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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Bout of Competitive Princess-Rustling

"There followed next a massive escalation of what until then had essentially been nothing more serious than a bout of competitive princess-rustling -- and the fault was all the Greeks'. Or so the Persians claim, at any rate -- for they point out out that long before they every thought of invading Europe, it was the Greeks who invaded Asia. Granted, the Persians acknowledge, stealing women is never acceptable behaviour; but really, they ask, what is the point, once a woman has been stolen, in kicking up a great fuss about it, and pursuing some ridiculous vendetta, when every sensible man knows that the best policy is to affect an utter lack of concern? It is clear enough, after all, that women are never abducted unless they are open to the idea of it in the first place. So it was, the Persians, claim, that people in Asia remained pretty much unperturbed by the theft of their women -- but the Greeks, simply to get back the wife of a single Spartan, assembled a huge task-force, invaded Asia, and annihilated the empire of Priam. Ever since then, the Persians have viewed the Greeks as a people inveterately hostile to them."

--Herodotus, Histories, trans. Tom Holland

I remember reading Herodotus in college, but I don't remember him being this amusing.

Translating Cyrano's Ballade

Brandon has been reading Cyrano de Bergerac for his fortnightly book, and one of his reading resources was a pamphlet containing several translations of Cyrano's improvised ballade, delivered during a fencing duel. This lead to discussion of how the translations didn't seem to match the rhythm of the original, and I offered a few alternate versions of the first line. As I look back, this was rather a conceited thing to do without having read the rest of the ballade, but as a result Brandon and I started translating the Ballade ourselves, in the comments, stanza by stanza.

Now what you have to understand is that Brandon knows poetry and I don't. He understands the structure of the ballade form, and he made his initial rhyme choices based on keeping the integrity of the structure. I, on the other hand, not only knew nothing of the ballade form, but I scan for comprehension when I read and have a poor mental ear for poetry, especially in a foreign language, and so it was only gradually, after I'd translated most of the poem, that it dawned on me that 1) each stanza follows the ABABBCBC scheme; and then 2) the whole poem follows the ABABBCBC structure. There are only three different rhymes in the whole thing. Of course, at this point I'd already translated to the end, so I did a bit of late-night gnashing of teeth and reworked it on the fly, starting with the end, only to find out that I'd taken the wrong rhyme pattern and so lost my first four lines, with which I was particularly pleased. The Muse is a hard mistress.

Here are my two translations, with the French for comparison.

French Original Translation ABABBCBC
Je jette avec grâce mon feutre,
Je fais lentement l'abandon
Du grand manteau qui me calfeutre,
Et je tire mon espadon;
Élégant comme Céladon,
Agile comme Scaramouche,
Je vous préviens, cher Mirmydon,
Qu'à la fin de l'envoi je touche !
I cast my hat without a care,
Deliberately uncape me here,
Unwrap this mantle which I wear,
And I draw my rapier!
Elegant as Celadon,
Agile as Scaramouche, eh?
I'm warning you, oh Myrmidon,
That at the envoi's end -- touché!
I cast, with manner cavalier
My hat, and with a motion grave
My mantle I'll abandon here
To free my rapier to rave!
I'm Celadon, love's noble slave,
I'm sharp as Scaramouche, eh?
You'll learn, you midget, to behave,
When at the envoi's end -- touché!
Vous auriez bien dû rester neutre;
Où vais-je vous larder, dindon ?. . .
Dans le flanc, sous votre maheutre ?. . .
Au cœur, sous votre bleu cordon ?. . .
—Les coquilles tintent, ding-don !
Ma pointe voltige: une mouche !
Décidément. . .c'est au bedon,
Qu'à la fin de l'envoi, je touche.
Neutrality was your best bet;
Now how to baste you, turkey mine?
In the flank? Under your sleeve?
In your heart, 'neath ribbon fine?
Our blades they ring as strokes we launch,
The points fly as I whoosh, eh?
I've got it now -- it's in your paunch
that at the envoi's end -- touché!
A neutral course you scorned to steer,
To carve you, turkey, I'll engrave
Your flank down there, or sleeve up here,
Or heart 'neath path blue ribbons pave!
The strokes ring loudly, strong and brave!
The points fly as I whoosh, eh?
I know -- my blow your gut will stave
When at the envoi's end, touché!
Il me manque une rime en eutre. . .
Vous rompez, plus blanc qu'amidon ?
C'est pour me fournir le mot pleutre !
—Tac ! je pare la pointe dont
Vous espériez me faire don;—
J'ouvre la ligne,—je la bouche. . .
Tiens bien ta broche, Laridon !
A la fin de l'envoi, je touche.
Some cliche here: blah croon, blah moon,
A flag all starchy-white you wave,
And there's my rhyme, you pale poltroon!
Aha! The point you thought I gave
I parry with a graceful save!
I'm open now-- I'm closed, bouché,
Observe my knife, you larder knave,
For at the envoi's end, touché!
My verse is getting gapey here...
A flag all starchy-white you wave,
Now rhymes run like you, white-tailed deer!
Aha! The point you thought I gave
I parry with a graceful save!
I'm open now -- I'm closed, bouché!
Observe my knife, you larder knave,
For at the envoi's end, touché!
Prince, demande à Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j'escarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte. . . Hé ! là, donc !
A la fin de l'envoi, je touche !
O Prince, prepare to meet thy God!
I skirmish, swish, I swoosh, eh?
Cut, feint -- take that! -- so end ballade!
For at the envoi's end -- touché!
O Prince, of God his pardon crave!
I skirmish, swish, I swoosh, eh?
Cut, feint -- and so! your last close shave!
For at the envoi's end, touché!

Translating anything, but particularly a poem, is a game of tradeoffs and hard choices. Do you go for  lyricism at the expense of of accuracy? For clarity at the expense of meter? Brandon has a particularly good explanation of the form of the ballade and the different ways the allusions in this particular poem can be handled in translation, so I won't repeat it here, but I will say that one of my main goals was to translate as accurately as possible. I always like to have a sense of the original when I'm reading in translation, and I wanted to get across Cyrano's wit and spontaneity while sticking closely to the French.

Stanza 1: Perhaps my favorite unholy rhyme in the whole thing is uncape me here/rapier, and it broke my heart to lose it in the ABABBCBC version, when I realized that, due to working backward from the rhymes in the third stanza, I'd unwittingly bumped the "rapier" rhyme from B to A, thus losing those lines. (Thanks to Brandon for suggesting a better phrasing of the fourth line in the ABAB version, improving my quick late night line of "To free my sword to freely rave" -- rave was the only "ave" rhyme left in the dictionary at that point, and I didn't know what to do with it.)

The ABAB version has a better explanation of Cyrano's allusions to Celadon and Scaramouche, two figures that don't have much resonance now (Walter Hooker's translation changes them to Lancelot and Spartacus, two figures that have much more pull on the English imagination), but I didn't mind keeping them in. Cyrano likes his learned references, and anyway, "Scaramouche" helped propel me to a rhyme for "touché", which I felt was key, since touché still carries connotations in English of sparring and scoring points. "Scaramouche, eh?" is a scurrilous rhyme, but I hope that Cyrano would think it was amusing.

Stanza 2: I wanted to stay close to Cyrano's neutre, and I wanted to keep the ridiculous word turkey, designed to prick his foppish opponent's pride. Larder is a cooking technique which uses a larding needle to insert fat under a bird's skin for juicier results; Brandon found a graceful way to keep the allusion, but I went with basting as a recognizable thing, and in the ABAB version I needed to use "carving" to fit with the "engrave" rhyme. Coquilles are handguards: the guards are ringing as strokes land on them, but I couldn't quite make that work for me, and so ringing blades was the closest I could come to the sound of the bells, ding-don. What I really wanted to rhyme was paunch (bedon refers to skin stretched over a drum), so I had to work the fifth line back from "launch". And of course, the awful rhyme for "touché" had to be fit in, though "whoosh" isn't too far from voltige, quiver.

