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

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues


1 Cor. 12:4-10 — There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit… To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge… to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues… 
Acts 2:1-11 — And when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together… Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, and the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites… yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God…”

On a weekend trip to New York City, Darwin and I attended noon Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, on 65th Ave. We arrived early and had a chance to sit in the empty church and pray. It was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, surprisingly intimate for such a massive gothic space. And up behind the altar, an ensemble was practicing the polyphonic motets for mass. 

This group was exceptionally talented, and their practice involved fine-tuning passages and working on the group dynamic. With the reverb in the space, I could not make out the Latin words, but I could follow the melismatic flow of the vowels, or sequences of repeated phrases sung on “i-i-e”. Even uncomprehended, the sound was glorious and transporting. I could have sat in the space for hours letting the harmonies wash over me.

The second reading for this Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:4-12, about the different gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Perhaps the most controversial item on this list is “varieties of tongues”. I grew up in a community heavily influenced by the Charismatic Renewal, a movement first started by students at Duquesne University in 1967. A hallmark of the Charismatic movement is “speaking in tongues”, a kind of vocalization that is a oral outpouring of a form of ecstatic prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard this phenomenon, which sounds like multi-syllabic babbling (unkindly spoofed somewhere as sounding like an auctioneer’s chant: “Shoulda bought a Honda bought a Ford bought a Ford…”). 

The charisms of the Spirit are many, as 1 Corinthians testifies, and “varieties of tongues” are almost the least of the list. Yet speaking in tongues is a baseline indicator of spiritual openness in the Charismatic community, and reluctance to babble is seen as reluctance to the movings of the Spirit, as blocking the free movement of God in one’s soul. And indeed, Charismatic worship relies heavily on an emotional (and often emotionally manipulative) abandonment, what Nietzsche would have termed the Dionysian side of the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of religious experience. Specifically, what is called praying in tongues is supposed to flow from a sub-rational state in which you are free to make meaningless sounds as you are moved because the meaning can only be understood through the Spirit. (It can easily be simulated, of course, and as there is a certain amount of pressure in Charismatic communities to display this gift, who is to say how intertwined are the urgings of the Spirit and the conscious decision of a person to utter free vocalizations?)

Yet the tongues of Pentecost are not sub-rational. The words the Apostles spoke had a specific meaning, not just in the spiritual realm, but in human, linguistic terms. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, all the nationalities who were in Jerusalem for the feast understood the Apostles in their own language. Not only were the sounds not meaningless, they had a concrete, practical, specific immediate application. The Apostles were not speaking some spiritual language, because there is no spiritual language. Angels, of their own accord, do not speak because they have no bodies, no senses. When they are sent by God as messengers in the Bible, their words are always clear and immediately understood (if not immediately believed). 

We are told in the epistles that the Spirit speaks through us through inexpressible groans and longings, because we do not know how to pray as we ought. And it is true that prayer is turning the heart toward God, and so an outpouring of sound and syllables, directed to God as an act of worship, is prayer. But I do not believe that the Charismatic form of prayer which manifests as singing or chanting of inherently senseless syllables is the Biblical gift of tongues.

There are different spiritual droughts in different eras, but it is incredible that God would have withheld a gift important enough to merit a mention in Holy Writ until 1967.  Even before I heard the mass readings this week, as I sat and listened to the singers behind the altar fine tune phrases and start and break off at the prompting of the conductor, it struck me that in some ways the gift of tongues is much like hearing beautiful music without fully understanding what is being said. There is meaning behind the sound, if only you could understand it, but even so the structure and the rhythm and the talent of the singers conveys something significant. It is not an individual babbling, but a highly complex, highly intelligent communication. You can feel the underlying coherence, even if you cannot understand exactly what is being said. It is super-rational, not sub-rational — when the meaning is revealed to reason, suddenly new layers of comprehension are available to the mind and to the senses.

After communion, the ensemble sang the piece I’d heard them rehearsing earlier, and now I had a worship aid that I could consult for the title of the piece, the Latin words, and their English translation. The text was about the wedding of Cana, which had been the gospel reading, and the repeated, interwoven vowel pattern of “i-i-e” I had heard earlier now resolved itself into “bibite”: drink. The head waiter of the wedding feast drank the wine poured from the water jars, the guests drank and were satisfied, Jesus pours out his blood for us to drink, I drank in the music which until then had carried all beauty and emotion of this moment without revealing its meaning. And I praised God for the gift of tongues given to me through the singers, through the conductor, through the composer, through a language I didn’t understand myself. 

Small surprise that in 1967, as that gift of being able to worship in a language not understood was being withdrawn from the American church, people should long for renewal and for the ability to lose oneself in sound and praise. Small wonder that as the liturgy became basic and comprehensible and banalized, people should still long for the emotional release of waves of sound, human voices rising and falling in ecstasy. We have a human need to pray in a way that overwhelms our senses, and the human need to have that experience interpreted to us so that it becomes even richer and fuller and more significant, because worship is not an individual act but a communal event. Like the gift of tongues, worship is something that has an underlying meaning and structure which is immediately apparent, if not fully understood. And once it is interpreted, it stirs into flames which come to rest on each of us. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” asked the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, as he interpreted the scriptures for them. That gift of tongues is, I think, not just the physical gift of making vocal sound, but the burning of our hearts within us as we hear something that is too much for us to comprehend immediately. And may God send us interpreters so that our individual burning becomes subsumed in the larger fire of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Stopping the Outrage Cycle

MrsDarwin and I spent the weekend on a jaunt to New York City, a chance both to see in person some friends we'd been in a book discussion group with online and also to get away alone together for a couple of nights now that the baby is weened. The periods during our marriage when there has been no nursing baby have been fairly short, and so we always try to make sure to use those opportunities to get some time along together.

This meant that I had a certain distance from the social media vortex that kicked into gear as everyone spent twenty-four hours arguing about whether a snippet of video from the intersection of the March For Life and the Indigenous Peoples March represented MAGA hat-wearing Catholic high school boys mocking an aged tribal leader, or a leftist counter-protester provoking a reaction and then perpetrating a scam with the assistance of the media. For a fair-minded description of an entire hour-plus video providing context to the video snippets that were shared on social media, you can read this post at Medium by a liberal Democrat who cares about the facts of the situation.

My purpose here is not to dissect this particular event. In terms of the outrage cycle, it is utterly typical. Someone is accused of doing something which confirms all of the other side's political prejudices about their opponents. Everyone shares around versions of the story, with links and memes sweeping through social media over the course of just a few hours. People assert that to keep quiet is to be Part Of The Problem, and everyone needs to denounce the other side because this is exactly the sort of awful thing they do. Then somewhere out in the more excitable reaches of the internet, which are legion, someone digs up the personal information of the people involved. They post this so that people can more conveniently express their outrage. Half the time they finger the wrong person, but regardless, soon all the people at the center of the outrage are being sent death threats, having their jobs or schools called and asked to get rid of them, etc. By a few days later, the specifics of the case are forgotten by everyone except the couple of sacrificial victims who have had their real lives savaged by the online mob, while everyone else goes back to the constant hum of political antagonism which is the cosmic background radiation of our political climate -- both sides more sure that the other side is made up of villainous haters who treat others badly.

The reasons that people find these stories so satisfying to read and spread are themselves toxic, as the C. S. Lewis quote that everyone is now, the day after, sharing around describes:

"The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

There are two layers of lesson important to take from this. First off, in this specific case, there was an injustice done to a group of young people and one young man in particular, as people whose desire to see right wing pro-lifers look like arrogant racists shared around a story which turned out to be false in virtually every detail. A good lesson from this would be: Stop. Wait. Check your biases. Is this story “too good to check”? Can it be confirmed or will it fall apart within twenty-four hours as other sources and witnesses come forward. Are you really doing the world any great disservice by not sharing and commenting on the story the minute it comes before you, in its raw, unproven form?

It would be good if this particular case, in which many basically fair-minded people have had cause to admit that the first reactions they shared were wrong, caused people to at least slow down and wait until a story is confirmed before passing it on. But I would to propose that our online culture needs a much larger change in behavior. Even when a story is confirmed, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why it is that people are so busy sharing stories of small incidents of hate from across the country.

When someone shares the story of how a synagogue they never knew about before that day was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, or how an illegal immigrant in some far away state committed some heinous crime, we aren’t helping the person injured and we’re seldom changing the minds of those around us. We’re re-enforcing our conviction that the people on the other side are bad. If you know nothing about your neighbor who voted the opposite you did, but paint him with the brush of incidents you read about online about the behavior of “MAGA rednecks” or “Social Justice Warriors”, you are adding to the radicalization of the country. And even if you might think it a good thing if many people were more radically on your side, you need to realize that this controversies always cut both ways, pushing some people more radically to your side while pushing others more radically to the other.

That is bad enough, and I would argue that we should reconsider a lot of the sharing of bad stories that we do simply in order to show how bad the other side is, because it causes us to caricature people in this way. But I think we also need to consider just what kind of beast it is that we’re feeding by sharing these videos and retweets and hot takes. Inevitably, when one of these stories takes off, the real people involved in it are hunted down by online vigilante mobs who post their home addresses, swamp their social media pages, send them threats of violence and death, contact their family and schools and employers, and generally try to destroy their lives just in order to satisfy some primal need for a pound of flesh to be taken from the guilty. These mob punishments are arbitrary, sometimes ill aimed, and usually far more severe than the offense would warrant. It’s typical for the “responsible” social media users to decry the fact that these things happen. “Of course, doxing someone is always wrong.”

