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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

This... is a mustache, certainly, but not The Mustache.

The mustache was always going to be the star of Murder on the Orient Express. Not the precise, controlled mustache of years past, no: a luxuriant, impossible mustache, as big as the all-star cast of Kenneth Branagh's derailment of Agatha Christie's classic. The mustache is romantic, larger-than-life, and so is this iteration's Poirot. Mark Steyn compares Branagh's Poirot to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes in the glamming-up, dumbing down department, and though Murder on the Orient Express isn't as silly as the recent Holmes outings, he touches on a point. This Poirot has been Holmes-ized, with a flair for action. He is big, he is beautiful (oh come on, Branagh's a bonny boy). His cape blows in the fresh mountain breeze. He strides atop a rail car. He chases a suspect. 

"Well, I never!" you exclaim, and you are right. This is not Poirot, so don't watch it as Poirot and you'll do okay. The scenery is arresting: an elegant piece of locomotive art steaming through Balkan mountain majesties. Doubtless the special features on the DVD will tell us how the whole thing was computer-generated, but I'd be happy to watch a feature-length film of the background shots. The cast was pedigreed but underused. How much does it cost to have Judi Dench dial it in? Most of the movie is Kenneth Branagh being fantastic: starting off the movie revealing a flashy solution to a non-canonical crime featuring a rabbi, a priest, and an iman (yes, even the movie acknowledges that this sounds like a joke set-up), tussling with suspects, flashing his blue eyes, and addressing an old photograph of "ma chere Katharine" with soulful soliloquies that would have played better as prayers.

Speaking of prayer, if you're really hot to trot to see a Poirot done right, hie thee to the library and check out the 2010 Murder on the Orient Express featuring the incomparable David Suchet. This version, I feel, gets at the heart of what makes Poirot tick: his longing for justice, and his comfortable conviction that he is there to see that justice meted out. Rarely, rarely have I seen a book-to-movie adaptation that makes a change that improves on the original, but here the screenwriters, aided by Mr. Suchet's pitch-perfect Poirot, make the detective grapple with his inability to perfectly administer retribution. Where Branagh substitutes a photo of chere Katherine, Suchet speaks to God, aided by his trusty rosary. It is better that way.

It's hard to speak of Murder on the Orient Express without talking about the solution. In this day and age, it's hard to imagine that many people don't know whodunit, but I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that in the most incomprehensible turn of all, Branagh neglects any discussion of one of the key elements of Christie's denouement, where Poirot expounds on the need for a formal system of justice to convict criminals, and the particularly English format of the trial.

It's been years since I've seen Sidney Lumet's highly acclaimed version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. I have requested it at the library, but in the meantime, to fulfill our longing to watch a perfect British mystery, we wandered only as far as our own movie collection and pulled Gosford Park off the shelf.

Gosford Park is the ideal form of the country house mystery -- guests down for the weekend, drama above and below stairs, a murder, an inspector. But here, the inspector is a a piece of comic incompetence played by Stephen Fry. "We only want people with a connection to the dead man!" he says, dismissing half the household from suspicion in fell swoop, ignoring evidence, destroying fingerprints, and missing every clue that director Robert Altman has laid out for you, the viewer, to pick up on over repeated viewings. Every scene, every prop, every toss-off bit of dialogue heard in passing has a connection to the dead man and the complicated household he's assembled. And, like Murder on the Orient Express, like all the best of the genre Murder Mystery, the theme is the long reach of sin and how it scars everyone it touches, until sin begets more sin.

And speaking of begetting, at the end of this new Orient Express, Poirot detrains at the remote station of Brod, where he is met by a British officer who gives him an urgent summons. "There's been a death... on the Nile!" Pretty prescient considering that the murder always takes place in the middle of the book. But Branagh seems to have no qualms about tinkering with the details, so expect the mustachioed marvel to careen through the Egyptian desert in a camel chase a la The Sheik. Once you've lost the mustache, it's all up for grabs.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Cornbread Dressing

Although the evening commitments have eased up now that our theater season is over (though please help me convince Darwin to audition for Twelve Angry Men because he'd be so great, can't you see it?), life with seven kids is busy enough that the writing gets pushed to the back burner. And so, speaking of the back burner, here, in lieu of a piece of real, elegant prose, is a re-run of my mother's cornbread dressing recipe. I know there's various kinds of stuffing-type foods, and each has their partisans, but for my money this is the best dish at the Thanksgiving table.
  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  1. Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.
  2. Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.
  3. Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.
  4. If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.
  5. Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.
  6. Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.
Happy Thanksgiving! We thank God for all of our readers and friends, and anyone who's dropped in here at the blog over the past dozen years. May your plates be heavy and your hearts be light.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-1

It's been a long, long time. The last couple installments went up right around the time baby was born. That threw the household into more of a time organization crunch than I expected. I'm trying to make a push until the end of the year to finish this 4th chapter and also the 5th.

Near Sandomierz, Galicia. June 8th, 1915. The 7th Uhlans were surrounded by dead. Not because there had been any pitched battle, but because the town of Sambor had, in its wisdom, built its cemetery on the only hill within miles.

Jozef sat in the shadow of a monument on which two angels held up a scroll proclaiming that Irena Wyrzykowski had been a beloved wife and mother from 1829 to 1873 and waited while Oberleutnant Niemczyk scanned the distance with his binoculars.

