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

Monday, February 29, 2016

What Good Has Electing "Conservative" Politicians Done Us?

For whatever reason, things seemed to have reached a boiling point among the Republican electorate during this primary contest. For the last twenty yeas, we've had a fairly consistent script for the GOP primary. A range of candidates between the moderate "country club Republicans" and solid conservatives step into the ring. Over the first couple primary votes the field narrows to one candidate who is conservative enough to sort of satisfy the movement, and moderate enough to seem electable to the party elites. Then the conservatives threaten to stay home, while others argue that even if this year's candidate isn't ideal we're better off having a conservative of some sort in the White House and insisting on ideological purity.

Once the election is over, conservatives spend the next two years denouncing the Republicans who are elected for being "too nice" to really win through on conservative ideals.

This year, however, we have an odd situation. Everyone basically seems to admit that Trump is at least partially unreliable on actual conservative issues. He's going through the motions at the moment, at least on some issues, but even where he's now endorsing conservative positions he was often on the other side of the same issue just a few years ago. However, one of the big selling points with Trump supporters is that one can claim he's "too nice". He's totally unafraid of offending people (even when maybe he should be: such as when he started quoting Mussolini on Twitter this week) and a major part of his personal myth is that he's a great negotiator and business man who "wins" all the time and will be able to make people do things whether they like it or not. (His claim that he will make Mexico spend tens of billions of dollars on building a wall along the US/Mexico border at their own expense certainly falls in that category.)

To Republicans who think that they would long ago have got lower taxes, immigration restrictions, entitlement reform, and a smaller government if only their politicians wouldn't cave all the time in order to be thought of well in elite Washington circles, Trump's very willingness to offend seems to be a selling point.

The argument goes something like this: We've been voting for the most "electable" conservative for the last twenty years, and what has it got us? Gay marriage. A bloated government and a national debt spiraling out of control. Foreign wars that make us unpopular and never seem to get won. A supreme court which is still poised between those who think the constitution says what it says, and those who think it says what it ought to say. We need to elect someone with the backbone to stand up to the other side and get what we want. Trump may not be a conservative, but he's not a pushover.

I think the problem here is that it fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of our country. If the last eight years (particularly 2008 to 2010 when the Democrats controlled congress as well as the White House) have shown us anything, surely it's that when the progressives control the government, much more that we don't like happens.

But at root, the reason why neither party gets everything on their wishlist is because we have a deeply divided nation. On issues like abortion and gay marriage, there are deeply entrenched groups who care passionately about each side. On issues like taxes, welfare, immigration and the size of government, there are again very strong feelings on both sides. While much of the country may be in agreement that they would like things to be better, there's little agreement on what it would take to accomplish that change.

Progressives too have frustrations like this. Many honestly believed that electing Obama would fundamentally transform the country, and they're disappointed with what they've achieved. This is why so many progressives, particularly young progressives, are lining up behind Bernie Sanders, who isn't afraid to label himself a "socialist" and who claims that he can give everyone free college and free medical care by taxing Wall Street profits that he also insists he wants to abolish.

Electing Trump will not break this deadlock, because it won't change the fact that half the country elects people who don't want the country to move in a conservative direction. The reason we don't get everything we want in politics is not that our politicians are too nice or lack the courage to fight for us or aren't good negotiators. The reason is the same reason that progressives don't get to double the minimum wage, put everyone in a union, and socialize health care: because too many people don't want it.

That doesn't mean that it doesn't make any difference who is elected. I think it's pretty clear after eight years of Obama that it makes a difference who is elected. But getting our politicians elected doesn't mean that we get everything we want. The consolation for that is that losing an election doesn't mean that the other side gets everything they want.

Electing someone willing to be loud and abrasive on our behalf will not get more of our agenda accomplished (even if he shared our agenda, which in the case of Trump I think there's good evidence that he does not) it will just get us a loud and abrasive president. Indeed, since out biggest obstacle is that much of the country disagrees with us, such an offensive leader will probably put us much further from getting a conservative agenda accomplished.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love and Friendship

In what is perhaps the least interesting approach to the topic, the BBC breathlessly reported that Pope John Paul II had an "intense friendship with a woman"! "There is no suggestion the Pope broke his vow of celibacy," the Beeb reports, with a gentle tinge of journalistic regret that there are not actually any concrete salacious details to report about the former Karol Wojytła and Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka other than that it is possible that she might have felt for him an unreciprocated romantic affection based on certain passages in his letters which seem to gently turn discussions of friendship toward a spiritual basis.
In one, dated September 1976, he writes: "My dear Teresa, I have received all three letters. You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words." 
...The letters reveal that Cardinal Wojtyla gave Ms Tymieniecka one of his most treasured possessions, an item known as a scapular - a small devotional necklace worn around the shoulders. 
In a letter dated 10 September 1976 he wrote: "Already last year I was looking for an answer to these words, 'I belong to you', and finally, before leaving Poland, I found a way - a scapular." He said it allowed him to "accept and feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, whether you are close - or far away".
There are many excellent things to say about real, intense friendship between men and women (or, a man and a woman, because all friendship is personal), but first, the historical context, since in this case if you can't wade through the dry philosophical contretemps, you don't deserve to wallow in the purported salaciousness.

The name of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, so titillating to the BBC, is not unfamiliar to those of us who spent the spring of 1999 taking Human Anthropology (working text: The Acting Person by Karol Wojytła, edited most densely by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka), or who spent spring of 2001 writing our thesis on the theater of Karol Wojytła, aided by George Weigel's biography of Pope John Paul II. From the footnotes on pages 174-175 of Witness to Hope by Weigel:
The most serious problems [of the translation of Person and Act, the Polish title of The Acting Person] were with the English translation and edition of the work. 
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a former student of Roman Ingarden living in Boston and active in world phenomenological circles, had published several articles of Wojytła's in Analecta Husserliana, the yearbook of phenomenology she edited, thus helping to bring his work to the attention of philosophers around the world. Much impressed by the first Polish edition of Osoba y czyn, she proposed publishing a revised and elaborated text of the work in English. Cardinal Wojytła agreed and worked through numerous revisions and elaborations with Dr. Tymieniecka. The result, according to virtually everyone involved, was a much-improved text. This revised Polish text was then translated into English by Andrzej Potocki and sent to Dr. Tymieniecka in the United States for publication. Several knowledgeable persons close to the process claim that, at this point, Dr. Tymieniecka significantly changed the Potocki translation, confusing its technical language and bending the text toward her own philosophical concerns, to the point where the reader is, on occasion, not really in contact with Wojytła's own thought. These problems only surfaced after Wojytła had been elected Pope. At that juncture, he had not time to check through hundreds of pages of text, and appoint a commission... to review and correct the revised English translation text that had been prepared by Dr. Tymieniecka. But she refused to take corrections from anyone other than Wojytła, and, moreover, was eager to publish the book quickly to capitalize on the author's election as Pope. Dr. Tymieniecka also claimed that she had Wojytła's, agreement to publish her retranslation as the "definitive text of the work established in collaboration with the author by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka," although why a truly "definitive text" would (like the edition Dr. Tymieniecka proposed to publish) have two chapter sevens, one of which is labeled "unrevised", was not made clear. In any case, Dr. Tymieniecka went ahead with the publication of the text she had prepared, to the intense aggravation of many of Wojytła's philosophical colleagues and students. Years of private argument ensued between the Holy See's publishing house, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, which hold the rights to all of Wojytła's pre-papal work, and Reidel, the Dutch house that had published the English edition. These resulted in an agreement to publish a corrected English edition. The corrected edition was prepared but has never appeared. Dr. Tymieniecka continues to insist that hers is the "definitive" edition of Osoba y czyn, a claim that no serious student of Wojytła's work accepts. The author himself, whose relative indifference to the fate of his published work is as striking as his unfailing charity, insists, whenever the subject is raised, that Dr Tymieniecka "must be given credit for initiating the translation." 
The very English title, The Acting Person, suggests something of the problem with Dr. Tymieniecka's work. Osoba y czyn is translated, literally, Person and Act: a title that retains the tension between subjective consciousness and objective reality in which Wojytła is trying to work. "The Acting Person" places most of the stress on the subjective, or phenomenological, side of Wojytła's analysis -- which is the criticism most frequently leveled against Dr. Tymieniecka's reworking of the text. Every other language edition of Osoba y czyn retains the tension in the Polish original... .

