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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Virtue In False Promises?

One of the things that strikes me repeatedly watching the global warming debate (especially in the lead-up to and in the wake of the Copenhagen conference) is the incredible amount of excitement people have about trying to get countries to make commitments in regards to CO2 emissions which they obviously are not going to keep.

For instance, in discussing their hopes for Copenhagen, a number of environmentalists expressed hope that there would not be another "do nothing" commitment such as the Kyoto Accord -- despite the fact that even those countries which did agree to Kyoto had not managed to keep those very modest commitments. The goals that environmentalists did very much want to see committed to (generally a 80-90% global drop in CO2 emissions within somewhere between 10 and 40 years) are far more aggressive, and thus far more unrealistic.

This struck me in particular when I stumbled across this advocacy piece, in which the author expresses hope that leaders of nations will commit to decreasing CO2 emissions by 80% in ten years (by 2020) and as a first step urges people to take the radical step of decreasing their "carbon footprints" by 25%. If committed environmentalists are only finding ways to decrease their household CO2 emissions by 25%, how in the world do they expect a whole country to drop its emissions by 80%?

Environmentalists have widely branded the Copenhagen summit as a failure because it didn't produce a firm commitment to massive CO2 emission reductions within a couple decades. Even beloved left-of-center leaders such as President Obama have been branded by their own base as "irresponsible" for not making strong commitments at Copenhagen. But if there simply does not seem to be a way to achieve such reductions, if even activists willing to significantly change their lifestyles in order to reduce their personal "carbon footprints" are not able to reliably achieve such drastic reductions in the short term, I fail to understand how it was "irresponsible" of Obama, Sarkozy, etc. to refuse to commit to doing something they frankly have no idea of how to do.

Wouldn't it be irresponsible to make a commitment you have no idea how to keep?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rent or Own

Home ownership hath its tired and grubby moments, as I've had time to meditate on over the last few days as a playroom to bedroom conversion project has dragged long over the expected timeline due to general holiday business (and perhaps laziness, but we'll ignore that). On the other hand, if we rented our house we doubtless wouldn't have the wood floors, the newly blue bedroom, the green kitchen, the red walled living room with finished wood trim, or the re-tiled (though admittedly still un-mantled) fireplace.

This morning I was reading over Megan McArdle's reaction to a New York Post column which pushes the benefits of renting over owning.

It strikes me that there are really two trends which make owning a house look less attractive to many people these days:

1) Perpetual Debt: A great many people seem to have no intention of ever paying off their mortgages and owning their homes outright. Mounting equity is taken as a sign that it's time to move to a more expensive house, or take out a second mortgage. At that point, I can see how home ownership would be unattractive. However, if you actively work towards the day when you own your house free and clear (and make that an absolute condition for retirement) then there are huge financial reasons to own.

2) Geographic Mobility: In certain layers of society, it's become increasingly common for people to move pretty regularly, not only in a region (from starter home to larger home) but from one region of the country to another as career changes demand. When you move frequently, especially due to circumstances that have nothing to do with your real estate finances, you're invariably going to get clobbered by regional market fluctuations and the costs of selling/buying a home, and if you tend toward 30-year-very-little-money-down mortgages, the clobbering can be very bad indeed.

These factors aside, I'm always a little perplexed by the "it's actually more economic to rent than own" arguments. While perfectly efficient markets don't exist, it still stands to reason that rent must generally be higher than the cost of buying an maintaining a house -- otherwise there would be no landlords because they'd all lose money. So unless there's some major difference between how you approach house buying versus how a landlord would do so (and holding a house for only a few years and taking out more debt whenever your equity builds would definitely count as acting differently from a landlord) it stands to reason that you'd spend less money buying than renting.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Covering the Basics

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, it was my turn to go do "Breaking Open The Word" with the RCIA candidates after dismissal. For those who don't have this in their parish, this involves those in the RCIA program being dismissed from Sunday mass after the homily and before the creed (in the more descriptive pre-Vatican II terminology: after the Mass of the Catechumens and before the Mass of the Faithful) and go to another place (in our case, the parish library) to further discuss the readings with the guidance of a member of the RCIA team.

As you may recall, the readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent center around the messiah (first, psalm and second) and the Visitation. Now, my first difficulty was that one of our deacons had given a homily which covered all of the themes of preparation for the messiah quite well. So I found myself witting at a table in the parish library with four RCIA candidates and trying to think what to talk about for 20-30 minutes without simply repeating the homily in other words.

I spent five minutes tying the themes of the readings together again, but had the feeling that I was losing people. Then inspiration came: "So, are you familiar with the story of the Visitation which we have in the Gospel today? Do you know about what's happened to Mary's cousin Elizabeth prior to this?"

Four heads shake.

So I pulled out a bible and we read aloud the opening of Luke's Gospel, up through the visitation. We talked about it a moment, and then I got the question, "What happens after that? Does Zechariah get his voice back?"

That was easy, we read through the next few paragraphs and finished off the story of the birth and naming of John.

This John, I explained, was John the Baptist. Did people know the story of John the Baptist?

Four heads shake.

That was easily mended. Typical Catholic, I knew the story off by heart, but didn't know the verse citations, so we just closed the bible and I went through John preaching, his baptism of repentance, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, and John's eventual arrest and execution by Herod.

Then I circled back to the story of the visitation we'd covered in the Gospel and pointed out how the words of the Hail Mary come mainly from Elizabeth's greeting to Mary, and from Gabriel's earlier words in the Annunciation. Then we closed with a brief prayer, including the Hail Mary which we'd just discussed.

As we were leaving, one of the young men stopped to say, "Thanks for explaining all that -- it makes a lot of things make more sense."

I should have caught on by now, but these reminders of the necessity of going over the basics of the Christian story (and the fact that people are actually interested in the basics, rather than immediately questioning them or seeking to read other meanings into them or such) are both useful and refreshing to me. It seems a danger for those well educated in the faith to focus entirely on drawing lessons from the Bible, and forget that for those in the process of formation, the story itself is new and fresh. And, of course, if you always hear people drawing meaning from the scriptures, but aren't well founded in the actual narrative story, it's easy to get confused.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas To All Our Readers

May God's blessings shower down upon you during all twelve days of the celebration of Our Lord's nativity.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Christmas Bookshelf

Christmas, like every other time of the year, was marked by books. Various books made up favorite Christmastime reading, and flat, rectangular packages were stacked neatly under the Christmas tree. Indeed, if there was a year in which more than half the family presents exchanged were not books, I cannot recall it.

And so, of course, this time of year reminds me of all sorts of favorite books. Here are a few of those rooted most deeply in this season for me.

The feast of St. Nicholas, with the putting out of our shoes in hopes of chocolate coins, always seemed to start the Christmas season in earnest for us children, since as on Christmas we woke early in expectation of candy. And, of course, St. Nicholas is the distant ancestor of our bowdlerized Santa Claus. St. Nicholas himself is, of course, a far more interesting character. A real person (who among other things once popped bishop Arius a good one) St. Nicholas is also one of the saints around whom a robust mythology sprang up, and The Twenty Miracles of Saint Nicolas by Bernarda Bryson is a simply outstanding retelling of many of the most famous myths about him, from the three dowerless maidens and the three boys in the salting tub to my personal favorite "How Saint Nichold Met and Overcame the Goddess Diana".