It was not a very high hill, and yet because the rest of the plain along the Vistula was so flat, it afforded a view which stretched more than a dozen miles.

“Any sign of the Russians?”

“Nothing beyond a few smoking cottages. They’re doing their best to leave nothing behind for us.”

The oberleutnant, serving as temporary squadron commander since the Rittmeister had been wounded in the second day of the offensive, turned his glasses to look down the river road towards the west instead. “The infantry is coming up. We should be relieved by noon.”

In the end, it was not until the cavalrymen were finishing their lunch among the graves that the long line of infantry in their dusty gray-blue uniforms came marching by the hill. Their officers, on horseback but wearing the shoes and leg-wraps of infantrymen rather than the boots of true cavalry, directed some companies forward and others up onto the hill. These were Landsturm sappers, older men, bearded, slouching, their marching order ragged. They carried rifles on their shoulders, but also oversized shovels lashed to their packs. Their mission was not to fight but to dig the fortifications from which others would.

“How goes it with the mole soldiers?” called one of the troopers. “Will you dig your way through and attack the Orient?”

“Go suck a horse, pretty boy,” one of the infantrymen called in reply, while the rest simply hunched their shoulders and kept moving.

Oberleutnant Niemczyk ordered the squadron to mount up, and as the Landsturm set to with their spades to begin turning the hill into a fortification, the Uhlans rode back down the highway to make camp. Once there, however, Jozef did not find his name on the roster of assignments with the other junior officers. Instead he found a summons to Oberst von Bruenner, commander of the regiment.

The retreating Russians had left standing no buildings in the village worth using as a headquarters. The Oberst made himself at home in a tent instead, and did so with some style. When the guard outside pulled back the tent flap and bowed Jozef in, he stepped onto a rug which covered the ground. Oberst von Bruenner sat on a folding camp chair in front of a wooden writing desk. Jozef came to full attention and saluted.

“Provisional Leutnant von Revay, Sir.”

There were several other chairs and stools arranged in a horseshoe facing the desk, perhaps unmoved since the Oberst had last met with his squadron commanders, but he did not invite Jozef to be seated. For a moment the Oberst remained immersed in a paper on his desk, then he signed it with a flourish, got slowly to his feet, and returned Jozef’s salute.

“Yes, von Revay. I hear good things about you from Oberleutnant Niemczyk.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have two things to tell you. First, you may drop the ‘provisional’. I have received approval for your promotion to a full leutnant.”

The Oberst picked up the paper he had just signed and held it out to Jozef. There it was in elaborate black printed letters: a commission to the officer corps of the Imperial-Royal Army.

“Secondly,” went on the Oberst, “I’m detaching you on a special mission.”

[Continue reading]

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Microfiction, or, You Should Write

Last month some friends of mine participated in Inktober, where you follow a one-word prompt to create a drawing for each day of October. It's like NaNoWriMo for artists. I was delighted each day to see the drawings they posted, no matter how dashed off or sketchy, all far above the level of anything I could do in the artistic line.

NaNoWriMo is about long-term sustained creativity in the writing department: 50,000 words in one month. It's all kinds of fun, but it's just too much work to do casually. But just as my Inktobering friends made small drawings each day, so other friends have turned their hands at casual microfiction, dashing off a story here and there. I like this -- the idea that drawing, or storywriting, is not some rarified skill left to the professionals, but something that a person ought to be able to do in their spare time, just for fun.

So today, some microfiction excerpts, published with permission.


My friend Janelle Ortega took on a fun task: describing how she would introduce people in a novel. Here's what she wrote for me, on St. Crispin's Day.

Even with so many people it was cold. It was late October. Some would have thought to bring sweaters but most wouldn't have. Burning dust floated out of the vents as it always does the first time at the beginning.

Usually the smell bothered her but not tonight. She was dealing with her stomach.

That stupid quote.... "I still get butterflies but now they fly in unison" came to her head. She could practice til her voice faded, perform nightly, get continuous standing ovations, but still she was nervous. There were those who called themselves "thespians" hundreds, thousands, and each one of them claimed "I'm never myself unless I'm on stage" Bah, Cat knew that lie, heard it since high school. No, for her, being someone else was why it was all so exhilarating. But still, those nerves. Even between acts, even playing multiple roles....

But now clothes so damp in the crisp air. Her socks thin, she can feel the seams in her boots. Smelling the early morning fires and rotting leaves, a different fear strangles her and she turns to the king....

"Oh that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today"
That he might have something to ease the fear of death. Speak oh King!"


Inspired by a conversation about my oldest daughter, who unlike her parents yearns to be a gamer, a friend who runs a game night sat down and wrote up this tale.

An Exercise in Justifying My Hobby as a Dungeon Master, or
What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons
by Jeff Kinney
The tiny bell jingled as he opened the door.

He really wasn't sure what he was doing there. He'd outgrown such things years ago, but he did have a vague recollection of where to go, what to search for. And the shop looked promising.

Bookshelves lined the store. Some were the standard metal ones, but further in were a hodge-podge of wooden ones, some even boardering on antique. They were laid out in parallel sets, exposing their wares in a mostly organized fashion. The spines of hardbound books, boxed sets of games, cards and dice, figurines and statues.

