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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Link Awakens

There's a good post over at First Things about the latest Star Wars movie which highlights some of the same things which MrsDarwin discussed about the movie, and links to her in the process.

The heroes of the movie were instantly charming, thanks to some canny writing and the overwhelming appeal of their young actors. There’s conscientious deserter stromtrooper Finn (John Boyega), orphan scavenger and Force prodigy Rey (Daisy Ridley), loyal pilot Poe Damaron (Oscar Isaac), and even the spherical droid BB-8. In each small moment of their interaction, this movie is not afraid to make these characters unabashed good guys: warm, compassionate, and (when duty or destiny calls) heroic in the face of their fears. They easily slip into joyful friendships with each other and with returning scoundrel Han Solo. As DarwinCatholic pointed out, this is “willing-the-good-for-the-other friendship, pursuit-of-the-good friendship,” the kind to make a virtue ethicist’s heart sing. Poe gives Finn his name when Finn deserts the side of evil with only a number to go by. Finn celebrates Rey’s astonishing feats of piloting, and she his crack marksmanship. BB-8 uses one of its robotic attachments to mimic Finn’s thumbs-up. Han offers Rey a home and hope on the Millenium Falcon. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers chose not to reheat Han Solo and Princess Leia’s bickering chemistry for their new lead young leads: after every other franchise has tried to ape this dynamic, Star Wars gets to feel fresh simply by having its leads become genuine friends.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Fiction and Moral Realism

E Milco has a post at The Paraphasic which put a name to something I've been thinking about for a while:

The term "moral realism" is normally (I think) used in contrast to "moral subjectivism". In this sense, moral realism is a view which holds that moral truths are objectively real and independent of any particular person's frame of mind, whereas moral subjectivism hangs the reality of morality on the contingencies of this or that person's understanding and context.

In this post I will be using "moral realism" in a different way, unrelated to the realism/subjectivism distinction, and instead derived from the use of the word "realism" in literary criticism, where it refers to narratives which attempt to portray personalities and events with the complexity and incongruities of ordinary life, instead of weaving worlds out of simplistic tropes or ideal types. (Note that the use of tropes and types is not necessarily bad, but makes for a different kind of fiction.)

Moral realism as I use it here has to do first of all with the way a narrative portrays the moral dimension of events and personalities (i.e. the aspects related to habits of decision making, right and justice, courage and perseverance, honesty, humility and self-control), and the way the portrayal of this moral dimension of things directs the viewer's understanding of their nature and significance. Specifically, moral realism is a characteristic of narratives which deal directly with that moral dimension of things, but in such a way that the reader or viewer is not directly given an abstract principle of behavior (whether through the use of contrived plots or narratorial comment), but allowed to see different habits, virtuous and vicious, at work in people, and to abstract for himself whatever moral principles he discovers in the narrative.

Moral realism is one of the things that has come to appeal to me a great deal in fiction, and it drives the approach that I've been taking in writing The Great War. As such, I'd like to draw on Milco's concept a bit and see if I can make some classifications.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from moral realism, we find stories focused around some sort of moral dualism. These are "What side are you on?" narratives in which the big moral action that a character takes is taking one of two sides in some sort of titanic struggle. This can be done in a fantastic context. Will Luke align with the Light Side or the Dark Side of the force? Do characters in Harry Potter align with the Death Eaters or with the Order of the Phoenix? However, these "pick sides" kind of dualities can also be non-fantastic. In the play "The Cradle Will Rock", moral choice is centered around whether to side with the labor organizers in Steeltown or with the greedy corporate interests. In Ken Follet's The Fall of Giants, characters tend to be tagged as good or bad based on how they align in relation to specific movements: Do they support the workers or the powerful? Do they support or oppose women's rights? However, not every story which involves two sides is necessarily of this moral dualism type. For instance, Lord of the Rings is often referred to as a "clash of good against evil" kind of narrative, and it is in that there are moral concerns writ large which drive the plot. However, it is not a "which side are you on" type of narrative, in that moral choice does not simply involve "Are you supporting Sauron or opposing him?" as shown by the fall of characters such as Boromir.

Another stop along the spectrum is the heroes and scoundrels structure. This is a narrative in which much of the conflict is driven by the conflict between good characters and bad characters, but in which moral choice is not actually a major factor in the storyline. An example of this which occurs to me right away is Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. Although they center around the Napoleonic land campaigns, the treatment of the French and British sides is moderately even-handed. Although Sharpe is himself a highly effective soldier and fights hard for the British, it's stated repeatedly that if he had been born French he would have fought just as hard for the French. Every so often we meet quite admirable French characters. However, the plots are driven by conflicts between Richard Sharpe and absolutely loathsome villains: Pierre Ducos, Philippe Leroux, etc. on the French side, Obadiah Hakeswill, Sir Henry Simmerson, and others on the British. These villains tend to be put together as many vices as possible (cruelty, venality, greed, dishonesty) and Sharpe fights against their perfidy as much as against the French army. However, while this might seem like a less simplistic moral story world in that it there is no overarching good or bad side, in a way this is the most simplistic at all in that resorting to story conflicts between our main characters and such cartoonishly wicked villains means that moral choice isn't actually a major factor in driving the story. Sharpe doesn't have to choose what is good, he simply has to defeat these obviously very bad people.

Some other stories simply don't spend much time on moral choices. In a sense, I'm more hesitant here, in that by talking about something which I think isn't there, I may simply be talking about my having missed something, so I encourage people to chime in if they disagree with me. This doesn't necessarily mean that these are amoral stories, it just means that making moral choices does not play as a major driver of the plot and character development. Two examples that spring to mind of books which I enjoy a great deal that I think fall in this category are Alan Furst's espionage novels and Patrick O'Brian's nautical adventures. In Furst novels, I sometimes feel this leaves a bit of a hollow core to them. I love the historical research and mood of these novels -- set in the political and military underworld just as World War II is looming over Europe -- but they mostly involve a character being sucked into this underworld and fighting against encroaching fascism, there's actually very little sense of moral choice or moral consequence in the novels. Perhaps that's a function of their bleak tone. The O'Brian novels are certain not bleak. They're filled with humor and incident and adventure and colorful characters. O'Brian does not indulge in the sort of cheap conflict which arises from having his heroes fight absolutely wicked villains. Most of the antagonists that we actually meet are fairly honorable men, and Jack Aubrey sometimes feels quite low after having to fight an action in which brave and honorable enemies die -- though while the action is going on he's all exhilaration. But in part because Aubrey is a very instinctual character while Maturin is a secretive and decided one, the books simply don't focus much on moral choices as a driver of conflict.

So what novels are examples of moral realism? Brideshead Revisited, certainly one of my favorite novels, is one which I would class in this category. I think that's also what gives Rumer Godden's novels such as China Court and This House of Brede such appeal. Jane Austen's novels are also very much driven by characters thinking about, making, and dealing with the consequences of moral choices in a complex, everyday setting. I think there are also cases to be made for more fantastic stories having at least elements of moral realism. Lord of the Rings and Ender's Game are two that occur to me right off.

Applying moral realism to a type of situation which is too often written in one of the other modes that I've listed is also what drew me to The Great War as a project. I wanted to write about the conflicts of the early 20th century, starting with World War One, through a lens of everyday experience and the kind of moral conflicts and consequences that ordinary people faced when plunged into these cataclysmic situations.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 16-2

Once again, a little late, but I hope people will enjoy it.

Jozef returned to Vienna in order to try to secure a commission, and while he's there visits Friedrich who has been wounded in the war.

My plan is to have the concluding segment of Chapter 16 up before the New Year.

Vienna, Austria-Hungary. December 7th, 1914. The streets of Vienna were as busy as ever, busier because in addition to the usual crowds the sidewalks were full of soldiers. Officers in full dress uniforms walked in ones or twos, some in dress blue with shining brass buttons, others in formal white with red sashes and glittering medals. Common soldiers milled along in twos and threes or whole huddled groups, set off by their loosely fitting blue-grey tunics and black visored caps. Men who had never seen such broad streets and tall buildings before craned their necks this way and that, and clustered in confusion around the streetcar stops trying to read maps and schedules. On the beer halls and music halls the electric lights flashed and dazzled.

Street cars and busses added their bass rumble to the street noise. And in the background there was another, more unsettling sound. Voices from the shadows called, “Help a soldier of the Fatherland!” “Aid a wounded veteran!”, where men with missing arms or legs, wearing grubby army greatcoats against the cold, sat tucked against the walls of buildings and held out cups or cans to collect coins.

