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

Friday, October 30, 2020

Mrs Wilson

 Let me enjoin you, if you have Amazon Prime, to drop whatever you're doing and watch all three episodes of Mrs Wilson, streaming through tomorrow (10/31). 

This is a fascinating story of lies, of family and official deception, of forgiveness, and of learning to have faith in God.

Actress Ruth Wilson plays the title character, who is also her grandmother. Here, she talks about playing such a personal role, and how the family is still learning about the man who was her grandfather.

After watching this with our 17yo and 14yo, Darwin and I were happy to attest that our lives were open books, and that we had people who could vouch that we met at 18, and that everyone knows we just don't have time for any kind of secret life.

ADDED: Also, if you want to stroke your chin and speculate on the accuracy of the depictions of barely post-conciliar Catholicism in England, and was that a historically accurate cutting edge thing? or did the filmmakers just not grok the major shifts going on in the Catholic world at that time?, this series has got your back.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Not for Resale

 So says my author proofs, finally shipped to me on the slow boat after friends had received their paperback copies.

However, you know what is for sale? The paperback version of Unstable Felicity, available at fine Amazon retailers everywhere. And I can attest that the cover is velvety matte and delightful to the touch -- an important part of the reading experience.

Many of you are avidly following our adventures in self-publishing for research purposes, so here's my two cents on putting together an Amazon page for one's book through Author Central. The Kindle book and the paperback are two separate links, and each needs to be formatted. The Kindle version of the book contains the correct formatting for the book blurb:

Jill O'Leary's December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She's a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she'll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.

But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill's baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn't talked to since her father's funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family's inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who's suspiciously eager to reconcile with her. 

Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It's going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending. 

When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare's King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.
The paperback page has the same text, but it will not format into paragraphs. I have copied and pasted; I have entered html code; I have retyped the text. The formatting has not, so far, taken. I recall that Darwin had this problem too putting together his pages for If You Can Get It, so I'm optimistic that my paragraphing will finally be accepted by the powers that be.

Also, a taste of marketing: part of Darwin's marketing plan involves running time-sensitive promotions at discount sites that blast out to huge mailing lists. However, one needs to have a minimum of ten Amazon reviews on a book to list. So far, due to a late-night solicitation of friends, I have eleven reviews. But more is better! So again, let me entreat my devoted early readers to post an Amazon review -- you, my friends, have been built into our marketing strategy.

And thank you for all the kind words I've received so far. I'm grateful for all your literary support!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Holly Wreath

A thoughtful review of Unstable Felicity from Sherwood Smith at Goodreads

This book is a holly wreath.

Or, so my first thought when trying to find a way to sum it up. Being visually wired, I always think in image. The Yuletide holly wreath is a circle, the colors are vivid--the dark red of berries, the bright crimson of the bow that signals "holiday!", the deep, deep green of leaves that are so lovely yet can prick you until you bleed.

All of these symbols resonated so strongly for me--for this is an angry book. There were points when it was right up against my limit, but the sheer strength of it, for me, is that this story is never nihilistic.

The King Lear comparison should serve as a signal for the reader familiar with Shakespeare that no, this is not going to be a coy book dancing around the ideas of holiday and family (and Christmas) and shaking that admonitory finger at the reader, exhorting us to be cozy and loving and grateful because the holiday is "all about" cozy and loving (both family and friends) and grateful.

What the story does is examine how these "family values" can be used as weapons, and boy is that right out of Lear.

The book does not scorn family values. Just the opposite. What it does with such deft, vivid, entertaining grace is put the characters in situations in which they have to confront the emotions that usually get shoved away in favor of all the "busy" of a holiday--traveling a long distance because it's expected, hanging lights, decorating a tree, finding the "right" present, being bundled off to pageants, all in expectation of that first picturesque snowfall (or, if you live in an area where I do, looking for pictures of snowfalls).

The story examines with a relentlessly honest eye how emotions can be far more powerful than guns and swords and knives, because they are invisible, often thrust with the hiltless steel of moral superiority--the dark side of "should" and "ought."

It looks at personal responsibility, and expectation and assumptions, and what a family bond means. What friendship means.

What growing up means.

But there is that bow, and the brightness of the berries and the circle of the wreath. This story weaves in bright threads of humor, and even romance, as well as some nods to other storytelling forms in a slyly meta way that I found enchanting.

What the book reminded me of most strongly was the TV show Slings and Arrows, which also navigates the gantlet of invisible knives in its Lear season: intelligent, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, cruel, kind, above all interesting as it seeks out the truth of all those family bonds that we are admonished to honor each year at this time, and then in reknitting them with newfound awareness, reminds us of why they are there.

And if you are one of the kind folk who helped me briefly reach the vast heights of #65 in Holiday Fiction (Kindle) on Amazon, would you be gracious enough to leave a review? Some of the sites that Darwin intends to run promotions through require a minimum of ten Amazon reviews, which is the reason we offered a low introductory price to our faithful readers mostly likely to say eloquent and encouraging things. Strategy, friends, strategy!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Unstable Felicity on Amazon!

Gentle readers, here it is: through tomorrow, you can pick up the Kindle edition of Unstable Felicity for 99 cents!

We have a hard deadline of Wednesday for raising the price to $.3.99, so if you're ready to write an Amazon review for us, jump now!

You might be curious: why 99 cents? Why only until Wednesday? What happens afterward? We'll be laying out our pricing and marketing strategies in our Oak & Linden newsletter, which we'll be sending out this evening. Subscribe here to read about what we've learned about self-publishing so far:

  • More comments about Vellum, our layout software
  • Getting started with KDP, Amazon's direct-to-print program
  • How I became a pseudonym of my husband
  • Watching our sales stats (almost) live
  • Darwin meditates on rereading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series
  • Plus, get a look at our new logo!
If you're waiting for the paperback, that's coming soon. And the audiobook is also in the last stages of post-production. My friends, things are Coming Together.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Unstable Felicity Cover Reveal

 Gentle readers, I am delighted to present to you the cover of my novel, designed by the talented John Herreid!

Jill O’Leary’s December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She’s a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she’ll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.

But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill’s baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn’t talked to since her father’s funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family’s inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who’s suspiciously eager to reconcile with her.

Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It’s going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending.

When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare’s King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.

Hodge's lively novel tightly intertwines tragedy and comedy, leaving her protagonist and her readers grateful. --Leah Libresco Sargeant, Author, Building the Benedict Option

Who would think of combining Shakespeare's King Lear with a heartwarming Christmas tale? Add in a salute to Bollywood, and you have this vivid, insightful story that asks if you can ever go home again. --Sherwood Smith, Author, Crown Duel

Glowing with humor, insight, and the spirit of the season. --Rosamund Hodge, New York Times Best-Selling Author, Cruel Beauty

Many of you followed along with this story when I was posting it as a NaNo titled Christmas in Luxembourg. I've cleaned it up, fleshed it out, and made it into a compact volume suitable for tucking into a stocking, and you may purchase it as a paperback, ebook, or audiobook on November 1.

Or, for our friendly readers: sometime in the next week we'll be offering the ebook for $0.99 for a 24-hour period, to those who (on the honor system) would be willing to write an Amazon review. One thing we've learned about self-publishing: a book needs to have at least ten reviews to be at all viable on Amazon. Fortunately, we have more than ten friendly and eloquent readers, so I know this is a hurdle we'll jump quickly.

We here at chez Darwin have had immense, if exhausting, fun with this whole process so far. If we have even a modicum of success, we'll try it again next year with Strange Plots, and next time we'll give ourselves more than a five-month production window. Until then, enjoy a little Unstable Felicity!