He walked in cautiously, not seeing anyone else in the shop. A voice rang out from the back, suggesting that the proprietor would be out shortly. He moved toward the shelves and ran his fingers lightly over the covers. The Player's Guidebook. Guide for Dungeon Crawlers. Monsters Compendium, Volumes I through V. Another set was fully devoted to that popular sci-fi show that came out a few years ago. He smiled ruefully. Not much seemed to have changed.

A man with a considerable gut, balding at the top but clearly compensating for it with a bushy beard, came out of what was likely the store room.

"Sorry. Would you believe how often I have to go back there and fight off the Rat King and his subjects?" the shopkeep said with a grin. "So, what can I help you find?"

"Not for me. My daughter, actually. She wants a game to play, but I hate to see her staring at a screen all the time. Something cooperative, maybe, for her and her friends. I was hoping I could find her something here."

The shopkeep sized him up, then smiled again. "How long has it been?"

"Excuse me? How long since what?"

"Since you played! I can see it in you. You've been to far off worlds of your own making. You've conjured up fantasies through forbidden lands that only you and your friends knew of. Or was it an exploration of space, filled with aliens and robots and blasters? Aha. That was it, isn't it."

"Guilty" he said sheepishly. "And it was many years ago. My mid teens, I guess."

"Yeah, pretty much everyone feels awkward about then. Always easier to believe yourself to be a badass warrior or a hidden magical talent, or a superhero in disguised as a normal kid. So, what's the girl into, other than escaping reality."

He shrugged. "Theater. Reading. Talking with friends and hanging out."

The shopkeep grunts and takes you back into the shelves. You find more books like those in the front. On the shelves a marker had inscribed 'Role Playing Materials' over a swath of masking tape, but it was the mural above it that caught his eye. A child, reading a book under a blanket by flashlight, while above her, a charging warrior raced toward a bellowing monster. Below the image, a message was written in flowing script:

"Dragons are not real. But they can be defeated."

He looked up, bemused. "Chesterton?"

The shopkeep nodded. "Horrible bastardization of it, but I couldn't get the kid who painted it for me to write the whole thing up there. But it gets the point across."

He nodded. A moment later, a few well-worn books were being stacked up in his outstreched hands. "What are these?"

The shopkeep huffed, pulling himself from the floor with effort. "The basics. Enough to get her going. You'll know soon enough what kind of adventures she wants. Come back and we'll get her proper things if it sticks. Those are loaners, so try to not write in them too much."

He was taken aback. "Free?"

"Well, if you want I can get you the newest versions at $40-$50 a book. But unless you learn how to make the game an adventure, they'll likely sit next to the cleats she outgrew when she was eight and wanted to play softball."

"Dance shoes, actually" he murmured, still a little off balance by the man's instincts.

"Sure, sure." He pulled out a small bag from the counter, and put in a half dozen dice from a collection of hundreds. "I'll charge you for these though. Kids always lose the dice. $3.48 plus tax?"

"Um. Yeah." He was struggling to regain control of the situation. He felt like he had been swept up in something without even realizing what was going on. "Seriously, why are you doing this? This can't make you much money."

"Nope, it doesn't." The shopkeep pulls out a box of flashy foil covered playing cards. "These pieces of cardboard keep me afloat. I do the games because I love seeing kids tell stories about how awesome they are. If it works, yeah, she'll come back and buy dice, or books, or miniatures. Or she'll make up her own stuff. But there will be stories. Stories of her and her friends saving the town from ravaging monsters, exploring the haunted mines, or discovering some brand new magic. She'll tell those stories, legends of her own making. She'll stop pretending the be the warrior-princess and act like it. And if it worked for you, it'll probably work for her too. I assume it DID work, yes?"

He nodded and paid for the dice, though he did not following the shopkeepr's logic. As he walked to the door, the shopkeeper called out again.

"Let her know gaming nights are Thursdays! And you're welcome at the table too!"

He walked out, slightly unsure of what had just happened, ringing the bell on the way out. As he laid the books on the passenger seat of his car, a pamphlet fell out from between the books.

'What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons'

He smiled. Yes, this might do just fine.


And a contribution from myself, an Orphan Opening from last January.

Of course everyone was more secretive because it was Christmas time, and everywhere the echo of muffled giggles and running feet hinted at mysterious doings afoot. Children disappeared into rooms and slammed doors as Marie hauled laundry or half-unpacked boxes up stairs and through corridors. Somehow nine children seemed like a lot more when they rambled around a huge old house than when they were all jammed in the small living room of the unlamented heap they used to call home. At least the kids had been easier to count then. Now it was impossible to tell who was who between all the mops of curly tangles disappearing with packages into empty rooms. Empty rooms! Such a novel concept before, but in this house, there were plenty of places for a child to hide away.

Up in the attic, Marie didn't dare search through the opened boxes for the Christmas decorations lest she disturb someone's cleverly hidden present cache. Still, there were plenty of sealed boxes up there to go through, stacked amid the detritus of previous homeowners: magazines, records, dress-up clothes, books, and even a photograph of the original family to live here. The stiff sepia-toned parents were slightly too blurry for Marie to feel that they looked on her in judgment, but the young girl stared clear-eyed at the mess, ringlets carefully arrayed over her dark dress.