One of these men had been standing against the wall of the train station as Jozef first stepped out into the street. The beggar’s uniform tunic had no markings of unit or rank, but one leg of his blue-grey pants was pinned up empty. He held out a tin cup in which he jingled coins and called out to passersby.

Jozef hurried past, looking away.

The man gave off a reek, sensible even on the cold December evening: alcohol and sweat and grime. There were always beggars, hustlers, and street walkers in the busy parts of the city. With millions of men called up into uniform, there must be among those the wastrels, the alcoholics, the petty criminals. If this man had been injured in the last few months’ fighting, he must be on the streets because he was one of these. Surely the empire would not allow one of its honorable soldiers to be left without support after losing a limb in the service of his country.

And yet the presence of half a dozen such men near the train station, and the indifference of the passing crowds to them, was unsettling.

After a streetcar ride and a walk of several blocks, lugging his suitcase and wondering if it had been necessary to bring all of the things he had originally packed for the week at the Revay country house, Jozef reached his mother’s flat. The porter greeted him enthusiastically and asked if he was back in Vienna for long.

“Your mother will be glad to see you. She speaks of you all the time.”

“Is she in?”

“Yes. Do you want me to have the boy carry your bag up for you?”

Jozef considered the three flights of stairs and consented.

He paused when he reached the familiar door. The boy was still thumping his way up the last flight of stairs. How long had it been? Four months since he had gone out this door, still in civilian clothes, to catch the military train to Hungary and training. Did he still live here? Should he knock or simply let himself in with the key that he still carried in his pocket?

It was still his home. He took the key from his pocket and was about to put it to the lock when his uncle’s revelations about his mother suggested several possibilities to his mind. He knocked.

Elsa, his mother’s maid, opened the door.

“Oh, it’s you. Don’t you have a key?” she asked.

This seemed a rather cold way to greet a returning soldier. “It’s been a long time. I don’t know where it is,” Jozef lied.

“They’re not free to have made. If you’re back for a time, you’d better look for it.”

She turned and started back into the flat. The boy had reached the top of the stairs and set down the suitcase, then headed back down. Jozef looked back and forth, abandoned on both sides.

“Is Mother in?” he asked, taking the suitcase himself and carrying it into the flat.

“Of course she’s in.” Elsa was hurrying back towards his mother’s suite. “She’s getting ready to go out. She’s going to dinner at Baroness von Miko’s tonight, and she’s not ready yet.”

Jozef found Lisette sitting at her dressing table, where Elsa had returned to putting up her mistress’s hair.

“Why, Jozef!” cried Lizette, speaking to his image in the mirror over his dressing table, so that she would not disrupt Elsa’s work by turning her head. “So good to see you. It’s been a long time. And you never write.”

Continue reading

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On the Lost Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me: Sleep

Sometime after midnight Mass, I woke up feeling strange. Sometime after 8 am, when the alarm went off, I woke up feeling stranger, and it wasn't because the kids were standing beside the bed begging to know when we were all going downstairs. Sometime before the 11:00 Mass for which I was the cantor, I started to feel achy, and breakfast was most definitely unappealing.

When one must sing, one must sing, though, so I went to church in my pajamas and sang the Mass from the choir loft (and thank God for the choir loft, I say, and for ailments that don't involve my throat). By that time, I'd started to shake, so I went home, and went to bed, and didn't wake up for five hours, and only then to sit at the table for about half an hour and push some potatoes around my plate.

While I was collapsed, Darwin supervised the gift opening, and made Christmas dinner and the cake for the newly-minted birthday boy. The last time I spent all Christmas in bed was two years ago on the occasion of the fellow's birth, and in the blessings-counted category I must say that I didn't feel as bad this holiday as I did on that one. But on this day, as that, Darwin did all the things that needed doing and let me rest as much as I needed. I received no better gift this Christmas.

I'm dragging myself around today, feeling slightly off balance but with 75% less full body ache. I don't know what it was, and I hope it goes away, and I'm sorry to have missed Christmas with the family, but I'm glad to have the opportunity to know how much my family loves me.

And for your delectation, a gratuitous shot of Mr. Two-Year-Old himself, in his Christmas/birthday finery. Look, I may be biased, but this fellow is the most delightful boy in the whole world, so sweet and funny and chatty and full of it. He is simply the Best. And he wishes all of you a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent, Day 24: Presentable

I tried something novel this year: I wrapped Christmas presents before 11:59pm on December 24. Last year's gift concealment strategy involved keeping everything sealed up in the Amazon boxes until Christmas Eve, but this year we're trying the hiding in plain sight tactic, in which we actually set everything out under the kids' eye, carefully hidden under a thin paper skin. So far so good -- William (age 2 on Christmas Day) has only unwrapped one present, and his siblings responded so clamorously that I think he has been scared off from the pile.

The gifts under the tree (or on the table next to tree, depending on what the junior strategists think is the safest location) is pretty enough, I guess, but in my heart of hearts I find I prefer leaving everything in shipping boxes. It's easy and low fuss, and low fuss is my gifting modus operandi. It's not that I don't like presents. I do, and I always appreciate receiving a gift. It's not that I don't like giving presents. I do, more as time passes and my children get older, and bonus points if I can find something just exactly right. But gifts always seem like an add-on, something gratuitous (in the finest meaning of the word). They seem like something that has to be remembered, instead of the main focus.

Back when we were all taking the Love Languages quiz, I found that my gift-giving inclination was precisely 0% while my quality time inclination was through the roof. That squares neatly with what I know of myself, and fortunately Darwin is similarly inclined, so our birthdays and Christmases are always peaceful occasions gift-wise (and in most other respects, too). And yet somehow my kids feel the urge to buy a present for every member of the family, which entails begging mother for hours on end to take you to Kroger or Kohl's or Meijer, pleeeease Mom? And it is a small but real sacrifice for me to take them, because I don't care. I am reluctant to have more small pieces of junk enter my house in the name of the Christ's birth, and yet I understand that the impulse to give to others is noble and must be honored and channeled in ways that do not involve my staying comfortably ensconced spending quality time with the couch.

But I find that I'm that way with much of the paraphernalia of Christmas. In past years we've bought our tree one or two days before Christmas. Our house is never bedecked with lights. There is no garland wrapped around the staircase, no stockings hung, and that's because these things really are unimportant to me. But they do have a stronger significance to the children, it seems, and so for their sake alone I try to at least facilitate their Christmas cheer. I am fortunate to have so many opportunities to achieve the small martyrdom of having to do something I don't really care that much about out of love for those who do care. This is, perhaps, my path to Heaven, and these days, it feels like the only way I might be getting to Heaven, because I don't really live a life of suffering and self-denial otherwise.

Advent, Day 23: Star Wars and the Life of Virtue

We went in two shifts to see Star Wars last night: first the big three girls had the full movie experience, standing in line in the cold to get their tickets, and then they came home to babysit the younger two while Darwin and I took Master Jack (age 7) to the later show. The big girls didn't want to have Jack along because he is a boy, and a younger brother to boot, and I knew that no matter how brave a seven-year-old dude is, sometimes he still needs to snuggle next to his mom during a scary part in the movie. And so it was.

I shall not spoil the movie for you. It is big and entertaining. It is superior to the prequels. It is visually stunning. It is also no spoiler to say (as has every major review) that you've seen this movie already. You will see plot points coming from 10,000 feet, and this first becomes obvious from the very scene after the yellow exposition crawls up the star field. No matter. A plot is a terrible thing to waste. It worked the first time, and it basically works here. So. Fun, funny, and technically brilliant, and by itself, not original enough to stick with you all that long after you walk out of the theater. What, then, is the difference?

Rey and Finn are the difference. The two heroes of the piece, she a young scavenger with a certainly-not-accidental resemblance to Natalie Portman (no spoiler; we've all seen the trailer), and he a Storm Trooper horrified at the job he's ordered to do. These two characters are the soul of the movie, and that soul is a virtuous soul. And God be praised, I mean virtue in the good, classical sense of a habit to the good. Our earliest glimpses of Finn come when he has to make a serious moral choice, under serious circumstances. Rey, also early on, demonstrates a strong sense of loyalty and faithfulness that will drive her actions through the rest of the movie. Once they meet each other, they immediately become moral lodestones for one another, not just strengthening the other when they're together, but becoming a compass for the other when they're apart.

