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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Secret to a Happy Marriage

I've been running silent on the blog for the last week and a half because I'm going through my busy season at work: Fifteen hours yesterday. Today was "only" ten. Tomorrow my graph filled PowerPoint goes before the CMO and hopefully I have some peace of mind for a couple days.

Thus, even when I get home before bedtime, as tonight, I don't seem to have the mental wherewithall for real writing. What's my mental level? Here's a piece of dialog which just occurred in the kitchen.

MrsDarwin, "Look, a nickel. I'm rich."
Darwin, "People always told me I should marry a rich woman. Unfortunately, I misunderstood and married one who was well endowed."

"I am a pilgrim"

We just watched Pope Benedict's last address -- possibly his last public appearance ever -- at Castel Gandolfo. He spoke for less than a minute, mostly giving his heartfelt thanks to the emotional crowd gathered below his balcony, but one thing that did stand out was that he said that he is just a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. That's certainly true now -- he gets to be just a pilgrim again, a private citizen of the church, allowed to live his life without the constant scrutiny of cameras and media. Pray for us, Benedict.

We watched his address on NBCNews because they have Fr. Barron and George Weigel as commentators. Unlike when Pope John Paul II died, we don't have cable, and so will be relying on internet streaming for our coverage. I'm hoping that the WSJ will send out a news alert during the conclave when the smoke starts rising -- I'm not on Facebook for Lent, so I can't rely on the newshounds there to keep me informed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Adopt a Cardinal

One hears a certain amount about the high-profile papabile, but many of the other cardinals toil in obscurity. Our family been praying for the conclave and all attending, but today we were able to be more specific with the help of Adopt a Cardinal. The four oldest ones and I each entered our names and email addresses and were each randomly assigned a cardinal to remember particularly during the conclave.

Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, from Nigeria, born 16.6.1936.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.10.2003 and his function is: Archbishop emeritus of Lagos, Nigeria

Karl Lehmann, from Germany, born 16.5.1936.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.2.2001 and his function is: Bishop of Mainz, Germany

Francisco Robles Ortega, from Mexico, born 2.3.1949.
He's been a Cardinal since 24.11.2007 and his function is: Archbishop of Guadalajara, Mexico

Norberto Rivera Carrera, from Mexico, born 6.6.1942.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.2.1998 and his function is: Archbishop of Mexiko (City), Mexico

Paolo Romeo, from Italy, born 20.2.1938.
He's been a Cardinal since 20.11.2010 and his function is: Archbishop of Palermo, Italy

We've taped their photos to the wall in the living room, so it's like a mini-conclave in our home.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dot's Poetry Corner

I've made a number of tactical parenting errors lately. Once, when Jack said, "Mom? Mom? Guess what, Mom? Guess what?", I thoughtlessly answered, "Chicken butt." I've lived to regret it.

The same thing happened last night. Someone was reciting, "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick."

"...And burned his butt," I replied automatically.

I haven't heard the end of that, and now that we're watching Dot's Poetry Corner, I probably never will.

Later: Once you Dot, you can't stop.

Love the use of the Humoresque here.

Still Later: My absolute favorite. Sweden, the land of horse-meat meatballs.

"Are we dead, or is this Ohio?"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Huis Clos

I went to where we keep the old school papers and mementos and dug out my translation of No Exit, to see what I'd done with the first lines. There it was under two copies of my thesis (Towards a New Theater: A Comparison of the Ideas of Jerzy Grotowski and Karol Wojtyla), a thin comb-bound book with a teal cover -- I remember picking out the cardstock from the college bindery up near the faculty offices. And there was my maiden name on the cover too, something I haven't seen in print for a long time.

Since Bearing was commenting on Gilbert's infelicitous translation of the opening of No Exit, I thought I'd put up what I'd done with the first page. My translation was so many computer eons ago that all I have is a hard copy. What a vulnerable feeling it is -- I have the only remaining copy of my translation in the world.
A room in the Second Empire style. A bronze sculpture on the mantel. 
GARCIN: (enters and looks about him): Well, here it is. 
VALET: Here it is. 
GARCIN: It's like this? 
VALET: It's like this. 
GARCIN: I... I suppose that in the end one must get used to the furniture. 
VALET: That depends on the person. 
GARCIN: Are all the rooms the same? 
VALET: What do you think? We serve Chinese and Hindus. What do you expect them to make of a Second Empire armchair? 
GARCIN: What do you expect me to make of it? Do you know who I was? (Snorts) It's not important any more. After all, I always lived with furniture I didn't like and in false situations; I loved that. An awkward situation in an awkward chair, you know? 
VALET: Then a Second Empire drawing room won't be so bad.

Here's Sartre:

GARCIN, il entre et regard autour de lui. -- Alors voilà. 
LE GARÇON. -- Voilà. 
GARCIN. -- C'est comme ça... 
LE GARÇON. -- C'est comme ça. 
GARCIN. -- Je... Je pense qu'à la longue on doit s'habituer aux meubles. 
LE GARÇON. -- Ça dépend des personnes. 
GARCIN. -- Est-ce que toutes les chambre sont pareilles? 
LE GARÇON. -- Pensez-vous. Il nous vient des Chinois, des Hindous. Qu'est-ce que vous voulez qu'ils fassent d'un fauteuil Second Empire? 
GARCIN. -- Et moi, qu'est-ce que vous voulez que j'en fasse? Savez-vous qui j'étais? Bah! ça n'a aucune importance. Après tout, je vivais toujours dans des meubles que je n'aimais pas et des situations fausses; j'adorais ça. Une situation fausse dans une salle à manger Louis-Philippe, ca ne vous dit rien? 
LE GARÇON. -- Vous verrez; dans un salon Second Empire, ça n'est pas mal non plus.

And here is Gilbert's translation of the same:
GARCIN [enters, accompanied by the Room-Valet, and glances around him]: Hm! So here we are? 
VALET: Yes, Mr. Garcin. 
GARCIN: And this is what it looks like? 
VALET: Yes. 
GARCIN: Second Empire furniture, I observe... Well, well. I dare say one gets used to it in time. 
VALET: Some do. Some don't. 
GARCIN: Are all the other rooms like this? 
VALET: How could they be? We cater for all sorts: Chinamen and Indians, for example. What use would they have for a Second Empire chair? 
GARCIN: And what use do you suppose I have for one? Do you knwo who I was? ... Oh, well, it's no great matter. And, to tell the truth, I had quite a habit of living among furniture that I didn't relish, and in false positions. I'd even come to like it. A false position in a Louis-Philippe dining-room -- you know the style? -- well, that had its points, you know. Bogus in bogus, so to speak.  
VALET: And you'll find that living in a Second Empire drawing room has its points.

Readers might be interested to know that Louis-Philippe was the king whom the young revolutionaries were protesting at the barricades in Les Miserables, in 1832. The notes in my French version say that Louis-Philippe furniture is the epitome of petty, bourgeois taste. I translated, "Une situation fausse dans une salle à manger Louis-Philippe, ca ne vous dit rien?" as "An awkward situation in an awkward chair, you know?" because neither Louis-Philippe nor Second Empire had any resonance with my college audience, or with me for that matter.

Seven Quick Takes

1. Amy Welborn has been posting photos of some of her collection of vintage holy cards. Several of these are in French, basic enough that I can read them fairly easily, through the magic of context, cognates, and two years of college-level language.

