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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Profiles in String 25

48,728/50,000. After getting three hours' sleep I had a few moments of hating everything today, including my kids, Darwin, and all of you, until I realized that I was going to be able to bring it in tomorrow. Today.

Here's a picture of me with the radiant Sarah Reinhart taken two weeks ago, after I'd spent a good deal of the weekend in the hospital with my mom. I'm the bleary-looking one on the right. You can imagine how haggard I look now.

  Every night when Martin called me, I had new and strange stories about Emma to relate.

   “Last night she was dozing in the easy chair in the living room, and her walker was standing in front of the fireplace. She doesn’t like the stupid walker, and she often parks it right there. As I was passing through from the hall to the kitchen, she plucked at my sleeve to get my attention, and pointed at the walker, and she asked me, “Do you see that orangutan? He’s just sitting there.” And then she started waxing eloquent about   the orangutan on the hearth. Stop laughing, Martin. It was extremely disturbing. I tell you she must see these things. She’s so serious about it, as if there were nothing to debate. 

   “Okay, you’ll like this one. Emma was sacked out in the same easy chair in the living room, and she was looking at one of the chairs pulled out from the big dining table, in that space between the kitchen and the living room. And she turns to me and says, “Doesn’t that chair look just like the Holy Family?”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a chair should bear any resemblance at all to the Holy Family. I tried to get her to elaborate, maybe point out which leg looked like the Virgin Mary, but she couldn’t be any more specific. It’s as if she’s seeing omens.”

   “Tonight it was a rhinoceros. No, in the kitchen this time. I don’t know why you’re so amused; don’t even try to tell me you weren’t shaking like a little girl over the man in the closet.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Being a Dad Without a Father

Being out in Southern California again, and for another funeral, I find myself thinking in particular about the experience of being a man, particularly of being a dad, who has lost his father.

I find myself wanting to say that in addition to the natural grief we always feel at death, that there is a particular feeling of disconnection or incompleteness that comes from being a man who loses his father comparatively young. The process of growing up and having one's own family is one which brings a new pespective on one's youthful life. The inexplicable actions and words of parents suddenly fall into place and make sense as we find ourselves facing our own adult problems and raising our own children. "Hey, Dad, I get it. Is this what you were thinking?" you want to say. "I'm like you now."

With your father dead, this becomes a one sided conversation. You reach these epiphanies and think, "Yeah, this must be what Dad was going through," but with no answer back, you never feel quite sure. The distance of childhood perception stands between. Is this how Dad felt? Maybe I look to my kids now like he looked to me then. Maybe I don't even remember right.

In some sense, the image of "Dad" fixes at the extent to which you were able to understand and share experiences when he was alive -- a slight distance or idealization, something you never quite feel you can inhabit the inside of or live up to.

This is how I've come to think of it. Though as I watch my uncles in their late 40s and early 50s talking last night about losing their father at the age of 84, I wonder if I've built up "what it would be like to have your father longer" into some sort of ideal in its own right. From these men not much younger than Dad was when he died, I get the same sense that "Dad" is a figure never quite felt to be fully understood or lived up to. That the gap between "my dad" and "trying to be a good father" persists through life.

In the end, it is doubltess most important simply to be thankful to have had such a good one at all, for any length of time.

Profiles in String 24

It's frickin' 5 am. 6100 words today. Ninety million times listening to the Jane Eyre soundtrack on repeat. I'm shaking like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Did I mention that we haven't had heat since the boiler caught fire on the 18th? We live like distressed nobility, shut up in the small rooms at the back of the house, huddled over space heaters. It's supposed to snow on Wednesday.

Sorry 'bout the formatting. 45,755/50,000. Vincero, friends. Vincero.


Spring was approaching. There was still a chill in the air, but it was a chill that bore the promise of later warmth. The crocuses and snowdrops were pushing through the damp earth, and Emma, leaning on the windowsill, would sit in reverie and watch the flowers for an hour at a time. As I sat in the library, I could her gently soliloquizing on how she had planted those bulbs herself, in some past spring more immediate and vibrant to her than the present. Then she would wander through the house, examining and sorting and pondering, and I would get up to make sure that the sounds of her activity were all benign.
I followed a clattering one day and found her in the silverware drawer, removing every utensil. She would study it and mutter, and then lay it on the counter so she could seek answers from a different fork or butter knife. Sometimes she would shake the whole drawer.
“Emma, can I help you find something?” I asked her. “Is there something you’re looking for?”
“Broccoli,” she fussed. “That broccoli. It came out, and then I don’t know.”
“Emma, are you hungry? You want broccoli?”
“I don’t know,”she said plaintively. “I can’t find it. The thing, it doesn’t work, and now this broccoli.”
“Here, Emma,” I said soothingly. “Let’s sit down. I know you’re hungry.” She allowed herself to be guided to a chair, where she slumped as I heated a microwave dinner for her. It was becoming more of a struggle to get Emma to eat. She seemed to prefer the mushy texture of pre-prepared foods, and I didn’t want to spend my energy in fighting her over meals.
I put the warmed food onto a plate and carefully diced up the meat patty and carrots and cut the brownie into small pieces. She was apathetic as I placed the dish in front of her and laid a napkin and fork by her hand. 
“Can you eat something, Emma?” I urged. “These are all things you like. See, carrots and meat, and I’ll get you a glass of milk.” She picked up the fork and pressed the tines experimentally against her palm. The milk seemed to intrigue her, however. She picked up the glass and swirled it around, then put it back on table and purposefully inserted the fork into the milk. 
I sat beside her. “Okay, you don’t like the fork. That’s fine. Let’s eat some other way.” She sat inert, so I picked up a piece of meat and put it in her hand. “Would you eat this, Emma?” Still she regarded it. I guided her hand to her mouth. “And in it goes. Good girl, Emma. Let’s try it again.” With me moving her hand from from her plate to her mouth, we worked through most of her dinner, until, with a sigh, she refused to open up one more time. I cleared the plate away and wiped her down and helped her up from her seat. She stood uncertainly, looking around at the warm afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows.
“That thing is lost,” she moaned. 
“We’ll find it, Emma. Do you want to take your nap?” I gave her my arm, and we made the journey to her bedroom. I tucked her in.
“Have a good rest,” I told her.
“Thank you, honey,” she sighed, turning her back to me.

