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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Catholic Literature and the "Trying To Say God" Conference

It's been several weeks and one baby since we sent the kids off to stay with Grandma, piled into the car with my real-novelist sister, and drove out to Notre Dame to attend the Trying to Say God conference on Catholic literature. MrsDarwin and I have each already written posts inspired by one particular panel (on Jane Austen's heroines and on Women's writing), but there was a lot more to the conference than just that one panel. It was a full schedule and MrsD and I made it to 13 talks and panels as well as an amazing concert of sacred music by the Notre Dame Vocale.

We also had a chance to catch up with people we hadn't seen in some time (including Elizabeth Duffy, Eve Tushnet, and several members of the Korrectiv) and to meet people we'd known online but never met in person before, such as John Farrell and Leticia Adams. I was also excited to meet and get a chance to talk several times with novelist Tim Powers, whose books I've long enjoyed. Eating and drinking and talking with a wide variety of other people interested in both writing and Catholicism was a really enjoyable experience. Writing is a very solitary process, and even at a conference you're still only talking about writing and about reading which is not at all the same thing as actually writing, but it is still a wonderful experience to spend some time with at least some overlapping interests and experiences.

It's hard to cover such a wide ranging three days, so I'm going to give it my best shot by writing a post in several sections, which I hope will capture something of the nature of the conference.

Books

If I can get you to read one book based on my experiences at the conference, it's Suzanne Wolfe's novel Confessions of X. It's a novel about St. Augustine's concubine, the woman he lived with for seventeen years, had a son with, and was heartbroken to leave (initially to seek a marriage to a woman of high social standing) not long before his conversion to Christianity. Augustine does not give her name in Confessions, and Ms. Wolfe maintains that anonymity in this lushly stylistic first-person novel. We attended a session in which she read two excerpts from the book and talked about her process of writing it. I proceeded to buy a copy and MrsDarwin and I both read it with great enjoyment. I plan to write a full post with a review and excerpt later, but really, it's good. Tolle lege.

Frustratingly, another book which I heard a reading of, Randy Boyagoda's forthcoming novel Original Prin, is not yet out. The selection he read was clever and well-written. I'll be keeping an eye out for it when it does release, but in the meantime I ordered a copy of his debut novel Governor of the Northern Province, in which an African warlord retires to small town Canada. (I haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, so I can't tell you more than that I bought it and enjoyed the selections of his next novel.

Mary Karr gave a very good long distance keynote, which made me curious to read her memoirs Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit.

Heather King also gave an outstanding keynote address about writing as a vocation. I read her first two memoirs Parched and Redeemed. They're both outstanding, honestly written books.

Finally, one of the big draws for me was getting to meet Tim Powers. He writes fantasy novels in which the supernatural bubbles below our world's surface and breaks through in surprising ways. To my mind, his best two (the ones which I brought my copies of to have signed) are Last Call, which mingles the Fisher King and archetypes summoned up by tarot cards with Bugsy Siegel and Las Vegas, and Declare which deals with Djinn, cold war espionage, the Middle East, and the murky history of Cold War turncoat Kim Philby. Tim Powers' style is best summed up by something he said in his talk about Catholicism and the Rules of Fantasy: [roughly paraphrasing from memory and notes] Sometimes people ask him why he doesn't write a realistic novel, but if he wrote an ordinary novel about, say, a kid growing up in Brooklyn, by the third chapter the kid would be getting telephone calls from his dead grandfather. It just comes up.

Why Are We Here?

One of the things that struck me over the course of the conference is the variety of reasons that people found the question of Catholic literature interesting:

Will a Catholic magazine or publisher want to print what I write or will they think it's too edgy?
Will a mainstream press want to publish my work, or will they think it's too religious?
Who are the good Catholic writers out there today?
What does it even mean to be a Catholic writer?
How should I, as a Catholic, write?

Some of these various strands came together in an interesting way in the Future of Catholic Publishing, where a couple of professionals who'd spend many years in Catholic publishing had to tell a room full of would be fiction and memoir writers: You need to understand that where we make money by selling hundreds of thousands of copies every years is putting out catechesis texts used by parishes all over the country. The next highest selling type of book is popular apologetics/theology books by writers like Matthew Kelly.

This latter name lead to some groans. I haven't read any Matthew Kelly and can't speak to whether he is groan-inducing. But I think what was pretty clear was that a lot of those present would have preferred Catholic publishers to be more committed to putting out fiction and soul-baring memoir. The latter does sell to some extent, apparently, but when it comes to sales volume, the more pat conversion stories often sell better than the grittier ones. It would have been interesting to hear from someone at Ignatius Press who deals with their fiction, since to my knowledge they're one of the few Catholic publishers who are actually publishing fiction (even some new fiction) at this time. Maybe at some future conference. However, it's also important to realize that a lot what what we now talk about as Catholic Literature in fact came out from mainstream presses. Which leads to the question...

What is Catholic Literature Anyway?

You would think that as someone who's just attended a Catholic Literature conference, I should be pretty clear on what Catholic Literature is, but I think in many ways that was the underlying (and at times explicit) question throughout the conference, and it's a surprisingly difficult one. Is Catholic literature:

- Literature written by Catholics
- Literature about Catholics (but perhaps not by Catholics -- for instance, Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man For All Seasons, is an atheist)
- Literature which evokes Catholic themes

For those of us who are Catholic, who think about choices in terms of Catholic morality, who share basic common experiences of lived Catholicism such as trying to operate cheerfully and energetically with others while fasting on Good Friday, it's natural to sometimes want to write about characters who share some of our experiences. And why not? Characters have to be from somewhere and they have to believe something. And yet at the most basic level, some mainstream publishers don't want to see that set of experiences or that vocabulary in books they publish. Perhaps they think it's boring, perhaps it has associations in there minds with painful or oppressive experiences. But Catholic writers do at times get told to that there's too much Catholic content in their books. Randy Boyagoda talked about this in relation to his upcoming novel. After two moderately successful mainstream novels, his latest involves a character who is much like him in some ways: A Canadian college professor who is Catholic, though in this case one who recommits himself to his faith after a bout with cancer. Boyagoda talked about how his editor told him that this book "wasn't commercial" like his other two. This didn't mean going with a Catholic publisher. (Again, most of those don't do fiction.) Instead he ended up with a small, independent press where an atheist editor nonetheless saw what was interesting in the character story that Boyagoda was telling.

