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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't Tell Me I'm Beautiful

Here's a quote I saw on Facebook that seems rather unobjectionable to me, 4 1/2 months into my seventh pregnancy:

"It is a fact that you will lose your looks having children. But you will lose your looks anyway, so you might as well do it having children! At least then you will have all these beautiful creatures in your house that remind you of how attractive you were at one time." -- Dr. Janet Smith

And yet, some fellow had to claim that this was simply "relative thinking", and when I objected that childbearing did cause objective physical changes, some of which were less than aesthetically attractive, I was told that it was really just a matter of "self-perception" and perhaps I had been brainwashed by the fashion industry. Ah. The fashion industry is responsible for my stretch marks. My tortured veins, the most grotesque of which are fortunately not visible to the public, are simply "self-perception".  My muddled female head can't understand what beauty is because I myself actually find my daughters' smooth and beautiful young legs to be more aesthetically pleasing than the purple web of spider veins that crawl up my own.

To be sure, not every aesthetic change wrought by childbearing (which is specifically what Dr. Smith is covering) is negative. Some women who've always wanted curves may find themselves blossoming out in the right places; flat-chestedness is certainly ameliorated; for some the glow of pregnancy brings fabulous skin (for others, rosacea). Some positive aesthetic changes are wrought by maturity; I certainly have better posture now than in my slimmer college days, except in the evenings these days when I'm bent almost double by the agonizing ache in my groin caused by the fashion industry putting excess pressure on everything south of my navel. And that's fine, because this is how a child comes into the world. Our bodies are meant for more than physical perfection; they're meant to be given in service of others.

Here, an image of pregnancy:

Ah, lovely. Look at that smooth, hairless, glowing, perfect stomach, those pretty arms, those manicured hands. This lady sure hasn't lost her looks by having a child. Yeah, and this bears no more relation to my pregnant body than a model in a bikini does to most women in a swimsuit. This is how the "fashion industry" depicts pregnancy, and it's no more universally applicable than anything else the "fashion industry" does. My differences from this image are not just a matter of "self-perception". My body simply doesn't look that beautiful when I'm pregnant. That doesn't make me worthless or unattractive. It makes me a woman with different genetics, whose body has already endured multiple previous pregnancies, who may have increased in age, grace, and wisdom, at the small but bittersweet sacrifice of some forms of physical beauty.

Childbearing permanently alters the body for better and for worse, and it's okay to mourn those changes because they can be traumatic.  Women don't have to view our stretch marks as "tiger stripes" or battle scars or precious badges of honor; they can simply be stretch marks. Being pushed to acknowledge the marks and scars of childbearing as beautiful when our aesthetic sense rebels against such a designation is simply a form of cultural conditioning.

Simcha Fisher wrote an excellent article on this need to call everything beautiful:

And yet.  What are we really aiming for here?  Do we want society to acknowledge that there are many forms of beauty?  Or do we want society to start pretending that there is no such thing as beauty?  Because that's where we're heading at the moment, and that way leads to disaster.  We're telling people, "Everything is beautiful.  Everyone is acceptable.  Beauty is subjective, and therefore there's no possible way to say that any one particular thing we see before our eyes is not beautiful.  Thin is beautiful, fat is beautiful, dressy is beautiful, messy is beautiful, everything is beautiful, and don't you dare say otherwise." 
What's dangerous about this?  Surely it's a good thing when we are pushed to stop judging each other, right?  Surely it's a step forward when we are discouraged from labeling each other. 
But the problem is, we don't stop.  We just start being afraid to say it out loud.  We learn to guard what we say in public, but on the inside, we all still have pretty steadfast ideas of what we find beautiful.  There is no power on earth that can make me think that Rosie O'Donnell is just as beautiful as Lauren Bacall.  I also think that Kim Kardashian is more beautiful than the Flannery O'Connor. Thinking so doesn't make me a sexist or an ageist or a sizeist, or shallow or arrogant or prejudiced.  It just means I have eyes.
Another implication to the "everything is beautiful" trope is that something less than beautiful is so worthless that it only gains value by declaring it beautiful, by fiat. But beauty is no measure of worth. It is simply a measure of certain aesthetic values which in no way denote the fullness of a person, nor even the measure to which one person may be attracted to another. Being attracted to another person is not the same thing as finding everything about them as physically appealing as it could be, because beauty, despite its literary, artistic, and societal connotations, doesn't have anything to do with affability, intelligence, virtue, charisma, dignity, clubmanship, charm, or any other of the myriad things that make a person dear to others. Nor does physical perfection correlate with physical attraction, as just about every one of us who has loved another real person can attest.

This one of the reasons that I value the safeguards of marriage. It's okay that physical beauty fades away, because not only does Darwin remember what I used to look like, and can still see me that way, but he knows me so well that he sees past my appearance and indeed, can almost name each mark and when I acquired it. And that's only the slightest part of our relationship, which transcends physical beauty without belittling it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

He'd Rather Reign In Hell Than Serve In Heaven

The more "friendly" modern formulation of hell is that hell consists of eternal separation from God and that no one goes to hell except through his own choice: choosing to remain separate from God rather than embracing Him fully in the union of the beatific vision.

The objection I normally hear to this is: In that case, then obviously hell is empty, because no one would choose an eternity of isolation rather than union with God.

This always strikes me as showing a profound lack of understanding of human character. Within our temporal lives, we often choose unhappiness in order to get our own way, and it's hard to see how this sort of pride would fail to play a part in people's eternal decisions. Perhaps part of the problem is that people often think of the afterlife in cartoon terms: Would you rather spend eternity boiling in a lake of fire or reclining in a cloud with a harp?