I told the incident of the counterful of forks to Nurse Linda that week when she arrived for her regular visit.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Volumes of Memory

Everyone has certain sights or objects and strongly remind them of the past. The other night, having just got in to my mother's house, I stepped into the library in order to give MrsDarwin a quick call and catch up on doings back in Ohio. Pacing around while talking I was realizing what a strong visual memory I have for my parents books.

The present house is not one I ever lived in -- my mother moved here after my father died in order to be near her parents -- and so the layout of the library is different. And yet, the books are the same. A number I've read, but far more I have not. Yet even among those books I'd never taken down from the shelf there is an intense familiarity to the books which I saw on the shelves throughout my childhood. The "old books" all showed as familiar faces while newer acquisitions jumped out as unfamiliar. I could probably sort the whole library into books acquired in the last ten years and those acquired before with a fair amount of accuracy. And likewise with the non book inhabitants of the shelves. Thomas the blue china elephant looks down with a familiar smile, and the enigmatic saxaphone playing frog hides on a lower shelf. But the miniature mounted globe is unfamiliar.

Profiles in String 23

40,868/50,000 -- though part of that is filler as I've been sketching out the final steps of the plot. 

I think this novel has jinxed my entire month of November. I'm getting to know some of the ER people by name, and Jack will have twin scars on his eyes. Bad bathtub. 

Darwin is out of town for his grandfather's funeral, and won't be back until the 30th. Please pray for the soul of Frank Ramirez.


   Emma loved getting ready to go out. The routine of picking clothes and applying her makeup always seemed to soothe her. Her eye for color and style was still strong when she chose to give it free reign. Now she threw open her closet and surveyed her options.
   “Now where are we going, honey?” she asked. 
   “We’re going to have dinner with Peggy Harriman’s nephew Martin. He had the little girl with the red red hair, do you remember? They brought us dinner on Christmas.”
   “Well, you don’t say!” she exclaimed. “That pretty little girl. Where does she live?”
   “With her father, Aunt Emma. Her father is Peggy Harriman’s nephew.”
   “I should call that gal,” she mused, poking at the clothes on the hangers. “What’s pretty in here?”
   “You always used to say that, Emma,” I reminded her. “Do you remember when I stayed with you and we would get ready to go out shopping, and you’d look through your whole wardrobe of stylish dresses and wonder what you had that was pretty?”
   “I guess I kept some nice things,” she admitted complacently, selecting a red sweater to go with her tan slacks. “Bring me that box, honey.”
   I handed her the jewelry box from her dressing table. She searched through it a moment and drew out a string of pearls. Laying it across the neck of the sweater, she smoothed the nacreous strand into a circle and tapped each pearl in turn, pressing her finger gently against the minute roughness of the surface.
   “Now I’m all set,” she told me, with a glint in her eye. “Wearing a nice outfit is like putting on armor. No matter what comes at you during the day, at least you look good.”
   “You always look good, Emma,” I assured her as I helped her into her sweater.
   “You go on,” she hushed me, but she patted my hand.
   Fortified against any occasion in her finery, Emma set her stylistic sights on me.
   “You should wear some color, honey,” she admonished. “The men like to see a girl who has some color.”
   “I was going to wear a black dress,” I offered. “Black is always elegant.”
   “Black is for funerals,” Emma sniffed. “Let’s go right over and see what you have.”
I watched with grudging curiosity as she pawed through my monochromatic closet. “Honey, all this black will wash you right out, with your coloring.”
   “I thought it made me look serious.”
   “It makes you look dead.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Profiles in String 22

Again with the late night. 38455 words. I have listened compulsively to the Jane Eyre soundtrack, for hours on end. I will be a bit crazy by the end of November.



Every part of Emma’s bedtime routine that evening was managed very carefully. I was meticulous in caring for her feet. I smoothed and folded and hung every item of clothing. I stalled and fussed until I felt ready to go out and face Martin coolly.
He was sitting quietly in the very center of the couch, hands resting on his knees. I sat with ladylike poise in the very center of the cushion to his right and folded my hands in my lap.
“How are you?” he asked, neutrally.
“I’m well, thank you,” I replied.
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Earlier you called yourself a leech, which seemed to suggest that something was bothering you very much.”
I flushed. “I suppose I didn’t really mean it.”
“I’m glad to hear that as well,” he continued, looking directly at me with this new and dangerous reserve. “It troubles me that you would treat yourself as caustically as you treat me.”
“I don’t...” I swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“Why would you consider yourself a leech?”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Profiles in String 21

Some of these sections should go other places in the story, but I'm not going to revise it now or I'll lose momentum.  35800 words out of 50000; five days to go. I'm about 8000 words shy of where I should be today, but I've been closing the gap.


   Emma had always been an odd mixture of extravagance and frugality, glamor and grit. Her strength had been her unwavering self-confidence, the assurance that whatever she was doing at the moment was the right thing. She was not given to doubt or fear; her mind, when made up, was set, and once changed, was completely changed. She never did anything by halves. She was sharp and witty and could comfort and flick on the raw with equal facility. 
   Many times, even before the onset of Alzheimers, I had heard stories of Emma and her sister Francine and their exploits around their native farming community. These days were vivid to Emma, and she told of them often. Theirs had been a hardscrabble upbringing, especially during the tight years of rationing during World War II. Emma had turned ten in 1943. She remembered her mother’s cuffless sleeves and two-inch hems and precious nylons; the four-gallon-a-week gas ration; the rubber drives; the stamps removed from her family’s ration books because they had more than the regulation amount of sugar in the house during canning season. Her sister Francine’s treasured shoes had been bought mail-order from Sears, Roebuck and Co. with War Ration Stamp No. 17. Their mother had studied the newspaper charts to determine how many cans of vegetables or pounds of butter or cuts of meat could be purchased with the 48 points a month alloted each person. This wartime thrift had become ingrained in Emma, even as later in life she could afford the luxuries she had dreamed of in those harder times.
   She would drift in a twilight of memory, reliving childhood games and obscure family quarrels. Usually the stream of the past cooled and revived her, and she would chat at length about Francine or of her own college days (she had been the first member of her family to go on to college and her pride in this accomplishment was palpable). It was in these moments of nostalgia that I was able to piece together bits of information about her relationship with Howard. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Profiles in String 20

