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

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Prayers, from A to Z

 Long-time readers will be familiar with commenter (and friend-of-Darwins) Bob the Ape, who has a gift for composing clever verse. Yesterday I learned that Bob has been diagnosed with prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones. His family would be grateful for the prayers of all fellow DarwinCatholic readers.

Over the past couple of years, Bob has been sending stories to my children, each loosely themed around a letter of the alphabet. Recently he published the whole collection in an illustrated volume: Unexpected Tales from A to Z. We'd like to give a copy to two lucky commenters, to be selected from the old hat on Friday. And on the dedication page, our winners can find the names of all seven Darwin children!

 

To crib from my Amazon review: This charming and clever collection of tales is perfect for family snuggling. The stories all stand on their own and are just the right length for bedtime reading. Young readers will enjoy Robert Wenson's sweeping imagination, which takes them from old New Orleans (Esme and the Eloquent Eggplant) to the fictional kingdom of Perinnia (Reynard and the Robotic Robberies), to ancient Greece (Xenophon and the Xanthios Xiphios), to all around the whole world (Yolanda and the Yak Yoghurt). Along the way are daring escapes, dastardly villains, settings historical and fantastic, and an assortment of resourceful and brave young heroes and heroines. Sarah Neville's illustrations provide just the right flourish for each tale.

As a sample, here is a favorite tale here, featuring turnips, dastardly doggerel, and a lad's quest to clear his father's name.

***

Victor and the Vanishing Versifier

by Robert Wenson

Once upon a time a boy named Victor lived in a town called Rootburg, which was the chief city of the province of Neepshire, which in turn was an outlying province of the Kingdom of Brassica.

Neepshire was a farming province.  Its principal — in fact, its only — crop was turnips.  Everyone who had a farm, or even a garden, grew turnips.  The holiday that everyone looked forward to was the great Turnip Festival.  The only people who didn't grow turnips busied themselves with making turnip soup, turnip butter, turnip jelly, turnip vodka, and turnip-flavored bacon.  (Once someone suggested making bacon-flavored turnips instead, but he changed his mind after a few months in a rest home.)

Victor's father, Hector Daviot, was the head of the Turnip Growers' Association.  His uncle Donald Daviot was Captain of the Provincial Guard and so, after the Royal Governor, one of the most important men in Neepshire.

At the time of this story the Royal Governor was Sir Archibald MacLaurey.  His duties as governor were few and simple: at the Turnip Festival he was the judge of the turnip competition and presided at the closing banquet, where he had the honor of eating the ceremonial bowl of mashed turnips and toasting the success of the crop with a glass of turnip wine.  The rest of the year he made sure that the roads were safe from turnip bandits (there had once been an outbreak of turnip banditry some 300 years earlier) and inspecting the border defenses in case the enemies of the kingdom decided to invade Neepshire and seize the turnip crop (although the idea of doing so had never occurred to any of them).

Victor's Uncle Donald often stopped by for a visit.  One day he came in and said, "I have some news.  Sir Archibald has said he won't be able to attend the Turnip Festival next week because he's ill."

"Won't that spoil the festival, Uncle Donald?" asked Victor.

"Oh, no," replied his uncle.  "We'll just postpone it until he's better."

A few days later Uncle Donald had another bit of news.  "Sir Archibald has announced that he's ending the Royal Greenhouse Project for Improving Turnips.  He wants them to work on improving broccoli instead."

"Won't that upset the turnip growers, Father?" asked Victor.

"Good heavens, no," replied Hector Daviot.  "The project was a silly idea from the start.  Our turnips can't be improved — they are already as good as turnips can possibly be."

A few days later Uncle Donald had another bit of news.  "Tomorrow, Sir Archibald is going to issue a proclamation.  It will be printed in the Rootburg Daily Advertiser and Turnip News, but the gist of it is that there will be a tax on turnips, effective immediately."

"But suppose the turnip farmers can't pay the tax?" asked Victor.

"That won't be a problem," said Uncle Donald.  "The law of the kingdom is that taxes on crops can be paid with money, or with a share of the crop."

A week later the Daily Advertiser and Turnip News reported that the new tax had collected two and a half ducats and 3,262 undersized or slightly damaged turnips.


Sir Archibald's health having improved, the Turnip Festival belatedly took place and was a rousing success.  At the closing banquet the Royal Governor swallowed his last spoonful of mashed turnips and stood up, a glass of turnip wine in one hand and some notes of his speech in the other.

"Gentlemen — ladies — esteemed farmers," he began.   It is my great honor and —"  He looked at his notes.  "Unalloyed pleasure to stand before you on this —"  He looked at his notes again.  "Most auspicious and gladsome occasion.  Let us raise our glasses and drink to —"  He looked at his notes again.  "Hateful Sir Archibald —"  He stopped and looked closely at the page he had been reading.

"SOMEONE has MEDDLED with my SPEECH!" he roared angrily.  He flung away his notes, turned, and strode out of the banquet hall.

Someone picked up the notes to find out what had so upset Sir Archibald.  Word soon spread that a prankster had inserted a page on which was written,

Hateful Sir Archibald, you who conspire

To injure those who turnips raise,

Take heed and repent, lest a destiny dire

Should darken the rest of your days.

The prankster, it seemed, was not content with one feat.  In the morning a verse, written in chalk, was found on the front door of the Governor's house.  It read,

MacLaurey, MacLaurey, you silly old fool —

The wrath of the turnip shall shorten your rule.

The offending words were quickly erased and a guard posted at the door.  Sir Archibald issued a proclamation that spies and saboteurs were at work and set off on an unscheduled inspection of the border defenses.


Two days later the citizens of Rootburg caught sight of an odd shape, dark against the morning sky, floating in the air several miles away.  A brisk breeze carried it toward the town.  Soon its nature became clear: it was a large balloon.  From it was suspended a bedsheet spread out on a wooden frame.  On the bedsheet were daubed the words,

Archibald, the man of woe;

Archibald, the turnips' foe;

Archibald has got to go!


When Sir Archibald returned to Rootburg and learned of this latest affront, he at once ordered that Hector Daviot be brought to him.

"These infamies must cease immediately!" he stormed.  "I am making you, the head of the Turnip Growers' Association, personally responsible.  If there is one more incident, you'll go to jail."

"But how am I to prevent them?" protested Victor's father.  "I have done none of these things; neither has anyone that I know."

"PER-son-al-ly re-SPON-si-ble," repeated the Royal Governor, frowning terribly.

Unfortunately, that very night a verse was tacked to a lamp post outside the Daviot House:

Baby Archie saw a turnip,

Baby Archie got a scare.

Now you run away from turnips —

Face us, coward, if you dare!


Sir Archibald kept his promise and Victor's father went to jail.


This did no good.  The following morning Governor MacLaurey sat down to breakfast only to find a paper folded inside his napkin.  Unfolding it, he read,

This sentence upon you, oh tyrant MacLaurey,

Unjust in your words and unjust in your deeds,

Repulsive, repugnant, a gross reprobate.

Nowise can it help you to cringe and say "Sorry,"

Implacably toward you Nemesis speeds.

Prepare — if you can — for your horrible fate.

"This is too much!" cried the Governor.  "Get me the Captain of the Guard — at once!"  He paced back and forth impatiently, looking at the clock every five seconds, until Donald Daviot came in.

"We're going to smash this conspiracy!" screamed Sir Archibald.  "First, I want a curfew from sundown to sunrise: anyone outside his home during that time will be arrested and thrown in jail.  Second, I want the entire Guard to patrol the streets of Rootburg every night.  Third, I'm announcing a reward of a thousand ducats for whoever catches the criminal.  And fourth, I want a new breakfast — this one is cold."

The curfew was proclaimed and the Guard patrolled the town every night.  Several people were arrested and thrown in jail (where, together with Victor's father, they got up a glee club and sang songs all day long — always beginning with the national anthem and ending with "Hail to the Turnips" — to the great annoyance of the jailers).

But to no avail.  Somehow, the prankster got out every night, left a taunting verse somewhere, and disappeared before the Guard got there.