Stanza 3: this stanza had a few ciphers to unlock before it made sense to me. I could not find eutre in any dictionary, and the definitions of pleutre didn't shed much light until I consulted Google Translate and discovered that it was an obscure form of "coward". That suddenly made sense of Cyrano finding a rhyme after being inspired by the phrase "more white than starch." I took eutre as a nonsense word, which several other translations seemed to bear out, so "croon" and "moon" was my little nod to the Gershwin ditty Blah Blah Blah, which takes out all the words but the cliched rhymes. "Poltroon" seemed like a nice obsolete word for coward. It wasn't until I was working on the envoi and realized the overall scheme of the poem that I realized that every single A line ended in eutre.

Since I'd realized that each stanza followed an ABAB scheme, anyway, I used wave/save/gave/knave and managed, I think, to keep a fairly accurate translation. Laridon is a name of a kitchen scullion and also means something akin to "lesser son of a greater father", so "larder knave" seemed to fit the bill and be a bit of a throwback to the larder I didn't translate in stanza 2.

The ABAB version is a bit of a stretch in the first four lines. "Gapey here" is accurate enough, though pretty inelegant. The inspiration of his opponent's white face jump starts Cyrano's creativity and gives him his rhyme, so the running white-tailed deer was an attempt to match the white of the line above and indicate both coward and fleetness.

Envoi: I particularly liked my original envoi -- the envoi is a shorter stanza at the end, usually addressed to the Prince -- but once I realized that it fit the BCBC scheme ("Hey, these lines end in -on, just like the stanza above. I wonder why that was repeat--whatthehell? The whole poem?"), I tried an alternate version which lead to the rest of the ABAB translation. I'm not enamored of the ABAB version, but it does fit the form.

Do go over and read Brandon's post on his translation, far more lyric than mine. And if you enjoy watching a creative process unfold, read down the comment thread where we piece together our ballades over the course of several days.

You can see Jose Ferrer deliver Walter Hooker's translation of ballade in action here, as well as the famous Nose Description speech.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 7-3

The last installment of Chapter 7. I'll have the first installment of Chapter 8, featuring Natalie, posted by this coming Tuesday.

Having come to believe that her son joining the cavalry was her own idea, Lisette immersed herself in every detail. All forms of attention other than money were lavished upon his preparations. With this latter she remained close. Indeed, it was with difficulty that Jozef kept her from rejecting the cavalry pack and bags that he had ordered and substituting some cheaper version.

“But this leather is thinner and more supple, see? And none of that heavy double stitching. Don’t buy that clunky, ugly pack when this one is nicer and half as much besides.”

He took her by the arm and moved her away from the shop counter so that he could speak to her without being heard. “I intend to buy the regulation equipment, Mother, not a cheaper imitation.”

“I am only trying to keep your from being cheated. I’m sure these others are just as good, they just haven’t paid bribes to the officers of the commissariat.”

Jozef went back to the counter and told the shopman, “I’ll be taking the regulation models. Have them packaged up and sent to the flat. You have the address? Good. And the bill can go on our account.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Jozef led the way out of the shop into the street, followed by Lisette who bore an aggrieved expression.

“I’m very proud of you, Jozef. But you mustn’t think that I don’t know anything. When it comes to dealing with shopmen and their schemes, I have far more experience than you.”

After all their worries over how quickly they could join the ranks, Theodor and his other fraternity comrades had passed their medical exam and been given transportation orders for Friday morning. They had all been enrolled in the army books and issued their blue-grey woolen uniforms, which inspired such pride that they would be seen in nothing else.

Although he could not, by rights, wear his new cadet uniforms until he was officially enrolled in the service after reporting to post, Jozef donned his blue jacket and red trousers and joined the other six former students at a photographer’s studio. They were not the only young men thus inspired, and the photographer had availed himself of several rifles and swords with which young men who had been issued uniforms but not weapons could pose. They threw their chests out and struck a martial pose, the infantrymen holding rifles at attention and Jozef casually resting his hand on the pommel of his borrowed sabre. They held still for a moment, and then the photographer’s flash went off with a poof and a little cloud of smoke that smelt like gunpowder. They went off to the beer hall for several hours and then returned to the studio to pick up the result, a small print for each of them.

The post to which Jozef was to present himself on August 1st was less than a hundred and fifty miles away, south and east from Vienna, just across the border into Hungary. An express could get him there in less than five hours, an overnight train would make a leisurely trip of it. However, reports were that train schedules were chaotic, and Jozef welcomed the chance to escape his mother’s presence sooner rather than later, so he resolved to leave early on the morning of the 30th just like his friends.

[Continue reading...]

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Problem of Moral Panic

Megan McArdle has a piece worth reading talking about the UVA rape case (in which a Rolling Stone story describing an alleged gang rape and the hands of fraternity brothers turned out to be a fabrication which the reporter had not bothered to check) as an example of what she describes as moral panic:
There are a lot of definitions of moral panic running around, but here's mine: It's when a community becomes hysterical about some problem -- often, but not always, a real one -- that becomes defined as an existential threat to public safety and moral order. In such a climate, questioning how big the threat actually is, or contesting any particular example, is not a matter of rational discussion, but of heresy.

While the moral panic is raging, ludicrous and improbable stories suddenly become convincing, and it's dangerous to question them, because why are you defending witches? Are YOU a witch?
When people are in the grip of a moral panic, going up against them to question the extent of a threat, even by doubting so much as a single case, can become dangerous. Questioning any expression of the panic is not seen as a logical debate over statistics or the details of a particular instance, but as somehow defending the threatening behavior.
It's a piece worth reading, and her point is amplified by the fact that after reading the post and thinking it a good one, I hesitated to post it because "well, one doesn't want to seem like one of those people who insists there is no problem". Once I recognized that hesitation, I knew I had to post it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Does NFP work? Do you see my 11 kids?

Someone on Facebook posed the question: "Why do all NFP teachers seem to have 5 kids?" It's a good question: if NFP works, why are these people always pregnant? One answer is that they want to have lots of children, which is a good thing but does raise the question of whether they practice the system they preach. But probably a more accurate answer is: do you know how many more kids we'd have without NFP?

So I did a little math on the subject I know best: myself. I have been married for 14 years minus 5 months, so 163 months. I had my first baby 15 months after I was married. My fertility returns, on average, 6 months postpartum (second child, 15 months younger than the first; and careful observation after the other four births bears that out). So, a fifteen month cycle between possible pregnancies. Had I not used NFP and gotten pregnant on a fifteen-month schedule, well, 15x11= 165. After being married for 162 months, I could be six months pregnant with my 11th child.

Let me restate that. I could have 11 children by my 14th anniversary without NFP. I will have six, almost half that number.

Now this isn't carved in stone. One won't necessarily get pregnant in a given cycle; I myself have gone several cycles without conceiving even when I was trying to. (Observation says that results in boys, BTW.) But you can't know that except in hindsight, and I do know that I can get pregnant even when I'm trying not to conceive; it's happened three times. (Observation: A girl, a miscarriage, and a girl.)

After the surprise of my second pregnancy, all my children have been spaced with NFP. The second closest spacing is 22 months -- still closer than I'd intended, but far saner and healthier than a 15-month spacing. As I get older and my pregnancies get tricksier, that spacing -- and the physical condition it allows me to recover -- become more vital. I was only 23 once.

So, I'm not an NFP instructor, but people may see my six kids and wonder, "Does NFP work?" And the answer is, "Do you see my 11 kids? No? Then I can assure you that it does."

Monday, January 26, 2015

Supporting Your Writing Habit

I liked this piece by Ann Bauer about how her writing, as an essayist and novelist, is supported by her husband's office job. In particular, I thought the argument for honesty, rather than attributing success in writing/publication falsely is important:
Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.

All that disclosure is crass, I know. I’m sorry. Because in this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.

There’s a special version of this masquerade that we writers put on. Two examples:

I attended a packed reading (I’m talking 300+ people) about a year and a half ago. The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.

None of this takes away from his brilliance. Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

As we were discussing recently in regards to whether one is "rich", the subject of being well off in some sense can be a sensitive one, but there's something particularly disturbing about someone who has been able to devote more time or get more connections in the world of writing due to family wealth or personal connections attributing that success to some completely other thing when giving advice to aspiring young writers. If some other woman wanting to imitate Example #2's success resolves not to have children, will that give her parents with deep connections in the New York literary world? No. And it's far better to simply admit the connections than send people running off on some self destructive path to disappointment due to trying to imitate things which were not in fact instrumental to success.