2. I would like to read more French again.

3. My senior directing project for Theater was a production of No Exit, for which I translated the script to avoid any copyright issues for which I had no funds. It was not the world's most literate translation -- I liked to stay close to the original to preserve the sense of flow of a foreign language -- but one thing I noticed quickly was that of the small number of translations I could find, none of them made use of Sartre's own phrasing, so essential in creating from the very first lines the ennui of Hell and the cyclical feel of the plot.
Garcin, il entre et regard autour de lui. -- Alors voila.
Le Garçon. -- Voila.
Garcin. -- C'est comme ça...
Le Garçon. -- C'est comme ça.
Stuart Gilbert's translation starts off:
Garcin [enters, accompanied by the Room-Valet, and glances around him]: Hm! So here we are?
Valet: Yes, Mr. Garcin.
Garcin: And this is what it looks like?
Valet: Yes.
You don't have to know French to see that Gilbert is padding here.

4. Can anyone recommend a good book on prayer? I'm finding that giving up Facebook for Lent has not been difficult at all -- the hard part is in putting my extra time to good use, and in organizing that time so that it's concentrated for prayer. Turns out I'm not very good at praying in a sustained way. I go through my day, murmuring little prayers to myself or turning my thoughts to God , but although I do it frequently, I don't maintain it. Even at night, I start saying a decade of the rosary in bed, and either fall asleep or wander off mentally before I finish. I need to practice, to develop some staying power, but right now I treat prayer like I treat exercise: I think often of the treadmill in the basement, and I ponder all the benefits that I would derive from getting on it, and I could write for hours about it -- the one thing I don't do is go down consistently and use it.

5. I've been sitting on this one because Enbrethiliel has been reading her way through the Little House books, but since she's finally reached By The Shores of Silver Lake, I can post this: scarlet fever did not make Mary Ingalls go blind.  A recent study in Pediatrics (behind a firewall) concludes that the most likely culprit was viral meningoencephalitis. According to Laura's letters, she describes Mary has having had a high fever and paralysis of one half of her face, but there was no evidence of brain damage that a bacterial infection would have been likely to inflict. Other experts dispute the meningoencephalitis diagnosis, but there is general agreement that the cause could not have been scarlet fever.

6. We're all agog here about the news that the Vestal Virgins may not have been wearing wigs after all. Janet Stephens, a Baltimore hair dresser, has deconstructed the hairstyle as presented on busts and in literature, and has managed to recreate the style on a model. Julia in particular is impressed, and has been trying to braid up her hair in the same way. History comes to life!

Melanie Bettinelli links to Janet Stephens's video demonstrating the Seni Crines, the hairstyle of the Vestals.

7. Here's a joke. Look, I laughed, okay?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Write

It would be more than a little presumptuous of me to claim to be any authority on writing based on one and a half NaNoWriMo drafts, but since my 3:30 am bedtime has left me rather unfunctional today, I thought I'd talk a bit about how I how I write my installments.

The first issue I deal with is plot. In Stillwater, I'm trying to stay essentially faithful to my source, but that faithfulness is to mood and character, and not to every particular incident. So I draw on my theater experience and dig for objectives and motivations: What does each character want? How does he or she achieve that? How do these objectives clash? How do they come together? All drama is change, so how are the characters different at the end of the scene? I consider the details of my source, and look for the best way to alter them so to fit the particular story I'm telling without warping their original significance.

When I start to write, first I focus on telling the story, then I start layering on details that convey mood or character. If a line doesn't push the plot forward, illuminate character, or convey mood, pacing, or setting, I cut it out. I've had to kill several of my darlings that way, but sometimes I find that a detail or observation that was irrelevant and clunky in one segment fits perfectly into another.  Sometimes I know that I need to fit a particular line or quote in, and I need to craft the scene to let that bit flow seamlessly from what's already happened.

For me, the dramatic arc of a scene is crucial, and since I'm writing in small installments, I have to make sure that not only the story as a whole but each segment has its own rise and fall. Sometimes, as with part 30, the dinner with Rene, I have to keep writing until I reach a certain closing point, no matter how long it takes to post; sometimes, as with part 31, I find that I'm simply not going to get as far as I wanted to without killing myself, and I need to focus on a smaller incident instead of pushing through to a bigger scene. Either way, I have to find the dramatic timing of the section so that it stands as a complete incident within the context of the larger story.

I try to make the strongest character choices possible. Is it more significant if Melly mutters a line or whispers it? What if Alys turns away when she says this? On stage, distance creates tension and often an actor conveys more truth through physical action and gesture than through dialogue. I don't have those visual cues on the page, so I try to find details to convey the subtext as efficiently and elegantly as possible. The setting of the scene can often help with this: is it intimate? Is it cavernous? Cozy? Uncomfortable? Familiar or not? Does the setting reflect the character of the scene? How different will a scene between Melly and Malcolm be if I set in in the car, a place of tension, rather than on the stairs, a place of intimacy?

When a scene involves a lot of characters, plot, and idea, I find it helps me organize my ideas to write a rough draft to get everything in place before I go back and craft it to make everything hang together. As an example, here's my first rough script for the dinner with Rene, containing lines I think should be spoken by particular characters to build my scene:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Life with Toogs

Only Jack and Diana and I were home this evening, and Jack was confined to quarters for yet another incident involving poop and his underwear. The Dude is a cheerfully incorrigible little guy, absolutely confident in his mother's love. At dinner, when it finally came out that he'd been sitting in what we might delicately call "a mess" for goodness knows how long, he was utterly unrepentant.
"Are you going to spank me, Mommy?" he asked nonchalantly.
"No, Jack," I said wearily. "I'm not going to spank you, because neither that nor anything else seems to produce results."
"Okay," he said. "Are you going to make me help wash out the underwear?"
"Yes. Young man, you had stand in one spot and not move so that it doesn't go down your leg."
"It won't," he said. "See? I'm moving around now, and the poop isn't going anywhere! Am I going to take a bath?"

After the bath we all shut ourselves in the bedroom and I started to clean up, again. The bedroom is often a disaster. Five children, three beds, one room -- you do the math. It's not even as if we're short on space. We have the largest house of anyone I know, and it contains five perfectly good bedrooms: the master bedroom, the front room, the back room, the princess bedroom, and the attic bedroom. Yet three of them sit empty, collecting dust and the detritus of secret clubs, and all the small people and their toys wedge into the back bedroom. While Jack perused Calvin and Hobbes from the comfort of his flannel-sheeted bed and Diana wandered and sang and talked at me, I sat down to sort the Legos from the Duplos and put each in their own bin. The Legos and their larger brethren were scattered all over the room, pushed into corners, under the crib, sifted through several random buckets of toys. The process has a charmingly progressive feel: as I took each bucket and separated out not only the Legos and Duplos, but the train tracks, the building blocks, the castle blocks, the army men, the letter puzzles, the cars, the socks, and the miscellaneous, a pretty sense of order began to pervade the bedroom. I like to engage in these futile little tasks now and then -- picking up Legos, potty training -- to remind me that all is vanity. Today you attempt hygiene, tomorrow to dust it shall return. Even as I worked, Diana was busily pulling blocks from the bin and setting up a tower, because it's always more fun to play with the toys when Mommy too is playing put things in boxes.