This is a movie that celebrates friendship. Not just buddy-buddy friendship (though we have some of that too, and that bond, too, is delightful), but willing-the-good-for-the-other friendship, pursuit-of-the-good friendship. A friendship that takes joy in the other person. "Naturally," you say. "Of course friends take joy in one another." And let me ask you: did Leia and Han Solo really take joy in one another? They had a lot of chemistry, sure. And that chemistry was mostly bound up in throwing hate-sparks until they finally caught fire. Sexy, yeah. Joyful? Not really. And this joy is, to me, the stuff of great love stories.

Others disagree. I saw someone online complaining that Rey "friendzoned" Finn. Aside from the odious term friendzoning, championed by men who didn't get the sex they thought they were entitled to from the girl they thought was obligated to give it, this complaint boils down to the fact that our two heroes are not dripping sex appeal all over each other. And God be praised, what a refreshing change that is. That's not to say that there isn't any chemistry between them, because there is. But it's a slow-burning chemistry on a long and healthy fuse. C.S. Lewis has something apropos to say about it in his chapter on Eros in The Four Loves:
There may be those who have first felt mere sexual appetite for a woman and then gone on at a later stage to "fall in love with her." But I doubt if this is at all common. Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved -- a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn't leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. he is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, "To go on thinking of her." He is love's contemplative. And when at a later stage the explicitly sexual element awakes, he will not feel (unless scientific theories are influencing him) that this had all along been the root of the whole matter. He is more likely to feel that the incoming tide of Eros, having demolished many sand-castles and made islands of many rocks, has now at last with a triumphant seventh wave flooded this part of his nature also -- the little pool of ordinary sexuality which was there on his beach before the tide came in. Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country. It may have taken over many others before it reaches the sex in him; and it will reorganise that too.
(Change "he" for "she" if you like -- it works both ways in this movie.)

And this delight, and this pre-occupation, is evident in the way that the abandoned Rey, waiting for something or someone on the desert planet of Jakku, and the frightened Finn, without family or identity as a Storm Trooper, cling to one another and form a instant proto-family together. It's love at first sight -- not erotic love, but familial love. And it is good to see. In Finn and Rey's physical interactions, there is what I would describe, oddly enough, as chastity. They are not cold, nor are they asexual. Their interactions are very much informed by the fact that she is a woman and he is a man. And yet the sense of them genuinely wanting the good for each other is so strong that it transcends mere sex appeal. There is a purity, something unsullied, in the way they look at each other. (Much credit here to the clear-eyed actress Daisy Ridley, and to John Boyega for being equal to her gaze.) By contrast, Kylo Ren, the unstable Sith apprentice (or bad Jedi or Dark Side acolyte -- he falls somewhere in here on the scale of villainy) does not want the best for Rey, and although their interactions aren't overtly sexual, there is a different, more personal undertone of menace in the way he approaches her than he had in the exact same circumstances with a male.

Your standard Hollywood template of a relationship is that male and female meet and spark, one of them lies to the other, gets caught out, and has to spend the rest of the story rebuilding trust. I hate this storyline, with the fire of a sun sucked into a Starkiller. And whatever J.J. Abrams's flaws as a director may be, I love him and his scriptwriting committee for rising above this hackneyed romance line and giving us two characters who are trying to be virtuous with one another. The most striking, lovely moment (for me; I like this stuff) is when Finn tells Rey the truth about himself, unforced by anything except his honesty and his respect for her, and she looks directly at him, past the facts of his history, and says, "Don't go." And anyone who can see that scene and describe such a relationship as "friendzoning" deserves to fail in all romantic endeavors. IMHO.

Star Wars: go for the hype, stay for the virtue ethics.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 16-1

We're back with Jozef in the Austro-Hungarian hussars, but right now he's striving not against enemy fire but family secrets and a love affair which may not be going as he'd like.

I was sick last week, and that made it impossible to pull the kind of consistent late nights that seem to be essential to getting work done. The novel now weights in at 216k words. I'm consistently running a bit long right now. Wrapping up Jozef will take two more installments totaling around 10k. Then we go back to Natalie, which should bring the novel to nearly 240k, right there. The final three shorter chapters will bring that total to 255-260. And at the rate I'm going, my best shot is to be done by the end of January.

However, I have lots of time off coming. Expect this chapter done before the new year, and hopefully some of Natalie as well. I hope you enjoy it.

Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. December 5th, 1914.
Uncle Henrik poured brandy into two glasses and handed one of them to Jozef.

“It’s good to have you here again, my boy. And for a whole week. I trust the leave wasn’t too hard to come by? We were starting to think you didn’t care for us anymore. It’s been nearly a month.”

“No difficulty. Rittmeister Koell sends his compliments to you.”

In truth, the Rittmeister had been all too willing to let him go on a week long pass. In the middle of November, as the army scraped for men to fill the ranks in the winter counter-attack in Galicia, Oberstleutnant Zingler had at last been gratified in his ambitions and received orders to take half the regiment to the front as replacements for active duty regiments badly mauled in the autumn’s fighting. The squadrons had been reformed based on age and fitness so that three, consisting of the most battle-ready men could move out. Two of the cadets had received their commissions and left with the replacement squadrons. Three others had received orders to join various other units. One was laid up in the barracks with a broken pelvis, the result of a bad fall while riding. And that left Jozef, the sole cadet in a half reserve unit in which remained only the officers who had been deemed unfit for frontline duty or had successfully used connections to continue their quiet existence far from the cannon’s roar.

It had been a day full of chaos and excitement as horses, equipment, and at last men were loaded on the rail cars, but a grim one for Jozef who had to watch as a spectator like the many wives and lovers who had turned out to see their men off. At last, he had gone back to his room and begun to draft a third letter to the commission board, asking to be given an assignment to a front line unit. What could he say that he had not already said in the previous two? Beg? Demand? Claim influence? He had been crumpling another draft when an orderly from the communications office had come in with a folded blue piece of paper, a telegram.

[continue reading]

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Day at the Toy Drive

The office has a number of programs to encourage donations around Christmas, not just by running fundraising and donation drives, but by providing various rewards in terms of extra paid days off over the Christmas/New Years holiday period. A key one of these is a Salvation Army Toy Drive, and if someone donates a new toy costing $50 or more to the drive, you get an extra paid vacation day during the Dec 21-Jan 1 period. (There are four company holidays during the four week stretch, so there are up to six other days which you might want to take off without using a vacation day.)

I'd contributed to this toy drive over the years I've been here, as to other similar ones over the years, but this year a notice went around that if we wanted to see where the toys went, there was an opportunity to sign up to help distribute the toys. I was curious, and it seemed like a nice Christmas volunteer activity, so I signed up and spent yesterday afternoon down at the state fair grounds, in a cavernous building where the Salvation Army was running it's holiday distribution center.

The idea behind this is to provide poor families with a chance to get food and gifts for the holidays. They toy section was one part of a larger process. People came in and provided their information, including the number of people and the number and ages of children. There were tables for various public and private assistance agencies, and over in that area the Salvation Army organizers were trying to make sure that people were properly signed up for health care, income assistance and food assistance as needed.

People who'd already filled out forms, and who had kids under the age of fifteen, came through into the toy area, and a dispatcher paired someone with one of the volunteers. Behind the scenes, other volunteers had already divided the toys by age and sex. So there was a long set of tables for each category: baby, toddler, boy 3-5, girl 3-5, boy 6-7, etc. These were masked off by the set of red, green and white curtains. In the area that people would walk through and "shop" with the volunteers, there was a single table for each age range on which about fifty toys were arrayed. One volunteer was behind the table as a sort of store keeper.

Once a dispatcher handed me someone's form (usually a mother or grandmother of the kids who would be getting the toys) I'd take a look to see what age and sex of children she had, and then guide her down the line. We had a nice set of canvas bags to give away to each person, and our job was to let the parent pick out one toy (no more) for each kid. In the process, we'd make conversation, help pick the gifts, and then guide them on to the next station where they'd get to pick out a Christmas food basket.

Since only fifty toys were out for any given age and sex at a time, it was always a toss up whether we'd find "just the right thing" for each kid on the list. I quickly learned that a key was to ask the mother, "What is he really into? What does he like to do?" once we reached the counter for a given age and sex. The "shop keeper" volunteer often had a couple of bigger toys behind the counter, or knew were some were back on the tables.