But if heaven is full and complete union with God, then I think it's pretty clear that for the person who would much rather define God for himself than mold himself to God's will, heaven would seem like something worth rejecting. C. S. Lewis, I think, does a very good job of showing this in The Great Divorce.
'You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.'

'Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leav me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.' (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)
In religious circles, this pride seems often played out in the desire to make a God after our own image. From the same chapter of The Great Divorce:
'But you've never asked me about what my paper is about! I'm taking the text about growing up to the measure of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you'll be interested in. I'm going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. he would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he'd lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste... so much promise cut short. (from The Great Divorce, ch. 5)

A almost shockingly clear example of this made headlines last week, as Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu made headlines by saying that he'd rather go to hell than be in heaven with a God who considered gay sex to be sinful.
South Africa’s iconic retired archbishop, Desmond Tutu, said on Friday that if he had his pick, he’d go to hell before heading to a heaven that condemned homosexuality as sin.

“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said, by way of denouncing religions that discriminate against gays, in Agence France-Presse..

He added, AFP reported: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”

Or as Milton's Lucifer put it: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

If we must regret that Jesus died too young, before his views had had the chance to "evolve" enough to fit modern sensibilities, we may at least be happy that Desmond Tutu has lived long enough to provide us with a more enlightened savior.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fake Pope Francis Quote Takes Internet By Storm

If you move in Catholic circles on Facebook, you've probably seen the following quote, allegedly spoken by Pope Francis at World Youth Day this week, being passed around:
"We need saints without cassocks, without veils - we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints - saints for the 21st century with a spirituality appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change.

We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, theater. We need saints that are open sociable normal happy companions. we need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints."

- Pope Francis (World Youth Day 2013)
The thing is, it's a totally fake quote. There's no evidence that Pope Francis ever said it.

Google around a bit, and you'll find versions (some written as verse, many with slight variations) dating back to 2010. Some are attributed to Pope John Paul II, some to Pope Benedict XVI, some say that it is Pope Francis quoting John Paul II or Benedict XVI. One thing you will absolutely not find, however, is any quote of the text on the Vatican website or a reputable Catholic news source, because none of these popes ever said this.

If one gives it an extra moment's thought, it seems particularly unlikely that Pope Francis would choose World Youth Day to give a shout out to global brands such as Coca-Cola and Apple, in saying that we need saints who use their products.

Of course, one of the problems with a faux Francis getting so much attention is that it draws things away from the things that Pope Francis really has been saying at World Youth Day this week, such as:

"It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols. Dear brothers and sisters, let us be lights of hope! Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality." [source]
Jesus has shown us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will “light up” with a joy that spreads to everyone around us. As Benedict XVI said here, in this Shrine: “the disciple knows that without Christ, there is no light, no hope, no love, no future” [source]
You can access all of Pope Francis's addresses from World Youth Day on the Vatican website.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembrance of WYD past

The current World Youth Day in Brazil has Catholics of a certain age reminiscing about going to see the Pope in Denver in 1993. The math doesn't lie -- that was twenty years ago. And I was there.

That shirt now -- it was a big conversation starter. It said "The name above all names. JESUS", and below was a list of famous names, and everyone wanted to read down the list: Napoleon, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Marie Curie, William Shakespeare, Chuck Berry, etc. I am sorry to say that I am not reading anything devotional, but Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

I remember the trip to Denver (the pilgrimage, we were supposed to call it) as being fun and chaotic, but not a time of intense spiritual formation. There was too much noise, too much bustle, too much carnival. The only phrase I can recall from the Pope's talks and sermon was "the culture of death" -- it was very difficult to hear, and almost impossible to see, him. I have mostly sensory impressions of that week: the roar of the crowds, the red baseball caps our group wore, how cold it was at night at Cherry Creek State Park, how the group with the guitars and the drum wouldn't stop playing all night, how hard it was to choke down McDonalds food by the end of the week, everybody singing "We Are One Body". I didn't eat at McDonalds for years afterwards, and I still twitch when I hear that song.

Does that sound as if I had a horrible time? I didn't. Sensory impressions aren't everything. I formed friendships on the trip that I still cherish. I remember the excitement of wondering if my youngest brother would be born while I was gone (he waited, considerately). But one big themed experience isn't enough to sustain a spiritual lifetime. Not all of our group have remained Catholic, or even Christian. It's good to be up on the mountain sometimes, but you can only be a mile high for so long.

God bless the pilgrims in Brazil, and help them to remain faithful after the carnival is over.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Maybe World War One Generals Weren't Idiots

I was interested to read this British opinion piece, making the case that British military leadership during the Great War was not the clutch of bumbling fools which has become the stereotype of the war.

In 1928, following the sudden death of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, more people took to streets to mourn his passing that had ever been seen previously or indeed since. The very public mourning as a result of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was dwarfed in comparison to those that came out to pay respects to Earl Haig.

It took literature and some key individuals to change history. As one of my university lecturers once said to me, history does not happen, it is written, and that principle could not be applied more strongly to the case of First World War history.

With the publication of Alan Clark's The Donkeys (1961) and the production of Joan Littlewood's musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), a wave of popular history provided the foundation through which all subsequent knowledge of the First World War is filtered - precisely the problem with which we are now faced. Historians and thespians took the critical words of those men that had a grudge and an agenda to push, namely Lloyd George and Churchill, thus generating the idea that generals were both inept and callous.

But beyond the Blackadder episodes there is a raft of history that is desperate to break into the mainstream. No one doubts that there were a handful of poor officers at various stages of the command structure who made bad decisions that ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of men.

But as a country, we seem to forget as a matter of course that 1918 brought us victory. Could this have been possible against the might of Germany's Imperial Army with such incompetent leadership? Clearly there is another history to expose.

