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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

My take on Homeopathic Medicine

It's one of my continuing frustrations that the eminently common sense approach of home birth (after all, the vast majority of births are very straightforward, and in this day and age it's not as if emergency medical help is far away) often comes hand in hand with a somewhat flaky approach to other things as well.

American Homeopath

Saturday we packed all the young Darwins in the van and went on a great quest for a homeopathic remedy.

Don't blame us too much. My midwife recommended a certain homeopathic treatment for a specific pregnancy-related ailment. For the sake of the men in our audience, I won't elaborate, except to say that it involves painful veins in places where veins should definitely not be painful, and that if nothing ameliorates the condition soon, I'll be on effective bed rest (prescribed or no) because I simply won't be able to stand. There are ways of coping with this situation, such as wearing an expensive and appalling support garment, but the midwife said that homeopathic treatment could clear it up. Or not. It will either work or it won't, but it's times less expensive and appalling than support garments. So, we ventured into Austin.

I had of course checked my local grocery, which is not in Austin but has a respectable organic section. And it carried a small selection of homeopathic stuff -- but not my particular concoction. Thus it was that we loaded up the family and approached Whole Paycheck with trepidation. Trepidation, I say, not because of taking four children into a store with tiny aisles and teetering pyramids of sparkling produce, but because of the abominable parking lot of Whole Paycheck. The more "green" a store is, the more that shopping there embodies some kind of lifestyle, the worse the parking will be. All the eco-conscious people with their SUVS or silly clown cars jockeying for the limited amount of spaces. These spaces are laid out in some whimsical design which may resemble yin and yang from overhead, but from the ground recalls nothing so much as the Circle of the Lustful.

The lousy thing about shopping at these lifestyle stores is that everyone seems to dress up just to pick up a quart of sustainable borscht and some organic lemonade. Everyone but us was wearing their crunchy best. This is entirely my fault. I was the fool who said in her heart that I would not need my nice pregnancy clothes for a long time -- could not wait to clear them out of my house, in fact -- and so, having failed to recover several key wardrobe pieces from various formerly pregnant friends, I now subsist on what local castoffs have managed to find their way to my house. On this day I wore the world's least flattering pregnancy khakis and a bright green pregnancy shirt that was not fitted enough and fell just to my hips, which are undoubtedly the widest spot on my body, even including my 21-week belly measured front to back. Dowdy doesn't even start to describe it. Fortunately, the kids are cute.

Whole Paycheck had a wider homeopathic section, but not large enough to include my specific stuff in the specific dose. The midwife had specifically recommended 6c or 12c, but mine was only available in 30c. I asked the employee in charge of the section if 30c could be substituted in any form, and he gave me a long answer that boiled down to: Don't know, it's complicated

HOMEOPATHY DIGRESSION: Having consulted Dr. Wikipedia Saturday evening, I am now more informed than a Whole Paycheck employee. Here's how homeopathy works. You take whatever substance you want to turn into a remedy and dilute it, one part of substance to 100 parts water or sugar or what have you. You then whap it around a few times and dilute that mixture with 100 more parts of water or sugar. Keep it up as long as you like -- apparently homeopathic people think that the more diluted your substance is, the more potent it is. (So 6c has been diluted in this fashion six times, and 30c means the process was repeated 30 times.) Not really that complicated. Wikipedia was suitably skeptical on this point, and I have to say that I'm with the good doctor on this one, but frankly, if it has a placebo effect I'm happy to take it, as long as my condition clears up. Just to be scientific, though, I'm going to run a three-day course of treatment (five homeopathic sugar pills under the tongue three times a day for three days, then three off) before I try anything else, just to see what happens.


It was time to venture closer to Austin, so we took our four kids and made for Crunchy Market. We like Crunchy Market better than Whole Paycheck because the parking isn't as byzantine. And it has a larger homeopathy section. This larger section did not have what I was looking for. As I stared in bubbling frustration at the shelf of pretty blue useless vials, the seven-year-old bit the four-year-old and we had to drag everyone out of the store. Still, at that point we were closer to Austin Proper than to home, so we crunched our way into downtown Austin to the flagship Whole Paycheck, which takes up a whole city block.

This monstrous entity has a parking structure which in its pain and complexity is a foretaste of the City of Dis. We witnessed cars stuffed to the gills with reusable shopping bags circling through the labyrinthine garage again and again, filling the air with rage and exhaust. The children selected this time to be fairly well behaved, if not perfect. Fending our way through the claustrophobic aisles, we heard only minimal complaints about how everyone was hungry and had to go to the bathroom, and who could blame them? I was hungry and had to go to the bathroom myself. But first things first. I confronted the mammoth display of blue vials and the angels sang as I found the damn dilution of the damnable substance sitting innocently on the shelf. "Where have you been all my life?" it asked. "I've just been here, waiting for you." "Shut the f$*@ up," I advised the bottle (silently, of course) as I clutched it in my hot hand.