UPDATE: You can buy Unstable Felicity at Amazon!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Bloody Ineffective

Years ago, I read an article by Caitlyn Flanagan in which she talked about a guy who had a stand-up routine riffing on a laundry detergent that advertised itself as good at getting out blood stains. The comic went on and on about who would be buying a detergent to get out blood? Serial killers? Ha ha! Flanagan pointed out that any woman could answer this question. She mentioned a time she'd been at a girls' high school on a warm day, and how the bathroom, the trash can full of blood-soaked pads, smelled like an abattoir. 

This is the phrase I remember, and I'm quoting it at almost twenty years' remove without Googling. My own bathroom trash can is currently full of pads and needing to be emptied before it reaches the abattoir stage. Blood is a reality for women of child-bearing age -- soaking it up, keeping it off our clothes, disposing of the waste. And the waste is big business. The monthly consumption in pads at our house alone indicates that we should buy stock in whatever conglomerate owns Always. 

Except for this past month, when I found myself, at a moment of necessity, at the drug store to pick up a prescription. Dashing down the feminine products aisle, I was confronted at eye level with an elegant matte package proclaiming itself to contain virtuous pads, the purchase of which would benefit girls around the globe who didn't have access to the pads we decadent Westerners take for granted. And they were organic too, nice absorbent cotton with none of that synthetic stuff that was so bad for the environment, both the global variety and the intimate environment the pad would function in. 

Well, I am a decadent Westerner who is short on time and and dripping with money, so I grabbed this handsome package. And now I'm going to be consuming the kind of laundry detergent that our comic thought was so amusing, because let me tell you something else Western science and research is good for: creating products that are effective. Why is it we don't use cotton rags anymore to soak up our monthly blood? Why is it women buy pads produced by mega-corporations with their labs and their synthetics and their R&D departments? It's because they work. It's because they don't leak blood. It's because they aren't thick and bulky. It's because the plastic wrapper doesn't come apart when you open it, and because the adhesive sticks. It's because they don't stink like an abattoir.

Is there a category of product marketed specifically for male needs that makes a virtue of not using the most effective means for the problem at hand? Old-fashioned tools, maybe, or boutique razor blades? But the message of these products is that used properly with methods of craftsmanship, they produce a higher-quality effect that modern mass-produced stuff. And women can and do use these things as well. "Virtuous" feminine products don't make these kind of claims. They rely on empathy and packaging: buy our thing because it's good for other women, and because we put it in an attractive package. Our pads may not work as well as the big-company pads, but that's okay because they're organic. You can feel good about your bulky, leaky pad, because a portion of your purchase goes to help girls in other countries, who presumably also wish not to bleed all over the place.

Empathy is a marketing tool. The only virtue of a pad is how well it works. Women (not just girls) in developing nations deserve products that soak up their blood, regardless of whether they soothe the consciences of harried women in the US. Money spent this way is money wasted. You can't stanch a bleeding heart with a maxi pad.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dangerous Visions


The 1903 move The Great Train Robbery included a tag shot, which was not part of the story but was used either as a teaser or a coda depending on the showing.  In it, an outlaw pointed his revolver directly at the viewer and fired the gun until empty.  Legend has it that this created panic among some viewers, because the experience of being shot at through the screen was so new and so realistic.  (As I sat down to write I briefly searched around to try to verify this claim, which I know I've heard multiple times, and I wasn't finding validation quickly, so we'll stick with "legend has it.")

What's interesting about the story is the reaction of the audience.  As described, the audience reacted to the events shown on the screen as if they were real, as if a gun was really being pointed at them.  In some sense, this is the purpose of all fiction, to inspire feelings in the audience as if the events being seen were real.  Whether we are reading or watching a film, seeing a play or listening to a radio drama, we respond to the story of the characters in question as if they are real people whose fate matters.  We want the couple to get together and live happily ever after.  We want the main characters to escape the perilous chase unharmed.  We want the dog to find its way home.  If you ask a movie viewer, "What's happening?" and they respond "Oh, it doesn't matter.  None of this is real," it's a clear sign that the movie is not being an effective work of fiction.  

However, if the purpose of fiction is to involve us in the characters and events that are portrayed, this means that there is also the question: are there things that the makers of fiction should not involve us in, or which we as fiction viewers/readers should should avoid being involved in?

Leah Libresco tackled some of these issues in a piece for The American Conservative about the French movie Cuties which Netflix caught so much flack (rightly) for advertising salaciously in its US release.

The French film is a coming-of-age story centered on Amy, a pre-teen French-Senegalese girl who rejects one kind of exploitation for another. Amy is alienated from her conservative, Muslim family when her father plans to take a second wife. She looks for a new identity and finds it by joining a dance group that takes their cues from pornography and other hypersexualized women.

The initial advertising presented the hypersexualization without any hint of critique. It showed the young actresses in provocative poses, and made it appear that the intended audience for the film was people who wanted to see prepubescent children sexualized.

To an extent, Netflix was right about the audience—though the goal of Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, was to unsettle these people, not titillate them. She drew inspiration for the story when she was shocked and sickened by seeing a group of eleven-year-old girls perform risqué dances. She interviewed pre-teen girls to make her film, learning from them the double pressure they felt: first, to exploit themselves for social media attention and second, to call their experience of exploitation liberation.

I’m very sympathetic to her critique, and I appreciate that she grounded her film in real experiences, but I’m profoundly skeptical of offering that critique through film. Critiquing hypersexualization through visual art is very difficult. How can you show the exploitation of a child to critique the exploitation of children? How can you expose the ugliness of a culture that’s entered the mainstream without being even uglier than what people have already acclimated themselves to?

This is an interesting and important question.  

I think the answer depends to some extent on the type of thing one is trying to critique.  Trying to make a movie which critiques the sexualization of young girls is particularly hard because the visual images themselves will carry a message to many viewers regardless of what the director intends them to convey.  Even if a movie is showing young girls acting suggestively in order to make the point that they should not be led into acting suggestively, this intent does not erase the fact that the movie itself is showing young girls acting suggestively.  For some viewers, this may be fine, and they may see the message without being disturbed by the image.  But for other viewers, the image as image will be primary, and the movie will end up causing exactly what it means to critique.  

Leah goes on to make a broader critique, however, using as her starting example the musical Assassins, which is meant to be a commentary on the over-notoriety which people who assassinate presidents achieve.

I took my husband to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and, in the post-show discussion, he said that the thesis of the show is that it is morally wrong to stage Assassins. The concept musical tells the story of successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins and weaves them together into a critique of the American love of spectacle and exceptionality. The assassins would rather be remembered, even infamously, than be ordinary.

At the climax of the show, the chorus of past assassins encourages Lee Harvey Oswald, saying that his notoriety strengthens them all. They need additional acts of violence to fan interest in their legacy. But they don’t just need Oswald, they need us, the audience. We are complicit when we treat assassins (or mass shooters) as objects of fascination. 

I find Assassins’ critique sharp and stinging, but there’s no denying my husband’s point that it argues against elevating assassins while doing just that. I wouldn’t be humming “The Ballad of Czolgosz” around the house without Sondheim using his genius to showcase President William McKinley’s murderer. I can’t guarantee the critique has outshone the spectacle.

Perhaps there's a basic process problem with a piece of art which seeks to argue that popular culture pays too much attention to some particular thing.  If the art is successful, then it will result in people paying attention to that thing, even if only to think about how they should not be paying attention to it.  And if the art is not successful, then it won't persuade anyone of the point.  Thus, any piece whose point is "we should not be discussing X so much" will necessarily fail in its success.  

But I think perhaps there's a broader issue with art which seeks to show us that something is bad through repulsion, whether it's "movies are oversexualized" or "movies glorify violence".  For a movie to be successful we have to want to see it, indeed at some level enjoy seeing it.  A movie which just leaves us feeling tired and disgusted is not a movie that will receive many recommendations.  And so filmmakers try to make their movies something people will want to watch, and in the process undercut the very message they are trying to send.