Perhaps similarly, I was a bit surprised that Confessions of X was published under Harper Collins' Christian imprint, Thomas Nelson. Yes, the novel tells the story of a woman we know of 1600 years later because she lived with a revered Christian saint. To the extent that Augustine, his Christian mother St. Monica, and Augustine's struggles with religious ideas drive some of the plot events, it's a story that involves Christian characters and events. But the main character herself is pagan, and her relationship with Christianity and its God is somewhat ambivalent -- perhaps unsurprisingly given the way in which her life suffers collateral damage from Augustine's. Why isn't this just a mainstream historical fiction novel? The Rome of Late Antiquity is a historical place and time. Augustine is a real historical character. It's not as if this were some kind of "I became Christian and then everything became easy and good" narrative with a heavy handed lesson. But apparently, while Harper Collins though the book would sell (and thus put it out) they thought it would primarily make it with a niche Christian audience and so published it under their Christian imprint.

So from some sort of externally imposed perspective, there's a "Catholic literature" which consists of novels which have too much Catholic content. But is that all Catholic literature is?

I think clearly not, and people had various ideas of what beyond that Catholic literature might be. And yet, these ideas were often more implicit than openly discussed. In the talk “Trying to Say ‘God’ without Sounding like Marilynne Robinson”, Randy Boyagoda talked about how religion is sometimes rendered "safe" for the mainstream by putting it in a sufficiently 'other' time and place. Thus, Robinson's reader can to some degree think of the religion portrayed in her 1950s Iowa is a product of its place and time and need not seem threatening to the reader.

In the "cupcake" panel, the panelists talked about ways they would like to see the experience of women in the Church discussed other than what they perceived as the predominant style of narrative.

Other panels talked more straightforwardly about specific Catholic books, or the experiences of certain kinds of Catholic writers and artists.

I think at some level, a key point people would have to figure out is whether Catholic Literature consists of:

- Books which attempt to actively convey the the truths of Catholicism
- Books which are written with the underlying low key assumption that Catholicism is true
- Books which accurately observe the struggles of Catholics (and others) without

My first instinct is to recoil against the first of these, but I had an interesting conversation with a good friend who writes mainstream YA for a secular publisher, in which she mentioned that one of the interesting things about being "under cover" as it were in circles populated by progressive, secular YA authors is that they actually spend a fair among of time quite openly talking amongst themselves about how best to convey the lessons which they think young readers need to learn. She said that while some of the results are preachy, others are quite well written and effective.

Should Catholic writers, at times, be thinking on similar lines?

I don't think there needs to be a single answer to these questions. One of the things which struck me reading Anne Applebaum's history of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain over the last few weeks is that quite literally totalitarian insistence of 1940s and 1950s communist governments (radiating out from Stalin's own beliefs) that there was a single acceptable style of socialist painting, a single acceptable style of socialist novel, etc. The Soviets most definitely believed that culture was political, and so they believed that as there was only one party which supported the workers, there was also only one form of art and culture which did likewise.

Catholicism, however, is not totalitarian. There is not only one way to produce art as a Catholic any more than there is only one way to be political as a Catholic.

Nonetheless, even as there are many ways to create Catholic literature, I think it's probably valuable to try to be more explicit in what we individually mean by Catholic literature when we talk about how and where and why to create it.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference. There were a wide range of voices there. I have no idea if I'll be able to attend when they next hold one (in 2019 in Toronto, CA) but it was an interesting experience and if it works out I'd be happy to be able to go to another. Hopefully, by 2019, I too can be talking about my "forthcoming novel" rather than just tapping away at my drafts.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Women Writing Right

Back when I was 18 and first brought Darwin home to visit my family, my younger sister asked me, "Does he like you because you're pretty or because you're smart?"

"Because I'm smart," I said.

She thought about it for a minute and said, "No, that's not it."

Aside from being a cute anecdote, this story points to... well, nothing, actually. Perhaps I'm particularly insensitive, or particularly privileged, or particularly well-adjusted, or (probably) a combo of the three, but it strikes me that there has to be at least one woman, somewhere, who doesn't feel perpetual angst about her body and her place in the world, and I'm content to be that dull person.

Doubtless a good portion of this is due to the crucial lifetime influence of my excellent, excellent father, which is where the privilege comes in. But really, all the men in my life, from father to brothers to husband to father-in-law to friends have been models of civility and respect. Any flak, or prescriptivism, or pressure I've ever had about The One Right Way to Woman has come from other women.

(Nota bene: I realize that this is not everyone's experience, and that many women have had atrocious experiences with men. But if everyone's story ought to be heard, I don't think that mine is of less value than anyone else's.)

***



One of the talks at the Trying to Say God Conference was called "Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women's Writing".  Now, perhaps I came in on the defensive because a homeschooling mother of seven sounds like precisely the kind of woman targeted by a provocative title such as "Liturgical Cupcake" (even though I don't craft a custom image to go at the top of each blog post). And indeed, the term "conventional fertility" was used rather disparagingly, sigh, as if we have these children merely to show up everybody else. If so, it's a damned inconvenient way to make a point -- but more on that later.