This background seems to support the idea that Wojytła and Tymieniecka had a friendship founded in their shared philosophical interests, and that although she may have expressed her affection intemperately, he valued the friendship enough not to break the bruised reed or crush the dimly burning wick through harshness or condemnation, always redirecting her expressions of attraction back to the source of all Love.

 Bill Donaghy of the Theology of the Body Institute writes about holy friendship in a hypersexualized world:
Ironically, the language in this interview reveals to viewers and readers of this breaking story the deepest scandal of all, which has nothing to do with St. John Paul II. It is the scandal that all too many men and women today are incapable of imagining an intimate relationship that does not somehow involve some sort of sexually romantic overtone. 
In truth, the Church has a long history of examples of men and women who have formed intimate and affectionate relationships that did not involve sexual relations. They were known as friendships (this is a wonderful word we should restore to the modern lexicon). In fact, St. John Paul II had numerous friendships with women that lasted decades and included letters, phone calls, shared meals, and walks together. The BBC footage seems to imply that this particular relationship with Dr. Tymieniecka was isolated and the meetings exclusive. But the fact is, they were not. St. John Paul II was a magnanimous figure who loved people deeply, and was rather transparent about his friendships. He was also prudent, meeting men and women together for those private meals and taking vacations with friends or families together. In the image of St. John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka standing beside a car, one should realize a third person took the photo. I imagine it was her husband.
Pope John Paul II, in Love and Responsibility, formulates the positive personalist principle thus: "the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love", or, "A person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate to relate is love" (pg. 41). And indeed, the world needs more examples of friendships between men and women precisely because men and women need to be able to relate to each other in love in the totality of their being, without reducing that interaction to intercourse, as it were. We are embodied spirits, and our bodies matter. Men and women have to relate to each other as sexual beings with different and complementary urges, even when they're not in sexual relationships.

If the "nuptial meaning" of the body is that men and women embody in complementary ways the creative energy of God, and participate most directly in that energy by becoming co-creators of new human life, then surely that has implications for non-sexual friendships between men and women. Even without joining bodies, friendship between men and women must have a creative power and potential that is different from friendships between just men or just women, since God has endowed masculinity and femininity with different facets of his life.

So why aren't there more examples of spiritual friendships? Possibly because deep friendship between men and women is often accompanied by attraction, and so men and women who are able often move from just friendship to a physical consummation in marriage. Perhaps that's why our strongest models of male/female friendship are between those who have clear boundaries for sexuality: Francis and Clare (both consecrated religious), St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal (priest and widow), Pope John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka (priest and married woman). And we look to these, because the friendship of marriage is a perilous, too-intimate model for non-sexual friendships.


I have been honored over the years to have a good number of male friends, and those friendships have been a joy for me, offering new perspectives and a low-drama camaraderie that's not as common in friendships between women. Most of those friendships have been purely fraternal. A few, however, have been able to thrive because of the strength and security of my 18-year attachment to Darwin, which safeguards me from tensions elsewhere. I don't think that's shocking. We're all more compatible with some people than with others. That's why good models of spiritual friendship are so valuable: to give us a taste of the friendship of heaven, in which there is no marriage nor giving in marriage.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Confessions of a Wine-Neutral

The fruit of the vine has many functions in human society, and one of them is as a signaling mechanism. Wine is the sign of Good Times Here. Stock photography is full of smiling people raising glasses to each other, clearly having the times of their lives, and we buy that because we understand on some level that Drinking = Some level of bliss.

Maybe this is only a thing you see if you happen to move in the circles of womanhood, but there is this meme that women love wine. Love it. If you're out with the girls, you're drinking. If the kids are wearing us down, we're having a glass. Is it too early to start drinking? people ask one another, ha ha. If you're a woman and you're not having wine, you're probably wishing it was time to pour yourself a tumbler.

This is all very amusing, of course, but it's mostly meaningless to me. I'm going to come out and say it: I'm not all that into wine. I don't hate it, of course. I drink it when it's offered, and sometimes I even prefer a glass with dinner. Having wine with friends is fun, though it's more the friends than the wine. I can tell when I've had just enough that I feel easy and relaxed, and that's nice, I guess. It's not a torment to drink it.

But to tell the truth, the taste of alcohol is really something I can take or leave alone. If I've had a hard day and I open the fridge, and I'm confronted with a choice of a bottle of crisp white wine or a bottle of flavored sparkling water, the kind that's just water that smells of lime, I'm going to choose the sparkling water, because I like it better. If I'm on my own, no social compunctions, I'm picking water. I'm a slow drinker, always a glass or two behind everyone else, and that's the way I like it. If I hear myself slurring a word, I put the glass down and I'm finished.

But you know, I feel like I'm outside of some great brotherhood of man, where everyone is loving their alcoholic beverage and counting down the minutes until their next drink of vinous goodness. I do like a hard cider, and there have been times where I've thought, "Oh, hey, I have a hard cider in the fridge, yay!", but as I can only drink half of one before it goes flat, there's a natural limit to the fun there. I'm trying to think if I've ever walked to a bottle and poured off a glass just because it was there, or because it was 5:00, or because I needed a drink, and... I'm not coming up with much.

And I start to wonder: is this all just a big marketing scam? Are there other people out there, like me, who really could care less? (Don't get pedantic on me here; we all know that "could care less" and "couldn't care less" mean the same thing, phrasewise.) Are there others who join in the joshing about the vino and then go home and make a cup of tea instead? The whole purpose of the internet is so that like people can finally find each other and band together. Wine-Neutrals, stand with me, and raise a glass of the non-alcoholic beverage of your choice, the one you pick when you really have your druthers. Cheers.