With Victor's father in jail, Uncle Donald stopped by to visit each evening, before going out with the Guard, to make sure that Victor and his mother were all right.

"I tell you, Victor," he said one night, putting a roll of paper on the table and sitting down, "I hope we get this vanishing versifier soon.  It's bad enough that Governor MacLaurey comes to headquarters every day and shouts and yells and demands to know what we're doing to catch the villain — but I'm not getting enough sleep, and my feet are sore from walking on the cobblestones.  And every night we just miss him.  We hear the tapping as he tacks up another taunt and run towards it — but when we get there he's gone.  Or we find a verse on a wall and the paint's still wet or chalk dust is still floating in the air.  It's as if he already knows —"  He picked up the roll of paper, shook it, and put it down again.  "— What's on our charts."

"What is on the charts?" asked Victor.

"The streets we're patrolling each night.  Every night we go a different route."

"Maybe he does know," said Victor.

"How?  I make up a fresh chart each day at headquarters.  None of the guards sees it.  Only I know where we'll be that night."

"And until you catch up with him, Father stays in jail," said Victor sadly.  "Wait a minute…I have an idea.  Suppose he does know.  Let me go with you.  I'll walk the same route you do, but a few minutes ahead.  I'll go very quietly so he doesn't hear me coming —"

"And if he sees you, I doubt he'd suspect a boy," said Uncle Donald.  "Why not give it a try?  Nothing else has worked so far.  Tomorrow I'll make two charts, one for me and one for you."


And so the next night Victor went out on patrol with Uncle Donald and the Guard.  He walked and walked, until the night was almost over and he began to think his idea was a failure.  Then he turned a corner —

And saw ahead of him a figure scribbling on the sidewalk.  It was clad all in black, with a black cloak, a large black hat, and a black scarf wound about its face so that only its eyes were visible.  It paused in its scribbling for a moment and Victor heard a sinister giggle; then it resumed its work.

Victor crept up behind the figure.  He grabbed hold of its cloak and began shouting as loudly as he could, "I've got him!  Come quickly!"

"What's this?" hissed the prankster.  "Let go, let go!  You'll spoil everything!"  It struggled and shook but Victor hung on to the cloak.

Uncle Donald came running around the corner, followed by the Guard.  They seized the prankster and held him tightly.  "Good work, Victor," said Uncle Donald.  "We'll take this fellow back to headquarters and see who he is."

The prankster did not resist but went quietly with them back to headquarters.  "One of you, go and fetch the Governor," said Uncle Donald.  "Get him out of bed if you have to.  Tell him we've caught the villain."

"No need for that," said the prankster.  "The Governor is here already."  He removed his hat and scarf, revealing himself to be Sir Archibald MacLaurey.  "You might be good enough to release the prisoners from jail and bring them here so that I can apologize."

"What about the reward?" asked Victor.

"Oh, yes — I suppose you're entitled to the reward," said Sir Archibald.  "A thousand ducats it was, I recall.  If I'd known that I was going to be caught, I wouldn't have made it so much."


When Sir Archibald had finished apologizing to the people he had thrown in jail, Hector Daviot asked, "Why did you put up all those verses against yourself?"

"I hate it here," said Sir Archibald.  "It's a hundred miles from anywhere, it's horribly dull, and I absolutely loathe turnips.  My parents used to make me eat turnips when I was a child, and if I complained I got a second helping and no dessert.  And now every year at the Turnip Festival I have to choke down a great bowlful of them and smile like I'm enjoying it when I feel like gagging.

"I thought if I could make myself unpopular enough you would complain to the King and he'd remove me as Governor and take me home to the capital."

"Why didn't you just quit?" asked Victor.

"The King doesn't like quitters," replied Sir Archibald.  "If he only thought I did a poor job he might give me a second chance — but if I quit, he'd never want to see me again."

"Well, why didn’t you say so?" asked Hector Daviot.


In response to an urgent telegram from Sir Archibald, the King himself came to Neepshire.  As soon as the royal train puffed into the station at Rootburg, Victor, who had been keeping watch, ran to tell the crowd gathered in the street before the Governor's house.  When the King's carriage came in sight the crowd, led by Victor's father, began shouting "Down with the Governor!" and "Down with Sir Archibald!" and pelting the house with turnips (the turnips had been provided by Sir Archibald out of the 3,262 collected several weeks ago and now more or less spoiled).

The Guard came and cleared a way for the King to enter the house.  Soon he came out, accompanied by Sir Archibald.  They got into the carriage and drove to the railway station.  The people of Rootburg followed, laughing and cheering.

"The people certainly seem happy to see you go," remarked the King.

"Indeed," replied Sir Archibald.  "They think it a very good joke."


Several months later, Sir Archibald was getting ready to go to Court, where the King was going to appoint him as Royal Governor of another province.  He had just buttoned his waistcoat when a knock came on the door.  It was a messenger, delivering a small but heavy parcel.

Sir Archibald opened the parcel.  Inside was a large and fancy gold watch and chain.  There was also a note:

Dear Sir Archibald,

On behalf of the Turnip Growers' Association and the people of Neepshire I have the great pleasure of presenting you with this small token of our esteem.  (We would rather have presented it at the time of your departure, but doing so would not really have been in keeping with the spirit of the occasion.)


Sincerely,


Hector Daviot, President

TGA


"Well, that's an uncommonly handsome gesture," said Sir Archibald to himself.  "I think I shall wear it to Court…Of course, if anyone asks, I shall say only that it was a present from some good friends."


"By Jove," said the King.  "That's the finest watch I've ever seen."

"Perfectly smashing," said the Queen.

"I wish I had one," said the Crown Prince.

"Holy Mackerel!" exclaimed the Royal Keeper of Timepieces.  He took hold of Sir Archibald's arm and pulled him over to a window where the light was better.  "Let me see it!"

Sir Archibald handed over the watch.  The Keeper examined it closely.  "I haven't seen one of these in years," he said.  "I didn't know they even made them any more."

"What is it then?" asked Sir Archibald.

"It's a turnip watch," said the Keeper.


* * * THE END * * *


Monday, May 23, 2022

Ellis Island: The Dream of America

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of participating in the Central Ohio Symphony's concert performance of Ellis Island: The Dream of America, by Peter Boyer. This piece features seven stories taken from the remembrances of people who immigrated through Ellis Island, spoken over poignant musical themes. I portrayed the fifth immigrant, Helen Rosenthal, who came from Poland by way of Belgium during WWII, and I also recited The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus at the finale.

The second half of the concert featured Pacho Flores, hailed as one of today's greatest trumpeters, performing a mix of Baroque and Latin selections, on a range of different brass instruments. His tone was so beautiful, I felt like I was floating on a cloud of sound every time he played. One of the many thrills of watching live performances is catching the little details that get scrubbed from recordings, such as the small rattles and clicks of the trumpet keys or the little intake of breath right before a phrase. Every time Pacho finished a movement, he would look out at the audience and grin, and we grinned right back. It was a joyous evening, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bad Management and Unrealistic Expectations - Thoughts on WOF Controversy

 There has been some noise online lately about troubles at Bishops Barron's ministry, Word on Fire. To briefly summarize:

Word on Fire  employed a former body builder and model named Joe Gloor, who was listed as their highest paid employee on their 2020 IRS Form 990 (though it's worth noting, by corporate standards the salaries listed are all quite modest, I've commonly seen managers paid at this level.) According to a series of posts by Chris Damien and a pair of statements released by Word on Fire (first and rather spicily written second) four women came to Word on Fire with complaints that Gloor had engaged in sexual misconduct.  In both their first brief statement (which does not name Gloor but speaks of "one of its employees") and the second longer statement, Word on Fire makes clear that these complaints related to his personal life and did not involve any WOF employees.

WOF put Gloor on leave and hired an outside investigator to look into the complaints. Their second statement describes the conclusion as: "As a result of the investigation, which concluded that no crimes had been committed, the board sub-committee members determined nevertheless that it was appropriate for Word on Fire to terminate Gloor’s employment." 