The next feast day in December which normally hit our radar was Our Lady of Guadalupe, and for me the Tomie dePaola The Lady of Guadalupe will always be the definitive version. Indeed, when I read it to my own children, I find myself falling into the cadences of my mother's voice, which is the voice which in my mind's ear I will always here it in.

Some might see it as a "girl book", but I much enjoyed hearing and reading The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden as a child, and I have since found a copy so that I can read it to my own passel of daughters. A story about wishes and dolls is something to stir any girl's heart, and one or two of mine are generally sniffing by the end, while the stories of a six-year-old orphan and an aging childless couple are enough to play on parental heart strings. And Rumer Godden writes this short story with the same skill as in her adult novels.

I can't say why this book stuck with me. I recall the day my father stumbled across it in a bookstore and was charmed enough to pick it up. As the oldest, I was no longer in the prime audience for a picture book, being 13 or so at the time. But A Christmas Card for Mr. McFizz by Obren Bokich, is quietly charming. A couple years ago, at this time of year, it bubbled up in my memory and would not go away again until I bought a copy to read to my children.

High Spirits is collection of short stories, based on the ghost stories which Robertson Davies would tell the faculty and students of Massey College each Christmas. They are humorous ghost stories, and in some cases of varying quality. But those which are good are very, very good. Look especially for "The Cat That Went to Trinity", "The Ghost That Vanished By Degrees" and "The Kiss of Khrushchev". While I hear The Lady of Guadalupe in my mother's voice, I can't read these stories aloud without falling into my father's voice.

And, of course, how could any list of Christmas reading be complete without A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I try to read it every year. And, of course, I also always re-watch the outstanding George C. Scott movie adaptation.

Marriage Improvement

It seems to me that marriage and family are probably the area in which different sub-cultures of our country have diverged most radically. Reading this New York Times feature about the author's attempts to improve her marriage is in some ways a more alien experience than reading an anthropological study of some distant tribe. The instinct behind the exercise is laudable:
The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I’ve never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married — truly married — slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn’t applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly — some might say obsessively — at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?
So I decided to apply myself to my marriage, to work at improving ours now, while it felt strong. Our children, two girls who are now 4 and 7, were no longer desperately needy; our careers had stabilized; we had survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, you could say that I feared stasis; more positively, that I had energy for Dan once again. From the myriad psychology books that quickly stacked up on my desk, I learned that my concept was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappy six years before first attending therapy, at which point, according to “The Science of Clinical Psychology,” the marital therapist’s job is “less like an emergency-room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot and the infection that ensued.”

Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes.

Her husband's fears turn out to be well founded. One root of these problems is, I think, that, as the author quickly realizes, they're not really that sure what a marriage is, or at least, what a better one would look like:
But how to start? What would a better marriage look like? More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear. We all know what marriage is: a legal commitment between two people. But a good marriage?

They start with a series of relationship improving exercises, either from books or through taking seminars. Those who have taken marriage prep classes may recognize some of these such as fight avoiding conversational rules: Say "When you do X, it makes me feel like Y" rather than "Why do you always do X? Is it just because you think I'm Y?"

Then there are "bring back the romance" techniques such as:
Step 1: Complete this sentence in as many ways as possible: “I feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”

Step 2: Recall the romantic stage of your relationship. Complete this sentence: “I used to feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”

But as they work through these, the author immediately begins to feel like they're in a tug-of-war over who will get to define the marriage.
And true enough, with “Getting the Love You Want” splayed on our bed, I began seeing Dan as my adversary, the person against whom I was negotiating the terms of our lives. I remembered well, but not fondly, this feeling from early in our marriage, when nearly everything was still up for grabs: Where would we live? How much money was enough? What algorithm would determine who would watch the baby and who would go to the gym? Recently those questions had settled, and our marriage felt better for it. But now the competitive mind-set came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan’s vision of marriage and away from mine or the other way around.

Thinking about this, it struck me that one of the issues here is seeing marriage as a compromise or truce between equal and distinct individuals. Looking at marriage this way, it seems to me almost inevitable that trying to improve your marriage will end up beating the bushes and driving out snakes, as the author's husband put it. Each of the spouses will have somewhat different ideas of what the ideal marriage, seen strictly from his or her own point of view, would look like. And so improving the marriage will quickly turn into an exercise in "I want this, you want that, I'll do this if you do that" bargaining.

There is, I think, a way out of this if one understands first and foremost that marriage has to be a giving relationship and secondly that it's natural for two people to want different things.

On the surface, it wouldn't be much different for each spouse to come up with lists of "three things I could do for my spouse" and "three things it would please my spouse if I stopped doing", but that kind of exercise seems much less like a tug-of-war -- especially if you don't actually discuss it with your spouse, but chart your progress privately, or only announce your resolutions to your spouse after you've made them.

Selfishness, in its many forms, is the greatest threat to a marriage, it seems to me, and many of the exercises the couple go through in the article strike me as opening up new avenues to it. That's not meant as an attack against them. The article is mostly a saga of seeking advice from "experts" and trying to implement it, but the experts all seem to be working in a very individualistic world.

And yet, giving seems like it would be a hard thing to put down in a self help book. I can think of ways to re-work some of the relationship exercises to focus on giving rather than getting as a relationship dynamic, but they would amount to nothing more than words if one didn't come at things with the right mentality. And I don't know how one gives someone a giving mentality -- or at least a giving ideal. I certainly would not claim to be perfectly unselfish in regards to marriage. If asked to list out things I wished were different about my wife, I'm sure I could list plenty. But even if one is not capable of eradicating the desire to take someone you already love and re-mold them into exactly what you want, you can at least learn to turn away the desire rather than dwelling on it.

Perhaps what I find most maddening about thinking about this article is that I don't want to hold the opinion that the only result of trying "work on" your marriage will be to cause problems. Indeed, I think working on your relationship with your spouse is something which is important and necessary. And yet everything tried here seems wrong-headed, and more likely to hurt a marriage than help it.

It all makes me feel like I should be able to write down a set of precepts on how to do it right. After all, if I'm so sure this is wrong, I must know what is right, mustn't I? Yet the only things I can think of are so simple and so obvious that they hardly constitute a marriage improvement regimen. Still, in the hopes the exercise will at least start some interesting conversation, I'll give it a try:

1) Marriage is necessarily a giving relationship, so think in terms of "What I can do differently" not "What can she do differently". That doesn't mean you have to "do all the work". Such an approach will only work if you both do it. Nor does it have to be a formal program. But you should be routinely examining your marital conscience, as it were, and trying to see what you personally should start doing or stop doing.

2) You and your spouse are different -- and that's a good thing. (Unless you wish you'd married yourself, in which case, there's not much help.) But that means your spouse is an independant creature, not the creature of your dreams. And there are probably a good many things about your spouse which, if considered purely selfishly, you would want to be different. That's fine and normal, but you absolutely can't devote your energies to trying to turn your spouse into the ideal fantasy spouse. And if you do devote a lot of thought to that, you'll only make yourself unhappy. Which is to say, that you need to be clear in your mind which things in your marriage will not be improved away, and not bang your head against them.