Trench warfare existed as the marksmanship of the British alongside technology and weaponry caused each adversary to dig in and seek protection. By 1916, almost all the trained and elite men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Despite its intricate planning and preparation, the first day of the Battle of the Somme was to be the bloodiest day in the British army's history, with close to 20,000 men killed. This day, as revisionist historians have strived to show, was to be a turning point: the moment in which the BEF transformed itself, from high command to man on the spot, from inexperienced city army to effective fighting machine capable of challenging and defeating the German army. A combination of factors proved pivotal in the BEF's transformation.


With every day's fighting that passed, officers were encouraged to note the aspects of battle that had been successful, and those aspects that had not worked. These experiences were shared between units, throughout the ranks and with high command. Indeed, in mid-July, official war diaries noted that "everyone however junior in rank to be permitted to express his opinion if he has any suggestions to offer as to possible means of improving our methods".

These experiences were to be collected and translated into three official manuals. In December 1916, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (SS 135), the Instructions for the Training Platoons for Offensive Action (SS 143), issued on 14 February 1917 and the Instructions for the Training of the British Army in France (SS 144), issued in April 1917. These became essential reading for officers, who shared this knowledge with their men. Quite clearly, High Command and every level of command in the British Army were keen to learn and improve for future action.

One of the interesting things about World War One history is the fashion in which the understanding of the war has been shaped in cultural memory.

In the English-speaking world, most memoirs during and shortly after the war treated it as a horrific but necessary sacrifice. In the late 1920s, however, an increasing number of highly critical works began to be written and achieve widespread popularity.

Robert Graves's memoir Goodbye to All That was published in 1929.

Siegried Sassoon's semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels were being published at the same time: Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936)

Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth was published in 1933.

All of these were written by authors who had been fairly young when the war broke out, making them contemporaries of the "lions" of the front line, not the "donkeys" back at headquarters. The fact that their writings were published, and became famous, ten years after the war probably has a bit to do with the fact that the war itself was such a deeply traumatic experience that processing it into a finishing book length work took time.

Because the Great War was a war of national mobilization, and those from the educated class in particular saw it as their duty to "do their bit" by signing up for frontline duty, an inordinate number of very good authors ended up spending significant time in the trenches. (Not just "war writers" like Graves and Sassoon, either. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, among others, fought in the trenches of World War One.) Many of these men went to war with fairly romanticized notions of what going to war would mean. The actual experience of the front was, thus, much more of a shock to their expectations than was the war experience of the World War II generation. In addition to this shock versus expectation, the famous Great War writers were all enlisted men or junior officers. As such, they knew the bravery and the suffering of the trenches first hand. Doubtless is seemed impossible that such efforts could fail to achieve their objective if they were led well, and so it seemed clear that if battles failed to achieve their objectives, it was because the generals did not know their job and did not care. At the risk of making a flippant analogy, it is as if one tried to derive one's whole understanding of modern business from Dilbert.

It's also not coincidental that the wave of highly critical writing about the conduct of the war coincided with the gathering tide of between-the-wars pacifism and disillusionment. 1929 saw the collapse of the 1920s economic boom, and 1933 saw the victory of the Nazi party in Germany. The mood of the generation-after-the-war (or at least of elite opinion within it) was captured in 1933 by a debate at the Oxford Union in which the motion "[T]hat this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country," was carried by 275 votes to 153.

Although pacifism held on until the very outbreak of World War II, it virtually disappeared with the beginning of the war and the generation of 1933 did indeed fight for King and Country from 1939 to 1945. However, the anti-war works of the late '20s and early '30s were given new life in the 1960s as a new generation of scholars built a consensus around the image of the Great War as being the perfect example of the insanity of war. World War II was in some sense hallowed by its association with defeating the Nazis and ending the Holocaust, but World War I provided the perfect platform for attaching class divisions, militarism and imperialism.

Over the last twenty years or so, a new wave of military historians have increasingly gone back to the sources from the war itself and concluded that while there are certainly some examples of very bad leadership during the Great War (as in most) that the armies on both sides in fact rapidly developed their strategic and tactical doctrines during the war. The carnage of the war is horrifying and undeniable, but it was not the result of generals blithely hurling men into the muzzles of machine guns, but rather of two very evenly matched sides who were rapidly adapting their weapons and tactics, yet repeatedly failing to achieve the hoped-for breakthrough because of certain basic technological problems (mostly relating to transportation) and to the other side's matching innovations. William Philpott's Three Armies on the Somme is an outstanding example of this school of military history.

However, although this reassessment of Great War history has been going on among military historians for some time, the stereotyped view which derives from the inter-war period and the '60s has been very persistent in general survey courses, popular history, and in movies and books. It remains the case that "everyone knows" the Great War was about men charging through mud into machine guns for four and a half years. As such, it's very interesting to see the above article written and published.

On Cleaning The Schoolroom

"'Monasterium sine libris,' the abbot recited, pensively, 'est sicut civitas sine opibus, castrum sine numeris, coquina sine suppellectili, mensa sine cibis, hortus sine herbis, praum sine floribus, arob sine foliis... And our order, growin up under the double command of work and prayer, was light to the whole known world, depository of knowledge, salvation of an ancient learning that threatened to disappear in fires, sacks, earthquakes, forge of new writing and increase of the ancient..." 
--The Name of the Rose
Realizations before the beginning of the school year:

1) Not only do I not know as much as I thought I did about homeschooling, I actually know almost nothing.

2) It may be an act of humility to acknowledge that my system, such as it is, is pretty flawed, but that knowledge is useless if it doesn't lead to action.

3) What action should I take?