Monday, February 22, 2016

My Heart is Restless, Lord

During the last month or two of working on the novel, when I was writing nearly every night until some time between one and three in the morning, I began to build up in my mind what things would be like when I was done. I was going to spend more time doing activities with the kids in the evening. I was going to read more books. I was going to blog more often. I was going to put more time into studying for our German classes.

It's been a few weeks now, and while maybe I've done a little bit of each of these, life has not changed nearly as much as I imagined it would.

Last night we were at the opening night of our parish Lenten mission, given by a Dominican from the parish downtown. One of the things he spoke about was the need of the soul for God, how we are made for perfection. It's because we're made for perfection that we have the endless need for the good, for the next thing, for one more, for improvement, for whatever it is that seems will make our lives a bit more perfect.

And of course, this is good. We should be working to live our lives better, to do more of what is good and less of what is useless or bad.

But that drive for perfection which gives us our appetite for improvement is unquenchable. It can never be satisfied -- not in this life at any rate.

That's fine. We're not meant for perfection and the perfect happiness that comes with it in this life. This is the life of striving, and although we may overcome various problems in our lives, there will always be other things to improve. Part of the key is to know this, and to realize that just because we're now doing something right (or not doing something wrong) we won't suddenly achieve complete bliss. Yet the hunger is always there, and so although I know that making one change in my life won't make everything satisfying and good, I do always seem to think that the improvement will be greater than it turns out to be.

My heart is restless, Lord, until it rests in Thee.

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I haven't written much at all about the election thus far. That's partly because I'd been too focused on the novel to write much of anything, and partly because the whole thing is just so dispiriting. It's depressing to think we may well end up with a second Clinton as president -- one with the same bad policies and total lack of principle as the first, but without even an ounce of his charm. And it's more depressing that an unprincipled buffoon such as reality TV star Donald Trump has managed to dominate the primary of my own party thus far. Is it any less embarrassing because he's not related to the Kardashians? No, I'm really not sure it is.

However, as we begin to hold actual primary elections, I can no longer pretend that it's too early in the race to pay attention. I watched the last Republican debate, and I started reading more of the coverage than I had before.

I'm still convinced that Trump will not win the Republican nomination. (I suppose I should explain the American primary system for our non-US readers, but as I discovered a while back trying to explain this to an Indian co-workers, it really is fairly unique and hard to explain. The really short version is: each political party holds a series of elections at the state level where party members vote on which candidate should be the party's nominee for president. When all these elections have taken place, the winner becomes the party nominee, who will then run in the general election in November against the other party's nominee.)

However, now that Trump has won two of the first three primaries, he's clearly more than a joke candidate. I'm relieved that Jeb Bush at last dropped out. The guy should never have got in. He's the one person who clearly can't accuse Clinton of running as a dynasty candidate, and though I think he's a decent enough politician we simply cannot and will not elect a third member of the Bush family president. This is not a monarchy.

Talk, however, is cheap, and I've been saying that Trump won't win for months while he's continued to lead in the polls (though still with a minority of the party's support.) So am I serious when I say that I don't think he will win the nomination?

As it turns out, we have a way of testing that, and of measuring public opinion at the same time. Prediction markets provide an investment market type environment in which people essentially place wagers on what they believe the outcome of an event will be. So, for instance, if you believe, as I do, that Trump will not get the Republican nomination, you can go to PredictIt and purchase shares in a "contract" that Trump will not get the nomination. Here's PredictIt's explanation of how their markets work:

PredictIt allows you to make predictions on future events by buying shares in the outcome, either Yes or No. Each outcome has a probability between 1 and 99 percent. We convert those probabilities into US cents.

For example, Trader A thinks an event has at least a 60 percent chance of taking place so she offers 60 cents for a Yes share. PredictIt matches her offer with that of Trader B, who is willing to pay 40 cents for a No share. Each trader now owns a share in the market for this event on opposite sides.

The prices of shares will change over time and both traders could decide to sell their shares at any time. A key to success at PredictIt is knowing when to sell in order to take a profit or prevent a loss.

If an event does take place, all Yes shares are redeemed at $1.

Shares on the "No" proposition for Trump are hovering right around $0.50 per share, meaning that in general people on the exchange think there is a 50% chance that he'll be the nominee. So I put $50 on the proposition that Trump will not be the GOP nominee, and another $50 on the proposition that he will not be elected president, since I think that if he were nominated (or if he isn't but runs third party) he will lose. If I'm right on both of those, I make a hundred dollars. If he's nominated but loses to the Democratic nominee, I break even. If he's nominated and wins -- well, we'll all have bigger problems than my lost $100.

Then, I figured that I better stop wishing there were better candidates and get behind my favorite viable non-Trump candidate, so I went and gave Marco Rubio's campaign $50.  It's been twenty years since I last gave money to a political candidate's campaign, and I'd been holding off because I didn't think any of the candidates was good enough to put money behind.  At this point, though, I'm willing to back Rubio because he's my marginal favorite among the non-Trump candidates.

It's three weeks until we have our primary in Ohio, and a lot will happen between now and then, but now at least I've broken out of my inactivity.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Older Brother

I spent the day Saturday at the Columbus Catholic Women's Conference listening to my good friend Jennifer Fulwiler give the keynote talk, and then the evening hanging out at our house with Jen and her family, including her husband Joe, who may be the only Yale grad to own and wear a banana suit. In an interesting twist in my life experience, it turns out that I have the face for radio, so listen up for me on an eventual episode (EDITED: 3:00pm EST on Monday, or, right now) of Jen's radio show on Sirius XM (Channel 129), where she and I talk about first world problems, Jane Austen, how my kid broke Jen's necklace, and the reason baby showers are out of control.

One of the other speakers at the conference was Sonja Corbitt, who spoke about the parable of the Prodigal Son, in reference to the Year of Mercy. She had a slightly different take on the older son than I do, but re-reading the passage yesterday as she talked about it brought some new facets of it to light.

"And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry. 
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. it was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15:21-32)

What strikes me is that the father tells each son what he most needs to hear. In the case of the younger son, he doesn't speak directly to the son, but to the servants and everyone around, officially proclaiming that he welcomed his son back into his household as a son, not as the lowly servant the son asked to be. He draws his son into his house by his actions. And what's interesting is that the way the father celebrates his son's return is by taking the very actions that got the son into trouble in the first place -- the partying, the music, the dancing, the rich clothes and food and wine and celebrating -- and turns them around to make them signs of love and forgiveness, not of decadence and dissipation.

The older brother is out in the field, doing his father's work, we assume. I guess you could read it as the son having separated himself from his father in some way, just as the younger brother had. Perhaps doing all this work day in, day out, doing his job and the job of the younger brother who has left, has worn him down. Perhaps he's taken on extra work he doesn't need to be doing -- this house is apparently lousy with servants and people who could be working in the field. Perhaps the father can afford to hire laborers for his vineyard, no matter the cost, as in the parable of the vineyard owner and the hired hands. But maybe older brother feels he has to do everything himself. After all, he's the responsible one.