So fine, we murmur the pieties. But I increasingly think that we need to consider the fact that doxing, threats, and the destruction of people’s reputations in ways far exceeding any kind of justice are the inevitable result of these outrage firestorms. We need also to consider that there are content sites and social media accounts that make their money and their reputations (and thus owe their existence) to instantly running with any story capable of stoking outrage. The likes and shares and clicks are lifesblood to them. So when we share and like and retweet and comment on the outrage of the moment, we are feeding the outrage beast, encouraging those accounts and media outlets to share faster and check less and distort more in their eagerness to reap the most outrage clicks. And that outrage beast is not just encouraging us and our friends to hate ‘the other’, that beast is also the carrier mechanism for the even more vicious behavior of threats and harassment and personal destruction. Even if we ourselves say we reject the doxing and the threats, by helping to spread the outrage we inevitably help to make the threats and harassment worse.

The solution is to stop feeding these social media fires more oxygen. You’re not saving democracy and decency when you instantly share the latest outrage link or like someone’s hot take on it. You’re chipping one more flake off the foundations of our common civilization and fanning the fire just a little more.

This doesn’t mean that you need to ignore bad behavior or say nothing about how we can do better. Write your take about how MAGA hats have no place at a pro-life march or about the right way to respond to a ‘pro-choice escort’ screaming obscenities in your face. But break the outrage cycle. Don’t share the latest “oh my gosh, did you see this terrible person” story. Don’t thoughtlessly quip that someone should be fired or expelled or made to know what it feels like, because there’s someone out there online who is going to act on that chorus of suggestions.

I know that I am only one small voice against the whirlwind here. The very structure of the technologies that I’m going to share this post on reinforces the behavior that I’m saying we should avoid. But we don’t have to have any realistic chance of stopping all the bad online behavior to curtail our own. Even if it seems like just as many people are sharing toxic takes next week, if we don’t we ourselves will be better people, less poisoned by the need to characterize others, and we will each be doing our own small part to make things better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Advertising Masculinity

I finally succumbed to the viral marketing attempt and watched the Gillette ad about toxic masculinity that everyone's been talking about. (embedded below)

It's an interesting example of the attempt to prove that there's no such thing as bad publicity, in that it doesn't talk about all about razors and was probably guaranteed to annoy a lot of men (who in theory would be their target audience, unless this is actually mostly to push their "lady razor" segment, which given its prices may be more valuable.)

I suppose at some level they're trying to create an association of "good men = men who use Gillette" but they don't put much work into that association and I think their message is also probably going to be hampered by the fact that the most memorable parts of the add are the "men are the WORST" images of packs of feral teens and long lines of men behind grills saying in sync "boys will be boys". The images in the second half of men intervening and demonstrating good behavior are not the most memorable images in the spot.

The structure of the ad makes "men are bad" seem like the most memorable message. If they wanted to go with more of a "men should do right" message I think it would have been more effective to have some sort of a throughline to hang the "men doing right' message on. Their final image is of a boy seeing his father intervene to stop bullying. If their throughline was, "I learned a lot from my father..." and showed him stopping bullying, telling him cat-calling was unacceptable, keeping a promise, whatever. And then they could even have wrapped up with the dad also giving the lesson, "Get a shave. You look scruffy." which would have tied it back to the actual product.



Friday, January 11, 2019

The University and the Flash Mob

Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater, proclaims in the proud words of president Fr. Sean Sheridan:
How do we educate and evangelize a culture in crisis? And how do we equip a generation raised in that culture to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.  
As president of Franciscan University, those are questions I think about every day. They go straight to the heart of our mission and the challenges we currently face. 
Recently, Franciscan University has come under fire from critics of our University community who have accused us of compromising our Catholic mission and witness. These critics could not be more wrong. 
Today, as always, Franciscan University is committed to forming joyful, intentional disciples who can proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. Today, as always, Franciscan University remains academically excellent, completely faithful to the teaching of the Church, and passionately Catholic. And today, as always, Franciscan University wants to serve God and the Church by educating and raising up a new generation of humble, holy, faithful Catholic leaders equipped to evangelize the culture.
Academic excellence is the first quality proclaimed by Franciscan, as well it should be. The purpose of a university should be academic excellence, else why should it exist? And how does a university combine academic excellence with passionate Catholicism and a goal of educating and evangelizing a culture in crisis?
Recently at FUS, an upper-level class tried to combine these aims. Five students under the direction of Dr. Steven Lewis, the chair of the English department, studied books that compared and contrasted modern views of Catholicism and faith, including works which exemplified the "culture in crisis" which Fr. Sheridan has committed the university to evangelizing . One of these books was Emmanuel Carèrre's The Kingdom (2018), of which First Things says:
The genius and the apostle are alike, according to Kierkegaard, in that both bring new ideas into the world. But there’s a crucial difference. Geniuses are ahead of their time, and, consequently, the knowledge they bring forth always “disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race.” Thus we take it as a given in the twenty-first century that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Mona Lisa is printed on shower curtains and beach towels. But the apostle’s message is eternal, outside of time. Because of this, it can never be assimilated. The topsy-turvy logic of the Gospels—in which the last shall be first and the meek will inherit the earth—remains permanently paradoxical, never to be absorbed by ideas of progress. Every incursion of eternity retains the power to shock. 
In many ways, Emmanuel ­Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, is about just this irreducible strangeness of ­Christianity: a church in which the low are made high, and the least qualified candidate for any job—the stutterer, the outcast, the murderer—is invar­iably the person whom God chooses to help build his kingdom on earth. Carrère himself is one such unlikely candidate. Born in Paris in 1957, he has achieved success in France as a novelist, biographer, and writer for film and TV. As this truncated CV suggests, he has a penchant for combining genres. The Kingdom is itself half autobiography and half fictionalized account of the early Christian Church. The autobiographical portion centers on Carrère’s early to mid-thirties, when a bout of writer’s block plunged him first into crisis and then into Catholicism with a convert’s zeal. For three years, he attended Mass daily, prayed and observed the sacraments devotedly, and filled twenty notebooks with his own commentary on the Gospels, until the time he now refers to as his “Christian period” came to an end.
Dr. Lewis taught this class once, and then opted not to use The Kingdom again. While it was unquestionably a study of a modern mind grappling with Catholicism, it also contains a scene in which Carèrre, watching late night pornography, indulges in an explicit, blasphemous, banal meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary participating with the actresses. It's sordid and paltry in the way that people who think they are so edgy often are. In a way that the culture which needs evangelization often is.

The website Church Militant, which specializes in a kind of tabloid Catholicism, learned of this incident post facto, and rolled it into a larger exposé on the liberalization of Franciscan University. This article, despite containing no background information about the course, no details of its enrollment, and no interviews with Dr. Lewis, did offer for readers' breathless consideration an explicit section of the book, with only the sheerest cosmetic editing of offensive words. (I won't link to it, and if you're inclined to google it, you should know that Church Militant derives income from people clicking through to their site.) The reason given for sharing this material with the entire internet was to protest Franciscan University's use of it in a class, to lament the outrage to the Blessed Virgin, and to demand the firing of Prof. Lewis and an apology from the administration for having exposing young minds to such filth in an academic setting. Included were anonymous speculations about planned left-wing coups to destroy FUS's Catholic identity, with Prof. Lewis's class being one example of such a direction. (Current faculty member Bob Rice, not speaking anonymously, offers some analysis of these claims.)

I am not sure that the standard practiced by Church Militant would pass muster with Franciscan University's freshman journalism classes, but as a method of sparking pious outrage, it is very effective. A day or so after Church Militant's article was posted, Fr. Sheridan offered a new statement on how a Catholic university should operate:


The existing policy on academic freedom will be revised. Reading material will not be at the discretion of tenured professors, the University's own hires, but at the sufferance of internet lynch mobs who can barely finish one outrage cycle before leaping on a fresh cause. Shortly after this statement, Prof. Lewis was removed as chair of the English department. Not content with the scalp, Church Militant is demanding the whole head, insisting that Prof. Lewis be fired. And the online outrage machine will move on, will demand that Something Be Done about the next cause, and the partisans will be suffused with the righteous thrill of action until the day the machine comes to devour their diocese, their parish, their apostolate, their reputation.

There can be, and should be, debate about how to best understand and engage with a intellectual culture which is often hostile to Catholic moral teaching and practices. Not every student needs to prepare to evangelize the culture in the same way. We need faithful theologians, doctors, nurses, elementary teachers, theater artists, classicists, engineers, computer programmers, biologists, and journalists. And we need Catholic intellectuals. Students from FUS, going on in academia, preparing for graduate studies, will soon be confronted with programs, professors, reading material, and other students who will challenge their faith and their critical thinking skills and clarity of communication.

And make no mistake, even pompous intellectuals who pride themselves on being edgy enough to compare the BVM to porn stars deserve to be evangelized. God considers no person beyond the pale of his love. And so perhaps a few people studying how to evangelize the culture through literature and academia might be called to study that particular culture, to better counter it, and introduce it to God's love in words it can hear.

The point is, if we want magazines like First Things to provide intellectual and spiritual context for us, or reviewers who can intelligently dissect art house films and show the culture how those works are flawed even on their own terms, where do we expect those Catholic intellectuals to come from if our Catholic universities are too tender to train them? Must every professor of literature be a convert who came up on the mean streets of Harvard or U. of Chicago?

If FUS wants to recruit a higher caliber of student, if it wants alumni capable of determining how a crank website is trying to manipulate its readers, if it wants to maintain the morale of its teachers and attract quality talent, perhaps it will consider a stronger brand of intellectual and moral fortitude in the face of a internet flash mob who by next month will have forgotten that this fracas ever took place. 

