct a case study. Third graders wrote him thank-you notes. Single women wanted to date him.

What few outsiders realized, however, was how much turmoil all the hoopla was causing at the company itself. To begin with, Gravity was simply unprepared for the onslaught of emails, Facebook posts and phone calls. The attention was thrilling, but it was also exhausting and distracting. And with so many eyes focused on the firm, some hoping to witness failure, the pressure has been intense.
But any plan that has the potential, as Mr. Price has put it, to “set the world on fire,” is bound to make some people squirm. Leah Brajcich, who oversees sales at Gravity, fielded complaints from several customers who accused her boss of communist or socialist sympathies that would drive up their own employees’ wages and others who felt it was a public relations stunt. A few were worried that fees would rise or service would fall off. “What’s their incentive to hustle if you pay them so much?” Ms. Brajcich said they asked. Putting in 80-hour weeks after the announcement, she called the mistrustful clients, stopping by their offices or stores, and invited them to visit Gravity to see for themselves the employees’ dedication. She said she eventually lured most back.

Some customers didn't like the move, either because they saw it as endorsing politics they didn't like or because they saw it as embarrassing them by making them look greedy for not making a similar move. Others worried that despite promises to the contrary, Gravity would increase its fees to cover the expense. The attention got Gravity new clients (they nearly doubled their usual number of new customers in the month after the announcement broke) but because of the startup expenses of getting a new client launched those new customers won't actually be profitable for Gravity for about a year.

It sounds like one of the things which both led to the salary increase and also to the problems coming afterwards has been the personality of Mr. Price. He apparently got in arguments with some other business owners about the move:
Roger Reynolds, a co-owner of a wealth management company, said his discussion of the pay plan with Mr. Price got heated. “My wife and I got so frustrated with him at a cocktail party, we literally left,” said Mr. Reynolds, who complained that Mr. Price unfairly accused him of measuring his self-worth solely in terms of money and trying to hold somebody else down. Everyone may have equal rights, but not equal talent or motivation, Mr. Reynolds said. “I think he’s trying to bring in some political and aspirational beliefs into the compensation structure of the workplace.”

But he's also had problems in his relations with some employees:
Mr. Price’s drive to succeed, fierce commitment to help small businesses and exacting standards attracted other business-minded idealists. Some even took pay cuts to work at Gravity. Keeping an existing client is more important than getting a new one, he decreed. Never make a caller hear more than two rings before picking up.
Maisey McMaster was also one of the believers. Now 26, she joined the company five years ago and worked her way up to financial manager, putting in long hours that left little time for her husband and extended family. “There’s a special culture,” where people “work hard and play hard,” she said. “I love everyone there.”

She helped calculate whether the firm could afford to gradually raise everyone’s salary to $70,000 over a three-year period, and was initially swept up in the excitement. But the more she thought about it, the more the details gnawed at her.

“He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump,” she said. To her, a fairer proposal would have been to give smaller increases with the opportunity to earn a future raise with more experience.

A couple of days after the announcement, she decided to talk to Mr. Price.

“He treated me as if I was being selfish and only thinking about myself,” she said. “That really hurt me. I was talking about not only me, but about everyone in my position.”

Already approaching burnout from the relentless pace, she decided to quit.

The problem here seems dual: On the one hand, as someone putting in a lot of time and effort she sees it as unfair that there will be very little money available to provide raises to her and other top performing employees as the company struggle to meet the new salary commitments for lower level employees. On the other hand, that might have been smoothed over had Dan Price (doubtless also under long hours and mental pressure himself) been able to better handle his discussion with her about her concerns.

Perhaps most cripplingly for the company's financial future, however, has been a falling out between CEO Dan Price and his brother Lucas Price who owns 30% of the company. There are apparently long been tensions between the two brothers, and the pay increase (which in the short term may take the company's profits to near zero, before building back to profitability, according to Dan Price's plan) was apparently the last straw. Lucas is suing his brother demanding to be bought out. Since Dan has just committed to take the company's profits down, and has cut his own salary in order to help finance the salary transition, he's short of money with which to buy his brother out.