4) The schoolroom may be chaotic and disorganized, but a roomful and a houseful of good books will always be a comfort to me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gratuitous Baby Pix

Jack is happy to report that young Polliwog is a young man, and we are happy to report that he is healthy and seems to be a contortionist in training, judging by the fantastic gymnastics he performed during his ultrasound. He flailed about as if he were trying to have a go at the tech wielding the scanner.

I can't say that at this point he looks all that much like anyone, but he's cute and we like him. Look at that sweet nose!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...

I have spent much time sleeping lately (more from necessity than mere laziness), and my dreams have been especially vivid. Even when I don't fully remember them I still feel the emotional residue when I wake up. This past week I almost sat up in terror after dreaming about driving my minivan up a highway exit which suddenly left me speeding on a huge mountain of gravel along the extreme edge of a cliff. The terror of realizing that any second I could slide off hundreds of feet -- with my children in the car -- was still palpable when I woke up seconds later. As usual, the dream didn't resolve, leaving me to plot and re-plot my strategy for escaping from an event that never took place.

About a month ago, I dreamed that I was about to be executed by a shot to the forehead, and that Darwin was somehow forced to be the executioner. I was kneeling on the ground, with my eyes closed,  with the terror of someone who was about to die, and yet knowing that in a moment I was going to see God. And I prayed and prayed, and my terror was, not replaced, but overlaid with anticipation. I was going to die. I was going to see God -- now, almost immediately. I said "Jesus" to myself, and felt the cold gun against my forehead, and waited. And waited...

Darwin never did kill me. I woke up before the shot was fired. And I was filled, not with relief, but with disappointment. I had been so ready to die! My soul was prepared, I was resigned, heaven had been so close... Though I'm relieved that my husband didn't shoot me in the head, I do wonder what would have happened in the dream if I'd stayed asleep just a few seconds longer. But then, dreams don't seem to provide conclusions, only hypotheticals.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The More the Merrier

Things have been a bit busy around the Darwin house the last couple days. First we were out of town for a wedding, and getting a chance to hang out with the Duffys, then we had some old college friends staying with us for a couple days. They, like we, have five children, so the population was a little high. Add to this that we do not have air conditioning (installing air conditioning in 4000sq/ft 120 year old house with no ductwork and casement windows that don't allow window units is something that hasn't fit in the budget yet) and it could have been described in the currently trendy phrase "hot mess" -- except that our gracious guests were also very good cleaners.

I mentioned to someone at work that we had some friends, with another five kids, staying with us, and he reacted in horror.

This is one of those things about having a large family of young kids, however: It's never going to be quiet anyway.

Whether it's just our kids, or our kids plus neighbor kids, or our kids plus guests, we tend to be a big raucous house. And when there are neighbors or guests over, the kids tend to be enthusiastically and busily occupied. At other times... Sometimes they are, and sometimes they're squabbling or complaining about how bored they are. So I never mind having extra kids over for a while. Oddly enough, it keeps things quiet -- in a loud sort of way.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Take the Idealolgical Turing Test

I'd strongly encourage all our readers to head over to Leah Libresco's blog and participate in the 2013 Ideological Turing Test.

The purpose is to see how well Christians and Atheists understand each other's thinking. A panel of guest bloggers (currently still anonymous, but I can tell you that I am one of them this year) each answer a pair of questions: once honestly and once trying to write as an honest member of the opposing camp. Readers are then asked to read the entries and vote on whether they think the answer were written by a real co-religionist or a faker.

This year's questions deal with euthanasia and polyamory. The first two Christian entries are up here and here, so head on over and decide whether you think they're written by real Christians or by atheists trying to pass for Christian. More entries will be going up every day for the next couple weeks, so keep checking back!

Monday, July 15, 2013

From Gay Marriage to Group Marriage

One of the standard things one reads, in pieces opposing changing the definition of civil marriage to allow same sex couples to contract marriages, is: "Next thing they'll demand is group marriage." And indeed, one does read some pieces advocating the legal recognition of plural marriage.

I certainly agree that once you start saying that any "loving, committed relationship of consenting adults" should qualify for legal recognition as a marriage, there's no logical reason why you'd refuse to recognize polygamy as well as "gay marriage", however, I'd assumed that most "reasonable people" didn't go that far. Very few people practice polygamy, a lot of those who do do so in ways that seem pretty undeniably oppressive to women, and advocates for gay marriage are always claiming that they just want a way for same sex couples to have the same public commitment and fidelity as straight ones.

However, perhaps I wasn't taking seriously enough the point I made the other day about how, in the process of rationalizing support for gay relationships, a lot of other sexual morality ends up being jettisoned. I belong to a Facebrook discussion group in which strong supporters of gay marriage predominate, so I put out the question: "Question specifically for those who consider recognition of same sex marriage as a civil rights issue: Would you say that recognizing polyamorous relationships as marriages is a similar civil rights issue?"

The vast majority of those who responded said, sometimes quite strongly, that group marriages should be recognized by the state, and indeed that there were no possible just arguments against doing so. Some of them seemed pretty offended that anyone would suggest that there's anything wrong with conducting a polyamorous relationship.

I've looked around a bit and can't find any polling on this issue. My tendency would be to assume that it's only activists who have taken the marriage redefinition game to this absurd level, but it would be interesting to know how widespread this kind of thinking is.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Life with sisters, Friday edition

This is how it is today.

Me: Did you spank her?

The accused: No.

Me: Did you touch her?

The accused: No!

Me: Then why does she say you did?

The accused: I don't know. Maybe she's just sensitive.

I can usually keep a straight face through most things, but I had to leave the room at this point.

Energy Givers and Energy Sinks

I saw someone pushing How To Live With Introverts yesterday as a good explanation of how introverts work, and the particular explanation of the energy conservation of introversion set off a chain of thought about the way social interactions work.