Thus, I can recall various movies which seemed artsy and important when I watched them in college and which were supposedly providing a dark commentary on how much our culture glorifies violence.  They did this by...  depicting violence.  And while they did make a point at some level, I think in the end they also ended up simply pushing the boundaries of movie violence even further, because at a certain dark level, watching them was enjoyable. From an older vantage point, I'm increasingly convinced that having a movie show violence in order to make the point that violence is overly glorified in movies is a self defeating approach.

How can an artist make that kind of point?  I think part of the problem with showing sexual images to make a point about the over-sexualization of culture, or showing violent images to make a point about the glorification of violence is that the images themselves end up with an independent existence.  Someone can watch them and enjoy them without recognizing or accepting the artist's intended meaning.

The solution, from an artistic point of view, is to change tactics.  What is it that you're trying to convey?  The idea of how a surfeit of sexual imagery or violent imagery ignores the inherent value of the person.  I think that in that case it's important to come up with something which conveys that devaluation, not to simply show the debasing image and hope the people will be repulsed by it.  

One way is to avoid imagery all together.  Sometimes the written word is more able to get across ideas and feelings without letting them be overpowered by images.  Perhaps a novel could have tackled the subject matter of Cuties without lending itself to exploitation.  But if the artist wants to use a movie to tackle this kind of topic, I think it's important to think about what will most clearly convey what the moral problem involved does to people.  This may mean a dialog scene or a reaction scene, not a scene where the exploitation you want to critique takes place.  If the director of Cuties wants to make people think about the plight of her young characters, she'd probably do well to focus primarily on these girls processing what the experience of over-sexualization has done to them, not on showing the dance scenes themselves.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Darwin on the Radio: Catholic Education Without Tuition

 I'm doing an every-few-weeks feature on the Son Rise Morning Show where I talk briefly with host Annie Mitchel about a topic related to Catholicism and economics.  A few weeks ago we did an initial segment talking about the concept for the segment.  And then this morning we did an interview discussing two dioceses (Wichita and Jefferson City) where parish schools are supported by tithing rather than by tuition, thus making them "free" for Catholic families other than a book and activity fee (and, of course, the aforesaid tithing.)  You can listen to the interview here.  

The following is not a transcript of the radio discussion, but covers some of the same material and expands on some things I didn't have time for on the air.

In researching the topic, I did some reading about the two dioceses.  It turns out that they have supported their schools from tithes rather than tuition since the point where Catholic school began to shift from the old model where religious sisters, brothers, and priests thought most of the classes to the modern model in which teaching is primarily done by lay teachers who, of course, need to be paid.  While most dioceses and parishes solved this problem by charging tuition, Wichita and Jefferson City made a commitment to support the schools through the parish offertory so that families would not have a financial reason to send their kids elsewhere.

To find out more, I called up Fr. Stephen Jones who is the head of Stewardship for the Diocese of Jefferson City.  

I'd kind of expected to discover that there was some kind of "secret sauce" to how these dioceses made it work.  Anyone who's done a certain amount of parish work knows that Catholics are really bad at tithing, so that a whole diocese could support its parish schools through offertory rather than tuition was really surprising to me.  

The answer was surprising in that it wasn't surprising.  Like Catholic parishes everywhere, they work hard on building a sense of stewardship, but it is an uphill battle.  They do work every year asking people to fill out Time, Talent, and Treasure forms and to think and pray about how they can help the parish and school more.  They remind people that the school is a benefit to the whole community and that it is a way of bringing up the next generation of Catholics in the faith.  But really, the only "secret sauce" is that they have decided to make Catholic education one of the primary ministries of their parish.  The school often takes up about 80% of parish funds, so it limits what other things they can do.  But because they consider the schools to be central to their mission, they prioritize it as they decide how to make their parish budgets.

Often when people look at a parish from the point of view of running a business, I've seen them bring a mentality that you should look at different ministries and functions and determine whether they "pay for themselves".  As in, do they bring in enough donation to support their activities.  Ministries or activities that do not pay for themselves may be encouraged to find a way to do so.  This is kind of like how a business manager might look at different product lines or offices of a business and determine whether some of them were not making a profit.

But of course, a key difference is that the purpose of a parish is not to turn a profit.  It's to bring the sacraments and Catholic teaching to its members.  This means that taking a "does this ministry pay for itself" approach can cause a parish to lose sight of its central mission.  Rather than looking at whether ministries are self supporting, it's probably better to ask: What is our mission and how central to our mission is this ministry?  

A parish does still have limited funds.  It can't support everything, so if there's a situation where there's not enough money to go around, it would be essential to pay for the most essential ministries and then encourage people who are passionate about doing other things to find additional resources to support the additional things they want to do.  

In the case of these diocese, they've made a decision that offering a Catholic education to all children in the parish without placing a burden of tuition upon them is central to their mission.  

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Jerome's Plan for Early Reading Education

In honor of St. Jerome's feast day yesterday, here are his thoughts on teaching a young girl to read, from Letter 107 (403):

Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the style upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. And let her have companions in her lessons to excite emulation in her, that she may be stimulated when she sees them praised. You must not scold her if she is slow to learn but must employ praise to excite her mind, so that she may be glad when she excels others and sorry when she is excelled by them. Above all you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her maturer years.

I would not necessarily follow all of Jerome's child-rearing advice, but this particular educational plan is humane and surprisingly modern.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Scraping By

 Indeed we are scraping -- the back porch, that is. And no process that involves wielding a heat gun can be unexciting, believe me and my burns.

I dumped a bunch of photos here in the order in which they were on my phone, so I'm sorry there's not a great narrative arc. But it's still more coherent than the presidential debate.

This is the current state of the back porch, and to be honest, it's not far off what it's looked like for the past ten years, minus the screens being down. We've been intending to make this area a pleasant and useful part of the family domain since we moved in. Looks like 2020 is going to be good for something!

The porch was painted arsenic green about 60 years ago, probably about the same time the tiki lights (currently on the floor on the left side of the photo) were put up. Finally we have put up ceiling fans, and already the place feels more habitable -- especially on hot days.

The porch had always felt dark and unwelcoming. Then we pulled down the big lattice panels on the far side, and voila! It became sunny and welcoming, a place we wanted to spend our spare hours in manual labor.

The entire porch is screened in, and the screens are technically removable, but the huge walls of screen have been painted into place and are effectively permanent. These slimmer frames cover the built-in trellises (of which more later). Removing them makes for easier scraping. The heat gun makes for awesome scraping. The burns on my arm testify that I have skin in the renovating game, and the blisters on my thumb attest that if I were a pro, I'd wear gloves. Still, beauty is fleeting, but apparently you only need to paint the back porch once every half-century. That's how the previous owners felt, anyway. 

To be honest, the blisters on my thumb (and forefinger, and the inside of my ring finger) aren't from scraping, but from prying out old staples and nails from the screen. There are about three generations of screen fastenings in these frames, one on top of the other, and the wood rotting out under all of them. We're going to use a lot of wood filler here, but for the most part the frames have held up.

The other side of the screens, in the peeling white paint of the porch exterior. Since we're going to paint all the woodwork the same color (not white), we don't have to worry about two-tone screens any more. And do you dig the ancient peeling paint? 

Before our neighbors put us onto the concept of heat guns (and in the time we've spent this summer dallying over mere slats of wood, the neighbors have scraped, sanded, and primed the entire side of their house), this is what we were getting from scraping off chipped paint and sanding.

Here is the exterior side of the narrow screens. The molding strips were fastened on with a nail gun at some point, because when I pop them off with the pry bar, the nails stay in and have to be pulled out with pliers. 