Another interesting take on the wage increase comes from an employee who doesn't want to find himself trapped at Gravity by the high pay:
The new pay scale also helped push Grant Moran, 29, Gravity’s web developer, to leave. “I had a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. His own salary was bumped up to $50,000 from $41,000 (the first stage of the raise), but the policy was nevertheless disconcerting. “Now the people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me,” he complained. “It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”

Mr. Moran also fretted that the extra money could over time become too enticing to give up, keeping him from his primary goal of further developing his web skills and moving to a digital company.

And the attention was vexing. “I was kind of uncomfortable and didn’t like having my wage advertised so publicly and so blatantly,” he said, echoing a sentiment of several Gravity staff members. “It changed perspectives and expectations of you, whether it’s the amount you tip on a cup of coffee that day or family and friends now calling you for a loan.”

A company is built around relationships: relationships with customers and relationships with employees. And in this case, obviously relationships between owners as well. It's not surprising that such a major change has caused turbulence in these relationships, even granting (as so far appears to be the case) that the basic Econ 101 sources of concern are not at play here. If I were to guess what will be the biggest long-running program with the new $70k minimum wage, it will be satisfying the sense of fairness for the people in mid-level positions at Gravity, people who currently make more then $70k and thus don't stand to benefit from the new regime. Often, especially in a young startup company like this, those positions are held by people who voluntarily put in a lot of extra hours and effort, both because they take a lot of pride in doing good work, and out of a desire to "get ahead". If many of them end up like Ms. McMaster, feeling that they are not getting the raises they deserve because all the money is being spent on bringing low level employees up to the $70k mark, the company is going to have a hard time keeping good talent and thus maintaining its current level of service and growth. One hopes that Price took account for giving those people proportional boosts in salary as well when he was planning the cost of his initiative.

I hope the journalists continue to check in on how Gravity is doing, not because I think they represent a model for something most companies can do, but because it's always interesting to see how real people deal with unusual situations. It will be interesting to see if Price ends up having to change his plans on the new salary structure. While I don't agree with Dan Carter's analysis at Acton on the potential pitfalls of the move, I do agree with his parting thought, which is that if Price wanted to share the profits of his company more widely he would have been much wiser to set up a bonus program or employee ownership program which all his employees could have participated in proportionately. But then, that sort of plan would not have received the nationwide media coverage which the "$70k minimum wage" caused, and Price sounds like he is, like many company founders, something of a showoff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Rich Drama of Virtue

In the New York Times, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory debate whether a virtuous character in a novel can be an interesting character. Mallon says no:
We expect fiction’s round characters to undergo change in the course of their book-length adventures, and the most important kind is usually an increase in self-awareness — a journey that leaves an unblemished character with no place to go. Self-awareness for the fully virtuous will necessarily be a matter of self-satisfaction, a state that can only render them insufferable. 
Who among us is fully virtuous? Reading this, I wondered whether Mallon had ever known a virtuous person or attempted a life of virtue himself. Virtue rarely leads to self-satisfaction, but to ever increasing self examination, as a person increasingly realizes how short he or she falls from the mark.

Alice Gregory says yes:
But as anyone who has earnestly attempted it will admit, being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people. Living virtuously is hard. It takes generative intellectual work that is far more interesting than the defensiveness of “being bad.” I would rather consider the challenges that go into a consciously lived life than the inevitably hurtful products of a cruel one. 
...If I were to commission a novel, I would ask the author for lots of things (that it be short; that it be written in free indirect speech; that it include funny, but frank, acknowledgment of women’s grooming rituals), but mostly I would want this notional novelist to take up the challenge of animating at least one character who is virtuous, not in the intimate way that everyone seems to be up close, but in a way that is obvious and legible in the book’s own universe. It’s time that goodness be shown in all its relentless torment and sacrifice.
Leah Libresco, in a separate post on the topic, points out:
Being Good isn’t a matter of choosing once and then proceeding on autopilot.  It’s a lot of small, creative acts of resistance. It’s a lot of doing small, boring kindnesses that can secretly be a little thrilling because they don’t happen by default — they’re a matter of choosing or of building up habits of thought and action until caritas does actually wind up feeling natural.
Calculated acts of villainy do take planning and coordination and an aggressive will to dominate, which is why so many books and movies choose to focus on and glamorize that kind of evil. But everyday acts of malice and selfishness take no self-control or forethought. It's always easier to snark than to be charitable; to snarl in impatience rather than smile at someone inconvenient; to ignore the child making a frustrating demand rather than put aside the book or phone or even to turn aside from legitimate business and really listen and then act. Goodness is always an act of the will, and the biggest triumphs are often the least seen because they're played out in and against one's own heart. A novelist can take these everyday sacrifices and create a story of high drama about even the outwardly smallest stakes because the richest stories are about moral choice and change. Purely plot-driven stories about big events -- will the family escape the tidal wave in time? Will Apollo 13 make it back to earth safely? -- are exciting, but without an foundation of moral agency in the human characters, those stories will ultimately be shallow, entertainment with no substance.