"Never saw this much chaos in your life, huh, kid?" Marie muttered, and then felt bad at the thought of one child rattling around in this pile, between the great rooms downstairs and the small servants' bedrooms on the third floor. Well, the old place had life aplenty now. Three middle girls in three separate bedrooms, wrapping, though at a glance who could say which one was Rachel, Melanie, or Nell? A quick peek in the nursery revealed two little boys who were either Pete and Joe, or Joe and Pat, or Pat and Pete crouched over some legos. A teenager reading huddled under a blanket in the living room -- was it shaggy John or shingled Mary Alice? And then the kids had met the neighbors and were always vanishing next door and then popping in again with friends in tow, leaving Marie with the disconcerting feeling of there being at once too many and not enough children underfoot. At least the baby was always easy to track: small, attached to someone's hip, and definitely bald.

At last the tree was up, the house was decorated (thanks to the kids), and the presents were stacked, but Marie felt even less settled in the house than when they'd first moved. She never thought she'd miss having no personal space, but now the only time everyone was gathered in one place, all accounted for, was at dinner time. At least in the old house she'd had some kind of sense of where everyone was at any given moment. Now children could isolate themselves, someone always sneaking off alone to throw off her mental headcount. Even Dan confessed himself defeated, laughing on Saturday afternoon as he tried to tally his children in the confusion of rooms and neighbors.

"Be grateful," he told Marie as he kissed her in the kitchen. "This is a great neighborhood. I think I saw one of the neighbor kids behaving nicely in the library when our own were upstairs shrieking in the bedrooms."

Marie wondered how her house must sound to the other mothers on the street.

At least on Christmas Day, the noise and fighting were confined to the family. Presents had been opened and abandoned, dinner was made, the kids had set the table, and Marie even took a few moments upstairs to put on a fresh sweater and some lipstick before entering the fray. The dining room resounded as kids jockeyed for coveted positions. There must have been fighting, for in the twilit living room Nell, or Melanie, or Rachel sat with her back to the world, contemplating the glowing tree and refusing to budge. "Grant us peace," Marie sighed as she opened the dining room doors. A burst of Christmas cheer greeted her, and everyone sorted into their spots. At the head of the table opposite her, Dan; four tousled heads down each side; and in the high chair, sweet bald baby, leaving Marie standing by the one empty chair, her own, stifling the summons she'd been about to give to the small ringleted presence still behind her in the living room.


You don't have to be A Writer to write fiction. You don't have to want to be published. You don't need to write a novel. Fiction writing is a skill, sure, but it doesn't have to be rarified. Just sit down and write a thing. And share it with me -- I want to read it.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

NFP and Truth (and Suffering)

This is the second in a series of posts dealing with NFP and some recent controversies surrounding it. The first post dealt with how accusation that Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae because if he did otherwise the Church "should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" is fundamentally a concern about the nature of the Church and the authority of the Church's teaching power, not an accusation about clerical misogyny or failing to listen to the experiences of married couples. In this second post, we're going to talk about NFP itself, some of the problems with it, and some of the problems with how people talk about it.

Back in July, Melinda Selmys (whose post series inspired this one) had post on NFP (Natural Family Planning, lest the insider acronym be unfamiliar to anyone) which was somewhat inspired by the "NFP awareness week" which many in the Catholic online world were conducting.
So it’s NFP awareness week, and nothing will do a woman more good in the midst of a faith-crisis than blogging about NFP…right?

Anyway, I did end up reading one of the many NFP articles that are circulating this week. The upshot of this one is that the woman who is writing it hates NFP. It doesn’t improve her marriage, or increase intimacy in her relationship, and it’s not really preventing her from getting pregnant. Her body doesn’t have time to recover between pregnancies, and she’s experiencing pregnancy loss – possibly as a result. So far, so familiar. However, she is continuing with it because she believes in the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church and so she is being obedient even though it is causing her suffering and she doesn’t understand why it’s a good thing.

Also, painfully familiar.
I remember when the awareness week was going around, and I recall studiously not taking part in it, despite the fact that NFP has been fairly intimately connected with our lives for the last sixteen years. There is too often, I fear, a boom and bust cycle to NFP boosterism. The bust is not always the kind of complete questioning of Church teaching authority which Selmys's struggle with it seems to have led to (following up on the above linked post in which she questions why the Church teaches someone in her situation must not use contraception, she went on to a four part series on papal infallibility, which she more or less rejects now, demonstrating I think that rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception ends up hinging on questions of doctrinal authority, not sexuality.) But even when the result is simply grim compliance rather than attempted rejection of the Church's teaching about contraception, I think that the tendency of NFP boosters to over-promise results in the ten-to-twelve-years-into-marriage disillusion with those promises which I've often heard from other Catholics.

MrsD: Perhaps it was around NFP Awareness Week when I heard someone who'd been married for a few years and had a few young kids, bemoaning the fact that no one had ever mentioned that NFP was so hard, and why did no one ever talk about this? And I said nothing, because we already wrote that same post back when we'd been married a few years and had a few young kids ourselves. It seemed like we were constantly fighting this monthly battle pitting desire against risk of pregnancy, and dear God, how long would it go on this way? Well, the answer is that nothing in life is static. NFP has been, intermittently, a trial, a slog, a blessing, a lifeline, and just a thing that we do or don't do, depending on necessity.