Here's the meat of the post: the new color scheme! The walls will be painted the same white as the exterior of the house. All trim on the first story (currently the same white) will be painted a pale sage, very shadowy. The floor of the porch (and of the kitchen porch, and the cellar door), which used to be the kelly green in the right of the photo, will be this deep green, which I think Sherwin Williams deems "Rookwood Shutter Green"

All the woodwork will be sage, you ask? Well, we thought so. And then we started scraping up top and wondered, were these boards once stained like the ceiling?

Kinda looks like, doesn't it?

So the question becomes, should we try to stain these topmost boards again? They're clearly a different wood than the rest of the porch. And will we even be able to get the woodwork clean enough to stain? 

Ah, the trellises. With much effort we popped one off for more convenient scraping, only to realize that they were meant to be permanent fixtures. Fortunately the damage was minimal. So we'll scrape the rest in place, and get this one back up where it belongs.

A bonus shot of the front porch, with the heat gun, the real star of the show. These are the doors from the living room. (The front door is under that bit of roof you see.) The exterior is Tudor, at least since 1929), so the upper stories have half-timbering in a chocolate brown. But the trim on the first story was all painted white. As I said above, we're painting it a shadowy sage green for just a bit of contrast. The doors will remain as they are.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A Disciplined Lethargy

I've been trying to do things lately.  Trying to get some exercise.  Trying to get some work done on the house.  Trying to do more writing and revising on The Great War.  So many things seemed to fall by the wayside during this odd, on-pause year, and in general they've been replaced with... nothing.  

Nothing real, at any rate.  Check Facebook.  Check Twitter.  Check the latest COVID stats.  See how the stock market is doing.  See how the novel is selling.  Maybe someone has said something on Facebook by now.  

I've done a few interviews (mostly with Catholic radio stations) to help promote If You Can Get It where I've been asked "You've got seven kids and a full time job, how do you find the time to write novels?"  Part of the answer is by not doing a whole lot else.  I made a decision a while back not to follow TV shows, etc.  It frees up time.  And I realized I could get by on less than the amount of sleep your supposed to get.

But something disturbing happened as I found myself not writing during the late spring and the summer: I didn't go back to any of those other things.  I'd built lasting habits of not doing things that took up a clear hour or two of dedicated time.  What took up the time when I wasn't writing, wasn't exercising, wasn't doing home improvement projects, and wasn't sleeping were activities which I could somehow justify as not committing myself to doing something other than working.  

"I'll just check Facebook for a moment."

But while in theory social media could be checked for just a moment or two, I could also scroll down it for five or ten minutes.  And then do that again.  And again.  Since it didn't seem like actually committing to actually doing something other than what I still felt like I ought to be doing, it became the nothing that could soak up significant periods of time.

We were re-reading The Screwtape Letters recently, and this passage seemed very uncomfortably relevant:

 "You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most my life doing in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."  C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Ch 12

In retrospect, I would have been better off binging on TV shows or light-weight novels than binging on nothing much.  It's a particularly dangerous set of habits for someone with an office job and a writing avocation.  So much I need to do and want to do is done sitting in front of a computer, and thus making a computer my my primary source of distraction is particularly destructive.

So here's to writing a quick blog post rather than scrolling down Facebook during lunch break, and trying to get a little bit better each day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

There is No Popular Vote

 Brandon issues his quadrennial roar: There is no "popular vote".

Every presidential election year I have to gear up to fight the entire army of the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass over the Electoral College, and endlessly explain to people that there is literally no popular vote in the United States; that we don't even have the mechanism required to ascertain the popular vote; that the number that the journalists report is not a popular vote number but consists of adding votes obtained in different elections structured by different laws and thus not actually capable of being added together; that in fact the United States holds not one but fifty-one elections for President, each a simulation of who would be President if the whole of the country were like a given state (or DC), and then partly weights these elections by population; that the President of the United States is literally the one who presides over the union of states; that it is more important in a country as large and diverse as the United States for the chief executive to have to appeal to people throughout the country than to appeal to sheer numbers of people, especially if the latter are heavily concentrated in only a few areas; that for level of interest and general understanding, the Electoral College is the only non-parliamentary system of election that simplifies the election in a way that makes it easy for everyone to follow; that anyone who uses the word 'gerrymandering' in connection with the Electoral College doesn't know what 'gerrymandering' is; that whether the Electoral College favors rural voters or urban voters depends entirely on how you define 'rural' and 'urban' (even Wyoming and Alaska have urban areas, and even California and New York have rural areas, by entirely reasonable definitions of both); that the Electoral College does not in fact structurally favor either Democrats or Republicans; etc., etc., etc. I am very much not looking forward to the iteration of this argument that this year is currently promising.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Prayers for the Cupp Family

 "You know neither the day nor the hour...." -- Matthew 25:13

Six months ago, no one could have imagined the chaos of pandemic and quarantine. Week by week, day by day, life alters, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in irreversible courses.

Longtime blog readers may remember Kyle Cupp, who used to blog. He wrote a book called "Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt," about his spiritual journey and the death of his daughter Vivian shortly after birth. Kyle is a college friend of Darwins, and we have fond memories of hanging out with him in his black trenchcoat days.

Last week Kyle had three living children. This week he has two.

Kyle's oldest son Jonathan, after a traumatic brain injury and two agonizing nights in the hospital, died yesterday morning. He was 14.

The costs associated with hospitalization and death are astronomical, and come on top of the shock of grief. Some college friends organized a fundraiser for the Cupp Family, and many loving friends have already donated. But please, if you have a few charitable dollars to spare, consider contributing to defray the costs for this family already staggered by sudden loss and grief.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A History Buff Reads American Royals

 It is only fair at the outset to say that I'm a completely inappropriate person to review American Royals, a YA-ish novel pitched by the publisher as "Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown."  I ran across it because I was researching advertising comps for my own novel, and American Royals and its just-released sequel Majesty are selling very, very well .  I was intrigued because the premise of the novel is fascinating to me from a historical point of view: After his victory at Yorktown, George Washington was offered the crown of a new American constitutional monarchy and now in an otherwise similar 2020 with smartphones and social media and WaWa milkshakes with extra M&Ms, America is still ruled by the House of Washington.  Without the fledgling republic in the New World to inspire other revolutions, the Bourbons are still ruling France, the Romanovs are on the throne of Russia, and the world is one big glitzy tabloid for those who just love reading about the latest doings of The Royals.  

Of course, my first big question, especially reading it during the long hot summer of 2020, was: What happened with slavery?  Was there a Civil War in this world?  Is slavery still around? Did a southern royal dynasty nonetheless abolish the greatest source of wealth in the 18th and 19th century South?  Beyond that, I had secondary order questions about how the presence of a monarchy would change the political and cultural nature of America.

So I borrowed a copy of American Royals from our local library.  And the answer is...  It doesn't really address those questions much at all.  The world of this monarchical America is little different from ours, aside being slightly more glitzy and woke than our own world.  (For instance, same sex marriage appears to have come about some time ago in this world, and one of the main characters is the daughter of a lesbian power-couple: mom is a dot-com millionaire and mama is a cabinet secretary in the royal administration.)

The early history of the monarchy is only hinted at.  In the first pages Princess Beatrice (who is slated to be the first ruling queen of the US) reflects on her history:

Beatrice could trace her ancestry back to the tenth century.  

It was really only through Queen Martha's side, though most people refrained from mentioning that.  After all, King George I had been nothing but an upstart planter from Virginia until he married well and then fought even better.  He fought so well that he helped win America's independence, and was then rewarded by its people with a crown.

But through Martha, at least, Beatrice could trace her lineage for more than forty generations. Among her forebears were kinds and queens and archdukes, scholars and soldiers, even a canonized saint.  We have much to learn by looking back, her father always reminded her.  Never forget where you come from.