Also, as someone who's now trying to take a fairly serious shot at novel writing, I couldn't agree more with the point about writing being a much more peaceful process if you're not trying to rely on it to pay the bills. Sure, I would love it if I could spend my daytime hours quietly researching and writing. I was just a tiny bit envious of the writing routine outlined in this piece on how to write a book in six weeks, which in some ways is not that different from what Bauer describes her husband's job as making possible for her. Me, my writing time is from 9:30 or 10:00PM till as late as I go, hopefully midnight, but sometimes one or two in the morning. That can be a little rough, given that I have to be back at my desk the next morning by 8:30AM and functional throughout the day. But honestly, I'm just happier living that way that dealing with the uncertainty of trying to write as a main job. (And while I don't have someone else to pay the bills for me, the support of a stable spouse who can shoulder a lot of the weight of household chores and kid stuff so that I can write at nights is key -- I could never write like this if I was a single parent.)

This is one of the reasons why I'm always inspired by seeing pieces about writers who kept themselves going by other means. Anthony Trollope had a successful career in the British post office, which occasionally comes into his novels in delightful descriptions of how letters essential to the plot either make their way to their destination on time or become misdirected. T. S. Elliot was a successful bank clerk.

T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign transactions department at Lloyd’s bank from 1917 until 1925 (from the age of 29 until he was 37). He punched in Monday through Friday (plus one Saturday a month) from 9:15 am to 5:30 pm. Like many Americans today, he only qualified for two weeks of vacation a year.

Historian Russell Kirk ,in his essential book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971), writes that the publication and success of The Waste Land both changed, and didn’t change Eliot’s circumstances: “Like other poets before him, Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.” And by referring to the cellar here, Kirk is not being metaphorical. The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.”

I find that oddly inspiring. Doing financial and pricing analysis is not exactly what most people would think of as a creative career, but it is definitely interesting and challenging in an office-y sort of way. I am happy to be the most bank clerky of all bank clerks if that provides the means to be a novelist in the background without worrying about the heating bill.

If you want a brief feel for Bauer's writing, and a window into when her life was not so calm, she has a well written and moving piece reflecting on watching her youngest child graduate high school.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Celebrity Doppelgangers and their Movie Faces

Darwin and I have unfamous faces. We've existed in relative anonymity, never able to answer party questions about which actor or actress you'd cast to play you in the movie, because no one in Hollywood looks like us at all. That was rather comfortable, really. We may be unremarkable, but at least we're uniquely unremarkable, except for looking rather like our families, none of whom are in Hollywood making movies about our lives.

And then Otepoti, our Kiwi friend, posted a video to me and remarked that she thought Darwin looked like Jermaine Clement, half of the New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords, and I was struck to find that I didn't immediately disagree.

Sure, there are differences, but at a glance it's not a bad likeness. I almost feel like I should get a Jermaine Clement poster for the inside of my closet door.

Still, it's a bit chilling to realize that, for all we're so close, we don't share our unfaceness anymore. And now I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder, wondering if my face is walking around out there on someone else (besides my daughters, I mean). Who has it? What is she doing with it? (I'm assuming it's a woman here.) And now when they make the Darwin biopic, will they have to cut me out of it because I don't have the look of anyone who's ever made her mark in public? Or am I to be cast as blonde and willowy and straight-haired because that's the prevailing paradigm? Quelle horreur!

Or maybe the director will just follow Darwin's doppelganger and go with Jermaine Clement's wife:

Yeah, not really seeing a resemblance here, because she has a movie face.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 7-2

I'm going to give myself a week to get the next installment done. This will be 7-3 and has a fair amount of stuff going on in it. It'll go up on Thursday, January 29th. After that, we'll start Chapter 8 which returns to Natalie.

During the next few days Jozef busied himself with preparations. His fraternity comrades were openly jealous that he had a set of orders and was having uniforms fitted and buying equipment while they still waited for their medical exams. Konstantin had discussed the possibility of deserting from his infantry enlistment and signing up as a cavalry cadet under a false name, but of course there was no staff officer to assist in executing such a desperate plan.

Money problems loomed. Jozef’s usual allowance was enough for the pastimes of a university student, so long as he did not indulge in gambling or the more expensive sort of women, but it was very short indeed when it came to buying the full uniforms and equipment of a cavalry cadet. A reserve officer’s pay was enough to cover such things, but he would not be a reserve officer for at least several months. A cadet’s pay was nominal and even that would not begin until after he reported for duty and was officially enrolled.

He had expected that Mother would be reconciled to his decision once the first shock was past, but she consistently refused to acknowledge any discussion of his impending departure or his need to pay for his kit, either maintaining a blank stare while he spoke to her or replying with questions as to how university lectures were going.

In the end he dodged the problem by purchasing all his supplies on account and giving his mother’s name and address for the bill.

Given the discomforts of home, it was all the more attractive to spend any time not engaged in errands at either the coffee house or the beer hall. With the rest of Vienna, he consumed the newspapers, the rumors, and the discussion of both.

The government had declared Serbia’s partial acceptance of the ultimatum’s terms to be unacceptable, and the army had been mobilized, but no declaration of war or other concrete action had followed. Was the rogue state to the south to be punished for its part in the assassination of the Archduke, for its constant attempts to undermine the dual monarchy, or was this to become yet another in the long string of embarrassments which were summed up in that one shameful phrase: decline?

For a brief time -- in an empire of two kingdoms, twelve nationalities and fifty-two million souls -- it had seemed that there was an essential unity of anger and of willingness to fight the threat, a unity of sympathy and purpose so unusual in this none-too-hopeful empire that many found themselves ready to give it another chance, to discover a forgotten patriotism. Even those opposed to war found themselves intoxicated with the sense that all were to be forged into one glowing whole, their divisions and selfishness refined away by the fires of war. Strangers spoke to each other in the streets, and neighbors who had never more than shrugged at each other when passing in the lift now shook hands and spoke with excited looks. Have you heard anything? Will it be today? What will you do?

And yet before that purpose and unity could be turned into action, it seemed liable to be stillborn through the inaction so familiar and frustrating to all. All waited and read and debated, hoping for and fearing the news that war had at last made real the feelings of the last weeks.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 28th, the answer at last came. War had been declared. War with Serbia. Next day, the first shots of the war were fired. Austrian river monitors, squat ironclads, low in the water, with guns sticking out of round turrets, steamed down the Danube and the Saba, which separated Serbia and its capital from Austria-Hungary, and shelled Belgrade.

It was as the shells were falling in Belgrade, the war still too young to have made it into the morning papers, that Lisette came into the dining room well before her usual late hour, catching Jozef before he could make his silent escape to the coffee house for a morning of reading the news and discussing it with his friends.

“Jozef, good morning! I’m so glad to see you before you leave for the day.”

“Good morning, Mother,” Jozef replied, waiting to see what form his mother’s attack would take. Had she received the bill for his uniform tailoring or his equipage already? Would she refuse to pay? He had hoped that none of the bills would arrive until after he was safely away in training. Let her settle out whether to acknowledge his enlistment or endanger her credit.

[Continue Reading]

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Strange Insecurities of the Sort of Middle Class

A month or two ago I got a letter from the Social Security Administration telling me what I would get in retirement if I keep making what I make now till I retire -- which is one of those things I usually ignore since I tend to assume that I'll never get Social Security. However, the letter also shows your Social Security eligible earnings every year since you started paying into the system, and that really struck me. There it was, my financial history over the last 18 years or so since I got my first paycheck.