Bishop Barron led a video conference in which WOF employees were informed about Gloor's dismissal. Some employees reportedly objected to the tone Barron's discussion of the complaints which led to Gloor's dismissal, saying that he described them as accusers rather than victims, that he seemed more concerned about Gloor and about PR than about the women who had made the complaints, and that he named one of them in the call. One employee reportedly recorded the meeting without the knowledge of others, and used that recording to bring his concerns to the attention of Chris Damian, who published them. Word on Fire says in their second statement that they investigated this recording and leak, and that the leaker resigned before this investigation was concluded.

Several other WOF employees have since resigned for reasons in some sense connected with the incident. Elizabeth Scalia discusses her reasons for leaving Word on Fire in this blog post.

This has been an interesting sequence of events to watch play out as someone who has been impressed with much of Bishop Barron's output over the years, but also as someone who has always worked in the secular world, never for a Catholic organization. 

Several times during my career I've seen highly placed people in the company be investigated for misconduct. In every case, the investigations have been fairly secretive, and the announcement of the results has been vague. In no case has the output of such an investigation been detailed enough to allow people to make their own decisions about whether the company did the right thing. Rumor is always active in these situations, but clear explanations were scarce.

Also, in each case the accusations have been about actions which occurred between employees and/or on company time. Some of these were clearly in the realm of harassment. One example I recall had to do with a senior executive having speculating about racial and sexual topics in front of employees who were made uncomfortable by the discussion. Another involved someone hiring escorts while at a hotel for a company event. Other examples were the result of conduct unbecoming at company events, such as getting into a drunken brawl at a company sponsored event. 

But I've certainly never heard of a situation where someone unconnected with the company came to the company with a complaint about the behavior of an employee in their personal life and got the company to investigate it. 

So how does this situation look from the vantage point of an outsider to the world of Catholic employment?

My first impression is that Word on Fire probably does not have very disciplined hiring and management. 

This perhaps isn't shocking in an organization which as grown very quickly. IRS filings show Word on Fire growing from spending $400k on wages and benefits in 2012 to $2.6M in 2020. Just from 2019 to 2020 wage and benefit expenses went up almost a million dollars. Given that WOF has a number of remote employees who do writing, editing and production work (some of whom appear to work part time) it's likely this translates into managing a lot of people. That's hard to do, and the sort of people who would be good at running a small ministry would not necessarily be the same people who would be good at managing a large and growing organization.

Some of the resignation letters and comments quoted by Damien suggest that WOF may have built up a somewhat oddly assorted staff who may not have all had the same vision of the organization. And, of course, central to this whole incident is the decision to hire an ex-body builder and model (who turned out to have a messy personal life) as one of the most senior employees of the organization.

Some reported complaints by employees in Damien's pieces also suggest a workplace in which Gloor and others felt comfortable discussing marriage and women in a way that made some female employees uncomfortable. Aside from there being a virtue in simply not having a crass workplace, this also suggests (to me as someone working in the secular business world) a workplace which is overly casual and lacking in a sense of what is and is not work-appropriate conversation.

Finally, the second Word on fire statement in particular reads as fairly hot-headed and unprofessional. I suspect that the authors are correct in their intuition that a fair amount of the energy with which the situation was being reported on was driven by people who had never liked Word on Fire in the first place. Barron has long been a target both for extremely traditionalist Catholics (who are angered by his Balthasarian view that one may dare to hope that all might be saved) and by progressive Catholics who are angered by his support for Catholic teachings on sexual morality, his discussion of some cultural topics, and seemingly the very existence of a Catholicism which is not simply a slightly ritualized form of social justice activism. And yet, the best way to respond to the metaphorical baying of dogs is not to get down on all fours and bark back. And barking back is pretty much what the second WOF statement seems to do. It suggests a somewhat defensive and off-balance self-estimate of the organization and its place in the world.

The second thing that struck me is that everyone involved seems to have an implicit belief that Catholic organizations should insist on hiring and maintaining only employees who hit some specific standard of personal moral behavior. 

It's interesting that this is the substance of an attack on WOF which is generally coming from the left. After all, we're used to a certain sort of Catholic organization controversy where an institution fires an employee for failing to live up to Catholic sexual teachings and more progressive Catholics object that this is unmerciful. 

Perhaps what confuses the situation in this case is that the discussion of Gloor's dismissal is being framed as if it were an accusation of either workplace sexual misconduct or clerical sexual abuse. However, the alleged misconduct apparently did not occur in the workplace or with a co-worker, and Gloor is most certainly not a cleric.

If an ex-girlfriend of mine (or even several) were to come to my employer and allege that I had engaged in sexual misconduct towards them, my company would doubtless refer them to the police. There is not an expectation that companies will act as the primary arbiters of whether their employees have behaved with sexual propriety on their own time.

Obviously, one of the things which contributed to the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church has been that on many occasions people would come to Church authorities with reports that a priest had sexually abused someone, and the Church would act as if it were the correct entity to investigate and deal with the abuse -- and then instead cover up the abuse.

Further, people seem increasingly to be coming to the conclusion that a sexual relationship between a priest and a member of the faithful is never "just" a sexual failing. Because a priest is always a priest, if he enters into a sexual relationship with a member of the faithful there is always some sense in which he does so as a priest, and a such as someone who wields spiritual authority.

There are cases when a non-cleric's sexual sins would be seen in similar light. Obviously, anyone using their position in the Church to sexually abuse children is using the Church to commit abuse. But there are situations in which a layperson might be seen as using the authority of a Church position to take sexual advantage of an adult.

But to all appearances, this does not seem to be a case in which Gloor used his position as an employee of Word on Fire as a sort of authority position to take advantage of someone sexually, it is rather simply that he is accused of sexual misbehavior with another adult in the context of some sort of outside-of-work event or relationship. 

That being the case, the only explanation for why people believe this is Word on Fire's business is that they believe that it's important that Catholic organizations seek not to employ people who do not conduct themselves according to sexual morality.

I will note as a side issue that some of the complaints about WOF are normal workplace complaints, such as that Gloor and others discussed marriage and women in ways that made other employees uncomfortable. This is a normal and legitimate workplace complaint, and one which should be addressed, but I'd note that it's been presented as a side issue to the Gloor investigation and firing and not as the primary complaint.

The third and last thing that struck me is that there appears to be operative here (and in other assorted and often vicious squabbles about the doings of Catholic organizations) some idea that if an organization has a Catholic purpose, that both its employees and Catholics more widely have a special stake in it and thus deserve to have an unusual degree of insight into how the organization conducts itself.

As I said, it seems a bit odd from a secular point of view that the complaints about Gloor's non-work behavior are considered WOF's business in the first place. But imagining it to be the organization's business, my experience has always been that investigations and punishments of workplace misbehavior are dealt with fairly quietly, and not with a degree of explanation which would allow every bystander to make their own decisions about whether the company acted correctly. And yet, we see Chris Damien laying out suggestions about how in his mind Word on Fire needs to institute all sorts of new policies of radical transparency. 

Perhaps it is just that when a controversy is mainly playing out among online pundits, they will naturally imagine solutions which make it easy for pundits to monitor and weigh in. But I've seen this in enough instances that I think often when people work for a mission-driven organization, they expect an unusual degree of transparency so that they can decide for themselves whether the organization is living up to its mission.

I think it's worth thinking about that assumption, however, as one thinks about how Catholic organizations should operate. Word on Fire sounds like they probably need to work on their organizational culture, and maybe need some HR rules in order to manage a workforce the size that they now have. However, any organization which lays itself totally open to internal and external review of every workplace controversy is probably going to become a very uncomfortable place to work in over time. Privacy is something most of us value quite a bit, especially when we are on the receiving end of a controversy.

Having gone to Steubenville, I know a lot of people who have worked for Catholic organizations at some point. In general, the wisdom I've always heard is that Catholic organizations feature low pay, long hours, and particularly toxic organizational cultures, the result of people expecting so much of them and fighting so hard over what they ought to do. It seems to me that in avoiding these workplace explosions, and in seeking to have Catholic workplaces which are livable, people would do well to think about the following things:

1) How do you go about hiring and managing people? Assuming that so long as we're all good people, we will all get along will not do. And while some unusual hiring decisions may make sense, having clear job descriptions, clear hiring criteria, and clear definitions of performance is a way of making life easier for people, not harder. Hiring people because they are friends or hiring people as a personal favor will, in larger organizations, tend to lead to problems in the long run.