Darwin has already written up the Jane Austen exchange, a small but revealing moment that encapsulated a lot of the talk for me. (For a less dismissive assessment of Austen, try The Paris Review.) There were many honest and moving moments, with some women struggling with aspects of the Church, such as patriarchy, that other women found comforting and revelatory. Everyone's story was unique. And yet I felt that there was an essential sameness to most (not all) of the panelists. There are a lot of interesting Catholic women out there, who could not be described as liturgical cupcakes, who don't need to take antagonism with the Church as an essential starting place. Names that come immediately to mind are Leah Libresco Sargeant, Elizabeth Duffy, Susan Windley-Daoust, Amy Welborn, Jennifer Fitz, Erin Arlinghaus... Or, to pull from the ranks of the almost canonized, Bl. Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who died just before the outbreak of WWI, writes eloquently of the spiritual life in the midst of physical and social suffering.

I've chosen women whose writing I enjoy in part because their minds work much like mine -- and because they (and I) seem to fall in space in between aggressive feminism and more traditional feminine devotional writing. Women who can be interesting without being angry do exist. Women who can write as individuals, not as models. Women whose bodies are neither baggage nor occasions of sin nor wonderlands. Women who can hold to the Golden Mean even while writing about modesty. Women who can be intellectual without being reactionary.

***

I took notes, though as I tend to write notes as a response and reflection to content rather than a straight transcription, they might be incomprehensible.





*Why Ann Voskamp? Because her gooey scribings have a very large following, which means that the "liturgical cupcake" approach has a great deal of appeal to a great deal of women. Voskamp is a New York Times bestseller, with her devotionals and her journals and her "no cheap cynicism" and graced moments of wonder (TM). People crave what she's selling -- a kind of beauty and order and loveliness. It's not men sneaking out and buying this stuff by the cartful, and following her Instagram account, and liking her Facebook page. She's offering something women (or most women, anyway) want. And so are many others writing in the same vein.

How, then, do we bridge the gap between the aesthetic packaging of this saccharine style of devotional writing and the more edgy, earthy approach of the unsweetened non-cupcakes? If all women have a secret woundedness that this more toothy style of women's writing is addressing, how do these authors reach out to and draw in the women drawn to this more saccharine approach? It's a big audience out there.

I asked the question (you can hear me at 51:27), and received the answer: we don't. We don't appeal to these women, because they have their own stuff, and they can come to us when they want something more authentic. This blunt answer was eerily similar to a recent First Things post about a conference on intersectionality (also lauded in the panel):
At the end there was a question and answer period. I asked whether and how Collins would suggest that intersectionality engage with its adversaries, the ­hated conservatives. Given the polarization of ­America right now, did she see some way for the two camps to communicate or find common ground? The vehemence of her answer was startling. “No,” she said. “You cannot bring these two worlds together. You must be oppositional. You must fight. For me, it’s a line in the sand.” This was at once jarring and clarifying.
I don't feel this is an adequate answer. Jesus loves these women too. Their souls matter as much as the souls of the enlightened, progressive, openly wounded women. If liturgical cupcakery is deficient as a way of writing about the spiritual life, then does the new standard of writing for Catholic women need to be more evangelistic in approach, and perhaps a nip less self-congratulatory?

(Leticia Adams's response about why Voskamp's style of prettiness and order may appeal to people was quite good, though -- because many people feel that if they do things just right, if everything looks good, then maybe they can keep bad things from happening to them.)

*Gina Dalfonzo recently wrote a book called One by One, about how churches can reach out to single people who want to live faithful lives. Although her book isn't about Catholic churches, I felt that the viewpoint it represents wasn't particularly well-represented in the panel. I turned to Eve Tushnet, sitting next to me, and said that I'd have loved to have heard her on the panel. What were her thoughts as a celibate Catholic woman? "Nuns," she said -- a viewpoint that was not represented as a model of how Catholic womanhood and writing can transcend cherchez les hommes.

***

Throughout the talk, I wondered if the new standard to which Catholic Women's Writing was being held was any less restrictive than the old one, whatever that is. Edginess and Pain has replaced Mommy Blogging, but if you don't prefer to be either edgy and painful or to write about the The Three Graces I Obtained In The Grocery Aisle, what is there? Can women, even boring women who have a lot of kids, write about ideas, or just life? Is it necessary to prove our woman bona fides by talking about our clitoris and our orgasms and our vaginas, as some panelists seemed to think was a biological imperative?

Oddly enough, the combination of these very things, and my conventional fertility (and also a man, but no one seemed to think there needed to be more Catholic men talking about penises) meant that I was 38 weeks pregnant during the conference, hobbling around with my grossly swollen stomach and grossly swollen ankles.

...And I thought, when I first started writing this post, that I would go on to write up Paul's birth here, but actually, he deserves his own post, separate from liturgical cupcakes and Ann Voskamp and female sexuality. But I will tell one story here. As I was pushing the baby out (of my frickin' vagina, natch), I was meditating on what this panel had taught me about Catholic womanhood and the way our bodies shape our spirituality and.... Bull. What I actually did during the (mercifully brief) time I spent pushing was to wail repeatedly, "I don't want to have a baby!"

And I meant it. And then a moment later I held a squirming, bawling baby, and I didn't mean it. Because pain makes us say odd things, things we kinda but don't really mean. Or things we really mean in the moment, but would repent later. (For the record, I love babies. I just hate the having of them.) It causes us to do weird things in an attempt to find a moment of relief. We do things we don't even remember. (Darwin tells me I threw up on him while I was pushing, of which I have absolutely no recollection.)

Writing the truth about pain, or fear, or brokenness is valid because the human experience encompasses these states. Writing about our bodies is valid because every human life is shaped by the body and its glories and its limitations. But these aren't the only ways to write, even for Catholic women, and they're not even always the most interesting ways to write. It's okay to just write about a topic unrelated to sex (or not-sex) or relationship (or not-relationship). It's okay to be a woman and write without referencing being a woman. The category of womanhood is bigger than any one box, even once all the liturgical cupcakes have been consumed.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The William Report

(or, Why No Posts, Darwins?)