By now the term "NFP" is almost too fraught, carrying connotations of some big oppressive system. Say it with me, though: all it is is 1) observing the signs of female fertility -- a morally neutral act -- and 2) using those observations as part of a prudential judgment about whether to have sex based on the possibility of pregnancy as a result. That's a bit long to type out, so at least in this series of posts, all "NFP" refers to is this basic idea of observation and decision-making process, not the guidelines and rules of any particular system -- Marquette, Creighton, CCL, whatever. And these rules are not moral imperatives. The Ten Commandments are moral imperatives. The injunction against contraception is a moral imperative backed by the authority of the Catholic church, all dissent to the contrary. Not having sex on day seven when mucus is present is not a moral imperative, and pregnancy is not a punishment for breaking that rule. It's simply a guideline.

There are two different ways that NFP advocates often over promise. One has to do with ease and accuracy of method, an area of technical over-promising if you will. This often seems to have to do with wanting to make NFP seem like an easy and reliable way to space pregnancies, and so choosing (perhaps unconsciously) to make things sound more universal and consistent than the variations of actual women's biology are. The one of these which we ran into as a young married couple was the insistence (at the time at least) in Couple to Couple League materials that you didn't need to worry about fertility coming back quickly while you were breastfeeding, and that you'd probably have a couple infertile cycles coming off of that post-partum infertility in order to let you get used to it. Well, MrsDarwin was the one who gave the OB a double take on the first appointment for our second child by answering the question "when was your last period" with "eighteen months ago."

My impression is that this technical simplification/over-promising has gotten somewhat better over the last sixteen years that NFP has been on our radar (CCL has, for instance, apparently scaled back somewhat it's claims about ecological breastfeeding always resulting in long post-partum infertility) but it's still often the case that when someone talks about the difficulty of knowing when is and is not a fertile time, there are eager people who turn up to explain how the sufferer is doing it all wrong. This defensiveness (it would be easy if you would just do it right!) can be an additional frustration for people already having a hard time with NFP, but it is not the kind of problem that I'd like to talk about in this post. Rather, I'd like to discuss the more relationship-focused aspect of NFP discourse.

If you've moved in these circles, you've probably heard the claims: NFP will divorce proof your marriage! It improves communication between husband and wife! It encourages respect for the whole person! It increases intimacy, and each return to sex after a brief period of abstinence is like another honeymoon!

NFP Is Not Magic
One of the problems with claims such as "NFP improves your communication!" or "NFP will divorce proof your marriage" is that they seem to suggest a rather confused idea of what NFP is and why a couple would practice it. When a couple uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, what are they trying to achieve? Their immediate goal in using NFP is not to reduce their chances of divorce or to achieve better communication (though both of those are good things!) but rather to avoid getting pregnant.

Now, as we think about avoiding pregnancy, there are two obvious ways to succeed. The absolutely sure fire method is not to have sex. Your humble correspondents here spent four years dating and engaged as hotblooded and very fertile young people, and yet by this very simple expedient of not having sex, we never got pregnant through that entire four years. By comparison, after getting married and starting to have sex, we got pregnant within two months.

Yet, though not having sex is an age-old, cheap, and incredibly reliable means of not having children, it's not one that most married couples want to sign up for. Why? Because in addition to making babies (the procreative aspect) sex provides couples with a powerful means of expressing love and unity (the unitary aspect.)

Thus, couples have, throughout history, sometimes wished that they could have sex and enjoy those feelings of unity without risking getting pregnant, and attempted this by means of various barrier or chemical means. (Yes, both barrier and chemical birth control was known in the ancient world -- it was just somewhat less reliable than the modern medical versions of these methods.) And yet the Catholic Church, in keeping with the teaching of Christians dating back to the earliest days of the Church, teaches that rending sex intentionally sterile by using artificial contraception is wrong, because it intentionally removes the procreative aspect from sexual intercourse.

So how does NFP fit into this situation? Natural Family Planning consists of observing the wife's natural cycle of fertility and abstaining from intercourse during the periods when she is fertile. In other words, it's the age-old means of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, but made somewhat less draconian by allowing couples to target their abstinence just towards the times when they might conceive. During standard cycles, this would mean abstaining for a week or two at a time out of each month, rather than abstaining totally. (Some health issues can, however, make the signs of fertility much harder to read and thus require a couple who very urgently need to avoid pregnancy have to abstain from sex for much longer.)

NFP to avoid pregnancy is nothing more or less than targeted abstinence, allowing the couple to avoid pregnancy by giving up sex some of the time rather than all of the time. This is why claims that NFP itself is "contraceptive" in its mentality so clearly fall flat. Avoiding sex is always a moral means of avoiding pregnancy, and NFP is nothing more than avoiding sex.

Why, then, do we see all these expansive claims about the benefits of NFP which have seemingly little to do with avoiding sex or avoiding pregnancy?

MrsD: At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. Now the presence of God was immediate; his holiness was not hidden, and the veil ceased to provide a lulling sense of being hidden or protected from the gaze of God. 