2) An organization should have clear standards on what conduct is expected of employees inside and outside of work. At a Catholic organization, that may mean that someone might be fired for behavior outside of work which was at odds with Catholic moral teaching, but there should be a clear understanding of what the difference is between behavior the organization is responsible for and behavior which simply marks out the employee as not living in a manner which suggests belief in the mission of the organization. If it is the sort of role in which it is possible to use the authority of the role to take sexual advantage of someone outside the organization, it would be necessary to be clear on that specifically, separate from the obvious unacceptability of workplace misconduct.

3) Organizations should think about the degree of transparency they believe is appropriate to their mission, and employees and Catholics generally should think about the amount of transparency which is realistically to be expected, balancing curiosity and the desire to personally assure that things are being done right with the necessity of having a livable workplace for all involved. Often this will mean that our curiosity and desire to satisfying conclusions to drama will not be met.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Kristin Lavransdatter at 100

Sigrid Undset, ca. 1905

Up today at Plough: my piece on the parallels between the tumultuous marriage at the heart of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Prize-winning saga of medieval Norway, and author Sigrid Undset's own relationship with her husband, painter Anders Castus Svarstad.

In May 1919, the thirty-seven-year-old Norwegian author Sigrid Undset was at a crossroads. Her family had just been evicted from their apartment in Kristiania (now Oslo), and although her husband, the painter Anders Castus Svarstad, had promised to purchase a house for the family, he had not done it in time. Two babies and three teenage stepchildren, without a stable shelter – and as usual, the responsibility for the blended family fell entirely on her shoulders. After seven years of marriage, she could no longer deceive herself that Svarstad’s chronic evasion of responsibility was a high-minded indication of artistic temperament. She knew now that if her health failed, Svarstad would dump her children in an orphanage, just as he had done at first with his older children when he divorced their mother to marry her. And she was pregnant again.

The strain wore on Undset as she struggled to keep her own literary career afloat, writing essays and translating literature late into the night. Then, at least, she was free from managing both infants and her teenage stepdaughters, juggling finances and housekeeping, worrying about her baby’s epileptic fits and her stepson’s mental delays, and reckoning the emotional toll of marriage to a man whose aloof preoccupation had once been her romantic ideal. Before her marriage she had been Norway’s most celebrated woman author, acclaimed for Fru Marta Oulie and Jenny, both “scandalous” tales of modern women breaking taboos; and Gunnar’s Daughter, a short historical novel in the style of her beloved sagas. She had attempted, on and off through these past years, to write an even more ambitious saga, a rich evocation of the world of medieval Norway that her archeologist father had brought to life for her. Now she had no home to write in, and, for all intents and purposes, no husband.

Three years later, Undset would astound the world with the publication of the epic saga Kristin Lavransdatter, composed in a burst of creative energy in the house she bought herself. The writing of her masterpiece, at once an effortless immersion into its historical period and a keen account of moral choices played out and compounded over time, marked a turning point in Undset’s life, crystallizing her decision to convert to Catholicism in 1924, and winning her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Although her childhood and education gave her a unique advantage in bringing fourteenth-century Norway to life for a modern audience, it was her own complicated relationship with Svarstad that provided the model for Kristin and Erlend’s passionate, scorched-earth relationship, and her own spiritual yearnings that found voice in Kristin’s prayers.

... 

As I researched Undset and Svarstad's relationship, I came across Svarstad's Wikipedia entry, which claimed, "In 1908, he was accused of sexual misconduct and rape by several women, who claimed Svarstad had raped them. He was convicted three years later and served several months in prison." This would mean that when Undset met Svarstad in Rome a year later, not only would she had have to turn a blind eye to his being a married man, but that after they'd both returned to Norway, in the year before Svarstad's divorce went through and Undset married him, he was doing prison time for assault. It would seem unbelievable that Undset would be unaware of this -- if it is true.

However, the link in the Wikipedia article was defunct when I researched it, and there was nothing else online, in English or Norwegian, to even suggest that Svarstad spent time in prison for rape and harassment -- no old articles, no linking of the Norwegian word for rape with Svarstad, not even a hint of an accusation anywhere but the Wikipedia article and its dead link. No biography of Undset that I could find mentioned this claim -- a charge so immense that any Undset scholar would spill gallons of ink analyzing it, if it could be corroborated. 

As I could find no source for the claim, or even any support for it, I couldn't include it in the article. I have neither time, opportunity, nor the facility with Norwegian to research old prison records or read through the archives of Kristiana's newspapers. But how odd that the claim should have been made at all. 


Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Do College Degrees Pay?

The Biden administration has recently floated the idea of instituting a program to pay back people's college debt. As a parent who has made significant sacrifices over the last couple years to avoid our college student having to take out any debt in her first two years of college, I have to admit this seems a little frustrating.  I could have just borrowed that $10k and never had to pay it back!  

But beyond my emotional reaction to the situation, the justice of funneling billions of dollars to pay off college graduates (traditionally among the wealthier half of Americans) seemed questionable to me.  However, several people suggested that it is not in fact that case that college graduates make more than other Americans anymore, so I wanted to take a look at the facts.

At it happens, the Cooperative Election Study of 2020 provides data from a 61,000 person survey which asks questions about income, level of education, and student debut, so it's possible to see what the facts of the matter are.

First question: do Americans with college degrees make more money in general?


Yes, they do. 59% of people with only a high school degree have family incomes of $50k or less, compared to 42% of those with a two year degree and only 25% of those with a four year degree. 50% of those with a four year degree have a family income of $70k or more, while 28% of those with some college do and only 18% of those with only a high school degree. (The survey only has family income, not individual income, so I'm using the statistic which is available.

Is this only true for older people?

No. For people in their 20s, income is still higher for those with more education.


Same for people in their 30s

Same for Black Americans


Looking strictly at student debt, those with and without debt are fairly similar in income


But how about when we compare younger people with and without student debt by education level?


There are some differences here. 50% of those with some college but no debt make less than $50k, while 55% of those with some college and debt make less than $50k. Only 23% of those who have a four year degree and no debt make less than $50k, while 33% of those have a four year degree and do have debt make less than $50k.  Some of this, of course, is almost certainly cause and effect: those who make more money can pay their debt off faster.  Additionally, people who come form wealthier families often go on to make more money themselfs.

However, those who go to take on debt to earn a four year degree are still more likely to make higher incomes than those who did not earn a degree but avoided debt. 41% of  people in their 20s and 30s with debt and a four year degree make $70k or more, while only 13% of those with only a high school degree make more than $70k per year.

Overall, it does seem true that people with college degrees make more money, even if they take on debt to do so. This does not mean that everyone should follow that path. But overall, those with college degrees are likely to be more affluent than those without.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Re-discovering Morality

I apologize for the virtual pages here being so quiet as of late. Although I think we both still have the state of mind where thoughts we encounter are formed in our own minds in terms of blog posts, the time for actually writing down thoughts as of late has been sorely lacking. And additionally, as I get older, I become more hesitant over whether the world really needs to hear my thoughts expressed. Some of this is probably legitimate prudence. Many of the opinions I felt the need to express fifteen or twenty years ago were, arguably, half baked in the way that the thinking of people in their twenties so often is. And yet that can also be overdone to the point of self silencing. That too is an excess. There are things worth saying.

In a sense, this relates to the book I'd like to discuss. 


I read Washington Post columnist Christine Emba's book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation because I was intrigued by the flurry of interviews with her that were popping up on blogs and podcasts that I follow. A key thing that intrigued me was that it seemed like Emba's project was essentially reinventing something rather like a Christian sexual morality, based on Aquinas's definition of virtue as willing the good for the other, and yet I couldn't tell from the various interviews whether she was an active Christian doing this as a sort of intellectual deep cover operation, or if this was a fascinating case of convergent evolution where she was arriving at these old ideas from a freshly blazed path.