Diana does not answer to her name anymore, and if you tell her that her name is Diana, she will contradict you: "I'm Dudley Do-Right." (What she actually says is, "I'n Dudley Do-Wite", but we'll pay her the courtesy of big-girl orthography.) Tonight Dudley Do-Right wore a bandolier of Daddy's old belt over her fleecy footy sleeper, and a big cowboy hat over her new Ramona haircut, and Jack's six-shooter. I pity the mustache-twirling bandit who tries to pull one over on her. Dudley has assigned various people to be her sidekicks: Julia is Nell, Jack is Horse, and Isabel, in a very suitable bit of casting, is Snidely Whiplash. That leaves Eleanor, who is often writing some story or other, as the Narrator. Me? I'm Inspector Fenwick, who is "all for putting Stokey in the pokey".

Darwin is Red Wood, the logging magnate.

Even Dudley Do-Right has to get some rest, which involves nestling in the crib with a comforter, Grandma's ducky quilt, two pacifiers, and a big Curious George anthology. Jack was already asleep, worn out with his and Calvin's villainy, so Diana and I said prayers by ourselves. She stood in the crib and snuggled against me and babbled something that sounded like it could have been the Hail Mary, if you listened closely enough.
"God bless Diana," I whispered as I made the sign of the cross on her forehead under her Ramona bangs, "keep her safe, give her sweet dreams, and make her pure and holy."
And she reached up, just like she sees her big sisters do every night, and blessed me back.

Anthropology, Violence and Relativism

This last weekend's Wall Street Journal featured a review of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon's new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. The book chronicles Chagnon's decades of research on the warlike Yanomamo people, and the warlike reaction which many other anthropologists had to Chagnon's work:
From the beginning, Mr. Chagnon was astonished by the ubiquitous violence and terror in Yanomamö life. Walking into a village on his first day in the field, he was greeted by "a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!" The previous day, he soon learned, a second village had abducted seven women from the village Mr. Chagnon was entering, named Bisaasi-teri. Just a few hours before, the men of Bisaasi-teri had wrested back five of the women after a "brutal club fight," provoking threats of retaliation. The villagers had every reason to greet a stranger's arrival with weapons at the ready.

Anthropologists frequently give gifts to the people who haves been kind enough to endure their questions. The Yanomamö helped Mr. Chagnon in a thousand ways, and he thanked them with machetes, medicine and crackers. But sometimes the reason for his generosity was to ensure that his informants wouldn't kill him in his sleep. High among the threats was Möawä, the "tyrannical headman" of Mishimishimaböwei-teri, a thug "who had killed twenty-one men." Mr. Chagnon's relationship with Möawä began with the "selfish," "cruel" and "overbearing" Möawä demanding all the gifts Mr. Chagnon had intended for Möawä's entire village, including medicines for sick children. It ended with Möawä threatening to "bury this axe in your skull!" Parts of "Noble Savages" are among the few white-knuckle reads in contemporary anthropological literature.
For me, though, the most compelling sections involve the author's struggle to gather what would seem like the most basic facts about Yanomamö communities: the names and relationships of their residents, along with birth and death dates.... The genealogies paid off, though, when Mr. Chagnon used them to show that Yanomamö violence had a reproductive payoff. On the whole, he wrote in a 1988 Science article, village men who had killed other people had roughly three times as many offspring as non-killers.

Today, this claim may seem unexceptional. After all, genetic studies suggest that about 10% of the men living in the old Mongol Empire are descended from Genghis Khan, one of history's great killers. Why wouldn't this kind of thing be replicated on a smaller scale? But in the 1980s, Mr. Chagnon writes, "to have the lead article in Science suggesting that 'killers have more kids' was like pouring gasoline on a smoldering academic fire."
By the late 1980s, Mr. Chagnon was under siege, not just intellectually but personally. Opponents leveled ever-increasing charges of racism, data-faking, brutality toward the Yanomamö (such as taking their names) and even complicity in genocide. In 2001, a book by journalist Patrick Tierney contended, sensationally, that a medical-research group that Mr. Chagnon had assisted in 1968 may have exacerbated or even caused a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomamö. (This claim seems grossly untrue; in fact, the team provided medical care to victims of the epidemic.) A special seminar held by the American Anthropological Association to discuss Mr. Tierney's book attracted almost a thousand people, who listened to a confusing, sometimes hysterical welter of charges and countercharges, many by people who had not read the work of either Mr. Tierney or Mr. Chagnon. One thing that was not provided: actual data from the Yanomamö that refuted Mr. Chagnon's ideas.

"There have been thirty or more anthropologists who began fieldwork among the Yanomamö after I began," Mr. Chagnon writes, his fury practically spitting from the page. "They all could have easily collected comparable data on [killers] and variations in reproductive success similar to the data [Mr. Chagnon collected]. Not one of them did this." Mr. Chagnon is exaggerating here—anthropologists John H. Moore and R. Brian Ferguson provided data-based critiques, for instance—but only slightly. The majority of the attacks were ad hominem.
What Chagnon had run afoul of was an approach to anthropology which had increasingly come to emphasize advocacy on behalf of "primative" cultures and a belief that cultures that anthropologists studies should not be seen as primative but rather simply different. Chagnon's suggestion that violence was far mor common in Yanomamö society than in our own offended against this set of beliefs.
[A] new group—researchers like Darrell Posey, Alcida Ramos, Roy Rappaport, Peter Wade and the members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists—saw scholars as advocates for the people they studied, most of whom were poor and had dreadful histories of mistreatment.

To practice "a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology," as Nancy Scheper-Hughes later put it, Ph.D.s needed to transform themselves from dweeby academics into "alarmists and shock troopers," fighting "the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and the deaths to continue." Mr. Chagnon's theory of the formation of society, his major contribution to the discipline, was like fingernails on the blackboard to these new anthropologists. They feared that his depiction of violence as central to social identity in groups like the Yanomamö would be used to cast indigenous peoples as savages, who could be forced into reservations "for their own good."
I'd recently run into this same controversy in another backlash, in this case against Jared Diamond's latest book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. I've read two of Diamond's books, the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and also Collapse, his discussion of societal collapses due to ecological problems. I had a pretty mixed reaction to both. Diamond is a geographer and is seeking to tell very large, sweeping stories in which developments in human societies are almost exclusively the result of their resources and environment, not of the actual content of their cultures. I think there's a lot to take issue with in his approach, and he has a tendency to gloss over inconvenient details. However, his latest book has been attacked from an interesting quarter. In The World Until Yesterday he seeks, among other things, to discuss the evidence (also written about by Steven Pinker) that the level of violence (measured in terms of the percentage of people who meet a violent death) has declined in modern societies as compared to earlier ones. The Guardian describes the controversy thusly:
A fierce dispute has erupted between Pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond and campaign group Survival International over Diamond's recently published and highly acclaimed comparison of western and tribal societies, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

The controversy threatens to expose a deep rift in modern anthropology, with each claiming the other has fallen into a delusion that threatens to undermine the chances for survival of the world's remaining tribal societies.

On a book tour of the UK last week, Diamond, 75, was drawn into a dispute with the campaign group after its director, Stephen Corry, condemned Diamond's book as "completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than western ones.

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

"It's a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us," said Survival's Jonathan Mazower. "It simply isn't true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people's rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative."

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace". He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as "primitive brutish barbarians" or as "noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes".

He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."

But Survival remains adamant. "The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it," said Mazower. "That's extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they're backward and need to be 'developed'. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people."
Stephen Corry's full critique can be readin the original here.