This would seem to suggest that Beatrice's ancestors are descended from George and Martha Washington, which is a bit odd given that no one is descended form George and Martha: they had no children.  Martha had children from her first marriage.  Did they succeed to the crown?  Later in the book it's hinted that the George II who is mentioned as succeeding George I was actually his nephew (George Steptoe Washington) through George Washington's younger brother.  This would be a more traditional dynastic choice, though it's unclear then why Beatrice is sitting around reflecting on Martha's ancestry.

It's mentioned at one point that George I freed his slaves in his will (as the real George Washington did in real life) but that he had not acted to end slavery and that it was "another two generations" until this was dealt with, but we get no hints as to how it was dealt with.  

 Among the other things we don't learn much about are the development of the American monarchy as a system of government.  We get the impression that the monarchy is much more actively in power than in the modern UK.  For instance, "the king kept his Cabinet evenly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans" whereas in our world the King of England hasn't had much power in picking the cabinet since...  Well, that's really kind of a tricky question, since the big contrast between the British constitution and ours is that it's unwritten.  The British George III (who was on the throne during the American Revolution) was in fact one of the transitional reigns in this regard from the era when kings clearly appointed ministers of their own choose but who had the confidence of parliament to the later era when parliament clearly chose the ministers and told the monarch who to choose.  Those better versed in British history than I could correct me, but my understanding is that after George III monarchs perhaps influenced the choice of ministers, but really didn't choose them, while before George III the monarch chose, and it was during the long reign of George III that the shift gradually happened.

It is clearly stated that the American monarchy has a written constitution, so perhaps one could imagine that the House of Washington has retained pre-George III British style prerogatives, but if you want this book to be a work of political and historical imagination (which it isn't) this seems like something you'd really want to figure out.

Another thing which is dropped out there but never dealt with is that the American monarchy apparently contains several independent duchies and earldoms.  Among these are noble titles and spheres of control granted to Native American nations.  We hear about a Duke of the Sioux and a Duke of the Iroquois.  There's also the Dukedom of Orange which covers much of the West Coast and is apparently ruled by a noble family that is Black.  All of these suggest some wild departures in history that should have some big impacts on culture, but we don't actually learn anything more about them except for what Princess Beatrice thinks of their various scions as her parents are pushing her to marry an eligible young man.  

One rather hard to swallow bit of world-building which is essential to the plot is that apparently written into the American constitution is a rule that the a monarch can only marry someone who is either from a royal house or a noble family.  America has many noble families who have been appointed to title by the monarchy over the years.  It's stated that early kings mostly married into the European royal houses, but in the book a key plot point is whether Princess Beatrice will marry the heir to the dukes of Boston or her hunky bodyguard with whom she has fallen in love.  Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha is in love with the Boston heir whom the King and Queen want Beatrice to marry.  And young Prince Jefferson is in love with Nina, daughter of the afore-mentioned lesbian power couple, but of course Gina is a total "ordinary girl" who is totally out of place in the world of royal intrigue and fancy ball dresses, because although she's the daughter of a cabinet minister and the best friend of Princess Samantha since they were both little girls, she's also Hispanic which means that she's totally rooted and not used the high life.  Then throw in Daphne, Prince Jefferson's scheming ex-girlfriend who is sort of a Kate Middleton brought over from the Evil Star Trek mirror universe.

I am not the target market for an angsty love triangle story, but I have enjoyed some YA novels with angry love triangles so long as they're heavy on the interesting world building.  This, however, is pretty thin on the world building.  I could enjoy Crazy Rich Asians as a popcorn read that sketched a glitzy world that's utterly alien to me, but honestly I felt like I came away from Crazy Rich Asians with move of a sense of how elite Singapore society worked than I did the elite American monarchy circles of this world.  There characters in CRA, while not deep, also seemed more realistic and individual than these.  For instance, the best friend character in CRA played by Awkwafina in the movie clearly comes from a layer of society which is way richer than the main character, but at the same time not moving in the circles of the male lead's family.  Even within that topmost layer there are layers, and the characters are all conscious of them, how they got there, and in what senses they are and are not permeable.  It's not especially deep, and it may not be accurate, but it's much more layered than a world in which the daughter of a cabinet minister and a dot-com executive is an "ordinary girl" stand in because of her last name.  

Of course, the second half of the publisher's pitch for American Royals is "Perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!"  I don't know these, but glancing at blurbs it looks like there's from a genre of outsiders falling in love with royalty.  So if that's your thing, maybe this is running the tropes you love.  But if you were hoping there'd be so interesting alternate history and culture mixed in with the love triangles, give this is a pass.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Self Publishing: A Man, A Plan, A Canal

 As I mentioned in the first post on self publishing, one of the first things I did when I started planning out this venture was to build a Google spreadsheet.  That spreadsheet is a break-even business plan for the venture.  It makes a huge number of assumptions, as it must because there are a huge number of things that I don't know.  So I don't expect this plan to be an accurate picture of what is to some, but I do need it to provide me with a way to model that dynamics of how things could go.  With this post, I'll explain how I made a business plan for this project and how you could go about making a plan for a similar project.

My overall goal with this plan is to determine what needs to happen, given certain parameters, for us to make back our money on this project.  When we think about making back the money invested in a project, it's important to keep in mind that there are two types of expenses I need to cover.

I have fixed expenses: the cost of getting the cover designed, the audiobook recorded, etc.  These expenses will be the same whether I sell 100 books or 10,000 books.  When I talk about making back those expenses, I mean that I need to make enough profit on selling the books that it will cover these fixed expenses.  So if I invested $2,500 in fixed expenses and I sold 2,500 books, I would need $1 in profit per book to cover my fixed expenses.

However, in addition to my fixed expenses, I also have variable expenses.  My main variable expense in selling self-published books is the expense of making people aware that the book is out there and they may want to buy it.  Some of this will be accomplished via word of mouth.  People I know read the book, enjoy it, tell other people they like the book, some of those people buy it and read it, they tell other people, etc.  It's like trying to get nuclear fission to occur, where readers are radioactive atoms and their enthusiasm about the book are the particles that those atoms emit which can go on to strike other atoms and cause them to break down.  If I have enough readers with enough enthusiasm, the book will eventually "sell itself".  

As with nuclear fission, there are two variables.  With fission, those variables are how quickly the atoms are decaying and how many atoms there are.  If the atoms decay and emit neutrons frequently, and there is a critical mass of other atoms around for those emitted neutrons to hit and breakdown, you get a chain reaction.  If the element is not radioactive enough, or there isn't enough of it together to reach critical mass, you don't get a chain reaction.

So too with readers and enthusiasm.  The more readers enjoy the book, the more likely they are to recommend it, leave positive reviews, buy it for friends, etc.  So the quality of the book and the enthusiasm it inspires in readers is one clear factor.  But the other factor necessary to start a chain reaction is to the number of readers.  If you don't have enough atoms, you can't get a chain reaction.  If you don't have enough readers, even if those who do read are enthusiastic their enthusiasm will not get a chain reaction going.  

I like this analogy because it makes it clear that quality matters.  If people really, really love your book, it can "go viral" as they say these days with relatively few initial readers.  If the book is moderately enjoyable, you'll need more readers to get things rolling.  If it's a dog, your readers will be like inert atoms and won't create any chain reaction at all.  

And how do you reach that critical mass of readers?  Well, one clear method is advertising.  There are lots of different ways to advertise a book, and I'll get into that in more detail in future posts, but for now we're talking about advertising as our main variable expense.  Let's say that on average I need to spend $2 in advertising for each copy of a book that I sell.  If that ratio holds, if I spend $200 I'll sell 100 books, and if I spend $2,000 I'll sell 1,000 books.  This variation is why it's called a "variable expense" it changes as the scale of my business changes.  