Also, I've already written Alice Gregory's dream novel.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This morning Darwin is achieving one of his career objectives: to fly in the corporate jet. He's going to New York City. And that, of course, made me think of the section of Stillwater which involved traveling to NYC on a private jet, so I post it here, only very slightly edited, for your amusement. 

(Stillwater, for those of you who've heard me talk about something else for the past four years, is my modern resetting of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. You can read all of it here, although now that I'm cleaning it up I find myself reluctant to point anyone to the original. Still, what I have written, I have written.)


Once her formal duties were accomplished, the rest of the ball was one hazy sigh of relief for Melly. Even her waltz with Ian was unobjectionable — almost frustratingly so. Melly wanted him to be objectionable, to give incontrovertible proof of his bad intentions to everyone. Instead, he was scrupulously chivalrous, paying simple compliments and drawing her no closer than a chaste arm’s-length. He wanted to talk about her and she had no interest in talking to him; they found neutral ground in talking about her brother. There was always lots to say about René and Ian could say it well. He could already spin anecdotes out of a week’s acquaintance. Melly was relieved that he carried the burden of conversation and gratified to hear him sing René’s praises, but still she thought she could probably throw him farther than she could trust him.

Otherwise, there was nothing left but to enjoy herself, and to her surprise, she did. Popularity was a new and heady drug. To be the center of attention without being reproached or teased or questioned, indeed to be admired by everyone, was very pleasant, if overwhelming. When she felt like dancing, she found herself in high demand. When she needed to sit down (as she did frequently, to catch her breath), one of the good armchairs was instantly vacated. Plates of fruit and cheese and petit fours appeared at her elbow if she merely looked toward the dining room. She wondered if she ought to be ashamed of taking advantage of everyone’s generosity this way. Surely everyone would see right through her and know that she was only playing a part. 

She said as much to Malcolm.

“Everyone’s playing a part tonight, Melly,” he said with a smile, but his eyes followed Alys around the room.

Malcolm was not enjoying his evening as much as she was hers, and although Melly's heart ached for any unhappiness of his, a small hidden corner of it also rejoiced that Alys should be so obstinately animated tonight. Miss Winter was in rare form: teasing, laughing, elusive, unsatisfying and unsatisfied. Malcolm had not been able to pin her down to any serious topic; she had not been able to mock him out of his aspirations. There were plenty of gentlemen at the ball who were willing to play a bright game of words with Alys, though. Malcolm could only count on one female in the room to match his mood.

“Are you free, Melly?” he asked, with a smile that didn’t quite disguise his discouragement. “I think I’ll have that dance now. It will be a relief to spend three minutes with someone who doesn’t want to make stupid conversation. No one else in this room understands the value of a little peace and quiet.”

Peace and quiet she could give him, especially as the gentle lighting and the soft lullaby of the orchestra and the sedate step of the dance brought all of her bodily weariness to the fore. Nothing could be more natural than for her to lay her head on his shoulder as they traced stately figure-eights around the ball room, and of course he was so used to supporting her in moments of weakness that he thought nothing of holding her close. A blissful sense of solitude engulfed Melly. If she closed her eyes, the cacophony of the ball dimmed to a comforting hum as she concentrated on listening to Malcolm’s silence: the rustling of his coat against her ear, the reliable rhythm of his breathing, the deeper beating of his heart. She tried to match her breathing to his, but by the end of the dance, her fatigue coupled with the restraints of the uncomfortable corset made it hard for her to take more than shallow gasps. Even before the last measures of the waltz, Malcolm was leading her to her chair.