Especially now that the Novena of Paul has been completed, I have wanted to sit down and write up how everything went down (spoiler alert: everything went well, we made it to the hospital, baby is great). I forgot, however, to factor in the amount of time that one needs to spend just looking at a newborn. And what did not enter my calculations was the level of policing we'd need to do with a 3.5yo fellow who is suddenly not the baby anymore.

3.5 is a hard age. You now have the ability to get into all the mischief that you'd just dreamed of earlier, and people keep stopping you. And this makes you angry, especially when no one will let you pet the soft new baby, or hug him, or hit him over the head with a throw pillow, or grab him by the neck. So you move to the next thing, which is the fridge. And when you're pulled out of the fridge, you find the jar of peanut butter. When you're wiped off, you get into the origami paper...

Today I have:

-- scolded William for turning the kitchen faucet on and off and on and off.

-- chased him away from the sprayer.

-- physically guided him in picking up the shorts he threw out of the drawer and refused to replace.

-- removed him from the freezer.

-- tried to persuade him to pee in the potty.

-- pulled his hand out of the toilet.

-- pulled his hand out of his pants.

-- pulled a melted popsicle from its hiding place in the basket in the corner of the laundry room.

-- comforted older siblings after the destruction of a three-quarters-completed 1000-piece puzzle.

-- taken the stabby pencil from William.

-- picked up all the diapers pulled out of the diaper bag.

-- wiped melted popsicle off the dining room floor.

-- wiped grubby feet.

(I pass over what happened yesterday when William broke the Harry Potter wand his sister had so meticulously crafted.)


While nursing, I:

-- fended off William as he tried to head-butt the baby.

-- fended off William as he tried to spit on the baby.

-- cuddled a sobbing William after he'd received a smart tap on the cheek for the above.

-- pulled William's hand out of my shirt, because big boys don't need to nurse like babies.


I've also spent about half my day feeding the ravening maw of the newborn (when he finally realizes that I can't nurse him through his hand).

However, it's not all sibling frustration! Behold, the Four Younger Skeletons of Hodge:



Doesn't that 3.5yo look cherubic?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Lydia Wickham, Feminist Icon?

One of the more incongruous moments of my attendance at the Trying To Say God conference on Catholic Literature was sitting in on a panel entitled “Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women’s Writing”. I didn't necessarily expect to like the panel, but MrsDarwin was going to support a friend who was among the panelists, and I had nowhere else to be.

It was a wide ranging discussion, some parts of which were quite interesting, but one exchange that particularly struck me (in part because I was nervously looking to see if the nine-months-pregnant MrsDarwin would swarm over the desks with a cry of "Fight Me!") went as follows:
"We're talking about a woman's story. And if you a look at the tradition of women writing for women, there's a very narrow space in which you're allowed to tell stories. And, you all know what the basic story is: She needs a man. Is she going to find one? Oh, he's so mean! Oh, but he's nice! We live happily ever after. That's her story."

"I love Jane Austen!"

[laughter]

"Yeah, I teach Jane Austen every year, and I see what she's doing and I appreciate it, but there are so many more stories out there. Think about all the women in Austen novels whose stories don't get told because they're not pretty, because they're not sweet, because they haven't inspire men of greatness, because they made bad decisions. I want to hear Lydia's story."

[cheering]
It's not the first time that I'd heard Lydia highlighted as the true interesting woman in Pride & Prejudice. There was, after all, the Lydia Bennett as sex-positive heroine take that was going around a few years ago.

This one, however, seems particularly odd. If the problem with novels written by women for women is that they focus too much on the search for a man, one would think that Lydia, who is the devoted man-chaser among the Bennett sisters, would be worse as a main character than Elizabeth, who turns down several proposals during the course of the story and is an altogether more self-sufficient person.

Lydia is a problem for her family not because she rejects a worldview in which marriage is a woman's key personal and economic goal, but because she goes about pursing this goal in a manner which is simultaneously impetuous and incompetent and thus calculated to cause the maximum suffering to those who love her and herself. It's often pointed out that for a woman in regency society, making a good marriage provided the same kind of purpose and security as entering into a solid career in the modern world. If we were to take the analogy literally and imagine modern Bennett girls being confronted with the idolization of making it in business, Lydia is not the unworldly one who refuses to climb the corporate ladder, she's the dumb one who runs off to unknowingly get mixed up in pushing a pyramid scheme that's likely to both ruin her finances and land her in jail.

Austen wrote in a different cultural context than ours. While some of her modern fans may like her because they think of her stories as romances about a simpler time when women focused on home and family, Austen was in no sense writing about the conflict between that sort of view of women and a more independent one. Marriages are key in Austen's novels, but that's in great part because marriage was very key to stability and happiness in the time, place, and social class about which she wrote. Austen's one main character who declares herself uninterested in marriage is Emma Woodhouse, and the reason she gives is that her situation as the mistress of her father's house is such that she has no social or economic reason to do so.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Young Master Darwin Arrives


Seven is a pretty good number. Seven beatitudes. Seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Seven sacraments. The seventh Darwin child is also pretty great, bearing the name Paul Timothy. He was born on Saturday at 4:47 PM and just came home about this time yesterday.

MrsDarwin is doing well, and so is baby, though we hope that his insistence on keeping his eyes closed only indicates tiredness after the hard work of being born and is not an indication that disillusion with the world has set in at such a tender age.

Dueling and the Church


Today marks the 213th anniversary of the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, made additionally famous by the hit musical Hamilton. Neither participant was Catholic, and the Catholic Church had little voice in the United States of 1804, but seeing mentions of it reminded me of a quirky area of research which I'd been meaning to write about for some time: the Church's long and often futile efforts to stamp out the practice of dueling.