Knowing that we would arrive home after the appointed dinner hour, we decided to pick up a few things for dinner while we were at a store. This wasn't too hard to do, because fully half of Whole Paycheck is a restaurant. Prepared soups, sandwiches, salads, desserts, rotisserie chickens, taco bars, gelato stations, bakeries, and the like take up the perimeter of store, forcing the aisles of groceries and supplies to huddle close together for warmth and safety. Clearly people are not actually expected to do a week's shopping at Whole Paycheck, and woe betide them if they do, if the prices on the supplies we picked up to make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at home are any indication. Still, I can't complain -- the seafood jambalaya we brought home was excellent. And contrary to all expectation, everyone who saw the kids smiled at us.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

German Woman First To Write About Her Own Post-WW2 Suffering

It has long been known that a huge number of German women suffered from a tidal wave of rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers in the closing days of World War II. Some estimates have put the number of women raped at over two million. As described in recent works such as Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945 and Merridale's Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, this abuse was in some ways instituted (whether intentionally or not) by Soviet propaganda which emphasized to Russian soldiers that they must avenge the rape of Mother Russia, and inflict a humiliation on the German homeland which would assure it would never again attack them.

Regardless of the causes, this epidemic of abuse held an especially dark place in the German post-war experience. Although the abuse itself was well known, it was almost never discussed in the first person. No German woman had written about her experiences of abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers under her own name until this year. (A few anonymous books have been written, most famously A Woman in Berlin, and a very small number of studies based on interviews with survivors have been conducted, though due to unwillingness to talk about that time in Germany's history, by the time people became willing to discuss the topic many of the original victims were already dead.)

Der Spiegel features an extended article about Gabriele Köpp, the first German woman to write a memoir under her own name about these experiences. Köpp is now 80. In 1945, she was just 15.
Köpp has now written a book about those 14 days and about the rapes, titled "Warum war ich bloss ein Mädchen?" ("Why Did I Have to Be a Girl?"). The book is an unprecedented document, because it is the first work of its kind written voluntarily by a woman who was raped in the final months of World War II, and who, years later, described the experiences and made them into the central theme of a book....

... Köpp isn't interested in issues like the loss of one's home and the controversy over Germans displaced from Eastern Europe after World War II. "People get together in clubs for that sort of thing," she says. "It's not for me." Nevertheless, the things she experienced during a 14-day period while she was fleeing from her homeland were so traumatic that she still has trouble sleeping today. There are times when she cannot eat, and she is much thinner than she wants to be. She wears slim-cut jeans with a shirt and vest. Her thighs look thin enough to encircle with two hands.

Köpp has lived a full life in which she had everything -- everything but romantic love. It was her bad luck, she says. Women outnumbered men after the war, and none of the few men that remained happened to be right for her. "Besides," she adds, "I wouldn't have been able to feel anything, anyway."

The article is harrowing and important reading. Read the whole thing.

Sometimes reading about the effect of historical events on people seems to suggest a dramatic plot all on its own. I remember thinking, when reading about the late 17th and early 18th century generational transitions in New England about how much dramatic material must have been created by two trends: The younger generation often lacked the personal religious conversion experiences of the older generation, while the older generation held that people who had not experienced a true personal conversion should not be allowed full membership in the church. Further, land in the New England townships was all owned, and so sons could not own their own land until their fathers either gave them land or died. The only alternative was to abandon by the church and the town and move farther west in search of open land. Talk about a recipe for generational resentment and strive. Dozens of novels worth of dark familiar drama seemed to spring from the history book's page.

Here too decades worth of mis-understanding and strife between generations seem to spring from the page -- between the pre-war generation and the war generation; between the war generation and the 60s generation:
The horrific experiences also affected the subsequent generations. "A mother with post-traumatic stress symptoms can have trouble forming an attachment to her children in their early years," says Kuwert. Mothers who are burdened by their own, repressed feelings have problems reacting to and regulating the emotions of their children. According to the theory, these children grow up in an atmosphere of fragility and nameless threat. According to Kuwert, nothing is as stressful as the experience of rape and torture.
On the evening of Jan. 25, 1945, Köpp was packing her things, preparing to flee. Her mother told her to hurry, because the Russians were approaching the town, and she said that she would join her later. Köpp wanted to talk to her mother on that evening, but she was silent and barely spoke with her daughter, not even to warn her about the many things that could happen while she was fleeing. "In a sense, she allowed me to run headlong onto a knife," Köpp writes today, as an old woman.

On Jan. 26, 1945, Köpp and her older sister left the house. She would later learn that Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp the following day, Jan. 27. The ordeal that was about to begin for Gabriele Köpp had its roots in the crimes committed by her fellow Germans.

She hardly remembers saying goodbye to her mother. In fact, she writes, she has only recently allowed herself to think that there may have been no goodbyes at all.

She boarded a freight train with heavy sliding doors. The city had already come under artillery fire. At the time, she says, she never dreamed that it would be decades before she could return home. Peering through the small windows in the freight car, she realized that the train was traveling south, and not leaving the city in a northerly direction, as she had believed.