The interesting part was looking at the fourteen years since we got married. I was a Classics major in college, with no intention to go on in Academia and no real connections when it came to getting a job. The job I had when we got married I got through a temp agency: $14/hr on the basis of acing the temp agency test of Word and Excel skills, plus being able to type at 80 wpm. As a result, we lived pretty tight those first couple years out of college. Almost everyone I kept in touch with from college was making more than I was, but then almost all of them had had more practical majors. When we were expecting our first child, I desperately searched for another job so that MrsDarwin could stop working. She was part time at Barnes & Noble and part time stage managing, the former paid minimum wage and the latter paid less, but to pay the $1,000/mo rent on our Los Angeles apartment we needed that bit of extra income each month. I found a new job, quit my old one, and then got an offer to stay on at $40k a year, which seemed a pretty princely sum to me at the time, it was still a good deal less than a lot of my friends made. And that's kind of where we stuck for a while, as I tried to improve our lot by starting my own business, moving, temping for a year and a half, and finally getting a new salaried job that paid a little bit more.

The Social Security statement related all that in a neat string of numbers: increase, decrease, increase, flat. When I started this blog, ten years ago, we had two kids and made a little under the median income for households at the time. We had a newly bought house, a car payment, and two kids. My just about any definition we were right there in the middle of the middle class.

Then the numbers started to climb, with some downs in years when the big computer company I worked for didn't do well and so didn't give bonuses, and a couple of jumps when I switched jobs and then did so again. I passed the threshold which Jenny rightly identified as that after which people don't like to talk about how much they make. And now here were are, with six kids, and a house which is twice and big and twice as expensive (and six times as old) as the one we had when we started writing here.

The other day I read someone angrily disdainfully denouncing people who make about what I do as "the rich" -- his rational being that at that level one could pay $30k/yr for your kid's college bill and still have an income above the median left over. Looking back to when I was ten years younger, I remember talking about how when I made more money, I would keep living at the same level, so that I could save and put money away for emergencies.

It oddly sets one's back up to be dismissed as "the rich". I suppose some of this is the great American love affair with the "middle class". Only about 2% of Americans identify as "upper class", and only 10% as "lower class". All the rest of us describe ourselves as "middle" or "upper middle" or "working" class. And as a creature of the right, apparently I'm even more likely to see myself as middle class.

Some of this, I think, is that I identify at least as much with my past as with my present, and my family and my own early working years were right around the mean. Another we spend a lot of time with other people like us. The people I work with mostly make around the same that I do (which is to say: above the average) and the main affluence differences between us are that they mostly have spouses who work and make as much again, plus have half as many kids as I do. So I'm used to thinking of my circumstances as being comparatively modest, even compared to people a paygrade or two below me.

Still, it's interesting that in our cultural climate, being accused of wealth is somewhat insulting, and that even those far more well off than we are at great pains to insist upon their middle class status.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Nietzsche's Dead God

I've been trying to read Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra as my current audiobook, and it's been pretty hard going. The book itself is not hard to read in the sense of being dense, but it seems hard to get much out of in that it's written as a sort of pseudo-sacred scripture and as such it's full of the Nietzsche's fictionalized Persian wise man Zarathustra laying down wise sayings. It's called a philosophical novel, but although there are a few events, it's mostly just Zarathustra's clever sayings, and as such it's very disjointed and hard to remember, particularly when listening to it as an audiobook.

This morning, however, I hit a section which actually read a little bit like a story, and also seemed like an interesting summary of Nietzsche's ideas about God being dead, and also as a summary of Nietzsche's understanding of and dislike for the Christian idea of God. Zarathustra finds an old black man sitting by the side of the road, and this man proves to have been a servant of God's (this translation calls him the pope -- I don't know if that's in the original German and if it's mean to be the Roman Catholic pope) up until God's death.
"WHAT doth all the world know at present?" asked Zarathustra. "Perhaps that the old God no longer liveth, in whom all the world once believed?"

"Thou sayest it," answered the old man sorrowfully. "And I served that old God until his last hour. Now, however, am I out of service, without master, and yet not free; likewise am I no longer merry even for an hour, except it be in recollections. Therefore did I ascend into these mountains, that I might finally have a festival for myself once more, as becometh an old pope and church-father: for know it, that I am the last pope!—a festival of pious recollections and divine services. Now, however, is he himself dead, the most pious of men, the saint in the forest, who praised his God constantly with singing and mumbling. He himself found I no longer when I found his cot—but two wolves found I therein, which howled on account of his death,—for all animals loved him. Then did I haste away. Had I thus come in vain into these forests and mountains? Then did my heart determine that I should seek another, the most pious of all those who believe not in God—, my heart determined that I should seek Zarathustra!"

Thus spake the hoary man, and gazed with keen eyes at him who stood before him. Zarathustra however seized the hand of the old pope and regarded it a long while with admiration.

"Lo! thou venerable one," said he then, "what a fine and long hand! That is the hand of one who hath ever dispensed blessings. Now, however, doth it hold fast him whom thou seekest, me, Zarathustra. It is I, the ungodly Zarathustra, who saith: 'Who is ungodlier than I, that I may enjoy his teaching?'"

Thus spake Zarathustra, and penetrated with his glances the thoughts and arrear-thoughts of the old pope. At last the latter began:

"He who most loved and possessed him hath now also lost him most. Lo, I myself am surely the most godless of us at present? But who could rejoice at that!"

"Thou servedst him to the last?" asked Zarathustra thoughtfully, after a deep silence, "thou knowest HOW he died? Is it true what they say, that sympathy choked him? That he saw how MAN hung on the cross, and could not endure it? That his love to man became his hell, and at last his death?"

The old pope however did not answer, but looked aside timidly, with a painful and gloomy expression.

"Let him go," said Zarathustra, after prolonged meditation, still looking the old man straight in the eye. "Let him go, he is gone. And though it honoureth thee that thou speakest only in praise of this dead one, yet thou knowest as well as I WHO he was, and that he went curious ways."

"To speak before three eyes," said the old pope cheerfully (he was blind of one eye), "in divine matters I am more enlightened than Zarathustra himself—and may well be so. My love served him long years, my will followed all his will. A good servant, however, knoweth everything, and many a thing even which a master hideth from himself. He was a hidden God, full of secrecy. Verily, he did not come by his son otherwise than by secret ways. At the door of his faith standeth adultery. Whoever extolleth him as a God of love, doth not think highly enough of love itself. Did not that God want also to be judge? But the loving one loveth irrespective of reward and requital. When he was young, that God out of the Orient, then was he harsh and revengeful, and built himself a hell for the delight of his favourites. At last, however, he became old and soft and mellow and pitiful, more like a grandfather than a father, but most like a tottering old grandmother. There did he sit shrivelled in his chimney-corner, fretting on account of his weak legs, world-weary, will-weary, and one day he suffocated of his all-too-great pity."

"Thou old pope," said here Zarathustra interposing, "hast thou seen THAT with thine eyes? It could well have happened in that way: in that way, AND also otherwise. When Gods die they always die many kinds of death. Well! At all events, one way or other—he is gone! He was counter to the taste of mine ears and eyes; worse than that I should not like to say against him. I love everything that looketh bright and speaketh honestly. But he—thou knowest it, forsooth, thou old priest, there was something of thy type in him, the priest-type—he was equivocal. He was also indistinct. How he raged at us, this wrath-snorter, because we understood him badly! But why did he not speak more clearly? And if the fault lay in our ears, why did he give us ears that heard him badly? If there was dirt in our ears, well! who put it in them? Too much miscarried with him, this potter who had not learned thoroughly! That he took revenge on his pots and creations, however, because they turned out badly—that was a sin against GOOD TASTE. There is also good taste in piety: THIS at last said: 'Away with SUCH a God! Better to have no God, better to set up destiny on one's own account, better to be a fool, better to be God oneself!'"

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Point of Tax Deferred Savings

One of the proposals that President Obama will reportedly make in his State of the Union Address is to remove the tax exemption for earnings in 529 college savings accounts.

Right now, the way that a 529 savings account works is that someone (parent, grandparent, etc.) puts money into the 529 savings account for the beneficiary (future college student.) The money that is put in is after-tax money. You don't get to deduct the money you contribute from your income taxes, though some states do allow you to deduct contributions to that state's plan from state income tax. Over time, the savings grow. When the kid goes to college and takes the money out to pay for tuition, books, board, etc., the student does not have to pay taxes on the money earned.

Obama's proposal is that the savings would only be tax deferred, not tax free. Thus, when the student took the money out to pay for college, the student would pay taxes on the capital gains of the money in the account.