It's true that looking at violence in terms of the percentage of people who die violently can lead to some seemingly odd conclusions. Ten people out of a tribe of one hundred being killed may represent a higher overall death rate than Europe experienced during World War II, but the sheer scale of World War II's destruction makes us tend to revolt against the idea. On the other hand, if your whole world is one hundred people, ten dying must loom rather large. Those questions of comparison aside, it's also clear that Pinker in particular indulges in some real howlers. However, the overall thesis that modern societies have lower levels of violence than primative ones seems to be pretty well supported by evidence, and the crux of the critique being presented seems to boil down to two points:

1) Societies are simply different and it's not nice to judge one as less advanced or more violent than another, however accurate such an assessment may be.
2) If we talk about some societies as being less advanced or more violent, that will give us an excuse to oppress them.

These seem like very bad critiques of Chagnon's and Diamond's work, and to suggest that the approach of many cultural anthropologists fails both as science and as moralizing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I Just Love Reading!

Helen Rittelmeyer at First Things says:
The better I became at reading, the less I felt like talking about how much reading meant to me, which may be a natural side effect of coming to love something that previously you only wanted to love. I used to do quite a lot of that sort of book bragging, I’m sad to say, and I don’t suppose the victims of my tediousness will be much consoled to know that I believe those years of pretension were a necessary prelude to what followed. It was also around that time that I stopped thinking that whether a person read books was the most important thing about them, or the best indication of whether we would have anything in common or whether I would like them—all of which are things I believed back when reading was more of a tribal affiliation than a passion.
I have found, consistently, that people who truly love to read will talk, not about about how much they love to read, but about the content of their reading and how that content is affecting them. If all drama is change, then reading is a great personal drama: ideas and story change the reader somehow, introducing new ideas, challenging old ones, altering mood (whether for better or for worse), broadening the mind -- or contracting it. 

I have to confess that I've dropped quotes in a conversation to see if the other person has read the same books I have, but I think that's fair as long as it doesn't hit obnoxious levels of fannishness (though I feel that way about a lot of things).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Show, don't tell

I never took a writing class, but even I'm familiar with the advice given to novice authors: "Show, don't tell." It guards, I believe, against a certain didacticism and lazy instinct to merely describe events instead of examining them through the lens of human action. This is a fair caution. And yet, it has its limitations: sometimes it seems the pendulum swings the other way -- writers feel obligated to describe every scene and conversation in tedious detail, whether or not those details contribute to the plot, mood, or character development. If art is reality distilled, this is reality stilled: bogged down in such petty effluvia as to lose all focus, direction, or purpose.

I received an email today with an essay by Fr. Robert Barron (it doesn't seem to be available on the web yet) about evangelizing through beauty:
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel that was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again.  
 In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability.  Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic, had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer. 
Father Barron makes many good points here, but he's mistaken in one thing: the chapel at Brideshead is not beautiful, not to Charles Ryder's trained eye. It is not "a riot of baroque decoration"; it had been renovated some twenty-odd years before Charles sees it in the Arts and Crafts style, and though Charles is hesitant to say so to his hosts, he finds it hideous. The chapel is a symbol, throughout the book, of how the falsity of poor art can stand between an aesthetic soul and God.
"You're an artist, Ryder (says Brideshead), what do you think of it aesthetically?"
"I think it's beautiful," said Cordelia with tears in her eyes.
"But is it Good Art?
"Well, I don't know what you mean," I said warily. "I think it's a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired."
"But surely it can't be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years and not be good now?"
"Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much."
Charles does learn to see God despite ugliness: at the end of the book he kneels in the chapel, before "a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design".

The on-going conversation about the engagement of Catholicism and the arts has been active lately with the advent of movies such as Here Be Dragons, For Greater Glory, and The Passion of the Christ. (I would assume that Protestants are having their own conversations about movies in the Fireproof vein.) It's telling all these movies were embraced by various stripes of Catholic media, as is presenting Catholicism in a non-hostile light were the only thing necessary to make a movie good art. Also telling is the fact that of the recent spate of "Catholic" movies, only The Passion of the Christ received anything approaching critical acclaim. The critics can always be wrong, of course, but they're also a useful standard, trained as they are to look for a certain baseline level of quality: is the movie consistent? does the plot make sense? is the acting good? does the director understand cinematic structure? is the screenplay coherent?

As Catholics, we also have standards for judging, not just art, not just movies, not just novels, not just entertainment, but every product of man's hands: Is it good? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Catholic art is much more than just slipping an explanation of dogma or a favorable portrayal of a priest into a work -- it's high quality, honest, and evocative whether or not religion is explicitly mentioned. Since God is Truth and Beauty and Goodness, what is good and true and beautiful must point to Him and participate in His life. Conversely, art that relies on wedging Catholic imagery or teachings into formulaic or unrealistic portrayals of reality doesn't do itself any favors. Not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven.

I read a Catholic novel the other day, and I'm sorry to say that it was one of the more poorly written pieces I've had the misfortune to read lately -- though as I tend not to be a consumer of pop fiction perhaps my quality level is misaligned with the general taste. It told and it showed, neither to best advantage. The premise was unbelievable, the characters were by turns too period and too anachronistic, the plot needed several kinds of tightening and crafting, and the writing shifted between being didactic, obvious, repetitive, and plain boring.  And yet it was praised by several Catholic reviewers whose taste in fiction and ability to evaluate literature I will ever after hold suspect.

Catholicism is more than an Old Boys Club or mutual affirmation society. Catholic reviewers shouldn't be afraid to insist, in charity, on quality from Catholic artists -- that's part of the role of a reviewer. Of course, it does not make one a bad person or a bad Catholic to be unable to construct a paragraph -- but it does make one a bad writer. Good writing, like all good art, raises all those who encounter it, regardless of education, and evangelizes those who love beauty without realizing that Beauty is God.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Progress and Death in Les Miserables

"Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing left resembling ancient history; there will be no cause to fear, as at the present day, conquest, invasion, usurpation, armed rivalry of nation, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, a birth in hereditary tyrannies, a division of people by a congress, a dismemberment by the collapse of dynasties, a combat of two religions, clashing like two goats in the darkness on the bridge of infinity; there will be no cause longer to fear famine, exhaustion, prostitution through distress, misery through stoppage of work, and the scaffold, and the sword, and battles, and all the brigandage of accident in the forest of events; --we might almost say there will be no more events: we shall be happy; the human race will accomplish its law as the terrestrial globe does its law; harmony will be restored between the soul and the planet, and the soul will gravitate round the truth as the planet does round light."
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Now these words are spoken by Enjolras, the consummate revolutionary, so Hugo's own views may be more moderate. Still, Hugo has a myopic optimism when it comes to Progress, and indeed, by the end of the book we see no more of society's miserables. Eponine and Gavroche are dead, Cosette and Marius are married and rich, Thenardier is paid off beyond the dreams of avarice, and Valjean, though he will not use them,  has five hundred francs for his support. No, the suffering at the end is interpersonal -- the cruelty of Marius (and the less-witting but just as culpable cruelty of Cosette) to Valjean, Valjean's self-imposed exile. Marius has fought on the barricades not so much for freedom for the oppressed but because he thinks his own life isn't worth living, and in his rejection of Valjean as an ex-convict we see that he is actually pretty callow to the injustices of society. Even Marius's generosity is ill-considered -- the thousands of francs he throws at Thenardier to send him to America end up setting up that malefactor as a prosperous slave trader.