Quick Takes

1. Swedish Death Cleaning and the Anorexic Home. A good take on the recent trend of de-cluttering and tidying up.
Four years ago, when Marie Kondo’s four-million-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was first published in English, the initial reaction to its extreme form of home minimalism was predictable enough. To her readers, Kondo’s endearingly animistic ethos (famously, she writes that rolling up one’s socks is cruel to the sock, that socks should be lovingly folded, so they can rest after a long day “trapped between your foot and your shoe”) and punishing principle of nothing extra, was a welcome reprieve against the excesses of home-related consumerism. Even though it was an instant best-seller, the book came across as a cult object, countercultural in the way that becoming a monk is countercultural. With Kondo, the key to a happier, more fortunate life is to throw nearly everything away, even useful things, keeping only the very few items that “spark joy” when held. In Kondo’s world, one might only need four teacups and two dishtowels. After so much bullying Nespresso-and-thread-count lunacy, the sort of thinking that could make a temp office worker making $15,000 a year believe a dual climate-controlled wine locker (available at Wal-Mart for less than $400) is a “home essential,” entering Kondo’s ladylike realm of precious spareness, where you always know where your keys are because there is nothing else on your hallway table, ever, could feel like tip-toeing into a quiet patch of sanity. You had been choking under an avalanche of stuff, and look! All you’d ever needed was a single river rock in the palm of your hand. 
It can sound healthy enough, even sensible, with living space shrinking, and open-plan architecture (which does away with those useful clutter containers called walls) still inexorably on the rise. But the problem of a Marie Kondo in a shopaholic consumer society is that even the best-intentioned minimalism turns into more consumerism, just of a more demanding, neurotic sort. The relentless paring down is a convenient and ongoing clearing of the stage for some fresh, as-yet unmet, un-acquired object which—unlike those other familiar ones grown boring or distasteful with time—has the box-fresh ability to give jollies. And neurotic it is; Kondo herself admits that her need to organize and strip down does not come from a place of great mental health. She writes how, by the age of five, she could not help but compulsively clean not just her personal spaces, but those of her siblings and parents as well; how she was once traumatized—to the point of crying at the very memory—by a shampoo bottle that had developed a slimy bottom in a humid bathroom. “From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child,” she writes. “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” No amount of quasi-religious your-socks-have-feelings pillow-talk can turn “It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends” into anything but a good reason to seek therapy. Photos of Kondo’s own apartment show not just a white sofa and rug, but white everything, an anorexic space meant to be viewed as the apex of serene livability that no average person could—and, I would add, should—possibly feel comfortable living in.

2. The Weird Mouths of Finch Chicks. 

3. Brandon with a fantastic post on Structures of Fantasy.
In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn identifies four major forms of fantasy literature, by looking at the way in which the fantastic enters into the story, which might be roughly characterized in the following way, using Mendlesohn's labels:

(1) Portal-Quest: The characters enter by some means into a fantastic world.
(2) Immersive: The story occurs in a fantastic world treated as the real world.
(3) Intrusion: The fantastic enters into and disrupts the real world as something foreign to it.
(4) Liminal: The fantastic enters into the real world as if it were part of the real world.

I think we can generalize this a bit, and a notation would be handy in doing so. So let's take a standard set-up, the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic:

M|F

There are a few things that need to be recognized about this distinction. It will be important for later that the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic is relative, not absolute; the mundane is the 'rest state' or 'reference point' in the narrative. 'Mundane' here is not a synonym for 'real' and something obviously real can be fantastic relative to someone else. (And both are common parts of human experience. If you fall asleep and dream and then wake-up, you've from mundane to fantastic to mundane again. If you walk through a dark wood and get creeped out, you're in a fantastic state relative to your usual state.) Despite its possibly counterintuitive sound, the fantastic is also the more fundamental of the two notions -- nothing in a narrative is recognizable as mundane except in contrast to the fantastic, but the fantastic in a narrative is fantastic directly to the hearer or reader. While it's tempting to talk about 'the mundane world' and 'the fantastic world', in many situations we are not talking about worlds, but just states or contexts.

The notation we have so far doesn't of itself constitute any sort of story at all; it's just the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic. To get a story we have to do something to that contrast. There are several things we can do.

M|>F 
A mundane element can move into a fantastic context.

M<|F 
A fantastic element can move into a mundane context. 
MF| 
A context recognizable as mundane can turn out also to be fantastic. 
|FM 
A context recognizable as fantastic can be treated as mundane. 
These correspond to Mendlesohn's four major kinds of fantasy (portal-quest, intrusion, liminal, and immersive, respectively). However, again, I want to understand these at a more general level; this is not an empirical classification, but a kind of narrative movement. To these four, I think we need to add a fifth: 
M?F 
It can be deliberately ambiguous whether we are dealing with the mundane or fantastic. (This is often how writers try to handle Christmas stories in movies and television shows -- everything is mundane and not fantastic, but there's that one strange thing, so that maybe you were dealing with the fantastic all along? That department store Santa couldn't have really been Santa Claus -- and yet....)
4. The kids went on a Harry Potter binge over Christmas, reading all the books and watching all the movies. Of course, we had to watch these as well:





5. It's also a good time to watch this... or did we lose an hour, and so there's no time?



6. Now you can own Ruth Bader Ginsburg's crocheted collar in metal lace form:



7. Amy Welborn writes about the Prosperity Gospel:
You might see and hear some of this: 
Through faith, I came to understand my purpose and look at the success I’ve found because of that. 
Through faith, I came to see and accept how beautiful I am, and what true beauty is. 
Because of faith, I feel great about myself and affirm my life as amazing and accomplished. 
This is hard, this is tricky, and I hope I can tease this apart correctly. Because I’m sure this might be striking you as just wrong. Because isn’t that  part of what faith is? In accepting Jesus as Lord of my life, aren’t I opening myself to a re-orientation, a proper understanding of myself and my relationship to the world that’s going to bear this fruit? 
True. All that is fruit of a relationship with Christ. 
Plot twist: But it’s really not that important, either. 
And it’s certainly not the center of the spiritual life, as traditionally understood. It’s irrelevant to the core of it and, in the end, is a distraction, and – if used as a selling point evangelization tool, only part of the way to that core.
 8. And Bearing responds with a post about consolations as a form of Prosperity Gospel:
Consolations are, in the writings of the saints and in the writings of the magisterium, the opposite of affliction.   These are free gifts of happiness, contentment, felt blessings, confidence in the presence of God, strong feelings of conviction. All bestowed by God on some of the faithful, and occasionally understood to be withdrawn from them by God, as a means of increasing their (or someone's) growth in faith. 
Numerous saints have warned Christians against mistaking the consolation for something it is not. It is not (necessarily) a reward or a punishment; it is certainly not a reliable indication of the holiness of the individual, such that holier people receive more or fewer consolations; and while we may hope for consolations, we are expressly warned against making the consolation the end that we seek. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Working Off Yesterday's Technology

Our second eldest daughter has recently developed an interest in photography and video, for which she bought herself a DSLR camera. However, in the process of explaining things like depth of field, focus, f-stop, and ISO, I'd pulled out my old film SLR cameras which I haven't used in 8+ years in order to explain some concepts. She was interested enough that on her Christmas list she included "rolls of film so I can try Dad's old cameras".

The first thing I checked was whether it was possible to get film developed these days. There were two reasons I finally stopped shooting film. One was that when we bought our first iPhones, I finally succumbed to the convenience of always having a camera in my pocket (even if it wasn't nearly as good) and stopped hauling around the Pentax SLR that was older than I was. The other was that as other people started abandoning film, the surviving local photo labs in grocery and drugstores were clearly decreasing in quality. I had several roles of film ruined by poor handling, and between that and the temptation to have the picture RIGHT NOW in order to email or post it, I'd stopped using the film cameras. The answer is that yes, there are still active photo labs in 2019, both a few down in Columbus proper and also pro/enthusiast labs that do lots of business by mail.

Indeed, as I read around, it turns out that there's a mini-resurgence of interest in film photography in the last few years. Like the resurgence in turntable and vinyl records, film photography is no longer turned to by the mass public as the easiest way to get something done, but there is a community of enthusiasts, both amateurs and professionals, who are now using film cameras not because they're the only way to take pictures, but because they offer specific advantages compared to modern technology: the process of taking pictures and waiting for results is different, the grain of the film emulsion provides a different look from the product of a digital light sensor (though there are apps that can modify digital pictures to have similar looks), and medium and large format film formats objectively gather more detail than even the newest standard DSLR sensors.


There's also a combination of nostalgia and cheapness which is attractive to hobbyists. Because most people have moved on to using smartphones and digital cameras to take pictures, there's a huge number of abandoned film cameras around the country. Thus, the price for buying up old film cameras is very low. The ones which are most sought after now are generally not the highly computerized and motorized auto-everything models which were common shortly before digital photography caused the film photography industry to crash. Because of all their electrical systems, those cameras are hard to maintain in a world where there are no longer many camera repair shops servicing film cameras. Also, they provide a shooting experience not that different from a modern digital camera. The only difference is that all that technology was directed towards exposing film to light rather than exposing a digital sensor to light. Instead, the cameras being picked up used and discussed on "analog photography" sites appear to mostly be older, mostly or all-mechanical cameras of the sort that were made from the 1950s through the 1980s. You can pick up a professional quality all-mechanical 35mm or medium format camera for one or two hundred dollars, and not only have a well-made camera with few electrical parts to fail, but also an interesting, vintage-looking conversation piece. With all metal parts and mechanical controls rather than digital ones, one of these cameras could have decades of use left in it if well taken care of.