“I think your night of dancing might be over, Melly,” he said. “You seem like you’re barely able to stand up anymore.”

This was no hardship for Melly, especially as she’d seen Ian approaching in hopes of claiming the next dance. Somehow she hadn’t found the right words to turn him down earlier, and now she could hear, to her annoyance, that her relief at having an easy excuse coupled with her natural diffidence made her refusal sound more regretful than she’d intended. Why couldn’t she just tell him no and go away? It wasn’t as if she wanted him to ask her again later, but somehow, she couldn’t seem to find strong decisive words. Why was it so hard to be forceful? For a moment she wished she could be endowed with a bit of Sophia’s easy confidence. Sophia had never had any trouble turning down invitations to dance at the balls; the floors had been strewn with her rejected suitors. But then of course, Melly had no idea how Sophia would have turned Ian down; that, apparently, was something she’d never done.

Melly wasn’t the only one sitting. Many dancers were now content to stay on the sidelines and watch the energetic few left on the floor. Richard and Cheryl had already made their farewells and gone upstairs. Now René materialized out of the crowd and drew up one of the little chairs next to Melly’s comfortable seat.

“Look at you, pauvre p'tite, all worn out already!” he said, seizing her hand and chafing it vigorously. “Come on, what you need is one more dance with me!”

She protested, laughing, and he turned to Malcolm and Ian, both standing idle near her chair.

“All right, it’s too soon to close up shop, y’all,” he said, fixing those gentlemen with a stern eye. “If you won’t dance, you better drink. Melusine, what’ll you have?”

“Just water, please.”

“Malcolm, you coming?”

“Only to get Melly her water,” Malcolm said. “I’ve already gone too many rounds with you tonight, René.”

René appealed to Ian. “You going to let me drink alone, bro? That’s harsh even for a Yankee bastard like Sherman.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Ian.

And drink they did. Over the decorous conversations and the music, snatches of banter and hoots of laughter could be heard from the bar as golden-haired Sherman and the wiry Zouave rebuilt the Union one shot at a time. Ian and René in full performance mode were a spectacle not to be missed, and few missed it — one gentleman, whose gray-swathed girth seemed to encompass the entire army of Northern Virginia, even tossed the pair a hefty tip and later congratulated Esther on the entertainment.

“Best floor show I ever saw, ma’am,” he proclaimed. “Whatever you’re paying these boys, they’re worth every penny.”

Esther smiled brilliantly and made vivacious conversation to keep from grinding her teeth.

As the evening wore on even the orchestra had a hard time competing with René’s increasingly expansive diatribes when the topic swung around to Carson Winter.

“And then there’s his damn trolleyology,” he said, pounding the bar and sending a few nice old dames fluttering out of the room clucking indignantly at Ian’s wink. “All right, he’s got Desmond Tutu and President Obama and Bono on his trolley, and it’s going to hit Julian Assange giving a talk to three hundred school children on the tracks. But if I flip the switch to re-rout the trolley, I destroy George Washington’s brain in a vat!”

“George Washington?” Ian was taken aback. “You found George Washington in one of Uncle Carson’s books? That’s kinda traditional for him.”

I put him in there,” said Rene. “Or maybe it’s Martin Luther King or Gandhi or the Surgeon General… Who cares? It don’t matter much since we’re just making shit up anyway.”

“Boys will be boys,” Alys said to Esther as they peered round the potted palms flanking the reception room entry to check up on the amiable pair holding court.

“Perhaps, but I wish they’d take it some place else,” Esther snapped. The ball, now winding down, had been a vast success (better than last year; everyone said so) but the bitterness of the lost queenship had given her evening’s triumph a sour edge. Now the unpredictability of Ian and René at the bar gave her the tight uneasy feeling of a situation about to slip out of her control — a figurative headache exacerbating a literal one.