She knew that Russian tanks had encircled the south. After a short time, she heard the sound of artillery fire, and the train came to a stop. The locomotive had apparently been hit. The sliding doors were locked, and the only way to get out of the car was to crawl through one of the high windows. She was an athletic girl and managed to pull herself up to the window, and a soldier pushed her through the small opening. Her sister remained behind in the train. She would never see her again.
That afternoon, she hid under a table in a room filled with refugees. When the soldiers came to the building, asking for girls, the older women called out: "Where's little Gabi?" and pulled her out from underneath the table. "I feel hatred rising up inside of me," she writes. She was dragged off to a ransacked house. "I have no tears," she writes. The next morning, it was the women, once again, who "pushed" her into the arms of a "greedy officer." "I despise these women," she writes.
She wrote a letter to her mother in her light-blue pocket calendar, even though she had no idea where her mother was: "There is no one here to come to my aid. If only you were here. I'm so afraid, because I no longer have my 'illness' (ed's note: menstruation) any more. It's been almost 10 weeks now. I'm sure you could help me. If only dear God wasn't doing this to me. Oh, dear mother, if only I hadn't left without you."

Her menstrual cycle was interrupted for seven years, a widespread phenomenon some gynecologists called the "Russians' disease."

When Köpp finally found her mother in Hamburg, after being a refugee for 15 months, she wanted to show her the letter. But the mother, who had not expected to see her daughter again, greeted her coldly, holding out her cheek to be kissed.

The mother also told her to keep quiet about everything she had experienced while fleeing, although she could write it down if she wished. Köpp followed her mother's advice. She was 16 when she wrote the notes that she quotes in her book today, notes that she has since donated to the House of History in Bonn.

In conversation, Köpp repeatedly mentions the betrayal by the women and her disappointment in her mother for not wanting to listen to her, and perhaps not even wanting to have her as a daughter anymore. "I could have talked to my father, but he was dead," she says. She searches for reasons to explain her mother's behavior, speculating that perhaps the mother felt guilty for having sent her and her sister on their journey alone.

There are so many built-in generational conflicts here. The mother afraid to talk to her daughter about what happened to her. The fragility of the culture and traditions rebuilt by a bruised war generation, and then torn into by the '60s generation as if this stability which was sought in contrast to the violence and turbulence of the Nazi decade were itself at fault for the evils of the past. Nothing teaches an understanding of tragedy like history.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Son of Hamas Founder Converted to Christianity, Helped Israel

Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef has a just written a book, Son of Hamas which is surely going to cause some controversy. Mosab, who now resides in California, writes about how starting in 1996 he became an informant for Israel, passing information about suicide bombers and terrorist attack to Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, from the innermost circles of Hamas.
He tracked down suicide bombers and their handlers from his father’s organisation, the Haaretz newspaper said.

Information supplied by him led to the arrests of some of the most- wanted men by Israeli forces, including Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader tipped as a potential president, who was convicted of masterminding terrorist attacks, along with one of Hamas’s top bombmakers, Abdullah Barghouti, who is no relation of the jailed Fatah chief.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Complaint Temptation

Get a group of guys together, and it's not uncommon for someone to dust off a rousing, "Listen to this stupid thing my wife did or said," story. You know, the kind about how your wife can't add, or buys the stupidest thing, or spends too long with her makeup in the morning, or is confounded by the simplest appliances. My undercover sources tell me that at all-female gatherings, the equal and opposite happens, with hilarious anecdotes about husbands inability to cook, lack of hygiene, social gracelessness, emotional cluelessness, obsession with sports, mechanics, hunting, etc.

Whether drawn for humor or simple camaraderie (after all, most people beyond a certain age have a spouse, so in a given gathering there should be at least that one level of commonality for most people) spouse put-downs are cheap and easy conversation.

The problem is, getting into the habit of complaint is dangerous. It's easy for us all to find things about our spouses we could wish otherwise, but when we complain about them with others, we implicitly distance from the spouse while drawing close to others. More importantly, once you start to complain about something, you notice it more. Complaining frequently about your wife's spending habits or your husband's tendency to leave his dirty socks scattered around the room makes you notice it more, and makes the repetition more annoying.

"There she goes again! Sheesh. Wait till I tell people about this one."

What seems like a way of making small talk can actually become a way of identifying things about your spouse which will come to annoy you more and more. Feigned annoyance for social purposes can turn into a real grievance, making what seems like harmless socializing dangerous.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Drinkable Geography

From the often-interesting Strange Maps, the major alcohol geographies of Europe:

It matters where we are, for it helps determine who we are. Or, as the quote often attributed to Napoleon states: Geography is destiny. That destiny extends to drink, as demonstrated by this map. Where we are determines to a statistically significant degree what kind of alcohol we prefer. Or is it the other way around: the kind of alcohol preferred is determined by the place where it is produced?

This map shows Europe dominated by three so-called ‘alcohol belts’, the northernmost one for distilled spirits, a middle one for beer and the southernmost one for wine. Each one’s existence and extension is determined by a mix of culture and agriculture.