But of course, this glut of old cameras coming out of closets and drawers and onto eBay and used camera shops is necessarily a temporary phenomenon. While there are now many more old cameras than there are film photographers, if no one is repairing them professionally and no one is manufacturing new ones, the "my camera is broken, I'll buy another" trick won't work forever. And less visibly, the machinery used by film companies and developing labs is also getting increasingly old. This has caused some worried about the future of film photography to ask, even during the resurgence, is film photography really saved?


The economics of this are fascinating to me. Here there's a devoted but small following of a seemingly out of date technology, and the question becomes: Is their interest sustainable past the the point where they use up the left-over technology to which they're attached. Or can the old technology simply be made to last?

I've seen one version of this play out at a distance hearing my mother talk about the enthusiasm which quilters still have for Singer Featherweight sewing machines: a simply, metal construction, portable sewing machine made from the 1930s to the 1950s and still treasured, used, and maintained by a devoted community of fans. There are now aftermarket companies making parts to maintain singers, and repair shops working on them. But no one has come in to manufacture a new featherweight, despite the fact it clearly has a devoted fan base.

Vinyl records (about which I'll admit I know little) have apparently pushed past that threshold, and there are now companies making new records and new record players.

It remains to be seen whether analog photography fans will make this same jump. A recent kickstarter to build a new 35mm SLR camera to appear to the analog photography community did get funded last year. However it's currently delayed in manufacturing it's camera due to difficulties getting some of the parts needed in sufficient quantities from suppliers used to working with digital camera makers or supplying small numbers of parts to repair shops.

Meanwhile, in the even more exclusive space of large format cameras using sheet film rather than roll film, the Intrepid Camera Company in the UK has got off the ground selling new large format cameras.

I don't know how all this will work out. But it's an interesting discovery, and in the meantime, I'll take advantage of it to try shooting some film again.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Dead People's Stuff

When I heard that one of our local antiques stores was closing, I was stricken with guilt. I am the problem small local businesses face, the person who is rah-rah for independent shops and yet never actually patronizes them. So I hied me down on December 23, the penultimate day, to browse through the booths and see if I could find a Christmas present or two.

What I found was that the store was closing not because local shoppers were penurious, but because the building had been sold out from under them. That's a sign of the real estate market in our town -- pretty hopping among the old downtown area where we live. In the Federalist buildings of our one or two main streets, microbreweries and on-trend restaurants have sprouted like dandelions. In the former newspaper building, a co-working space is under construction, complete with some big metal framework which blocks the historic facade.

Our downtown was built in an era in which buildings were decorative as well as substantial. Some structures will never look better than the day they were constructed -- our former suburban box house was one of them. Others even decay beautifully. Every few months I drive past a huge, elegant, abandoned house, probably past the point of salvage by now, and think how gloriously it could be restored. No one's ever been inspired by vacant strip mall.

It's easy to fetishize the past, to think that if something has endured for a long time, it must be chockful of some kind of significance, if only we could tease it out. The idea of roaming through an antiques store and finding a hidden treasure has a hold on the popular imagination, because why would someone preserve something so carefully unless it were valuable in some way? Lots of reasons, as it turns out. Inertia. Guilt. Personal significance. Family history. All motives that have nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the item itself.

All this was on display at Dead People's Stuff, as the antiques store was so charmingly named. Booths were brimful of things that had been preserved from the past. Some were originally useful -- old gloves, kitchen utensils, farm implements, cookbooks, pie safes, buttons, keys. Some were decorative. A rare few were beautiful. But most of it was just Stuff, the detritus of earlier lives. I have had to furnish a theater set, and know how helpful it can be to find a repository of odds and ends. Yet once those odds and ends are disconnected with the lives that gave them meaning, they are simply ugly junk.

Perhaps a working definition of art is something that has beauty and value in and of itself, without reference to its creation or who owned it. Or maybe that's too subjective still. I looked at the bulging shelf of Hummel figurines and saw kitsch that would be no loss to the world were it to be smashed (which was perhaps the view of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, who reluctantly licensed her sketches of local children [artwork detested by Hitler himself] to a figurines company to help support her convent). Others see adorable innocence immortalized in ceramic.

At my own house, on a shelf in my daughter's bedroom, is one of those figurines of girls in a big ballgown, something like a friend of mine used to get every birthday. Our dancing girl came with the house, and I would have no qualms about throwing it away, but my daughter thinks it's pretty and likes to keep it. It's neither a matter of faith or morals or space or unified design choices or my having to see it all the time, so I allow it. But to me it's Dead People's Stuff, of no worth independently.

All creation should tell of the glory of God. One of my life goals is to keep from bringing into the house anything that, should we all vanish, would just be junk someone will have to dispose of. Certain kinds of plastic toys fit that bill. Books not worth the paper they're printed on. Electronics that will be obsolete in a year or two. Cheap clothes that wear out before they're out of fashion. Craft projects that shed pieces. Hobby equipment forgotten in a closet. You can't take it with you, of course. But often, you shouldn't have gotten it in the first place.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

On The Road

Going all the way back to our years of dating in college, MrsDarwin and I have always enjoyed driving together. We're both calm drivers, and sitting next to each other eating up the miles is a great way to get time to talk together. Talking together is something we always like.

Well, today we drove 2.5 hours to Cincinnati in the afternoon and then the same 2.5 back in the evening and didn't talk at all. The reason is that we were not sitting next to each other. I was in the passenger seat, and our eldest daughter was driving.

Ohio requires 50 hours of behind the wheel practice before one can take the driving test. Eldest Daughter is within five hours of that total after this trip, and we're trying to get her last hours in so she can take the test in the next couple weeks.

We're past the white knuckle stage of driving. I can now relax quite well while watching her drive, and although she's still at the total-focus stage of driving, she's no longer scared by it.

But in a year where we seem to keep having cause to contemplate the shifting stages of life -- it may just be a number, but turning forty seems to take us that way -- this seems yet another milestone.

Depending on who goes to college where, we will have at least one at-home offspring of driving age for most of the next 17 years, so I imagine there will be lots of drives during which we can't sit next to each other and discuss the sorts of things which come to mind when you've nothing to do but talk to each other for several hours at a time. And then, there will, we hope, be long years of sitting in the pilot and co-pilot seat together, having long talks as we drive into the sunset.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

The Holy Name of Jesus

In honor of the Holy Name of Jesus, a repost from 2013:

Today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, one of my favorite devotions. There are so many feasts devoted to Jesus in his various manifestations: The Sacred Heart, Christ the King, Christmas. Yet the richness of this devotion is that it is almost a celebration of Jesus as beloved. The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus is the tenderest prayer I know. It is simply whispering the loved one's name over and over, with various endearments and praises and cataloging of virtues.


Jesus, most amiable.
Jesus, most admirable.
Jesus, the mighty God.
Jesus, Father of the world to come.
Jesus, angel of great counsel.
Jesus, most powerful.
Jesus, most patient.
Jesus, most obedient.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart.
Jesus, lover of chastity.
Jesus, lover of us.
Jesus, God of peace.
Jesus, author of life.
Jesus, example of virtues.
Jesus, zealous lover of souls.
Jesus, our God.


This is a time when names have gained a great deal of prominence. No longer are Mary and John the top ranking monikers -- parents put much time and thought into finding just the perfect expression of their baby's potential personality and ambition. Everyone has a chance to reinvent himself or herself with an online handle or three. We allow names to define us in one little mouthful. The devotion to the Holy Name, therefore, ought to be the ideal devotion now. The name of Jesus is not arbitrary -- it was divinely revealed to Mary as the right name for God's son. It means "God saves", and "God saves" means Jesus. The name itself has power to bind demons and to give strength. The name itself is lovable.


Brandon has posted a lovely poem by George Herbert on the Holy Name.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas In Luxembourg, Ohio: Index Post

When Jill O'Leary, a Los Angeles accountant, has to go home to Luxembourg, OH to save her family's inn right before Christmas, she expects problems with her ex, with her mother Regina, with her sisters, with her late dad's financial affairs. What she doesn't expect is drama of Shakespearean proportions. This is what happens when a Hallmark Christmas movie turns into King Lear.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 17


Previous

It was in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that word leaked out among the business community of Luxembourg that, during a ill-attended meeting of the Green Township trustees on December 24, the BlueStone Development Group had submitted an application to rezone 60 acres of scrub land down by the highway from agricultural to planned commercial development. Along with this application, BlueStone, represented by Vijay Singh, also submitted preliminary plans for an outlet mall to be built on this same parcel. At once speculation began. Bidding wars erupted for plots that had been worthless a week before. Local businesses began to make five-year plans for improvements and renovations based on the proposed crowds of bargain-hungry shoppers soon to descend. A few crochety landowners vowed to fight the rezoning tooth and nail, but most of Luxembourg County was desperate for economic revival. There was little doubt that within 24 months, the BlueStone Outlet would have a triumphant ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Devoted outlet mall shoppers are a breed apart. They shop in multi-day sprees, and at the end of the day, they need somewhere to stay. And there was, at present, one established lodging in small Luxembourg, Ohio: the Luxembourg Inn, proprietor-to-be Jillian O’Leary.

“I feel like I’ve just been pushed out of an airplane, and I’m about to find out if my parachute works,” said Jill to Garrett, Mr. Singh, and Amita, all gathered around a table at the Inn’s restaurant. “I’m miles up and I’m not dead yet, but I’m going to need a landing plan real soon.”

“You won’t have any trouble getting a loan application through now,” Garrett said. “You’re poised to be the prestige option for shoppers and tourists who want somewhere elegant to stay. And you have at least two years to complete your upgrades and be ready. The chain hotels will be starting from the ground up. We’ll need to look at the proposal to see what we’re competing against.”