To be fair, nor does Valjean help out by not being entirely forthright about his situation. I writhed with frustration at the end of the book -- it always drives me nuts when characters create their own drama by being evasive out of a misplaced sense of nobility. "Oh, if only you'd said something sooner we could have avoided this whole situation!" Ah, but then we wouldn't have had a pretty chapter full of reconciliation, abject apologies, and touching grief, so agreeably cathartic for the reader who has watched Valjean suffer for 800 pages.

Valjean's end is touching, but Javert's is transformative. Valjean has shown Javert, the policeman who has hounded him for years, life-saving mercy, and has enlisted Javert to help him save the life of another -- and Javert, to his astonishment and horror, finds himself compelled by justice to show mercy as well. The man of iron, rigid, upright, and irreproachable, suddenly discovers that the Divine is not merely Sacred Authority and Order, but the Glorious Chaos of the love that moves the stars, the "anarchy about to descend from on high".
He was not accustomed to have anything unknown over his head; hitherto everything he had above him had been to his eye a clear, simple, limpid surface; there was nothing unknown or obscure; nothing but what was definite, coordinated, enchained, precise, exact, circumscribed, limited, and closed; everything forseen; authority was a flat surface, there was no fall in it or dizziness before it. Javery had never seen anything unknown except below him. Irregularity, unexpected things, the disorderly onening of the chaos, and a possible fall over a precipice, --all this was the state of the lower regions, of the rebels, the wicked and the wretched. Now Javert threw himself back, and was suddenly startled by this extraordinary apparition, --a gulf above him!
And Javert realizes another appalling fact: that he is human, and that to show mercy is to learn to feel. Javert, in his cold way, dies for love, and his death is far more compelling than the death of Enjolras the revolutionary, whose marble facade never cracks. Even in death Enjolras remains himself, statuesque to the end: "traversed by eight bullets, (he) remained leaning against the wall, as if nailed to it; he merely hung his head". But Javert throws himself into the whirling vortex, something new and truly revolutionary for him -- and may God have mercy on his soul.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday

We begin Lent with one pope and can reasonably expect to reach Easter with a new one.

One of the things that I've been very grateful for in Benedict XVI's papacy is his clear and thoughtful writing, often much more accessible than John Paul II's works. Thinking about this, and about what to do for the Lent which marks the end of Benedict XVI's pontificate, I'd decided that my religious reading project for Lent would be to re-read Benedict's three encyclicals.

Today I can across the text of Benedict's homily at today's Ash Wednesday mass in St. Peters. It's fairly short and definitely worth reading. This passage in particular struck me, as I think it speaks to a problematic tendency in our current culture:
The prophet says: "return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment" (v. 13). It is possible to return to the Lord, it is a 'grace', because it is the work of God and the fruit of faith that we entrust to His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that "rends the heart". Once again the prophet proclaims these words from God: "Rend your hearts and not your garments" (v. 13). Today, in fact, many are ready to "rend their garments" over scandals and injustices – which are of course caused by others - but few seem willing to act according to their own "heart", their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord transform, renew and convert them.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pruning Back

I was feeling pretty good about my decision to give up Facebook for Lent and to curtail my clicking around habit, and then the Pope announced he was going to resign, and the internet blew up. And I, like a big sucker, was sucked right back in. Ironic Catholic sums up my life with the headline Cyber Catholics Planning On Giving Up Facebook For Lent Thrown Into Existential Crisis:

New York, NY: Catholics worldwide planning on giving up social media this Lent--facebook, Twitter, and the like--are caught in an existential crisis now that Pope Benedict unexpectedly announced his resignation and the conclave to elect a new successor to St Peter will occur smack in the middle of Lent. 
"I announced it and everything," moaned Cynthia Madison, a 22 year old parishioner at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Manhattan.  "I mean, who am I supposed to get this news from now?  CNS?  EWTN?  C-freakin-NN?" 
"I have a headache," announced Gabriel Celano, another St Aloysius parishioner.  "I wanted to challenge myself and do something hard this Lent, but this is just impossible.  All my friends are vetting papabile on facebook.  I can't give that up, can I?  I mean...voice of the faithful and prayer and all that...I just...Oh man.  I really have a headache."   
"It's not technically Lent--so I'm thinking about fudging that resolve a bit," admitted Joshua Smith, a father of two from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the Bronx.  "Maybe if I do facebook via dial up.  I think that's pretty penitential, actually."
Others, who wished not to be named, admitted that they were considering foregoing facebook but putting Whispers in the Loggia up and setting up an automatic refresh every 15 minutes. Or giving up chocolate instead.

This has been the least productive day in the history of unproductive days, though I did think, when I first heard the news, about saying a rosary -- right before I settled down to read the reax from everyone and his Vatican correspondent.

I don't want to give up the internet completely, and the good and valuable friendships that I maintain through that medium. And I know that one of the reasons I shake the mouse almost every time I walk past the computer is the desire to feel connected -- to know that my friends are out there, and that they're having good conversations, and that even if I'm not participating in those conversations I benefit from them. But Lent is the time to take even good desires and turn them toward their ultimate source, God. To be honest, though, even my good yearning for companionship grows numb and is deadened when it is degraded into an endless longing for novelty and distraction. I'm reminded of what C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters of pleasures becoming tired habits:
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked." The Christians describe the Enemy as one "without whom Nothing is strong".  And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that eh does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
It's time to prune back drastically, before the pruning is done for me.

I suspect, actually, that this minor sacrifice may improve the quality of what time I do spend on the internet in Lent, as well as forcing me to concentrate my ever-wandering attention and to keep from even being tempted to be caught up in any drama du jour without first considering what I say. Maybe I'll actually turn out installments of Stillwater more than once ever three weeks without the option of clicking around the moment I feel stuck. What I really want, though, is for my longing for companionship to be subsumed into a longing for God, so that I may be more fully present in everything I do, whether in person or online (but not on Facebook, for Lent).

Still wondering what sacrifices you can make for Lent, especially if your life, like mine, is pretty easy? Bearing has an excellent and substantive post on taking up your cross.

Pope Benedict XVI to Resign

Oh, this will be a Lent of many, many prayers. Pope Benedict will resign at the end of this month:

 Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday that he planned to step down at the end of this month because of his deteriorating physical strength, a move that hasn't happened in the Roman Catholic Church in centuries and that is likely to pave the way for a new pontiff by Easter.
Pope Benedict XVI announced he will resign the Papacy Feb. 28, citing his "advanced age" and weakening strengths. WSJ's Rome bureau chief Alessandra Galloni and author Thomas Groome look ahead to what's next for the Vatican. 
In a speech in Latin to cardinals, the 85-year-old German pontiff, who has been in office since April 2005, said that leading the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was a job that required strength of both mind and body. But the pope said that his strength had "deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." 
A papal spokesman added during a briefing with reporters that Pope Benedict had been thinking about the move for some time, saying it wasn't due to an illness. Father Lombardi, the spokesman, said the pope would retire to a life of prayer and writing. He also said the pontiff had "no fear" of any potential schism in the church as a consequence of the pope's resignation. 
The surprise resignation, which the Vatican said would take place as of 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, will give way to a conclave, a gathering of cardinals who will elect the new pope. Normally, after a pope dies, there is a nine-day mourning period before the selection his successor. This time, the process can begin right away, said Greg Burke, the Vatican's media adviser. "This means we'll have a new pope by Easter," he added. The holiday falls on March 31 this year.

I remember sitting in front of the television watching the white smoke over St. Peter's in 2005. This time my girls are old enough to remember, and we'll be glued to the computer. (So much for reducing screen time for Lent!)