The Wine Belt covers the southern parts of Europe, where wine has historically been an important industry and an everyday commodity: the whole of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Montenegro, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova and Georgia; all but the northwestern zone of France; and significant parts of Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania.

Either through effects of climate change or renewed viticultural enthusiasm, grapes and wine-making have in recent years been introduced in areas to the north of the traditional Wine Belt, in southern Britain and the Low Countries, creating an overlap between Wine and Beer Belts. That overlap is often ancient rather than recent; the introduction not rarely is a reintroduction. And indeed, southwestern Germany, for example, has an ancient and unbroken tradition of wine-making.

The Beer Belt comprises areas where beer has been the alcoholic beverage of choice since times immemorial: Ireland and the UK, the Low Countries, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Bosnia and Albania; most of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia and Romania; and significant, western parts of Poland. Beer production requires the cultivation of cereals, so this is a climatic-agricultural precondition for the Beer Belt.

An interesting co-explanation for the prevalence of beer in southern parts of this belt is the relatively weak cultural influence of the Roman Empire on these places. The Wine Belt indeed conforms to a large extent with the territory formerly occupied by Rome, with notable exceptions in areas with large Slavic or Germanic migration (the Balkans, southwestern Germany, northern France respectively), where beer predominates (although often overlapping with wine).

The Vodka Belt occupies what’s left of Europe, to the east and north: Scandinavia (except Denmark), Russia, the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine and central and eastern Poland. There is a climatological imperative to the Vodka Belt: freezing temperatures make grape cultivation impossible (except in southernmost Russia and some areas of Ukraine). So there’s almost no overlap possible between the Vodka and Wine Belts. For cultural reasons, however, the Vodka Belt has been losing ground to the Beer Belt. Scandinavians tend to drink more beer than before (although possibly this doesn’t mean they drink less wodka). Maybe this is due to the perception of beer correlating more with ‘core European’ behaviour (as it is the preferred alcoholic beverage of Britain, Germany and other influential and centrally positioned countries). That might explain the emergence in Poland, some years ago, of a Beer-Lovers’ Party (which actually won seats in the Polish Parliament in the early 1990s). Beer has since surpassed wodka as the most consumed type of alcohol in Poland.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snow Day

O frabjous day! It's snowing in Texas!

The backyard at 10:00:

The backyard at 11:30:

Now there are a lot of footprints in the backyard, and snowballs keep thudding on the window. The odd part, for me, is seeing the snow still coming down whenever I glance out of the window -- I'm used to snow here being a one-off event. You watch it, then it's over. Today, however, it just keeps coming, in huge puffy clumps that land with a splat.

Very Young

I am always pleased when I run into examples of how successes in art and accomplishment need not necessarily begin very young ages. It's not so much that I hold out any particular hope of achieving artistic greatness in the years before me, but simply that it gives one a bracing feeling that Things Can Still Happen. While, on the other hand, whenever I run into yet another mention of some insufferable prodigy composing his first pieces at the age of five, I want to kick the next child I see. Fortunately, the next child I see is likely to be my own, and will certainly be doing something reassuringly child-like rather than composing odes or sonatas or some such nonsense.

All of which is to say that I am rather charmed to run into Jerome K. Jerome's quoted recollection of his writing of Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog): "I remember only feeling very young and absurdly pleased with myself."

Jerome was thirty when Three Men In A Boat was published in 1889, and I think we can forgive him for feeling absurdly pleased with himself as a result.

Monday, February 22, 2010

It's Not Subversion, It's The System

I ran across this Boston Globe article about a Boston College professor who believes she has successfully identified a new form of civil disobedience, or as she terms it "economic disobedience."
The interview changed the way Dodson talked with other supervisors and managers of low-income workers, and she began to find that many of them felt the same discomfort as the grocery store manager. And many went a step further, finding ways to undermine the system and slip their workers extra money, food, or time needed to care for sick children. She was surprised how widespread these acts were. In her new book, "The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy," she called such behavior "economic disobedience."

I'm perplexed as to why Prof. Dodson is so surprised by this. Looking back over the jobs I've worked in the last ten years, ranging from hourly work just above minimum wage to a family owned business to the corporate world, every company I've worked at has seen managers or owners making reasonable exceptions for people in order to help them out: Letting people leave early without clocking out; not officially making someone off work when they're home with a sick kid; giving left over food, supplies, etc to people who are known to be hard up; etc. This happened at least as much at the small, family-owned company I worked at for a couple years, where it was clearly not a case of managers "subverting" a system in order to help people out, since it was the owners themselves granting exceptions and giving people extras.

What the supervisors here are doing is, technically, breaking the rules of giving away resources that are not theirs. Too much of this kind of thing can be bad for the company, and if a manager is constantly putting people down as working hours they didn't work, upper management will probably eventually notice and be upset about the waste of resources. (So might be the workers who actually work all their hours.) However, it's fairly normal for managers to assume, rightly or wrongly, some of the prerogatives of owners in regards to granting exceptions and handing out favors. And indeed, it's arguably not just good for the workers but good for the company if managers make reasonable exceptions at times. The working mother who's given unofficial time-off to take a sick kid to the doctor is likely to be a harder and more loyal worker as a result than she would be if her boss refused her time off or held back wages for the time missed.