   Martin did call me, after a fashion. Every few days my phone would ring at some random time -- usually in the evening after he’d put Grace to bed, but sometimes he could call while he was on his lunch break -- and for ten or fifteen minutes I would sling sarcasms and bandy words about and play the game with aplomb. Then he would ring off suddenly, and I would sink slowly back into daily life with Emma. One evening, desperate with boredom, I tried to call him. But Grace had not gone down willingly that night, and the wail of her tantrum sliced through the conversation. He called later and apologized, but I didn’t intrude on him after that. 
   One morning I was startled awake by the phone shrilling in my ear. When I picked it up and looked at the time, I was informed that the hour was 6 am.
   “Martin,” I groaned, “for the love of...”
   “What would you like from Rio de Janeiro?” he asked cheerily. “I fly out this morning.”
   “I thought you weren’t traveling anymore,”
   “I’d like to cut back more, but duty calls.”
   “I don’t know the first thing about Rio,” I said groggily, “and at this hour I certainly can’t think of anything I want from there. Have a safe trip.”
   “Any last words? We’re boarding in a minute.” And he began to sing, “Send me a kiss by wire...”
   “Martin, go away.”
   “I will, and I’ll drop by and see you at 3:00 on Friday afternoon.” 
   The week dragged by. On Friday I took Emma shopping, dusted the library, and made cookies. I put my hair up. I took it down. I changed my shirt. Emma became flustered and trailed me around the house until I sat her down at the table for a snack. And at 2:59, Martin strolled in the door and presented himself in the kitchen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Profiles in String 19

  I paced the living room with devolving holiday cheer. I started The Gift of the Magi and then irritably pushed the book away; it had fit with my scheme of Christmas reading, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to like a story in which everyone behaved like a fool. I poked the fire once more, and it crumbled at me. Finally I seized Emma’s telephone and dialed my cell. After four rings, a confident, laughing voice said, “Emma’s phone.”
   “Dammit, Martin, I want my phone back.”
   “You had only to ask,” he replied with mock solemnity. “Will you come fetch it, or shall we deliver it to you?”
   “You can throw it across the yard for all I care!” I yelled, but he had already hung up. I stood immobilized in a fine fettle of furious anticipation. The words of O. Henry rattled around in my head: “You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy. I was trying to decide between yanking out my own hair or the curly cord of the phone when I heard a rustle in the hall.
   “Hi, honey,” quavered Emma, standing in the doorway and trying to pat down her fluffed hair. “Smells like something’s cooking.”
   “Right you are!” I growled heartily. “Here, come sit down and let me get you a cinnamon roll. How do you feel today, Aunt Emma? You had quite a night.”
   “I’m still kicking,” she said, taking my proffered arm. “Did those folks come over last night?”
   “There were some people here, yes.”
   “Howard came back, didn’t he?”
   “No, Aunt Emma, that was Peggy Harriman’s nephew Martin. He helped you get home last night when you went out.”
   “What a nice young man,” she said thoughtfully, placing herself in the chair I held out for her. “Did you say that Howard was coming?”
   “No, Emma. Here’s your roll. Peggy made them just for you.”
   “Oh, Peggy!” Her face was wreathed in smiles, and she started to stand up. “I’d better call that gal.”
   “Let’s call her in a bit,” I said smoothly, sitting her down again and sliding in her chair. “You look like you could eat something.”
   The doorbell rang. I flew to the door and held the knob for the count of four cell phone rings before I opened it. There stood Martin, laden with plates of food. Beside him was a child with the most amazing red curls I’d ever seen. They sprung out from her head in riotous array. Buried somewhere in the mass was a headband or a barrette, but it was effaced by the volume of glowing hair. It had been my intent to destroy Martin upon the doorstep with some withering remark, but instead I stood undone by the glory of the child’s tresses.
   “May we come in?” Martin inquired as a gust of cold air swirled about us. I swallowed and stepped back a pace to let them pass. The little girl was solemn and clung close to his knee. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When The Technocrats Took My Country

Ross Douthat goes through the interesting exercise of translating what just happend to Italy into American terms, and in doing so underscores just how big the Eurozone shake up is:
The murmurs about Barack Obama being forced out began in Berlin and Beijing. After his party lost the midterm vote, there were hints that a government of technocrats would be imposed on America, to save the country from a debt crisis and the world from a depression.

As the debt-ceiling negotiations stalled out over the summer, a global coalition — led by Germany, China and the International Monetary Fund — began working behind the scenes to ease Obama out of the White House. The credit downgrade was the final blow: the president had lost the confidence of the world’s shadow government, and his administration could no longer survive.

Within days, thanks to some unusual constitutional maneuvering, Obama resigned the presidency and Michael Bloomberg was invited to take the oath of office. With Beijing issuing veiled threats against our currency, Congress had no choice but to turn the country’s finances over to the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of 6, which in turn acceded to Chinese and German “supervision” of their negotiations. Meanwhile, there was a growing consensus in Europe and Asia that only a true global superstate could prevent the debt contagion from spreading ...

FOR Americans, the scenario I’ve just imagined is a paranoid fantasy, the kind of New World Order nightmare that haunts the sleep of black-helicopter watchers and Trilateral Commission obsessives.

But for the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, it evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots. National sovereignty is a pretty concept, but the survival of the European common currency comes first.
Reading news stories about the European financial crisis, it seems clear that some radical getting of the financial house in order, no matter how unpopular, is very much needed. And since it's not our government getting told to replace itself and take action, popular sentiment be damned, it's easy to see this as yet another turn over of far away countries which are, after all, younger and less stable (in their current incations) than ours. Still, I think Douthat's piece serves well to illustrate the enormity of what's happening (however necessary it may be under the circumstances) and the inherently undemocratic nature of the EU as it currently stands.

Still, it's far less ugly than the last couple times Germany tried to exert hegemony over the continent...

