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

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Update on Joshua

Many of you have been praying for Joshua, and for that, many many thanks. Here's the latest update from my sister-in-law. She has been at CHOP with Joshua this week, while my brother is at home with the three older ones, with an assist from my mom. Joshua will likely be in the hospital for quite some time, so the family is learning how to manage this very complex care situation.
Joshua is 1 month old today!!! (Yesterday was his official due date). He has lost most of the fluid and inflammation from being on the ECMO and the doctor’s think we can now observe and measure his “true” size! Joshua is 19.5 inches and 8.2 pounds. He has long legs, big feet and the longest fingers!
Joshua has had his IV and PIC line removed. This makes it much easier to change his diaper, do PT exercises, and give him snuggles! He is receiving breast milk through a feeding tube and no longer needs any supplemental nutrition. This is a big step because it means he is finally regulating his blood sugar better. He continues to rely completely on the ventilator to take breaths but has been able to maintain his oxygen saturation with minimal support. His oxygen levels frequently drop when he is agitated (he doesn’t like diaper changes or being repositioned), but we are learning what his body needs to keep his oxygen steady.
They did an ultrasound of his brain a few days ago and the impact of the brain bleed remains stable. This means that little has changed either good or bad. It could take months for his little body to reabsorb all the blood. In the meantime, the bleed has caused significant compression on the ventricles of the brain. They are watching for cerebro spinal fluid that may build up. Though, there is significantly less swelling on the brain this week.
The doctors keep saying ”we are waiting for Joshua to show us what he can do.” The doctors need to follow Joshua’s lead. But it is still believed that the damage to the brain is significant and permanent. The brain stem was most affected by the bleed (the amount of fluid caused the whole brain to shift out of place). He has yet to open his eyes and his pupils are not dilating. The doctors say it is unlikely that he will ever be able to breathe on his own because the part of the brain that communicates with the lungs is not functioning. He also has not shown any gag reflex which means he cannot protect his airway. He will likely be a candidate for a tracheostomy, but the earliest he would be stable enough for that is probably at 3 months old. We will meet with the airway response team in the coming weeks to learn more about this option.
The doctors cannot give us any clear picture of what the future will hold. He may start to develop new pathways in his brain and we may see more potential for what Joshua will be capable of doing. However, it is likely that he will not regain any additional brain function and will continue to need all the supports he is currently on.
Whether Joshua shows small signs of improvement or none at all, we are grateful that he is here with us now and responding to some stimuli (mostly in his feet and legs). We will continue to care for him and meet his needs as they are currently presented. We are learning what it looks like to care for a medically complex child with severe brain damage. But we also know that the doctors do not have the final word on Joshua’s life. We continue to entrust sweet Joshua to the Lord and pray for his healing. We will enjoy all the snuggles we can get and we will love and care for Joshua just as he is - all the while hoping (but not expecting) that we will see “happy surprises” as we move forward!

Joshua currently has a relic of Servant of God Emil Kapaun near his cradle, and a friend is sending a relic of Bl. Julia Greeley. So pick your favorite contender for canonization, and please join us in praying for this sweet boy.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Some Fiction Writing - The Great War: Chapter 8-1

 Friends, it has been a longer time than I like to contemplate, but this trilogy remains one of the major priorities of my artistic life.  So when my wife and I managed to take a two day getaway for my birthday over last weekend, which served as a sort of mini writers' retreat, I gratefully took the time to finish this chapter.  I hope you enjoy it.  It will certainly not be so long before I post another.

In Chapter 8 we return to Jozef, and we meet a cavalry regiment of the Polish Legion.  They're a historically fascinating group, whose founder, Joseph Pilsudski became the father of independent Poland.  But I'll let the chapter introduce them to you properly.

Klimontów, Galicia.  June 28nd, 1915.  It was a distance of less than thirty kilometers from Sandomierz where Jozef’s regiment was stationed -- his former regiment as the orders in his uniform pocket made clear -- to Klimontów where the 1st Cavalry Regiment of the Polish Legion was recovering from a recent engagement.  There was no military train available, and Jozef was humiliatingly unable to make the journey on horseback because his mount belonged to the Uhlan regiment.  So with his orders in hand and his cavalry spurs jingled on his boots, he was required to stand in line behind two old women carrying chickens in wicker baskets, show his orders to the ticket-master at the Sandomierz train station, and receive a second class ticket (the local train offered no first class) on the slow train to his destination.

The one second class carriage was comfortingly empty; his two companions were a middle aged businessman in a bowler hat, who spent the entire time reading a newspaper printed indecipherably in Slovene, and an elderly Jewish woman dressed all in black who snored softly despite the hardness of the leather-upholstered seats.  

Even with the frequent stops of a local train, within two hours the train pulled into Klimontów and Jozef stepped out onto the railway platform.  The town was small, consisting of little more than a single square with shop fronts and houses surrounding a fountain.  A little beyond, loomed bronze domes of St. Jozefa.  

The men of the 1st Cavalry Regiment of the Legion might not outnumber the town’s residents, but they were certainly prominent.  As soon as he stepped into the street Jozef saw men in field grey uniforms like his own, but with the distinctive, square-topped czapka helmet of the Polish Uhlans.  Some sat at cafe tables or lounged outside shops, others walked singly or in groups.  All had the casual aire of men on leave.  There was no immediately obvious center of activity, no headquarters building marked out by the runners and orderlies hurrying in and out of it.  

Nor did anyone immediately approach Jozef as someone out of place, even though his Austrian Uhlan’s helmet, set him apart as clearly from another regiment.  After hesitating and looking about for several moments, Jozef approached a group of three men seated outside a cafe.  The jumble of beer and wine glasses told that they had been at the table for some time.  One had taken off his uniform tunic and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt against the heat of the day, as he sat talking with his companions and rapidly dealing out hands of some solitaire card game on the table before him.  

“Where can I find the regimental headquarters?” Jozef asked, counting on the leutnant stars on his collar tabs to make clear his right to ask a peremptory question of these men whose plain collars marked them as rank and file troopers.

By rights, they should have come immediately to attention before even answering his question.  They did not do this.  One of the men inclined his head to the card player, as if to defer the question to him.  The other fixed Jozef with a commanding  eye and asked, “Which is it?  Is Kandinsky a genius or an enemy of the beautiful?”

“Who?” asked Jozef.

“Oh, God!” cried the other trooper. 

“I didn’t address the question of theology,” replied the first, turning on his companion.  “Nor do I admit that it has any bearing on artistic expression.”

“The artistic sense is an expression of culture,” replied the second.  “And culture is the expression of the people, and the organizing principle of the people is politics.  Yet over politics stands the ultimate purpose of the people, and that is theology.  So to the extent that art is cultural, it is political, and the end of the political is God.”

“You are drunk in the presence of an officer, and that is political,” replied the first trooper.  “Sir,” he added, addressing himself to Jozef, “If you’re seeking headquarters the leutnant can help you.”  He indicated the man in his shirt sleeves.  

The card player ignored Jozef for a moment more as he rapidly laid down cards to complete the formation he had been creating.  Then he slapped down a two of acorns with a triumphant “Aha!” and scooped up the entire deck of cards into a pile which he tapped neatly into place.

“Yes?” the card player asked.  “Can I help you?”

“You are an officer, sir?” Jozef asked, with a formality that hinted skepticism.  

The card player shrugged into his tunic and began buttoning it up, making his leutnant’s stars visible in the process.

“Leutnant Zelewski,” he replied, rising to his feet.  “And whom do I have the pleasure to meet, sir?”

“Leutnant von Revay, 7th Imperial Royal Uhlans.  I have orders to report to Oberst Gorski.”

“Well, I’d better escort you to headquarters then.  Come on.”  

He started down the cobbled street and Jozef fell into step next to him.  The leutnant’s walk was casual, without the rigid posture most career officers had taken on through long training, and to sit drinking, his tunic off, with common troopers at a cafe would be unimaginable in a normal regiment, no matter how hot the day.  