Good supervisors know that if they take good care of their workers, their workers will be more likely to watch out for the good of the company, putting in extra hours when necessary and letting them know when they see problems or things that could be improved. Contrary to the populist imagination, being an inflexible jerk is generally not good for business.

Oh baby, it's a...

Well, it takes me forever to get pix scanned in and resized, so you don't get to see ultrasound photos yet, but we're happy to inform you that it's a


That makes -- count 'em! -- four girls and one boy for the Darwins. Young Miss Healthy Princess was very wiggly and waved to us several times. This is the first time that I've been able to look at an ultrasound profile and immediately say, "Oh, she's going to look just like so-and-so!"

Good thing I didn't pass on the little girl clothes yet...

And speaking of little girls, my sister's daughter is probably arriving sometime this week, so please keep them in your prayers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Travel Bleg: In and Around DC

We're doing some planning for the great Darwin clan expedition to the DC area in late March, and since I have never been to the Capitol before (and MrsDarwin has not been there in many years) we're thinking this is our chance to get some Visiting Of Sites Of Interest in.

We will probably be devoting 1-2 days to seeing things around DC itself (Lincoln memorial, Washington monument, Capitol building, etc.) Any advice on what is worth seeing and reasonable to see with four children ranging from 1.5 to 7 and a wife who is increasingly pregnant would be much appreciated.

We're also thinking of things that might be worth making one-day-trips to. Right now, the primary candidates are Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg, which to our Texas eyes look quite close. Anyone with experience taking a pack of small children to these places? Any advice on other places that might be worth considering within 2-3 hours drive of the DC area?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Something To Do With Free Will

Sometimes a simple piece of dialog will wrap itself tightly around a deep and complex subject, so that any time one hears about it, that line is what one thinks of. Having watched Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits many, many times as a child, this snippet is always what comes to my mind in regards to free will.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Romulus and Remus

Well, as usual, it took longer than I'd like, but I've now got a draft up of the story of Romulus and Remus over at the Humanities Program. Any suggestions would, of course, be welcome.

Next challenge: It seems like one can't do the founding myths of Rome without talking about Brutus and Tarquin, and yet how do you talk about the mythological Brutus expelling the last king of Rome without dealing with the rape of Lucretia? And when writing for children, does one write about things like the rape of Lucretia?

Writing pagan stories for young (non pagan) children has its own peculiar difficulties...

Early Marriage Through Rose-colored Glasses

This weekend's WSJ saw an article defending early marriage -- or at least, what qualifies in these times as early marriage: getting married in your early 20s. My wife and I got married when we were both 22, and I couldn't be happier that we've spent the last nine years of our lives married, so you would think that this would be an article I'd find it easy to like. And yet, it proved to be one of those pieces that set me growling, such, indeed, that I found it difficult to stop growling.

At issue here is that one of the things which has come to bother me more and more about some strains of moral conservative argumentation in regards to issues like early marriage, having large families, birth control vs. NFP, etc. is the tendency to make the choices the writer is advocating sound like they are as easy if not easier than the opposing choices. All of these are things which I think people should consider, despite strong counter pressures from the mainstream culture, but the fact of the matter is that they are not necessarily easy. And I worry that too often when we elide "good" into "easy" we set people up for failure.

While not everyone meets the right person to marry young, if you do, I don't think that merely being in one's early 20s is a reason to put marriage off. Mr. Lapp does a good job of running through the basic data of how, contrary to some claims, marrying in your 20s is not necessarily a short ticket to divorce. (While people who marry in their teens have a very high divorce rate, marriage in your early 20s is only very slightly more likely to end in divorce than later marriage. I suspect one could reduce the remaining disparity by controlling for economic class and religious practice.) However, I find myself less sympathetic to this cheery section:
And as Mr. Arnett explains, "Many of the identity explorations of the emerging adult years are simply for fun, a kind of play, part of gaining a broad range of life experiences before 'settling down' and taking on the responsibilities of adult life." Young people sense that marriage marks the end of adventure and the beginning of monotony. Implicit is the dichotomy between individual fulfillment now and commitment later.

It's a false dichotomy. Instead of trekking to Africa or exploring Rome alone, why not marry the person of your dreams and take him or her along? What about discovering, as the characters Carl and Ellie in Disney Pixar's "Up" do, the good of marital friendship?
I think there are much better ways to combat the "make sure you have all your fun now!" mentality, without necessarily giving those thinking about marrying at 22 the idea that you can have it both ways. Yes, if, while still very young, you have met the person you believe you are called to marry, you are right to get married rather than living together or some other less "committed" lifestyle. (Both in that it will work out better in the long run not to start your relationship in such a half-way manner, and in regards to this little thing we Catholics call mortal sin.) But at the same time, it's important to understand this will be hard.