So think again about our two types of expenses: fixed and variable.  Let's work with that $2 in advertising per copy ratio that I suggested above, and let's assume that I had $1000 in fixed expenses.  To cover my fixed expenses, I need to make $1000 in profit after paying for the advertising that it takes to move my books.  If I sell a book for $5 and my profit is $3 on that book, then $2 goes to cover the advertising and there's $1 left in order to go to my fixed expenses.  At that rate, I need to sell 1,000 books to cover my fixed expenses, which means that I need to plan on spending $2,000 in advertising.  

Of course, I could increase my price.  If I sold for $6 instead of $5 my profit per book would be higher and I could pay off my fixed expenses faster.  But here's where the multi-factor model gets tricky: if I increase my price from $5 to $6, my book probably will become somewhat less attractive to customers.  This is called price elasticity: the rate at which people become less eager to buy something as the price goes up.  When I worked in pricing fast food, we used to joke that we'd only need to sell one hamburger a day if it sold for $10,000.  The only challenge is: How do you sell a $10,000 hamburger?

How indeed.

Of course, the price elasticity of a novel in this particular category is yet another thing that I do not yet know.  So in order to have a working model, I've assumed that I need to price this novel in line with the prices that I've seen for other holiday novels and novellas.  If it's basically credible in terms of price, then my remaining problem is to have a large enough advertising budget to make the whole thing work, and enough of a profit margin to pay off the fixed expenses.

What does that look like?

Right now it looks like this:

There's a fair amount of detail in there, and as I say the numbers are fluid because it's full of assumptions.  The overall model is:

Across all formats I'm budgeting to sell 3,400 copies over the course of 60 days.  This is a very aggressive number, it it includes a couple of discount windows including a week of $0.99 for the ebook which will be heavily marketed through discount newsletters.  The total advertising budget is $6,200.  Revenue from royalties is $8,713.  So take the advertising cost out of that revenue, and then the fixed expenses and the total profit is: -$37

All of that work is to break even.  If we're able to do better, we may some money.  If we can at least learn enough that we're covering fixed expenses and paying off a certain amount of our fixed expenses, I'll consider it a fairly successful experiment because next year we'll still have that book in print and we can add another one.  The new novel will have new fixed expenses, but the published novel will have now new fixed expenses and so if we can push both novels next year (and get people who buy like one novel to click through to buy the next) we'll become more efficient as we go along.  

So there's a rough overview of business plan thinking.  More information on the self publishing project to come.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Self Publishing: The Undiscovered Country

 You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I recently had a novel published.  (If you somehow missed out on this, today is your day to discover If You Can Get It out from Ignatius Press.)  It's been a fascinating experience helping to market the novel, but one of the things that I discovered as I dug into resources for authors promoting their novels is that many of them are written by and for self-published authors.  If you're curious to read on the topic, this site by Nicholas Erik is the most comprehensive by far.  Of course, the trick is that self-published authors can do things which traditionally published authors can't.  For example, they can adjust the price and run promotions.  They can insert a live "subscribe to my newsletter" link into the ebook's backmatter, etc.

Needless to say, there are things which a publisher does for you which represent a clear advantage versus self-publishing.  They pay you an advance on royalties, cover the expenses of cover design, copy-editing, typesetting, etc., and do a certain amount of marketing themselves.  But having just gone through the experience of launching a book while not being a publisher, I'll admit I was curious to try it as a publisher.  

One night, as I was looking at Amazon Sales Rank data and talking about things it would be interesting to be able to do, it clicked with us: We have multiple quality manuscripts sitting around, waiting to be revised and to find their way to readers; we have enough money to professionally package a novel and market it; and we now have spent a good deal of time researching novel marketing.  We could do this.

And so we are.

MrsDarwin's mashup of Hallmark Christmas genre and King Lear, now titled Unstable Felicity, will be coming out this fall for your Christmas reading pleasure.  It has been entirely revised from its original draft version of two years ago, and we'll be bringing it out in ebook, paperback, and professionally narrated audiobook.  

This endeavor, and potential future ones from either one of us, required a name.  Normally an author might create an email newsletter and gather a subscription list simply to promote his or her own writing.  However, since in our case we are both novelists and we believe that our writing shares enough essential characteristics that readers of the one might be interested in the other, we decided to create our own private little imprint.  Meet Oak & Linden Press.  And indeed, if you'd be interested in being kept up to date on these fiction endeavors via you inbox, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter.  We certainly won't spam you.  The newsletter will go out roughly once a month with occasional extra newsletters around novel releases, and it will feature book reviews and personal news as well as occasional tactful encouragement to buy our novels and get everyone else you know to do so as well.

But of course, we're also bloggers to the core.  So we'll also blog the self-publishing process as transparently as possible, including discussing the costs involved our what things worked and failed for us as we go along.  

Part 1: You've Got To Have Money to Make Money

I'll be blunt while hopefully not being jerky: this is not something we could have afforded ten years ago. The world of self publishing on Amazon is such that one could publish a book for next to nothing: make your own cover, be your own copy-editor, etc.  However, to put out a book which is going to look as good and be as well marketed as a professionally published book takes money.  In our case, we decided to plow money that I made form my advance for If You Can Get It into this new venture, along with the money that MrsDarwin makes for singing weddings and funerals and recently reselling some homeschooling supplies.  

When we decided to try this, I started out with a Google spreadsheet where I calculated the costs of putting the novel out, planned prices for different formats, tried to estimate the number of copies of each format we could sell from Nov 1 to Dec 31 and accounted for royalty rates and advertising costs.  

We'll be investing roughly $2,550 into getting this book out.  The breakdown for that is:

Cover Design: $800
Copy-editing: $500
Audiobook Production: ~$1000 (roughly $300 per finished hour, and this is quite a short book at just over three hours)
Book layout software (Vellum -- strongly recommended): $250

Obviously, some of these are choices.  There are places one could probably get a cover done cheaper, but we have a graphic designer we want to work with and really believe in.  Doing an audiobook is perhaps an extra complication (and clearly an extra cost) but we wanted to learn how to market an audiobook in connection with ebook and hard copy, and we had a narrator that we really wanted to work with.  

These expenses represent the sunk cost, money that we need to spend before the book is even available.  But of course, it's not true that "if you build it, they will come".  Any kind of internet sales (as Nicholas Erik notes in the novel marketing site that I linked to above) consists of three basic elements:

1) Drive traffic to a site where you hope to make a sale
2) Convert those visitors into actual sales
3) Calculate whether you made a net profit

Driving traffic usually costs money, though there are ways to drive traffic "organically" which do not necessary cost much.  Converting visitors into customers involves having a product that people still want to buy once they see more details about it and the price that you're charging.  And whether you made a net profit has to do with whether you are successfully charging a price to cover the expense of getting the customers there plus a portion of your original production costs.  

And thence the spreadsheets to try to balance all those factors and make the venture pay.  I'll discuss that business plan in the next installment.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Must Go To Hadestown

Last May Leah Libresco Sargent told me to listen to Hadestown, a New-Orleans inflected retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers. In “Wedding Song,” for instance, when Eurydice is won over by Orpheus’s courtship, his singing animates the set. There’s no wirework (which must be a relief to the actor playing Orpheus, Reeve Carney, previously star of the perilous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Instead, the five-person chorus moves tables and hoists chairs, giving shape to Orpheus’s promise that, despite his poverty, “The trees are gonna lay the wedding table.”

In another show, this might be part of the heightened tone of theater, unremarkable as the act of singing is in musicals. Orpheus seems to experience it that way, but Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) clearly experiences it as diegetic action. She turns in confusion to see the usually invisible extras and takes in Orpheus with new eyes. There is a real magic to his song, and the cynical Eurydice, focused purely on survival, begins to consider there might be something more to the world.