Mr. Singh held up a hand. “BlueStone’s proposal only covers retail. Hotels will need to be proposed and built separately by independent developers.” He smiled seraphically. “I quite enjoy the Luxembourg Inn, myself.”

“I don’t know how exactly I’m going to balance this,” Jill said. “Hotel proprietor in Ohio, accountant in Los Angeles. Amita, can you believe we’ll be going back to Los Angeles after all this? No more snow, for a start.”

“Not me,” said Amita shyly, exchanging a private glance with Mr. Singh. “Vijay and I are going to his family’s compound in Hyannisport for a few days. I’m going to meet his mother.” 

Once again Jill’s ears started ringing with the twang of a distant sitar. First thing I fix is the sound system in here, she thought as everyone stood up. Amita seized her in a fierce hug and whispered, “Wish me luck! His mother is very old-fashioned.” 

“Every good thing,” Jill wished her, squeezing her tight.

“Maybe we’ll both be quitting soon,” Amita murmured in her ear. Mr. Singh was shaking Garrett’s hand and exchanging business cards. Then he took Jill’s hand and held it briefly to his lips, as he had at the white elephant party.

“Farewell, Miss O’Leary,” he said, as cool and thrilling as ever. “I look forward to a successful future partnership.”

The twanging swelled and then receded as Mr. Singh and Amita walked arm in arm from the restaurant. Garrett rubbed his ear and shook his head as if to clear it.

“How cagey that man is,” he said. “‘A successful future partnership’. Partnership with whom? With you? With the Inn? With Amita? A generic future partnership? He promises everything, unspecifically.”

“With Reagan, maybe,” said Jill. “It’s probably thanks to him that she nabbed Dad’s property by the highway.” 

“She ought to sell now,” said Garrett.”By the time BlueStone is making offers, they’ll be driving hard bargains. Right now people are crazy. They’ll pay anything for that land. Unless she really does want to build her forever home there.”

Jill scoffed absently at the idea of Reagan’s forever home. She had already dismissed Mr. Singh’s parting words, and was meditating on Amita’s. Quit her job? She had never considered running the Inn as a viable option. The financials were a mess. But even if they had been entirely solid, how could anyone have full autonomy while Mother was still near enough to drop in and see if things were being run her way? Now, however, blessed Del was taking Mother on and moving her far across time zones and almost over the continental divide.

Visions of a different future danced in her head, one where Mother was a mentor and guide to her as they worked through the Inn renovations together. One where she could draw on Mother’s intuitive design sense without fear because Mother wouldn’t take the rejection of her ideas personally. One where they had a partnership built on mutual respect and expertise. 

In this fallen world, however, some people were best loved at a distance. For years that distance had been the divide between Los Angeles and Luxembourg. Now there was no barrier to coming back: not Heath Albany’s dog, not Mother’s imperiousness, not even bad career prospects. Definitely not close ties in Los Angeles. Her main friend there was ready to embark on her own adventure.

And some people were better loved up close, in person.

***

At 9:00 on the morning of New Year’s Eve, Garrett was on the porch once more, knocking on Mother’s door. Jill answered, wrapped in scarf and puffy coat.

“Well, I’m here,” he said, wiping the mud from his feet. “And dicey enough it was to get here, what with the melting snow and now these trucks in your driveway. What did you want to show me?”

Jill held out her hand. “Will you take a walk with me?”

They strolled down the driveway, through the gates, and along the sidewalk to where the silver maple leaned. A truck was braced by the trunk, and a man in a cherry picker wielded a chainsaw branch by branch. The crews at the bottom grabbed the wood and loaded it up to be fed into the chipper.

“You’re getting rid of the silver maple,” Garrett stated, not needing to phrase it as a question since the answer was before his eyes.

“I have no desire to maintain a monument to your past mistakes,” Jill said. “It’s time to plant something new and straight.”

They watched, fingers living and entwined, as limb after limb fell from the great bare trunk. When all that was left was a column of tree twenty feet high, the man in the cherry picker gave a shout. He reached out and grasped the raccoon’s hole and easily rocked the entire tree back and forth.

“Hollow!” he yelled. “All the way down.”

As slices of the trunk tumbled down, the rotten core crumbled away. Garrett walked over and kicked a thin ring of wood, five feet in diameter. 

“All this time I thought I’d ruined this tree,” he said. “Me, with my own stupid choices and addiction, I destroyed it single-handedly, and every time someone looked at it they could say, ‘Garrett French did that. It’s all Garrett’s fault.’ Sometimes I thought I didn’t die when I hit the tree only because God wanted me alive as an object lesson. This is what you should not do. And all the time, this is what was at the center of all my guilt and self-loathing. Nothing at all.”

He turned back to Jill and took her hand again. “When I hit the tree, the hollow trunk must have absorbed the blow and cushioned most of the shock. I didn’t destroy the silver maple. It saved my life.”

“I’m glad,” she said, working her cold fingers back between his. “To be honest, I’d rather have you than the tree.”

They walked in silence back to the house. As the front door shut out the whine of the chipper digesting branches, Jill looked up. The ball of mistletoe dangled in the center of the hall, suspended only by a fine clear thread that glinted in the chill morning light.

“Piss off,” she told it.

“What do you have against the mistletoe?” Garrett asked, close and confident by her side. “I like it, myself.”

“It mocks me,” she snapped, angry at his new-found closure. “It seems so inviting, but it’s still Mother’s mistletoe, in Mother’s hallway, in Mother’s house. I just can’t let that go. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I haven’t grown up past being a rebellious teenager. I’m so edgy, knocking over her tree and about to make out in her hall.” She yanked her hand from his with the ruthlessness of one ripping out tender young roots. “It’s not fair to you. Let’s go somewhere else.”

“Like my house?” Garrett asked.

“Sure,” said Jill, shrugging in sullen despair.

“Fine.” He unwound her scarf and unzipped her coat. “Regina accepted my offer this morning.” The warmth of his mouth set the life racing back through her numb forehead and nose and lips. “Ergo, you’re in my house now.”

After a delicious, frantic moment that melted any snow left on the two of them, Jill pulled back and gasped, “I hope you lowballed her.”

“Not at all,” Garrett answered between slower kisses. “I figured… I was doing my part… to set her up… far away from here.”  

“Well, you’re a fast mover,” Jill murmured. “If I’m going to move from Los Angeles, now I’m going to have to find a place to live.”

“Here, I hope, eventually.”

This time Jill did disentangle herself. “Are you… proposing to me?”

Garrett didn’t let her go. “Not just yet. We barely know each other. And it seems like we both have a lot of healing to do before we’re able to make any vows. But I’m going to keep the mistletoe up until the day I carry you over the threshold.”

“And I’ll keep it up every day after that,” Jill promised, relaxing into the glorious, unbelievable reality of right now, in snowy, forested, small-town Luxembourg, Ohio, where the population is, as of this current moment, 12,001. 

The End

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 16


Previous

The door opened, and a voice said, “Jill, get out of Mother’s bed.”

Jill grunted and pulled the blankets over her head. A moment later they were pulled off of her, and the lamp beside the bed glowed sharply in her face.

“Get up,” said Del. “Mother needs to lay down.”

Jill sat up, blinking. Del was standing beside the bed, with her arm around Mother.  Mother radiated the remains of a tragic dignity. Smudges of mascara had been inexpertly wiped from her face. Her hair, so precise at midnight mass, looked now as though it had been patted down after being styled with a cattle prod. Groggy as she was, Jill felt a dart of alertness shoot through her.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Everything’s fine,” said Del, in a voice that said that everything was certainly not fine. “Mother just needs to get to bed, so you get up.”

“No, no,” Mother murmured, “Jill shouldn’t have to move when she’s been working so hard all night long. I’ll go sleep in her bed.”

“You can’t!” yelped Jill, bolting out of the bed and standing in the doorway in what a drunken observer might term a “casual attitude”.

“Why not?”

“Because Garrett French is in my bed.”

It was not easy to catch Del off her stride, but this tidbit took her a moment to process. Mother, rallying her signature spirit for a moment, remarked, “And you’re in mine. No wonder you’re still single, Jill.”

“Go to bed, Mother,” Del commanded softly, and to Jill’s astonishment, Mother climbed right into bed, hair, makeup, clothes, and all. Del steered Jill out of the room and shut the door

In the hallway, the windows over the stairs were just starting to be illuminated. “What time is it?” Jill whispered

“7:00 in the morning.”

“Why are  you guys up so early?” moaned Jill. “It’s Christmas.”

“We haven’t been to bed yet,” said Del shortly. “If you’re making coffee, make me some.”

She disappeared into the bathroom. Jill glanced longingly at her own bedroom door, where she could be sure of finding a sweater, then took herself downstairs. She stumbled around the cold kitchen wrapped in a Christmas afghan she grabbed off the back of a couch. Pickings were a bit slim, as Mother had been at Reagan’s for more than a week, but there were pods for the Keurig machine. If the coffee would not be lovingly hand-crafted, at least it would be fast.

Feet were shuffling down the stairs. Jill turned around and gasped to see Daddy, angles and proportions all absurd, standing in the doorway. An instant later, the image resolved into Garrett, entirely correct, wearing the Christmas sweater and the pair of Daddy’s old sweatpants she’d tossed him last night. Either way, Jill wanted to throw herself into his arms and feel the Christmas sweater wrapped around her.

The sweater she would get, at least. Concerned by her initial shock, Garrett was all apologies. “I was just looking for something warm that would fit. I hoped it wouldn’t bother you if I wore the Dad sweater,” he said, pulling it off. Jill had a glimpse of abs as his t-shirt slid up. 