One mother said of her four year old daughter, "Oh, she loves anything Frozen. I've had to buy that movie three time because she keeps wearing it out."

The guy behind the counter smiled. "So she really, really likes Frozen?"

"Yeah, that's what she likes," said the mother, looking over the offerings on the table -- too many of which were, frankly, dollar store junk unlikely to make any kid's day.

"Would she like this, then?" the shop keeper asked, pulling out a big boxed pair of Anna and Elsa dolls from behind the table.

The mother's eyes lit up. "Yes, she'd love that."

As we were getting in the food line after picking out toys for who two boys, she said, "My baby asked for those two dolls for her birthday, but things were bad then and I told her maybe at Christmas. Things are still bad now, and I thought I was going to have to disappoint her again."

Any time a big Lego set or radio control car was put out, it was taken up immediately. There weren't enough toys this fancy to give everyone, so it was simply a matter of chance: did it happen to be put out on the table when a parent came along, or did they face an assortment of small toys, basic board games, and dollar store items.

The rewards are work had steered us all into donating more expensive single toys anyway, but having seen how this particular toy drive worked, the thing I resolved was that in any situation like this I'd always make sure to donate more expensive single items rather than a number of cheaper ones. It was depressing to watch a mom choosing between a couple generic Barbies, some Uno decks, a dollar store jump rope, and a domino set. These were all things she could have picked up herself a discount store for less than five dollars. With luck, she might have been able to pick up the sort of present that normally would have been out of reach. But instead, due to chance, she only got to pick out a cheap extra.

A few things served to remind one of the class and culture gap which mostly existed here. On the Girls 10-12 table there was a complete boxed set of the Harry Potter series, all shiny and shrink wrapped. It was a nice set, which I knew would sell for over $70 even on sale, and I thought of the amount of time out older girls had spent reading Harry Potter. I wanted to imagine some kid escaping a crammed apartment and a run down school to imagine walking the stone floors of Hogwarts. Every time I walked people over to that table, I'd ask, "Does your daughter like to read?" Some liked sports. Some liked "girly things" (makeup kits, jewelry). Some liked art supplies. Some were described as only liking their cell phones. After a while I started pitching the Harry Potter set to parents of 10-12 boys who were visiting the next table over as well. No takers. After three hours it was still sitting there.

There were moments of commonality as well, however. Kids provided the most basic thing in common. Everyone (well, nearly everyone -- the exceptions were really depressing) is excited to talk about and praise their kids. And since we have kids in most age ranges, I could make conversation about kids with ease.

I asked one worried woman about her Christmas plans, and she talked about going to see her mother who was going through cancer treatments. The kids couldn't go see their grandmother because her immunities were so low during treatment that she wasn't supposed to see children. Even all these years later I remember lots of cancer treatment stories from when my dad was in treatment. We talked and commiserated all the way up to the food line and a bit past. Finally I had to head back over to the toy area.

"Hang in there," I said. "I hope things go well with your mom. And Merry Christmas."

She took my hand for a moment. "Thanks. It was good to talk to you. Merry Christmas to you."

Advent, Day 20: Place Your Bets As To Who That Benefits

Indulge me in some more Hamilton blogging. The Atlantic is making The Case for Hamilton as Album of the Year:
And as music is how the majority of its fans are going to experience it, even if at some point tickets aren’t selling out months in advance at $300 apiece. The entire play happens in song, captured in a two-disc recording executive-produced by The Roots that quickly became the best-selling cast album in Nielsen history. A far smaller achievement is that it’s my favorite album of the year, and I’m one of the many people whose experience of the show has been limited to Spotify listens. 
One of the biggest talking points about Hamilton is about how crazy, seemingly incongruous, it is for the tale of the guy who founded America’s banking system to be told through hip-hop. Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has a stock reply: “It’s a hip-hop story.” That’s both because of the way that Alexander Hamilton created a verbally dense record over the course of his lifetime, and the way that he came from poor beginnings to challenge the status quo with plenty of boasting along the way. 
...All of this creates a sense of labor, of artifice. Listening to a rapper like Future, you feel like he’s transmitting directly from his brain. Listening to Hamilton, you hear writing. You hear work. Miranda said he spent a full year working on “My Shot,” and I believe it; it probably took a month alone to figure out the right phrase to rhyme with “revolutionary manumission abolitionists.” And work, according to a common cultural attitude, is not cool. People want their artists to appear effortless—recent buzzword: “sprezzatura”—or for them to virtuosically act on sudden bursts of inspiration. When the labor is visible, it’s often exalted only if it’s the service of some abstract muse.  
...But Hamilton wants to do everything: entertain, inform, be the biggest thing on the planet. The fact that it succeeds, I would argue, justifies its intrinsic dorkiness. After all, the show itself is a monument to overachievement and old-fashioned ambition. The answer to the opening question—“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”—is, basically “relentless labor.” The American Dream in platonic form, no? The narrator Aaron Burr may be just as brilliant as Hamilton, but he’s reserved, cool, waiting for the right moment to make a move. Hamilton makes moves constantly and proclaims his ambitions openly, and that’s why he’s the hero—he’s breaking with decorum to achieve something great. 
Hamilton’s music follows its main character’s lead, trying hard to max out on both quantity and quality. You don’t just happen into songs with hooks this gemlike, intertwining elements this complex, or arrangements that so perfectly strike the magic balance of familiarity and novelty. Nor is there any accident to the fact that the diversity of sounds here makes it so you never feel lost within the two-and-a-half hours of the production. Each and every line has been carefully sculpted so that you can hear new bits of cleverness in them each time you listen. And, perhaps most importantly, the emotional machinery just works, giving an authentic thrill at the Battle of Yorktown and a powerful feeling of sadness at the death of Philip Hamilton.
I want to take this moment to tell you all how much I love Jesus Christ, and that the most fulfilling and rewarding study in life is to read the gospels and revel in the life of Jesus, because I wish that I were as effective an evangelist for Christ as I am turning out to be for Hamilton. Skeptical friends later send me messages thanking me for making them listen. A houseguest who heard the album with us later passed through New York City on her travels and snagged a ticket from a reseller so that she could see it live with the original cast.

But judge for yourself. Youtube has a cast album playlist:

The Genius-annotated lyrics, where you can also listen along.

Just you wait...

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent, Day 19: The Sound of Silence.

It's been three years since I last wrote about John Cage's 4' 33", so I think we can cycle back to that well.

I watched a video of a pianist performing 4' 33", and someone in the audience coughed, and someone shushed him.

I think there are many profound things to say about silence (or many profound things to meditate on, if you prefer), but in the end,  4' 33" never rises above performance art. There are ways to draw an audience through silence into a participation with an artist, but that participation has to be externally focused. The audience members have to be allowed to step outside themselves. A work that places the focus squarely on the viewer's reaction to the work, so that the person watching is also constantly monitoring his or her watching, is no more art than a mirror is. 

And silence without any external focus is a nothingness. All art is a shaping, a definition. Music is shaped sound. Acting is shaped reality. Silence only bears fruit when it is a shaping of thought and soul. Otherwise it's just a vacuum: the tyranny of ambient noise. Which is really not all that far off from Cage's intention: "They missed the point. There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out." 

And yet created things seem only to yield their beauty in peripheral vision. C.S. Lewis says in The Four Loves (this is from memory) how counterproductive it is to go into a garden specifically to look at its loveliness, because so many grubby bits of reality keep getting in your way. But go into a garden to say your prayers, steadfastly refusing to be distracted by the delights of the garden, and nine times out of ten you come away refreshed with a idea of loveliness that direct contemplation could not reveal. The true beauty reveals itself not in the direct sensual experience, but in the distillation of reality that comes when the physical world is made subject to the spiritual. The first reading the other day -- the bronze serpent on a pole, made by Moses, which cured the people of the bites of snakes -- was another example of this idea. The image is somehow stronger than the actual serpent. The image of the serpent can undo the destructive power of the real serpent. Gregory of Nyssa uses this example as a foreshadowing of Jesus, not just in the thing being raised up curing the people, but as the power of the image being stronger than reality. On the cross, Jesus was the image of sin without bearing any actual sin. By bearing death, which is the ultimate manifestation of sin, without bearing any of the content of death, he made death implode on itself. 

By contrast, 4' 33" is the reality of silence without the idea that produces silence. And that's boredom, pretty much.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent, Day 17: Teaching Boys Badly

(Posted by me, MrsDarwin. It's been a while since I've been caught out by writing while logged into blogger as Darwin, especially since I'm on my own laptop and I specifically logged in as ME.)