Yes, getting married right out of college is hard. Society doesn't expect it -- though if you live deep within the conservative Christian sub-culture, you may get a fair amount of support from other members thereof. Your finances will be tougher for a while. Sure, you can save money sharing an apartment and cooking at home -- but you're certainly not going to want to live with your parents or take in roommates. And if you marry at 22, you're likely to be a parent by 24 (and by 26, and by 28, and...), with the increase in expenses and decrease in secondary income that inevitably entails.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't get married, but it does mean that realism is necessary. This is a hard thing -- advocating that people follow a path while at the same time not overselling it as being easier and more fun than it is. And I don't want to suggest that getting married young, having a large family, using NFP, etc. are not good and satisfying things. I have found them to be very good, and satisfying in the deepest way. But this it the kind of good and satisfying that applied to things like running marathons or mountain climbing. They may be good things to do, they may be good for you, and they may be fulfilling. But they're not easy. And although they get easier with time, they never actually get easy. (Not to mention that along the way you get tired, and sustain the occasional injury.)

Exercise or diet or time management programs that sell themselves as easy, fun and fulfilling all at the same time get a lot of first-time triers, but those triers often don't last. And the reason is simple: they've been sold a bill of goods. These things are not easy. You're better off telling people that they're hard, but that its worth the hardship.

And yet, living in an age which seems to believe more than ever in the quick fix, and that if it feels good it must be good, the temptation seems almost overwhelming to tell people that it will all be fun and easy if only they'll do the right thing. Chastity is sexy. Marriage is one big adventure. Having more kids is easier than having just one or two. NFP is a sure thing, and it's romantic and divorce-proofs your marriage too. And please try out our new chocolate fudge diet -- it's the fastest way to lose weight.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Happy Day after Valentine's Day! I intend to celebrate by getting some chocolates at a major discount.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No more Chicken Soup for the Blog Soul

A friend recently lent me Words in a French Life, a book assembled from a collection of blog posts -- a variety of literature that is burgeoning in these days of the internet. The author had been committed to writing every day about a different French word while exploring her life as an expat in France, raising children who were more proficient in the vernacular than herself. And I enjoyed it, in general: dredging up my college French to translate the phrases sprinkled throughout, learning new words, and looking at life in a different country. But writing every day must take its toll -- a few of the columns seemed a bit forced. There I would be, reading a perfectly good account, only to be thrown out entirely by a last inspirational sentence tacked on to bring the thing to a neat close.

I can't blame the author for this, exactly -- it seems to be endemic in blog writing particularly. I've grown very wary of the pretty conclusion, the spiritual lesson learned, the great insight gained through the grind of daily life. I know why writers use this trick, and I've done it myself -- hard up for something, anything, to post, I remember this little anecdote that could just do for posting if I can put some little inspirational twist on it. And people seem to eat the stuff up, so it must be fine, right?

Of course people draw inspirational conclusions from daily life all the time. What I find tiresome is the... craftedness of it all. Of course good writing must be crafted, not just flung at the page, but it takes a particular talent to draw inspiration from the ordinary while not seeming gimmicky or easy. Pentimento strikes me as an example of that kind of exemplary writer who can at all times maintain both honesty and real style in her writing at all times.

I don't even want inspiration from the internet anymore. I've been trying to immerse myself in Scripture, reading passages from the Wisdom literature each night. This is real. This is what can reach into my soul and open me to God in a way that reading a blog can never emulate. Who can say anything that Qoheleth didn't cover 23 centuries ago?

And that's fine. I like reading funny stories about people's kids, with no moral tacked on. I like musings on the political situation (to a point). And I love good, true writing -- not flashy, not gimmicky, not designed to lift me up or force a life lesson or "make me think". Bloggers can do the writing and I'll do my own thinking, without a serving of Chicken Soup for the internet soul.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Epic Self Examination Fail

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, a philosophy professor from University of Denver considers the question of "Why do liberal arts professors lean left" and determines, "Oh, it's because we obviously understand the nature of reality better than everyone else."

German Family Receives Policital Asylum in US

In a story those in homeschooling stories may already have heard about, Federal Judge Lawrence Burman issued a ruling in late January granting political asylum to a family of Evangelical Christians from Germany, on the basis that they faced religious persecution in Germany over their belief that they needed to homeschool their children in order to provide them with proper religious formation. With a number of writers, both American and European, pursuing a narrative in which Europe is far more civilized and tolerant than the US, this event provides an interesting example of how European laws are often, in practice, far more restrictive than people in the US would be comfortable with.

The family in question had suffered repeated fines for homeschooling their children, and had been threatened with jail time or loss of custody.
Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, who are evangelical Christians, say they were forced to go the the US because they wanted to educate their five children at home, something that is illegal in Germany....

In October 2006, police came to the Romeike home and took the children to school. In November 2007 Germany's highest appellate court ruled that in severe cases of non-compliance, social services could even remove children from home.

Uwe Romeike told the Associated Press that the 2007 ruling convinced him and his wife that "we had to leave the country." The curriculum in public schools over the past few decades has been "more and more against Christian values," he said.