Profiles in String 18

After Mass we emerged from a press of people in the back of church, but this time there was no rush. We let the crowds disperse around us as we stood on the steps to bask in the rays of the imminent dawn. The purity of the radiant morning light cast a prelapsarian glow over the frosty grass and icy branches, reflecting off Martin’s glasses and turning his hair a deep shade of gold. The tension in his jaw had melted away, and I contemplated the easy curve of his lower lip.
“What?” he asked, catching me watching him.
“Nothing. You look younger in the morning.”
“I feel younger in the morning. How old do you think I am?”
“Under thirty?” I hazarded.
“Twenty-eight, although I guess that’s antiquated to you.”
“You still have your life ahead of you.”
“I wish I had breakfast in front of me. What does your aunt keep to eat?”
My mental survey of the refrigerator was interrupted by a vibration in my pocket. Automatically I pulled out the phone and glanced at the screen. “Why is a Grace calling me at 8 am on Christmas morning?”
Martin silently took his phone from my hand and considered it for a moment as it buzzed at him several times. Then, turning slightly away from me, he answered and said in an absurdly bright voice, “Hey, baby, Merry Christmas.”
I stood very still watching the sun break over the trees. The cold stabbed at me, cutting through my coat and scarf, and I jammed my hands deep in my coat pockets. Then, having no desire to appear to be eavesdropping, I made my way down the steps and meandered with elaborate casualness to my car. The congregation had melted away, at first in great rushes and then in smaller streams of two or three cars at a time, and now the parking lot stood mostly barren, except for several scattered vehicles and a little knot near the back wall where Martin’s silver car still blocked my green Toyota. I took refuge in my driver’s seat and cranked up the heater.
In my rear-view mirror I could see Martin walking slowly toward the cars, hunched against the cold. Fatigue had settled on him again. He unlocked his car and got in, starting the ignition. Then, after a pause, he got out again and came to lean over my window with his elbows on the roof. After another pause, I rolled it down.
“Thanks for your help with Aunt Emma last night,” I said with finality. “I’m sure it was a great inconvenience to you.”
“Grace is my daughter,” he answered.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Problem With Politics

Sorry the posting has been light from me lately -- not only have there been a whole series of family events and catastrophies, but the beautiful MrsDarwin has been trying up the computer at nights (and making a fascinating change from the history and wonkery type posts that I tend to throw up around here, if I may say so myself.)

I hope to have more "real" posting coming soon, but in the meantime, I was particularly struck by this passage from a Megan McArdle post discussing the failure of the "super committee" to come up with any agreement on budget cuts:
In a modern democratic state, two things are true of any policy agenda:

1. You eventually have to pay for it, with actual money.
2. You have to get those bastards on the other side to agree to it.

We seem to have an electorate who believes neither of these things, and the political class has followed them.

This, it strikes me, is how our political system is increasingly breaking down. Those on the left and right who care passionately enough about issues to even track them outside of election season have veered off in sufficiently opposite directions that nearly all policy proposals seem based on the assumption that all those one disagrees with will magically disappear. What could be more endemic of this than a movement whose primary political issue is setting up tents in public places and refusing to leave until... well, really, not one's exactly sure until what, but until something.

Yes, and then that's that paying for it thing. Hard core budget cutters (I suppose one can't get more hard core than Ron Paul, though I find it hard to take the fellow seriously on several levels) on the right are full of ideas on what they could cut, but this invariably runs afoul of the "those bastards on the other side" problem. And those on the hard left seem convinced we can fix it all if we "eat the rich" without realizing that there's not necessarily enough meat on the 1%'s bones to feed the 99% for any length of time.

Thus, merrily we row along, and will probably continue to do so until some sort of even bigger crisis moves that lumbering beast which is democracy into getting at least two or three limbs of the body politic moving in the same direction.

Profiles in String 17

Drifting off to sleep was easy. Staying asleep comfortably was far more difficult. I was cramped and hot from being conformed to Emma, and at 5:30 in the morning I finally decided that Emma was warm enough to survive without my life-giving touch. As quietly as I could, I crept out of the covers and sat on the side of the bed, feeling around with my foot for my sweater. By the dim light from the hall I could see that poor Peggy was still curled up asleep in Emma’s cozy chair, but almost immediately I heard Martin whisper, “Are we off-duty, then?”

“Dear God, I hope so,” I whispered back. “I can’t take any more of it.”

“Me neither.” He tucked Emma in carefully and we sat with our backs to one another to pull on various articles of clothing. I found my stockings and boots and tiptoed to the door. Martin followed me, buttoning his dress shirt.

“Do you think Peggy would mind if I swiped the kettle and tea bags?” I mouthed.

“I don’t think Peggy would mind anything you did,” he answered. “Is that the bathroom over there?”

The kettle was boiling in the kitchen when I heard the bathroom door open, but Martin didn’t appear by the time I’d set the tea to steeping. Searching around for him, I saw him standing silhouetted in the doorway of the library, still and quiet.

“These are the books to be catalogued?” he asked without turning around.


“You spend your days in this room, looking at these books, as part of your daily routine?”

“Yes. I haven’t done much lately, though.”

He stepped into the library and gazed around him. The library had become familiar to me after long use. I had forgotten how it could appear to one encountering it for the first time. The weariness had dropped from his shoulders and his eyes were kindled with the delight of one who returns home after a long journey to find old friends calling to him from every side. He passed his hands along the shelves and ran his fingers along the spines, brushing the cloth and leather bindings reverently. I sat at the table and watched him.

“Most people would love to be in your position, yet you talked about it last night as if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Profiles in String 16

Writing a novel is perilous business. Since I've started this project:

1) I stuck my hand into a running mixer in an attempt to keep it from ripping Julia's trapped hair out of her scalp (no, she didn't lose the hair; no, nothing was broken, but I did pass out; yes, it will leave scars; yes, she will pull her hair back around the mixer in the future.);

2) That evening, for the first time in 9 1/2 years with children, we had to go to the ER for an injury: Jack's stitches over his eye.

3) The next Saturday I spent 10 hours in the ER with my mom , who ended up staying for three more days in the hospital. She's feeling much better now, and I thank you all for your prayers.

4) We woke up this past Friday morning to the fire alarm in the basement alerting us that our boiler had caught on fire. No one was injured and nothing was damaged (except the boiler, obviously; the firemen told us that the hottest part of the fire was 600 degrees), but no boiler means no heat. We had to flee the house for Cincinnati over the weekend, driven out by the cold and and the noxious fumes of burnt plastic and whatnot. The moral of the story: if you have an old boiler, install a fire alarm in the basement. Ours most certainly saved our house, and quite possibly saved our lives. 