Anyway, the older brother is out, and no one comes to tell him that his brother is home. No one calls him in to join in the celebration. So the older brother comes home, weary, hungry, maybe a little heart-sore, and he sees that there's some kind of extraordinary party going on, without him. He calls one of the numerous servants over, and gets the story, and he refuses to go into the house. Now, you could interpret this as the older son pouting, throwing a tantrum, but I read it a bit differently. When I myself am angry, I refuse to go in, in a sense. I try not to speak, to enter into whatever situation is making me angry, because I know that words spoken in anger can't ever be really forgotten. So I'd rather stay outside, so to speak, than do something that I might later regret. And perhaps the older brother knows that if he goes inside in the mood he's in, he'd cause some sort of scene that he'd regret. And he doesn't want to do that. He stays outside.

Just as the father did with the younger son, so he does with the older son. He goes to meet him himself, not sending a servant to reason with him, but coming personally to his firstborn. And the older son pours out his hurt and his frustration. "Your son," he says to the father, not even able to call that son his brother. How does the older brother know that the younger brother has squandered dad's inheritance on prostitutes? Probably because that's how the younger brother acted before. Why did he need all his inheritance now? Because he didn't have any money left of his own. Where did it go? I'd go with the older brother's assessment here.

But the father sees deeper than the complaints, and tells his son exactly what he needs to hear and has perhaps been hoping to hear: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

The older son needs to know that the father loves him too, personally, that he's not just another cog in the machinery that runs the farm (even if he is a big cog), but that who he is and what he does matters to the father, that the father sees and cares what the son does. The son needs to know that he doesn't just get a fatted calf and a robe, he gets everything. The younger son had to take a portion of inheritance away to spend? The older son, living at home with his father, already has that portion, and so much more besides. His faithfulness hasn't been overlooked. It's already been rewarded, only the son perhaps didn't trust his father enough to ask for a goat to celebrate with his friends. The older son is more cautious than his younger brother, who was confident enough that his father would give him anything that he asked for his inheritance up front. The older brother is more reserved, more trustworthy than his brother, but I think he feels things more deeply too. The father knows that big actions and gestures will reassure the younger brother of his love, but that the older brother needs not only gifts (which the brother would take at this point as an insult, just an afterthought of his brother's celebration), but words, personal reassurance, a direct encounter with the father. As with the younger son, the father offers the older son the very thing that pulling him away from the father. I don't need to give you a goat, son. It's already yours.

And the father knows how to talk to this more cerebral son. He doesn't give him a guilt trip for not being happy for his brother or ply him with a sob story about how the brother came home dressed in rags and made this speech. Instead, the father says, "It is fitting to make merry and be glad..." This is the appropriate, reasonable action for a man of the father's stature and wealth in this situation, to throw a party for a son who was dead, and now is alive. It befits him. This explanation of the correctness of this action is exactly right as an appeal to the older brother, to help him understand and appreciate his place in the family and in the festivities, just as the father's dramatic gestures of throwing a robe around his son and making a proclamation and throwing a feast were exactly right for the younger brother's understand.

We don't see the reaction of either brother, mostly because the story is not about the sons, but the father. We assume that the younger son accepts his father's proclamation, because we know that the party is going on. We don't see the older son's reaction to his father's appeal, and in a sense he has the harder struggle, because he's wrestling not with his sense of unworthiness, but with his pride. Someone said that no one ever minds getting better than they deserve, and somehow I don't think the younger son felt many qualms about accepting the ring and the robe and the fatted calf, and being restored to the family. The older son, though, feels personally unloved and taken for granted, and that anger is hard to let go off. I hope he went in, because I hope that's what I would have done.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Grammatical Performances

I don't have the sustained chunk of time this morning to finish what I was writing about the BBC's rather unsalacious revelations about Pope John Paul's friendship with (gasp) a woman, so please, have some Hamilton instead. We watched the Grammys the other night solely for the purpose of seeing the opening number, "Alexander Hamilton", streamed live from the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York (where, incidentally, Darwin and I will be watching the whole show in a week and a half).

So, with my compliments:

A #tbt to Monday night's performance. #Gram4Ham #RiseUp

Posted by Hamilton the Musical on Thursday, February 18, 2016

And Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping the acceptance speech for Hamilton's Grammy:

Happy Fridaying!

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Supercharged Politics of the Supreme Court Vacancy

When the news came out Saturday that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died, conservatives mourned his passing and recalled his legacy while some progressives actively celebrated his death. However, the substantive discussion which quickly developed surrounds when and by whom Scalia's replacement will be appointed.

In a sense, there's no question on this. The constitution lays out that the president nominates justices for the Supreme Court, and the way that the Senate has always carried out its "advise and consent" function in the process is by voting to confirm or reject presidential appointments. However, we're already into the presidential election cycle, with the possibility that President Obama's successor will be a Republican, so naturally the Republican majority in the Senate is already suggesting that they will simply refuse to confirm any nominee Obama puts forward, waiting to see the results of the election instead. His has provoked howls from Democrats, who accuse Republicans of ignoring the constitutional duties of the Senate for partisan reasons.

The issue which this whole controversy underscores, and yet which is mostly being talked about only tangentially, is the unique place that the Supreme Court has come to fill in our government over the last 30 years. (Arguably with Roe v Wade as one of the key inciting incidents.)

Control of the court allows both sweeping non-legislative change, and also allows for the blocking of major pieces of legislation or executive regulation which seek to change the way that the country has historically worked.

For the last 25 years or so (arguably since Planned Parenthood vs Casey) the court has maintained a tenuous balance with at any given time four reliable "conservative" votes and four reliable "liberal" ones, and Kennedy providing the swing in between.

Having either party get to replace one of these seats with someone of the opposite persuasion is a potentially massive shift in how the country works for the next 20+ years.

If RBG had chosen to retire this year, we would not be having the same fuss about Obama replacing her. Sure, conservatives would love to get the chance to replace a reliable progressive vote with a reliable conservative one (or to frame it more clearly in the way that these terms apply to the court: a justice who rules on what she thinks the constitution ought to say with one who rules according to what he believes the constitution does say) but I don't think that if one of the liberal seats were coming open at this moment we'd see the same readiness to fight. It is the fact that one of the conservative leading lights of the court which is up for replacement which is causing the massive concern, and it's hardly surprising that this is so. This is the same reason that Sen. Schumer back in 2007 announced (when there wasn't even a vacancy) that if Stevens or RBG stepped down, the Senate Democrats would prevent any nomination from going through until after Bush's term.

Both parties want to flip the court to be decisively in their favor, but short of that they feel even more strongly about not losing the advantage they have. But in a sense it's surprising that the stalemate has lasted as long as it has. The timing of party switches in the white house, the defection of several Reagan appointees to the liberal side of the court, and the long tenures of many recent justices have all helped to maintain an equilibrium for a long time and people have in some sense come to rely upon it. Sure, it has to break some time, but if the break came with a recently elected president and a congress controlled by the same part, it would at least have a certain fairness to the breaking. There is no reason for Republicans who control congress to collaborate with President Obama in creating what could well be a 20+ year liberal lock on control of the court when it at least remains possible that a Republican president will be in the White House in less than a year.