Darwin and I are fans of Anthony Powell's twelve-volume opus A Dance To The Music of Time, set in England and spanning almost fifty years during the twentieth century. That is, of course, a rather large chunk of time to manage even in twelve volumes, but one of the charms of the work is that most of the characters recur throughout the books, popping up at odd times, sometimes years after they've last been on the scene. It lends a charming, small-world feel to what is a rather unwieldly project, as if all of England knows each other.

The internet can be a bit like that too. I'm pleased to share a new blog, Teaching Boys Badly, written by Rob Alspaugh. We go way back with Rob. He was always over during our senior year of college because he was engaged to my housemate Michelle, so not only does he know us, but he knows the old black cat (who's still alive and kicking and cantankerous, though considerably less rambunctious than he was 15 years ago). And then we all got married and moved on, and that was that.

And then a few years ago, I ran into Rob commenting over at Brandon's. And he'd figured out who we were because he'd been reading the blog here. Then last year when we were visiting my sister in D.C., we were able to meet up with him in person again and have the same kind of great discussion we used to have with him and Michelle in our college days, tempered and deepened by all of us being older and wiser and more parental these days (though Rob and Michelle don't actually look like they've aged at all in 15 years, which even my kindest critics would not say of me). One of the things we talked about was blogging, since Rob had been reading us for a while and had been thinking of starting up himself. And now he has, so I present a few selections to whet your reading appetite.

A few selections:

A primer for the boys on how to read and interpret Scripture:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives 3 principles for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  Any time you come upon a passage that makes you ask “Huh?”, simply: 
Be attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.
Read it within the living Tradition of the whole Church.
Be attentive to the analogy of faith. 
The first one is easy: whatever interpretation you give a passage can’t contradict other passages of Scripture.  No matter how many human authors are involved in the composition of the sacred books, God is the primary author of Scripture.  It has a divine unity that transcends its human multiplicity; God does not contradict Himself.  If your interpretation of I Samuel 15 makes God out to be a bloodthirsty moral monster, you’ve got to somehow reconcile that with things like John 3:16 or I John 4:8.
Reading Orlando Furioso with teenage boys:
A few years back Brandon inspired me to read Orlando Furioso.  I’d heard of it but never read it, but I’d been reading Siris long enough that his recommendation carried a lot of weight with me.  Since then I’ve been through this monster romance several times.  It has become my favorite epic, displacing The Greatest Book Ever. 
Orlando Furioso is basically a Marvel Heroes crossover fanfiction, a knowingly anachronistic smash-up of all the great legenda—Britain, France, Rome—in Catholic dress.  The action is wild, the tales are tangled, and an enormous burden is placed on the reader to remember who the hell all these characters are.  It’s Stan Lee to the nth degree, where n = Tom Clancy, assuming those two wanted to write a propaganda piece for Christian Europe vs. Ottoman Empire.
The logistics of the communion rail:
One of the great liberations of the ancient mass is the process of going to communion. Since this is a logistics post, I won’t wax eloquent on its virtues. But the practical side of it is this: a lot of the people sitting in front of you are probably not going up to communion.  Don’t wait for them.  It’s ok to end up in front of them “in line” (more on that below).  Just don’t bulldoze passed people who are getting up and moving a tad bit slower than you are.  A little situational awareness goes a long way here—be mindful of the people around you, don’t rush, don’t wait.  It’s a dance.  Some day we’ll be rid of wretched pews and stand in a throng on a glorious marble floor.  Until then, we dance a bit.

Father communicates the faithful from south to north (that’s right to left, from the congregation’s perspective, for the liturgically challenged).  That means if you are sitting on the south side of the nave, you need to get the lead out when it’s time to go up.  Don’t leave Father standing at the rail waiting for people; not all priests will greet this with good humor.  For the same reason, once you are up there, fill in from south to north. Don’t leave spaces at the rail. Crowd in.  Get to know each other.  It’s an aggravating complication to the dance if you make people try to figure out if there are spaces beyond you.  It also inspires a need for ushers, and we don’t want them!
Teaching abstract thinking to boys:
One of the perpetually educating things about educating boys is what they struggle to learn.  Abbey boys are generally selected for their ability to think abstractly, but that’s a road that everyone walks in their own time and in their own way.  Not to get too Boethian on you, but the road from praxis to theoria is individualized. 
When I teach Form V (11th grade) students the nature of voluntariness in Aquinas, we hit a simple test case early on.  Since I’m about to wrap the Aquinas material in the next two weeks, I figured I’d comment on it a little. 
In discussing how the will works (I abbreviate it “V” for voluntas), Aquinas considers how V acts without acting.  One of his objections plays a cute little sophistry with the negative to illustrate the matter. 
Consider how to apply a negative to the act of the will.  Start with a positive: 
I will to read a book. 
There are two ways to apply the negative, since it is just an adverb.  There are two verbs there, willing and reading, and either may support the negative. 
I do not will to read a book.
I will not to read a book. 
The first negation, on will, implies a simple lack of willing.  The second negation, on read, implies a willing directly contrary to reading a book.  It’s the difference between “it never came up” and “you can’t make me.”  For Aquinas this is the difference between non-voluntariness and involuntariness.  If you are willing to do a little violence to the Latin, you can express it by forcing a distinction between non volo and nolo (the objection, should you care, was collapsing the two). 
Back to Abbey boys.  It’s fascinating to see how the boys respond to this.  They are all studying pre-calculus at this point, so it’s not like they have not been working abstractly in other areas.  But the differences in how quickly the boys get this are fascinating.  Some, the ones we would typically describe as simply brilliant, see the idea immediately.  Others just need a little time, and some on-board scaffolding or re-wording to get it.  But others hate this distinction because it’s just symbols dancing around on a page.
Rob goes NaNoWriMo:
Me and a thousand other hobby writers! 
This was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo after telling the Darwins last year I was considering it.  For the uninitiated (like me, 60 days ago), the plan is to write 2000 words a day for 30 days and TADA! you have a novella.  It’s like the P90X of writing, except with Billy Blanks and a lot of cocaine.  Never edit!  Always add!  Your manuscript screams when you cut it!  Don’t hurt it!

I actually cheated a bit and started early because I have not been writing for many years.  As November drew on, I stopped early to balance it out because 1) guilty conscience and 2) damn this is a lot of writing.  Being a dad and a teacher with a very long commute doesn’t leave a lot of time for the pen, and I didn’t have enough plotting and dreaming stored up to keep pushing much beyond the first quarter of the book. 
But I did learn a lot from the effort, and I am very grateful for having attempted it...
On the Rule of St. Benedict:
One of the fascinating themes of the rule is solicitude for the weak.  St. Benedict famously wrote his rule as a beginner’s guide for a world where monastic observance had, in his view, sadly declined to weak ineptitude.  Let’s leave aside for the moment what he thinks of our own time as he intercedes for us in heaven and instead focus on two ways his rule cares for the weak. 
The first is an observation about the structure of the rule and the program of life it lays down (I’m ripping this idea from De Vogue, the foremost modern commentator on the rule).  Rather than prescribing a life of perpetual austerity, St. Benedict sets up a community that ebbs and flows in its devotions.  The times of silence are periodic so as not to be unbearable to those just setting out on the path of monastic perfection; the fasting goes through cycles of intensity and relaxation and is quite liberal in its concessions to the seasons; the times and durations of prayer have a flow to them that provides ample time to rest. 
The perfect, as St. Benedict called them, were always free to pursue ever-greater works of prayer, fasting, and silence.  But the requirements of the rule he intentionally set as a training model to get “kids these days” into shape for such rigors.  It is perhaps the earliest form of interval training we have on record.  Take that, Billy Blanks!
Go ye and read, with our hearty recommendation!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent, Day Gaudete

This is a story of a transformation.


Remember the princess bedroom? Well, it got worse before it got better.

The large swathes of new plaster over the window are because the old plaster had peeled off down to... I don't know what it was. We don't have lathe under there. It was just gravelly wall.

The workmen were in there for three weeks. The door was sealed off with a big sheet of plastic to keep all the dust inside, but I'd check on the progress at night and think, "Thank God we didn't try to fix this one ourselves." And then I'd wonder if we were ever going to get all the powdered plaster off the floor.