Dueling, formalized private combat between two people to settle some dispute of law or honor, had deep roots in the Germanic and then Medieval culture in Europe, and the Church spoke out against it early and often. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists the Church's opposition as follows:

St. Avitus (d. 518) made an earnest protest against the law of the above-mentioned Gundobald, as is related by Agobard (d. 840), who in a special work on the subject points out the opposition between the law of Gundobald and the clemency of the Gospel; God might very easily permit the defeat of the innocent. The popes also at an early date took a stand against duelling. In a letter to Charles the Bald, Nicolas I (858-67) condemned the duel (monomachia) as a tempting of God. In the same century his example was followed by Stephen VI, later by Alexander II and Alexander III, Celestine III, Innocent III and Innocent IV, Julius II, and many others. In addition to the judicial, non-judicial combats also occurred, in which men arbitrarily settled private grudges or sought to revenge themselves. The tournaments, especially, were often used to satisfy revenge; on account of this misuse the Church early issued ordinances against the excesses committed at tournaments, although these were not always obeyed. The more the judicial combat fell into disuse, the more the old instinct of the Germanic and Gallic peoples, by which each man sought to gain his rights with weapon in hand, showed itself in personal contests and at tournaments. From the middle of the fifteenth century duelling over questions of honour increased so greatly, especially in the Romanic countries, that the Council of Trent was obliged to enact the severest penalties against it. It decreed that "the detestable custom of duelling which the Devil had originated, in order to bring about at the same time the ruin of the soul and the violent death of the body, shall be entirely uprooted from Christian soil" (Sess XXIV, De reform, c. xix).

Nonetheless, the practice of dueling remained common in areas such as Germany, Poland, Austria, and Hungary into the early modern era. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII considered the practice still prevalent enough that he wrote Pastoralis Officii, an encyclical to the bishops of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires reiterating the Church's opposition to dueling, which he stated as follows:
Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or accept one when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a life or at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident danger when not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be, therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone's mind that those who engage in battle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that of another's destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. Finally, there is hardly any pestilence more deadly to the discipline of civil society and perversive to the just order of the state than that license be given to citizens to defend their own rights privately and singly and avenge their honor which they believe has been violated.
In this encyclical he specifically mention that being a member of the military did not exempt one from the ban on dueling, and also cited dueling fraternities at universities for condemnation. Both of these were particular problems in the German speaking world at the time.

In Austria-Hungary, dueling was technically a capital crime, however there was a gaping loophole in the law in that the emperor and the army expected any officer to defend his honor if challenged. This meant that in practice if an officer was challenged to a duel and declined to fight, he could be expelled from the army for failing to protect his honor.

Even theoretical opposition to dueling was punishable in the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1900 Polish Count Ledochowski, a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, spoke and wrote about his moral opposition to dueling and as a result was expelled from the army as someone unwilling to defend his honor. Ledochowski, whose uncle was a prominent cardinal, defended his statements on the basis of Catholic teaching and appealed to the emperor, but Franz-Joseph refused to overturn the verdict. (see Istvan Deak: A Social and Political History of the Hapsburg Officer Corps)

While in modern times, people often complain that the Church metes out its heaviest punishments against sins of the bedroom, the starkness of the penalties for dueling is worth noting. Subsequent popes kept upping the penalties in an effort to get their message through to a honor-based aristocratic culture that was unwilling to listen to moral guidance. Excommunication and denial of Christian burial for those killed in duels had long been a penalty for dueling. In 1752, Pope Benedict XIV declared that duelists should be denied Christian burial even if they survived long enough to request and receive absolution.

After World War One the dueling culture gradually faded away, and although these penalties have never officially been rescinded dueling is no longer a hot button issue in Catholic moral teaching.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 3-2

It's been a long, long time. Some of that is because life intervened in various ways. Baby is due any day now. We finished the school year and the kids began their summer activities. We went to a writing conference at Notre Dame. But also, this section came out far longer than usual. It weighs in at 16,296 words, which is about four times the usual length of a section. There's a lot that happens, though, and I hope you'll find it interesting. I'll only add: all the worst things that happen in these novels are based on real events I found in letters, newspapers, or diaries. My imagination can't rival the darkness of the war itself for sheer invention.


Near Tarnow, Galicia. May 1st, 1915. The sound of artillery began on Saturday, as Natalie was changing Lieutenant Bogdanov’s bandages. It rumbled intermittently like a fitful thunderstorm some miles distant.

“Heavy artillery,” said the young officer, offering a tight smile to disguise teeth clenched as she sluiced antiseptic solution over the entry and exit wounds in his upper arm.

It was not a bad wound, the sort of neat example which would be drawn on a diagram for lady medical volunteers. The bone had not been touched. No arteries had been severed. The officer had ridden to the field hospital on horseback looking so pleased with himself that Doctor Sergeyev had greeted him with, “This is no time for social calls, young man. You’ll have to visit our angels of the sick wards later.”

“No, no, doctor, I have a proper calling card,” Bodganov had replied, holding up his right arm with a white linen undershirt tied around it as a bandage.

Four days later and the wound was healing nicely. There were some shreds of tissue that had the grey color of death around the edges of the wound, but this was a normal effect of the harsh antiseptics necessary to prevent infection. There was neither sign nor smell of infection or decay.

“Are we attacking the Austrians?” asked Natalie. The well born officers in particular all considered themselves amateur strategists, and talking would distract him from the wound cleaning process. It was a given that pain killers not be wasted on something as minor as a bandage change, especially for an officer. Soldiers might succumb to mere emotion, but an officer was expected to be in good control of his reactions.

Bogdanov laughed. “Not with heavy artillery, Sestritsa. We have perhaps two heavy guns for the whole division. No, what you’re hearing are the patriotic contributions of the firms of Skoda and Krupp.”

“Are they attacking us then?”

“Not by the sound of it. That’s just their gunners getting a little bit of exercise. If it were an actual attack, we’d know it.”

The lieutenant was right. The evening bombardment was only harassing fire as the artillery zeroed in its guns. At six o’clock the next morning, the guns opened up the real barrage, and they did indeed know it.