“What do you make of the tone of our regiment?” Leutnant Zelewski asked.

Jozef hesitated.  The question alone suggested rather too much insight into the silent judgment he had rendered upon the regiment.

“One thing you’ll find,” Zelewski continued, “is that the backgrounds of our troopers are a little more wide ranging than the standard cut.  Dudek, for instance, is a professor of political philosophy, while Bak, as perhaps you could tell, writes artistic criticism.”

“And you?” asked Jozef, wondering if all the Polish Legionnaires came from such academic backgrounds.

“Bank robber,” replied Zelewski.  He let the phrase drop with conscious showmanship, and after pausing for reaction added, “And essayist.  Political agitator.”

Continue reading...

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Harm Reduction is not a Caliber

Nicholas Kristof takes a swing at offering less politically divisive suggestions to reduce gun deaths in the US in a feature-length opinion piece at the New York Times.  (Link is a "gift link" so you should be able to read it even without a subscription.) I do not think that he succeeds in avoiding the tired old political mistakes on this issue, but I'd like to assume he is in good faith and make some suggestions.

Kristof's theme is "harm mitigation". He has some thoughts about making it harder to buy guns (licenses, etc.) which I think are a bad idea but will not address here, but I do think there's a point worth keeping in mind from this section: As he notes some people are more likely to misuse guns than others. 72 million Americans own guns. In 2020 there were 45,222 gun deaths (of which more than half were suicides). This means that if each death was caused by a different person (no multiple killing incidents) 0.06% of gun owners were involved in a gun death in 2020.  Out of every ten thousand gun owners, less than six contributed to gun deaths in 2020. So we're dealing with a small percentage of problems among a very large number of law abiding people.

However, he then tried to do some harm mitigation on types of guns. It is a common trope of "reasonable" gun control proposals to argue that some guns are much more dangerous than others, and we only need to ban the dangerous ones. He says:

One advantage of the harm reduction model is that done right, it avoids stigmatizing people as gun nuts and makes firearms less a part of a culture war.

I’m writing this essay on the Oregon farm where I grew up. As I write this, my 12-gauge shotgun is a few feet away, and my .22 rifle is in the next room. (Both are safely stored.)

These are the kinds of firearms that Americans traditionally kept at home, for hunting, plinking or target practice, and the risks are manageable. Rifles are known to have been used in 364 homicides in 2019, and shotguns in 200 homicides. Both were less common homicide weapons than knives and other cutting objects (1,476 homicides) or even hands and feet (600 homicides).

In contrast to a traditional hunting weapon, here’s an AR-15-style rifle. The military versions of these weapons were designed for troops so that they can efficiently kill many people in a short time, and they can be equipped with large magazines that are rapidly swapped out. They fire a bullet each time the trigger is depressed.

 It’s sometimes said that the civilian versions, like the AR-15, are fundamentally different because they don’t have a selector for automatic fire. But troops rarely use automatic fire on military versions of these weapons because they then become inaccurate and burn through ammunition too quickly.

In one respect, the civilian version can be more lethal. American troops are not normally allowed to fire at the enemy with hollow-point bullets, which cause horrific injuries, because these might violate the laws of war. But any civilian can walk into a gun store and buy hollow-point bullets for an AR-15; several mass shootings have involved hollow-point rounds.

Now here’s what in some sense is the most lethal weapon of all: a 9-millimeter handgun. It and other semiautomatic pistols have the advantage of being easily concealable and so are more convenient for criminals than assault rifles are. In addition, there has been a big push toward carrying handguns, concealed or openly — and that, of course, means that increasingly a handgun is readily available when someone is frightened or furious.


Given the difference in impact between long guns and handguns, it may also make sense as a harm reduction measure to advise homeowners to trade in their Glocks for shotguns. As vice president in 2013, Joe Biden encouraged homeowners to rely for self-defense on a shotgun rather than an assault weapon, and he said he had advised his wife to respond to an intruder in an old-fashioned way: “Put that double-barreled shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house.” He was denounced on left and right, but he had a point: We would be far better off if nervous families sought protection from a shotgun rather than from an assault rifle or 9-millimeter handgun.

He also illustrates this point with a graphic showing how often different calibers of gun are recovered from crime scenes:

Okay, let's note a couple problems with this "harm reduction" approach:

1) He references Biden's infamous "fire two blasts outside the house" advice as a "common sense" approach instead of having people own handguns or "assault rifles". Yet when you look at his graphic on how often guns of different types are recovered from crime scenes, the .22 rifle and 12 gauge shotgun which Kristof says he owns himself (and cites as normal types of guns to own) are both recovered from crime scenes much more often than .223 caliber rifles -- the normal caliber for rifles of the infamous AR-15 type. If harm reduction means avoiding types of gun which are often used in crime, then why does he advocate people get shotguns, the single most frequently used type of long gun in crime?  

2) Kristoff also takes a swipe at the 9mm handgun, describing it as "most lethal weapon of all". Is it, though? This assumes that the problem is that some types of gun are inherently more lethal than others. But there's nothing terrifying about the 9mm handgun as compared to other types. Indeed, the .40cal (second most frequently found on crime scenes) fires a larger bullet with a larger load of powder, thus delivering more foot-pounds of force: 275ft/lbs for 9mm, 441 ft/lbs for .40 S&W

Source: Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading

Why are 9mm handguns found so often on crime scenes? They're simply the most common handguns. They are used by most police departments and by the US military. And they are the single most commonly sold caliber of handgun. 

The reason .40cal handguns rank so high also probably has to do with availability: a number of police forces (and even the FBI) used to use the more powerful .40S&W round. They later switched to the 9mm, which is lighter (and thus easier to carry) and which has lower recoil (and thus more accurate follow-up shots.)  The result is that used gun dealers often have a fair number of "police surplus" handguns in .40 S&W available cheap. That affordable availability is probably why .40cal is the second most common caliber of handgun found on crime scenes.

So whether one is contemplating gun regulations or what sort of gun to own, looking at the statistics of the type of guns used in crime is not a useful move. Nor does doing so accurately even lead to eschewing AR-15s for 12-gauge shotguns or .22 rifles. The frequency with which different types of guns show up in crime scenes is not a function of how inherently dangerous the caliber is, but rather of how available and useful guns of that type are to the less than 0.1% of gun owners who want to commit crimes. 

Owning a 9mm handgun is not going to make you more likely to commit a crime. Being a criminal is going to make you more likely to commit a crime. If you're going to buy a gun, buy the type of gun which is useful to you.  If the use that you seek is perforating paper targets and being prepared to protect your home if necessary, a 9mm handgun or a .223 AR-15 rifle may well be the right choice. These are, after all, the guns with which our law enformcement officers are most often armed, and their task is pretty similar to that of a citizen seeking to protect his or her home. If we truly seek crime mitigation, we should seek to prevent criminals from getting hold of guns, not avoid owning the same calibers of guns which criminals and suicidal people happen to get their hands on.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

When A Marriage is not a Marriage

 Fr. James Martin was out doing Fr. James Martin things again yesterday, responding to a Catholic League piece which described civil same sex marriage as a "legal fiction" with the statement "Pete Buttigieg is married."

As a good friend noted, the ensuing tempest is predictable and boring. Having scandalized many orthodox Catholics, if pressed theologically Fr. Martin will announce, "Oh, I only meant civilly married.  I of course agree with the Church's teaching on marriage." And so the dance of Fr. Martin pretending he doesn't disagree with Catholic teaching will continue. It's not just that some notable people in power seem to approve of Fr. Martin's antics, it's also that he has a strong Jesuit sense of how to make it clear to everyone what he really thinks while also maintaining the plausible deniability of never definitively saying something in clear contradiction of Church teaching.