They finished up last week. On Saturday, I scrubbed the whole room on my hands and knees (and the the hall and the stairs for good measure) and then went over the floor (and the hall and stairs for good measure) with floor restoring polish, to protect and seal the old wood, especially where the strange yellow shag carpet had been sitting for years.


The walls are the color of the ribbons on Julia's pointe shoes. But you might also call it Gaudete Pink.

Button: A New American Musical

No Advent blogging yesterday, which is what happens when you look at your bed at 9:30 and think,
"It surely wouldn't hurt to lay down for a few minutes."

And this isn't technically Advent blogging either. But here, watch this. You don't have to be a Hamilton junkie to find this hysterical: Stephen Colbert and the most adorable Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a new musical about one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers.

Always going to call John Adams "Johnny Ace" from now on.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent, Day 13: La Guadalupana

It's the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as being as close as makes no never mind to the mid-point of Advent, and as regards celebrating my mother's feast day I haven't been that faithful of a daughter. We didn't read the mass readings, we didn't say the rosary, we didn't even watch La Guadalupana together, although my son asked a few times when we were going to get to it. All this coincides with my advent low point. I'd been reading a few chapters of Isaiah each day, but last night I just didn't because it was late and I was falling asleep. I'm struggling lately with gluttony combined sloth, the tendency to snack when I can because what the hell, I'm fat anyway. And the other morning as I stepped on the scale and saw another high number, I had the cynical desire to do a little experiment and see just how high my weight can go before it plateaus. Because what the hell.

And yes, I already know what I need to do. Start again. Pick up Isaiah. Put down the food. Pick up my feet. Knowledge isn't motivating in and of itself, and sometimes it's an outright burden. I did wonder what God is trying to teach me through these particular struggles this Advent. When I think of my own spiritual journey, I don't see progress, nor backsliding, nor a cycle, nor any sort of graphable movement. Sometimes new insights are accompanied by new virtue. Sometimes they're accompanied by new trials. Sometimes virtue seems to grow with knowledge, other times wisdom seems to move on some separate track from the practice of obedience. Sometimes love is warm and exciting; sometimes it's dry, Just This Thing.

Somewhere in the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has his devil recount how a soul, new to Hell, reproached himself: "I see now that I spent my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked." (Quoting from memory, so give or take a word.) That sounds a good deal like the way I spend my days. On the cornice of Sloth in Purgatorio, Dante has the souls racing around, singing, "Let not the precious time be lost!" That should be the rallying cry of my life. I like to live as if the timelessness of heaven is right now, but of course it isn't. The yearning is good. The application is bad. And Jesus says that some demons can only be driven out by fasting and prayer -- two seemingly passive pursuits that take a lot of active preparation.

Somehow this all doubtless ties into Our Lady of Guadalupe, but I don't know how at this moment, and I don't feel compelled to wrap up the post with a neat little reflection. I know that everything is connected, and that we won't understand or even see those connections until death, when we see God at the center of all things. But I'm not dead yet, so let not the precious time be lost. Better to say it here than in purgatory, right?

Advent, Day 12: The Immediate Book Meme

One of these days I'm going to learn that if I want to write something substantive, I need to start before 11:58 at night, but since this is not that day, it's a good time to revive the Immediate Book Meme.

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow
The Life of Moses, by Gregory of Nyssa
The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux
Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla

2. What book did you just finish?

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers
The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

3. What do you plan to read next?

Two Under the Indian Sun, by Rumer Godden
The Iliad, translated by Caroline Alexander
John Adams, by David McCollough

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (I'm not actually far enough into this to talk of finishing, so I guess I'd just like to progress, but I seem to be as slow in moving forward as the author is.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Everything on the religion shelf. Sigh.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Biographies of the Founding Fathers

Friday, December 11, 2015

Why Historical Fiction

MK Tod of A Writer of History has a post up asking for takes on what makes historical fiction tick, and it seemed like a good conversation starter for a laid back Friday post. I'll address her questions in two blocks, leaving out the ones dealing with current trends in the genre as I don't feel that I've anything particularly insightful to say there.

1. What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

2. In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

3. Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

I like to read novels set in other times and places (whether conscious "historicals" or novels actually written near the time and place they portray) because they allow you to see how the universal aspects of the human experience play out in a very different setting. Growing up, I was a huge fan on Science Fiction and Fantasy, in great part because those novels take you to new worlds. (And I still read some SF/F.) But as time went by I started to see the seams in some of the novels I was reading, and often it was along the lines of, "This is a novel about the Wars of the Roses, but with dragons and zombies added in." One of the ways that SF/F writers add realism to their worldbuilding is to mine the past and the world for real elements of culture, and then use those elements to build believable other-worlds. However, I often felt like it was the historical elements that were most interesting, an the fantastical elements where often simplifications or ways of inserting a more modern twist. That's when I turned to reading a lot more historical fiction, and it defines what I look for in a historical novel: an author who really gets into another time and place as another world and shows how real people just like us had very different impressions and faced very different decisions based on the times and places where they lived.

Drama is driven by conflict, and as humans in dramatic situations we end up having to make decisions. In that sense, the dramatic core of many stories is basically moral: Faced with this set of circumstances what should you do? And once a character makes that decision, good or bad, what kind of results will follow from it?

I think that dealing with these kind of dilemmas in a historical setting creates a lot more honesty and human interest because it causes you as a reader to thinking about problems as real people in the past thought about them, rather than with an outside-looking-in consciousness. For instance, there was a sort of social media ethical debate going around a little while back about "should you kill baby Hitler?" Do you kill a baby who is, so far, innocent, because you know that person will grow up to do horrible deeds? I think that's a false ethical dilemma, because it's a situation that real human people never face. You don't decide how to act towards other people from the position of having absolute knowledge of what they will later do and what will happen, you do so out of a position of ignorance. If someone actually knew Hitler as a child, they wouldn't know him as "Hitler" in the sense that we do looking back, they would only know his actions up to that point. And similarly, as people react to their historical surroundings, they do so without knowledge of how things work out.

For instance, there's a great moment in one of Alan Furst's novels (I think it was The Polish Officer, but it's been a number of years) where characters hear that France has declared war on Germany in 1939, and their reaction is relief. All right, France is in the war now. They'll never give in to Germany. It's going to be okay. To a world that remembered France's four year stand against Germany in 1914-1918, that makes total sense, but to us from our vantage point, it seems completely alien. It's necessary to get the reader into a world in which France is the great bulwark against Germany if you're going to be able to have the reader understand the kind of despair that people felt when France folded so quickly during the German invasion of 1940.

In addition to putting the reader into a period sense of history, in which we temporarily give up our knowledge of what's happened since, good historical fiction also puts the reader into the moral and cultural world of these characters: What's possible and impossible and why. One of the things that I found frustrating reading Ken Follet's Fall of Giants a while back is that all the characters you were supposed to like just happened to have modern ideas about women's rights and religion and workers rights and so on. I think it's a lot more interesting to make the reader grapple with a basically likable character who is still acting fully within the constraints of the time period. I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time during the fuss about the lately uncovered prior novel Lee wrote about the same characters, and it struck me that Atticus Finch in the original novel is a good example of this kind of writing. He has instincts that we like, towards fairness regardless of race, etc. but he has those instincts very much within the setting of his time. He doesn't envision a South that throws off Jim Crow; he operates within that world but tries to do so honestly towards all.

5. If you are an author, what aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

6. If you are an author, what research sources and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

As an author, you write what you want to read, so the above covers a lot of what I've tried to focus on while writing The Great War. At the opening, I wanted to give a strong sense of how the war interrupted lives that already had drama going on in them, so we have Walter's struggles with unionization at the factory, Henri and Philomene dealing with their marriage and with small town politics, Natalie arriving in Russia and both finding out about her origins and starting work as a governess, Jozef dealing with the duel, etc. The war isn't the only drama in these characters lives, but it does fundamentally redirect all their lives, ending some dramas while starting new ones.

I also set a kind of rule for myself that if there's something which is often dealt with from a very clear, backwards looking perspective, I wanted to make my characters deal with it from inside the constraints of the time. So, for instance, executions for desertion or cowardice among the British and French forces in WW1 are an absolute trope at this point. And so I decided that my characters would have to deal with a situation like that, but within a world in which that kind of extreme action seemed like it might be the only way to hold the army together.