Now I know what I'm talking about in religion class next week!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

This is Crazy

You know how some video is making the rounds, and all your friends are laughing at it, but you don't watch it because you don't have time, and anyway, some annoying people thought it was funny, and you're just too cool to indulge in all the hysteria?

Well, that's how I felt about this. But I was wrong. A song championing Women's Ordination In Our Time, to the tune of Call Me Maybe. Just... watch it.

The group that made this is serious. Unfortunately for them, their arguments aren't. The tipoff: the baby in the "Mommy for Pope!" onesie, the college girls in Catholic school uniforms making sloppy signs of the cross, and the post-song cheering, as if they'd completed some great feat equal to Pheidippides' run from Marathon.

You may not find yourself a convert to the women's priesthood lobby, but you may acquire a strange new respect for Carly Rae Jepsen's artistry.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Can You Be Both Fully Human and Fully Male?


Last week the Catholic News Service published an interview with Father Wojciech Giertych, who serves as the pope's personal theologian, on the topic of the male priesthood. For whatever reason, this article got deeply under the skin of a number of liberal Catholics, and I've seen a certain amount of chatter about it on Facebook. One of these posted a link to a response to the interview written from the point of view of Eastern Orthodoxy, which bears the provocative title: Is Jesus human, or male? The article argues as follows:
Father Giertych states: “The son of God became flesh, but became flesh not as sexless humanity but as a male," the implication of which is summarized by his interviewer: since a priest is supposed to serve as an image of Christ, his maleness is essential to that role.

This is the classic argument put forward by Catholics, that the priest stands ‘in persona Christi,’ translated by Orthodox into the ‘iconic argument.’... Here, I am more interested in the salvific implications of emphasizing Jesus’ maleness, implications which unlike priestly liturgical symbolism, are shared by Catholics and Orthodox.

A fellow Orthodox theologian recenlty summarized this position: ‘the ecumenical formulation of Chalcedon, that Jesus Christ was perfect God and perfect human being, reaffirms this position, i.e. the male character of priesthood.’ This a very dangerous theological argument. If ‘dangerous’ seems strong language, consider the implications of this line of thinking.

Taking seriously the Incarnation is to declare that Christ is fully human. What he has not assumed is not healed. This is a consistent belief of Orthodoxy, and a ‘first principle’ of our entire soteriology: we are able to participate in theosis because Christ has taken on our humanity, all of it. It is also a principle that underlies the legitimacy of Orthodox icons: because Christ took on matter, we can depict in matter Christ as well as all those women and men who exhibit the holiness which the Incarnation makes possible (this is addressed in Chapter 3 of my dissertation, ‘The Glory of Embodied Diversity: Icon, Virtue, Gender).

In the Incarnation, Christ’s humanity includes all that makes both men and women human. If we say that his full humanity leads to the ‘male character’ of any human role or relationship such as priesthood, then we are implying one of two things: either he is not fully human as he did not assume whatever it is that constitutes female humanity, or we declare that only maleness contains full humanity, and that females may not actually be fully human. The former denies the ecumenical formulation of Chalcedon, it constitutes heresy. Orthodox would never agree to such a thing. At least not intentionally.

The second option however, subtly permeates Orthodox and Catholic theology, and, I believe, underlies many of our liturgical practices.
This is one of those examples where I read an argument and was fairly sure right off that it's wrong, but it took me a while to try to express exactly how. I'll give it a shot, and hopefully those readers who are more philosophicaly inclined than I can correct and clarify.

We believe that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and that this applies to both men and women. (In his image he created them. Male and female he created them.) We also believe that Jesus became fully human in the Incarnation.

However, the author seems to assume that "fully human" is some sort of discrete set of characteristics to which some other non-essential ones are bolted on in order to make a given "fully human" individual a male or a female. Thus, Jesus may have been a male, but there are by this formulation no important differences between men and women -- otherwise we'd have to conclude either that Jesus was not fully human (because he was male) or that women are not fully human because only men are.

[update]Okay, now I'm wondering if I have this backwards. Is the author implying that "fully human" is some sort of combination of both male and female characteristics? Thus, being male or being female is being only part of humanity, and if Jesus were fully human, we have to believe that in some sense he was both male and female? In that case, we'd have to say that Jesus was the only fully human person in history, whereas all other actual humans have been only male or female, but not human. Which is, so say the least, a bit odd. [/update]

I think this lets a wrong assumption in through the back door. It is, it seems to me, one of the essential characteristics of being fully human that one be either a male or a female. If you weren't male or female, you wouldn't actually be fully human because one of the characteristics of humans is that we are creatures who have a sex. Thus, while both men and women are made in the image and likeness of God (and thus, by implication, God encompasses both what we think of as male and female) you can't actually be human without being either a man or a woman.

Thus, it seems wrong to say that Jesus was either fully human or fully male, but not both. In order to be human one needs to be either male or female.

Keeping The Kids Safe Online

I read a scary article the other day. You've probably run into similar ones. Kids these days, it informed me, are the porn generation -- the first generation to grow up with constant access from the youngest possible age to a wide variety of free online pornography courtesy of their computers and smartphones. It went through the usual parade of horribles: twelve-year-old "sexting" each other, boys who find anything short of torture porn (including real sex) banal, etc.

There's plenty to scare parents in this sort of article, but at the same time, I tend to assume it's a source to be taken with a certain degree of perspective. Sure, what the article is talking about is clearly out there. I don't think that the author is making things up. But parents have a tendency to gather towards a good scare, so there's a tendency for such articles to search out the very worst they can find.

The first thing this kind of article always makes me think is how important it is to give our children a strong set of moral principles and to make sure that their friends at these key young ages (our eldest is currently ten) are kids who share our beliefs.

But it also served to remind me that the day is coming when we'll have to decide how to deal with online issues. Every so often the oldest two demand to know when they will have iphones -- complaining that their friends already have them. The answer right now is simple: "When you're old enough that we want to be able to call you or when you can afford to pay for one." Policing computer usage right now also isn't that hard. It mostly consists of keeping them from spending inordinate amounts of time playing computer games on the AmericanGirl website or on CoolMathGames, or watching episodes of How Its Made on YouTube and of Phineas and Ferb on NetFlix.

Some months ago we were thrown into a panic when our second oldest accused her older sister of having created a secret email while over at a friend's house. We talked to the accused and it turned out she'd simply written down on a slip of paper a fake email address, which she then used to sign up for an account on a computer game they were playing. This wasn't concerning the way having a secret email address would have been, but we did have a talk with the two of them about how they were not allowed to create online computer game accounts without talking to us first. One area that I don't want them wandering as of yet is into large online games which allow chat or messaging between the users.

In general, however, the kids are focused on having real life fun with their friends on the block and in the homeschooling group. They're not pushing to use email or facebook or spend time doing anything but the most innocent stuff online. Which, I suppose, it why this wouldn't be a bad time for us to figure out how we'll address the issue when it comes up in earnest.

My family was fairly tech forward. We were on Prodigy and GEnie back in the early '90s. One of my best friends moved out of state when I was ten or so, and she and I corresponded for up through college via email. We had a single email address that the family shared, but my parents were conscientious about not intentionally reading my email. (Her father, on the other hand, believed it was his duty to skim over all communications going on via their family email, so we also wrote snail mail letters where things like crushes and teenage angst were discussed in secret.)