The gods have their power established through similarly simple effects. When Hades (Patrick Page) delivers his first lines, his subbasement basso profundo feels like a trick. Nearly every subsequent time he opens his mouth, the audience stopped breathing for a moment, awed.

To match him, Orpheus has an implausible falsetto in his signature song (“Epic”). The first time Carney arced into his high melody, I leaned forward, staring at his mouth, trying to figure out if he was still carrying the tune or if it had been passed off to another member of the cast. It was Carney every time.

His voice, in that register, is unearthly, not lovely. Orpheus hasn’t written this tune, he’s remembered it, and as he performs, it seems like something is singing through him. He isn’t a songwriter, it turns out, but he might be the last person who can hear this song—the original love song of Hades and Persephone, one that the lovers themselves have lost the tune of.

Last September Simcha Fisher echoed her.

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

But I was busy with other things, and then I didn't feel I had time to get into a new show, and life got in the way, and I forgot.

I was wrong, and I beg you not to make the same mistake. You can hear the Original Broadway Cast Recording assembled in this Youtube playlist.

As I have been finishing up the final edits on my novel, I've been listening to this song on repeat -- not, perhaps the absolute best number in the show, but the strings melody at 2:48 is one of the most beautiful things I've heard.


In these days of shutdown, as theaters close indefinitely, the last words of Leah's review take on a bittersharp poignancy:

In the final moments of suspense, even knowing the original story, I watched with bated breath, waiting to see if the production was willing for Orpheus to fail. For him to turn back is predictable. To evade the ending is cheap. But the show has told us at the beginning (and will remind us at the end) that this is an old song, a sad song, and that “we’re going to sing it anyway.” But, in the conclusion, Hermes and the chorus admit that, even knowing and performing every night, they “begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time.”

And for a moment, it’s imaginable that it could. That one day the marquee will be dark and the show will have suddenly closed, with the actors as surprised as the ticket holders for future performances, only able to offer in explanation, “Last night, he made it.”

Saturday, August 29, 2020


I, like all of you, have read about "helicopter parents", those crazy folk who hover about their children's lives, smoothing the rough paths, fighting the battles, fixing the problems. Ha ha! I have laughed, along with you. What's wrong with these nuts? Don't they know their children need independence to develop their own lives and mature into adults? 

Indeed, I've had no problem sending kids off for a week of summer camp or family visiting, without any desire to check the password-protected photo websites or call every day to make sure Junior is doing well. Kids, you gotta let 'em fly, right?

Hoo boy, I never sent a kid off to college.

Perhaps the difference is that when a child goes to camp, or on vacation, or to see cousins, that child is coming back home. It's no hardship to go a week without chatting when you know that on Saturday, you'll catch up and hear all the details and go back to normal. But now a piece of my heart lives three hours away, and I miss her. I want to hear all about how classes went, and what's the deal with auditions, and who she's meeting, and how she's getting settled. I can't shout upstairs anymore every time I see a dog meme or a stupid pun or a Harry Potter ranking article. We don't pass each other in the kitchen and exchange quotes. I like this human, and I miss being in contact with her daily.

On the other hand, I know that no college student wants Mom texting all day with links and photos and advice and chat. I wouldn't have wanted that at 18. I wanted to start my adult life, to be responsible for myself, to make friends without reference to my parents' community, to my childhood. I wanted to reinvent myself, and you can't do that with your parents watching over your shoulder, even lovingly.

But the savvy parent plays the long game. First, have a lot of children close together. Get them through the most trying age, until they're friends even though they all have different personalities. Then when one goes away, the siblings will text each other, and that's how Mom will find out that Saturday is karaoke night and the sisters are strategizing about which song to sing ("Satisfied", from Hamilton). 

And I'm not going to text and ask her to have someone video it and send it to us, no sir, because that would be hovering. But if the sisters get a video, you bet I'll be watching it over their shoulders.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

In Harm's Way

The New York Times has a good factual piece up tracing the movements of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who shot three people during rioting in Kenosha, WI. It's worth reading the whole thing, and there are of course more details which may become clear later (or may not -- how much clarity will come up even in court trying to interview a lot of highly involved people who were running around a chaotic scene late at night is questionable.) Something in it that will seem to confirm the instincts of many on the right is that in both shooting incidents, Rittenhouse fired only after fleeing first and being in attacked. 

But I think there's a wider point that people whose sense of basic civic order has been outraged by week after week of televised looting and arson and violence need to keep in mind: a key element of social order is that citizens have the right to defend their own property and neighborhoods and neighbors, and that civil authorities are supposed to fulfill their duties by doing this for citizens in a restrained, orderly, and well-trained fashion. For roving groups of self-appointed people to travel off to some other community where there's civil disorder, and try to impose their own order is not a help. It is putting themselves and others in harms way.

Even if it's true that Rittenhouse was defending himself in each case that he fired his rifle, he had no business being out in the streets thirty miles from home, across state lines, carrying a weapon. In times like these it's understandable and even virtuous for people to defend their own neighborhoods, but vigilante tourism is nearly as bad for society as riot tourism.

It's in the nature of a seventeen year old male to want to have a cause to go take action for. That's why societies throughout history have found it easy to use young men about that age as soldiers.

But even though it's good to want to guard civil order, civil order is not guarded when self appointed people arm themselves and go looking for trouble. Trouble should never be looked for. Just as George Zimmerman was wrong to follow and confront Trayvon Martin rather than leaving the civil authorities to follow up on his 911 call, armed citizens should not be setting off on their own to try to enforce order on the streets. Arming yourself and then actively putting yourself into a dangerous situation where you may think you need to use a weapon to defend yourself is not something citizens should be doing.  If your own neighborhood is under threat, then it's just to use force to protect your life and home or business. If your neighborhood is not under threat, then the best thing to do is stay home and be grateful that you are not facing that danger.  Going off to find somewhere where there is danger is the wrong thing to do.  

So however eager those of us on the right may have been to see someone bring some order back to riot-torn streets, Rittenhouse's actions are not ones that should be celebrated.  Freelance order from out of town vigilantes is not order at all, it's just a different kind of chaos.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

See Darwin on Ignatius Press Live

 Should you be so inclined, tune in (if that terminology from a past age may be used) to the Ignatius Press Facebook Page at 8:00PM EDT on Wednesday, August 26th to see me (Darwin) participate in a Facebook Live video interview with editor Thomas Jacobi.  We'll discuss my newly released novel, If You Can Get It, Catholic literature, and whatever else strikes our fancy for the space of thirty minutes or so.  And if you've found me an oddly faceless entity for the last fifteen odd years (some of them more odd than others) I can promise you that I will be appearing in actual human form, from the library of our house, not as a legged fish or a heavily bearded Victorian biologist.  (Though, it is true that I am more bearded now, if not more Victorian, than I was prior to the pandemic.)

And if you just can't make that particular time, the video will remain upon the Ignatius Press Facebook page for however long our current digital dispensation lasts, so you can always watch it after the fact.

UPDATE: If you missed seeing the interview live, you can now see the archived version here:

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Ready to Launch

 We spent the past week getting ready for our oldest to go to college on Thursday. I will say up front, I was not all right. Each day my anxiety built, to the point where Thursday morning, every time I had a moment alone I felt my heart pounding and my breathing get ragged.

"This is just anxiety," I would tell myself. "You are not having a heart attack. Every kind of change requires growth and stretching. You are stretching." 

But once we got on the road -- Mom, Dad, and Eldest -- I felt more at ease. It's not as if she's nervous about going. She's been half-gone for a month, chatting with her classmates online, developing a set, starting in-jokes, being on calls until all hours, creating a new social life. 

The night before she left, I heard her in my room (where she could get some peace from siblings) belting out a tune while on a call. 