So, for sample:

If I put $2k in a savings account for DarwinJr, and fourteen years later that $2k has grown to $10k, which he takes out to help pay for college, currently he would pay no taxes on that $10k, but under Obama's proposal, he would pay taxes on the $8k in investment earnings when he took the money out.

Apparently critics on the left object to 529s and also to retirement savings accounts such as 401ks and IRAs because they figure that the "rich" do more saving than the poor, and so they'd like to tax all possible earnings instead in order to help the poor more, and figure the rich should be able to figure out how to save on their own without any tax benefits.

I have a principled preference that we tax people less, so I'm not much in sympathy with this line of thinking. But I also think there's an interesting behavioral aspect to tax deferred savings accounts such as 529s and 401ks.

See, a couple of the big problems with savings are:

- It's easy to put off doing it: not making the contribution this month.
- If some sort of financial squeeze comes along, the obvious thing to do seems to be to tap the savings and figure you'll make it up later.

Tax exempt savings accounts help with these because many people place an inordinate (indeed, arguably irrational) value on tax exemptions, and they are also inordinately hesitant to incur tax "penalties".

So, with a tax exempt account such as an IRA, where you can write off a certain size contribution to the account each year from your taxes, people place an inordinate emphasis on making sure that they get their contribution in every year.

People are also more inclined to set up to make direct payroll contributions to tax exempt accounts, because that way they "get away" with paying lower taxes. Indeed, payroll often provides a handy calculator which assures you that you'll practically see no less in your take home if you put just a little more into your 401k every check.

So the tax exemption encourages people to be more regular in making their contributions.

Additionally, these same tax exempt accounts tend to come with a hefty penalty that you pay for taking the money out early, and using it for something other than what the account is designed for. (For instance, raiding your 401k to pay for a new furnace, or taking money out of your kids 529 to pay for car repairs.)

These mean that people are much, much less likely to tap these savings early to deal with financial emergencies. This might seem frustrating when the emergency is going on. I know there have been times when we've run into some sort of financial crunch when seeing a 401k statement was maddening. There's $30k that I own and I can't even touch it to deal with this problem! But by forcing people to find other ways to make up those shorter term emergencies, the regulations actually perform a useful service. The biggest thing on your side in longs term savings projects such as saving for retirement is time. Taking money out sets you back a long term, not just because you lose the earnings you would have had on that principle while it was in there, but also because people are generally faster to pay off debts than to build up savings. This isn't super surprising. If you miss putting money in your savings account, you just have a little less saved. If you fail to pay on a loan, they come after you.

So, for instance, I'm dead sure that when we have the Great Boiler Disaster and had to put nearly 10k on our credit cards to get the heat back, we paid that 10k off much faster than we would have re-filled 10k that we'd taken out of savings. Thus, it's probably a good thing that we couldn't raid my 401k, even though at the time it was hugely frustrating to see how much money I "had" in there, but couldn't touch.

All of these, I suspect, roll together to mean that we actually get a pretty good deal, as a polity, by providing modest tax incentives for saving for major life expenses such as college and retirement. Encouraging people to put money into savings, and then making it very hard to get that money out early, means that people will be better provided for for those needs, and less likely to need to fall back on borrowing or state assistance.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 7-1

Vienna. July 25th, 1914. “Is Mother up yet?”

Elsa -- who occupied an amorphous role in the household which included lady’s maid, general light work, and his mother’s companion -- shook her head as she set the coffee pot down next to Jozef. “She did not sleep well last night. I don’t think she will be up before eleven.”


“What did Mother have you bring in for breakfast?” he asked.

“Fruit. I think she was already feeling poorly last night, and she said she wanted nothing but fruit. Would you like some?”

Jozef shook his head and settled down to read the paper instead. If mother was likely to get up around eleven he had an hour to spend, and once he had talked to her he could get a pastry when he met the other fraternity men at the coffee house.

It had been an absolute rule of the household for as long as Jozef could remember that Mother’s half of the flat was never to be entered until she rang for Elsa and asked for her breakfast and mail to be brought in. The layout of the flat lent itself to such privacy. The main door led, through a small passage with a coat closet and hatrack, into the drawing room. From there a hall led back to the dining room, and behind a door the hall continued in more utilitarian style to the kitchen, Elsa’s bedroom, and other rooms into which Jozef and Lisette seldom ventured. To the right and left off the hall between drawing room and dining room opened two doors, one leading into Lisette’s sitting room and bedroom, the other leading into Jozef’s. Even as a little child, the arrangement had been thus, with Nurse having her room set up in the sitting room outside his bedroom. As a child this distance had at times brought heartbreak. Memories of such things had faded into the obscurity of childhood, but there had been times when the three or four-year-old Jozef had cried himself to sleep, wailing that he didn’t want Nurse, he wanted Mother. Lisette, however, had always been firm. From the time she went to bed until the time she rang her morning bell, she was not to be disturbed under any circumstances.

Now, as an adult, he much enjoyed the privacy of the arrangement. Each little suite even had its own back staircase, should one wish to go in and out without going through the main rooms, a feature which he had found useful on occasion when returning home the worse for drink.

Today, however, he had something that he particularly wanted to discuss with Mother, and so their mutual pact of privacy necessitated that he wait until the bell rang. In the meantime, he read the conditions to which the perfidious Serbs would have to agree if they were to avoid punishment for their obvious complicity in the assassination. They would not, of course. If the Serbs were capable of anything other than self destructive defiance they would not have reached this point. But it would be better if it was a sure thing. How many times had some half compromise been accepted to paper the attacks against the empire, and now they were practically the joke of Europe. If only they had simply declared war and not left a loophole of this ultimatum which might allow the bureaucrats and the diplomatists to wriggle their way out of taking any real action yet again.

At last, Elsa passed through the dining room carrying Lisette’s breakfast tray. Jozef waited a few minutes, finishing his cup of coffee and the article he had been reading and then went to see his mother.

Lisette was sitting in her bed, propped and surrounded by pillows, in a kimono-style dressing gown with a black background decorated by a print of huge white and red flowers. Her breakfast tray was set over her lap, and she was carefully cutting a plum with a fruit knife.

Jozef waited for his mother to provide some acknowledgement of his presence, but she gave none. Having removed the pit of the plum and cut the flesh into wedges, she took a sip of tea and began to eat the wedges one at a time with a little fork.


As if sensing that she would not like what he had to say, Lisette remained focused on her breakfast tray, alternating between slices of plum and sips of tea. Jozef resolved to plunge on regardless of her response.

[read the rest]

Monday, January 19, 2015

10 Women That Men Should Under No Circumstances Marry

My main task yesterday was to write a lot of novel (and I did get 1,000 words done for the next installment of The Great War) but I also go side-tracked into having way too much fun with a riff on Facebook. Calah Alexander had posted a link to one of those a-bit-reasonable-combined-with-a-lot-stupid lists of highly generalized relationship advice entitled 10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry. Clare Coffey, who blogs sporadically over at Babes in Babylon, contributed a much more useful list, which Calah has recorded for posterity in a post, which includes such essential advice as:
3. Enchantresses. Yeah, good luck preaching the Word when she makes toads fall out of your mouth every time you open it.
4. Women Who Have Been Turned Into Bears.
5. Keepers of Alehouses. These bawdy temptresses will turn you to demon rum and popery.
6. Selkies. No matter how well you think you’ve hidden her sealskin, trust me, you haven’t.
7. Mermaids. Often confused with selkies, but they will actually just drown you.

Read more:

I couldn't resist getting in on the action, so here is my list of additional relationship danger signs that every guy, Christian or not, should keep in mind:

11) Women you have to bring back from the afterlife first.

No matter how sweet that youthful love was, once she's dead it's best to leave her there. Women who have spent time in the underworld before marriage can never rest easy.

12) The king's wife.

Yes, you've had some chivalrous moments together, but is it really worth loosing war on the entire kingdom over?

13) Semi-goddesses who have spent long ages surrounded by rings of fire.

If you do, however, at all costs avoid taking a potion that will make you forget her and marry someone else. Vengeance will be swift and terrible.

14) The most beautiful woman in the world, whom all your friends also wanted to marry, and then had to promise to go to war to bring back if she was stolen.