Part of the answer to my question was right in the introduction: Emba grew up Evangelical and in college converted to Catholicism, though she also alludes to a crisis of faith which led her to abandon some of her previous moral stands on issues relating to sexuality. Clearly there's some degree of Catholic intellectual influence in the way she's sought to attack her problem.

And what is that problem? Emba seeks to address a mainstream culture of sexual morality in which "anything between consenting adults" is pretty much the start and finish of moral analysis when it comes to sexuality. The view she seeks to rethink is also one in which sex is simply a bodily activity without any inherent meaning other than that others shouldn't do things to our bodies without asking. Thus, since sex is enjoyable, and people like pleasure, it should, according to this view, be perfectly acceptable to have sex with someone you don't have any particular emotional or friendly attachment to, and enjoy that sex while not forming any longer term entanglements which complicate one's life.

Emba suggests instead that sex has meaning, and that it is not unreasonable for people to feel attached to those they have sex with. She also argues that consent should be seen as the minimum, not that totality, of sexual morality. Rather, she argues that virtuous sex is sex which takes into account the good of the other, not just whether they are willing to consent to it. Along the way, she notes things such as that men and women often relate to sex differently, in part due to their biological differences. And that this can lead to things which should be thought of when considering the good of the other. For instance, she says that women often consent to have sex in an otherwise casual dating relationship because the man seems to expect it and she hopes that over time he will come to want a more committed relationship with her. The result can be a years long relationship which never actually becomes more committed, but after which the women finds herself not only dealing with the emotional difficulties of breakup but also that much further from her desire of settling into a committed relationship in time to have children.

The book is well written and observed, and Emba is thoughtful in her approach to fraught moral issues. One hopes that for people living in the sexual world she describes, a book like this could open a view into another way of thinking about these important human issues.

And yet, to some extent, it was a distancing and depressing read for me. In part this is because it drives home just how lost much of the world is on the basic human issue of forming relationships and families. The particular world that Emba comes from and is addressing is that of graduates from elite colleges living out their upwardly mobile lives in one of a few urban centers, and having been influenced by the particular sexual culture preached through talks on consent and sex positivity in those environments.  But there's a more down market version of these same problems which affects more people, though they may talk about it in different terms. Even in a world in which dating apps tantalize with the possibility of browsing thousands of potential partners, the data on people in their 20s and 30s suggests a culture in which fewer people are forming relationships and even less are getting married.

So the world described is simply not an encouraging one. But beyond that, it's a somewhat depressing read in terms of where we are in our post Christian culture. After all, to a thoughtful Christian the idea that virtuous love is desiring the good for the other is not alien. And Christianity has applied these principles to relationships and sexuality for two thousand years. And yet, for a great many of those who most need this message in our culture, to package these insights in the form of actual Christian morality is to make it undesirable. Arguably, one of the reasons Emba's book is new and fresh and perhaps likely to reach some new people is that it is not phrased in terms of "we should live our lives as God intended us to". Even as, for a Christian reader, it seems like the author does a good deal of work to get to a very tentative and somewhat watered down version of basic Christian moral rules, it is probably because she is inventing these rules over from scratch that it is getting the attention that it is. Actual Christian morality has, by many, including some Christians, already been rejected simply out of bad associations with Christianity and its members and history. And that is a very unfortunate thing for people all round.  After all, God did not give us the law to make life difficult for us but as a gift to make us thrive.

What to do in the face of this situation as a Christian? We're certainly not going to get the same kind of book launch treatment and congratulations for thinking through something novel. But we can work to live out our faith virtuously, and hope that in time that will provide us and others with the path to living as God meant us to. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Why A Security Council

 It's probably worth noting (in light of Ukraine's suggestion that Russia be removed from the UN Security Council due to committing war crimes) that the permanent members of the security council were chosen not by virtue of being good or responsible countries, but because they were the major allied powers coming out of World War II: the US, UK, USSR (now Russia), France, and China (then the Republic of China, now the People's Republic of China)


Indeed, the USSR at the time was run by Stalin who was well known to be a bloodthirsty dictator, whose only virtue was that he'd provided the huge resources of manpower needed to defeat Germany on the Eastern Front. (And even that had not been voluntary -- he'd been an ally of Hitler until the Nazis turned the tables and invaded Russia.)

The theory was that the most powerful countries should sit on the Security Council with the aim of avoiding another world war. 

Often, the UN is spoken of in idealistic terms, as an institution which could lead to resolving difference peacefully. But in regards to the security council, there is no idealism at all in terms of its permanent members. They were chosen because they were the nations who would most severely disrupt world peace. And arguably, they still are. Russia's ability to use its 4,500 nuclear war heads makes it a uniquely dangerous player at the world table, and that is why it has a seat on the Security Council.

This is frustrating. One would like to imagine that there is some standard of behavior on which world leadership is based. But it really is mostly just might. And that of course is at the center of the whole problem facing the world now. If Russia did not have the ability to hold the world hostage with its aging nuclear stockpile, the EU would probably not have any difficulty in totally routing Russia's army in Ukraine. It's become clear in the last six weeks that Russia's military reforms were much more an on-paper exercise than a true cultural reset. 

And yet, there are those nuclear bombs. And Russia has stated for years (even before their current loose talk about how they will nuke Warsaw should peacekeepers enter western Ukraine) that their military doctrine is to deploy nuclear weapons rather than lose a war.

It's not clear how the world is going to resolve the desire to see Russia's invasion fail while at the same time avoiding escalation to nuclear war, but to the extent that the UN is the international institution capable of resolving such issues without war, it continues to make sense to have Russia on the Security Council, no matter how bad their behavior. Their presence represents the fact that there are bad actors in the world, and that we must deal with them if we are to avoid the scourge of a wider war.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Three Feasts

A family in worship. (Attribution: https://lsa.umich.edu/histartvrc/news-events/all-news/search-news/a-new-discovery-in-the-michigan-sinai-archive.html)

Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread: as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God. -- Exodus 23:13-17

The second half of the book of Exodus is devoted to God speaking in majesty to Moses on the mountain for forty days, after the Israelites have escaped from slavery and are waiting, sometimes quietly, sometimes idolatrously, at the foot. And most of what God has to say from the ineffable cloud is about the right way to worship. Even the numerous chapters listing the proper fixings for the tabernacle, the curtains and basins and clips and priestly garments, are only an attempt to faithfully reproduce the vision of heavenly worship "as it has been shown you on the mountain", as God says over and over.

God prescribes three great feasts in the year: the feast of unleavened bread; the feast of harvest, celebrating the first fruits; and the feast of ingathering, celebrating the end of the harvest. The three-fold structure suggests the Trinity, and is reflected in the three major feasts the Church now celebrates: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread seems to me to correspond with Easter, and as such is the feast of the Son. It commemorates the sacrament of the Son: the Eucharist.

The Feast of Harvest, celebrating the first fruits, corresponds to Christmas, when the Father sends his first fruit, the Son. I think we can call Christmas the feast of the Father. The feast of the first fruits can also be linked to the sacrament of the Father: Baptism.

The Feast of Ingathering, when all the fruits are gathered in, corresponds to Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit. This feast also correlates with the feast of the Holy Spirit: Confirmation. 

All worship springs from the pattern shown on the mountain, which is the ultimate reality of heaven. As we strive to worship in Spirit and in Truth, our feasts conform less to our earthly ideas of what worship looks like, and more and more participate in the heavenly worship, of which all our earthly ceremonies are only types.

Flare

Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat, Vincent Van Gogh 

Some while ago, I saw a photo of myself and was taken aback at the color of my face -- not prettily flushed or even red with embarrassment, but entirely, abnormally pink.  I say "abnormal", but the phenomenon itself is completely ordinary, keyed right into my genetic heritage. I'm of primarily Celtic descent, and along with the curly hair and the green eyes, that also nets me the proclivity to rosacea. 

And rosy I am indeed. Last year the dermatologist offered a prescription cream, and I passed because I was able to keep things under control with good skincare and sunscreen and nutrition. Last year, sigh. I don't know what it is now -- maybe I'm under stress, maybe I let too much sugar creep back into my diet. Maybe I'm just getting older. It's certainly not alcohol, because I don't even like drinking. Whatever the reason, my rosacea is flaring. I break out like a teenager. My skin is dry, but even mild exfoliation irritates it. Blotchy red patches blaze across my cheeks and nose and forehead, and are starting to creep along my jawline. It has come to the point where I, who never used to wear makeup, now put on full coverage foundation -- not for vanity's sake, but so that I don't look like I'm drunk.