Lutz Görgens, a German Consul General in Atlanta, Georgia, said in an e-mail statement that German parents had a range of educational options for their children. Mandatory school attendance in Germany ensures a high standard of learning for all children, he said.

"Parents may chose between public, private and religious schools, including those with alternative curricula like Waldorf or Montessori schools," said Görgens.

But Romeike was not comfortable sending his children to public school anymore. He said three eldest children had had problems with violence, bullying and peer pressure. "I think it's important for parents to have the freedom to choose the way their children can be taught," he said.

The couple took the kids out of school in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg in 2006 and were fined around €70,000 ($100,000).

In 2008 Romeike, a music teacher, sold his collection of pianos and rented out his home in the village of Bissingen. The family now live in Morristown, Tennessee, in the so-called Bible Belt. Like many of their neighbors they teach their children at home.
Obviously, those who desire to see greater regulation of society and a larger safety net in the US, built on the model of Western European countries such as Germany, probably have no interest in having this kind of repressive policy brought to the US as well. Though it is, perhaps, worth considering whether in some sense the two go together. Solidarity without subsidiarity looks a great deal like authoritarianism.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Me Versus The Library

I've been thinking of swearing off checking out books from the library, because it's interfering too much with my reading.

You see, the library is a very dangerous place. It is packed to the gills with books, and while it often doesn't have the particular book that I'm looking for, it does often have a number of interesting looking books. So I'll go in there looking for some book that I really want to ready, find that they don't have it, and think, "Well, if I really want to read that, I'll have to get it from Amazon." Then as I wander the stacks a bit (MrsDarwin and I take turns going upstairs to the adult section while the other watches the small fry.) I'll find one or two books that do look interesting and check them out. The barrier to entry with library books is simply so low. You don't have to pay for them, you don't have to wait for them, and you can check out up to 15 at a time, so you don't even have to decide which one to get, you can get all the ones that look interesting.

Of course, at this point, I'll set aside the books I'm already reading that I own, and read the library books first. Because, you know, the library books have to go back in three weeks. And then, after finishing those library books, I'll find myself wanting to look up a couple other books, which are referred to by the first ones. And these lead to more books. And more. And the next thing you know, the book which you bought because you really were quite urgent to read it has been sitting around unfinished for three or four months.

In the end, it's just not fair to the books you own to give the library books a chance. Even as a rather excessive book buyer, my books are vastly outnumbered by the library books. And, of course, the library books are hardened veterans, having already conquered dozens of readers.

So I know that I need to lay off the library books. I could read for years just working through books that we own that I haven't read yet and want to read. And yet it's hard to stop. One always imagines that one is strong enough to check out just one or two library books. It's just a book, after all. I don't have to go check out more. I don't have to set my current books aside. I can stop any time.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Why Non-Profit Workers Lean Left

The recent series of posts expressing indignation that many people who work for the USCCB lean left reminds me of a pet theory of mine: All other things being equal, people working for non-profits will tend to lean farther left than the general population.

This fits pretty well with my experience, both seeing most of my more progressive friends seek work at non-profits (in the cases of religious ones, often parish or diocesan work.) But I think there are some general reasons why we'd see this be the case.

1) Selection bias: It's one of the major themes of modern progressivism to be suspicious of the profit motive in general and of for-profit corporations in particular. If you see an organization making a profit as being particularly corrupting, it makes sense you'd gravitate towards organizations which are committed to provide a service to society without making a profit. You can see a reflection of this attitude in President Obama's proposal to forgive college debt for people who go into non-profit or government work -- behind which lies an implicit assumption that people working for non-profits and for the government are participating in work that is more virtuous or more valuable to society than people who work for mere businesses. (My impression is that conservatives tend more towards a "job is a job" attitude, seeing non-profit jobs as not being all that different from business jobs.)

2) Occupational influence: More subtly, I think that doing non-profit work often causes people to lean further left, at least in terms of being more in favor of taxation to fund a broader range of social programs. Why? The fact of the matter is that most people do not give very much money to help non-profits. There are, of course, a few non-profits who have wide appeal to folks with lots of money, and thus find themselves looking around for what to spend money on. But most non-profits find themselves scrounging for enough money to operate most of the time. I was rather shocked, when I became involved enough in our parish to get to see the finances of how a parish operates, to discover that if you have an average household income, and give 4-5% of it to your parish, you will be in the top 5-10% of donors. To a lot of people, supporting non-profits means buying from the occasional bake-sale and dropping a couple singles in the collection basket at Church on Sunday. It's fairly natural, I think, that people who routinely see what they believe is necessary and important work going undone because most people don't donate or donate very little, will come around to seeing the idea of taxation to support social programs as being a good idea. On the one hand, they have a very personal idea of the good which social programs might achieve (if it's your work that's wanting, you're likely to feel sure that if money were available, it would be well spent) and on the other they come in regular contact with the fact that most people don't voluntarily hand over much of their money. (That it is conservatives who donate the most to charity, and "moderates" who donate the least, is something which few people know and take into account.)