Given these two, it seems to me that much of what's required to achieve a happy marriage is for both spouses to consistently work on making the other more happy, yet at the same time both be realistic about what things are not going to change (and learning to love each other as they are.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Charity, Act Not Emotion

At times looking at an example of someone getting an idea wrong is actually the most helpful thing in formulating a better understanding of the topic. That's how I felt, some while back, when I ran into this post descriptively entitled, "Love Never Ends, So How Could A Just Society Bring An End To Charity?" which argues:
I have heard it said by many people that if the government provides for the needs of society through its social services, there will no longer be any need for charity. Yet, we are called to charity, and therefore, we must not allow governments to interfere in our acts of charity. There is something very mixed up with this notion. It is perverting the very nature of charity, twisting it in a way to make sure there will be people who are suffering, so that they can be the objects of our good will. We are being told we cannot wish for a more just society because if such a society exists, charity will vanish.

But this cannot be the case, can it?

What exactly is the aim of charity but love? Love can be manifest in many ways; when someone is in dire straights, love seeks to help them out of it. But that is not all love seeks for them. Indeed, does a husband or wife love their family less after they have provided for their family’s needs? Certainly not! If we would not look at our family relationship in this way, why do we look at the world in this fashion?


Charity is caritas, love; to act in charity is to follow the dictates of love. Charity seeks for the betterment of others; in doing so, it recognizes that the most immediate need should be taken care of first (food, shelter, clothing, health, quality of life, etc). If these are taken care of, this does not diminish the need for charity: it provides room for greater forms of charity, for greater forms of love.

Now, I don't think that, "Where will that leave charity," is a universally good answer to suggestions of instituting social services. In a society which is already weak and uncohesive, there's clearly a need for some minimal level of social services. The legitimate question to be argued between political factions is what the appropriate extent and form of social services should be -- not whether there should be any at all. (If you're unsure of this, ask yourself if you'd really support closing government homeless shelters and food assistance, abolishing unemployment, or eliminating the federal deposit insurance that assures that if your bank runs into problems your saving account doesn't vanish over night. The sight of people literally dying in the street was not uncommon 150 years ago in many parts of what is now the developed world, and the fact that we've largely eliminated that -- though social programs as well as through charity -- is certainly not a bad thing.)

However, I think the above blockquote shows a fairly common progressive misunderstanding of human nature and the nature of moral action, which it's important to recognize and counter if we're to come to a proper understanding of social and moral relationships.

It is suggested that since charity is love, it clearly goes far beyond providing people with physical necessities. And so, even if we are not responsible for providing people with physical necessities, we need not worry about charity losing its place in our social relationships. What I think this misses is that we are, as humans, incarnational beings. We are not pure minds or pure souls, but mind and soul bound intimately to physical body. And as such, our physical actions are not only one way to express our love and relationship with others, but one of the primary things that forms our relationship with others.

Picture an extreme example of this: Imagine that at some future point it become a pressing political issue that nearly 10% of children are unparented and a shocking 30-50% are under-parented. Children are our future, and we cannot stand by while people neglect our future! No loving parent would want to see their children disadvantaged as a result of his or her not having time or training for proper parenting! A national parenting agency is established, and properly trained government workers will make sure that all children receive minimum levels of food, affection, personal interaction and age level appropriate conversation in intellectually stimulating and hygenic surroundings. Parents will, of course, not be sidelined. So long as they obey proper child rearing regulations, they are welcome to provide above-and-beyond care and gifts to their children, and they can even engage in primary care opportunities such as nightly read-alouds and tucking into bed, so long as they have suitable training to provide as rich and nurturing an experience as parenting agency workers would.

I think virtually everyone would see such a system as clearly dystopian, because it would disrupt a relationship which we see as fundamental to human society. People would talk about the state "seeking to replace parents" -- and in a practical sense this would be true to a certain degree. But more insidiously, such a program would strike at the very root of relationship between parent and child. This is because it is through the act of caring for our children that we as parents learn to love them. It is the knowledge that this small life is dependent upon us for all things which first awakes love in us. And it is the slow training in putting other before self which parenting involves -- the nights spent awake when one would rather sleep, the diapers changed, the games played, the knees bandaged, the stories told, the awkward performances watched, the living earned, the necessities and small luxuries bought -- that we tern that inclination to affection into a deep and active love. And if the necessity of that care was removed, I think it takes little imagination to see that this fundamental relationship would be blighted at its root. Indeed, we have a rather good test case of this looking at those times when it was common for rich parents to put the day-to-day raising of their children almost entirely in the care of a nurse maid -- which if the literature written by such societies is to be at all believed often left the relationship between the nurse and the children incredibly intimate, while the relationship between parents and children became distant.

A less outlandish example of the replacement of familial relationships with statist ones can be seen in our relationships with our parents. Working with a large number of recent immigrants from India, one of the biggest social differences that stands out when family interactions are discussed at work is that in Indian families it is expected that unless they are very rich, when parents retire they will go to live with one of their married children, or circulate from one filial household to another, staying at each for several months out of the year. This is practically unheard of in the US at this time, and it is frequent for US-born people around the office to say, when hearing about this, "I couldn't stand to have my parents visit for more than a week." However, such arrangements were far more common both in the US and in Europe before social programs to assure an independent income for the retired rendered such arrangements unnecessary. One can argue that longer distances make for closer families, and certainly, human nature being what it is, enforced closeness can lead to resentment instead of love, but I don't think it takes a great deal of imagination to see that this is a case where removing the need to care for each other in a practical and financial sense has allowed the erosion of social relationships.

Going beyond the family, and as I began my annual re-reading of Dickens' A Christmas Carol the other evening, I'm reminded of the famous exchange between Scrooge and the charitable gentlemen in Stave One:
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

Quite the progressive in his own day, Dickens' view of social solidarity is the opposite the modern progressive outlook, in that he sees Scrooge's failure as being that of refusing to involve himself directly in supporting charitable work. Perhaps in an updated version, Scrooge would instead be asked to commit himself to gathering signatures to raise awareness of the necessity of opening a new and improved union workhouse funded via a tax on those in the top five percent of annual incomes. In the modern progressive pantheon, much greater virtue would be assigned to such advocacy for the many than for the more personal virtues of contributing to a fund for Christmas jollity for the poor, buying a prize turkey for a poor family, doubling Bob Cratchet's salary, or securing better care for Tiny Tim.

The danger of such an approach is that whereas we shall always have some contact with our families, even if we are not responsible for providing care in old age, unemployment, and distress for them. In the wider society, if we are absolved of any direct responsibility for helping to provide for those suffering in our neighborhoods or parishes, we are more likely than not simply never to encounter them at all. Expanding social services fund a contracting of our social sphere to only those whom we wish to see, since we are told that, like so many Scrooges, we should pay our taxes and rely upon the workhouses and the poor law to do their work. When real actions are no longer required, our relationships, which are formed by our actions, will soon shrivel quietly away.

This is why the Amish, hardly a group known for lacking solidarity with those in their community who are in need, eschew both government programs such as social security and medicare and also private insurance, using instead a direct community fund from which they pay for medical care and other emergency expenses on a case by case basis.