I'm a bit apprehensive about what the rest of November might bring, but I write on.

Peggy bustled in, phone pressed to her ear.
“John says that to avoid hypothermia, we need to get her body temperature up,” she instructed. “The best way to warm her up is to skin to skin contact. At least that’s they say in the Boy Scouts.”
“Skin to skin?” Martin asked warily. “Do you mean… skin to skin?”
“I most certainly do.” Peggy was all briskness. “Do you really think it would be the best thing for Emma to go out again in this weather to the ER?”
“No!” I insisted. “She can’t go out again now that we’ve got her home.” I sat on the edge of the bed and started hiking down my stockings under my skirt. “I’ll put her feet against my legs.”
  “Martin, you sit against her back and put your arms around her,” Peggy ordered.
“Peggy.” Martin looked at her and ever so slightly raised an eyebrow, but she started out the door.
“I have to go back to the house and get the electric tea kettle and some real tea. The Lipton stuff she has in there scares me.” She put her head back in the room. “And don’t tell me you’re shy about taking off your shirt, Martin. I won’t have it.”
Martin looked at me. 
“There’s an old woman freezing right here, and you’re afflicted with modesty?” I pulled off my sweater defiantly, and sat facing him in my tank top.
“All right,” he sighed, and started unbuttoning his shirt.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Profiles in String 15

I'm learning a few awkward things about my fiction-writing style.

1.  I'm far too fond of commas and of clauses stacked upon one another like Jenga blocks.
2.  Though no kind of drinker otherwise, I've finished off both Darwin's bourbon and his whiskey in the course of this writing.
3. I need to stop writing until 3 am. After November, I mean.


  The bracing chill, after the stifling atmosphere of the packed church, shocked me, and I realized that I was still holding onto his coat. He was watching me curiously.
  “Thank you,” I said, straightening up and smoothing my hair, which had escaped from the last of the hairpins in the struggle to get out. “I... I’m grateful, and there’s no way for me to repay you.” I had remembered where I had parked, and now I tested my foot on the stairs as I leaned on the brass railing. 
  “You’re welcome,” he replied, and I could feel his eyes on me as I limped cautiously down the icy steps, favoring my wobbly ankle. “Will you be all right?”
  I turned my head to reply, but there were so many answers that could be given to this question I had not heard in so long, and so much riding on my being “all right”, that I could only stare mutely at him. My breath was beginning to rise in shuddering gasps and I clamped my lips tight and clutched the rail. For the second time that evening he seemed to hesitate slightly, then he strode abruptly down the stairs to me. With a decisive motion he slipped his arm under my shoulders and guided me briskly down to the parking lot. 
  “Where are you parked?” he questioned shortly. His spurt of action cleared my head and focused me.
  “Against the wall in the back.” 
  We made a rapid pace against the intensifying bombardment of the tiny snowflakes.
  “Who is Emma?” he asked after a moment.
   “My aunt. My great-aunt. I live with her. She has Alzheimer’s. She must be out in the cold, and I have to find her quickly. She could freeze to death in this weather...” My voice trailed off as I paused to regard the cars parked two and three deep.
  “Which one is yours?” 
  I gestured at the old green Toyota trapped against the wall, not just double but triple parked. We stood silently for a moment. Then I let out my breath and headed for the gate.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Profiles in String 14

In this quiet way Christmas approached. I had put out Emma’s old Advent wreath, and she had made it part of her daily schedule of wandering to pause at the wreath and rearrange all the candles. Each evening she sat in front of the wreath, mesmerized, and watched the flames flicker and dance, and I would watch her through the flames, wondering what other little secrets were hidden in her mind, and whether I cared enough to know anymore. Now I was the vague and distant one, automatically giving generic replies to her generic remarks. If Emma noticed that I had withdrawn from her, she didn’t let it get her down. She was still delighted to see me every day, and told me so. She was grateful for my help each evening, though by now I accepted her gratitude as my due. She was never wounded by my sarcasm or offended by my passivity.

As I avoided the library Emma took to haunting it, pulling books off the shelves and flipping through them. Several times I found books in her drawers or tucked in with the dishes, but more frequently she would take down a volume, page through it and read a few words here and there, and put it back in some other spot. Sometimes she would sit watching TV with a book in her lap, every now and then calling a cheery observation to me as I decorated the tree or cleaned out the old fireplace.

Peggy Harriman had offered to keep half an eye on the house and the sleeping Emma while I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and I gratefully accepted. I would take Emma to morning Mass, but the Vigil was to be my own time.

The preparations of the day -- the baking and laundering and bathing -- had excited Emma, and she hovered at my door as I pulled on my good boots and smoothed my thick wool skirt and knotted my scarf.

“When I was your age, we didn’t bother about pinning our hair up,” she pointed out, watching me twist my hair into a bun. “We kept our hair short, let me tell you! None of this fuss! Let me have a brush, and I’ll show you how you should fix it.” By this time she was behind me, trying to pull out my bobby pins. I twisted in frustration.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stopped Me Just In time

Leah of Unequally Yoked has an interesting question about the decision to commit some sinful action versus actually carrying it out:
If someone has made up their mind to do something evil, is there any benefit to them if someone else prevents them from carrying out their intended action?...

Virtue ethics (my usual framework) suggest that nothing much is achieved for the perpetrator. Once you’ve psyched yourself up to do a bad thing and overridden your qualms, the damage to your character has been done; carrying out the crime isn’t marginally worse for your soul. I think Catholic moral teaching might come to the same conclusion, since the moral actor has already given deliberate and complete consent to the act based on full knowledge of the gravity of the act.

But my philosophical intuitions don’t quite jibe with that conclusion. I suspect that a lot of the time, we end up surprised by the gravity of what we’ve done – that people rarely give manage deliberate and complete consent based on full knowledge....
I think you're right that often someone who has decided to do something wrong hasn't, for whatever reason, really contemplated all of the consequences of the action, and so is saved from something if prevented from committing the act decided on.