When the web came along I was able to use that quite freely as well -- though since this was well before wireless routers the only computer that could dial (yes, with a dial up modem, this was the old days) the internet was in the middle of the living room, so it's not as if I could have sneaked off to look at bad stuff even if I'd been particularly eager to.

My subjective impression is that it was easier to stumble on the bad parts of the internet without meaning to back then. The primative search engines that were around in the mid '90s would sometimes send you to some pretty hair-raising stuff completely by accident. I don't think I've had that sort of thing happen to me in five plus years now.

Based on my own experience my initial instict is to be fairly open with online usage, but to restrict where people can access it. I'd rather keep the kids' internet access restricted to the desktop computer in the library, which with seven people in the house always has someone popping in or out. And I don't intend to be handing out smartphones to kids any time soon. I'd lean towards restricting any use of social media until fairly late teens, but that's more because I"m concerned about the massive time wastage that it might result in that because I worry about the kids getting into trouble with it.

However, every time I run into some particularly scary article I wonder if I'm being to blase about the whole thing. Any advice from those who have been young more recently or who have older kids?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Big Break

Bryan Caplan has a piece up at EconLog about the concept of the Big Break:
People often hope for a "big break" - a large, durable improvement in their situation. An unknown actor landing a major role in a big-budget film is the classic example. But big breaks seem to be everywhere: getting your first tenure-track job, becoming the new protege of the boss, or marrying someone way too good for you.

Once we accept that big breaks are common in reality, economists' next task is to explain how they're possible in theory. The top three models:

1. Discontinuity of the world. The simplest story claims that opportunities are extremely discontinuous. As a result, the gap between your best option and your second-best option is often large. So when market forces change, some people predictably experience benefits that seem all out of whack with the size of the shift.

2. Imperfect information. A subtler story says that while opportunities are fairly continuous, discovery of opportunities is costly and haphazard. For some people, of course, the crucial missed discovery is that, given their skills, they should be grateful for what they have. For most people, however, the reality is that there are many better ways to spend their lives... if only they could pinpoint them - or convince others that they're deserving. Sadly, though, it takes a lifetime to uncover even a tiny fraction of your opportunities in this world.

3. Rationing. This story says that big breaks happen because markets don't clear. Sometimes the reason is government regulation. Think about winners of each year's Diversity Immigrant Visas: from Third World poverty to First World luxury by the luck of the draw. On a smaller scale, think about all the people praying for a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan - or an old-fashioned union job.

Still, the reason doesn't have to be government. Social norms impede market-clearing too. Think about the hundreds of qualified applicants for every position in mortgage-backed securities or construction in 2010. Wages stayed high, but even interviews were almost impossible to find. The same goes, of course, for gender-role norms. Imagine a major war leads to a low male/female ratio. If social norms don't adjust in men's favor, there will be a shortage (in the technical supply-and-demand sense) of men. Women who still manage to marry on traditional terms enjoy a big break.
If I were to identify a "big break" in my career history, it was back about a year before I started this blog. I was working as a contractor at Dell at the time, and a team from marketing was moving into the other side of my aisle of cubes. In the cube directly behind me, I saw a guy take out pictures of four kids and then an ultrasound. "I bet he's Christian," I thought, and sure enough, a bible and book of prayers got unpacked shortly thereafter.

Over the next few days I got to know the guy, who turned out to be an Excel guru who specialized in pricing analysis. I managed to help him out with a few Excel problems, and to provide a lot of help to a woman who was on the same team (sitting in the next cube over from him) who was having a lot of trouble with the Excel work in her new role. A few months later, she moved on (she really wasn't a good for an analytical role) and with her recommendation and his, I was able to get the job. Several years later, after proving myself in that job and another one, that same guy who I'd met when he moved into the cube behind me had become a manager and he hired me onto his team to do pricing. Seven years and several jobs later, I'm a director of pricing analytics.

I think of Caplan's three big break stories, mine would fit best under the imperfect information one. I was fully capable of doing the analytics work that I was hired on to do, but I didn't know exactly what a marketing analyst did until I started helping one out, and the hiring manager wouldn't have known that I was well suited for the work if I hadn't been helping out people on his team with their work.

Of course, as MrsDarwin points out, the real big break that we both had occured at a freshman dance. I'm not sure I'll try to classify that one, as it was one-of-a-kind.

Have you ever had a "big break"? If so, what type of big break would you describe it as?

Fresh Guacamole

In keeping with the Monopoly theme, spot the connection in this video -- a recent favorite at our house.

This makes me very hungry, but in keeping with my policy of not buying snacks, we have no snacks around the house. This is because I eat them if they're sitting around. The only downside is that, when I want to eat snacks, we don't have any in the house.

What Times Are These

What's wrong with the world? I'll tell you what's wrong with the world. The iron, one of the classic Monopoly pieces, has just been replaced, through a vote on Facebook, with a cat.

What will be on the chopping board next? The boot? The top hat?

Apparently voters could choose between a cat, a robot, diamond ring, helicopter and guitar. I myself would have voted, if I had known there was a vote and been bothered to exercise my franchise, for the diamond ring. Or the helicopter. Both those seem more in keeping with the spirit of the game than a fluffy cat.

Don't even talk to me about the Scotty dog. I never played the dog. I played the iron. Or the boot or the top hat or the wheelbarrow. And you can be sure that, whenever I play Monopoly again (which, judging by my games record, won't be for years and years) I will shun that parvenu cat.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Good Old Days

MrsDarwin's recent post about the blog awards has set me off on one of my phases of thinking that we're getting old and boring and it's not like The Good Old Days of the Catholic Blogsphere. When were the good old days? When Der Tommissar and Rick Lugari were in neck and neck competition to avoid coming in last in their category in a blog contest. Der Tommissar threatened that if he lost, he would catblog for a year -- a threat he proceeded to fulfill when Rick came in ahead despite his blog having been inactive for a number of months.

Ah, those were the days. Represent if you remember.

The Economics of Half Priced Diapers

How do you make sure that consumers come to your supermarket for their weekly stock-up? One traditional tactic is to offer some high-visibility, high-need product at a rock bottom price to get people in the door, then count on their doing the rest of their shopping there as well. In Norway, several retail chains apparently tried this with heavily discounted diapers. One can certainly imagine winning parents as loyal customers with such an offer. However, in this case, it seems that the offer proved rather too attractive when Norwegian supermarkets took prices for Norwegian diapers down to levels half that in Poland and Lithuania.
Customers come into Norway from Sweden, drive along the coast to fill their cars, then take a ferry back to the continent, said Helge Breilid, the chief of customs in Kristiansand on Norway's southern coast.

Some have been stopped with diapers worth up to 50,000 crowns (5,750 pounds), roughly 80,000 diapers, a legal shipment even though Norway is not part of the European Union.

"They told us that the only reason they came to Norway was to drive around and buy diapers to bring back home and resell," Breilid said.

"These people mainly come from Poland and Lithuania, and we have no reason to believe that they are part of any criminal gangs."

Norwegian diapers cost as little as 30 crowns (3.4 pounds) for 50, less than half of the prevailing price in Lithuania. Coincidentally, the Internet is heaving with Lithuanian sellers advertising Norwegian diapers.
This influx of additional buyers has apparently thrown off the Norwegian market, resulting in empty supermarket shelves. Working in pricing, I'm kind of shocked such a situation has lasted long enough to have an article written about it. If you sell through everything on your shelf and go out of stock, your price is clearly too low for your supply, so you should pull it up immediately. Customers may like low prices, but they like empty shelves even less. (I would think this particularly applies to diapers where running out can be... messy.) I'd be curious to know where there's some kind of price or advertising commitment that's responsible for keeping the retailer from adjusting faster, or if the article is playing up some fairly isolated circumstances.