NFP is not magic. It doesn't divorce-proof your marriage, because married couples who use NFP can still sin in other ways. It only improves communication if a couple chooses to communicate. But it does rend the veil. It strips away the false sense of security and certainty that contraception provides. It shines a sometimes harsh white light on the characters of a husband and wife and how they respond to the necessity for chastity and prudence. Light can help a person see, or it can dazzle and blind. That's not magic. That's exposure to truth. 

Nor is contraception magic. Using the veil of contraception to hide from the demands of chastity might allow you to have sex when otherwise you'd have to abstain, but it doesn't make chastity moot. Hiding behind the veil of contraception may give a false sense of control, but doesn't mean that having sex in a fertile period will actually never result in pregnancy. Why is it that Mary is praised for asking how it's possible that she can become pregnant while Zechariah is punished for doubting for asking the same thing? Because Mary's question is predicated on not having sex at all, sex being the natural process through which babies are conceived. Her situation actually requires a miracle. The situation of Zechariah, a married man, does not. Since humans do not actually create life, we do not control whether any particular act of intercourse will or will not result in pregnancy. We can only cooperate with the biological systems God has given us, and if we want to avoid pregnancy, that means avoiding intercourse when scientific observation indicates that the female, whose fertility waxes and wanes, is fertile. Methods of contraception do not provide perfect security if a couple chooses to have sex while the female is fertile. God does not, with the exception of the Incarnation, will that conception take place outside of intercourse (which is why IVF and other assisted-reproduction methods are such grave evils), but pregnancy resulting from intercourse is not a miracle, contraception or no. 

NFP Requires Virtue
Read some news or opinion piece online, and you've almost certain to see advertisements for quick fix remedies: This simple exercise will get you totally ripped in five minutes a day! This little pill burns fat like nothing else! Local mom discovered this one simple trick!

The attraction of such claims is that they promise some desirable result that normally takes a lot of work (building muscle, losing weight, etc.) with very little work or time investment. The alternative is building the habit of actually eating well, exercising, etc. If you do that work, which is hard and requires forming good habits and having the discipline to keep them, you will not only achieve the goals of less fat or more muscle, but also side benefits such as sticking to a schedule, continuing to do things even if they are hard, etc.

The side benefits which are often cited in regard to NFP are sort of like these side benefits of eating right and exercising: if you go about NFP in the spirit of building good habits (a virtue, after all, is also described as a habit to the good) then practicing NFP will help you grow in virtue in other ways. Because NFP means, at times, saying as a couple: "It would be unhealthy for us (physically, emotionally, or financially) to get pregnant right now. I don't want to put my spouse through that. So I will not press my spouse for sex at this time. I will find ways to express my affection for my spouse that don't make my spouse crazy."

If you build these habits, you will find they apply in other areas as well. If I can not pester my wife for sex when I know she is probably fertile and is not ready to get pregnant, then I can also not pester her about the state of the house of the schedule of her activities. If I can not demand sex when it would cause a pregnancy we are not ready for, I can not demand sex when she is sick or is so pregnant that it is uncomfortable or is not in the mood. (I've read in the past that pregnancy and immediately after a baby are born are periods when husbands sometimes initiate affairs. This sounds incredibly heartless, but for couples who don't normally have to deal with periods of abstinence for any other reason, these might be the first times that a husband would encounter the necessity of not having sex for an extended period because of his wife's health.) If we can sit down and have a rational conversation about whether we are ready to get pregnant at the moment, and if not agree to abstain during potentially fertile periods, then we can sit down and have a rational conversation about what family time commitments to take on, where to spend our money, and whether we can afford that home renovation project.

But practicing NFP will only help in this development of virtue if one actually practices it in a virtuous way. If the desire to avoid pregnancy means that a couple utilizes self mastery and communication and consideration for each other, then they will strengthen these virtues in themselves and experience the benefits of these virtues in other areas of their lives. But we're fallen human creatures with fallen human desires. When we're faced with doing something hard, we often lash out at others to express our frustration. This isn't something unique to sex. Last weekend I was tilling over a section of the yard and digging out the area where I'll be building a retaining wall. It was hard work, harder that expected because the area was criss-crossed with roots. After a couple hours of hard labor with the sun overheard, if the kids came up with some question I was growling and snapping at them. My frustration with the roots and sun were turned, unvirtuously, into frustration with my children, and I treated them ungraciously as a result. Mastering our desires can also be hard work. If our response to that difficulty is to lash out at our spouse, to pester and accuse, to seek other forms of release, then facing this hard work becomes not a school of virtue but a school of vice.

Is NFP at fault here? No, not in and of itself. Ask about the reason that couples fight and you'll hear a couple standard ones: money, sex, relatives, work. All of these are things where we might have to make difficult decisions, have to allocate scarce resources, have to choose between competing desires. Put people under stress and force them to make choices, and at times they will respond by behaving badly. The rigors of practicing NFP are no different.

But is it an extra burden which no couple, or not all couples, should have to bear?