“But the free alcohol is here,” Alys said, with a smile and a shrug of her pretty shoulders. She felt no need to be her brother’s keeper, particularly when he was keeping himself just fine. “Ian never gets drunk. I only hope René can keep up with him.”

Esther was about to issue a cutting retort, but prudence suggested that perhaps it was better to make a scapegoat of someone who wasn’t a paying guest. “I just don’t remember René being so boisterous in past years. Why can’t Melly keep him under control? She’s the Stillwater Queen, after all.”

“If only Sophia were here,” Alys said, with a gravely malicious courtesy. “How we all miss her!”

René was off to the races now and Ian was along for the ride, leaving in their wake a double line of shot glasses snaking across the glossy wood of the bar. 

“But here’s the catch — the guy in the wheelchair had a brain injury, so he can’t fear death! I can throw him at the switch, and even as he’s flying toward the ground he’s thinking about his crawfish boil next Friday, calm as can be!”

“Hey, a crawfish boil sounds relaxing to me,” Ian said.

“You think so, cap? You ever seen Cajuns at a crawfish boil? That’s how he got his brain injury.”

Melly, who had crept over to join Alys behind the palms as soon as Esther had departed, remembered a crawfish boil she’d been to when she was little. Mounds of vivid scarlet crawfish boiled up with Tony Chachere’s seasoning were piled high above her head on tables covered in newsprint. Nestled in among the hundreds of feelers and claws and thousand of legs and the bulging black eyes were cut ears of corn, new potatoes, onions, andouille sausages, halved lemons, and here and there a stiff little flag of a bay leaf rising defiantly from the steaming heaps. Melly had been jostled and hustled by cousins, aunts, uncles, and assorted good-timers to the edge of the table, where she stood, pressed by the laughing, shouting, drinking crowd, eye to eye with a big horrible crawfish. Shifting as best she could, she bumped up against her uncle Earl as she reached for a potato.

“You know the etiquette at a crawfish boil, yeah, pichouette?” he asked her, his eyes twinkling.


With a swift elbow, Uncle Earl shoved her aside and grabbed her potato first. 

Now Melly wanted to laugh at the memory, but her fatigue and her corset didn’t seem to want her to do much more than snort gently. Alys turned to look at her.

“I thought you were supposed to be sitting down, milady,” she said. Melly flushed guiltily and felt the familiar unreasonable compulsion to offer an earnest explanation where none was expected.

“I wanted to see what René was doing. He sounds like he’s having such a good time.” She wasn’t worried about René at the bar; he was never drunk.

“And here I thought you might possibly have wondered where Ian had gotten to.” 

A fear, until now only a nagging and murky apprehension, suddenly crystallized in Melly’s mind. Although Alys had frustrated Malcolm with her constant teasing, she had generally been kindly, almost familial, to Melly. She wasn’t teasing now with these constant references to Ian; it seemed that she honestly intended to pay a compliment by insinuating that Melly had attracted his attention. The alarming implications of this needed to be worked out more fully when Melly had a quiet moment to think, but as mendacity was not among Alys’s character quirks, it was unlikely that she would try to ingratiate herself by lying about her brother’s affections. Alys thought that Ian liked Melly, and Alys knew her brother about as well as anyone did. 

The boys, the only occupants left at the bar, had grown more boisterous with time and fine liquor, and Melly realized that she’d missed some key development. Ian was chortling and slapping a gleeful René on the back. The two were in that happy stage of inebriation in which genius and fellowship were magnified.

“I’d love to see you say that to his face!” Ian howled. “No one says that sort of thing to his face. It’d be good for him. It’d be good for me.”

“I’d say it to his face right now!” René said, his lacquered curls now crackling with belligerent energy . “You get me to New York, and I will smite Carson Winter a philosophical blow with my jawbone of righteousness.”

Several waves of speculation washed across Ian’s expression.

“So if I get you to NY, you’d say it to his face?”

“I’d say it to his face with bows on it!”

“But if I got you to New York, would you say it?” Ian insisted. “Just like you’re saying it now?”