“You didn’t have to,” she protested, without force, as he handed her the sweater.

“We’ll trade,” he said. “Gimme the blanket.”

Del walked in as Jill was struggling her way into the sweater and Garrett was draping himself like a chieftain. She went straight to Jill’s mug of coffee and downed it black. 

“Long night?” Jill asked.

“Reagan called the paramedics on Mother because she threatened to kill herself,” said Del.

Jill and Garrett both stared open-mouthed. “What happened?” Jill finally asked.

“Nothing that needed to happen,” said Del. “Reagan was angry and wanted to stage a big intervention. I told her she should wait until Mother had started her meds again. But she had to make a big scene and demand an accounting from Mother right then, and of course Mother got defensive and angry. She and Reagan screamed at each other for a long time and raked up every old grievance on the books.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t there,” said Jill.

“Me too,” said Del. “You would have only made it worse. Finally Mother got dramatic and said she would be better off dead.”

“Did she try to hurt herself?” asked Garrett.

“Of course not,” said Del. “Mother loves herself too much for that. But it was a stupid thing to say, and Reagan jumped on it and called 911. Reagan and Mother both sobered up when the paramedics came and they had to deal with the assessment and the paperwork. I talked with one of them about whether Mother needed to go to the ER and get her prescriptions filled right away, but we agreed that sitting in the ER for hours would only agitate her more and be a waste of money.”

“She still has some pills here,” said Jill. “Can’t she start on those?”

“Yes, but she says they make her feel sick, so we need to get an appointment and see if we can adjust the dosage or try something different,” said Del. “I’m going to stay with her today and make sure she stays quiet, so you should probably leave.”

“Fine,” said Jill, unreasonably stung. Of course, she and Mother didn’t get along, but she wasn’t about to stir up Reagan levels of drama.

“You don’t have to be pissy,” said Del. “It just makes sense for today, until she regulates. One of the reasons Mother stopped taking her meds was because you were coming home. She was embarrassed that the reason you were coming home after all these years was because she couldn’t manage Daddy’s finances. She felt like she had failed him by not being able to carry on by herself, without pills.”

“That’s really stupid,” said Jill, almost nauseous with humiliation and rage. “I will not take the blame for this. This is not all my fault.”

A warm mug of coffee was placed in her shaking hands, and Garrett was tucking the afghan around her. 

“No one’s blaming you,” said Del. “Mother is all messed up with grief and guilt. Tonight she saw how toxic she looks from the outside. Mother thinks she can just say anything and there won’t be any consequences. The paramedics don’t take the same view.”

“What happens now?” Garrett asked, as Jill was resolutely absorbed in her coffee.

“Mother isn’t good at living alone,” said Del. “And she can’t live with Reagan, and you can’t live with her. Scott and I have been talking about moving to Albuerquerque. Mother will come with me.”

She sipped her coffee. Jill felt completely bludgeoned by the events of the morning. This new twist was too much to take in.  She herself had moved to get away from Mother, and here was Del proposing to just pack Mother up and take her along like it was that easy.

“Have you talked to her about this?” asked Garrett carefully.

“Not yet, but Mother will usually listen to me,” said Del. “She talks a lot about going to Florida, but she was counting on Daddy to make the arrangements. As long as I do the work, she’ll talk a good game about plans, and eventually she’ll feel like it was all her idea in the first place.”

“Well, I never,” said Jill.

Garrett focused on the practicalities. “What about the businesses?”

Del shrugged off the business. “She gave the hotel to Jill, didn’t she? And Reagan will get that useless piece of land. Daddy should have sold Heath Albany that garage years ago anyway.”

Jill finally found her voice. “What’s Mother going to live on? Is Scott going to make her an allowance? Who’s going to finance her pills and counseling and shopping and trips?”

“Mother’s old enough to go on Medicare. And you can sell the house and send her the money.” Del stood up and stretched. “I’m going to sleep now. See you later.”

Jill stood up too. She flung her arms around her warm, solid sister. “I love you, Cordelia,” she mumbled into Del’s coarse hair. “Merry Christmas.”

“I love you too,” said Del. “You should take a shower.”

She stumped off to bed, leaving Jill and Garrett to their coffee and recalibration.

“What now?” Jill said finally.

“Well, we’ve got a snow plow,” said Garrett. “Want to go to Christmas mass at 9:30 at St. Boniface?”

Jill’s party attire from last night’s hot chocolate reception (an event now shrouded in the mists of time) was rumpled. Garrett, himself arrayed in jeans and parka, dismissed her fashion concerns: “I think this is one occasion where it’s actually justifiable to say that God won’t care.”

They opened the front door and immediately recoiled from the glittering assault. Beyond the shadows of the porch, sunlight refracted into every color and resolved into a vast, gleaming whiteness. The world had been freshly washed and bleached and hung out to melt.

“A Christmas miracle,” said Garrett, taking Jill’s arm. “It’s stopped snowing.”

Next

They Shall Not Grow Old: Film Review




I had a chance today to go see the limited release World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and The Hobbit infamy. The concept of the film is fairly well conveyed by both the poster and the trailer. As Jackson explains in a brief interview before the film (and in a 30min making-of piece after it) the Imperial War Museum approached Jackson (who was known to have an interest in WW1) to see if he'd be interested in doing "something unique" with the ~100 hours of vintage film footage from the war that the museum possessed. The request was open-ended, and what Jackson eventually decided to do is surprisingly restrained and quite effective.

If you've watched movie footage from 1914-1918, it tends to look jerky and fast. The reason for this is that the frame rate of early movie cameras (and projectors) was slower than today, and often inconsistent. The "standard" for silent movies was 16 fames per second. A standard modern movie is shot at 24 frames per second. So if you run film stock shot at 16 frames per second through a projector at a rate of 24 frames per second, you get jerky, fast movement. Add to that the effects of 100 years time on the physical film stock, and you can see why the clips you see so often in documentaries don't look very good.

What Jackson did was to make use of the full powers of a modern special effects house to adjust the frame rate, bringing the movement back to a natural, smooth movement. You can see this contrast watching the trailer above. They also cleaned up scratches, smoothed grain, and in places colorized the footage. Conscious of the bad artistic reputation that colorization has, Jackson argues that the use of black and white footage by military photographers in World War One was not due to some artistic choice, but simply due to the fact that they didn't have access to color, and thus that by colorizing the film he's doing a better job of conveying what the soldiers really saw.

All this technical work is very well done, and the movie would be worth watching just for this.

The additional very interesting choice which Jackson made in putting the film together was to restrict himself exclusively to images from the war and to narration taken from recorded audio interviews with WW1 veterans recorded by back in the 1960s. Thus, rather than hearing historians or writers tell us about the war, we hear veterans in their 60s and 70s talking about their experiences. The only modern voice talent added is where the footage clearly showed someone talking, in which case Jackson's team had forensic lip readers figure out what the men in the film were saying, and voice talent from the proper part of the UK for that regiment dub in the words.

From the ~100hrs of film footage the Imperial War Museum had, and ~600hrs of audio interviews with veterans, Jackson has created a movie which provides a soldier's eye view of the war experience from start to finish. At the beginning, we hear men talk about how they enlisted and about training. Then we hear them talk about trench life, life behind the lines, and about an attack. At last we hear them talk about the end of the war and going home.

What's good about this is that there's fairly little interpretive filter on what we hear. Jackson seems to have gone into this with no particular ax to grind, and so we hear a wide variety of reactions, from men who said they'd do it all again to men who said there was no point to it all.

What's limiting is that this is such a relentlessly soldiers-eye view that we get no sense of how the war progressed and changed. Near the beginning, one of the veterans who fought all the way from 1914-1918 talks about how the war changed so much that if you could take a man from 1914 and drop him straight into 1917, it would seem to him like a different war. However, because the film focuses on the experience of training, the experience of trench life, the experience of attack, we don't get any sense of how all those things changed during the four years of the war. Near the end, we see footage of men preparing for an attack, and we hear narration from men talking about an attack. But the narration is cutting from one veteran to another, and if you know your WW1 history well, they're clearly talking about different battles. One talks about an attack with 300 tanks, which must be from 1918. Another is clearly talking about the Somme. One talks about how their attack would be a complete surprise with not long barrage. Another talks about the artillery firing all night before the attack.

I'm not actually sure that a non-expert would notice this much at all. You do get a strong impression of the war, both visual and audible. But it's a very static impression, which is too bad in that one of the misconceptions about the war is that it was one long static period in which tactics and technology failed to develop as foolish generals sent millions of men charging towards machine guns.

That sort of editorializing isn't here. I don't think that generals are mentioned even once in the movie. The view is totally at the foot soldier level. And in a movie that's only an hour and 39 minutes long, there's not time to get across all of the change that went on during the war. So I think that the approach Jackson took is a good one for what he was doing. It just has certain limitations.

The movie itself was only in very limited release in the US. It played on two days (December 17th and 27th) so the next stop will doubtless be DVD and/or online streaming. If you have an interest in the period or in the technology of film restoration, it's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 15


Previous

It was likely that somewhere, old-timers were rocking in chairs exclaiming over how this had been the worst winter for snow in living memory, but Jill had no idea where old-timers in Luxembourg were likely to gather and swap tales. Anyway, no one was gathering today. The town was under a level three snow emergency. 

Jill had spent the day at the Inn, since she couldn’t go anywhere else. She checked the inventory of supplies. She consulted the service records for crucial systems: electrical, HVAC, backup generator. She reviewed the employee scheduling and talked with the manager about skeleton staff and overtime pay. She spent time working on paperwork and accounts.