[continue reading]

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Pricing for the Last Mile


We have frequent conversations at work about to what extent Amazon and eCommerce in general will take over our segment of the retail world. Such conversations have been had even more widely over the last few weeks, with the announcement that Amazon is seeking to acquire grocery specialty retailer Whole Foods, so I thought it might be of some general interest for me to lay out some of the pricing considerations which define which product categories are ripe for online conversion and which aren't. Or, to be more precise, which products can be sold online and delivered for a price which is similar to or cheaper than in-store pricing that people are used to.

It helps to think back to how Amazon got its start. Fifteen years ago, Amazon as primarily a place for buying books, CDs, and DVDs. It was very successful at this, and it offered prices significantly below the prices that people normally payed for these products in traditional bookstores. Why?

Selling books is an inventory game. Sure, it's easy for a store to stock the latest mass market best seller. These are the books you'll see in your supermarket or a general merchandise store like Target, often marked down to 20-25% off cover price. Retailers can sell best sellers at low prices because they know that lots of people walking through the store that week will want to buy that specific book. The problem for booksellers is dealing with the economics of all the other titles that aren't best sellers. Go into a bookstore and you see shelves holding tens of thousands of books, in a big one, hundreds of thousands. You go to the Mystery section and pick up the particular Sayers novel you wanted to read. They have three paperback copies. Think about the inventory investment that makes that possible. Your bookstore stocked thousands of Mystery novels, including three copies of the particular novel you turned out to want. When was the last time someone wanted to buy Gaudy Night at that one location? When is the next time someone will? That book may have been sitting on the shelf, waiting for you, for six months or a year. Bookstores have to make these inventory investments in books that will sit on the shelf a long time, because nothing turns a dedicated bookworm off like going into a bookstore and not finding the book he wants. What's he going to do? Go find another store which does stock it. And these days, that store is probably Amazon. Let the book buyer become loyal to Amazon, and you've just shrunk your business.

So investing in inventory is important for sellers of books and media, but it's also very expensive to buy a bunch of inventory which will sit around for months before being sold. In order to allow bookselling to be economically viable, publishers have been required to price fairly healthy margins into the cover price of a book. In order for your bookstore to have that book sitting around waiting for you to want it (something which in retail terms is called 'slow turning inventory') they have to make a pretty healthy cut of the cover price when it sells.

This is why current best sellers have traditionally been discounted. If you know that you can sell a lot of copies of a book very quickly after bringing it in to the store, it's okay to sell it for a lower price. If, on the other hand, it might be months before you sell a book, you need to make more profit on each copy that you sell in order to make up the expense of stocking it for so long. A standard markup from publisher to bookseller was 40-50%, so if a bookstore sold a best seller at 20% off, it was essentially agreeing to give away half the profits on each copy because it knew that it wasn't going to have to sit on the inventory for very long.

Amazon was able to upend this model because it didn't have to stock lots of locations. Barnes & Noble (which itself was able to have a larger inventory by having notoriously large locations which people were willing to travel a little bit further to reach) has 640 locations around the US. They might stock 2-3 copies of any given midlist novel at each location, but a lot of those copies might sit around for months waiting for someone to come along and take them home. Books that turned even slower, Barnes & Noble might not stock at all. If only ten people around the county were going to buy a book in a given month, it doesn't make sense for B&N to stock a copy at each of their 640 locations on the chance that one of those ten people might walk into that location looking for it.

By working mail order, Amazon was able to solve this inventory problem. They could stock twenty copies in one warehouse and meet the demand of all ten of those customers each month, with an inventory turn rate of one every two months. To meet the same demand and be sure to turn no customer away, B&N would have had to stock perhaps two copies in each of their 640 stores. They'd have to own 1,280 copies instead of 20 and would have a turn rate of one every ten years instead of one every two months.

To get product to customers, Amazon had to mail books to people. This was and remains a huge expense for Amazon. However, because Amazon didn't have to maintain hundreds or thousands of stores, and was able to maintain much more productive inventory, Amazon was able to afford the cost of mailing books to consumers and still offer prices much lower than a brick-and-mortar bookstore might.

To look at an example: I checked the current top Mystery novel page on Amazon and found a novel called Human Acts. Its cover price is $22.00. Amazon is selling it for $14.95, a discount of 32%. If we assume that Amazon gets the book at a 50% discount, it's cost is $11. That leaves them $3.95 to cover the cost of shipping the book, which has a shipping weight of 0.75lbs Given Amazon's economies of scale, they can pull that off and break even on the deal. However, it's important to realize that this works because books are relatively expensive, offer high retailer profit margins, and are comparatively expensive per pound.

Now let's look at a product which you might buy at the grocery store. A gallon of milk might sell for $2.49. It weights just over 8lb. The retailer's profit margin on it is perhaps 10%. There is no way that the grocery store can deliver that milk to you for a cost of less than $0.25, so delivering it to you would certainly be done at a loss.

Milk is often pointed to as a loss leader, though. Let's look at something with better margins. Cat litter is a product people buy regularly since it is consumable. It doesn't have to be refrigerated. A 20lb jug costs $7.95 at my grocery store, and retailer profit margins are close to 50%. If we assume that 50% margin, the profit per unit of a jug of cat litter might be about the same $4 as the book I mentioned above. The problem is that it weights 20lb instead of 0.75lb. There's no way you can profitably mail that.

Why does Amazon not have an advantage over the grocery store here?

First, there is not inventory turn advantage. Milk and cat litter are both products that hundreds or thousands of people will want to buy every week at each grocery location. The grocery store can bring them in in large quantities and be confident that they will move the inventory out again very quickly. Amazon does not realize any logistical savings by having dozens of huge warehouses instead of thousands of individual stores, because even a single store can still move plenty of milk or cat litter. This means that the margin structure is not much different for Amazon and the grocery store on these products.