For research I not only read a lot of history books about all aspects of the period, but also as many first hand accounts (letters, memoirs, etc.) as possible from the period. I've read a number of novels set in the period as well, but I've tried to stick almost exclusively to novels written either during the war or shortly thereafter (before World War 2) because what I want from a truly period novel is to get a sense of how people thought about those events then, now how they thought about them through the lens of later events.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent, Day 11: Charlotte Bronte's Villette

I've been laughing over Charlotte Bronte's Most Inexplicable Denominational Burns, which are timely for me as most of them are anti-Catholic screeds from Villette, which I just read. If Jane Eyre is the poor ugly relation of her family, Villette's protagonist Lucy Snowe is the poor, ugly relation of Jane. Lucy is not loveable, and she doesn't care who knows it, because she despises you (the reader) and your facile romantic notions of happiness, probably borne of your soft soulless Catholicism.

Lucy Snowe is, by and large, an unhappy character, so unhappy that she buries her suffering under a thick skin of cold rationality. She is judgmental and superior, clear-eyed in the wrong ways. After a childhood of loss and suffering (only referred to obliquely, because you, the reader, can't handle the pain), she becomes a teacher in the city of Villette, in a country that is not-Belgium. This city is peopled by Catholics, a people Lucy considers more sinister, more inclined to surveillance, more duplicitous than all others. And yet Lucy herself is a supremely unreliable narrator, holding back key information at some times, at others unable to admit the humanity of other characters, and then again deluded as to others. She is just as suspicious as the spying Catholic headmistress, but Lucy's suspicions are all directed against her own emotions.

So why read it? It doesn't have the delightfully accessible drama of Jane Eyre, but within its own slightly episodic structure Bronte is doing some very good stylework. There are many significant details and allusions, many thematic elements which recur in fascinating ways, many technically brilliant passages. And Lucy Snowe herself, though not a character for whom the reader feels much affection (it's mutual), is resourceful, sharp, interesting, and has ten kinds of emotional turmoil roiling beneath her purposefully placid exterior. When she loves, she loves deeply. She's not a comfortable character to spend time with, but she is challenging.

And then go back and read Jane Eyre, because there are good reasons why it has stood the test of time in a way that Villette hasn't quite.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Advent Day 10 -- At the Checkout Line

[Darwin guest posting for MrsDarwin.]

I had a tightly scheduled evening. I left work a little early, because the team that works for me was invited to come to the house for a team Christmas party at six. I needed to pick up a couple of quick things at the store (chips, ice, etc.) and then hurry home to cook some of the food and help with the final cleaning. With a dozen items in my cart, I scanned the checkout lines. Each had one person. I picked one of the "fifteen items or less" express checkout line and got in it.

Almost immediately it became clear I'd chosen poorly, at least in terms of getting out quickly. The lady in front of me was trying to pay on her Ohio food assistance card, but the system was saying that she still owed twelve dollars and change. Neither she nor the checker could figure out which of her items it was that was causing the trouble.

After having rushed around the store to pick things up, being stuck in line was the last thing I wanted. I knew that MrsDarwin and the kids were stuck with the frustrating last minute cleaning, and I wanted to get my food on the stove. I just got my bonus for the year. Twelve dollars was nothing to me. Minutes, on the other hand, mattered. I wanted to get out. I wanted to say, "Look, can I just pick up her tab?" Then we could both just go. I wouldn't mind the extra twelve bucks, and we could all go. But I'd read my share of articles over the last year about the humiliation of having to use "food stamp" cards at the store. I didn't want to embarrass her by offering to pay. So I waited and focused on looking cheerful.

"I'm really sorry," she said to me, looking upset and harassed. "I didn't put anything in the cart that I don't normally get. I don't know why it's taking so long. But this stuff is crazy."

"No problem," I said. "I don't mind."

We waited. The checker was going through the receipt one item at a time. Then she called over a manager, and the manager (an efficient looking woman probably ten years younger than both me and the checker) took the list and went to check it against some list of her own.

I got a text from MrsDarwin asking me to pick up cleaning spray. "Do you mind if I run get something?" I asked the checker. "I'll just be a minute."

"Oh sure," the said the checker.

"Take your time," said the woman ahead of me. "We're not going anywhere."

I grabbed the cleaning spray and came back. The woman was still there, worrying about her total, looking through the bags for what might have caused the problem (she'd clearly taken more than fifteen items through the express check) and looking embarrassed. I put my cleaning spray on the checkout counter.

"Look," I said. "It's Christmas. I'd really like to help out. Would you mind if I picked up your tab?"

She looked shocked. "Pay for my stuff?"

"Yeah," I said. "It's Christmas. I'd like to help out."

I could see the emotions working in her face, but it wasn't anger such as I had feared. It was a sort of startled gratitude. "Are you sure?" she asked. "This has never happened to me. No one has ever picked up my tab. Even when I had boyfriend they never paid for my stuff. Are you sure?"

The checker turned to me to double check. "Yeah, are you sure?" she asked.

"Yeah. It's not a problem. It's just twelve bucks. Here." I handed a twenty over to the checker and she started to make change.

"No one has ever done this for me," repeated the woman. "Thank you. I feel like I'm going to cry. This makes my week. Thank you. Bless you."

I knew that I just wanted to get out of line. I knew that this was barely even a sacrifice for me. I knew that the main reason I hadn't offered five minutes ago was that I was afraid of offending her.

"You're welcome. I'm glad to help. Really. It's no problem."

She kept telling me how grateful she was, and first she started to leave without her keys and wallet, then started to leave without her bags that were still on the checkout counter.

"I'm not thinking, you've just done that much to me," she said, loading her last bags into the cart. "Thank you so much."

She went off to the customer service counter to try to find out why her card hadn't covered it all.

The checker started running my items. "Thank you for helping her," she said. "I've never seen anyone do that."

I shrugged. "Glad to help out."

Seriously people, I just wanted to get through the line. But there was something unexpected happening here. I hadn't set out to make people grateful -- if anything I'd just been hoping to get out quickly without making them mad. From the discussions of food stamps that I'd read online this year, I was expecting to get yelled at for my presumption. But here I'd made someone's day. It's not a small thing to have someone telling you that you're the first one who's picked up her tab for her. What had started as a minor favor so I could get out had become something important because it was important to her.

Just as I was about to leave, the manager came back and said that she couldn't figure out why the system was trying to charge the woman twelve dollars. "Just charge it to the customer service cost center," she said.

"This guy picked up her tab for her," said the cashier.

"Wow. Okay, well, I guess it's fine then," said the manager, and rushed off to deal with the next thing.

I took my things and drove home. I was getting out, not as quickly as I'd hoped, but fast enough. However, what was in my mind was the way the woman had said that this had made her day, that no one had ever paid for her before. I don't know if that's true or not. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a game. But somehow what had seemed like a very minor thing to me had become a major part of someone else's day. That reaction had made it a part of mine.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Advent, Day 9

I have five minutes to write something if I still want to write today, and I have nothing to say. Not nothing at all, mind you -- I have plenty of topics I'm chewing on, ideas I'm percolating for a bit, and that I want to write about thoughtfully. But I don't have anything that's a quick, five-minute (three-minute now) toss-off post, and I'm okay with that. Maybe if there were less five-minute toss-off posts, intellectual discourse would revive a bit. I know there was plenty of bombast published back before you could drop your opinion on the whole world via the internet (I'm doing lots of reading about Revolutionary-era history, including the crazy political broadsides), but when you had to sharpen a quill and find the ink, at least you had to take a few moments to gather your thoughts so you didn't waste your paper.

Time's up.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 15-3

This took longer than I thought, in part because it ran longer than I thought: a little over seven thousand words, which makes it almost double the average length of an installment. However, I'm pretty proud of how this turned out. I hope you enjoy it.

This concludes Chapter 15. The next installment will be up within a week (this time for sure!). We'll be returning to Jozef for Chapter 16.

Chateau Ducloux, France. October 28th, 1914. The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons was unchanged by the three months of occupation. Behind the wrought iron vines and flowers of the decorative fence, the gardens rose as pristine and manicured as when Philomene had come in July to seek permission to host her fete there.

With war had come a near paralysis of the town’s economy. Trucks and wagons no longer pulled up in front of the Mertens shop each morning to make deliveries of merchandise to stock the shelves, nor did Louis Mertens’s customers have reliable means of income to pay for his wares. And of course, Henri was no longer earning the fees of his accounting work. Thus Philomene had no longer been able to pay Madame Ragot and Emilie for the hours they spent cooking, cleaning, and watching the children, and for the first time in her married life she was confronted with the full weight of her household’s labor.