First off, I'm not big on the extravert/introvert dichotomy, simply because I'm not big on dualistic systems. A spectrum is a much more interesting and accurate way to examine how people "recharge", although that wouldn't be as convenient for cartoonists and self-help gurus who garner 100+ comment threads by caricaturing extroverts as manic monsters and introverts as idiot children. But the example in the above cartoon of introverts giving their energy in social situations made me think: spending your energy on social interactions is not the same thing as contributing energy to social interactions.

Consider: certain types of people suck the energy out of any interaction, whether it's a one-on-one situation or a group setting. They're difficult to talk to, and they're difficult to sit quietly with, because they're needy. This can manifest in various ways, and it's not confined to one side of the spectrum. A loud, dominating personality might try to drag all the energy in the room to himself, requiring people to either throw up shields or be bombarded by an excess of energy that only exhausts; a silent, parasitic personality might constantly absorb energy without giving any back. Interacting with energy sinks is wearing whether you veer toward introversion or extraversion, because there's no way to recharge energy and nowhere to hide.

By way of contrast, let me present to you my brother. He doesn't have to be loud or crazy; he gives energy to any situation he enters just by entering it, whether he's in high spirits or completely, quietly worn out after a long shift. He gives energy to a room even if he's sleeping on the floor at 2 am. He neither sits around waiting for affirmation nor gets up and demands it. He can be boisterous with the loud ones and peaceful with the quiet ones and succinct with the surly ones as needed, but in everything he just is himself, adding life to gatherings large and small, wild or solemn, simply by being there.

Social energy-givers can be active and chatty, or quiet and serene, or anywhere between these two poles. They don't demand an investment of everyone else's energy; they don't requisition attention; they are at ease with themselves and so able to put others at ease. Energy sinks, on the other hand, are often nervous and insecure, whether they're calling attention to themselves with antics or gossip, or trying to influence social perception of themselves by overstated opinions, or desperately trying to fit in, or sullenly begging for bones of affirmation. Some people shift between giving and taking; some are mostly energy-neutral; some are dependably one or the other.

This is not very technical language, of course, but merely my disorganized reactions to the hamster ball analogy of the post above. For a more systematic, virtue-based analysis of what makes a person agreeable society, see Brandon's discussion of affability.
Affability, affabilitas, is also called amicitia, friendliness, but I think that, despite the fact that 'affability' in English usually indicates a matter of temperament rather than character, it is in some ways potentially less misleading. Affability is, roughly, the virtue of making one's interactions with others suitable for friendship; it is not friendship itself, but the acquired disposition of acting outwardly in a way that does not rule friendship out. It is one of those virtues that is widely recognized as a virtue but little discussed, perhaps because it is often classified as a 'lesser virtue', as being very little more than sociable manners taken to a high degree of polish; as we shall see, it is not so clearly minor.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Pathetic Story With Two Morals

Yesterday, whether it was wedding mania or baby's growth catching up to me, I was completely exhausted before noon. All morning long the bone-weariness of pregnancy weighed me down, making movement slow and thought difficult. When I stood, I felt too tired to walk. When I sat, I felt too tired to get up. When I laid down... but I was afraid to try that, because at that point there's no return. When I had to move, I crept up the stairs like Frodo climbing Mount Doom, bowed almost double from burdens and fatigue. It was bad.

So all afternoon the kids binged on episodes of Phineas and Ferb and Hole in the Wall and ate cold hot dogs and chips and kept the three-year-old alive while I lay half-conscious in bed and didn't even care. Not only did I not care, I was grateful for the technology that produces dumb game shows and processed meat products that don't need to be heated. But it did make me wonder about next school year. If I'm this tired at not-quite-four-months pregnant, how will it be during the school year at seven months? Eight months? Nine months? How am I going to teach these children when my head is too heavy to think? How can I run this household when I can't move?

Many plans flashed through my head, each worse than the other, but eventually I had to go with the one that made the most sense: I just went to sleep. When I woke up, I hadn't solved these problems, but Darwin was home and making dinner for everyone and the downstairs had been picked up.

So, Moral #1: don't try to make big decisions about the future while you're completely incapacitated. Moral #2: Daddy will fix everything when he comes home.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What Keeps You Reading

When I'm simply reading, I read with the consuming desire to know what happens to the characters and what it all means. This desire is undiminished by the knowledge that the people and events I'm reading about don't actually exist. Indeed, there's a sense in which I think it is stronger, knowing that I'm reading fiction, in that I have a certain faith when reading a novel that it will all mean something in the end. (If I get to the end and find that it doesn't, I'm usually angry.) The fiction writer filters through and chooses what events to portray based on the meaningful version of the world being portrayed. And thus, if the writer is good, every thing which is described in the novel has a reason for being there. Not just "that's what happened next" but an actual reason. A reason why we need to know about this.

This has been striking me in a paralyzing kind of way at the moment, because I've been reading a lot of diaries and memoirs. A diary is also a filtered version of reality. The diarist writes down what is important to her that happened that day. But a diary doesn't tend to have an overarching story.

Right now I'm reading Florence Farmborough's With the armies of the tsar: A nurse at the Russian front, 1914-18, the diary of an English woman who was working as a governess in Russia when the Great War broke out and spent the war working as a nurse in a front line field hospital, before having to escape back to England after the Russian Revolution transitioned into a civil war. It's fascinating reading. But one of the things that has had me thinking a lot is: How would this be different if it were a novel? Here's another page long anecdote I which Florence deals with a badly injured soldier who dies of wounds while she nurses him. It's different from the scores of other times Florence writes about dealing with such a situation, but in another sense it's "yet another time Florence helps a dying soldier". In a novel, would you skip a lot of the medical detail and every-day suffering because it would be repetitive? And yet, what's what Florence is dealing with every day. The incidents she deals with may be repetitive in a certain sense, but it's the sheer repetition of difficult situations which gradually changes her over the course of the war.