However, in a society in which the Church's understanding of marriage is increasingly alien, it's perhaps worth taking a moment to consider the various senses in which Fr. Martin's statement could be taken, and the senses in which it is true or false from a Catholic point of view.

1) In civil law, Buttigieg is married to another man, Chasten, and they are entitled to the legal benefits that are associated with civil marriage. A Catholic dealing with this kind of situation in the legal realm would reasonably treat the civil marriage as existing.

2) Socially, in the mainstream culture, same sex marriage is seen as a thing that exists, and so it would be normal in social discourse to refer to someone's same sex spouse as a "husband" or "wife". I think it's reasonable for a Catholic to accede to this social convention even while disagreeing theologically. In a sense it's not different from referring to an oft-divorced man's fifth wife as "your wife" even while recognizing that marriage cannot in fact be validly dissolved and replaced in the manner which our civil law allows. The difference, of course, is that that relationship at least "looks like" a natural marriage in the sense that the Church would recognize it, while a same sex marriage does not. I think this is a distinction worth recognizing, but I don't necessarily think it would be a problem for a Catholic to refer to a same sex spouse as a "husband" or "wife" in social discourse.

3) A same sex marriage cannot exist as a 'natural marriage'. Natural marriage is the Church's term for a marriage between a man and woman who are not baptized, but nonetheless enter into a relationship which has the qualities which the Church would recognize as belonging to marriage: they intend to be faithful to each other, they intend to welcome any children they might have, they are not already married to someone else, they are one man and one woman, etc. Natural marriage is not a legal or social convention, it is a real, existing marriage which the Church must recognize but is simply not sacramental because it does not take place between baptized people.

4) If two people who are validly able to marry (not married already, opposite sexes, intend to be faithful, intend to welcome children, etc) and who are baptized Christians get married, those people are recognized by the Church as having entered into a valid sacramental marriage. Pete Buttigieg is an Episcopalian and thus one assumes someone who has been baptized. If he had married someone with whom the Church sees it as possible to enter into marriage (a woman) he would have been recognized as entering into a sacramental marriage. 

There is an additional complication in terms of contracting a sacramental marriage if one of the parties is a baptized Catholic, but they do not marry in a valid Catholic ceremony. Church canon law requires that Catholics marry before the Church, and if someone baptized Catholic does not follow this rule, the Church does not see them as validly married. So if two Episcopalians get married in a civil ceremony, the Catholic Church would see them as sacramentally married, but if two Catholics did, the Church would not see them as sacramentally married. This stands to get a bit confusing, and it doesn't come into play here since the whole question in this case is whether a two men could be considered married in the first place.

So in looking at Fr. Martin's statement: It is not in and of itself wrong for Fr. Martin to refer to Pete Buttigieg's husband, if he was doing so in sense 1) or sense 2). If, for instance, Fr. Martin was at a social occasion and met Chasten Buttigieg, he might say, "Ah, hello, I was a fan of your husband's presidential run," without denying the Church's teaching on marriage.

However, it seems pretty clear that in posting, as a priest of the Catholic Church, and in argument with an article which sought to make the distinction between civil marriage and actual marriage as recognized by the Church, the unmodified phrase "Pete Buttigieg is married", Fr Martin is sowing confusion about Catholic teaching (and making clear how he wants it to change). But, of course, it can't change. And that Fr. Martin doesn't seem to recognize that is one of the basic senses in which he does not think with the Church.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Inflation at the Grocery Store

 I contributed to a Twitter thread the other day on the subject of grocery price inflation, and several hours later received a direct message from a reporter working on a story about the same topic, who asked if I would be willing to answer a few questions about our grocery spending. 

I'm always game to talk prices, since pricing is what I do professionally, and I discovered that our credit card company has much improved in their automatic categorization of purchases, so to check my subjective impressions I downloaded two years worth of our spending data and looked at how our weekly grocery spending has changed since inflation increased about a year ago.

The overall results surprised me. I was correct in thinking that we average a but under $400/wk in groceries, but it turns out this has been pretty consistent for the last two years. Over the last five years our average weekly grocery spending has increased only $14 from $345 to $359.  That's just a 4% increase, significantly less than inflation.

I'd included spending on eating out and gas on the theory that we might be balancing greater grocery spending by cutting other weekly spending, but those dont' seem to have changed much either.

So despite costs going up across the board, we seem to have been pretty successful in not actually paying more for groceries ourselves.

One explanation for this is that I now do more price shopping between stores. Back in early 2021 I was doing almost 70% of our shopping at Kroger.  By the end of 2022 that had fallen to less than 50%, and the share of our spending at Aldi (which generally has lower prices) had shifted from about 15% to over 30%.

We'd also made some fairly conscious choices as prices increased:

  • We ended our canned seltzer habit, something of which we'd been buying three 12-packs a week prior to the cost of gas (and other inflation, but transportation costs are always a major part of the cost of cheap liquids)
  • We mostly stopped eating beef, shifting first to chicken and then increasingly to pork. Pork loins are the meat you can still get consistently for close to $2/lb
  • We reduced egg consumption as eggs quadrupled in price over the last few months
However, we also made a number of other minor trade offs, some of which I'd probably have to think quite a bit about, in order to keep our food spending at what seemed like a reasonable level. Even knowing that consumer behavior data usually knows that people are very good at making trade-offs without even realizing it, I'm impressed with how consistent our spending data is over the long term.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Josh's Song

As my brother John kept vigil by baby Josh's side the other night, having never yet held his son, he composed this song on one of the therapy guitars provided by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. John has been writing songs since he was a teenager getting in his ten thousand hours of practice on the guitar. He texted the tune and lyrics late last night to the family group chat, and this morning the kids and I turned it into a video with plenty of photos of Josh and family.

Please pray for John and Gail this week, as the doctors will be reducing Josh's sedation this week, and running tests to determine whether he has any brain activity.

Little One (Josh's song)
written and performed by John Egan

Your tender body quivers
At the slightest little touch
Your mom’s a million miles away
She misses you so much

I’ve only dreamed of holding you

I was frightened by the swelling
I was startled by your weight
The tubes and lines were everywhere
The hour was getting late

And I’ve only dreamed of holding you

Can you breathe with me
Can you feel the rushing wind
Dip your feet into sea
If you climb up to the stars
We can stare down at the sun
Little one

Your mother only held you
The moment you were born
We took a family picture
Your skin was nice and warm

The last time she was holding you

There’s an angel right beside you
Blowing sweet air in your lungs
And a quiet hovers over you
With prayers from everyone

Will I finally get to holding you

I was in a place of comfort
With no worries and no fears
But you know I’d give that all away
Just to have you here

In my arms just holding you

Can you breathe with me
Can you feel the rushing wind
Dip your feet into sea
If you climb up to the stars
We can stare down at the sun
Little one

And you breathe with me
I would let you go to heaven
You will rest in endless peace
And you’ll play among the stars
Wrap your arms around the sun
Little one

I saw your eyelids flicker
You were sleeping in your bed
Your infant toes were moving ‘round
A voice inside me said

That someday I’d be holding you
And I know someday I’ll be holding you

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Prayers for Joshua

Dear friends, let me beg your prayers for my newborn nephew Joshua George. He was born five weeks early, on Dec. 31, and due to complications from interventions after birth, he's suffered traumatic brain bleeding. My sister-in-law Gail writes:

“Update: Last night, we met with Joshua’s medical team. We did not get the news we were hoping for. Joshua’s CT scan revealed the bleeding in his brain was quite significant. An MRI shows that the pressure from the bleeding has caused his brain to shift. The damage is very severe. Right now his brain can't communicate with the rest of his body, and it's unlikely that will ever change.