“I speak now with drunken eloquence, cap, but yeah, the phrasing would be similar. I will buy you a case of the best damn bourbon you can name if I don’t say it.”

Ian was triumphant.

“All right. Let’s go. Tonight. Right now.”

There was a pause. René passed his hand over his mustache.

“You want to drive to New York tonight?”

“Driving is for suckers, pal. Sports like you and me fly the friendly skies.”

“Okay.” René was willing to play along. “You got tickets?”

“Tickets, nothing.” Ian sat with professorial dignity on a stool and ticked off his points on his fingers. “One, I got a buddy Jim. Two, Jim’s got a private jet. Three, he flew it down to New Orleans this week and hopped a boat out to his oil platform. Four, he said to me, he said, ‘Hey, you wanna fly home sometime this week? The jet’s just parked here and I gotta pay the pilot regardless.’ Five, I’m gonna call up his assistant right now, and we’re Going to New York Tonight.” He prodded René in the chest for emphasis.

René was almost taken aback.

“Damn, bro, you don’t kid around.”

“Sure.” With a wave, Ian dismissed all kidders . “I just gotta give the pilot a few hours’ notice, roust him out of whatever low rent strip club he’s hanging out at, and we’re good.”

“All right, pull out your phone. I want to see you call this guy.”

“All right, I’m gonna do it.”

“I won’t believe it ’til I see it, bro.”

“I’m calling Jim’s assistant now.”

Melly had been so absorbed in these unexpected developments that a touch on her shoulder made her jump. Malcolm, finally relieved of some of his social duties as son of the house, was right behind her, observing the scene with a weary gravity.

“I get this sinking feeling that I’m two seconds too late to stop something ill-advised,” he said, sighing.

‘On the contrary,” said Alys. “You’re just in time for the grand finale.”

The three of them still hovered conspiratorially behind the palms as Ian took a couple of swipes and jabs at his phone and managed to speak in a remarkably clear and not-exactly-seductive voice.

“Hey Maggie, this is Ian Winter. How are you? Well, I’m all right, too, now that I’m talking to you. Listen, is Jim’s plane still parked down in New Orleans? I’m taking him up on his offer to borrow it for a run up to New York. Yeah, I’m thinking tonight. What time is it? All right, how about 2:30? That gives us a couple hours to sober up, get down there. What for? I got a Cajun philosopher here I’m gonna turn loose on my uncle. I shit you not. Carson won’t know what hurricane hit him. Thanks, babe, you’re the best. What kinda flowers you like? Anything you want — I’ll buy ‘em in New York, after all.”

He hung up and shook his phone at René’s mustache.

“We’re flying on a private jet, man. Bring the pocket knife and the booze!”

René punched his arm and hurled delighted imprecations at his head. The musicians, packing up their instruments, burst into applause.

“You’re leaving us so soon, gentlemen?” Malcolm asked, stepping from behind the palm. Now seemed like a good time to get involved. “I hope you’re not planning to drive to the airport.”

“We’ll be stone cold sober by the time we need to leave,” said Ian.

“You’ll be stone cold sober in a taxi,” Malcolm said.

“All the way to New Orleans?” Finally, René was scandalized. “What are we, made of moolah?”

“One of you is.”

“If you drove us, you could come along,” Ian said. “The city that never sleeps! You know you wanna go.”

“I want to go to bed,” said Malcolm. “But I won’t have you two getting killed on my watch. Your sisters would hate me for life, and I can’t have that. You’re flying free; take the expense out of your airfare budget, boys.”

And then the ball was over, and the gentlemen were gone, and the house was quiet. Melly remembered staying up to see René off, despite everyone’s insistence that she get to bed right away. She remembered Malcolm and Alys’s strained parting. She remembered the familiar blast of moist air from her open bedroom windows after the cool of the ball. She could not remember how she got her dress off, exactly, but it involved a great deal of exhausting contortions and possibly a ripped seam. But at last the dress was draped over her chair and the corset neatly folded, and now that she was free from the constraints of the ball and could pore over her memories in the comfort and privacy of her own bed, Melly thought that she’d never spent a more wonderful evening.