In the wider world, our communities are already far more fractured than those of the Amish, so we would be foolish to immediately abandon all the mechanisms we have developed for securing basic necessities for those in need in a mobile and fragmented society. At the same time, however, we must not allow ourselves to imagine that, when we place ever more needs under the maintenance of massive programs paid for through taxes, that we diminish our social solidarity and our relationships with others.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


We are simply not over this trailer here:

Something about watching a baby encounter the world is absolutely enchanting. Pay close attention to the first rock-pounding sequence and reflect on St. Augustine's assertion that the effects of original sin are quite obvious in babies, who are pretty selfish by nature.

H/T to Amy Welborn, who also has a great video of actor Brian Cox giving a Shakespeare master class to a 2 1/2 year-old.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Amazon Still Respects Me In the Morning

There was a point, early in our marriage, when I was struggling to solidify my ability to support our family on my income alone, when I found myself so busy with work and the additional freelance work I was trying to do in order to make ends meet that as things started to ease I looked back over the last few years and realized that I'd gone several years without reading much of anything that wasn't for work (a few quickie new releases such as the latest Harry Potter book excepted).

For a moment I imagined myself staring into an abyss, wondering if I could become one of those creatures so often tut-tutted over in NPR or National Institute for the Humanities surveys, who has read 0.9 books over the course of the last year.

But as leisure time returned, I found myself slipping comfortably back into a more intellectually varied life -- though as I look back, that marked the point when I went from reading 80% fiction and 20% non-fiction to the exact inverse of that ration, and also the point when I began to get interested in more analytical fields such as economics.

I'd been having similar fears over the last few weeks, as work, family and parish commitments have all increased at once, leaving little time for reading or writing. But apparently the good folks in Amazon's advertising department still have hope that I'll continue to devote significant time to more intellectual activities. Waiting in my inbox this morning when I arrived at work was a kind missive from them stating, " recommends Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb (Classic Reprint)".

It's sweet of them. Lately, people have mostly been earnestly assuring me that they picture exactly the sort of fellow to "build a retail channel bid desk team", or someone well situated to "move on from individual contributor status to people management", or prognosticating "you're the sort of talent who scales very quickly to director level". All of these are kindly meant, and flattering to one's ambition, even when expressed in the abominable dialect of "management-ese" which is the pidgin English of large companies.

But it's somehow comforting that, as I stare down the prospect of not having much time for reading over the next few months or years, the folks at Amazon still imagine me as the sort of fellow who'd sit down before the fire, or huddle up in a tweed jacket in his freezing study, to relish Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tea for two, no more

The relative silence here on my part is the result of constant low-level queasiness that makes it hard to focus on much besides clicking around or wishing there was some food in the house that I felt like eating. Many household activities such as homeschooling and laundry have ground to a halt while I work diligently at vital occupations like growing a baby, suppressing my gag reflex, and trying to stay awake. As sorry as I am to see the laundry taking over the upstairs, I mourn even more for the loss of a necessary stimulant: tea.

I loved tea, and I still love it, in concept. But now tea, in all its acidic glory, revolts me -- maybe because a few weeks ago I threw up a cup of tea I'd had on an empty stomach. Yes, such things color one's impressions. Even now, as I write this, I'm clenching my lips against queasiness.

This lip-clenching is a constant around here, and it affects my ability to speak. Darwin is used now to our conversations suddenly devolving into hums on my part. For example, a sample conversation might go like this:

Me: Well, we did some reading, and then I made the girls lunch mmm mmm.

Darwin: I hope you don't mind, but I bought lunch today with the team. Anyway, there was nothing in the fridge.

Me: Mmm.

Darwin: Oh, by the way, my manager says this new role might fit me to a T...

Me: NGM nnn mmm.

So, no more tea for the time being. I'm searching for a substitute warm drink. I love cocoa, but even though I don't put much sugar in it I'm reluctant to drink anything sweet because I've also given up exercise-like activities such as moving. (Also, if the children catch me drinking cocoa they insist on having some as well, and nothing stains clothes like spilled cocoa.) Hot water with lemon and honey sounds good, as does warm cider, but there are no lemons or cider in the house because no one has been to the store with a comprehensive list in weeks. I've always found chai vaguely disgusting, and coffee gives me the jitters. I have several boxes of tea in the pantry, but I can't even look at them right now. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

Ah, but as I always say: mmmm mmm mm.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"The Little Match Girl" Short

In a special treat for the girls, we'd agreed to check out The Little Mermaid DVD. The was very much as I recalled: pretty so-so Disney fare, though clearly on the upswing from the 70s/80s low point of the studio. However, what the two of us adults really enjoyed was this Disney/Pixar short film of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl".

Certainly designed to leave you all misty-eyed, especially wile sitting in the warm indoors with all your children gathered around close.

It's also impressive to see how good a piece of animation the Disney animation department is still capable of putting out, even if they're working through master works like recent Disney movies (excluding Pixar) have been decidedly lackluster in regards to both story and animation.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Presenting: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Live!

Austinites! Come celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe a day early by stopping by the Cathedral tomorrow to catch some of the area homeschoolers, directed by yours truly, present a short play about Our Lady's appearance to Juan Diego! The performance is at 1:00, following the 12:05 Mass, and there will be refreshments afterwards. The Cathedral website has more details, and a photo of last year's cast. This year we've added some Spanish dialogue and a chorus, who will sing verses of the traditional hymn La Guadalupana as well as the chant Ave Maria.

The young Darwin misses will be participating: one as the narrator, and two as flowers on Tepeyac Hill.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Some telling Advent thoughts from Pentimento (who is always thoughtful, and always quotable):
The old joke is that, if you look hard enough, you can find your own phone number in the Bible. Well, I know mine is in there. Like our first parents, I have been tempted with the Ur-temptation, the one that has us believing we can have power equal to God's, which is certainly the root of all the nightclubbing, promiscuity, recreational drug use, and so forth. But the education in evil I received before my conversion was nothing compared to what I've learned about it since. I suppose it takes an egregious sinner to sneak up in among the righteous and see how very, very many of them take the stance of the Pharisee in the temple, and yet do not see themselves in that parable. (This is true in a special way in the pro-life movement, which is full of post-abortive women who hesitate to speak openly the joyful news that they have been forgiven, for fear of the poorly-concealed horror in which they are held by some of their less-egregiously-sinful comrades.) I myself have incurred scorn in the comboxes on this blog from virtuous Catholics, who appear to believe that I don't deserve to call myself a penitent, penitence being reserved, perhaps, for those who sin but lightly. Well, wake up, people: man is fallen, and we're all naked under our clothes, and not in a pretty, Renoir sort of way, either.
Go read, if only to see the modern Annunciation at the top of the post.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

That Pretty Much Covers It

Back at the beginning of the year, when all of us on the RCIA team signed up for topics to cover, I don't think I fully appreciated the symmetry of my choices:

1) The Church
2) The Four Last Things
3) The Sixth and Ninth Commandments

That really pretty much covers the arc of life experience, eh?

Alphonse Issue Two: Murder Sleep

I wrote a while ago about the first issue of Matthew Lickona's graphic novel: Alphonse, Untimely Ripp'd, and also published an interview with Lickona about the series.