There's a lot they don't know right now; they’re going to watch him the next few days to see what support he'll need. There's nothing they can do for the brain from a medical standpoint, but they will continue to support his heart and lungs with the possibility of him coming off the ventilator. He is currently relying on the ventilator to do most of the work but does continue to take some independent breaths. His heart and lungs have remained stable since coming off of ECMO. We chose to let the children visit with him last night instead of holding him. The big kids are at Ronald McDonald House with grandma and John and I will finally be able to hold our sweet Joshua in our arms this morning.”

Please pray for Joshua, and my brother John and his wife Gail, and their three older children Ben, Sam, and Hannah.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Single Income Family Demographics

 I wrote last week about the household economy and how being a single income family (where I hold down an outside job to pay the bills and MrsDarwin works full time on raising and educating the children) is something we have made a priority within our family.

Several readers on social media expressed curiosity on how common single income families are and what their place within the distribution of household incomes is, so I turned to the US Census to find out.  I found some answers in Census Table FG2 for 2021, which covers "Opposite-Sex Married Couple Family Groups, by Family Income, and Labor Force Status of Both Spouses"

The census found the US has 63 million families consisting of opposite sex married couples, of which 24 million have children under 18 living at home with them.  The 24 million families with at least one child under 18 living at home with them seemed like the relevant group for the question at hand, so I looked deeper at that data.  

Among that 24 million, 61% had both husband and wife employed, 27% had only the husband employed, 4% had only the wife employed, and 8% fell into the "other" bucket.  "Other" consisted of 1.9 million families of which 552k were families in which neither husband nor wife was in the labor force, and the other 1.4 million were families in which one or both spouses were temporarily unemployed but still in the labor force.  Since those families were in a temporary situation which might or might not persist, it seemed unfair to class them in the other three stable employment categories.

The Census also provides data about how much family income these different families have.  However, more than half the families fall in the top group: $100k/yr and above  

This makes it hard to break the households into useful groupings, but I did my best.  The overall result is: far from being a luxury lifestyle, single income families make up the majority of the lowest income group and half of the second lowest, while single income families are the least represented among families making over $100k/yr.

For single income families with only the mother working and only the father working, the distribution across income bands was pretty similar, though the families where the wife was the single income were slightly more likely to belong to the lower income bands.

Two income families were about twice as likely to be making over $100k.

It's not possible to tell from this data how these families chose their income structure, but it certainly appears to be the case that single earning marriages are not an approach followed only by the affluent.

Friday, January 06, 2023

The Household Economy

It has been a busy fall, as my two-month absence from these pages might suggest. 

Directing my first stage play in many years was a wonderful experience, but it also left me behind in several other tracks of activity. And somehow the various tracks of life have been coming to resemble a rail yard around here.

Owning a 130 year old home means committing to a constant stream of home projects, large and small, as MrsDarwin recently mentioned.  I can report that the silverware drawer whose demise she described now has a handsome replacement:

And the leveling of the floor for the Great Bathroom Remodel is near completion.  (In a testament to the ability of old houses to settle, I'm having to level a floor which has height differences of up to 1.5 inches in the joists.)

Over at ThePillar, my latest data journalism project has involved applying quantitative text analysis techniques to the documents of the Synod on Synodality. I've been working through a series of pieces using correspondence analysis to examine the documents and the apparent connections (or lack thereof) between them.  What made this tricky was that I had never actually done correspondence analysis before this, I'd only read about it. ThePillar deserves a good deal of credit for being willing to give me the time to figure out new techniques which no one is currently applying to Catholic journalism.  (There are more installments coming shortly.)  I also did a quick piece on the increasingly advanced ages of popes at election and death through history.

And, of course, I needed to deal with the end of year press work. Since I deal with pricing, I end up fairly closely involved with the process of building the company budget, and that's a time consuming thing which comes at the end of the year.

The need to keep up with these various things, and the fact that work always has to trump the others in a crunch, has had me thinking lately about the part that work plays in our family's life. 

I have several friends who are deeply interested in the idea of work being more accommodating towards family life. Their proposals often focus around the kind of policies which make it easier for a family with two working parents to integrate the demands and parenting and working: longer post partem leave for both parents, taking sick days to care for sick children, more flexibility for working at home and working flexible hours so that parents can balance watching kids and doing work, etc.

I do not deny that these approaches help families in which all parents work. And as a manager, I am certainly always conscious of giving parents flexibility to deal with family things.

And yet, we have always pursued a different approach with our family.  Rather than seeking to both have jobs which are more compatible with raising children while working, we've made it a priority to have only one working parent.

In a sense, either way, this means taking some distance from the world in which so much of our value is seen as coming from working.  But the one approach involves both parents working, but doing so in a "work to live, not live to work" kind of fashion which makes more room for child rearing.  And the other involves having one parent step outside the working world entirely.  

Arguably, this means that we are even less trapped within the so called rat-race than those who are trying to pursue more flexible work schedules. But our tactics are the opposite.  Back when I started this blog, I was still working hourly, and at that time I always made sure to try to get overtime whenever I could.  Mour hours meant more dollars, and more dollars paid the bills while MrsDarwin stayed home.

I've been salaried for a long time now, but I have over the years pursued higher level work which at times requires travel or long hours because that has allowed me to take roles which pay more and thus grant our family what at this point is upper middle class affluence, even while unlike most of my coworkers we bring home one check not two (and have three times the number of kids.)

I don't have any issue with those who pursue the other strategy. But unfortunately from a policy point of view they can be somewhat opposed.  

In both cases, we want to spend less of our total family's time working on things outside the working economy.  When we cook and clean and teach the kids and reglaze the windows and re-tile the bathroom, we're doing things that we would otherwise have to pay someone a lot of money to do.  And when we write and put on theater, we're doing things which people do pay for to some degree, but which don't provide enough money to support people full time for the kind of work that we're doing.

However, our ability to have some spouse entirely outside the market economy is premised on my ability to make enough money to suppose the whole family off one paycheck.  If my job was broken into two jobs so that each person could get six months of parent leave after each child, and more vacation every year, and more flexible and shorter hours, the result would be that I wouldn't make as much money, and while perhaps now we could get by simply by living more modestly, at an early stage in our marriage that would probably have meant both of us having to work.  (And once you both work, the transition back to one income is notoriously hard.)

So I wish those who want more flexible jobs for family reasons well, but their desires are not my desires, and I hope they don't end up setting policy over me.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Descended into Hell

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, passed away today at the age of 95. 

There will be many words spoken about him in the coming days; I think Brandon treads a measured line in his assessment of Benedict's life and papacy. It's only fitting, at the death of such a prolific and gracious academic, to quote his own words. Here is a passage from Introduction to Christianity, about Christ's descent into Hell, which was a lifeline to me at a time when I was struggling:

...In truth -- one thing is certain: there exists a night into which solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone -- the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is -- hell. 

That brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it. Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev. 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images -- which at first look so mythological -- of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew's Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened ant the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt. 27:52). The door of death stands open since life -- love -- has dwelt in death.

Friday, December 23, 2022


Twelve years ago today, we moved into our house. The first thing we did that first night, Darwin and I and baby Diana, five months old, was buy a Christmas tree and put it up in the curtainless bay window as a greeting to the neighbors. We slept on an air mattress in the vast expanse of our empty room, the baby's fussing echoing throughout every room. The next day, as the movers were finishing up, my family brought up the older four kids for their first glimpse of the place. They ran shouting through the halls. Doors slammed. Closets were investigated. The place was so huge -- how would we ever know what was behind every door?

A few of the doors upstairs

Now I know what, and who, is behind every door. There are still a few light switches that befuddle me, and places like the attic that I don't venture into for months at a time, but I know where I am. We have a tree up today too, though it can't be seen by the neighbors today because we have the curtains drawn against today's bone-chilling wind. (I found snow driven through the casement windows behind the curtains.) We now have seven children. The oldest three have some memories of Texas; the younger four don't remember any other home. 

Jennifer the dummy feels right at home in the front hall.