 Amita helped with this, in a cursory fashion, but she was floating in another genre, snow-bound in a country inn with a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. For that matter, Jill was in the same situation, but somehow Amita’s holiday fantasy was playing out with lights and music, whereas Jill was stuck in a windowless office doing her mother’s job. Would Amita be having such a good time if her family were here? Maybe so; Jill had met her parents, and they were peaceful, loving people, a bit overbearing maybe, but clearly proud of their daughter and wanting the best for her. 

What did her own family look like from the outside? Mother, the matriarch; Reagan, the mother; Del, the wife; and Jill, the prodigal daughter and now the resentful older child as well, dutifully cleaning up messes with no clear path to reward. Did people think that they were happy? Did it look like the O’Learys were in a golden age? Did Mother’s friends envy her her three established daughters?

Jill pushed aside her laptop. Time to stop grinding her teeth and get some goddamn Christmas spirit. So they were stuck on Christmas Eve. Well, the Inn wasn’t the worst place in the world to be. They had heat, they had a tree, and most importantly, they had food. And they were going to be merry if it killed her. She stopped into the manager’s office and announced that they were going to be hosting a hot chocolate social for all the guests trapped in the hotel. 

That evening, the tree glistened, the tunes were cranked, and guests were gathered, chatting and laughing, around the gas fireplace with mugs and plates of cheese and little donut holes appropriated from the continental breakfast supply. Amita and Mr. Singh sat across the fire from one another and basked in the flattering, flickering light. A few intrepid souls were even trying to carol around the grand piano with the help of an iPad. Jill, sipping her own cocoa, found the tension melting from her shoulders. She’d done it. She’d improved a bad situation. She’d made people happy. Food, fun, new friends — this was the essence of Christmas, right? She had found her Christmas spirit.

A moment later she lost her Christmas spirit, as Reagan’s name popped up on her phone.

“Jill, I need you to do me a favor.” Reagan’s voice was as tight as Saran wrap over a bowl of jello salad. “Go over to Mother’s house and look through her medicine cabinet.” 

“What on earth? Why?”

“Because Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass…”

“But it’s only 8:00.”

“Midnight mass can be whenever.” Reagan dismissed mass times as irrelevant. “It’s just a phrase. Anyway, they left, and Mother forgot her phone here, and she got a text just now. It was an automated message from her pharmacy, saying that it’s been a few weeks since she refilled her prescriptions.”

“Wait,” said Jill. “I thought you were joking when you said Mother had gone off her meds.”

“I was joking!” Reagan sobbed. “Please, Jill, please. I need to know if Mother is driving my daughter in a blizzard when she hasn’t taken her anti-depressants in weeks.”

“Why on earth did you agree to let Mother take her in this weather in the first place?” Jill demanded, following the first rule of crisis management: Find someone to blame. 

Reagan, for once, was open to self-recrimination. “I don’t know. It’s Christmas, and church, and Mother seemed so set on it, and Quennedey can be really exhausting, and it’s nice to have someone else in charge of her for a while…”

“I’m sorry,” said Jill, more shaken by this new honesty of Reagan’s than by anything else. “What do you want me to do?”

“Go over to Mother’s and check her medicine bottles.”

“How can I get in?”

“She always keeps a house key in her desk drawer there at the inn. Go. Please. You can get there faster than I can in this weather.”

“Okay, okay,” said Jill, infected by Reagan’s alarm. “I’m going now. Don’t worry, Reagan. It’s probably nothing. ”

Fifteen minutes later, bundled up to her nose, she was dripping melting snow in Mother’s bathroom as she stood with two bottles in her hand, doing hasty calculations as to how long ago they were prescribed and what the dose was. The math was not reassuring: If Mother had been taking her medicine as prescribed, she would have run out at the beginning of December.

“Jill,” Reagan wailed thinly over the phone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god. I’m going out to get my baby.”

“Listen to me, Reagan,” Jill pleaded. “Call Del to come over and sit with you. She lives so close it won’t matter if she drives a little. Let me go down to church and find Quennedey and bring her and Mother home. Reagan, are you listening to me? Text me when Del gets there.”

In the hallway, Jill tried to marshal her thoughts. The weather was apocalyptic. Should she call the police to get Quennedey? She pictured Mother’s reaction to officers pushing their way through the crowds of worshippers at St. Boniface, and quickly dismissed that idea. Quennedey probably wasn’t in any imminent danger. Mother had been living with Reagan for the past week without harming anything but Reagan’s nerves. But the snow was extreme. Mother shouldn’t be driving in it with impaired judgment. Were there penalties for driving around during a snow emergency? But this was an emergency too, of a sort. She wished she had someone to consult.

Above her head, the white berries of the mistletoe gleamed with the light of the electric candles in the window. Jill felt a sudden stab of loneliness and longing. She sighed, swallowed her pride, and dialed Garrett.

“Garrett, please, I have to ask you something.” She sounded pathetic, just like Reagan when she’d first called. “You see, Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass at St. Boniface…”

“There is no midnight mass,” said Garrett.

“Yes, I know, it’s at 10:00 or something. It’s just a phrase.”

“No, Jill, there’s no midnight mass. Level three snow emergency, everything was canceled. There will be mass at St. Boniface tomorrow morning at 9:30. She said she was going to St. Boniface?”

“No,” said Jill, feeling each slow heartbeat in her throat . “She just said she was going to midnight mass.”

“The only parish anywhere around here holding a midnight mass is St. Joe’s in Milton Corner.”

“Oh my god. That’s fifteen miles down the road.” The room swam for a moment. A chair rose up to support her. Grasping for anything to say that wasn’t going to end up in Reagan-esque waterworks, she blurted, “How do you know all these schedules?”

“I’d been considering going to St. Joe’s myself.”

This bizarre statement functioned as effectively as a slap to jolt Jill out of her building hysteria. “You’re Catholic?”

“I’m in RCIA.”

“Well, I never.” That was the kind of dumb thing Daddy used to say in moments of shock. Great, she was turning into her father in her old age.

“Is there something wrong with that?” Garrett asked.

“No! No, I mean… I just thought being Catholic was something you left, not something anyone joined.”

“How could there be an RCIA class if there weren’t people wanting to join the Church?” Garrett said reasonably, and Jill had no answer for that.

“So your mom is taking Quennedey to Milton Corner,” he said, back to business. “That’s bad, but she’ll call if they have a problem, right? Can you get a hold of her?”

“She left her phone at Reagan’s.”

“Does Quennedey have a phone?”

“Yes, but she might not know there’s a problem.”

“How do you mean?”

“We just discovered that Mother probably hasn’t taken her antidepressants for more than three weeks.”

“Oh,” said Garrett. “That explains a lot.”

Jill was about to retort, but sudden memories of Mother’s recent behavior convinced her that Garrett, if anyone, had a right to comment. 

“Reagan is freaking out,” she said. “She wants Quennedey home now.”

“Is Regina a threat?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Jill dubiously. “But taking a child on the back roads to Milton Corner in a level three snow emergency is just about certifiable.”

“So the best thing to do would be to trace their route, which is pretty straightforward. But on a night like this you’d need a snow plow to be sure of getting through safely.”

“I do have a snow plow,” Jill said, a light slowly dawning upon her. “Or at least, there’s one at the garage. I’ll call Heath Albany. He ought to drive out for us — I mean, technically, Mother owns the plow.” She was suddenly urgent to be moving, doing anything to resolve this situation. “Thanks so much, Garrett. I’ll call you back when I know something.”

“But I’m…,” said Garrett, but Jill was already ringing off. 

There was no point in calling the garage on Christmas Eve. As Heath’s cell phone rang, Jill prayed that he was home, observing the snow emergency. Would God be mad if Heath’s phone rang in church? Surely a snow plow operator would know better than to go to church in this weather. Would his wife be mad at Jill for asking Heath to drive out on Christmas Eve when he should be spending family time, or filling stockings, or assembling toys, or doing whatever parents did? 

As usual, Jill was worried about all the wrong things.

“I’m completely blind,” said Heath.

“Look,” said Jill, fighting against the urge to fly off the handle again. “I know we have history, but I thought we were past that. If you don’t want to go out because it’s Christmas Eve, because it’s me, just say so…”

“I do want to help, don’t get me wrong,” said Heath, who seemed to understand how feeble this excuse sounded, “but there is no way I can drive tonight. I literally cannot see. I was out plowing the roads yesterday afternoon when the sun suddenly came out so strongly. It was the strangest thing. It was like rainbows flashing everywhere. I have such a terrible case of snow blindness that I’ve been in bed all day. I can barely open my eyes right now.”

“Oh my god.” In one way or another, people had been appealing to the Almighty all night. Was he ever going to answer? Probably he was waiting for someone to ask him for help a bit more reverently. Jill drew a deep breath and breathed out a prayer. Maybe God would send a miracle.

Heath spoke hesitantly, stepping gingerly around her temper. “I’m really sorry I can’t help, but if you’d feel comfortable taking the snow plow out yourself… It’s probably the safest thing you can drive tonight.”

Thanks, God.

“I can’t go alone,” Jill protested, more to God than to Heath. “It’s dangerous out there, I don’t know what I’m looking for, it’s been twelve years since I’ve driven to Milton Corners, and it’s a pitch black whiteout.”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Garrett French, bulky, bundled, ridiculously pink of nose and cheek, heaven-sent, stood on the porch. 

“I started driving over as soon as you called,” he said. 

***

The snow plow was big and heavy and warm, a moving fortress rumbling over the caked roads. Jill, at the wheel for insurance purposes, fought against the lure of false security as the lights illuminated the snow flakes driving at them against the blackness. These are the voyages of the snow ship Enterprise, floating on its five year mission, in no way likely to skid off the road or get trapped in a drift. 