As in so many things, the Perreaus inhabited another level of society. They did not employ help by the hour. On the household register posted on the grey stone wall of the house, above the ornamented brass plate which held the button for the electric doorbell, were listed not just Madame Perreau and her son Justin, now the German-appointed mayor, but also the gardener, the cook, and two maids, all residents of the house. If the invasion had reduced the Perreau household income by cutting them off from the Paris stock exchange and the interest payments on government bonds, the house remained the home of its workers as well as its masters and all had, so far, dealt with the deprivations of occupation together.

“Madame Perreau is still in the breakfast room, but she will see you there,” the elderly maid told Philomene, after leaving her for some time to contemplate the entry hall.

The breakfast room was a sunny, east-facing room opening onto the careful order of the rose garden. The roses bushes were bare of blooms and leaves now. Among the geometric order of the gravel paths, the twisted fingers of bare canes already pruned back for the winter pointed at the grey autumn sky, the barren order a fitting vision of the town as it waited to weather a cold season whose length was not yet known.

Madame Perreau was wearing her usual black silk dress, a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez perched upon her nose, sitting at the table with a portable writing desk before her. A silver coffee pot sat next to her, and it was not until Philomene inhaled its fragrant scent that she realized how much she had missed the pot of morning coffee.

She took the seat towards which Madame Perreau waved her and waited until the older woman signed her letter with a flourish and blotted it carefully.

“So, Madame Fournier, to what do I owe this honor?”

It was with a slight effort that Philomene turned her eyes from the coffee pot, where she had rested her jealous gaze while waiting for Madame Perreau to speak, and focused them instead on the face of her host. Putting aside hopes that she would be offered a cup, she organized her thoughts.

Continue Reading

Monday, December 07, 2015

Advent, Day 8: All the Links

The Internet Confessional:
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been one day since my last confession.... 
I kept that longread about Medieval sci-fi writers open in my tabs all day, knowing I would never read it.
Here is where I post all the links I've "saved to read later" on Facebook, either to shame myself into reading them, or so that you'll read them and give me the summaries.

The Restoration-Era local dialect of Tangier Island

Hamilton Is In The House

How Do Unschoolers Turn Out?

Julian Carron speaks at Notre Dame about freedom

The Art of Friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics

Create In Me A Clean Heart: the USCCB's pastoral letter on pornography

Alton Brown's Shepherd Pie recipe

The True Story of Kudzu, The Vine That Never Truly Ate The South

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Advent, Birthday edition: The Nine Tailors

Emily took out the jug, but returned almost immediately. 
"Oh, if you please, ma'am, the Rector says, will you all excuse him, please, and he'll take his breakfast in the study. And oh! if you please, ma'am, poor Lady Thorpe's gone, ma'am. and if Mr. Lavender's finished, he's please to go over to the church at once and ring the passing bell." 
"Gone!" cried Mrs. Venables. "Why, what a terrible thing!" 
"Yes, ma'am. Mr. Johnson says it was dreadful sudden. The Rector hadn't hardly left her room ma'am, when it was all over, and they don't know how they're to tell Sir Henry."
Mr. Lavender pushed his chair back and quavered to his ancient feet. ' 
"In the midst of life," he said solemnly, "we are in death. Terrible true that is, to be sure. If so be as you'll kindly excuse me, ma'am, I'll be leaving you now, and thank you kindly. Good mornin' to you all. That were a fine peal as we rung, none the more for that, and now I'll be gettin' to work on old Tailor Paul again." 
He shuffled sturdily out, and within five minutes they heard the deep and melancholy voice of the bell ringing, first the six tailors for a woman and then the quick strokes which announce the age of the dead. Wimsey counted them up to thirty-seven. 
--Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors
This passage jumped out at me a few days ago when I reread The Nine Tailors. A woman, a mother with a 15-year-old daughter, dying at 37. The poor deceased was not a major character in the book -- in fact, she never appears; all she does is die -- and yet her death weighed heavily on me. This very day I'm 37, with a 13-year-old daughter. I don't feel young at all, but I'm not ready at all to be carried off by a sudden influenza. Remember your end, and you will never sin.

The bells are a reminder of morality in The Nine Tailors, and each has its name and legend:

The voice of the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul: 
Gaude, Gaudy, Domini in Laude. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. John Cole made me, John Presbyter paid me, John Evangelist aid me. From Jericho to John A-Groate there is not bell can better my note. Jubilate Deo. Nunc Dimittis, Domine. Abbot Thomas set me here and bade me ring both loud and clear. Paul is my name, honour that same. 
Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. 
Nine Tailors Make A Man.
Nine tailors for the death of a man, and six for a woman. May we all be blessed with another year free of the toll of the bells.

Advent, Day Whatever: Eternity is Longer Than the Line at Wal-Mart

I had to go to Wal-Mart today.

Well, had is too strong a word. The girls and I suddenly felt crafty (the girls always feel crafty, and I almost never do, so they urged me to strike while the iron was hot) and so after schola practice we went to buy yarn for scarves and whatnot. So: an impulse visit for an impulse buy, and Wal-Mart is the only place that sells yarn up here. My crafty urge cannot survive a twenty-minute drive to the northern outskirts of Columbus, where the mall resides.

I do not visit Wal-Mart often enough to know the traffic patterns, but it seemed awfully clogged for a Friday afternoon. The lines for the registers stretched long, and it became clear that I was in the Wrong Line. People ahead of me kept pulling out and opting to stand at the back of longer lines -- always a bad sign. By default, we ended up next, behind a woman trying to price match a large toy and pay for it by applying for a Wal-Mart credit card. This process had already crashed one register and was now threatening to crash this one.

One man's trash is another man's treasure. De gustibus. I do not understand other people's gift-giving ethic (or "gifting", if we'd like to be on trend with the latest self-congratulatory buzzwords). The Giving Tree at church is filled with requests for toys that I would never buy my own children, and I struggle every year with the issue of what I consider a good tasteful present vs. what others want, especially if that other person is a child in need making a wishlist. I don't understand why this large toy was worth so much trouble to the woman in front of me, but it was. And I got to wondering if the yarn in my cart was really worth the trouble of standing half an hour in line in Wal-Mart. If I'd known we'd have to wait, would our impulse have seemed worth the trouble? That's why online shopping is so easy, and seductive. There's no barrier to entry. Click on Amazon, and you're done, buying treasures that other people may think are trash. Buying treasure that you yourself may think is trash after a while. Want the thing, buy the thing, no effort required.

The lady's problem never did get solved while I was there. The computer rejected various steps in the purchase every time the cashier tried it again, and finally management stepped in. As I left, the lady was still waiting somewhere else, with her big toy balanced precariously in her cart. I hope whoever receives the toy receives it as a type of the Love of which gifts are merely a small and imperfect image. The only real purpose of a gift is to reflect the Love of God, in the small and indistinct way that all our human analogies do. The only purpose of anything is to allow the Love of God to pass through it.

How that works practically is the tedious labor of sainthood. It's all very well to wax eloquent about the wonder of all creation without having to confront the seedy, dull reality of being stuck in line at Wal-Mart at the end of a tiring day near someone who reeks of second-hand smoke. There was a lot of frustration in the store as people with overflowing carts tried to calculate how much longer they were going to be stuck. There's nothing easier than taking out frustration on a cashier. They're captive. They're paid to not say rude stuff. And they're the immediate face of the company. It was hard to tell whether the cashier of my line was working well or not, whether her process kept failing because she didn't know what she was doing or because the computer was being a punk. And it didn't matter. Our life is but a breath, a drop lost in eternity. In the grand scheme of things, in the eye of God, a few minutes of my time spent in a way not entirely interesting to me is not worth striking at another person, whether in cutting words or in rolled eyes or sighs. The person is more valuable than my time. The cashier, the lady with the big obnoxious toy: they matter in the face of eternity. My time does not matter, in the face of eternity. Whether or not Wal-Mart's computer system was off or their algorithm for scheduling for cashiers was faulty doesn't matter in eternity. Jesus didn't die for my time -- indeed, it often seems that he's no respecter of earthly time. He did die for people. Those two ladies are valuable, and my children with me are valuable, and I'm valuable too, too valuable to expend myself in petty wrath. Why spend your wages on what is not food, on what fails to satisfy?