I want to look at two additional ways in which behing stopped from committing a sin one had already decided to do would still have some moral benefit:

1) It seems to me that because we are not just a conscious will but also a body, that when we do something physically we commit to it and become attached to it in a way that just the mental decision to sin does not. In the Harry Potter example that's been discussed [spoiler warning]: Aside from any question of whether Draco really was mentally decided to kill Dumbledore, it seems to me that the physical act of killing the headmaster would have affected Draco in a deeper way than just the decision to do so. Although there's a culpability to decided to do an evil act, one isn't yet "someone who did that" with all the physical and mental sensations that come with that, until one actually does it. Similarly, say a married guy on a business trip asks a woman at a bar to come back to his hotel room with him, but then she turns him down or some practical circumstance prevents them from actually landing in bed together. Clearly, just by asking, he's betraying his wife in a very serious way. But it seems to me that actually completing the adultery is going to leave him much more attached to that sin, much more deeply in, than the unfulfilled decision.

2) In human experience, sin typically leads to more sin. People lie to cover up their transgressions. Hate breeds more hate. Violence leads to more violence, etc. Someone who's decided to commit some sin but is then stopped before carrying out the act may well not end up being drawn into the whole chain of related sins (lesser or greater) which would have followed in the wake of that first act.

Now clearly, the decision to sin is itself a sin. So it's not as if one is "saved from sinning" if physically prevented from carrying out the act that he or she has decided on. But I think that because we are both material and mental/spiritual creatures, being prevented from actually physically carrying out some sin decided on often does "save" us from something -- though it clearly doesn't render us innocent.

Now, where this would get very messy would be if the person committing the act actually thinks he has carried out the act. One of the things that makes Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well a morally ambiguous and in some ways unsatisfying play is that Count Bertram really does think that he was successfully committing adultery with the young Isabella when he was in fact sleeping with his wife. Even at the end of the play, when you get the big reveal that it was in fact his wife Helene he slept with and who is now carrying his child, the "happy ending" feels off because you get the sense that Bertram is still at heart disloyal to his wife. The "trick" didn't really work, in that while he was in fact sleeping with Helene, he thought it was Isabella and that is still who he really wants to be with, not his wife.

Profiles in String 13

Emma’s library was not all older books; there were many more recent volumes. I didn’t intend to catalogue all of them, but I couldn’t not read them. The beautiful antique volumes were treasures on their own, but these lesser lights of the library were just as intriguing for the light they shed into Emma’s own tastes in reading. Many of the books bore inscriptions from friends, or notations in Emma’s own hand commemorating the occasion or the giver. I would take one of these books from the shelf, glance at the flyleaf to see if it said anything interesting, and page through the book to make sure there were no keepsakes or clippings filed away inside. Most had nothing of vast interest, but I was arrested in my progress by a familiar bold black scrawl inside a book with a green dust jacket.

This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand.

Intrigued, I turned to the title page. China Court, by Rumer Godden, 1961. The endpapers were printed with a family tree mapping the various generations who’d lived in the titular house. I paged through it, browsing through a section here, being drawn into a conversation there. The book didn’t seem to be written in chronological order. I wandered, pleasantly lost, amid characters and episodes, until something wedged in the pages made me pause. It was a black-and-white photograph, scratched and marred, of a confidently handsome man in a suit, looking directly at the camera. His dark hair was slicked back and his easy, sensual grin suggested that he was fully aware of his effect on the photographer, and the viewer. On the back was pencilled only “1957”, but I had a feeling that man could be none other than Howard himself.

There was one person who would know. Aunt Emma was out on the couch snuggled under a bedraggled afghan, drowsing peacefully through the afternoon cartoons. I sat down beside her, and she blinked herself awake.

“Hi, honey!” she said, and, extricating a hand from her blanket, patted my knee.

“Aunt Emma, I wanted to ask you something,” I said casually. “I found this picture in a book. Can you tell me who it is?” Taking the photograph from the book, I held it out to her.

“Oh, is he still here?” she exclaimed, taking the photo and peering at it. “That’s Howard. I thought he’d left a long time ago.”

“Who is Howard,” I asked, disingenuously. “Can you tell me about him?”

Emma snorted. “Who doesn’t know about Howard? He’s my husband, and let me tell you, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. He told me he stopped smoking, but I can smell it on him when he comes it. Phew, I hate the stink of cigarettes! I threw all mine away after that, but,” her voice dropped confidentially, “I still keep a stash in the kitchen. I don’t smoke ‘em anymore. I just look at them.”

“But the book,” I insisted pressing it on her.  “Look what it says inside. This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand. Did you give this book to Howard?”

“I never gave Howard any of my books,” Emma said, sharply. “That’s a lie. He knows it. He knows I never let him take any of my books.”

Her agitation was rising, but I plunged on. “But you gave him this one. Look, you wrote in it.” I stabbed at the inscription with my finger

She read it aloud, slowly. “This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand. That’s what he thought. Do you know how much he knew about it? He read a review in a New York paper while he was on a business trip and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll give Emma a book, and that’ll put her in a good mood.’ Catch Howard with a book in his hand without some good reason behind it.” She snorted again, but more peaceably.

“Wait.” It was ridiculous to be so fixated on an old scribble in a book, even more ridiculous to be cross-examining a woman who was almost incapable of giving a clear answer to any question. “Did Howard give you this book? Who wrote this?”

Her attention had drifted back to the cartoons. “Would you look at that silly thing?” She shook her head, bewildered by the amount of silliness that was considered acceptable in small-screen programming, and idly drummed her fingers on the book now nestled in her lap. She had retreated into the shabby comfort of her curious and vague inner life, but I was determined to ferret her out, if only this once.

From my bedside table I snatched Jane Eyre out of its stately repose and flung open the cover. There was the same black handwriting I’d read so often: To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together. How many times had I drawn strength from this sentiment, that gorgeous girls and gorgeous books had a natural affinity? How delighted had I been that Aunt Emma had chanced upon just the right sentiment for her bookish niece? Emma had given this book to me, had inscribed it to me.

The springs of the old brocade couch groaned as I dropped down and seized China Court from Aunt Emma. Holding both Jane Eyre and China Court open, I shoved the pair of books under her nose.

“Emma, listen to me,” I demanded. “Tell me who wrote in these books. You wrote this, didn’t you? To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together. You wrote that to me, didn’t you?”