However, unless our country moves away from relying so heavily on judicial fiat to break stalemates which our legislature is unwilling or unable to, control of the Supreme Court will remain in many ways control of the government, and no one wants to give that up. And the angst is all the higher because it's an aspect of the government which is very hard to influence through the democratic process.

Right now some Democrats are offering pained editorials about how unfortunate it is that Republicans won't step away from politics and confirm whatever qualified nominee Obama puts forward. If the function of the court would de-politicize, if it would step decisively away from the kind of highly political rulings it has indulged in ranging from Roe v. Wade to Obergefell v. Hodges, we would not have to experience these kind of highly partisan wranglings over filling Supreme Court appointments. However, it's impossible to imagine the court moving away from that kind of function, both because the door has been opened (and is now hard to close) and because the rest of our government is at times complicit and punting hard decisions to the court. So for now, we're stuck with every Supreme Court nomination being fraught, and a case like which would potentially involve a massive philosophical shift for the court to be a situation for all out partisan war.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Cloister

I think, as I'm writing, that this post will be rather disjointed, and I beg your indulgence. Several threads of thought have converged for me lately, as well as the conversations across several blogs (sounds like the Aughts, doesn't it?) and I don't know how to pull them all together seamlessly.

This is a post about why we still choose to homeschool, but it doesn't have anything to do with how to homeschool, or whether anyone in the world but me should homeschool.

I say this upfront because I have read some compelling posts recently about why other families have chosen to stop homeschooling, and their reasons resonated with me, and made me seriously consider (again) why it is this is the right choice for our family. I've stopped writing about homeschooling as a process mostly because I don't feel I have anything to say about it these days. Nor do I read much about it anymore. If I want sheer confidence about how to homeschool, I only need to go back in my archives and read my 26-year-old self, who knew everything. Now I'm 37, with six children, and if I know anything now, it's that wisdom and humility consists of the paring away of superfluous certainties.


Sometimes, the way to find your strengths is to read about people who have opposite strengths.

Rebecca Frech writes about leaving the cloister:
After 14 years of teaching our children at home, I’m done….I think. After all of the hours I have spent counseling other parents on how to fix their homeschool problems, I know enough to know that there isn’t one here. I’m not hanging up my hat because I’ve finally found that one child I can’t teach, or because of burnout or fatigue. I just no longer feel called to do this any more. Which is a weird thing to say when you literally wrote the book on home education. 
My husband and I have been discussing this possibility for the past few months. Over the years, I have steadfastly maintained that we would continue homeschooling until it stopped working for us. I was wrong. It’s still working, and I’m closing up shop anyway. 
It was almost one year ago exactly, in the middle of recording an episode of The Visitation Project , that Bonnie quoted Kendra Tierney (I think) to me, saying “some families are called to the mission field, and others to the cloister.” I can still remember the devastating impact of that statement, and how it took all my strength to not break down on air. The distance from the world which had been such a blessing for so many years, became, in that instant, a crushing weight.
"Some families are called to the mission field, and others to the cloister." This struck me as viscerally as it did Rebecca, but in the opposite way. My family is called to the cloister.

Everyone is called to both the mission field and the cloister in some degree, of course. Perhaps the difference is that the missioner goes out to people, and the cloister draws people within itself. At any rate, I, being the person that I am, raising my particular family as best I can with my strengths and flaws, find that my house is called to be a cloister, a comfortable, welcoming, safe, gracious place for my family and for anyone who comes to us.

We all hear stories of people who are scared of the world, scared of its influences, trying to preserve their children in some primal state of innocence by sheltering them from anything that might disturb their peace. That never works, because our primal state isn't innocence anymore. It's a state of original sin. The cloister isn't about keeping out sin. It's where the attack plan is formed. The cloister is headquarters. It's the stronghold, where the highest level plans are made, and the troops are trained. It's the safe place, the refuge, the home base.

I want my family to be a cloister, not just for our own sake, but as a light to the world. Perhaps as a child you read a book about a happy fictional family and thought, "I wish that were true. I wish I could be in that family." I want to be that model. When people are weary of the world, weary of pop-culture depictions of families, of a model of marriage based on denigration and competition and lust, of a model of parenting based on plans and ambitions and fear, on a model of childhood based on increasingly packed schedules and busyness and the pressure to succeed, I want my family to be, not perfect, but an oasis of calm and strength. The cloister isn't hidden away. It's the city on a hill, letting its light shine for all to see. Who can miss a monastery? They're huge.


Simcha Fisher writes about the decision to stop homeschooling, from the perspective of six years later, with a list of pros and cons of school for their family.

What I want to pinpoint from Simcha's post is the same quote that struck Leah Libresco, about the ability to use time:
7. We don’t get to choose how to spend our time. This is the one thing that makes me really miss home school. We don’t have much time or flexibility to do fun or important things together as a family, like go to museums or other cultural events, or celebrate religious feasts in a big way, or have long vacations, or have vacations when we need or want them. We haven’t even been to the library in a very long time (although they do use their school libraries, and the older kids walk to the public library every day to be picked up). Reading aloud has to happen in the evening, and we may or may not be in the mood. Religious education has to be crammed in here and there. And summer vacation is criminally short. We have to be really judicious about our free time, and there’s never enough of it. 
This inspired Leah to reflect on the joys and the creativity of being able to live timelessly, as it were, and she was kind enough to link to my recent post about art, and the making of art
In California, I knew more people who lived on “maker schedule” with big blocks of time they could use as they saw fit, but, because there was a lot of variation in when people’s free blocks fell, so I would have trouble coordinating events.  Back in DC, I just use doodle polls to schedule big events (like a day-long watch through of The Hollow Crown) up to a month and a half ahead of time, so we can all find a free date.  That’s tolerable for a group of 15 adults with different kinds of work commitments, but I’d wish for more flexibility within a family, and school plus extracurriculars can make it hard to pull off. 
The best thing really is to have the experience of a snow day more often — a day that’s unexpectedly returned to you, that you didn’t have the chance to schedule away. 
Cat Hodge put her finger on why we need this time of our own in the middle of a longer post on art and friendship: 
"There must be amateur theater. There must be amateur most-things, or most people will never experience most-things."
If it's true that our greatest weaknesses can be our greatest strengths, and vice versa, then high on my own list must be a sense of timelessness. I once said to Darwin that I try to live as if I were single, or childless, with all my time at my own command, but of course that's not an accurate depiction of that state of life, as Leah points out. Rather, I begin to see that I yearn wholeheartedly for the timelessness of heaven, where there are no boundaries, no limits, no pressures, no barriers to our total contemplation of God. I think that's one reason why I prefer to work late at night, when I have a seemingly unlimited stretch of time uncomplicated by outside demands, whether from children or from schedule. Of course, heaven entails other things, such as perfect love and a final, blissful conformity to God's will combined with a deeper comprehension of God than this life can ever afford. And there's where my desire for timelessness becomes a weakness here on earth. Practical experience tells me that I work most effectively, and also very willingly, when I have external constraints, either of schedule or expectation. Left to myself, I would do little but just BE, and although that's appropriate for heaven, it's not for earth, where I have the obligations of family and community life, and the responsibility to provide a clean and comfortable home for my family, and to educate my children in a timely fashion. And it's why I regularly wonder if I need the externally imposed schedule of school both as a sacrifice and to help me live as my best self, and to provide the order and schedule that children need.