The second issue of the series, Murder Sleep, is now available for 2.99 a copy from IndyPlanet. Lickona also has an account up at Kickstarter to fund the production of Issue Three. I've contributed and would encourage others to do so if they're enjoying Lickona's unique vision and Catholic sensibilities in the series.

Bloody Mayhem

If I'd ever had the slightest inclination to read any of the Twilight series, Julie D. has effectively cured me. However, I do read movie reviews, and here's a snippet from Thomas Hibbs' take on New Moon:
In New Moon, Edward decides to end the relationship permanently after a paper cut on Bella’s finger during her birthday party at the Cullen home has nearly tragic consequences. Unable to rid the world of the threat of paper, the Cullen family leaves town.
What, exactly, do the Cullens do when Bella is on her period?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Conforming to Type

I would not want our readers to imagine that my thoughts about human nature are always triggered by seeing an attractive woman, particularly one that I don't know. But with my Darwinian eyes so well adjusted to seeking out reproductive fitness, it happens upon occasion.

There is, you see, a Wells Fargo bank branch located in the central thoroughfare of the massive office building where I work. And the demographics of staffing being what they are, it is invariably staffed entirely by women. The other day I was hurrying by when I happened to notice a woman leaning on counter and talking to the three women manning the bank. That I noticed was probably not coincidental, in that she was to all appearances someone intending to draw attention: tall and slim with a short skirt and very high heels adding to the effect; slouching slightly in the way that thin women often do, thus emphasizing curves above and below while demonstrating they don't have to stand straight to look thin; leaning against the counter in a look-at-my-cleavage kind of way; and talking with frequent tosses of her long, blond hair.

What caused my mental double-take, however, was not the spectacle itself (I would flatter myself that I'm as capable of appreciating without gawking as the next fellow) but rather that all this apparent display was being delivered to an entirely female audience. Why be "on" when talking only to other women? If anything, such flaunting seems more designed to annoy other women that to ingratiate the flaunter to them.

On later contemplation, however, I began to wonder if this kind of "flaunting" was, in fact, unconscious. I had always assumed that the "hot girl" type as an intentional affectation, something turned on at need in order to achieve specific results -- primarily, I think, because although I know women I consider very attractive, none of them routinely exhibit this set of mannerisms and postures. I had, thus, concluded without even thinking about it that this way of behaving was -- like the straightened hair, snug clothes, and style of makeup that usually accompanied it -- something chosen.

As with any analysis of human behavior, I would imagine this is true some of the time. But I wonder how often a style of behavior is assumed subconsciously, based on what results one gets from other people.

This woman's behavior had thrown me because it seemed like "look at me" behavior directed at an audience that would have no interest in it. If such behavior was only adopted intentionally, that would indeed make no sense. But what if the "hot girl" mannerisms (a set of behaviors I had always associated with decorative vacuity of the "don't bother getting to know this person" variety) are to a great extent trained subconsciously into one by society? Growing up, does a girl attractive and outgoing enough to "carry off" the stereotype get constant subconscious feedback in the form of people paying more attention to her when she behaves in certain ways instead of others, gradually training her into a preset style of behavior? To what extent do we find ourselves gently guided into preset "types" by the expectations of society?

Still turning this question over in my mind at home that night, I noticed my two oldest daughters (ages 6 and 7) cavorting around the house. The younger is very slim and tall, while the older is built more solidly, and I realized there was already a discernible difference in how they carried themselves. Does that suggest this is instead some sort of inherent, personality difference? Or do we begin to pick up these queues at a very young age?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

I Remember MrsDarwin

It shows how long we've been kicking around this corner of the blogsphere that this is the fifth annual birthday edition of I Remember MrsDarwin!
If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.

It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.

When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.
As always, we link to the egregious falsehoods of years past:

I Remember MrsDarwin 2008
I Remember MrsDarwin 2007
I Remember MrsDarwin 2006
I Remember MrsDarwin 2005

And if the venerable Rick Lugari thought my pants were too tight in 2005, just imagine how they'd fit now that I'm pregnant.

Friday, December 04, 2009

For Friday: It is to laugh

Seven Quick Takes

Thanks to Jen, our hostess.

1. Central Texas is bracing up for as much as 1" (that's 2.54 cm!) of snow today, and everything is just falling apart. Events are being canceled, friends are warning each other not to go out in these dangerous conditions, and provisions are being stocked with the kind of care you might expect in rural Alaska. I myself canceled a rehearsal for a play I'm directing for the homeschoolers, but I have an ulterior motive -- I feel so morning sick (and all-day sick) that I really have less than no desire to leave the house.

2. As I was feeding my kids leftover pizza for breakfast (again), I thought how low we'd sunk from our cheerful planning at the beginning of the school year. Then I was getting up and making breakfast every morning, and we started our lessons at 9:00 with a clean table. Then the flu struck, and shortly after we all recovered (a month-long process) we got pregnant. Now our former weekly shopping trip, made with the assistance of a crafted list, has devolved to Darwin stopping at the store on his way home or at odd times, picking up whatever he can remember that we need (I just can't man up enough to take all four kids through the store anymore). The state of the pantry and the fridge are haphazard, though we're glad that before everything went south we signed up for a 40-week share from a local farm. At least we have vegetables.

This all leads me to think that it wouldn't be a bad idea for a family to have an list of emergency running procedures for times of chaos like flu season or early pregnancy -- a kind of bare-bones how-things-get-done list just to make sure the kids don't eat too much leftover pizza for breakfast.

3. We do have some communication advances: Jack, almost 15 months, can now answer "yes" to questions. Usually he does this with a deep head bob and a grunt, but sometimes he'll say, "Yeah". He's also gotten good at following basic directions, which means if I tell him clearly and slowly, "Jack, go find your cup on the kitchen floor," he'll toddle off and get it.

4. The neighbor girls have introduced my girls to this series of books called Rainbow Magic, about a pair of human girls who assist the trendily-named fairies of Fairyland in finding various magical items that get lost. (The fairies seem rather incompetent -- they can't seem to do anything without the assistance of two pre-pubescent girls.) The books are harmless if fluffy, but there are a ton of them (it's one of those interminable Scholastic series, though interestingly enough we've determined that it's originally from England), and the ladies have been checking them out en masse from the library. Things have come to a head, however, and I'm putting my foot down on allowing any more of these things in my house. For one thing, they've become a trigger for nausea for me (seriously), and for another, Jack has already thrown one of them in the toilet. It flicks on the raw to have to buy such a dumb thing from the library, so that's the end of trendy series for a while in the Darwin house.

5. Watched the new The Lion in Winter recently, the one with Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart, and it's just not up to the standard of the old one. Both leads are fabulously talented thespians, of course, but I just can't buy Glenn Close as the aging beauty of the world.

6. I've only just discovered that you can listen to various radio stations on iTunes. This is useful knowledge since we don't actually have a working radio in the house.

7. A few months ago I bought nice pillows for Darwin and myself (at least they were the highest-end option at Wal-Mart). And we've spent the last few months waking up with neck aches and trying to pound the things into shape. Anyone have a recommendation for a really comfortable pillow? After all, for the amount of one's life one spends in bed, it's not worth it to have a lousy pillow.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Difference and Equality

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I've been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, "Individualism: True and False" comes an interesting thought:
Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, "a new form of servitude."
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered "conservative" in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not "truly conservative" as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek's point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to "find their own level", believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal -- in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Life Happens

Thanks to all of you for your congratulations and kind wishes; they mean a lot to us.