The effect on Emma was extraordinary. Before I could react, her withered hands plucked Jane Eyre from me, and her white hair rose up in fury.

“You’re stealing my book!” she shrieked. “That’s my book! You have no right... it wasn’t right... to waste my books on her...” Her sudden and appalling rage had flared out as quickly as it had flared up, leaving her almost sobbing. “He gave it to me, and he thought that made it his. But it was mine.”

Her trembling fingers caressed the book possessively, while I sat frozen, surprised at the depth of my feeling of loss.

“Then you never wrote that for me,” I murmured. “All this time, I thought it was my book, and that you wrote that especially for me.”

Emma wrapped Jane Eyre in her blanket. “The book never mattered to Howard, oh no. Only what the book could do for him.” She folded the blanket around the book until she had a soft bulky parcel. This she carried into the library and paced up and down the shelves, but whether she crooned and whispered to the parcel or the books, I couldn’t say. After half an hour she unwrapped her package and placed Jane Eyre on the table, but I didn’t dare to move it until she had gone to sleep, and then I found I didn’t want it in my room anymore. Instead I took China Court to bed, and read late into the night to ascertain what it was that Howard supposed Emma would understand. But the threads of the story were complex, and I had no idea which character was the best approximation of what he saw in her.

After this I left the books alone for a time, and began to decorate for Christmas. Emma was soothed by the tree and the lights and the Advent wreath, and by the early snow that was beginning to fall. She would stand by the front windows and watch the lacy flakes drift against the black ribbon of road while I washed laundry and cleaned the fridge and made her cocoa. The snow seemed to exert some pull on her, but the cold was an equal and opposite force that kept her safely indoors, and so we both kept warm and busy while both the earth and the books received a light and dusty covering.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Profiles in String 12

Clubbing had cured me of a desire to be around people my own age, and I threw myself into my cataloging and reading with renewed diligence. 

Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, John Henry Newman. First edition, Dublin, 1852. Some stains and pencil underlinings, but leather binding is sound.

I had promised myself I would not get caught up in reading again, as the number of books I had catalogued was a laughably insignificant portion of the collection. But this beautiful book begged to be held and opened and devoured. It was a work of art in its own right, and it was only right that I should appreciate it. I set the volume in front of me and watched as the sunlight illuminated the leather and set fire to the gold stamped letters of the title. Gently I opened the cover and slowly rifled through the book as page after page of lovely type drifted through my fingers. A previous owner -- it could have been Aunt Emma, but I doubted it -- had gained great insight from the book, and I could chart the owner’s interests and personality by which sections were most frequently underlined in pencil. The book seemed to take on the character of this enthusiastic reader, and it was as though he was engaging Newman in discourse with each notation and emphasis. Still I resisted the temptation to stop and browse, until I snagged upon the hook of Newman’s reflections on the English literature of his own day.
Such, as I consider, being the fortunes of Classical Literature, viewed generally, I should never be surprised to find that, as regards this hemisphere, for I can prophesy nothing of America, we have well nigh seen the end of English Classics. Certainly, it is in no expectation of Catholics continuing the series here that I speak of the duty and necessity of their cultivating English literature. When I speak of the formation of a Catholic school of writers, I have respect principally to the matter of what is written, and to composition only so far forth as style is necessary to convey and to recommend the matter. I mean a literature which resembles the literature of the day. This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it. There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. While our literature in this day, especially the periodical, is rich and various, its language is elaborated to a perfection far beyond that of our Classics, by the jealous rivalry, the incessant practice, the mutual influence, of its many writers. In point of mere style, I suppose, many an article in the Times newspaper, or Edinburgh Review, is superior to a preface of Dryden's, or a Spectator, or a pamphlet of Swift's, or one of South's sermons.
Our writers write so well that there is little to choose between them. What they lack is that individuality, that earnestness, most personal yet most unconscious of self, which is the greatest charm of an author. The very form of the compositions of the day suggests to us their main deficiency. They are anonymous. So was it not in the literature of those nations which we consider the special standard of classical writing; so is it not with our own Classics. The Epic was sung by the voice of the living, present poet. The drama, in its very idea, is poetry in persons. Historians begin, "Herodotus, of Halicarnassus, publishes his researches;" or, "Thucydides, the Athenian, has composed an account of the war." Pindar is all through his odes a speaker. Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero, throw their philosophical dissertations into the form of a dialogue. Orators and preachers are by their very profession known persons, and the personal is laid down by the Philosopher of antiquity as the source of their greatest persuasiveness. Virgil and Horace are ever bringing into their poetry their own characters and tastes. Dante's poems furnish a series of events for the chronology of his times. Milton is frequent in allusions to his own history and circumstances. Even when Addison writes anonymously, he writes under a professed character, and that in a great measure his own; he writes in the first person. The "I”, of the Spectator, and the "we" of the modern Review or Newspaper, are the respective symbols of the two ages in our literature. Catholics must do as their neighbours; they must be content to serve their generation, to promote the interests of religion, to recommend truth, and to edify their brethren today, though their names are to have little weight, and their works are not to last much beyond themselves.

I took up my pencil and faintly, guiltily, underlined the last sentence.
Thanksgiving was a quiet affair. My parents were still getting settled into their condo in Florida and couldn’t afford to travel; my sister was getting settled into her pregnancy and was too sick to travel. Aunt Emma and I went to Peggy Harriman’s house and feasted on turkey with her pack of jolly grandchildren.  We were absorbed into the chaotic order of the family occasion. Emma was content to sit in a vast and comfortable recliner and be spoken to by all who passed. The grandchildren were all avid talkers, and avid listeners, which suited Emma just fine. She was content to be chattered at for as long as a child had breath to chatter, and the children were happy to flop around the living room and listen to her repeat the same story again and again.

“Emma,” I encouraged her, “tell the kids the story about the time you nailed Francine’s shoe to the floor.”

Emma broke into a sunny grin at the memory, and the attending youngsters all elbowed one another and shouted for silence. “Well, Francine, she was so fussy, she always put her shoes right at the end of the bed, lined up just so. She would never go out without her shoes, though everyone else ran around barefoot outside. She used to fuss about the bugs outside, or maybe she’d step on some glass or sharp wire, and she used to nag and complain that my feet were always dirty. Oh, you should hear her go on! ‘Emma, you could have stepped in something nasty. Don’t put your disgusting feet on my bed!’”
There were several titters from the listeners, and one young lady who was laying on her stomach nudged her similarly-placed sister and, in a superior tone, told her, “That sounds just like you every night.”