Just drinking water isn't enough, though it can't be neglected. Just cutting sugar isn't enough, though it helps. Just wearing sunscreen and a hat isn't enough, though it's necessary. It seems my face's skin chemistry must be adjusted externally. Hyaluronic acid helps the breakouts. Moisturizer for sensitive skin helps the bumpiness. But neither seems to alter the underlying redness, and for that it looks like I'll need a prescription -- something that can be acquired, I hope, without the several month wait it took to get into the dermatologist the first time.

In the meantime, if you see a cherry nose, it's not dear old Santa, though now I salute him as a fellow. It's just the luck of the Irish. We don't wear our heart on our sleeve. We wear it right across our face. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Whiffling Around Style

 I'm a copious reader, and I'm not above shame at the amount of books I hauled out of the library when I told the kids it was only going to be a quick trip to drop stuff off, but even I have my limits. I sat down with one of the books I was most interested to read, a memoir about renovating an old house, right up my alley, something I pulled off the shelf because the cover was interesting. Alas, it was lushly overwritten, of the variety of prose that leaves no metaphor unturned. I ended up skimming through the wads of writing program prose, trying to track down the storyline -- did the couple manage to fix up this old pile without going bankrupt or getting divorced? (I'll spare you the suspense: yes, the book ended happily with the whole family under an intact roof.) And I was reminded of the time Darwin read something I'd been laboring over for too long, and remarked, "Well, I can tell you've been crafting your sentences." 

Style seems to flow effortlessly for some writers, and it's a joy when it is unlabored, but most of the time there is a virtue to just telling the story. That is why people keep reading: to find out what happens next. If style gets in the way of what happens next, it must give way. Sometimes style is what happens next, as in Dorothy Sayers's delightful digression -- if digression it is -- of a proposed advertising campaign for cigarettes envisioned to its encompassing end, which briefly pauses the plot in Murder Must Advertise:

It was in that moment, and while Chief-Inspector Parker was arguing over the line with the office telephonist, that Mr. Death Bredon conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today—the scheme that achieved renown as “Whiffling Round Britain”—the scheme that sent up the sales of Whifflets by five hundred per cent in three months and brought so much prosperity to British Hotel-keepers and Road and Rail Transport. It is not necessary to go into details. You have probably Whiffled yourself. You recollect how it was done. You collected coupons for everything—railway fares, charabancs, hotel-bills, theatre-tickets—every imaginable item in a holiday programme. When you had collected enough to cover the period of time you wished to spend in travelling, you took your coupons with you (no sending up to Whifflets, nothing to post or fill in) and started on your tour. At the railway station you presented coupons entitling you to so many miles of first-class travel and received your ticket to the selected town. You sought your hotel (practically all the hotels in Britain fell eagerly in with the scheme) and there presented coupons entitling you to so many nights' board and lodging on special Whifflet terms. For your charabanc outings, your sea-bathing, your amusements, you paid in Whifflet coupons. It was all exceedingly simple and trouble-free. And it made for that happy gregariousness which is the joy of the travelling middle-class. When you asked for your packet of Whifflets in the bar, your next-door neighbour was almost sure to ask, “Are you Whiffling too?” Whiffling parties arranged to Whiffle together, and exchanged Whifflet coupons on the spot. The great Whifflers' Club practically founded itself, and Whifflers who had formed attachments while Whiffling in company, secured special Whifflet coupons entitling them to a Whifflet wedding with a Whifflet cake and their photographs in the papers. When this had happened several times, arrangements were made by which Whiffler couples could collect for a Whifflet house, whose Whifflet furniture included a handsome presentation smoking cabinet, free from advertising matter and crammed with unnecessary gadgets. After this, it was only a step to a Whifflet Baby. In fact, the Whifflet Campaign is and remains the outstanding example of Thinking Big in Advertising. The only thing that you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin; it is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.

Here Sayers's style is on display mainly through a concept drawn out to its ridiculous conclusion. Her prose is clean and understated, which allows the passive voice of the last sentence to have its full impact.

Many of us write to figure out what we're trying to say. Excessive style can be a crutch to the struggling writer. It's a stumbling block to the struggling reader, who just wants to know if what the author is saying is worth the effort of reading. Don't make readers go stumbling about to find your point, dear authors; if we want a smokescreen, we'll buy our own Whifflets.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Glorious Pedantry on the Siege of Minas Tirith

It is probably no surprise to those who know me that Russia's invasion of Ukraine set me off on a good deal of reading.  Among the online writers I found is Bret Devereaux whose blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry focuses primarily on military history, but who naturally has a couple of good recent posts dealing with topics relevant to the war in Ukraine.  

However, Devereaux also posts on fannish topics at times, and thus I stumbled across a six part series he did analyzing the Siege of Minas Tirith (in the movies and then contrasting those with the books) from a military history point of view.  It's pretty glorious, if like me you can enjoy someone taking careful pedantry to a topic which maybe doesn't entirely deserve it but is still worth the read.  

So, for instance, we get an analysis of whether the sixty mile distance from Minas Morgul to Minas Tirith is a reasonable distance for the Witch King to attempt to lead an army through without visible supply train; a comparison of the defensive fortifications of Minas Tirith in the movie vs the book; an assessment of whether the beacons could work as a message system; and an analysis of movie-Faramir's tactics in Osgiliath as compared to those of book-Faramir, and that's before the host of Mordor even reaches the city.

As a side note, he also has a side post dealing with the trope (which drives me nuts in the LotR movies) of cities which are surrounded by exactly no townland or farmland.  This conveniently allows for seeing the armies of Morder neatly laid out in formations which have no battlefield purpose, but it is unclear how the city feeds itself.  (In the book, of course, it's specifically described how the Pelennor Fields are covered with farms.)  




Here's an example of the discussion of formation for flavor:

The second oddity is the formation. Forming an army up in neat rectangles like this is difficult. It takes time, planning and effort. Some orc had to sit down, calculate the size of each unit and then tetris them all together. Which is strange, because I am not sure exactly what this formation was intended to accomplish. It doesn’t completely envelop the city, so it serves to advertise very clearly the intended point of contact (something most armies would want to conceal for as long as possible). And apart from the orcs in the front, all of these troops are formed up in range of enemy weapons with nothing to do.

This pre-assault period should actually be very busy. The paths the siege towers will take must be cleared and leveled (those towers have very little clearance and even a slight grade will tip them over – they need a path made for them). Earthwork cover for the approach on the gate should be set up, along with obstructions to prevent the army within the city from advancing out of it at an inopportune moment. In assaulting a fortified city with a large army, the spade is often the most important weapon. Even simply building a ramp right up the side of the enemy walls to enter the city was a common and successful tactic, if the assaulting army had enough labor to do it quickly enough.
Book Note: These issues are avoided in the book. We are directly told the orc army engages the city wall at all points (RotK 104-5, 111) and that many of the orcs are engaged in digging earthworks or setting up siege machines (RotK 105). The goal is to spread out Gondor’s defensive forces, weakening resistance at the gate, where the main blow (via Grond) was always going to fall.
Nor are these formations effective battle formations. Some of the lines look to be dozens of ranks deep and densely packed. That both prevents these blocks from moving around and through each other (a key component, for instance, of Roman battlefield tactics) or of these men moving on their own. If an open battle breaks out, only a small portion of this army can fight effectively – most of the orcs will be trapped with buddies in front and behind (of course lines of melee infantry were often quite deep, but not this deep – the standard depth for Romans was 6, Greek hoplites 8, Macedonian pikemen 16). This is simply not a good way to organize an army for a siege or a battle – and it’s also a difficult way to organize an army, so you are not likely to have done it by accident either.