"Were you singing with the Japesters?" I asked, surprised. (The Japesters are her freshman chums. The rest of us track them through her, as one follows a soap opera or a neighborhood group.)

"No," she said. "This was a call with the Discord fan group for that piano covers guy I watch on YouTube."

"You're in another Discord group?" I said. "You guys call each other? How can you sing over an internet call without the sound cutting out?" 

She shrugged it all off. "It all works out if you sing really loud."

This is probably sound life advice.

By the time we dropped her at college, all worry was gone. She ran into someone from her freshman chat group in the hall. We even met a few of the Japesters, who actually have real names instead of handles. The kids are all right. They are all ready to launch.

Life won't slow down here. Darwin and I talked all through the three-hour drive home. We're planning a launch of our own: we're self-publishing one of my NaNo Hallmark/Shakepeare mashups in time for Christmas sales, and it's all a great game of budgeting, marketing, and design choices. (More on this soon, for devoted readers.) And at home, nothing is static. The 6yo just lost his four front teeth. The almost-17yo is applying for jobs. The almost-12yo broke his arm two weeks ago, and has been brandishing his cast in a perpetual Dab to annoy his sisters. The 10yo is making plans to raise money to go to camp next summer. The 14yo is getting ready to paint her bedroom yellow, the hardest of all colors. The baby, who is actually a big 3yo, is chatting all the time. We miss the Eldest, but we can't sit around thinking about it or people will eat the food off our plates and take over our pillows. We hope we don't see her again for a good three months.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

School Reading Lists and Plans: Grades 6-8

 It's the season for thinking about education in the Darwin household.  Today we drive our eldest out to college -- we'll see how that goes in the time of coronavirus -- but it's also the time for getting people's school assignments ready for the coming year.  By the time, I of course mean "totally last minute".  There are some good and worthy people out there who plan their homeschool curriculum six to twelve months ahead of time.  We're more the "it's a week and a half till we start school, we better know if we need to order books" kind of household.  

If you too are in the middle of last minute school planning (or perhaps getting ready to jump ship from a "distance education" logjam and do something that involves less Zoom meetings, perhaps this will be of some use.

We break down homeschool planning according to age.  MrsDarwin deals with K-5 and I deal with 6-12.  The rationale for this is that from middle school on up the kids can be trusted to sit down and read a book on their own or do a set of math problems on their own in a fairly organized fashion.  The younger ones need someone to sit next to them or look over the shoulder and make sure they are doing work.  Since I'm mostly tied up with work during the day, it makes sense to have me deal with the older kids.  

Math is the most straightforward subject.  For these middle grades we use the Saxon books.  They're basic and perhaps a little repetitive, but they come in clear one-day assignments and the lessons in the book for these grades are at a level where kids can pretty reliably read the explanations to themselves, grasp the concepts, and then go on to do the work.  No crazy techniques that parents can't follow here if they're asked to help out.  We've used Saxon 7/6 for sixth grade and Saxon 8/7 for eight grade.  From there one faces a choice, you could do Saxon Algebra 1/2 (one half) as your eighth grade book, or you can do what we did which was switch over to the series we've used for high school Art of Problem Solving.  Last year, I had our eighth grader use Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra for eighth grade.  I like the art of problem solving books because the explanations of mathematical concepts make sense to me and are much more in depth and example-driven than the Saxon lessons.  However, the kids reaction has been... mixed.  And the books do not break down into simple one-lesson-per-day structures.  You need to look at the chapters and their sub-chapters and figure out a pace for yourself which usually involves 3-4 sub-chapters a week.  Also, the Art of Problem Solving books are, honestly, designed for kids who are deep into math and may want to participate in math competitions.  None of our kids so far fit that description.  I tell them they can skip the starred problems which are designed to be extra-challenging mind-bending problems to help you prepare for competition.  And we have not had a kid decide to tackle Calculus, so I can't speak to that book.  When I was homeschooled myself, I used Saxon straight up through Calculus in senior year of highschool.  It was workman-like, but I felt that in the last two years there were concepts that I wasn't grasping fully.

Science at this level is a bit tricky.  I haven't run into any middle grade textbooks that I'm particularly impressed with.  Science you encounter in 6th to 8th is not going to be the most in-depth science you'll ever read, and often textbooks rely on simplifications that verge on falsifications.  But you are at this point laying the groundwork for a lifetime's understanding of science, and I think it can be worth doing more than "go to the library and pick up what looks interesting to you.

In sixth grade last year I had our 11-year-old read a book I'd stumbled across called Astronomy 101.  I'd actually had our next eldest read it the year before in seventh grade, but I had her read it faster and I then had her read Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man about her pioneering anthropology work with chimpanzees.  Last year I had our eighth grader read Microbe Hunters and The Selfish Gene.  Some might ask why I had our Catholic kid read a Richard Dawkins book.  Selfish Gene is not primarily about Dawkins atheism, but he does definitely digress into discussing his philosophical views at times.  However, after reading several other books tackling evolution at this reading level, The Selfish Gene honestly did seem like the best and mostly clearly written.  So I told our eighth grader to be aware of his viewpoint and went ahead and assigned it.  This is an age when it's appropriate to start making those interpretive decisions as a student.

For Reading/Literature I'll just list off what we've had people read in the last few years. 


The Winged Watchman
The Borrowed House
Farmer Boy
Swiss Family Robinson
Children's Homer
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
Edith Hamilton's Mythology (maybe a stretch for a lot of kids, but this one really got into mythology)


Katie John
Hobberdy Dick
Alice in Wonderland
Through the Looking Glass
A Little Princess
The Good Master
Swallows and Amazons
Between the Sword and the Wall
The Revolution is not a Dinner Party


One is One
Till We Have Face
The Great Divorce
The Great Gatsby
The Man Who Was Thursday
End of Track
The Last Days of Night

These lists are fairly personal.  I skipped books that the kids had already read, and tried to fit the books to their interests and to some extent to the periods they were covering in history.  I certainly wouldn't consider the lists normative, but they're all books worth reading if you are looking for ideas.

In history, choices are kind of tricky.  I had the sixth grader read the first half Gombrich's Little History of the World, and then supplemented that with individual books on Greece and Rome including the Oxford Children's History of the Ancient World.  In seventh grade, I want him to cover Medieval to Modern, and I'll use the second half of Grombrich, but I need to find something else as well.  Last time we did seventh grade, I used a number of stand alone books to cover industrial revolution to the present day:

Sally Wister's Journal
Patriot's Daughter (about Lafayette's daughter during the French Revolution)
Napoleon and the Napoloeonic Wars (by Albert Marrin)
Captains of Industry
Mill Girl
Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse
Garibaldi, Knight of Italy
The First World War by Hew Strachen (his concise volume, not the massive one)
World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone

For eighth grade last year, I had out eighth grader read Land of Hope by Wilfred McClay

Our approach to grammar and composition has honestly been a weakness, probably because MrsDarwin and I write so much and thus the exercises in books mostly seem really tiresome.  We've used various books out of the Warriner's English Grammar & Composition series, which are solid, old school grammar, usage, and composition books.  

Religion is also a topic which is a bit scattered.  MrsDarwin does daily bible readings with all the kids as well as reading reflections on the readings, etc.  They're enrolled in the parish religious education program, which MrsDarwin teaches in.  And there's also usually a book, though I'm not as good as I should be about keeping up assignments.  

In eighth grade a year ago I assigned The How To Book of the Mass, St. Francis of Assisi by GK Chesterton, and Story of Soul by St. Therese.

A year before that I made use of an illustrated series on Church history and had her read The Church in Revolutionary Times, The Church and the Modern Nations, and The Church Today.  That series is quite good and evenhanded in its dealing with Catholicism and Protestantism, and it has a good world-wide viewpoint, but it's unfortunately long out of print.  With some searching, you can find decent copies used at reasonable prices, though.