This home is worth remembering. It is handsome, capricious, tactile. It has quirks that are the stuff of family legend. It has perfectly proportioned nooks, and rooms in which Choices Were Made (I'm looking at you, kitchen). It has an empty shaft where the back staircase used to be, and an asinine pantry where the basement stairs used to be. We have brick and studs where one bathroom used to be. The other four bathrooms are outfitted with the top technology of 1929. We've never used the shower in the master bathroom because it leaks. Until a month ago, our diamond pane windows were so bowed from 100 years of wear on the lead caming that we had gaps large enough to admit a breeze. 

A poor kitchen renovation from 1990 bears its ultimate bad fruit: doors falling off and drawers falling out. That's the bottom of the irreparable silverware drawer sitting on the shelf of the cabinet below.

And I love it. Our house in Texas could never look better than the day it was built; it aged uglier and uglier. This home ages with beauty. Each year it gets richer. We have, perhaps, put more wear and tear on it than any previous generation, but a home is meant to be lived in. If a house can reflect the love it shelters, ours is radiant from the attic beams to the stone foundation. We hope everyone who enters the house soaks up some of our overflowing joy.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 13

Here they were again, all crying, except, of course, Elinor. Marianne’s agony billowed from her room in wave after ear-splitting wave, the occasional shriek of “Willoughby!” rising above the inarticulate howls. Margaret too was wailing, less from compassion than from the contagious anxiety of the afternoon. Poor dear child, she’d hoped to come home from a tedious afternoon at Middletons to the reward of a new brother. What she found instead was a sister dissolved in heartbreak and Willoughby distraught, distant, and deceptive. Willoughby was gone now, perhaps forever, and the Dashwood house was rocked to its foundations. Downstairs, Elinor was white-lipped with worry. Upstairs, everything was salt water.

Willoughby’s story of a sudden commission from his old benefactress Mrs. Smith had been strange, his demeanor so alien. Everything spoke of some deception, but how could this be, from our Willoughby? From his first "Hallo!", he had been so open and frank with them. What grief it was thus to discover what ought to have given them confidence: that Willoughby had no talent for lying. Not for him the easy knack of adorning falsehood with a veneer of probability, of saying just what others wanted to hear. The clumsiness of his deception embarrassed him as much as his audience.

Surely they must hear from him soon, even though he had almost taken his oath that he could not visit, could not write, could not even acknowledge the family that had so nearly been his own. To what ungenerous impulse could this behavior be attributed? His every shared glance with Marianne bespoke an ever-deepening trust. Only in refusing to announce their engagement had Willoughby ever withheld anything from the Dashwoods, but in that, he was not alone.  If it was concealment, it was mutual; Marianne, who had never until now kept a secret from her mother, remained steadfastly silent on the subject.

Elinor, of course, doubted him. Even from her childhood, Elinor accepted only certainties; it comforted her to prepare for the worst. It was not a trait she had inherited from her mother. Why should not one believe the best of the people one loved? Willoughby must surely have his reasons, and they must do him credit. Of course the families of the neighborhood would malign him. What less could be expected from those who did not scruple to spare dear Colonel Brandon, when they knew his proven character? In the Dashwood house at least, Willoughby should be defended.

She had already been regaled with accounts of Colonel Brandon’s scandalous behavior from almost everyone present. 

“… and then the letter was handed to him by Thompson… ,” Miss Carey narrated to Mrs. Dashwood Monday over tea.

“No, he brought it in on a salver!” interjected Miss Felicity.

“And he turned positively white. I've never seen anyone look so ill, even at breakfast!”

“He was red, Amelia! I thought he was burning up with fever!”

“And Mrs. Jennings was most importunate about the direction, but he wouldn't tell who wrote it, or what was in it.”

“And then he professed very sorry, but he must needs leave, and we should not go to Whitwell after all! What a to-do, you may be sure!”

“Willoughby thinks he wrote it himself,” murmured Marianne in Miss Carey’s private ear, “to get out of the trip.”

The Misses Carey dissolved into a fit of giggles. Elinor shot Marianne a speaking glance.

“And oh, Mrs. Dashwood,” twittered Miss Felicity, “Lady Middleton was all of a pother. She kept saying…”

“…It must have been extraordinary news to make him leave my breakfast table,” said Lady Middleton to Mrs. Dashwood on Tuesday. The young olive shoots had been left at home, in an abundance of caution lest they catch the dying remnants of Mrs. Dashwood's cold, but Lady Middleton knew what was due her husband's cousin, and made her visit as soon as she heard Mrs. Dashwood was receiving guests.

“I am sure he would never have left your table under less urgent circumstances,” said Mrs. Dashwood patiently. “Colonel Brandon is a gentleman, and would not cause your ladyship distress without good reason.”

“Colonel Brandon is a gentleman,” agreed Lady Middleton placidly. “We will go to Whitwell when he returns. I am sure he will not leave my table again.”

“Perhaps the weather will improve,” suggested Mrs. Dashwood, longing to steer the conversation anywhere else. “I know that the young ladies were quite eager to see Whitwell. It is a most elegant estate, I understand, belonging to Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law. Perhaps you know him?”

Lady Middleton was not to be drawn from her subject. “The Misses Dashwood shall go to Whitwell when Colonel Brandon returns. You will see, he will not leave my breakfast table again so suddenly.”

“…But my dear,” said Mrs. Jennings, settling in on Wednesday for a cozy gossip on the sofa, “I never knew a man such as the Colonel for keeping secrets! You already know about his natural daughter, Miss Williams. She's off at school in Bath, and so sickly, the poor dear, the Colonel is driven nearly to distraction. Speaking of sickly, his sister in Avignon (did you know he had a sister?) is ill, they say, but never can I get a word from him about her health. She is the youngest of them. I never knew the older brother, but Lady Middleton's cook told my woman that he was a bad 'un, and such company as he kept!”

It was a mercy that Mrs. Dashwood had trained her face into a rigid neutrality at the first mention of Col. Brandon, for Mrs. Jennings was not done discovering things from her servants. 

“Of course she meant no harm by it,”  the worthy woman assured Mrs. Dashwood, leaning close, “and all's well that ends well, but a word in your ear. Miss Marianne would do well to get a proposal out of her Mr. Willoughby before she sets foot again in Allingham. Mind you, I don't blame the lass -- who wouldn't want to look at such a grand place, and she to be the mistress one day! But it don't look right, and I shake my head at him, who ought to be more watchful of his own lady's interests. I know they were disappointed when Col. Brandon up and disappeared just like that, without so much as a word to any of us what was so pressing in London. He must needs walk out the door and leave the rest of us to pick our teeth, instead of picnicking. Willoughby was in a fine taking -- you might have thought the Colonel did it just to spite him. And once we'd set upon a nice drive, those two would be galloping away before anyone could catch up to them. But I had my suspicions, and sure enough if he didn't take her to Allingham, and Mrs. Smith not at home! She’s a woman to stand on propriety, so they say. It seems she's not above leaving the place away from him, or on such terms as he might wish it was left away, if he don't give satisfaction. I know we'll all be easier once the pretty business is all settled. Then our young scapegrace can show Miss Marianne all the linen and silverware her heart desires.”

The Dashwoods and their travails would soon be just one more titillating tale to be traded in the drawing rooms of the neighboring gentry, displacing Colonel Brandon’s absence. Mrs. Dashwood knew she ought to be downstairs right now with Elinor, rationally parsing the whole strange situation. She was not downstairs. She was holed up in her room, weeping almost as vehemently (though not nearly as melodramatically) as Marianne. It was a relief, in a way, to have this outlet for her emotions. For these past weeks, she had kept her tears rigidly in check. Now it was as if she had never wept before. 