Sometimes it seems like very dramatic event is "part of the story". Other times it seems that if this was a novel you would cut out most of the events but come up with a clear idea of how Florence's essential changes progress because of the few events you portrayed.

Maybe both are acceptable ways of writing a novel if done right. There's a sense in which, reading a diary first published forty years ago about events which took place a hundred years ago, I'm reading it as fiction. I don't know they people involved any more than I know fictional characters. And yet, it seems to me that there must be some way in which I, as a reader, interact with the book differently than I would with a novel which relayed the same events. I make certain allowances or give it leeway because I know that the author didn't know what "the story" was as she wrote it. Her author's filter was at the day level, not the overall story level. So what keeps me reading, knowing this is a journal, is probably different from what would keep me reading if it were a novel.

As a reader it's easy to pass over the question of "should this incident have been included", but since I'm reading a diary as if it were a novel (and trying to do research related to writing a novel) the question seems to come to the fore.

It Isn't Mine

This has been a wedding-heavy summer for us, attending four in all. It's also a middle year of sorts: We just had out twelfth anniversary, and in twelve more years our oldest daughter will be the age (indeed a little older than) we were when we got married. Thus, it's perhaps natural to find myself thinking a bit about weddings, both in general and our own in retrospect.

If there was something that I could go back and tell my 22-year-old self about weddings it would be: "This really isn't yours."

Typically one has a wedding because one wants to be married. (If you're planning a wedding with someone you don't want to be married to, stop now!) Certainly, we very much wanted to be married. And one of the reasons we wanted to be married was that we were so glad to be us. I preferred MrsDarwin to all other women, I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life, and I thought virtually everything about us was wonderful and unique. Because of all this, it seemed very important that the wedding be our wedding. If we weren't like the sea of other couples, our wedding had to be different somehow.

Luckily, finances and such necessitated that our wedding be fairly small and simple, so this didn't come out in any really crazy ways. And there are obvious places where a couple quite rightly chooses what they think is best: We picked out traditional organ music for the ceremony, picked what we thought were the best readings from the options available, etc. Others were necessary choices given the venue and scope: We were having the reception in my parents house and yard, so dancing was pretty clearly out and that fit well with my lack of dancing ability.

However, even within that scope, thinking back, we spent a lot of time worrying about various details and whether they would express us. Did the food express us? We flirted briefly with not having a wedding cake because we didn't like the taste of bakery cake and icing. Some wise relative talked us out of this by sensibly pointing out, "People like and expect cake at a wedding reception."

And that was the thing that, in retrospect, was too often not at the center of things. People weren't coming to our wedding to find out whether we liked cake, or what our favorite colors were, or what foods we would put on the buffet. They were coming to celebrate the beginning of our marriage with us. The purpose of the reception was to give them food that they would like, get a chance to meet everyone, and allow everyone to enjoy themselves. We needn't have worried so much about our preferences in it all because, frankly, what with talking to everyone and the stress of making a major life change, we never got the chance to sit down and eat or think about anything at the reception.

At a wedding, the couple is there to get married, and that's most of what they're going to get out of it. The guests are there to watch the ceremony and wish them well. And the purpose of the reception is to give the guests an enjoyable time. To that end, the traditional wedding reception social structure works pretty well, and following it with only modest tweeks to fit your preferences and needs is a good way to cut down a lot of the stress of planning the whole thing.

I still think we're a wonderful and unique couple, of course, but one of the things that I see much more clearly now is that what we were doing was something all married couples do: get married. It didn't have to be different in every way and express us perfectly, because what we were doing was actually something that gave us commonality with other married couples, not set us apart. And in that sense, it wasn't even completely ours.

They Called Them Poilu

The French term for their soldiers in the Great War (the equivalent of the British "Tommy" and the American "Doughboy") was Poilu which translates as "hairy one". Nothing quite sums up that nickname like this image.

In post-WW2 America, the military abilities of the French get a bad rap, but in the Great War the poilu lived up to the reputation of their Napoleonic forbears and made "they shall not pass" (Ils ne passeront pas) a byword for a generation.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Then All Things Are Permitted

Following the recent Supreme Court rulings dealing with "gay marriage", a couple of my more liberal acquaintances were enthusiastically posting pictures from gay pride parades. These put me in mind of this old Onion piece, one of those which treads such a delicate line between satire and commentary that you wonder a bit what the author's object was in writing it.
Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance Of Gays Back 50 Years

The mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians, a hard-won civil-rights victory gained through decades of struggle against prejudice and discrimination, was set back at least 50 years Saturday in the wake of the annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.

"I'd always thought gays were regular people, just like you and me, and that the stereotype of homosexuals as hedonistic, sex-crazed deviants was just a destructive myth," said mother of four Hannah Jarrett, 41, mortified at the sight of 17 tanned and oiled boys cavorting in jock straps to a throbbing techno beat on a float shaped like an enormous phallus. "Boy, oh, boy, was I wrong."

The parade, organized by the Los Angeles Gay And Lesbian And Bisexual And Transvestite And Transgender Alliance (LAGALABATATA), was intended to "promote acceptance, tolerance, and equality for the city's gay community." Just the opposite, however, was accomplished, as the event confirmed the worst fears of thousands of non-gay spectators, cementing in their minds a debauched and distorted image of gay life straight out of the most virulent right-wing hate literature.
The piece itself contains a "commentary from expert" explanation which covers the rationalization that I've heard given in real life by gay pride supporters who are nonetheless willing to sheepishly admit, "well, yeah, I guess it does get a bit over the top":
Dr. Henry Thorne, a New York University history professor who has written several books about the gay-rights movement, explained the misunderstanding.