"If I smelled your feet, I'd die," retorted the sister scornfully.

“Well," Emma continued, "one night I’d had just about enough of her fuss, so I took and nailed her shoe right to the floor, set so it looked like they were just by her bed. Then, around 11 o’clock, I shook her awake and told her that Danny Baxter was waiting down by the tree to talk to her. She sat up like a flash and pulled on her robe and slipped her feet into her shoes, and then she tried to run off.” Emma’s eyes sparkled as she relived her moment of triumph. “But she couldn’t go anywhere in that shoe, because I had nailed it right to the floor. It took her just a minute to catch on to what had happened, and then was she angry!” Now her eyes took on a satisfied gleam, while the children rolled around on the floor, and one girl afflicted with tender sensibilities hid her head under a cushion. “And you know what she did? She started in to beat me across the head with the other shoe. She wasn’t mad that I’d made up a story about Danny Baxter, oh no! She was furious because I’d touched her things!”

While Emma allowed herself to be coaxed into repeating how her sister had hit her with the shoe, Peggy was guiding me through the vast shrine of family pictures, explaining how each person present fit into the family tree. 

“Of course I don’t have recent pictures of everyone,” she apologized, and I murmured politely. “Look at this one of Maria, that was five years ago, and now look how big she is.” Maria turned out to be the miss who was tussling on the floor with her sister. “And here’s Alan’s family -- he’s John's brother, there’s his wife Marilyn and that’s most of their children, but this picture was taken while Martin was out of the country, he’s Alan’s oldest son.  I hope we’ll see him at the next big dinner.” I drifted away on the pleasant flow of her voice, which gathered and wove the strands of the family into a warm and secure blanket of affection and love. I wanted to curl up on the couch wrapped in that blanket, and drowse for the rest of the evening in the peace of knowing that Emma was being well looked-after by someone trustworthy.

“And this is John and me on our wedding day,” Peggy concluded. “That was my mother’s veil, and she sewed all those bead on by hand.”

A young and glowing Peggy, made up in the finest Princess Di style, her veil borne up on vast wings of hair curling away from her face, perched adoringly on the arm of her groom. John proudly sported both copious moustaches and a powder-blue tuxedo with a yellow rosebud on the flaring lapel. 

“Can you believe that outfit?” she laughed. “We thought it was so fashionable, and now it’s so old-fashioned that teenagers who come over think it’s cool. That was the style in those days, though.”

I couldn’t look away, but I barely noticed the vintage fashions. Their faces were so clear and bright that they outshone every other aspect of the photograph. All the cheer and contentment and joy of that large family in the warm house was distilled to its essence in the love that suffused and transfixed John and Peggy Harriman on their wedding day. I felt a sudden and intense yearning to be a small stone in some such multigenerational edifice.

Though their names are to have little weight, I thought, their works will last much beyond themselves. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's it worth? What's the price?

Brandon has a post up over at Siris which I can't help linking to, given the subject matter. The origin in this bloggish chain of being is a post over at First Things, showing the world's most expensive photograph:
This picture sold for $4.3 million
Clearly, one might ask, is it worth it?  Several commenters make the claim that it must be worth $4.3 million, since that's clearly what someone paid for it.  Brandon responds:
I find the automatic response of some commenters interesting: the claim that things are worth simply what people are willing to pay for them has the direct implication that nothing can be overpriced or underpriced; that there are no bargains and no bad deals; that, in fact, it is impossible to price anything unjustly as long as someone will pay it. Nobody actually believes such nonsense; everyone attributes value and disvalue to things by comparisons that have nothing to do with the actual price paid, and we all can make perfect sense of saying that somebody paid too much for something, or that a price is too high even if someone will pay it. The conditions under which price paid can reasonably be said to track the worth of the thing in question are not universal; in part because other things beside the thing bought can be factored into deliberation about price. Status signaling, for instance, which can at times have virtually nothing to do with the thing bought. Nor is it plausible to identify actual worth with attributed worth in the absence of any consideration of practical or moral rationality. But it is interesting how easily people will swallow such an incoherent principle, merely because they have the notion that it’s ‘economics’.
This brings up an interesting conflict between price and worth. Something's price is determined by some balance between how much those who want an item are willing to pay for it, how much those who currently have the item are willing to accept in return for it, and the supply of items on hand. Something like this photograph becomes particularly tricky because the article being sold (a particular print, mounted a particular way, with, one assumes, some implicit agreement as to how many identical items the original photographer will or will not allow to be produced) is unique. Thus, it only takes one potential buyer with (to use my mother's phrase) "more money than good sense" to set the price very high indeed. Because it is determined by willingness to pay, price is necessarily volatile at times, especially when you're dealing with something like this.

But what is its worth?

This is an altogether different question. Certainly, by all our actions we seem to suggest that things do have a worth, and that to some extent, we know it. As Brandon points out, we could never suggest that something was a good or a bad bargain, that something was over or under valued, if we did not have some sense that a thing has some knowable degree of worth.

I'd like to think for a moment on the intersection of these points: the way that price is determined by many people making assessments of worth. Take any given item. I have an ipod sitting on the desk here, so I'll use that. How much is it worth? There's a huge range of different prices at which you could sell some number. But at each price, the numbe that you sold would be a function of the number of people who considered the price 'worth it' and the number who didn't. You might, theoretically, be very successful in selling a product that the vast majority of people did not consider worth the price, so long as enough people did consider it worth to the price to make your business structure work. (Things fall apart when a company expects far more or far fewer people to consider a price 'worth it' than turn out to be the case.)

In this sense, markets (the "economy" as we tend to think about it) are only necessary or useful because there is a great deal of disparity out there in what people consider things to be worth -- both in an absolute sense and in relation to their available means. Pricing and markets are a method of getting around differing preferences and amounts of knowledge when allocating scarce resources among a large and diverse group of people.

As for the world's most expensive photo? No, I don't think it's worth it. I'm out of the running.