It was, in its way,  the first time. A week ago – could it only be seven days? – she had watched Colonel Brandon ride away, bearing with him some vital piece of her inside. She was hollow, an emptiness that would not be filled even by Marianne and Willoughby’s increasing happiness. How hard it had been, to go about in front of the girls as if she could breathe, as if her whole being was not expanded beyond itself into one vast ache of yearning. She did not yearn only for the Colonel, although since he had kissed her hand her nerves had given her no peace. He was merely the foundation on which the whole cruel edifice of hope was constructed.

Hope, in her youth, had been a bright peaceful bauble, thrilling and hazy. How naive she had been, how innocent, to imagine it as a safe virtue! As a girl, oppressed by her mother’s ever-present plans to marry her into position and fortune, she would wrap herself in a protective web of dreams. Love mattered, of course, but love could be found anywhere. Perhaps she would marry a rakish lord with a heart of gold, perhaps reform a buccaneer and his pirate crew, perhaps entice a prosperous colonial returned to find a lass of the old country to provide him with sons. She would be seized with longing for she knew not what: something, everything. And she called this amorphous desire hope.

Her juvenile speculations, both theological and romantic, floated untethered to the weight of reality. There was nothing vague about hope. It was sickeningly clear and specific. She grieved the absence of this man, this kind, dignified man, unfailingly patient with Lady Middleton, with never a retort to dignify Willoughby’s murmured witticisms or Mrs. Jennings’s speculations. She memorized the shape of his fingertips as he turned Marianne’s piano music at Barton Park. She sighed over his flannel waistcoat and the not-quite-stout figure it warmed. Hope did not promise a delightful, impossible resolution to this desire. It simply was, a longing deep in her bones and flesh. It blinded, deafened, stunned, consumed. Hope was raising her to life again, and it was killing her.

Had she truly hoped since the moment she had realized that dearest Henry was never coming back to her? There had been glimmers of sunshine now and then, when the happiness of her daughters broke through her own gloom. Her own heart had surged up when Edward Ferrars had first made Elinor blush, only to sink again under Edward’s continued silence and Elinor’s steadfast equanimity. Marianne’s joy in anything was of course infectious, but Willoughby himself had been nothing but delight from the first moment he had risen up out of the mist with Marianne in his arms. To what had she clung, this interminable week, but the hope that Marianne and Willoughby would soon announce what everyone already knew. There was no security in a private understanding. People married for love, yes, but also for stability, for connection, for alliance. A public understanding would give Marianne the right to visit her future home, safe from the energetic malice of the gossips. Now Marianne’s hope was shattered, and her heartbreak thundered through the close cottage. 

Why should she not cry? Why should her heart not be broken? Surely one Dashwood should be allowed a painless course of love. Why could it have not been Marianne, who practiced so little moderation of her moods that the whole house must have its share of both her ecstasies and her disappointments?

She could not stay up here forever. Elinor’s downstairs stoicism was a goad to her self-possession. She steeled herself to meet cynicism with good cheer, doubt with reasoned defense. Colonel Brandon was falsely maligned, but Mrs. Dashwood knew his private agony. So it must be with Willoughby. She at least would continue to believe in his good faith, no matter Elinor’s arguments to the contrary, until time proved to all what she hoped to be – no, what must be – true.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Old School Reunion

Gentle readers: Mrs. Dashwood is not on hold, technically. It's just that last week was fantastic weather in Ohio -- balmy, beautiful, and a little intimidating because if there was any outside work to be done, it had to be done by Thursday, hard stop. So we raked leaves, painted some of the back porch, got up on scaffolding, glazed windows, used oil-based paint for the first time, etc. Even after dark on Thursday, we were out getting the very last warm-weather tasks checked off the list.

On Friday, a rainy day of almost zero visibility, Darwin and I drove to Steubenville for the weekend, to see our oldest daughter in a revival of a show I performed in my senior year of college, and to have a mini reunion with a few drama friends. We stayed in a farmhouse, ate copious amounts of food in accordance with various dietary restrictions, drank moderate amounts of alcohol, and went to bed at reasonable hours. This is what happens when you're old. 

But what creaky pleasure we derived from touring our old theater and announcing to the current students, politely showing the oldsters around, that they don't know how good they have it now, and back in our day we had no air conditioning or light grid, and all we had for prop storage was the corridor up to the lighting booth, and a creepy storage space in a crumbling house in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Adversity builds character. Age hath its privileges.

What delight, also, to talk to old friends as adults. Time has not been gentle to us all, but we've all grown in age, grace, and wisdom. I hope it won't take twenty more years for us to get together again.

Now our weekend of jollity is over. It's freezing outside. Darwin flew out this morning to Baltimore to help cover the USCCB conference with the Pillar crew. I'm considering recaulking the bathtub, another pleasure of the boring homeowner. And somewhere in here more Mrs. Dashwood will be written. After all, she too dreams of making over an old house.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 12

The next morning promised fair, after days of rain, and all three girls left in good spirits for breakfast at Barton. Mrs. Dashwood breathed a sigh of relief as she watched them stroll off in a flutter of shawls, Margaret hand in hand with Marianne. Last night Margaret had been in some kind of disgrace which none of the girls quite wanted to explain to her, even -- with a strange new step into adult discretion -- Margaret herself. But as the older girls completed their toilette that morning, Margaret stepped into Mrs. Dashwood's bedroom and asked, "Mama, is it elegant to talk about rain?"

Mrs. Dashwood, nestled in her pillows, stared over her teacup. "Rain? Why?"

"Because Colonel Brandon talked incessantly of rain with Lady Middleton at dinner, and on the way home Elinor said he was a model of tact and delicacy."

"Perhaps Lady Middleton had a great desire to talk about the weather, and Colonel Brandon indulged her." 

"Perhaps," Margaret allowed, "but she does not have much to say about it. She makes the same remark again and again. Do you think that she can be quite intelligent, Mama? Colonel Brandon tried to make more conversation, but all Lady Middleton could say was that it rained very hard."

"Could something have agitated her?" Mrs. Dashwood suggested gently. "Lady Middleton is most fastidious, and seems to find solace in repetition when the conversation becomes too inelegant for her taste."

Margaret became very interested in the drapes. "Mrs. Jennings was teasing about lovers, and Marianne was getting angry, and Colonel Brandon suddenly started talking about rain with Lady Middleton, and Elinor was grateful, I suppose." 

"I suspect that what Elinor praised in Colonel Brandon was not his attentiveness to the weather, but his sensibility of the feelings of others in guiding the conversation away from a topic that caused distress to some."

Margaret's brow furrowed at the complexity of adults. "But Willoughby is sometimes satirical when the Colonel says it will rain, and declares that he does it only to annoy, and Colonel Brandon does not change the topic for him." 

"Colonel Brandon is sensible enough to know the difference between excessive spirits and genuine agitation."

Just then a cry came up from the hall, and Marianne dashed in and bundled Margaret out the door. "Now, Margaret, you are not to tire Mama with chatter and speculation. I do believe it would do you good, though, Mama, to be out of doors with us today. Nothing is so medicinal as a draught of bracing fresh air."

"Nonsense, Marianne," said Elinor, pulling on her gloves. "It is draughts of bracing fresh air that have brought Mama so low. There is a broth warming on the stove which will serve you much better than a turn on a lake, be it ever so exclusive. It is owned by Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law, and we may not get in unless he shepherds us through and offers a guarantee of decorum. We must go now, or Lady Middleton will comment upon our absence at her table. Do you drink your broth, Mama, and blow your nose in peace these several hours."

And then the girls were gone, and the promised peace descended. What bliss, to be wrapped in silence! Never before at Norland had she craved silence. The sounds of small piping speech, Henry's dear laugh, old Mr. Dashwood's rumbles and grumbles, the clatter of servants, the chime of company -- all these she had craved, and sought out when they were not at hand. She had allowed the girls to speak more freely than she had been allowed to as a girl, and rejoiced in their blossoming. Had she been wise? Had she only encouraged Marianne's latent petulance, Elinor's latent sharpness? But surely it had not been wise to be as strict as her mother had been, caring only for the image of decorum with no thought of forming the mind behind the face. And yet, dear Mama... even her scheming had been borne of love, and fear for her children's welfare in a world where marriage decided a woman's lot in life. 