There is, perhaps, yet another factor, though since this is entirely anecdotal I advance it only hesitantly. Some years ago, I did web development work for a number of Catholic non-profits, and one of the things which struck me is how often people people would observe about some fairly minor screw-up, "Of course, in the business world heads would roll over this." My experience in the business world is that heads actually do very little rolling. If anything, the for-profit companies I've worked for were less likely to demand unpaid overtime, sink into vicious back-biting, or ream people out for minor errors. (This is perhaps an error in which the much scorned HR departments can be thanked.) But whatever the reason, there seemed to be a conviction that employment in the for-profit sector was nasty, brutish and short in the extreme. If such is a general impression among people working for non-profits, it probably adds further to the idea that for-profit enterprises provide virtually non benefit to society, and cause many harms.

While I think it is to the best if people in the non-profit and government sectors gain a better understanding of what business world and of free market economics, it is probably inevitable that these forces will cause many people working in the non-profit world to lean leftwards, and while it is a serious problem if this causes Catholic organizations to fund or support organizations which are supporting causes which are clearly wrong from a Catholic point of view (abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, distributing birth control, etc.) one can hardly be surprised at the tendency itself.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

On the Difficulties of Large Economies

Following the news about the efforts of Greece to get their economy back on its feet, while not violating the terms of their EU membership (brief post on Greece here) it strikes me that the EU countries are experiencing a new and awkward version of what has afflicted various regions of the US over the years, namely, belonging to a country large enough it does not necessarily pursue policies best suited to the region.

Greece is in the uncomfortable situation of trying to reduce its massive deficit, while suffering a major recession. However, since it is part of the EU, it can't manipulate interest rates, pursue inflation, etc. in order to try to ease its problems. It's stuck raising taxes and cutting spending simultaneously (something no one has had the political will to do in the US in many a year) while in the midst of a recession. However, other larger countries (Germany, France, etc.) who are not suffering the same problems as Greece have more say on issues like the value of the Euro and interest rates, and so Greece is stuck taking the harder path as a particularly afflicted region of the EU.

The EU, as a whole, is of similar size to the US, and if you think about it, there have over the years been regions of the US which would, left to themselves, probably have benefited from pursuing different economic policies than the US as a whole. On the flip side, sometimes strong regional interests succeed in pulling the whole US into a policy which primarily benefits only on region (farm subsides benefiting the Midwest, auto bailout for Michigan and the Great Lakes region, etc.) I imagine that if each state had its own currency, its own national bank, and complete discretion as regards sovereign debt, you'd see the Great Lakes region pursing very different policies from the South; New York pursuing very different banking policies than the West Coast; the Midwest pursing different agricultural trade policies than the rest of the regions, etc.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Teen Abortion Rates -- Fact vs. Spin

There was much tut-tutting last week when data came out from the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood -- but despite its pedigree the most comprehensive source of data on issues relating to abortion most of the time) showing that the pregnancy and abortion rates for teenagers had increased in 2006 for the first time in over a decade. This fit will with two stories which people had been itching to tell:

1) Those opposed to abstinence-based sex ed in schools have been eagerly waiting for some sort of data to support the claim that not pushing contraception in school was resulting in more teen pregnancy and abortion. (The previous, much trumpeted, round in this debate ony really succeeded in proving that abstinence-based sex ed was no more effective than contraception-based.)

2) A small subset of progressive pro-lifers have been very eager to find a way to claim that Bush's policies increased abortion, while progressive policies (even combined with pro-choice policies) would decrease abortions. Indeed, some have already attempted to make this claim, though the data on which they attemped to base the argument turned out to be incorrect.

So what are we really seeing with this latest data?

The full research report, including tables, can be found here. The number of pregnancies per 1000 sexually active teenagers (15-19 year-olds) increased for the first time since rates peaked in 1990. The increase itself was not that great -- a hair under 3%. Still, this hasn't happened since 1990, so it is news. The cause, however, if much less clear. Abstinence-only sex ed programs were instituted under Clinton, and grew under Bush, so it seems hard to blame them for an increase in pregnancies which didn't show up until 2006. It may be that this is simply coordinated with a wider trend: Overall American women gave birth more in 2006 than 2005, with increases in the birth rates for both unmarried and married women.

As for whether this is an example of conservative policies increasing abortions, there's really nothing here to substantiate this. The pregnancy rate for sexually active teenagers increased by 2.8% (148.6 to 152.8 per 1000) while the birth rate increased by 3.5%. The increase in the sheer number of pregnancies resulted in a 1% increase in the abortion rate (abortions per 1000 women aged 15-19) but the percentage of teen pregnancies ending in abortion decreased from 32% to 31.5%.

While the number of abortions in the US remains appallingly high, it seems reasonable to say that so long as the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion continues to decline, that pro-lifers are making progress in changing hearts and minds.

Act now, and we'll throw in another one free!


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Monday, February 01, 2010

Naming Convention

Somehow I missed the start of what seems to be a well-established sand-kicking match over refering to the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party. Is there anyone who can fill me in on the origins?