“If this were a movie, we’d know exactly what we were trying to do,” she said irritably to Garrett, as they crept their way past the last lights of town. “There would be some definite way we were going to save the day. Maybe we’d be rescuing Mother and Quennedey from an accident, or taking someone to the hospital, or delivering presents on Santa’s behalf, or doing something heroic. Instead, we’re in a big-ass snow plow in a level three snow emergency. On spec! A couple of chumps trying to get themselves killed.”

“We’ll be making sure Regina and Quennedey don’t get themselves killed,” Garrett pointed out. “There’s nothing spec about that.”

“Why are you being such a white knight about of this?” Jill demanded. “You don’t even have a personal stake in this whole rescue mission. I’m snapping, I’m falling apart, I’m rude, and you don’t even lose your temper.”

“We can’t both be losing our temper at the same time,” Garrett replied, reasonable as always. They sat in silence for a moment, until he added, with only the slightest of preliminary deep breaths, “And I do have a personal stake.”

A wave of warmth that had nothing to do with the blasting heater swept across Jill’s cheeks. She swallowed hard and plunged in before he said anything else.

“Look, I need to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I don’t know why I was so ugly to you. I’m an adult. I know I shouldn’t take out my frustrations on people around me. And I do know — believe me, I do — how terrible it is to throw accusations at people just to get a rise. I don’t know anything about your dad except that Mother thinks he’s a good bludgeon to use against you. I am very sorry, and I’ve been sorry ever since the moment you walked away from the table.”

She spared a glance away from the road to see what he was doing, but he was staring straight ahead in the faint green glow of the dashboard lights.

“My parents got divorced when I was a baby,” he said, in a carefully even voice. “My dad got remarried right away, to the woman he was having an affair with. My brother is barely a year younger than I am. My mom and I moved from apartment to apartment, barely making ends meet even with the child support. She bounced from relationship to relationship, while my dad’s other family lived securely. When I went to his house on his weekends, I was a second-class citizen. His wife didn’t like me — still doesn’t, after thirty-five years. Her house, her rules. And my dad went along with it, because he was committed to his second marriage in a way he wouldn’t be to his first. 

“And who cared?” Now he was looking at her, and she was the one staring straight ahead, white-knuckled with the intensity of her listening. “Not the people at the church where my dad found Jesus. They saw a good husband to his wife, a good father to her son, saddled with a sullen kid from his sinful past. They said everyone was welcome, but I wasn’t welcome.” 

He started to light a cigarette, then caught himself. “Sorry, it’s a tension thing. Replacing one addiction with another.”

Jill let out the breath she’d been holding and dared to ask, “When did you start drinking?”

He shrugged. “In high school. All through college. I hit rock bottom — and your silver maple tree — ten years ago. Almost exactly. Dec. 21.” He laughed briefly, another tension thing. “Ten years, but people still remember. And they’re right, I guess. I caused a lot of harm, and I don’t want to gloss over that. But it’s funny what you can be forgiven for. My dad earned forgiveness for abandoning my mom because he had a successful second marriage. But I didn’t stop existing once he repented. To be honest, I can barely look at my brother sometimes. It’s not his fault. He’s a good enough guy. I don’t want to blame him for existing. I know how that feels. But I see his basic, normal life, every step right on time — college, job, house, nice wife, cute kids — and I wonder if that could have been me. Maybe I could have been a success too, with his advantages.”

Jill felt her way around her words. “I don’t know what you see in me. I can only see myself from the inside, and what I see right now is a hot mess. But I can see you from the outside, and what I see looks like a success. You have a little real-estate empire. You’ve been sober for ten years. You’re gracious and reliable and strong. You don’t let my mom provoke you. I don’t know if you realize how amazing that seems to me. You already are a success.”

“‘If I have not love, I am nothing,’ saith the apostle,” quoth Garrett, with mild bitterness. “I’m also thirty-five, unmarried, childless, alone.”

“I’m not a Scripture scholar,” said Jill with trepidation at having to essay a theological conclusion, “but I don’t think the apostle was writing about a Hallmark romance.”

Garrett burst out laughing. 

“Point to you,” he said, “or to the apostle.”

“While we’re talking about all the awkward things,” said Jill, distancing herself from the apostle, “what is it about your dad’s money? Why should my mom go on about it?”

“Because she likes to go about things,” said Garrett. “There’s nothing spectacular or unusual about it. My dad developed a conscience before he passed away, and felt like he owed me something, which he did. So he left the bulk of his investments and his local property to me rather than to my brother. His wife didn’t forgive me for that either, and we went a few rounds in court. I buy old buildings around town, and I restore them and rent them out.”

“So you’re responsible for maintaining the wholesome small-town charm,” said Jill.

“Wholesome, nothing,” said Garrett, suddenly on a soapbox. “There’s not much charming about Luxembourg these days. Do you know our county has a higher rate of overdose deaths than Cincinnati or Columbus? Do you know how the population has plummeted over the past decades? Do you know the stats on unemployment? We are a community without hope. But even people in rural, underpopulated, drug-addled Luxembourg deserve to be proud of their heritage. They deserve to have their history maintained instead of demolished to build strip malls that will decay in ten years. They deserve beauty.”

Jill’s pulse was pounding, her breath came in shallow gasps. Were it not for the restraint of her seat belt, and the effort of staying alive while operating a motor vehicle, she would have thrown herself into his arms.  She opened her mouth to say, “I love you,” but what came out, weakly, was, “Is it just me, or is it boiling in here?”

Garrett turned off the heat. “Look,” he said, “that’s the lights of St. Joe’s ahead. Vincero.”

Due to the vagaries of crossing the county line, Milton Corner was only at a level two snow emergency. St. Joe’s, on the outskirts of town, was on the cleared main road. A number of brave souls had trusted to God and the road crews and come out for midnight mass. Mother’s car was parked prominently near the church doors. Jill sent a reassuring text to Reagan and Del before she and Garrett crunched across the salty parking lot and slipped into a pew in the back of church.

Everyone was kneeling after communion as the choir warbled a carol. In the front pew, sleek and pious, Mother bowed her head, while Quennedey slumped sleepily beside her and droned along with the music. Jill knelt next to Garrett, and put her face in her hands. Relief and anxiety and anger and love and desire roiled around her stomach and tore at her head. So much for the peaceful Christmas spirit she’d had earlier that day. Here she’d done one brave thing and had one frank conversation and accomplished one mission, but it wasn’t good enough. How could she make Mother understand how much worry and terror she’d caused? How could she break through her facade? Jill’s slapping hand was starting to itch as she looked at Mother’s perfect posture. Make her understand. Make her hurt like I’m hurting. Lord, where’s my Christmas spirit?

She looked at the stable scene, with the chaos of shepherds and sheep and donkeys and oxen and Joseph bending over the mother and child to shield them from all commotion, and in the midst of them Mary contemplating only her baby Jesus, pinkly serene in his swaddling clothes. 

This is not your fight, the mother said to her.

Not literally. The mouth of the statue didn’t move, and the expression didn’t change. But Jill heard the words in a mother’s voice — not her own mother’s voice, and not her voice, which had never said anything maternal ever. It annoyed her. Why should it not be my fight? I want it to be my fight. I’m hurting. I’m a casualty. Why should I not strike a blow for justice and responsibility?

This is not your fight.

Heh, thought Jill. Whose fight is it, then? 

Let the baby handle it.

Oh my god, thought Jill for the umpteenth time that evening. What does a baby know about handling anything? She gaped at the plaster infant, more oblivious than any living child.  Indeed, there were living children in the congregation. A few pews in front of her, a real baby fussed and writhed as its mother sat and jogged him on her lap. You go, kid, thought Jill. You handle it.

“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” the choir sang in feeble harmony. Jill contemplated the baby in front of her as he were the baby Jesus. See baby Jesus suddenly buck and bang his Godhead on the pew in front of him. See his frustrated mother scoop him up and rush him down the aisle.  See the Godhead, veiled in flesh, bawling, big tears rolling down his screwed-up face. 

Poor little kid, Jill thought, as the screaming infant was swept past her. At least baby Jesus knows what you’re going through.

Mother seemed completely unfazed to see them after Mass. 

“So you came to church after all,” she said to Jill. “You might have told me beforehand. We all could have ridden out together.”

“We’re all going to ride back together,” said Jill lightly, borrowing a little Silent Night from the sleeping baby Jesus. “We’ll come back later in the week and get your car.”

The drive home was anticlimactic. Quennedey, oblivious to any snow emergency, slept. Jill, whose main desire was to get home safely, was now disinclined to pick a fight, and left the bulk of the conversation to Garrett, who mostly jollied Mother along. Jill was in a state of weariness in which her consciousness seemed to float above her body. Her hands moved the wheel as if on auto-pilot, steering the plow gently through the whiteness that extended on forever. In a daze, she escorted Mother and Quennedey to the front door where Reagan stood waiting with her arms crossed, tear-stained and white-lipped. This is not your fight, she thought as she pulled away again. This is not your fight.

On auto-pilot, Jill turned into Mother’s driveway and sat, heavy-lidded, as the lights of the parked plow illuminated the snowflakes against the backdrop of the house. Beside her, Garrett stirred drowsily. 

“Am I going home?” he mumbled. “My car is at the garage.”

“You can sleep in my bed,” said Jill.

“Ah?” said Garrett, opening his eyes. “And where will you be?”

“In Mother’s bed.”

In the hallway, they slogged to a stop under the mistletoe. 

“Merry Christmas,” said Garrett. As if on cue, they both yawned fit to split their heads open.

“Merry Christmas,” returned Jill, and they dragged themselves upstairs and shut their respective doors.

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