But this style of assembly does have a historical precedent – just not a military one. Jackson is mimicking a very famous sequence from Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a Nazi propaganda film. The scene, which shows the Nazis gathered for a political rally, was calculated to impress on the viewer the great and united strength of the Nazi party (paradoxically, Hitler’s party was, at that moment, fairly weak and divided – this is why he wanted the propaganda film in the first place – check out this brief treatment of the film’s deception and continuing relevance). Since then, this has become a standard visual trope for ‘large, powerful army of bad guys’ (and sometimes very awkwardly for assembled ‘good guys’ as in the medal-ceremony at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope) even though it isn’t a military formation per se (and in fact, the Nazis doing it in Triumph were not soldiers of the German army, the Wehrmacht, but members of the party – very few actual soldiers appear in Triumph of the Will).

 Definitely recommended for any Lord of the Rings fans who appreciate military history or a good solid pedantic post, or both.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Tech Week

Yesterday morning I found myself sitting at my dining room table, shoving aside scraps of velvet and silk lining and strips of custom-made bias tape so I could take a scalpel to Twelfth Night. It is Tech Week, and it is the time to face up to the fact that the show is too long, yea, even if we were fully-memorized professionals speaking at 1.5x normal speed. We are not fully-memorized professionals (though we're not far off, if I may brag on my actors), and we've had far fewer weeks to rehearse, six hours a week until now, than professionals who can be in the theater eight hours a day. I'm proud of my cast and their efforts, and it's my job now to cut away the dead weight so they can fly.

The first thing to go was the music. I worked hard on adaptations of the songs in the script, but they've always been superfluous, though fun. This is no time to succumb to the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. We shall sing them loudly at the cast party, maybe, or perhaps their main purpose was to give me experience for future shows. This wins us an easy five minutes of run time, and uncomplicates a few scenes.

Improving the pace of a show is not about cutting all slower scenes. Many of these are crucial for character development and for the tempo of the play. Rather, I look for areas that bog us down. Feste the Clown's lines are full of speeches like this -- stuff that was effortlessly funny to Shakespeare's audience, and means nothing to us any more. I kept a few notable examples of Feste's characteristic wordplay, and cut everything else, especially lines that we were still struggling with. Some conversations I trimmed down to their main thrust, keeping the first lines and cutting the excessive flowery stuff which had always weighed us down. I did not lose any of the famous quotes ("If music be the food of love", "In nature there's no blemish but the mind", "Some are born great..."), but let's face it: there's a lot in Shakespeare that's forgettable, unless uttered perhaps in the mellifluous tones of Patrick Stewart or Kenneth Branagh. If it was unmotivated verbal set dressing, out it went.

It was a painful process, but cathartic, I guess. And it was not as hard to implement at rehearsal as you might think at this late stage of the game. We simply stopped fighting with lines we had been banging our heads against since the beginning. The result is a funnier, faster-paced show with more comfortable actors. We're still not at 100%, but we're much more likely to get there by Friday night than we were before.

One more element that will gain us some peace of mind and help the show keep moving: a prompter. At least one character will be walking the stage during performance with a book, and that is perfectly fine with me. But many of us might need a boost during the show. Having the safety net of a prompter allows us to take risks and go bigger than we could if we were still clutching to the lifeline of uncertain memory. I want a show that is emotionally truthful, not technically, desperately line-perfect. 

I also want sleep, but that will come after this weekend. Until then, Illyria!


Saturday, February 26, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022)

 


Kenneth Branagh has decided to extend his Poirot franchise, following the commercial success of Murder on the Orient Express, with a mostly star-studded version of Death on the Nile. I didn't even like his previous attempt, but I am a big sucker for Agatha Christie, so sure as shooting (of which there is an excess in this movie), I hied me down to our local movie palace. 

There I sat, watching dumb trailers, gearing myself up for more of Branagh's historically unprecedented take on Poirot's mustache. And lo! The movie starts on the Belgian front in 1914, where a fresh-faced farmboy named Poirot observes the birds on the wind and urges his elaborately mustachioed commanding officer to attack the Germans now, under cover of gas. (Darwin, the in-house WWI expert: "Gas wasn't used until 1915.") The attack is a success, but young Poirot's face is blown up a la the Phantom of the Opera. His loving fiance√©, in a speech the screenwriters carefully wordsmithed, extols the virtues of love and urges him to grow a mustache. 

Nothing in this is canonical. Poirot was neither a farmer nor, as Sarah Phelps would have us believe in her execrable BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders, a priest. Christie, if anyone bothers to consult her, has given us his backstory: he was an up-and-coming Belgian policeman as a youth, and by WWI was past the age of military service -- was in fact, around 1914, a refugee in England, where he solved The Mysterious Affair at Styles (the first draft of which was written in 1916 by the 26-year-old dispensary assistant Agatha Christie, who had worked with Belgian refugees). 

But taking all this rather mundane backstory into account would require more grounding in realism than Branagh is prepared to give. Death on the Nile is a production oddly unmoored from reality, with the aesthetic and emotional nuance of a video game. Everything is too slick, too overwritten, too on the nose. A choreographed dance scene at a nightclub goes through the motions of seduction without once feeling like something any two humans might ever do. Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer, as the glossy young rich things at the center of the mystery, wear their costumes as competently as wind-up mannequins. The emotion is flat, the sexuality forced, the representation predictable, and the scenery retouched. 

Let us, while we are on the subject, ponder the tropes of modern screenwriting. All of the character traits from the novel have been jumbled up and reassigned, with several of the more appealing comic subcharacters eliminated all together (along with any touch of humor). Poirot is castigated at one point by a character who has a justifiable grievance against him, and yet the reproach is excessive in its vehemence. This same self-righteous condemnation makes an appearance once or twice more in the movie, from various characters. The screenwriters seem to think it a compelling form of moral discourse. It is not. It lacks what T.S. Eliot called "the objective correlative": an emotional reaction that rightly corresponds to the provoking stimulus. Fictional characters, of course, are always over-reacting to statements or situations, in ways that reveal their motivations. The problem is when the writer pens an overreaction as a justified emotional state, as some kind of moral positioning. "How dare you!" shaming is never interesting unless it reveals conflict within the accusing character. 

May I suggest, for anyone yearning for a handsome Death on the Nile adaptation, the version with the definitive Poirot, David Suchet, with the fine J.J. Feild as the heiress's simple husband. Feild is the poor man's Jude Law, but most of us are poor men. This production is not without its problems, and the first thirty seconds (revealing a sexual relationship that viewers will have reason to assume anyway) can be profitably skipped, but it retains both the plot and the human scale of Christie's novel. And human scale is a quality the viewer will crave after a dose of Branagh's packaged grandeur.

No Fly Zones Are Not Light Steps


While I'm mostly repulsed by the kind of responses that have come out of the isolationist wings of the right and left, I do think it's worth noting that some of the things people in the internationalist wings have been saying show a lack of engagement with the realities of how things work.
Notably, when people are demanding to know why the US and NATO don't set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine so that there can be a "fair fight", I think they are not considering that a no-fly zone is not just some good sense rule that can be thrown up. A military no-fly zone is a declaration by a stronger power that they will potentially shoot down any military aircraft operating in a region.

The US was well able to enforce no-fly zones over Iraq because the US had massive air superiority over Iraq and no real qualms about shooting down Iraqi planes if necessary in order to enforce it.

While I don't have any doubt the USAF could take on Russia's air force successfully, it would certainly be a much more difficult task, but that's not the real question here. The issue with trying to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine is that this would mean telling Russia that if they fly military aircraft over Ukraine in support of their invasion there, we would shoot those aircraft down. There is a word for telling another country that you'll shoot down their aircraft, and that word is "war". Trying to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine would essentially mean entering the war on an aerial basis, and getting into a hot war with Russia is something which we've been at pains to avoid since 1945 and 1949 when Russia first tested nuclear weapons.

Because the US has been so used in recent decades to acting as the force behind international standards in dealing with small rogue regimes, it's easy to think that something like a no-fly zone is simply something that can be imposed like a speed limit.  But the ability to do that is very much dependent on situations where we're dealing with a country we're not really that worried about antagonizing.  Sure, Iraq did not appreciate having a no-fly zone imposed on it after the Gulf War in 1991, but since the US and Iraq were still in a state of suspended quasi war, and Iraq had no ability to hurt the US in any significant way, the fact that they didn't like having a no-fly zone enforced against them didn't matter all that much. 