MrsD: Feelings are feelings and desire is desire. It arises unbidden at inconvenient times, or refuses to make an appearance at the right time. And it's unequal -- one spouse's desire may inspire the other, but it may also frustrate. So desire itself is not a good regulator of sexual life within marriage. But virtue is. The virtue of justice calls spouses out of themselves to render the particularly marital form of love that is intercourse even in spite of daily frustrations or the thousand stresses of life -- and to never withhold intercourse as a punishment. The virtue of temperance reins hotblooded spouses in from pushing the erotic  limits with degrading or sinful acts, or keeps one hotblooded spouse from pressuring the other to do something unwanted. The virtue of fortitude allows a married couple to be open and emotionally honest with each other even at the most vulnerable times, and sustains them through bouts of abstinence or the natural sexual imbalances that are a normal part of married life. 

And prudence, the queen of virtues, is the practical application of these virtues to every aspect of a couple's sex life. It takes the question of achieving or avoiding pregnancy from an abstract consideration (Is this a healthy time to get pregnant? Can we afford another child?) to the nitty-gritty choices couples make each instant. If I don't intend to get pregnant, but signs indicate that I'm fertile tonight, I should not have sex. If I should not have sex, I should be careful about the way I present myself to my husband (who is, of course, on the same page with me) so I'm not sending a false message. If I don't intend to have sex, and he doesn't intend to have sex, should I push at him this way? Should I touch him there? Should I let him do this particular thing which is awfully sexy? Prudence looks at each action, each moment, and allows me to exercise my judgment over whether this is a particularly wise action right now, or whether it's going to lead me closer to either a lot of frustration. Am I willing to gamble the chance of nine months of aches and pains and a delightful but demanding baby at the end on the chance of a moment of pleasure? If not, am I pushing myself toward a moment of insanity where I just don't care about the possible consequences? Is finally making the decision to have sex at this moment actually an act of love and surrender, or am I allowing lust to make a fool of me? Sex has a unitive aspect, but people can be united in making poor decisions. Prudence takes the facts gleaned from NFP observations and turns them into the moment-by-moment action or sacrifice that is the lived Christian life.  

NFP Is Not Impossible
Sometimes we like to imagine that things we don't like have horrific consequences.  NFP opponents sometimes claim that some couples or some men just can't deal with the periodic abstinence it requires. By this theory, the Church's teaching about contraception must be wrong because some couples both can't deal with abstaining during fertile periods and also can't deal with having lots of children, so if both of those are just out, just totally impossible for them, then obviously God must mean for those people to be allowed to use contraception. After all, marriage is supposed to be a source of joy, not of suffering!

We guys are notorious for claiming dire physical results for not being satisfied. "Oh, baby, it'll hurt if I don't!" Let's be clear, though: abstaining from sex is possible. No one ever died from lack of sex. Men who respond to the need for temporary abstinence by turning to porn, to masturbation, or to other women are not the victims of some sort of dire necessity. They are choosing to do the wrong thing. It's sometimes hard not to do the wrong thing. And as Catholics, we are given the sacrament of confession to turn to and receive both the forgiveness of our sins and the graces to avoid sinning again.  But the basic truth remains: doing the wrong thing is wrong.

And indeed, there are many others that we are in union with when we experience the difficulties of abstaining for a time. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have not been able to find a spouse, who are separated by distance or death or health from their spouse, who have vowed celibacy for life, or who are in the time of waiting after meeting someone and before getting married. Many other people are having to make the same sacrifices that we are, and if they are without the tantalizing presence of the spouse with whom it would not be a sin to have sex, even if it would be imprudent in potentially causing a pregnancy which would be a risk to health or resources, those people also lack the compensations of at least being physically near someone whom they love.

God's grace is sufficient to the tests that are put before us.

MrsD: The first of the Ten Commandments is, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." That sex is a good thing does not make it the greatest thing. That it is the form of love particular to marriage does not mean it is the only way, or the highest way, of showing love in marriage. That it is tantalizing, powerful, desirable does not mean that it is irresistible. In fact, we already know that sex is a limited, temporal, earthly form of love because in heaven, where love is perfected, there is no marriage or giving in marriage. Is it good to have sex in marriage? Yes, of course. Is it impossible not to have sex in marriage? No, of course not -- and as an example of this, we have the ultimate model of the family, the Holy Family, not plaster saints, but a real husband and wife living under conditions of celibacy. Through God's grace, they achieved this not by not desiring one another, not because they were too boring or holy or frigid to have sex (and although we know that Mary remained sinless, we're not given much of a window into Joseph's struggle except being told that he was a virtuous man), but by the actual, practical fact of abstinence. 

One thing we know: that God never commands us to sin. His will is perfect, and ours are not. We want things that are not right. We desire things that are not good. We desire good things, but at inappropriate times. We justify bad means on the theory that they will achieve good ends. We imagine that our particular circumstances give us some personal wiggle room within universally binding moral norms. Because we are human, we fall, sometimes through negligence and sometimes through actively rejecting the possibility of God's grace. But grace means that nothing God commands is an impossibility, even when it requires something as painful and humbling as setting our own imperfect wills aside.

Part 3 will deal with sex and the mistaken views about it that contribute to the difficulties in discussing the Church's teaching on contraception.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Collaborators in a Culture of Death

The other day, a friend of mine linked to an article which argued that we should not refer to the large numbers of unborn killed via abortion as a "holocaust". I agree that this is not a helpful rhetorical move. What I found myself wanting to react to was actually some of the reason behind this, the way that people think about the Holocaust (capital "H", as in the mass extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis during World War Two) versus the way that we think about our own modern evils.