"After centuries of oppression as an 'invisible' segment of society, gays, emboldened by the 1969 Stonewall uprising, took to the streets in the early '70s with an 'in-your-face' attitude. Confronting the worst prejudices of a world that didn't accept them, they fought back against these prejudices with exaggeration and parody, reclaiming their enemies' worst stereotypes about them and turning them into symbols of gay pride," Thorne said. "Thirty years later, gays have won far greater acceptance in the world at large, but they keep doing this stuff anyway."

"Mostly, I think, because it's really fun," Thorne added.

The Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade, Thorne noted, is part of a decades-old gay-rights tradition. But, for mainstream heterosexuals unfamiliar with irony and the reclamation of stereotypes for the purpose of exploding them, the parade resembled an invasion of grotesque outer-space mutants, bent on the destruction of the human race.
Here again we have some of the modern reliance on irony without regard to whether what you're doing is actually good. I think there's something else going on here as well, however.

When trying to make-nice to conservatives, proponents of "same sex marriage" tend to emphasize it as a way of enshrining commitment and sexual morality. However, while this tends to suggest that same sex relationships should have the same moral obligations and boundaries as traditional ones, in practice I have never known anyone who believes that same sex marriages are moral from a Christian point of view, and yet holds that sex outside of marriage (and a host of other, related sexual issues) is definitely wrong. I'm sure that a few such people do exist, but in general even the "conservative" supporters of same sex marriage tend to have adopted a significantly loosened idea of overall sexual morality: Sex is very much what you make of it. Different people have different expectations. The key thing is that everything be consensual and that people never betray the commitments they make, whatever those may be.

This Atlantic piece (which from what I can tell is written from what it terms the progressive point of view on sex) argues that sexual traditionalists and progressives in our culture have fundamentally different ideas about what sex is and what it's for.

Trad View:
As religious conservatives see it, the great mistake we make when we masturbate is to claim our sexuality as ours alone. All sexual activity must be about "mutual self-giving" between a husband and a wife, the church claims, arguing that masturbation is "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."

Prog View:
In The Ethical Slut, perhaps the best-known "catechism" of progressive sexual morality, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy make the case that "the fundamental sexual unit is one person; adding more people to that unit may be intimate, fun, and companionable, but it does not complete anybody." Masturbation matters, they argue, not merely because it helps you learn what you want sexually from a partner, but because it helps bring "your locus of control into yourself."
Especially given the source, this struck me as surprisingly perceptive. Moreover, it suggests that if one's sexuality is fundamentally one's own, defined by oneself and limited only by the commitments one makes oneself, there's nothing necessarily wrong in engaging in "depraved" expressions of sexuality, whether ironically or seriously.

Monday, July 08, 2013

When Brothers Dwell In Unity

My sister Anna was married on Saturday, so we spent the past week in Cincinnati doing this and that to get everything in readiness for the big day. It was a busy, exhausting time, and many good things happened, but what stands out to me was the happiness of having all my siblings in the same place, and not just siblings, but their spouses and my brother's fiancee and all the grandchildren too. I played with my pretty nieces all week, and got to hold my new nephew Benj, with his perfect round head and big ears and his manly fuss. It is a constant joy to me to see my brother as a father now, or my sister as a mother, or my siblings as aunts and uncles to each individual grandbaby.

Just as wonderful is interacting with my brothers and sisters as adults, each with our own separate experience, and yet with such a strong core of mutual family life that we instinctively speak the same language. I've often wondered if children in broken family situations end up clinging to each other more firmly because they form the unshakeable heart of the family, whereas intact families have a stronger parental center and less cohesive sibling groups. There may be no marrying and giving in marriage in heaven, but after death I'll still be the sister of John, Will, Liz, Anna, and Nathanael, and being together with all of them now is like a little foretaste of eternal bliss.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Satanic Irony

Irony seems to have become one of our primarily, modern American modes of expression -- particularly among what might call the "hipster left". After all, we live in a time in which one of the most-watched political news and analysis shows is actually a parody show in which a comedian pretends to be running a news show, and actually does kind of report the news, but, you know: ironically. And another is a show in which another comedian pretends to be a rival conservative news host, but of course he's doing so ironically, to show how dumb those guys are. (Which -- ironically -- means that while in general mocking religious conservatives, via parody, Stephen Colbert is at times able to express his apparently sincere religious beliefs more plainly than any non-ironic mainstream media figure does.)

One of the ways that this ironic sensibility gets expressed is in taking the impression one's opponent has of one, acting it out, and thus thinking that one has made one's opponent look stupid. One can only assume it's some dynamic along these lines that led to the latest story out of the Texas abortion fight: Apparently in response to pro-life protesters singing religious songs such as Amazing Grace, their pro-choice opponents took to shouting "Hail Satan!"

See, it's ironic because those religious freaks think that people who just want to stand up for women's rights are spawn of Satan. So these courageous fighters for women's rights shout "Hail Satan" and the religious wingnuts get angry, and...

Yeah. As you can see, this goes nowhere but stupid.

I'm sure the "Hail Satan" shouters don't believe that Satan actually exists. They probably just think they're getting a rise out of their opponents by playing into negative stereotypes. But words and actions mean things. I suppose it would be hard to convince these people that they shouldn't call on Satan, since they probably don't think he exists, but nonetheless choosing to do transgressive things has a real cost and causes real harm even if someone thinks she's only be "ironic". Frankly I'm glad that irony does have the following on my side that it does on the other. I don't think it would be a good refutation of liberal claims that conservatives are racists of Nazis for people to go around in SS uniforms or stage mock clan rallies. That wouldn't be ironic, it would just be wrong. And so is this.