Surely the terms and conditions should tip you off as how this could go wrong.

15) Enchantress-priestess-princesses who offer to kill their relatives and help you steal an ancient treasure of her kingdom to complete your quest.

Yes, it seems like a big help, but that is exactly the kind of girl who will kill your children and send your new girlfriend a poisoned crown after a big fight.

16) Volatile teenagers whose cousins you've just killed.

I shouldn't even have to tell you this, you perv.

17) Ambitious Scottish noblewomen with a propensity for killing royal house guests.

Yes, they seem loyal and tough as nails, but they crack under pressure. Stay away unless you're prepared to buy all the perfumes of Arabie to sweeten her little hands.

18) Pretty much anyone in the Julio Claudian line.

Watch I, Claudius if you don't believe me.

19) Daughters of any king who thinks it would be a good idea to retire and divide up his kingdom among his favorite kids.

You'll find yourself caught in the crossfire. And are you starting to get the point about marrying royalty?

20) That foreign princess whom you'd never seen before, who treated her maid so badly when she arrived that the maid has to tell her troubles to a kitchen appliance, and who also asked you to cut the head off her horse.

Surely this should have tipped you off that something funny was going on.

However, that woman who never speaks but is always knitting thistles into shirts, the one everyone is telling you is actually a witch: Don't listen to the haters. She's a keeper.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Great War, Vol. 1, Chapter 6-3

This installment brings the novel to just over 66,000 words and concludes Chapter 6. I'll be posting the first installment of Chapter 7 on Monday night, if all goes according to plan.

Henri was emptying out the chest in which his military uniforms and equipage were stored, making neat stacks on the bed: One dress coat. Two field coats. One overcoat. One pair of dress pants. Two pairs of field pants. Five shirts.

The stacks covered most of Henri’s side of the bed. On the other side sat Philomene, in her nightgown, feet drawn up under her so that no part of her touched his uniforms.

At the very bottom of the chest were his two bags -- officer’s luggage, not packs meant to be worn on the back like a common soldier. He took them out, opened them, and pushed them out into shape. They exhaled the smell of old leather. It had been careless, a reservist’s blunder, to let them sit untouched the whole last year. He should have taken them out and and oiled and polished them. Now they were stiff. He examined them carefully to see if cracks were forming around the creases, but if there was damage to them it was not evident yet. He set them down and began to sort things into them.

Philomene was watching his every move, and the feeling of that gaze resting on him, holding him, saying all of the things which she would not say out loud, made it impossible to meet her gaze. Instead he worked with complete precision, folding each item with deliberation, squaring each stack before he put it in the bag.

“Couldn’t you finish that in the morning and come to bed?”

Henri shrugged. He carefully folded his two field coats and put them in a bag, hanging his dress coat in the closet to wear to mass the next morning.

“There won’t be time. I have to catch the 10:35 to Paris, and by the time we go to mass at eight-- It’s better to get it done now.”

The look she gave him at this was so aggrieved that he dropped the belt he had been rolling up and went around the bed to stand next to her, putting a hand on each shoulder.

“I love you.” He placed two kisses on her forehead, one over each eyebrow. “I just have to finish this packing. There’s just no other time.”

She reached up to grab his wrists, her grip surprisingly strong. “Come to bed.”

“Ma chere. I’m sorry.” If only she too could submerge the desperation of the moment in routine as well. Packing his bags, doing everything with neatness, brought a calm. It was a thing clearly under control and achievable, which allowed him to forget both that he would have to leave his family in the morning for he knew not how long and his own helplessness and uncertainty. Would they immediately attack, or wait to see what action Germany took? Would his reserve regiment be shipped north again from Paris towards the likely front lines facing Alsace or the Ardennes, or would they be left in the reserve defending the city?

But she was already dressed for bed, her hair brushed out, sitting on the bed with her knees pulled up before her. Perhaps if she would just lie down.

“I won’t be much longer. Do you want to lie down? It’s so late already.” He glanced at the clock to confirm his words. Almost two.

“I don’t want to lie down.” There was a tremor in her voice, but Henri made himself go back to packing. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” she continued, when he did not reply. “I want to be with you.”

[continue reading]

Friday, January 16, 2015

On Deliberate Misreading

I thought I had been angry. Darwin saw the latest Hobbit monstrosity and came home and tried to describe it to me, and I sputtered for a while in rage to hear how Peter Jackson had wrested the text into something so divorced from its source material that it could hardly be said to be the same story. At least in this case, though, there's so much deviation from Tolkien's book that no one could claim that Peter Jackson's vision represents anything like the story Tolkien was telling. The movie and the book are almost unrelated. Jackson didn't twist Tolkien. He just borrowed a few names and images and went his merry way.

I thought I had been angry. And then the other night, while Darwin was writing, I felt like watching a movie, and I browsed around, and I picked 2008's Brideshead Revisited, revisited. I thought I had been angry. I didn't know angry.

The trailer should have been the first clue. But surely, I thought, surely trailers often amp up and distort the movie a bit for dramatic purposes, and probably it was compressing a bit to fit it the allotted however many seconds a trailer takes, and the movie couldn't mess up Waugh's story that much.

Now there are many ways to tell a story, and a novel is only one way of depicting reality. A movie adaptation can go deeper than a novel in some ways. It can pick up different nuances, or use visuals to inform mood in a way that a book can't. A movie can create a tapestry of sensual experience to support the story being told. It has to compress, obviously, so it has to pick up on the most important strands of the story. Decisions must be made, plot points must be eliminated. A movie does not have the direct appeal to the intellect that a book does. We accept this. We know the subtext of the book must become much more obvious in a movie because of the visual element.

And movies can lie. This movie lies. The shell of Waugh's story is here. The lush Downton Abbey-esque images we expect from a movie about summer idylls in a country house and upper-class English life in the 20s and 30 are here to lull the viewer into thinking that he might also be getting the essence of the novel. But this is not Evelyn Waugh's Bridehead Revisited, a brilliant novel of nostalgia and moral awakening. The scriptwriter and director have borrowed a word here, a touch there, and created a Brideshead for 2008: an unsubtle didactic melodrama about the meany mean Catholics and the poor persecuted saintly homosexuals, so cute and flamboyant and harmless. Did Waugh write characters with layers, with depth, with humanity? Who needs that when there's a narrative to promote?

The question: Was Lady Marchmain so insufficiently controlling in the book that the movie needed to amp her up to eleven? I had though Emma Thompson an actress of charm and subtlety, rather like Lady M, perhaps, but her Lady Marchmain is an icy monster from the beginning, and in case we didn't get it, the scriptwriters have allowed themselves to improve on Waugh with some cloddish Catholic-baiting so we know, we understand, that Cruel Catholics are the Bad Guys. Lady Marchmain allows of no nuance, no actual human motivation, because people who persecute homosexuals aren't human and shouldn't be portrayed as such.

The movie gets every character so wrong that there's no question here of a new interpretation of Waugh. This, rather, is a deliberate misreading by people so anxious to come down on the Right Side of one of the burning cultural issues of our day (not Waugh's day) that they need to take every pain to alter the story to fit their conception. Julia is now a devout Catholic sacrificed to Rex Mottram, Catholic, for the prestige of the family. Cordelia and Bridey become ridiculous caricatures whose sole purpose is to show how ludicrous it would be for any right-thinking person to embrace any point of Catholicism. Sebastian is... well, Sebastian is a saint, of course, because he's gay. He drinks because he's gay. He's been given this special love from God because he's gay. Sebastian does nothing without reference to gayness, because to allow him to have any other aspect of personality might start to undermine the filmmakers' earnest dichotomy of Catholics: Bad; Gay: Good.

This corrupts the rest of the film too. How could anyone destroy the "Orphans of the Storm" part of the story? How could the filmmakers pass up all the allure of Charles and Julia's tension and desire for a ten-second romp in the hay? How could the beginning of an affair be so tedious? The movie fails on its own terms. I pass over the banalization of Charles's own arc into mere ambition, and the compression of timelines which results in Charles and Julia's relationship growing concurrent to Charles and Sebastian's friendship. These things are appalling, and yet might possibly have been excused on the grounds of the compact nature of a movie, if they'd been done well. But they weren't.