Now I am a widow, dear Mama, with three daughters of my own who must marry if they are to have any money. The income you thought you were providing for me when I married Henry Dashwood, heir presumptive to Norland, has vanished into the coffers of Fanny and her son. What then of all your prudence? At least I had love, where you had none.

Her reverie was interrupted by a clamor at the front door, first a few tentative knocks and then a more urgent rapping. Before she had time to do more than sit up in bed and clutch for her dressing gown, Evans entered the room. "Colonel Brandon desires to see you, ma'am. He's in the parlor."

Mrs. Dashwood rushed downstairs, decorum cast to the wind. She could certainly receive Colonel Brandon in her dressing gown if he came bearing bad news of the girls. Why else would he be here, on the morning of a trip at which he must be present? She entered the parlor with more haste than grace, exclaiming, "Tell me quickly, Colonel. Has Marianne's ankle given way? Was Elinor taken ill? Surely Margaret was not climbing again?"

"I beg you to forgive this intrusion," said Colonel Brandon, clutching his hat and his riding whip, and appearing almost ill himself. "Your daughters are quite well. The only emergency is my own."

"Sir, you are not well!" Mrs. Dashwood exclaimed. "You must sit for a moment, if you can, and have a cup of tea." 

"I cannot spare the time," he said, but then he hesitated. "I must beg your pardon again. No doubt I appear in an alarming state. Indeed, I rushed from the breakfast table at Barton, for which I fear Lady Middleton will not soon forgive me. I told them I had not an hour to spare, but I could not leave without saying good-bye to you. But all is done ill, and I see I have disturbed your rest, and will perhaps have delayed your own recovery."

"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Dashwood, able to take command of the situation now that her apprehensions for the girls were set at ease. "I am not an invalid, though my daughters have doubtless reported me so. I suffer from nothing worse than a cold, which would be soothed if I took some of the broth Elinor ordered for me. And so should you, sir, if you have had no breakfast. Wherever you must go, you will not be served by leaving hungry."

Again Colonel Brandon hesitated, taking a step toward the door, then back toward her. "I have so little time. You must allow me to explain myself, and then leave as soon as may be."

"You shall explain all you like, sir," said Mrs. Dashwood, rallying all her maternal authority, "but you be none the worse for doing it over a mug of broth."

Colonel Brandon allowed himself to be seated at the small table by the window, and Evans was summoned and soon returned with two steaming mugs. Mrs. Dashwood sat in silence to give the Colonel time to collect himself.

"I have confided in no one," he said. "But I must speak to someone. May I confide in you, Mrs. Dashwood? You are a mother, and will perhaps enter into my feelings."

"Certainly, sir," she said, surprised. "I will be happy to assist you by any means within my power."

"I have received a letter this very morning, not thirty minutes ago, from my ward Eliza. I know you have heard of her; Mrs. Jennings speaks of nothing else to all who meet me. Perhaps she has told you that Eliza is my natural daughter."

It was pointless to dissemble politely at this moment. "She did."

"She is not my daughter, though I wish she was so. Nor is she my niece, though I also wish that was so. She is the daughter of my sister-in-law, the late Mrs. Brandon, whose life of suffering I have not the time to recount to you now. Your Marianne reminds me much of her as I knew her when she was young, though Marianne has had all the advantages of wise and loving parents which Eliza lacked. Rather, she was ward to my father, who married her off, much against our wills, to my older brother, and I was sent to the West Indies to learn resignation. From such a cruel match -- for my brother was a cruel man, and a most unnatural husband to my poor Eliza -- she at last rebelled, and in her rebellion she fled with a man who showed her flattering attention. And alas! I was thousands of miles away, though always with her in thought. And young Eliza, my ward, is the child of this first desperate liaison. I have taken such pains to shield her dear dead mother that I have allowed the tell-tales to have their way, provided they sully only my name."

"Your precautions have not been in vain," said Mrs. Dashwood, agog at this unexpected tale of romance and horror told by the weary man sitting opposite her clutching a mug of broth. "If Mrs Jennings knew the true tale, so doubtless would all of Devonshire."

"Some of Devonshire knows some of it," said Colonel Brandon. "Delaford is not so far from here, and all this is within living memory, for," with grim humor, "I am not as old as Miss Marianne believes me to be. But when I came into my brother's estate five years ago, against all expectations and all desire by that point, I pensioned off the older servants who remembered my father and brother and their ways, and set them up far from Delaford. Those who would not help Eliza when she was young and helpless shall have no claim on my house or purse." 

In his anger he rose and strode the confines of the room, fireplace to door and back again. Mrs. Dashwood swallowed the hundred questions that sprung to her lips, and watched him pace with pity in her eyes. At last he slowed his steps, though he did not sit again.

"As I say, this morning I have received a letter from Eliza's daughter, my own ward, named for her dear mother. It was forwarded to me from Delaford, my house, you know. I did my best to provide a father's care for her, without a father's rights or experience, and in my folly I failed her again and again. I thought I could not raise a child, I who had no home of my own until I came unexpectedly into Delaford five years ago. I have tried to provide care for her -- nurses and governesses and finishing school -- without caring for her myself. And yet I could not say no to Eliza, not without seeing my own Eliza who was so often refused in her own unhappy childhood. I allowed her, in February, to travel to Bath with a school friend and her father, a man too ill himself to supervise two girls of sixteen. And in February, Eliza disappeared from Bath. For eight months I have searched for her, with no clue to her whereabouts, or communication from her. For eight months I have waited in fear for this letter, and now I hope I may not be too late."

"Eight months," breathed Mrs. Dashwood, meeting his eyes in sudden comprehension. "You are not too late. But you must indeed leave now, if she is to be settled before her time. Will you bring her back to Delaford?"

At last he sat down across the little table from her again, spent and yet lightened by the act of confession, and by her hoped-for understanding.

"I must make her comfortable," he said. "But I thought to do so in the country far from here, where she has no history and thus no reputation. She is scared and ill and young, and without friend but me, and I must be with her for some time. I do not know when I will be back at Barton or at Delaford, and unless you come to town this winter, I do not know when I will see you again. And so I must say goodbye. It is an undue burden, but I rely on your discretion, Mrs. Dashwood."

"Not a word of what you have told me here will pass my lips," she vowed. "I will swear if if you like."

"No!" he said, standing, and then attempted to check his vehemence. "I beg your pardon once more. But a vow is a sacred thing, and should not be required for less than sacred subjects, lest a person chafe and smother under a burden made heavier by a promise. Indeed, I should not have confided in you if I did not already rely on your trust. I ask nothing of you but that which our Lord instructs, that your yes mean yes and your no mean no."

She had risen as he spoke, and now, as he faced her in the light of the window, she noticed upon his jaw a small glint of stubble, missed by the razor in his morning ablutions. The little shock of domesticity in the midst of sorrow shook her grief-lulled senses awake. With no warning, she was intensely aware that she was standing near enough to this man to see the stubble on his face. In the next instant, she realized to her astonishment that unless she stopped herself by cold force of will, she would lift her hand and brush his cheek with her fingers.

She must not touch him, not at this moment where he needed all concentration and speed. She must not touch him, when he had just entrusted her with the account of his own weakness and failure. She must not touch him, she a widow of less than a year who had not forgotten her own dear husband's touch. 

"You must go, Colonel Brandon," she said briskly enough, she hoped, to cover the split-second delay of wrestling with her impulses. "Time and tide wait for no man, and the same is true of babies."

"I may have need of your advice and counsel," he said, already moving to the door. "May I write to you as I care for Eliza?"