We're very fortunate to have a congenial readership, and so we can dispense with the givens up front. Yes, we're delighted at the idea of a new life; yes, it's exciting to think of a little brother for Jack, or another beautiful girl. Yes, even though we weren't expecting or planning to have another one so soon, we're glad to see our family grow and we look forward to meeting baby and introducing him or her to the world.

There, that was sweet. Now let's be a bit more gritty.

We were in denial, and then in shock, for several weeks after we discovered we were pregnant. It's hard to complain about a surprise pregnancy without sounding bitter or hostile, and yet the idea of five children is still hard to come around to. I think it's understandable that I'm not excited about having three kids under five years old again. I think it's excusable to feel ambiguous about the process of being pregnant, which is nine months of weariness and discomfort followed by some hours of miserable agony. It's less excusable, but perhaps understandable, to not immediately relish being that woman who drags her five small kids places. People think four kids are cute. People think five is a lot, and tell you so.

We had not planned to be pregnant; we did not want to be pregnant; many of our future plans involved not being pregnant. (So much for the big tenth anniversary trip we were just starting to save up for.) We did not cheat or push our luck or take risks; we made what appeared to be a standard call. Perhaps our scientific rigor was lacking. We had grown complacent, not taking the temperature at the same time every morning, and when the baby walked off with the thermometer after what seemed obviously to be three days of temperature rise, we figured it didn't matter. And it didn't, because it would have been too late by then anyway. The point is, we thought we had played it safe, and met a standard that had held us in good stead in the past. Only, we were wrong.

The only reason I go into any detail at all on this point is that I know that we can't be the only couple in the world to find ourselves in this situation. Everyone knows, or ought to know, that birth control fails. Most of the pregnancies of Darwin's coworkers resulted from birth control failures, and even something so drastic as a tubal ligation isn't always infallible. (I've just wasted a stupid amount of time trying to track down the British news story I read last week about the woman who became pregnant 13 years after having her tubes tied.) But I think that there's a secular perception that charting one's fertility is so fraught with pitfalls or unreliable that if you get pregnant it's really your own fault. Don't you know what causes that?

And yet, what this comes down to is a control failure. We thought we had the next few years mapped out, and that we were really in charge. As life-changing events go, we're lucky. Instead of losing a job or dealing with some terrible disease or injury, we're getting a baby who will bless and enrich us for the rest of our lives. And we've received a fairly clarion signal that we're not really as in control of our future and our fertility as we thought. And if any well-meaning person asks me, "So, are you done yet?", I can pretty honestly say (through politely gritted teeth), "I don't really know." Because it seems that in the end, it's not totally my call. Life happens.

ADDENDUM: I should add, now that I'm not sleepless and nauseous at 3 AM, that writing out what we've been chewing on for the last five weeks privately is very therapeutic. For various reasons, including some early miscarriage worries, we were reluctant to talk about the pregnancy earlier, which perhaps is good, because we don't have a month's worth of "What the hell!" posts archived. It's very refreshing to get all this off my chest, and now I have to go contemplate getting this cup of tea off my stomach. Toodles.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

And Then There Were Five

We attempt to make up for the lack of substantive posts lately by letting the world in on a discovery that we made some weeks ago: we have one more child than we had hitherto suspected. How exactly this new addition crept into the family without our knowledge I cannot say, but he/she is certainly welcome and encouraged to get bigger soon so that he can be tasked with picking up toys and such along with the other offspring.

Asked how she felt about these developments, MrsDarwin (who proved to have been concealing the new addition from the rest of the family, unbeknownst even to herself) responded, "Tired."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

This Is Going To Hurt You More Than It's Going To Hurt Me

If I realized one could find out these sorts of fascinating things, I would read the sports pages more often. Sports Illustrated and CNN bring us this inspiring tale of Gators player Tim Tebow doing good off the field as well as on:
Whether you consider him genuine or fake, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a Heisman Trophy-, SEC- and BCS-title winning quarterback who goes to class, goes to church and circumcises people less fortunate than him. More people should be so intolerable.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Programmer Smack Talk and Global Warming

I've been amused to watch some of the arguments going on out in the blogsphere as discussion of the hacking of the climate change servers moves off into a discussion of the quality of the code being used by climate researchers to model global warming.

Commenter One: Much of the code in the academic world tends to be written by grad students that have taken a class in programming and get told to write it.

Commenter Two: This is totally untrue. I never took a class in programming before writing my crappy undocumented code.

There's a certain wry self recognition for me here as well: I've never taken a class in programming, and I build mostly undocumented models to predict revenue and profits at specific price points based on past data. My results are directionally correct when you look at whole categories of products, but can be wildly off when projecting specific instances. (I try to make this clear to those who use my data, but people are always looking for certainty in life, even if they have to imagine it.)

The difference is, of course, that I'm seeking to mitigate the risks people take in making decisions that they're going to make anyway. "Gee, I really feel like we need to turn this product 50% off for the holidays." "Well, past experience shows that we wouldn't sell many more units, but would lose a whole lot of money. Let's try something else."

You would think that if you were going to, say, recommend that the entire world ratchet levels of CO2 emmissions back to the levels of the 1800s (with all the impacts to living standards and, let's be honest here, human life, which that entails), you would aspire to higher levels of accuracy and transparancy.

In a sense, I would imagine that these climate researchers have much the same justification for their actions that I do: They're just giving people common sense advise. I advise people not to waste too much profit margin. They advise people not to emit too much CO2.

Waste enough profit margin and your company goes out of business. Get enough CO2 in your atmostphere, and you get to enjoy the kind of climate that Venus has. From the point of view of serious environmentalists, who often seem to assume that any change made by humans to the planet is pretty clearly a bad thing, it may not seem like one needs to bring a lot of rigor to advising people to not burn fossil fuels. From that point of view, of course doing all these "unnatural things" will have bad consequences.

However, for the rest of us, the fact that modern industrial technology allows six billion people to live on this planet -- and for many of them to do so in greater material comfort than at any previous time in history -- is pretty clearly a good thing. And standing in front of that yelling "Stop" requires some pretty rigorous evidence. This isn't something that can be left to buggy code whose results are massaged into shape manually when they're going to come out into the light.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Interesting Thought on State Universities

Some interestingly counter-intuitive thoughts on the UC student protests against rising tuition from David Henderson of EconLog:
Taxpayer funding of higher education is a forced transfer to the relatively wealthy

Socialist author Robert Kuttner once called Proposition 13, California's 1978 property-tax-cut initiative, the revolt of the haves. The latest opposition by UC students to a 32% increase in tuition is a revolt of the "will-haves."

Milton Friedman used to remark that the California government, with its state funding of higher education, taxed the residents of Watts to pay for the residents of Beverly Hills. I think Friedman exaggerated substantially. Even though the California's tax system relies heavily on sales taxes, which probably makes the state tax system on net somewhat regressive, it's still the case that a given Beverly Hills family pays much more in taxes than a given family in Watts. But Friedman also focused on family income of the student, and that's misleading.