But order and schedule are not all that children need in order to mature and learn, and I do think that one of my strengths as a parent is my willingness to let my children BE as well. I don't need them to always be DOING: worksheets, every jot and tittle of a curriculum, outside activities, projects, chores, every moment in its own little block, rigidly scheduled and overseen, my sense of wellbeing depending whether I checked every box. My home is a relaxed place, maybe too relaxed sometimes, but a place where my children are generally happy, learning to love one another, able to read for fun and to seek out what interests them, a place where we can center our school day around a comfortable session of reading aloud from Scripture and other literature. Home is a place where we are not rushed, most of the time. It is a place to breathe.

My dad once told me that his house, growing up, was not a particular cozy place. My grandmother, an excellent, loving, devout woman, valued a particular sense of order and appearance. This, coupled with a very serious disease which could flare up at unpredictable times and leave her unable to keep house the way she liked, inclined her to a certain sterility in homemaking. His memories of home from his youth have to do with how the living room was for show and always had to be presentable to company; how the children never really had friends over because either the house wasn't just so, or because the house might get mussed up; how, as a result, the kids tended to break apart, going separately to friends' houses which were more comfortable than their own, and how that may have impacted their relationships as adults.

I treasure my grandmother's memory and her good example, but I didn't inherit her cleaning ethic, in part because my dad, in making our home, chose to pass on what was best from her example -- her strong faith -- through his own gentle personality, his legacy from his father. And so in building our cloister, Darwin and I try to take what was best from our families' examples (his parents' strong, loving marriage; my father's gentle teaching gifts in teaching Scripture, my mother's strong ethic of hospitality) and mediate them through our own personalities. We fight against our flaws, which in my case involve a strong inertia and tendencies to sloth, and we try to play to our strengths.

And that's where homeschooling comes in: as a way of playing to our strengths in the way we raise our children. Homeschooling is the best way for Darwin and I, working as a team and based our our particular personalities, to provide a stable, happy home for our children and a model of family to the world. We don't homeschool out of fear. The kids are good, healthy, strong, stable individuals and would do well in public school, private school, Catholic school, or at home. Given that, it's always best to live the way you think God is calling you to live, and all signs are clear that he's calling us to be a big huge cloister with a library and a cell for guests and a refectory with a long table, a safe place to live and to pray.

Reader Survey: The Great War, A Novel

Yes, I really am almost done bombarding you with my WW1 fiction! But to round off the thing off, and help me as I move into revising the novel for publication, if you've read all or part of it indulge me by taking a few minutes to fill out this reader survey.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 20 (the end)

Friends, this is it. After twenty chapters and 264,000 words, we reach the end of Volume One and the end of 1914.

Thank you for reading this as I write it. I'd very much appreciate any thoughts or feedback. In a day or two I'll post a google form with a few specific question on things I'd like to know as I prepare to revise this volume to submit it for publication. I'll also post a bit of teaser information about Volume 2.

But for now, thank you. I hope that you've enjoyed it.

Chateau Ducloux, France. December 30st, 1914. Christmas had passed in Chateau Ducloux, and that was as much good as could be said of that holiday spent under occupation. Food had been short. Fuel had been short. The occupying troops had staged a massive celebration, the more galling because the barrels of wine they tapped had come from the cellars of the town’s citizens and the geese they roasted had come from their farmyards. There were five more days until the feast of the three kings, and in search of a way to lift spirits, Grandpere had sent enquiries as far as Sedan and Charleville to see if in return for the various streams of black market produce now making their way from the farms around Chateau Ducloux into the cities, he could acquire enough candy for town’s children to celebrate Epiphany as they had in the past. Sugar, however, was very dear. The local candy factories had shut down, and imports were not arriving because of the British blockade.

There was one obvious solution to this, a dangerous one. For several days he had hesitated. Then he had asked the contacts that he normally avoided. The network which Grandpere and Andre Guyot ran, using Andre’s position as postmaster to pick up food which the farmers had hidden from German inventories and requisitions, storing the goods in the back room of the Mertens shop, and selling the goods to townspeople as well as middlemen who carted the foods into the nearby cities where fresh produce was even more dear, was the most common sort of black market activity, and in one sense the least dangerous. It was nearly impossible for the civilians to get by without occasionally buying food that had been hidden from German requisition, and even for the occupying soldiers it was useful to know where to buy butter or eggs or bacon that wasn’t under the control of the supply sergeants. But there was another black market, one which touched the common one at points but which dealt in stolen goods, petrol, weapons, military information, and people. Some its sellers became very rich. Others were shot.

Grandpere’s contact had given him the name of a German supply sergeant in a nearby village who was willing to sell provisions.

“Candy?” The sergeant had laughed in his face. “My friend, it’s a week after Christmas. I’ve already sold all the candy I could get my hands on.” He sniffed at the cigar that Grandpere had given him as an introductory offering, then lit it. “I tell you what I could do, though. White flour. And white sugar. How long since you’ve seen that in your village shop? It’s not candy, but get some good woman to make it up for you and the children can all have cookies for Epiphany. How’s that?”

White flour. For the last two months there had been nothing but brown flour to be had in the village, and even that was often stretched with feed grains, sometimes even with dried potatoes. As for sugar, the best that could be had was a dark syrup made by boiling down sugar beets hidden from the German harvest collection.

The supply sergeant stepped away and returned with a ten kilogram bag of flour, the fabric printed in German and stamped “Army Use Only”. Next to it he set down two paper wrapped blocks labeled “Pure Cane Sugar, 1kg”.

“How much?” Grandpere asked.

The sum was high, and the sergeant would accept gold coin only. It was an amount Grandpere had, however, and since the money came from the profits of his black market sales, it was in some sense town money. They were honest, modest profits, payment for the time and danger incurred. Yet if he gained from the war while so many lost, surely it was right to use some of these to buy the town’s children something they would not otherwise get.

He laid the coins out on the table.

“Now remember, if you’re caught, I’ll tell anyone who comes asking me about these supplies that you stole them,” the sergeant said as he pocketed the money.

[continue reading]

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Friendship, in Service and Idea

I got my alumni magazine in the mail, and lo, there was an article about women bloggers, and one of them was me. This was not a surprise, since I'd had a delightful conversation with the journalist a while back, but the timing of it all works well to provide a nice pre-Lenten jolt of mortification, since at this point I haven't written anything substantive for about two weeks. Oh, there is writing going on in the house, believe you me, but it is Darwin writing, frantically trying to finish his novel by... well, tomorrow, the day before Lent.