Russia, on the other hand, would have serious ways of making their displeasure felt. And there are good reasons for the sake of the US and the rest of the world, to avoid getting into a hot war with Russia, even if that means letting them get away with really bad behavior in the meantime.

Indeed, this is the very bad situation we find ourselves in again after a thirty year break in the Cold War. Russia is no longer exactly the "evil empire" which President Reagan dubbed it.  Not it's a corrupt petrol state with retains many of the remnants of an imperial military, and along with that the desperate national desire (at least among some of its leaders) to reclaim that imperial place in the world. 

The Soviet empire was never a "coalition of the willing".  Consider, after all, that the Warsaw Pact was a coalition notable for repeatedly invading its own members. In that light, it's hardly surprising that former members have become quite eager to join NATO. 

But all this creates a dangerous balance.  On the one hand, Russia is a regional bad actor whose neighbors would naturally want to enter into defensive alliances for protection against it. On the other, if sufficiently desperate Russia has the ability to plunge the world into all out nuclear war. 

This means that unlike countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, or even rogue regimes with smaller nuclear capabilities like Pakistan or North Korea, in any confrontation with Russia the US and its allies have to decide: is this something worth risking nuclear war over. That would not be a rational or moral escalation for Russia to make as a result of having their planes and helicopters shot down as they're invading a neighbor, but Putin is not a leader notable for always being moral or rational.

I don't know what the answers are here.  I wish there were easy solutions to the problem of a powerful and malign country wanting to dominate countries which only recently escaped its shadow. The fact that Russia has nuclear weapons cannot become a reason to simply let them do whatever they want.  And yet, as we try to navigate this world we must at least recognize its difficulties. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

WordGirl: Why is She Showing up in my Recommended Videos?

 Greetings Friends, 3AM Splinter reporting!

Many of you probably know about PBS Kids, the children's entertainment offshoot of the Public Broadcasting Service that features shows centered around education, and today's object of my late-night ramblings is no exception.

WordGirl is a superhero show with a villain-of-the-week formula that teaches an expanded vocabulary to kids (words like quarrel or doppelgänger). The heroine of the show is, surprisingly, WordGirl. Originating from Planet Lexicon, WordGirl sports the basic Superman power package: super strength, flight, super speed, and an advanced vocabulary for a 10-year-old girl. WordGirl's mild-mannered alter-ego is Becky Botsford, who lives with her adopted parents and younger brother DJ as well as their pet monkey/WordGirl's sidekick Bob/Captain Huggy Face (also from Planet Lexicon). Throughout the episodes, WordGirl must face off against villains trying to commit crimes in Fair City while keeping her life as Becky Botsford a secret.

Why am I telling you about this show? Well, during the time I spend removed from the company of other human beings because people are best taken in measured quantities, I sometimes find myself turning off my brain and cruising through YouTube. Over the course of this week I have noticed an increasing trend; WordGirl out of context. Performing a quick search shows that the majority of these were made within the last month, most of them not even a week old as of today. Just searching for WordGirl shows more outliers stretching as far back as when the show was actually airing, but the two-month timeframe still stands. 

Why this sudden interest in WordGirl content? Looking at the history of WordGirl, it became an independent show in 2007 and was aimed at an audience of 4 to 9 year-olds. The show ran for eight seasons and stopped airing in 2014, continuing to release new episodes on the PBS Kids website for another year, finishing with a runtime of eight years. Looking through the channels that are posting WordGirl content now (there were only seven that I could find) five were started in the 2013-2019 timeframe and four of them were started while the show was still airing. The other two had begun within the last two years, one of which had only started on February 2nd and all the videos were WordGirl, which messes with my already sleep-deprived data. All this to say, the kids who grew up watching WordGirl as the audience it was intended for are now in the 17-23 age zone: prime nostalgia candidates. Taking their sadness that the past is over and putting it into a creative outlet. Splendiferous (As a final side note, I found another channel that is only WordGirl clips that started on Feb 20th, 2022).

My friends, it is now 5:55 here, so I'm going to wait half an hour and have breakfast. Thank you for accompanying me down a rabbit hole.


Monday, February 21, 2022

Twelfth Night of Insanity

I didn't ask to be attacked in this way, but my daughter just walked in and informed me that a) Lent starts next week, and b) her 16th birthday is on Ash Wednesday. I ought to be meditating on the passage of time, or considering my end, but my first thought was, "Well, good thing I didn't schedule play rehearsals on Wednesday, because I can't cancel anything this close to the show."

I am directing Twelfth Night for our community theater, and we perform March 11-13, which is within three weeks of rehearsal from now. This week, next week, tech week, and then the show. It is not enough time. We're not quite done blocking the entire show, and then we'll need to start running. I told people to be off book on February 27, which is rich considering that I haven't looked at my own lines outside of rehearsal. (Besides directing, I am playing Maria, and Darwin is Sir Toby, and Julia is Olivia, and Isabel is one of a quartet of Fabians, and William is the Servant with one line in Act 3.4 and one line I took from my lines.)

Twelfth Night is my favorite Shakespeare, and I've teched it at least twice, so I have quite a passing familiarity with the script, besides that I work it three nights a week now and for at least an hour a day of prep. That's one reason why I'm not too worried (yet) about memorization. Another is that I've turned over a number of my lines to the Fabians, a gaggle of maidservants who are always underfoot causing mischief. It is a truth of theater, especially of the community variety, that you end up tailoring the show to the talent. In this case, we had several young ladies who were excellent and yet not quite right for Olivia or Viola, and so, in trying to see how we could add servants to support Fabian, we just ended up splitting the role four ways. The Fabians are a great comic presence and have a lot of stage time even in scenes where they have no lines, so it's not a bit part for anyone.

Some might call it nepotism, but I cast my daughter as Olivia because that way I got her boyfriend as Sebastian, and let me tell you that it is pulling teeth to get young men for a show. Then my daughter's co-worker was interested in trying out, and she's exactly the same height as the boyfriend, so that netted me my Viola. Sebastian and Viola both have fun personalities and are picking up on each other's quirks, netting me new character facets that I hadn't considered just reading the script.

The show is set in that period known as "Old Fashioned". We have boots and jazz shoes. We have hats and wigs from the costume stash. We have a Hamilton dress my daughter made for Halloween. Between Darwin and our producer, we have several fencing foils. Illyria is red and Messaline is green, which helps us tailor our choices. As we've dug into costumes, we've been delving into character. What does Orsino wear? Military jackets. He's in charge of the troops, only he's not there now because he's wounded, which is why he doesn't go see Olivia himself. And Olivia doesn't like him because her brother died in the war. And Antonio is also in danger, because he fought on Messaline's side. And that's why Viola doesn't want anyone to know who she is in the beginning! And that's why her father has talked of Duke Orsino, the bachelor... And so everything starts to come together.

There's some music in the play. We have a guitar player, and our Feste is a good singer, so I've been tinkering with tunes to get something we can master in our short time. Come Away Death fits to the tune of Greensleeves. The Rain it Raineth Everyday, for which we know the original tune, can be sung a capella like a sea shanty. We know what O Mistress Mine sounded like, but the Elizabethan setting isn't doing for me, so my brother and I worked up the tune into a Postmodern Jukebox arrangement, and, for my sins, I am learning the ukelele at age 43.

We perform in a big square room in the rec center, which will have seating on three sides, a big carpet in the middle with an urn and two benches, and screens behind all the chairs so we can enter from all four corners. Lighting? Haven't thought about it yet. Sound? No mikes, no tech problems. Tickets? 50 per show, and we can't yet tell whether that's too ambitious, or whether we're going to sell out every performance. 

And we go up in three weeks, which is not enough time. 

But next week is Lent! And that means Lenten letters. If you'd like me to write you an honest-to-goodness paper letter during Lent (or Easter season, if I get backed up), please drop me a note at darwincatholic (@) gmail.com, and I'll put you on the list. I can't promise I'll start writing until after the show, but I will write.