Writing in a Community

I don't think that I shall shock any of our readers if I reveal that my real name is not Darwin. My real-world name is not terribly hard to figure out. It takes perhaps two clicks from this blog to reach a page where it's possible to find my real name. But for various reasons, I've maintained that anonymity over the years. However, there are a good many people who know me in real life who read the blog. More than that, after writing a blog for four-and-a-half years, you get to think of a number of your long-time readers and commenters are friends. The blog becomes like a corner coffee house or bar where the same characters assemble regularly -- with the occasional stranger dropping in as well -- and discuss a range of topics, with everyone knowing the basic terrain of who everyone else is and where everyone is coming from.

The way in which a blog can serve as a combination magazine and coffee shop is, to me, one of the most appealing elements of the medium. It's more personable than simply sending one's words out into the void, knowing that someone out there is reading them but seldom sure of what others think about them.

At the same time, however, this community element to blog writing makes one particularly aware of the difficulties of writing within a community. As the number of people I know (whether locally or online) who are blog readers increases, I increasingly find myself thinking, "If I write about that, so-and-so might be offended."

There are, I think, implicitly two different sets of rules which are observed in relation to expression in a community versus published expression. When we are in social situations, it's considered impolite to discuss topics which implicitly criticize others or their beliefs. Thus, topics such as politics and religion are generally avoided, to avoid emphasizing the differences among those present. Topics which might seem to be an accusation towards someone in attendance are also out of bounds. So for instance, if Uncle Arthur has just divorced his wife so he can spend more time with his secretary, any discussion of how people don't take marriage seriously any more around the Thanksgiving table will be taken as an attack upon Uncle Arthur, and approved of or rejected accordingly.

When someone writes for publication, there seems to be a general truce that, "Well, Alison is a writer of course, so she's always looking for subject matter, but she's not necessarily writing about the family. She needs something to write about, or they won't pay her." That, or concerned family members can simply ostracize the writer or stick their heads in the sand and not read any of what he or she writes.

Blogging occupies a certain middle ground. It is generally accepted to be a conversation of sorts, and so it seems to be considered reasonable to assume that if a blogger writes about something which appears to apply to someone the blogger knows personally, then it's probably commentary on that person. And yet, for the blogger himself, the search for material is much the same as for the "real writer". And indeed, for the blogger who thinks in a "writerly" way about his writing, discussion a situation (even one drawn from a specific real life example at hand) is often not a way of saying "I like Cheryl" or "I hate Bill" but rather of trying to come to some better understanding of the world and our place in it.

Newman Fisks it Here

I've been reading John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua for a book club. The Apologia is Newman's account of the development of his religious beliefs, culminating with his conversion to Catholicism, written in response to a charge of mendacity by the hot-headed Charles Kingsley. I've only been able to get as far, so far, as the Newman/Kingsley correspondence, and while reading it I was thinking of what someone in my club had mentioned: how like a blog exchange this is. Kingsley's ill-considered, intemperate rant is exactly the sort of thing one might read online (minus the elevated language and complex grammatical structure), and Newman demolishes him in the comments box. But what caused me to laugh out loud, and made several other mothers waiting outside dance class glance at me oddly, was Newman's fine fisk of Kingsley's "apology", in which Newman gives a side-by-side comparison of what Kingsley says, and what the British reading public will take him to mean. I suddenly imagined a Fr. Z-style fisking, with the emphases in black and the comments in red.

The Rev. Charles Kingsley to Dr. Newman
Reverend Sir, Eversley Rectory, January 14, 1864.
I have the honour to acknowledge your answer to my letter. I have also seen your letter to Mr. X. Y. On neither of them shall I make any comment, save to say, that, if you fancy that I have attacked you because you were, as you please to term it, " down," you do me a great injustice; and also, that the suspicion expressed in the latter part of your letter to Mr. X.Y., is needless.
The course, which you demand of me, is the only course fit for a gentleman; and, as the tone of your letters (even more than their language) make me feel, to my very deep pleasure, that my opinion of the meaning of your words was a mistaken one, I shall send at once to Macmillan's Magazine the few lines which I inclose.
You say, that you will consider my letters as public. You have every right to do so.
I remain, Reverend Sir,
yours faithfully, (Signed) Charles KINGSLEY
[This will appear in the next number]
To the Editor of Macmillan's Magazine
In your last number I made certain allegations against the teaching of the Rev. Dr. Newman, which were founded on a sermon of his, entitled "Wisdom and Innocence," (the sermon will be fully described, as to1 ... )
[ I Here follows a word or half-word which neither I nor any one else to whom I have shown the MS, can decipher.
I have at p. 23 filled in for Mr. Kingsley what I understood him to mean by " fully.", -J.H.N. ]
Dr. Newman has, by letter, expressed in the strongest terms, his denial of the meaning which I have put upon his words. No man knows the use of words better than Dr. Newman; no man, therefore, has a better right to define what he does, or does not, mean by them.
It only remains, therefore, for me to express my hearty regret at having so seriously mistaken him; and my hearty pleasure at finding him on the side of Truth, in this, or any other, matter.
Dr. Newman to the Rev. Charles Kingsley
The Oratory, January 17, 1864.
Reverend Sir,
Since you do no more than announce to me your intention of inserting in Macmillan ' s Magazine the letter, a copy of which you are so good as to transcribe for me, perhaps I am taking a liberty in making any remarks to you upon it. But then, the very fact of your showing it to me seems to invite criticism; and so sincerely do I wish to bring this painful matter to an immediate settlement, that, at the risk of being officious, I avail myself of your courtesy to express the judgment which I have carefully formed upon it.
I believe it to be your wish to do me such justice as is compatible with your duty of upholding the consistency and quasi-infallibility which is necessary for a periodical publication; and I am far from expecting any thing from you which would be unfair to Messrs. Macmillan and Co. Moreover, I am quite aware, that the reading public, to whom your letter is virtually addressed, cares little for the wording of an explanation, provided it be made aware of the fact that an explanation has been given.
Nevertheless, after giving your letter the benefit of both these considerations, I am sorry to say I feel it my duty to withhold from it the approbation which I fain would bestow.
Its main fault is, that, quite contrary to your intention, it will be understood by the general reader to intimate, that I have been confronted with definite extracts from my works, and have laid before you my own interpretations of them. Such a proceeding I have indeed challenged, but have not been so fortunate as to bring about.
But besides, I gravely disapprove of the letter as a whole.
The grounds of this satisfaction will be best understood by you, if I place in parallel columns its paragraphs, one by one, and what I conceive will be the popular reading of them.
This I proceed to do.
I have the honour to be,
Reverend Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
(Signed) JOHN H. Newman

Mr. Kingsley's Letter Unjust, but too probable, popular rendering of it

Mr. Kingsley's Letter
I. Sir,-In your last number I made certain allegations against the teaching of the Rev. Dr. Newman, which were founded on a Sermon of his, entitled " Wisdom and Innocence," preached by him as Vicar of St. Mary's, and published in 1844.
2. Dr. Newman has, by letter, expressed in the strongest terms his denial of the meaning which I have put upon his words.