Second, Amazon has to spend shipping expenses in order to get product from their warehouse to a customer's house, whereas at a grocery store the customer transports the product from the store to their house. This means that Amazon actually has a cost of doing business that groceries and other brick-and-mortar businesses do not have. In the cases that we just looked at, this is compounded by the fact that the products are very heavy.

So Amazon competes best in product categories where customers want access to a large selection of products, each one of which might be fairly slow to turn. It also does best in product categories where the retail price per pound is relatively high.

This can help to explain which categories Amazon entered first as it moved on from its original specialty in books, music and movies. Consumer electronics were an early growth area. A flat screen TV might be relatively heavy. However, a 30lb TV selling for $500 is still a much higher price per pound than an 8lb jug of milk selling for $2.49. Electronics, power tools, etc. are also durable products which are purchased less frequently, so Amazon can use it's more centralized inventory to some effect there again.

Of course, Amazon now sells everything, from books and music to Tide detergent and cat litter. However, it's important to notice that when it comes to grocery type items, Amazon is no longer selling based on having the lowest price. Here's a two-pack of the type of 20lb cat litter jug that I buy at the supermarket for $7.95 each. However, Amazon is selling the two-pack via Prime for $34.46. It also offers an option to buy a smaller 14lb jug for higher price of $8.31 -- but only with the requirement that you either buy at least five Prime Pantry items that can be shipped together or else pay a $5.99 shipping fee.

At one consumer packaged goods company I am familiar with, a survey of Amazon prices showed that the Amazon Price price for 20% of products was more than 25% above the MSRP for the product. This isn't because Amazon is out to cheat people, it's because on grocery and items which are easily picked up at local stores, Amazon isn't selling a wider selection or lower prices, it's selling convenience. It makes up for the high cost of getting the product that last distance from distribution point to your doorstep by charging higher prices than the stores where you'd have to transport the product home yourself.

There are grocery store type products which could make a fair amount of sense to tell online at competitive prices, but they would have to be products which either rely heavily on selection (exotic foods, fine wines, etc.) or else products which have a high price per pound (razor blades, specialty cosmetics, etc.) It will not be cheaper to buy basic grocery items at Amazon rather than in-store any time soon.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

College Requirements Past the Application Stage

My 15-year-old is taking a summer writing class with a focus on rhetoric and composition. She's one to thrive in a congenial class atmosphere, and she particularly likes the topic, the other students (all homeschoolers) and the teacher. And she's learning valuable classroom skills, such as, "Don't wait until the night before class to start your paragraphs," "How to double-space a paper (and what is double-spacing, Mom?)", and "How to make a four-page composition out of the experience of first watching Jurassic Park".

All this reminds me that our rising sophomore is going to have to start thinking about college requirements. We've probably already been remiss in prepping for application expectations (for someone who thinks a good deal more systematically about such things, check out Bearing's thoughts on transcripts and letters of recommendations), but since it currently seems unlikely that we're raising a crop of future doctors or engineers, I can't help remembering that my homeschooled self made it into college based on little more than a basic parental transcript, an ACT score, and a required essay. Maybe standards have become more stringent for incoming liberal arts freshmen in the past 20 years, but I also don't expect that any of ours are going to be interested in the Ivies or any school that's going to give tons of application hassle.

At any rate, although we'll need to jump through the application hoops, I fell to reflecting on various complaints I've heard over the past year from college professors I know, who have to deal with students after admission. Several recounted stories of blatant plagiarism, or cheating, or various forms of dishonesty and incompetence, or just plain rudeness. It comes as no surprise that the skills needed to ace an application and the skills needed to actually be a good student don't necessarily overlap, and yet it seems like a lot more weight is given to the former than the latter.

And so I ask: if you are a college professor, even if you don't deal with freshmen, what are the skills you want to see in your incoming students? What are the traits you pick up on immediately? What are the red flags of a problem student? What sort of qualities help students click with you? What would make you want to write a future letter of recommendation for a particular student?

And in case you are interested, here are the formative effects of watching Jurassic Park on the oldest Darwin, in her own words.