"Yes, of course," she said wildly, ushering him along, willing to do anything to hasten his moment of departure while her resolve was still firm. "I will tell you all I know about the rearing of daughters, and advise you as best I may about the necessities of Eliza's coming confinement. Please tell me how you find her, as soon as you find her."

"I will," he said, hand on the doorknob. "I cannot fully convey my thanks for your kindness to me, and for your gentle mercy toward my poor Eliza, who now stands condemned by the world. Goodbye and farewell, my dear Mrs. Dashwood."

He paused in the open doorway and pressed her hand warmly, then kissed it with gratitude. 

"May we meet again under happier circumstances," he said, raising anguished eyes to her face as she drew a startled breath. After a split second of hesitation, he released her hand and was gone before she could make any reply.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 11

It's NaNoWriMo, and a lot has happened since I dropped my project last year. Let's see if I remember how to do this...



There is never a good time to have a cold, but it seemed particularly unfair to be ill now, when everything seemed so promising between Marianne and Willoughby. It was a mother's part to be discreetly present during a courtship, either to discourage inappropriate liaisons, or to prompt amorous suitors to come quickly to the point so as to set a date to be free from supervision. And Willoughby was everything Mrs. Dashwood could have hoped for one of her girls: entirely matched to Marianne's every taste and caprice. So she and Mr. Dashwood had been, in their day, and no marriage could have been happier. 

And now, thanks to this ridiculous cold, caught of gallivanting through the rainy October countryside on one of Sir John's pleasure excursions -- no woman of 40 should be expected to go on a pleasure excursion in the foggy dew!, Mrs. Dashwood ruminated in rheumy petulance -- Elinor was required to shoulder the burden of chaperone, at an age where she should have been requiring a chaperone herself. Mrs. Dashwood fretted under the guilt of relying once again on the strength of her oldest. The guilt ought to have made her more indulgent toward Elinor, but rather it made her defensive. The joy and relief of seeing a daughter likely to be as pleasantly settled as she herself had been, and even more securely tied to an estate and an income, made her quite out of sorts with Elinor's reluctance to enter fully into her sister's raptures. Indeed, Mrs. Dashwood had come across the girls almost quarreling more than once. Both, however, were reluctant to say much about it, and Mrs. Dashwood refused, both on principle and from bitter experience, to force a confidence. 

"Mama, we know so little of him," said Elinor, holding her mending to the window to catch the misty October light. "The acquaintance, though charmingly begun, has been brief. Can a few weeks be enough to reveal a man's character and intentions?"

"A strange question from you, Elinor!" her mother cried, her own mending dropping unheeded. "Did you need long years to study Edward Ferrar's character at Norland? Were his intentions opaque?"

"I am not in possession of any intelligence about Edward's intentions, mama, so there's no point in pumping me," Elinor said with infuriating blandness. "His character I can vouch for as being most admirable, and this I know because of his kindness to Margaret and to all of us at Norland, and his complete dissimilarity to Fanny. Indeed, it took the trial of Fanny's rudeness for his gentleness to be fully displayed." Was Elinor sighing, or just shifting in her chair? "But we have seen Willoughby under no trial worse than weather. His unfortunate propensity to chafe under small burdens of propriety seems of a part with the weaker side of Marianne's character. I would they had something more substantial in common."

"Is taste unsubstantial?" protested her mother, feeling on oddly weak ground against Elinor's . "Is poetry unsubstantial?"

"Bad men have liked good poems."

"Do you have reason then to believe Willoughby bad?" asked Mrs. Dashwood, seized with sudden worry. "My love, if you know anything to his discredit, you must not be afraid to tell me. Your sister's life-long happiness is my desire, and I would not see her robbed of it through a passing fancy. Have you anything definite to lay at Willoughby's door?" Elinor was a deep old file. What difficulties might she try to manage herself, without worrying her mother? Had she witnessed any improprieties that she was covering up so as to keep Mama from distress? Had she overheard some word, some rumor, and now was dropping delicate hints? It was almost impossible to imagine the frank Willoughby in some dark intrigue, but a man was a man, for all that.

Elinor's needlework lay neglected in her lap for a long moment. "No, mama," she said at last. "I have nothing definite to accuse him of. Indeed, I believe him to be, as you suspect, ardently in love with Marianne, and as desirous of her happiness as you are. I only wish that they would be as open with us as with each other."

"That will come in time, my love," said Mrs. Dashwood, in relief. "The openness with each other is all. Their characters are so forthright as to make concealment a burden to them. They will tell us of their engagement soon."

"Then you believe them engaged?" said Elinor, studying her with disconcerting earnestness. "I am glad to hear it."

"Why, yes, my dearest goose," said her mother in surprise. "How can you doubt it? An attachment so quickly, so strongly formed, with no impediment on either side -- I am sure that we will be wishing them joy soon enough. Too soon, perhaps, once we feel the lack of Marianne's sweet presence in our small society."

"Perhaps we already feel that lack," murmumed Elinor, as Marianne entered the room like a clap of thunder and threw herself onto the couch as moodily as her rapidly healing ankle would allow. 

"Where can Willoughby be?" she complained. "Men have so many distractions to amuse them, while women must wait in idleness until such time as men choose to visit them." 

"Only if they so choose," said Elinor with ascerbic mildness. "You see here much distraction in the mending basket, or perhaps you might walk to the kitchen and pick from the amusements on offer there in the broom cupboard or the dishpan." 

"Yes, those who can't ride must walk," snapped Marianne. "What a pity we have no horse, nor no prospect of one."

"Yes, a pity indeed," said Elinor sharply. "A pity that a horse cannot live on air and good intentions, but needs a stable, an extra servant, a groom. Any prudent horseman knows that." 

The girls locked eyes in a battle of wills, but it was Elinor who prevailed. Marianne tossed her tangled curls with what she must have assumed to be careless womanly grace. 

"I myself prefer a generous horseman to a prudent horseman, dearest Elinor."

"Only the prudent horseman can be truly generous, dearest Marianne."

"What is this talk of riding, Marianne?" asked Mrs. Dashwood, disconcerted by the odd discord between her girls. "You know I have no thought of keeping a horse. When you have your own establishment you may keep what accoutrements you will."

"So I have been told," said Marianne, sitting up and reaching for her mending basket beside Elinor's. "Lend me your scissors, Elinor, and let us see if your generosity matches your prudence." 

"Of course, Marianne," said Elinor without inflection. "My scissors are always at your disposal, especially when you have misplaced yours."

Marianne's hand trembled on her basket. "Thank you, Elinor," she said. "I know that you have a generous heart, hide it though you may under your armor of prudence."

And with that, the squall passed and the sisters were once more in cryptic harmony. Their mother, far from feeling relief, was exhausted from trying to navigate the hidden currents of their drama. She sought her handkerchief and tried to blow her nose daintily.

"You must go back to bed, Mama," said Elinor, taking her elbow and steering her, unprotesting, upstairs. "There is no question of you going to dinner with the Middletons tonight."

Nor was there any question of her joining in yet another pleasure excursion conceived by Sir John at the table that night, to see Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law's estate. 

"I am sorry for you, Mama," said Elinor brightly from beneath her shawl, as she brought Mrs. Dashwood an evening cup of tea. "The grounds are said to be lovely. But in this rain...! Colonel Brandon was most solicitous for your health, and begged that you be excused from Sir John's scheme of open carriages and lake excursions in a dinghy. Indeed, I believe that he himself would rather not go, only the plan cannot proceed without him. The steward will not allow visitors without the Colonel himself there."

"I did not not know that Colonel Brandon had a sister," snuffled Mrs. Dashwood. "She must not be at home now. How sad that you will not meet her. I should like to know her."

"I am sure Mrs. Jennings could tell you all about her," said Elinor, turning toward the door. "She wants to know everything about everyone. Goodnight, Mama. Ten to one we shall do nothing more interesting than eat hothouse peaches in a thick mist."