3. No man knows the use of words better than Dr. Newman; no man, therefore, has a better right to define what he does, or does not, mean by them.
4. It only remains, therefore, for me to express my hearty regret at having so

2. I have set before Dr. Newman, as he challenged me to do, extracts from his writings, and he has affixed to them what he conceives to be their legitimate sense, to the denial of that in which I understood them.
3. He has done this with the skill of a great master of verbal fence, who knows, as well as any man living, how to insinuate a doctrine without committing himself to it.
4. However, while I heartily regret that I have so seriously mistaken the sense

On the more serious side, I was reflecting that many people wail that public discourse has become more debased over the years, yet Kingsley's shrill Know-Nothing-ism rather proves that the haters will always be with us. His expanded set of accusations, What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean? don't serve to vindicate him. As I was reading his quotations from Newman's sermon, I found myself nodding in agreement with Newman's interpretations of scripture verses on how to speak the truth.

On Kingsley's accusation of Catholics all being loose with the truth, and the throwing around of the term "Jesuitical" -- I remembered something that a professor of mine had spoken of when we were reading MacBeth. He had some interpretation of the porter's speech that proved that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic which was based around the porter's references to equivocation:
Knock, knock! Who's there, in th’ other devil's name?
Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear in both the
scales against either scale, who committed treason enough
for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O,(10)
come in, equivocator.
This was supposed to be a reference to those Catholics who were ambiguous or "equivocal" about their Catholicism when questioned so as to keep undercover during the horrible persecutions of the sixteenth century (the standard execution for a priest was being drawn and quartered, after God knows what other tortures). The Jesuits were especially noted for encouraging this kind of nicety with language, and heck, they still retain that "equivocator" image to this day.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mystery of Historical Importance, solved

A few weeks ago, I wondered: What does this mean?

Embrethiliel sends me the answer, found at Laudem Gloriae:
As it turns out, it is the work of Bosnian artist Braco Dimitrijevic (one of those modern conceptual artistes who deem themselves superior to that rabble of old-school representational artists), who, in 1971, thought it would be very clever to clandestinely lift one of the old paving stones and replace it with his own carefully inscribed tile. The point was to call into question society's assumption of the uniqueness or importance of the cathedral, challenging the observer to wonder why this place in particular was more important than, say, the loo in the café across the street. Any gormless nob with a third-grade education, of course, can answer that question, but probably not to the satisfaction of historical relativist Dimitrijevic. (One quotation gives the reader an idea of his views: "What we call History is nothing more than one subjectivity which is imposed on the whole world as objective opinion.")
The cathedral enriches me (and many others throughout the years) by its existence; the loo only serves me. Unless, of course, it is a very beautiful loo.

Rejoice with me, o my friends!

Out with the old...

In with the new!

It's kind of suede-y, hence the vacuum marks, but oh so cool! Now you're all invited to come over, now that I have somewhere suitable to seat people.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Long Remembered

The new American history blog Almost Chosen People reminds us that today is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Addess, delivered on Nov. 19th, 1863. The Gettysburg Address stands unique, to my knowledge, in the American branch of the English-speaking world as the only speech by a political leader which is widely memorized and quoted in its entirety long after the fact. There are some isolated famous sections of speeches by FDR, JFK and Martin Luther King which are widely remembered, but unless anyone else can think of anything I'm completely forgetting, the Gettysburg Address is uniquely treated as a piece of rhetoric which is remembered and memorized in its entirity. (I still recall it nearly word for word, having memorized it in fifth grade.) Indeed, the only other similarly treated piece of oratory I can think of is the (fictional) Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

From our international readers, I'm curious: What pieces of oratory are similarly remembered in the British-English world, or in other non-English-speaking countries?

In Which Things Are Not Nearly As Amusing As We Thought

Last night, as I was loading the dishwasher (and drinking a beer) I picked up a plastic pitcher and its lid, then paused. Even after several hours in the dish pile, the pitcher smelled very distinctly of margarita. In a flash, I recalled that when some good friends visited on Saturday, there had been left-over margaritas, which they had kindly poured into a pitcher and left for us. Not margarita mix, mind you, that poor wan creature waiting for its infusion of tequila and cointreau to achieve its full purpose in life. No, these were fully mixed margaritas.

"Mrs. Darwin?" I called. "Did you drink the left-over margaritas today?"


"Because someone did."


"Did any of the kids seem odd today?"

"Oh my gosh, the neighbor kids!"

At this point, it is necessary that the reader understand that we have acquired neighbor kids. The family had actually lived in the neighborhood for some time, for for whatever reason the three youngest children (not counting the baby) have suddenly begun to spend an hour or two of every day in our back yard. On days when the house is clean, they play with the young Darwins inside as well. On most days when the two-year-old has stood astride the table throwing food to the four corners of the earth, they're advised to remain outside. However, even on these latter and more frequent sort of days, there is, it seems, an unavoidable magnetism to The Stranger's House, and so they let themselves in every few minutes to get drinks of water or go to the bathroom. This particular afternoon, MrsDarwin had several times had to expel these young foragers from the fridge. And here we were with a mysteriously empty margarita pitcher. Readers of children's literature will know what we thought first:
"Mrs. Lynde was up to see Mrs. Barry today and Mrs. Barry was in an awful state," she wailed. "She says that I set Diana DRUNK Saturday and sent her home in a disgraceful condition. And she says I must be a thoroughly bad, wicked little girl and she's never, never going to let Diana play with me again. Oh, Marilla, I'm just overcome with woe."

Marilla stared in blank amazement.

"Set Diana drunk!" she said when she found her voice. "Anne are you or Mrs. Barry crazy? What on earth did you give her?"

"Not a thing but raspberry cordial," sobbed Anne. "I never thought raspberry cordial would set people drunk, Marilla--not even if they drank three big tumblerfuls as Diana did. Oh, it sounds so--so--like Mrs. Thomas's husband! But I didn't mean to set her drunk."

"Drunk fiddlesticks!" said Marilla, marching to the sitting room pantry. There on the shelf was a bottle which she at once recognized as one containing some of her three-year-old homemade currant wine for which she was celebrated in Avonlea, although certain of the stricter sort, Mrs. Barry among them, disapproved strongly of it. And at the same time Marilla recollected that she had put the bottle of raspberry cordial down in the cellar instead of in the pantry as she had told Anne.

She went back to the kitchen with the wine bottle in her hand. Her face was twitching in spite of herself.

"Anne, you certainly have a genius for getting into trouble. You went and gave Diana currant wine instead of raspberry cordial. Didn't you know the difference yourself?"

"I never tasted it," said Anne. "I thought it was the cordial. I meant to be so--so--hospitable. Diana got awfully sick and had to go home. Mrs. Barry told Mrs. Lynde she was simply dead drunk. She just laughed silly-like when her mother asked her what was the matter and went to sleep and slept for hours. Her mother smelled her breath and knew she was drunk. She had a fearful headache all day yesterday. Mrs. Barry is so indignant. She will never believe but what I did it on purpose."
Anne of Green Gables, CH16

Sad to say, interviews this morning revealed a rather less exciting story. Our own three-year-old had poured herself a cup of "lemonaid" from the fridge, but on tasting it concluded that "it tasted like wine" and so for the general welfare she had poured the cup and indeed all the rest of the pitcher down the sink.

I must admit that, while I'm glad no one was made sick, I am a little disappointed at the true story.