But perhaps all might still have been redeemed at the end if Charles had been allowed to pray at Lord Marchmain's deathbed. If he had been allowed to love Julia just that much, to wish for a sign for her sake, for the solace of her soul. But again the story is distorted. Charles won't pray. Charles can't pray, because he is a stand-in for the filmmakers and their campaign against religious fakery. And so Lord Marchmain's death comes off as one more triumph of Catholic guilt and oppression. Strangely enough, that scene also contained the one truly moving bit for me: Cordelia and Julia praying, begging heaven for a sign of repentance, praying like Hannah with lips moving, every nerve strained to the breaking point. And then Julia's prayer is answered, and her shaky irrepressible smile of release rang so true to me. And yet it was just one tool in the filmmakers' kit box to show how Catholicism corrupts love. At the last moment of the film Charles stands, not before the red light of the tabernacle, but before a candle burning in front of the Madonna and Child, and I was genuinely unsure how far the filmmakers would go at that moment to show their contempt for the Church.

And I was angry. This movie was painful, tear-your-hair-out painful, pull-out-your-teeth painful, Oh-God-how-much-longer painful. I writhed in my seat every time Emma Thompson showed up. I felt Waugh rolling over in his grave. I was driven to profane expression on Facebook, and my mom is on Facebook. Everyone involved in this production ought to have been ashamed of such a bastardized version of a great book. This movie wasn't fun or interesting or thought-provoking. It was, as so much modern art is, all bosh.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Great War, Vol. 1, Chapter 6-2

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. Friday, July 31, 1914.


Philomene’s voice stopped her husband as he was about to leave their room. She was still sitting at her dressing table, her back to him but able to see him in the mirror that stood before her.


“Should I be afraid?” This was the third morning that Henri had dressed quickly, made a quick excuse, and rushed off to read all the Paris morning papers as soon as they arrived at the coffee house. Philomene herself had been so busy with the fete that she had half-welcomed the solitude at breakfast, leaving her own copy of La Croix unread and hurrying off to her errands once she finished her spiritual reading. But this abandonment of routine was unlike her husband. Was this merely his interest in news and politics taken to new lengths, or was some lurking catastrophe waiting to spring out at her while she was focused on worries about her project, as last year she had been so consumed with worries about how she would manage another pregnancy, another baby, until the those worries were swept away by the greater fear inspired by cramps and bleeding?

Henri seemed to be trying to decide how to respond to her question. “Is it as bad as the papers say?” she asked. “Is there going to be a war?”

He stepped back over to stand behind her chair and placed his hands on her shoulders. She could feel the comforting warmth of his touch through the cotton fabric of her summer blouse.

“I don’t know if there will be a war. Austria has mobilized and shelled Belgrade. Russia has mobilized against Austria. Germany has demanded that Russia stand down. Britain has recalled their fleet. It is at least as dangerous as it was five years ago with the Bosnian Crisis. But nothing came of that, so there is hope. There are a great many people working for peace.”

“Are you afraid, Henri?”

[Continue reading]

Monday, January 12, 2015

Having That Kid In Church

We have this routine, in church, the children and I. This last week was a good example, as MrsDarwin was cantoring the mass. This means that her only time to sit with the family is during the sermon. For the first half, she's up front, leading the opening hymn, the psalm, the gospel acclamation, and the sung parts of the ordinary. Then she sits with us during the sermon, and when we rise to say the creed she goes up to the choir loft to lead the rest of the singing from there.

The eight of us take up a long pew, but since we have to arrive early for MrsDarwin to sing, we can usually score one. The big three (ages 12 to 8) I can count on. They pay attention, follow along in the missalette and music issue, and can generally be relied upon to behave -- so long as no disagreement over precedence of seating order to the desperate desire to hush the younger children takes over.

The younger three... Well. They sit on both sides of and on top of me, and trade places routinely until I have to take some combination of them out.

Jack is six, and he does so mean to be good. He kneels down and bows his head devoutly and concentrates all of the unbounded energy of the six year old male on devotion for a good minute or two. Then he turns to the baby to make a face, reaches out to grab the baby's hand, is reminded, becomes devout again, then decides that he would really like to take his sister's place and make a stand for capturing the aisle seat. Were he alone and surrounded by grown ups in the pews before and behind, he would really do quite well. But there are just so many distractions.

Four-year-old Diana does not often buckle down for the thirty seconds of devout silence that Jack manages. She squirms, she looks around, she pokes at the baby, she considers whether she might get more attention if she were the baby, and then she resolves on going to the bathroom.

And the baby? William is almost thirteen months old, which means that he's reached that age where he's unlikely to fall asleep just because he's held in a parent's arms or given a pacifier. He likes to scramble about, and he likes to experiment with all the different sounds he can make with the wonderful mouth and tongue and lungs with which he was endowed by his creator. And he lacks any comprehension at all of what you mean by making those shushing noises at him. Should he make shushing noises? Well, it's not quite as fun as spitting or giving sudden loud squeaks, but he'll try it for a moment, before moving on to another trick like chewing the wrong side of the pacifier or throwing it at the old lady in the pew in front. He's almost never angry or sad in church, the problem is that he's not quietly happy, he's loudly happy. And so I tend to spend at least half of every mass standing in the back with him. The vestibule is somehow sobering for young William. He immediately quiets down and becomes contemplative. He remains quiet until the moment you try to bring him back to the pew, at which he sees all the nice people around him and begins to talk again. It's a great game. If you're thirteen months old and a cute fellow, you should try it too.

Given that William is the sixth child, none of this is at all new. The difference is that I'm finally getting used to it. Maybe it's that we have a fairly tolerant priest, or that by this point I've had far more people tell me after mass, "You have such wonderful children. And your wife's voice is so beautiful too." But I think that a lot of it is simply getting older and realizing there's really nothing I can do about it. I can be angry, or I can be calm, and the same things will happen.

Indeed, that was what was striking me this last Sunday, when I not only had to take William out for most of the mass but had to take miss four-year-old out as well. Unconscious of any disgrace at being removed, she skipped cheerfully down the aisle in front of me as we took the long walk back to the vestibule and then sat herself down on the heater and announced she was going to toast her bottom. William was at the top of his form, being silently submissive in the back and then boisterously chirruping when back in the pew, so we were in and out several times.

I couldn't tell from the backs in front of me whether this would be a week when they turned around after mass to smile and say what a wonderful family we had, or stalked out right after communion, shaking their heads and leaving a no mans land around us. And since there really was no telling, since it was truly out of my control: Why worry about it? The same cheerful-but-too-loud baby sounds can make one person angry and another smile indulgently, and if I have no control over which, in a sense it really doesn't matter. I continue to do my best to make sure that there are not distracting levels of noise in the church proper, whether that means taking the baby out or letting him silently scramble around my feet and see if he can find some contraband gum dried onto the bottom of the pew to pick at. And whether they choose to ignore him, be charmed, or be angry is really much more their own affair than mine.

Family History

The Baton Rouge Advocate has an article about East Baton Rouge's first, and only, female sheriff, who happened to be my great-grandmother, Eudora Slaughter Day.
The events leading up to Day’s election as East Baton Rouge’s only woman sheriff began on March 29, 1924. That was the day her husband was on patrol with another deputy when they stopped to break up a fight in the parking lot of a gambling hall off Scenic Highway. After they quelled the discord, Robert Day and his deputy went into the building and found some bettors. 
“They were taking names of gamblers down in a back room when, for some reason, shots were fired,” said Eastin, whose research, compiled mostly from old newspaper articles and reviews of old laws, will be the subject of an upcoming presentation. “They say somebody ‘blew out the light’ and fired a pistol.” 
In addition to the sheriff, at least one of the gamblers was fatally shot. Another was shot in the stomach and later developed pneumonia, but Eastin couldn’t find any record of his death. The deputy with Day wasn’t injured. 
The violence led to the bittersweet and historic appointment of the first and only female sheriff in parish history. It appears that Eudora Day would have been the first female sheriff in the state if not for Ella McCoy Gilbert, who was appointed Franklin Parish sheriff for a brief time after her husband, Jesse S. Gilbert, died while serving as sheriff in February 1924. 
Regardless, it would take a campaign featuring daily marches and the offering of classes where residents were taught how to write-in “E.S. Day” on the ballot for Day to prevail in the election. 
The teachers at the school, which was on Third Street, shortened her name to “E.S. Day” because it was easier to write, especially for anyone with subpar literacy. 
Campaigners even developed a slogan — “Don’t Stamp the Rooster” — in an effort to prevent voters from electing Day’s opponent, Edward B. Young, who appeared under the Democratic Party’s section of the ballot, which then was identified by a rooster.
What the article doesn't mention is that the Klu Klux Klan supported her opponent and ran both over-handed and under-handed campaigns against her. Big newspapers ads were run alleging that it was illegal to write in a candidate, and that anyone who did so would be prosecuted and face jail time. Despite these tactics, on the day of the election the turnout was 75%, the largest voting percentage in East Baton Rouge's history, and most of the voters didn't vote the whole ticket but only wrote in "E.S. Day" for sheriff.