Unlike love, human creative energy seems to be finite, and we've found that we can only have one person at a time seriously writing. As Darwin has picked up the pace of his novel writing here at the end, my own pace of creativity has slowed and halted, because once his writing hits a certain critical mass and speed, the family energies go to maintaining that. And blogging, though not as involved a kind of writing as novel composition, does require some creative energy. At the moment, there's little to spare. It doesn't bother me, because the tables have been reversed in the past and will be in the future. When I'm in the throes of a project, he will keep the house running and provide creative support, the same role I'm playing now, and I'll be grateful to him as he's now grateful to me.

Back at the old alma mater, I studied theater, and the creative, collaborative energy that goes into putting on a show is the kind I rejoice in, which I why I think Darwin and I work well together as writers. But theater is my first love, and so it was a joy to me to make the trek with my three big girls to downtown Columbus, to see the touring production of The Sound of Music in a palatial theater with brocade panels and trompe d'oeil wallpaper and an iceberg of a chandelier dangling far above the heads of the orchestra seats. Not our heads, mind; we were up in the third balcony in row T. The view was glorious and the mountain air bracing.

And the show. Oh, the show. I have not seen a live professional production in this decade. I've directed, I've scraped together paratheatrical activities, I've led choirs, I've seen high school productions and grade school productions and community theater and innumerable hours of dance recitals. These have been fun, or madcap, or workmanlike, but all definitely amateur. There is nothing wrong with that, and much right. There must be amateur theater. There must be amateur most-things, or most people will never experience most-things. But the problem, as I've experienced it, is the cynicism that comes with constant immersion in amateurism. I hold everything up to the production in my head, and weigh it, and it falls short, and I wonder: is it that my standards are unrealistic, unobtainable? What if, in the end, I'm just a snob, demanding some level of excellence, of vision, that's just an ideal and an illusion? When I sit in the audience and watch a labor of love, and note all the ways I would have done things differently, when I'm always my own highest authority, I weary myself. And so, what happiness to sit back and watch the pros at work, to be able to relax and put myself in their hands because there is nothing to critique. To watch acting that is technically excellent yet unforced, to hear singing where technique and expression aren't constantly at war, to see a real design budget put to lovely, creative effect, and most of all, to see directing that is not just content to rest on the laurels of old Broadway standby, but instead peels back layers of schlock to find what's authentic in the most familiar scenes.

I remember mentally restaging Do A Deer after watching NBC's live broadcast in 2013, not because I think The Sound of Music is the world's best musical, or because I think Do A Deer is the be-all and end-all of songs, but because it's so often done poorly, inauthentically, and it drives me bats.

Here's the production we watched:

Maria is doing what most people do when they make up silly songs, trying to pull words out of the air as she goes along. The kids feed off her energy, and she feeds off theirs, and instead of the kids immediately lining up to belt out the song to the audience, they group up and sing it to each other, to see who's getting it right. Liesl hangs back, refusing to get involved because she's too old for this, snippily brushing past Maria to make her point, but the enthusiasm of everyone else keeps pulling her back to see what will happen next because she's not as aloof as she thinks she is. And I'm going to come out and say that I nearly cried tears of joy to see that a professional director has vindicated me in my opinion that Maria should use the Kodaly hand signs to teach solfege.

This is a thing! A real way people teach children to sing! And someone else, one of the pros, came independently to the same idea I had, because the idea itself is good. Perhaps you remember the beginning of a new friendship, the point at which you realized that someone was interested in the same things you were, not because they wanted to impress you or mimic you, but because the things, the ideas themselves, were genuinely interesting to the other person. The basis of the friendship, in fact, is that both people can say, without reference to the other, "This thing is true and good." C.S. Lewis talks about this in The Four Loves, how two people sharing an end outside themselves creates a real bond. It is one of the lesser ideas, in the universe of ideas, that The Sound of Music is improved by the use of actual techniques for teaching children to sing, but it is a good idea for all that, and to know that someone at the high end of the profession also thinks so is a boon to me, a little zap of affirmation that even though my creative energy is sluggish right now, it is real and it is good.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 19

In this installment we see the last of Walter for this volume.

Only one chapter left, in which we return to Philomene in Chateau Ducloux one last time for a new year, a letter, and a funeral.

Cologne. December 20th, 1914. The two massive structures on the west bank of the Rhine in Cologne might have seemed to exemplify the spirit of two different ages of man. The cathedral, with twin Gothic spires, reached five hundred and fifteen feet into the heavens. Across a small square was another structure, as earthly in its purpose as the other was ethereal: the city’s main train station had a stone facade and clock tower which did not look out of place amid the historic buildings that surrounded it, but its true wonder was the massive curving span of steel lattice and plate glass which enclosed in elegant modernity seven lines of track and the wide platforms between them. However the contrast, at least in terms of time, was illusory. The foundations of the cathedral had been laid in 1248 and for the next two hundred years the walls slowly rose until the building, even unfinished, dominated the skyline. Yet money for the project had run short, and from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, the bell towers stood half-height, topped not by steeples but by a crane which itself became a city landmark. Meanwhile masses were held in the eastern third of the building, roofed over and enclosed from the elements by a temporary wall.

It was not until the creation of the united German Empire, the youngest country in Europe and yet one deeply invested in its medieval heritage, that this Catholic cathedral was at last finished, with the help of funds provided by its Protestant emperor. Wilhelm I attended the dedication himself in 1880, and when he did so he arrived in the royal train at the station which stood a short walk across the Bahnhofsvorplatz from the cathedral.

Walter arrived on the 06:20 train from Berlin. Back to the east, over the Rhine bridge his train had just crossed, the first hints of approaching dawn were lightening the horizon, but through the glass-paned lattice overhead he could see the stars still shining in the sky. The second class sleeper compartment to which the transport officer had given him a ticket, in deference to the red sergeant’s tabs which now adorned the collars of his tunic and greatcoat, had been a far cry from the cattle cars in which he and the other enlisted men had rolled across the Rhein almost five months before.

It was not only in rating better train accommodations that Walter had felt the difference of experience and rank. During the last few months he had become accustomed to the respect which his experience, even more than his rank, earned him among the enlisted men. They knew that he had been there since the long march across Belgium and the bloody fights along the Marne and the Aisne, and that he was one of those who could keep moving under fire, but would also stop to help those who were struggling. However, when Leutnant Weber had sent him home for a two-week training course, Walter had found that among civilians his status as a promoted soldier back from the front brought him a sort of adulation that was wholly new to him.

That he was a hero to his younger brother was perhaps no surprise. Erich had asked for details of Walter’s experiences at every opportunity, and in trying to satisfy that desire on his first visit home Walter had discovered that he did very much want to tell someone about his experiences, and yet that Erich was not the person with whom he wanted to be honest about the battlefield. The thirteen year old’s ideas of war were formed by the back issues of The Good Comrade, in whose well-thumbed pages he reveled in adventure stories that seemed inevitably to include a lost dispatch, naval code, or secret map which fell into the hands of the boy hero, allowing him to assist the square-jawed men of the Imperial Army and Navy in saving the empire from the clutches of whatever threats loomed against Kaiser and Fatherland. It seemed unfair to tell the boy about the horrors of war -- of helping a man wash his friend’s brains off his face, or of the distant, haunted look of someone who had been under artillery fire past the point of his endurance -- yet even more wrong to tell him about the inexplicable rush which at times came with combat, the feeling of being armed and fleet-footed and ready to deal death at a moment’s notice.