My Experience With Jurassic Park

It was a dark and stormy night. The palm trees were whipping about in the wind and rain. Slowly, a giant crane comes into view. Everyone is watching as the crane lowers a cage; the consequences could be deadly if a mistake is made. The cage touches the ground and the scene bursts into action. The workers quickly prepare everything to unload the cargo. The outlook seems certain, the end is in reach… Something inside the cage is moving about. Bang! The animal has caused a worker to fall down near the cage. Everyone on the couch jumps as a velociraptor grabs the man and drags him into its lair.
A garage sale is a great place to meet up with people and browse the random piles of stuff that happen to be there, and even more so at a moving sale. These places are the perfect center of neighborhood gatherings with people coming to wish the moving people a safe and happy trip. My friends were moving away to Arizona soon, and they were getting rid of their excess of old stuff and toys through just such a thing. There was a bag stuffed with beanie babies, a table covered in small cars and crafts, and many other odds and ends. There were also a few cassette tapes with interesting titles. Ben-Hur and the Star Wars trilogy were among them. I glanced over the titles, looking for something that would serve the purpose of entertainment for a good many years and would not just sit collecting dust. The other members of my family were looking after our cousins who were visiting from Maryland. They were looking at the bag of beanie babies and deciding which ones they wanted to get. I was not paying much attention to them because someone else was keeping an eye on them. As I was browsing among the movies, the title of Jurassic Park with its silhouette of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on a red background caught my attention. I picked it up and studied the back of the box.
I love dinosaurs; they are the closest thing to dragons that Earth has ever had. They dominated the skies, seas, and land. They were magnificent. It is no mistake to say that I was completely ecstatic when I came across this movie for seventy-five cents. And so at the end of the sale we went home with many stuffed animals, Ben-Hur, Star Wars and Jurassic Park. From that evening on there was only one question in my mind. When could I watch my movie? I soon tired out my parents who (and not without reason) worried that I was too young to watch it without having nightmares. I did not get to watch my movie for a long time after this and I would have to be patient.
The day finally arrived. All the little kids were sent to bed and only a few older people were left awake. Popcorn was made and the people gathered in the living room. The tape player was made ready and everyone sat down. The lights were turned off. It was a dark and stormy night on an island of the coast of Costa Rica… A paleontologist and a paleobotanist came to the island, people were worried and their fears were temporarily soothed, dinosaurs broke free during a storm, and many people died. The movie dragged me into it and kept me firmly held there. I couldn’t have broken free even if I had wanted to.
I went to bed that night with my head full of dinosaurs, and from that night on I was hooked on Jurassic Park. My friends came over to watch it sometimes although they were not as into it as I was. Sometime after that, I was given a soundtrack for the movie and I listened to it over and over again. The music was almost my favorite thing about the movie. The thrilling helicopter ride, the haunting tones of the Brachiosaurus, and the suspenseful music of the velociraptors. I could pick out when Denis was in the embryo chamber and soon after when he was eaten. The awe and majesty of the dinosaurs was captured perfectly in the violins and horns and woodwinds. Then I read the book and I saw what parts Spielberg had changed and I began to appreciate Michael Crichton for his book, the inspiring factor that had made a marvelous movie. The second movie disappointed me even though it brought back some of the characters who had been in the first movie. The actions of the people were not wise and even though there were some bad decisions in the original, the plot of the sequel just did not seem as probable. I never watched the third one because of the second. But when Jurassic World came out, I was in at almost the first showing at a nearby theater. It told the story of what happened next in a convincing way and drew me back in even more with it’s familiar sounding music. But it left many things to the imagination, such as: how had they controlled all the dinosaurs from the original park? And where are the original characters from the first movie? Wouldn’t they have something to say about the whole thing? But despite the weird questions it leaves hanging, the only thing that could’ve made Jurassic World better is if they had had the velociraptors ride the motorcycle.
Later I bought a Jurassic World Monopoly game and played using my favorite park attractions such as the Mosasaurus and the Indominus Rex. And a few years ago I was very excited to play the theme for Jurassic Park for a piano recital piece. Before I watched Jurassic Park, I had not watched many action movies at all. Now I have seen many Marvel movies and lots of action ones. Jurassic Park was the starting point of my new taste in movies and it has stayed as one of my favorite films of all time up there with Independance Day, The Martian, and all the Avengers and Captain America movies. The soundtrack is still in good shape too. It has been preserved through careful treatment and handling. And I am proud to say that none of the pieces to the Monopoly game have been lost. I have, of course, appreciation for other movies and their music, but Jurassic Park has stuck with me the most and will probably continue to be there for a long time to come. The dinosaurs have made a permanent picture in my head for the personalities of the particular species that were featured in the film: the gentle Brachiosaurus, the smart Velociraptors, and the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the little poisonous dino (but we don’t blame him because Dennis is a bad guy.).
In conclusion, the Jurassic Park movies have not always been the best, but it is always hard to match the quality of the first in any series. They tried and fell short of the mark in this particular case. But nevertheless, Jurassic Park will always be my number one dinosaur movie with Jurassic World as a close second. These movies will always hold a special place in my memory as the beginning of an era for my taste in movies and my interest in John Williams's music. Jurassic Park has opened up a whole world of things I didn’t know about before. It has made a major impact on my personality and interests. Jurassic Park has made me who I am today, and it will stay my favorite for a very long time to come.



Sunday, July 02, 2017

Growing Together

Friday was our sixteenth wedding anniversary. We didn't make it out to dinner or anything. Most of our attention and energy at the moment is devoted to waiting for The Expected to arrive on the scene. His official due date is July 9th, but things have reached the pass where all one can think of is: The baby could come at any moment!

We haven't yet been married half our lives, but we have known each other half our lives. In just over a month it will be twenty years since we met and started dating. I had cause to think about that stretch of time this weekend because I was reading a discussion about whether getting married young (as in, early twenties) is a good idea. There are some difficulties with having such discussions in the abstract. The right age to get married is dependent on very specific factors, most notably whether you know the right person to marry. But in this discussion someone made the case that she thought people should not get married in their twenties as a general principle, the reason being that people change a lot over the years and you might find yourself changing into different people who were no longer compatible. Better to wait till your thirties, she argued, than to get married in your twenties and risk having to divorce if you grew apart.

It strikes me this ignores the nature of the commitment we make when we get married.

MrsDarwin and I met at eighteen and married at twenty-two. During that time we've changed a lot. However, this change has always involved growing together rather than growing apart.

A part of this is simple shared culture. I probably learned to appreciate drama and music more because of my connection with MrsDarwin than I would have on my own. I also drifted away from fantasy and science fiction, also in part through her influence. On the other hand, MrsDarwin's writing is probably in part attributable to me (I'd spent a lot of time writing prior to meeting her, she'd never tried writing fiction prior to when we became a couple.) I'm probably also responsible for some of her political and economic attachments.

We've made career decisions together, chosen the type of house to live in, and educated our children together. I would have followed a different career path if I hadn't faced the need to provide from a family from a young age. MrsDarwin would clearly have been spending her days very differently were she not rearing and educating our children full time.

Each family's path with be peculiar to its members and circumstances, but I think they key thing is that it is a family path. A marriage cannot be made up of two individuals who just happen to be following conveniently parallel paths through life as individuals. When we marry we vow to love each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.

Any choice restricts our freedom in some ways. By choosing to do one thing, we choose not to do another. When we choose to marry, we choose not to do the things which might pull us away from our spouse. We choose to live conscious of the fact that we are no longer leading individual lives but family lives. My job is no longer my job, it is our support. My house is not my house, it is our home. In choosing this one big thing, marriage, I have narrowed my choices in many other ways. But I did so willingly, and looking back over our lives together I can think of no better way to have spent the past, no better way to spend the future, than continuing to grow together.