The author explains that a key reason for not making this comparison is that it unfairly paints the people in our modern day who participate in abortion as being like Nazis:
First of all, it is an act of rhetorical cruelty to women who have had abortions, who will easily draw from this the conclusion that they, personally, are being compared with genocidal Nazis. If we are serious about being “pro-life and pro-woman” we should avoid, across the board, statements like this that revile women as murderers, or imply that they are motivated by malice or evil.

And I’m not just saying “don’t make such statements publicly.” I’m not saying that we should speak kindly about women when others are listening, and reserve holocaust comparisons for our private in-house discussions. We should not make such statements at all, ever, because they are cruelly inaccurate, and demonstrate a radical ignorance of the root causes of abortion. Women don’t have abortion because they hate babies and think they should be eradicated – as the Nazis regarded Jews. Many women who have abortions have children already, children whom they love and care for, children they are struggling to feed. If not in poverty, they reside on its knife-edge, and the slightest change to income or expenses could have them facing homelessness. And as the Republican powers that be succeed in dismantling programs intended to protect the most vulnerable, this will be happening more and more. Women choose abortion – and it’s often barely a choice, because they are offered no real alternative – because they live in societies that do not look kindly on pregnant women and mothers, especially low-income or immigrant or racially Other women.
Again, I'd agree this is not a useful rhetorical tactic, but it is worth thinking about why. As such, this isn't so much an argument with the original pieces as a "this is what reading this made me think" kind of piece.

As World War Two fades out of living memory, it has come particularly in the American mind to be a morality tale about how the forces of freedom defeated the forces of genocide. In this comic book version of history, Europeans were either resistance fighters or collaborators, they struggled to save Jews from the Nazis or they were genocide supporters.

But as you read more deeply into mid 20th Century history, a much grayer world comes into view. The morality play version of the war is in some ways a product of the immediate post war years, in which a guilt wracked Europe looked at what had been wrought in the Holocaust and sought to mete out some kind of justice in order to return to normality. This meant separating "real Nazis" from "good Germans" in Germany itself, and separating "collaborators" from "resisters" in the rest of Europe. The most egregious cases were (sometimes) identified and placed into these bad categories, and the rest were in some sense able to tell themselves that they were not at fault because all the evils had been performed by those other ones.

And yet this post war division into sheep and goats was very much a simplification. The war plunged much of Europe into desperate choices, faced with forced labor, conscription, arrest, deportation, starvation, extermination. Those in middle Europe found themselves between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, the soldiers of either one of which might decide to take you to the ravine outside of town and put a bullet into your head for reasons outside of your control.

These evils were, for most people, imposed from outside. Yes, there were the few, the architects of war and mass killings: Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Stalin, Beria, Molotov, and their imitators down the chain of command. They set things in motion and created the cruel circumstances of an inhumane time. But for many people, the experience of these evils came down to questions such as: Do I protect this neighbor at the risk of reprisals against the whole village? Do I turn in that child to protect my child? Do I join this side to try to protect my people from that side?

It's an important point that a way in which the millions killed via abortion in our country differ from the millions killed in the service of Nazism and Communism is that there is no central architect to abortion promising that if only we can wipe our this race or that class, we will achieve a new utopia. But on the ground, the decisions faced by tens of millions of ordinary people are perhaps not so very different. People in desperate circumstances are faced with situations in which it seems possible to dodge some evil or secure some much needed security if only some one person is sacrificed, perhaps someone whom we can tell ourselves isn't even really quite a person or isn't really our responsibility.

What am I arguing here: that we should think of people involved with abortion as more like Nazis or that we should think more kindly of those who participated in the Holocaust? Neither. I don't think that "who should we blast with the most opprobrium?" is a healthy set of moral questions. Moral thought should not be focused on "whom am I fighting against?" or "whom should I hate?" Rather, when we think morally we think about how our own actions are good or evil, and we try to choose the good.

I'd propose that we should deploy a sort of historical empathy, both in seeing how hard and ambiguous some choices in the past may have seemed to ordinary people who found themselves under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances, and also in how our own choices might look for people outside of our own particular historical moment and assumptions. Like those in the past, trying to survive the grinding teeth of evil circumstances, we may not have much choice about the circumstances that we face, we can only be responsible for the choices that we make within those circumstances. We don't make choices that save or kill millions, thousands, or even dozens. We may at times face choices that affect one or two. Those are the choices we may face, and they will be hard enough. We're not absolved of our moral responsibility to do the right thing because the world seems determined to punish us for doing it, nor do we get to pick the world we live in. We are, most of us, making the small choices which seem huge to us, sometimes bigger than us, yet will never make the history books.

The socially acceptable evils of each age make it easier to absolve the wrongs performed by "good people", by "people like us". It's probably not possible to really strip away the social acceptability of the evils our own time is comfortable with, nor is it a great idea to be too eager to excuse the wrongs of people who collaborated with the horrendous evils of the past. But somewhere in the middle we need to be able to see that even some of the things which may seem to be barely a choice, in the sense that society seems ordered to force our collaboration in the evil of the age, may in a moral sense be some of the biggest choices that we will ever make.