Nor could he have been that honest with his mother, who had clung to him and cried and demanded to know why he could not stay in the family’s flat while in training rather than reporting to the barracks the next morning for the start of the training course. He’d promised to spend the whole day with them on Sunday, but insisted he would not be able to get away in the evenings, even as his mother assured him repeatedly that she could easily cancel her work to be with him. She needed the money, however willing she was to give it up in order to see him, and after just an hour at home Walter knew that he would be happy of the excuse to spend only visits there.

Instead, he had spent his evenings after training with the other non-commissioned officers in the course, visiting the beer halls and the music halls. There, middle-aged men eager to bask in the empire’s glory were happy to buy them drinks and hear their stories about the war. Some soldiers satisfied their audience’s desire to hear heroic paeans to Germanic arms, and others enjoyed the shock which resulted from telling in the most unvarnished terms possible the real nature of battle.

There Walter had discovered that he drew the attention of women who would never have given him a second look when he was wearing a factory worker’s jacket. And having had his first taste of this attention, he had followed the lead of other NCOs he saw in the capital, and purchased an officer’s great coat. This was not a violation of regulations so long as he sewed on it his sergeant’s collar tabs, but its better cut and double row of buttons cut far more of a dash, as did the new ankle boots and close fitting leather gaiters, also a style normally worn by officers, with which he replaced the big, clumsy, enlisted man’s marching boots in which he had tramped across Belgium.

Now he found there were sympathetic ears and arms for the choosing.

[Continue Reading]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Topping Out

We're coming into that time, at work, when we have to put down goals for the next year, which will in turn provide the basis for our performance assessments at the end of the year. I've been in my current job for three and a half years now, and although that's not a terribly long time to be at the company, it is longer than many people within the company stay in one role. Moving from job to job within the company is fairly common, and people consider it to be a good way to get to understand lots of different aspects of the company.

No one, however, is particularly eager to see me move around to another job, because running the pricing team is seen as specialized enough that they're concerned if I moved elsewhere there wouldn't be someone else who could do the job as well. At the moment, that's fine with me. I have three great people working for me, and we all get along very well. I enjoy my work, and people seem to think that I do well at it.

And yet in an odd sort of way, this takes some getting used to and represents a change in my life, at least professionally.

My BA is in Classics. I never went to business school, never took a course in finance or marketing, and never got an MBA. The way that I got where I am now is a crooked path, the turns of which are mostly defined by looking around for things that weren't going well, problems that needed to be solved, and then offering to help. Along the way, the selling point I've always tried to push is: I can learn quickly.

We need a database for product information? Okay, let me go look at a book on database design. Need a website? No problem, I'll pick up a book and figure it out.

In a department in which most adhoc reporting and analysis is done in Excel, I apparently pass for an Excel guru. Every so often people ask me for advice on classes to take in Excel, but I've never really taken one -- and so far as I can tell virtually none of the other "experts" have either. We're just the people who read the help files and Google around trying to figure out how to do something.

So I picked up skills and I picked up responsibility and I was always looking for what new thing I could do in order to get ahead.

But somewhere along the way, I learned pricing. I originally got a job on a pricing team because the manager needed someone who could build a database, and he knew that I was good with databases. By the time I'd build our pricing tools, I'd learned a fair amount about pricing. So long as you can think analytically about problems that have several different dimensions, learning about pricing is honestly not hard. With my high school level math skills and my self trained database and Excel abilities, I'm able to pass for an expert now that I've had almost ten years of experience in it. Maybe anyone can do that. Maybe that's how paternal grandfather managed to turn a WW2 era job dealing with building airplanes into a career in aerospace engineering without ever actually going to college. But not everyone does do it. I did, and now I'm "the pricing guy" around here.

Last year about this time I sat down with a mentor and former boss to talk about career moves, and I started talking about how I needed to make sure that someone on my team was developing into someone who could replace me, so that I could in turn rotate to some other job in the company and develop the generized experience that would allow me to be promoted. He basically said two things:

1) If you're a specialist, why do you think that you need to move into some other part of the company instead of sticking with your specialty?

2) If you were promoted, you'd be a vice president. Do you want any of those jobs and do you think you can do one them?

I've been chewing on these for nearly a year.

The first took a lot of getting used to, because although I'd got my last two jobs on the basis of having experienced in pricing, at some level I still thought of myself as a generalist. I was a generalist when I started doing pricing work, and I still have the same ability to learn that I had back then. But what I did with that ability to learn things was to learn a specialized field and get promoted a couple times on that basis. I was hired to be the head of pricing at my company, so maybe it's time to admit that I'm now a specialist.

The second has also taken some reassessment.

Graduating in the middle of the burst of the .com bubble, with a degree in Greek & Latin, I had more than a few people tell me that I would be able to ask "Do you want fries with that?" in three languages, who of which were dead. In other words, I had no marketable skills. My first jobs didn't pay a whole lot, and we were living in Los Angeles where our one bedroom apartment was costing us over a thousand a month. (I'm sure they cost even more now, but where we live in Columbus you could still get a place for half that.) So understandably, I was very, very focused on getting ahead. I'm not sure I ever answered a potential boss's query "Where do you want to be in three to five years?" with "Your job," but it's always what I thought.

For a long time, my definition of doing a good job in my career has been "getting promoted."

Well, here I am. I manage the pricing team. And as I look around at the people who are a level above me, I'm not sure that I'm particularly qualified or eager to have their jobs.

This may be as high as I go.

It's not a bad thing. Honestly, it's a great job. It pays well, and the work is interesting. But after always thinking about the future in terms of "When can I take the next step up?" it's odd to think that this might be the end of the line. Yeah, experience changes thing. If there comes a point when I've been running the pricing team here for ten years instead of three, I'll probably be deeper into a lot of issues and consulted on more things. There would be a gradual expansion of responsibility. Or perhaps someday I'll end up going to another company to run their pricing function, with all the challenges that come with mastering something new or building a new team. And no matter what, there's always more to learn, more projects to work on, more ways to apply the basic skills and techniques of my professional discipline.

But there may not really be any "up" in a formal sense from where I am. And in the process of adjusting to that knowledge I've been realizing how much of my thinking about work over nearly twenty years has been built around the idea of advancement. I need to learn to think in other ways.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

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?

The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton
On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry
John Adams, David McCullough
On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius*
The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope*
Mythology, by Edith Hamilton*

2. What book did you just finish?

Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope
The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell
On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner
How Fiction Works, by James Wood
A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending To, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire, by John Biggins
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser

3. What do you plan to read next?

La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), by Honoré de Balzac
Medusa's Web, by Tim Powers

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Big surprise here: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. I'll read it when Brandon picks it as his Fortnightly Book

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Iliad, translated by Caroline Alexander

6. What is your current reading trend?

Interesting stuff my friends recommend.