Some thoughts on the True Name

I don't have a coherent line of discussion here, but I wanted to put this up anyway.

Lately I've encountered several passages referring to people receiving a new divine name:
"What is your name?" the man asked. He answered, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed." --Genesis 32:28-29
"I will not let thee go," says Jacob in his night vision, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me," and God answers, "What is thy name?" and when he hears it, corrects it: "Thou shalt no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men." Your name is perhaps little known to the world, and used, behind your back, in criticism and abuse; but there is a secret name by which God knows you, and it rings in his ears with a princely dignity; in all your insignificance, you are still a person to him; in all your weakness, you have still power in his counsels. When prayer seems difficult, try to remember that he knows you by such a name; that all the love and devotion with which you can pronounce the Holy Name of Jesus is returned, quite as individually and with far more steadfast purpose, in the unheard whisper with which he calls you, his own sheep, by name. Ronald Knox, Bread or Stone, pg. 12-13. (h/t Brandon)
God said to him: "You whose name is Jacob shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." --Genesis 35:10 
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the LORD will give. --Isaiah 62:2 
"I am created to do or to be something for which no one else is created: I have a place in God's counsels, in God's world, which no one else has. Whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name." Bl. John Henry Newman 
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." --Matt. 16:17-18.
Jacob fights with God, then answers the question about his name. Peter tells Jesus who He is, then Jesus tells Peter who he is. Both involve answering direct questions from God about identity. And both involve boldness. Jacob wrestles with God and prevails. Peter asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, even when others are more circumspect.

This private name in the mind of God doesn't seem to be something one can discover; rather, it seems that it must be revealed by God. But it also seems that He wants to reveal it.

Even if we don't consciously know our secret name, we must be able to respond to it, or else God wouldn't call us by it.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Goodreads 100 Books Meme

In the spirit of the 100 book meme, Goodreads has posted a fairly diverse group of novels for its members to rank, drawn from both the most popular and the most highly rated books from its readers' libraries. And in the true internet spirit of borrowing, I've typed up the list for the rest of us to pass around. Goodreads reports that its average user has read 27 out of the 100; I've read 57 (and Darwin has read 31), and I find that most of the ones I haven't are books I've seen around but haven't felt a great compulsion to take and read.

Here's the key:
Books I've read
Books I started but didn't find interesting enough to continue
Could be interested to read
If I were handed this, I'd look for the nearest cereal box as an alternative
Haven't read

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Catcher in the Rye
Fellowship of the Ring
Pride and Prejudice
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Romeo and Juliet
Jane Eyre
The Hobbit
Brave New World
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Great Gatsby
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Fahrenheit 451
Wuthering Heights
Alice in Wonderland
The Secret Garden
Green Eggs and Ham
Little Women
Of Mice and Men
The Handmaid's Tale
Lord of the Flies
The DaVinci Code
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Gone With The Wind
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Wrinkle in Time
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Slaughterhouse Five
Anne of Green Gables
Where the Sidewalk Ends
The Little Prince
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Princess Bride
The Picture of Dorian Grey
The Hunger Games
Sense and Sensibility
The Golden Compass
The Color Purple
The Kite Runner
The Odyssey
Anna Karenina
And Then There Were None
Interview with the Vampire
The Book Thief
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Count of Monte Cristo
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Joy Luck Club
Little House on the Prairie
The Giver
Life of Pi
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Ender's Game
A Tale of Two Cities
The Stranger
East of Eden
Les Miserables
The Bell Jar
The Road
The Time Traveler's Wife
A Prayer for Owen Meany
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
The Pillars of the Earth
Crime and Punishment
The Good Earth
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Help
Lonesome Dove
Water for Elephants
American Gods
The Poisonwood Bible
My Sister's Keeper
The Master and Margarita
The Notebook
Like Water for Chocolate
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Invisible Man
A Game of Thrones
The Fountainhead
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Brothers Karamazov
The House of the Spirits
Fight Club
Interpreter of Maladies

Friday, February 01, 2013

Oldest Sibling to Parent

MrsDarwin and I got married at 22 and had our first child at 23. We were both oldest children. At the time that our eldest daughter was born, MrsDarwin's youngest sibling was 9 and my youngest sibling was 17.

Like a lot of oldest siblings, I'd always felt like I had a pretty good idea how my younger siblings should be raised. "You're not the parent, and if you'd stop trying to be the parent and let me deal with your siblings, then they'd be getting in trouble instead of you," was something I had to get told a lot. Thus, with memories of babysitting younger siblings not long ago, and a conviction that I had always known how to be the parent anyway, I slipped very easily into actually being a parent.

In some ways, bringing this babysitting mentality to parenting made it easy for us. Compared to a lot of new parents we knew, we were very flexible. We took our children everywhere and didn't allow ourselves to be tied down much by routine. You'd never hear us saying, "Oh, we couldn't make it then. That's nap time." We just dragged the kids along to whatever we were doing and were pretty good at convincing them to be moderately well behaved once we got there. Either by luck or because we conditioned them into it, our children were all pretty flexible as well. Since we seldom stuck to a routine other than "tamping the chaos down", they didn't have the sort of "someone has deviated from routine" fits that some kids did.

When you're the babysitter you don't have to build routine. You just have to keep destruction under control until the parents get back. At a certain point (to be honest, I think not till 5-6 years in) it started to occur to me that I wasn't parenting as if I was on an 18-year-long babysitting gig. I was used to being around kids, correcting misbehavior, cleaning up, keeping people entertained, etc., but as an oldest sibling and babysitter, it hadn't been my job to actually set routines that we followed day in and day out. Indeed, I'd ignore any such routines if it made the job of keeping the wheels on until the parents got back easier. The problem was: there were no other parents to come back.

Another aspect of the older sibling mentality that I think I carried over for a long time into parenting (indeed, one which I still find it hard to shake) is that while an older sibling or babysitter may enforce order, they don't get the sort of respect-for-the-office that I grew up associating with parenting. Prior to being a parent, I'd exercised (or tried to exercise) authority on a "if you don't stay in line, you'll be in trouble" basis. If people were rude or talked back, I'd respond with a rebuke or retort, but as an older sibling it never occurs to one to say, "That's no way to speak to your older brother," and so it never really occurred to me to take that line in relation to being a parent.

This dawned on me one day when one of the girls was grousing about being told to do something. I was on the point of responding with a matter of fact, "Too bad. We all have to do work," when my father-in-law (who happened to be visiting) looked gravely at the offender and said, "That is no way to speak to your father. You need to speak to your parent with respect." I was gratified, but oddly shocked. Many was the time as a loudmouthed kid (there's never any question as to where the kids get it from) that I'd been scolded for talking back to my mother in almost those same words by mother or father. The thing is, while I had often rebuked the children for being rude, it had never occurred to me to insist that they treat me with greater respect that other people. I simply wasn't used to thinking of myself as "a parent" and thus due any filial devotion.

I'm sure that everyone has certain difficulties over the years adjusting to being a parent. The kids, luckily, probably miss most of these since they don't have any other frame of reference for "what fathers are like" than me. I think the reason these in particular struck me is because they related to ways in which I thought I adjusted very easily to being a parent, and only much later came to realize that I had not fully done so.