My grandfather was 16 when his father was shot. The the originals of the photographs in the Advocate article used to hang at my grandparents house, and the resemblance between Grandpa and his father the sheriff was very striking. My mom was 10 or 11 when Eudora Day died in 1965, and remembers her well.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Great War, Vol. 1, Chapter 6-1

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 28, 1914. Henri was shown into the library at the Perreau house. It was a small room, smelling comfortably of leather and pipe tobacco. The shelves were filled with handsomely bound volumes, and the wood of the shelves glistened with careful dusting and polishing. However, if someone went so far as to pull a volume from it’s place, it proved to have plentiful dust on the top edge. The only reading material that showed actual wear was a rack of magazines relating to Justin Perreau’s two interests: photography and bird watching.

“Monsieur Perreau will be in shortly,” said the maid who had shown him in. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Then she left, shutting the door behind her.

There was only one visibly comfortable chair in the room, a large, worn, leather easy chair. A standing lamp and magazine rack stood on one side of it, the smoking table on the other. It spoke to much time spent in pleasantly reclusive solitude.

Henri sat instead on one of the two wooden chairs facing the desk and set his ledger book down on the desktop before him.

It was some minutes before Justin arrived. At last he burst in, making Henri start, then stopped to shut the door quietly behind him before going to his desk and sitting down.

“I’m sorry to be late, Monsieur Fournier. Mother becomes quite angry if either of us get up before she has finished with her tea.”

Henri shrugged. “You’re my last appointment of the day. I’m at your disposal.”

“Thank you, thank you.” Justin leaned forward and spoke in a lower voice. “What have you found?”

Henri opened the ledger book and laid it open on the desk facing Justin. “As you requested, I’ve conducted a full audit. This page shows the summary of income and assets.”

In neat columns, each of the family’s farm holdings and each of its financial investments was laid out, labeled, valued, and its income and expenses during each of the last three years listed. Writing out this ledger book for his client, all in pen with no mistakes, had been the work of several days, pulling together all of the figures, laying out the table in pencil on a loose sheet of paper, and then copying it carefully into the book. Many hours of interviews were reduced to figures, many hours of calculating figures summarized on a single page, all to provide the client with a view of his assets and income which made it easy for him to understand and make decisions about an estate too complicated for him to easily keep track of himself.

“Really, the estate is in very good condition,” Henri said, once he had run through the entire list, explaining each entry. “However, as you requested, I looked especially for any problems, any failures of management. I have found a few. There are two categories. The first, if I may summarize it bluntly, is that your mother plays favorites among the tenant farmers.”

Justin was nodding eagerly. Henri turned a page in the ledger.

“Here is one of the cases: Victor Morand. Five years ago he had the tenancy of sixty acres and owed you three hundred Francs in back rent. On your mother’s authorization he was given a loan by the estate for an additional five hundred Francs to buy additional equipment, and when Eloy died she gave Morand his tenancy as well, for the same rent that Eloy had paid, even though that was a below market rate due to his age. Since then Morand has fallen behind an additional one hundred Francs in rent, and he’s missed payments on his loan twice. There are two other, similar cases.” He flipped pages in the ledger, showing the summary of each case. “All three I was first tipped off to by other tenants who claimed, with some reason, that they would have been better choices for the additional land. The playing of favorites definitely causes some resentment.”

“And the other category?”

Continue Reading

Thursday, January 08, 2015

More Story Time

The Murder That Never Lasted

narrated by Jack, age 6

There was a mom and a girl walking home from church. Suddenly a man shot the mother and stole her necklace and earrings. The little girl remembered the phone number of the police, and she took the phone from her mom's pocket and called the police. She told them that they were right in front of St. Charles Church. The police came right away with an ambulance and a police car.

The murderer, when he saw the police, slipped right away, climbing up a tree. A policeman saw him. The murderer jumped down and ran to his car. The policeman who saw him told the others that the man was escaping, so they went after him, but they lost him. But luckily they put a medal that tracked down the car on his car, and they were right next to him when the policeman shot out his tires. The murderer jumped out of his car and stole a police motorcycle. But luckily it didn't start because the police had the keys. But the murderer stole the keys of another one. He started the motorcycle, but when he saw the time bomb the police put on it, he ran from the motorcycle. Suddenly it blew up. When he was knocked out from a car hitting him, the police dragged him to jail.

Meanwhile the ambulance was taking the mother to the hospital. When the doctors found the bullet during the operation, they called the police. The police came right away. The little girl asked a policeman if her mother would be okay. The policeman said, "No. She will not. We will have to bury her."

When it was time for the mom to be buried, the little girl saw them putting her mom in the coffin. Suddenly she told the policeman, "No, wait! My mom is alive! Put her on the ground. I'll say something to her."

So the little girl said, "Mom, are you alive?" The mom said, "Yes! When the bullet was coming at me I said a prayer, and I got dizzy and fell down, but I didn't die."

The police said, "But we already found the bad guy. It's okay." Suddenly the mom fell back down on the ground and told the policeman to call the ambulance, and she told her daughter that she was going to have a baby.

So she had a baby and she called him Frederick, and for the rest of their lives, things went right. But when Frederick was five, someone was about to kidnap his sister when Frederick punched him in the stomach and called the police. The police came and dragged the kidnapper to jail. But the kidnapper escaped and bumped into a wall and they lived happily ever after.

The End

This story was written by Jack Hodge.

Story Time

The Murder of the Bloody Gun

Narrated by Jack, age 6

Part One

Once there was a lady. She was walking home from a ball when suddenly, a man snuck up and shot her. When the police came running up to the dead body, the policeman called for Chief Inspector Jack.

Part Two

Chief Inspector Jack inspected the body. He said, "Aha! There are bloody footmarks. If we follow the footmarks, we can find the murderer." So they did, but the marks didn't lead to the murderer. They led them to the park, where a bloody gun was found.

This Is Not The End.

More Science Report


by A Naughty Moose, age 8

Some of your sensory organs are located in your head: your eyes, ears, taste buds, and organs of smell. Did you know that your brain controls your whole body? Your brain controls your eyes, ears, arms, Legs, hands and feet. If you had no brain you could do nothing.

Science Report

Isaac Newton

by Julia, age 11

Isaac Newton was born on christmas day but their calenders were diffrent so he was born on January 4 1642. Isaac was born early and they didnt think week tiny Isacc would survive. When he was ten he moved to a diffrent school since it was seven miles away Isaac stayed with a family called the Clarke's. Mr Clarke was a apothecary Isaac learned basic cemistry from Mr Clarke.

Isaac's mother wanted Isaac to be a farmer but Isaac's uncle and school teacher pleated with his mother to let him go to a univeristy and she finnaly agread. He mannley studied Greek and latin espesily Aristotle. In the year 1665 Isaac passed his exam for a bachelor degree. Pretty much as soon as he passed the exam he had to leave because of the plauge. Isaac went to stay at his mothers house.

Isaac saw a Apple fall and he wonderd what made the apple fall and that is Gravity. Isaac Newton also made the telascope. He and another man made the compass (calculus) without knowing the other Leibniz had a fight and Isaac won but we use Leibniz's compass insted. Isaac Newton was one of the men of all time.