Or, looked at another way, maybe it's just truth in advertising.

Hell: Oppression or Justice?

An argument about the existence of hell broke out, and I couldn't help inserting myself into it.

Something interesting, however, struck me about how arguments were phrased. Formulations (from theists) of the belief that hell either does not exist or does not contain anyone seemed to be based on a need to avoid thinking of God as on oppressor:

"I refuse to believe that a just and loving God would condemn anyone to eternal suffering."

Defenses of the existence of hell and the idea that at least some people are in it tended to emphasize the ability of people to do wrong:

"People choose hell by utterly and irrevocably rejecting God. Given the willingness of people to choose evil in this life, even when it makes them unhappy, I don't see why it's hard to believe that some people would reject God permanently."

The more I thought about these two formulations, the more it struck me that these tied in the with Kling's "three axis model of politics" which I mentioned a while back. The three axes are:
[P]rogressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Here we have those who deny hell (which is, indeed, generally thought of as a "liberal" theological belief) doing so based on the argument that allowing some people to experience eternal misery turns God into an oppressor. Since they don't want to see God as an oppressor, they reject the possibility of anyone being condemned to hell. Also implicit in this is a belief that everyone is, at root, good. No one will really, really, really choose hell over the beatific vision, so obviously the only explanation for anyone being in hell is that God is a big oppressive meany who put them there.

Those who believe in hell (a belief we might term "conservative" theologically) see hell as a matter of justice and free will: Some people will reject God, and if they choose to do so, then justice and free will demand that God allow them their condemnation. Thus, the "conservative" belief is based, like many other conservative beliefs, on a conviction that we can be pretty sure that some people will do evil, and that the application of justice will necessitate those people being punished.

Kling's model is one of those things which I am a little annoyed to find working as well as it does, since it seems so utterly simplistic. Yet I have to admit, in its basic sort of way, it provides a bit of insights into a startling number of arguments.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Twelve years: On Being Married to the Right Person

Yesterday was our twelfth anniversary. This was us then, looking like babies:

This is us now, with babies:

Going around the internets a few weeks ago was an article entitled "How I Know My Wife Married the Wrong Person", which, contrary to the sensationalist title, is not a memoir of a marriage gone bad but a  plea to the youngsters to embrace commitment despite not finding one's "soul mate".
And after two years, there’s no hiding behind the dinner-and-a-movie fa├žade of dating life any longer. I can’t buy enough flowers to conceal it. I can’t open enough doors. I can’t say enough “I love you’s.” She knows (and painfully, so do I) that she married the wrong person. 
Allow me to humbly explain (before she reads this). For quite some time now, there has been a myth floating around our idealistic individualistic society. A myth that claims that marriage will only work when you find your “smoking-hot, high-class, filthy rich, love-at-first-sight, sexually compatible, accept-me-as-I-am, Titanic-Notebook-Sweet-Home-Alabama-Twilight-esque, soul mate.”  
...That’s why I know beyond doubt, at least by society’s standards, that Lindsay married the wrong person.  I’ll never be quite as smart as a New York Times Best Seller. I’ll never make a six digit paycheck. I’ll never electrify the bedroom in the way our pornographic media culture broadcasts as the norm. I’ll never understand her quite as well as we both wish I would. I’ll continue to make mistakes. I’ll get angry over silly stuff. I’ll forget to do the dishes. I’ll raise my voice when I shouldn’t. I’ll let pride get the best of me. And I’ll probably think of myself far more often than I should… Oh yeah, and my younger days as a part-time body-builder, part-time male-model, full-time Matthew McConaughey stunt double are over. I retired this January. (Are you drowning in my self-pity yet? I am.)  Look, I’m not an astrophysicist. I’m not a movie star. I’m not a billionaire. I’m just Tyler. And Tyler does not meet the standards of the Real Housewives of Louisville.
To those of us who have known cases, so painful to all involved, of people who actually did marry the wrong person, the twee quality of these paragraphs borders on the offensive. But never mind that. Obviously no one marries the perfect person, because no one is perfect. That's so self-evident that I feel silly typing it.

I also think that it's not "idealistic" or "individualistic" to feel that your spouse actually did marry the right person. I think Darwin married the right person, absolutely. Darwin thinks I married the right person. This is not because we're “smoking-hot, high-class, filthy rich, love-at-first-sight, sexually compatible, accept-me-as-I-am, Titanic-Notebook-Sweet-Home-Alabama-Twilight-esque, soul mate[s].” I don't even know what that means, except that some people watch too many movies. I do know that whenever we're doing something onerous together -- reflooring a house, washing poopy underwear out in the toilet, having a baby, moving with five kids (including a newborn) and two cats -- he looks at me and says, "I wouldn't do this with anyone but you." And I believe that he married the right person, because I wouldn't do it with anyone else but him.

I know I have a lot of shortcomings as a wife, especially in the areas of home organization and management and cleaning. That means that I want to strive hard to be a better wife to him, not that I throw up my hands and sigh, "Oh, my husband married the wrong person." Realizing that one needs to change and improve is several orders of magnitude different from announcing, "I'm the wrong person for this job!" It's the difference between perseverance and despair. (Sometimes realizing that you're the wrong person for the job can be realism, but in the case of marriage, a life-long commitment, it's despair.)

But for anyone who feels the needs to protest, Darwin would be happy to step outside with anyone who would like to tell him that his wife married the wrong person. Pistols at ten paces, but I warn you: he's a crack shot. And I'll be right next to him with the other pistol, because my husband married the right woman.