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

Friday, September 30, 2016

The First Four Weeks

Four weeks into the school year, for us. This year we're using Catholic Heritage Curriculum, with daily schedule. How's it going?

1. I am so proud of my big girls. The oldest, ninth grade, has been working through an ambitious reading list that Darwin drew up for her as part of his family's Humanities Program. The 13yo and 10yo are using CHC materials. They have taken responsibility for their own work, taking delight in checking off one subject after another and getting work done early. The older two have been working hard to make sure that they finish everything before Friday, so they can have a day off. I'm impressed by their drive, and I rather wish we'd gone with a more academically ambitious program for them.

My 13yo has disliked all the literature I've assigned her so far. She could tell me the plots of both Old Yeller and My Friend Flicka, but remained unmoved by either story. She also hasn't cared for Anne of Green Gables or its ilk. I think that she'd prefer to read a steady diet of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. And no one -- but no one! -- likes reading biographies.

2. We have basically thrown out the schedule for the younger two, 8 and 6. I have to sit on them to get them to do any work -- I mean, if I am not sitting at the table with them, they will wander off, not finish things, stare out the window, fight with each other, start great projects, build forts, anything but the work at hand. I can get my 8yo son to do a page of math if I set a timer for him, but 6yo daughter needs someone supervising her, even if it's work she enjoys.

They both have religion and science books, but I feel so dragged out after hauling both of them through the three Rs that we don't usually do either of those subjects. (We read and discuss the daily Mass readings, so it's not as if they're religiously illiterate.) And some days I have to step away if I can't handle the level of... not idiocy, but... denseness? Look, you try sitting day in and day out with a child learning to read, who can't remember the word "sit" from one sentence to the next, who will sound out the first two letters of "mat" and then say, "map!", who has no sight words, who will guess at a word without even looking at the page, who will sound out the beginning of "mud" and then say, "dirt!". It's not an irredeemable situation; I can see progress from the beginning of the year. But it's slow, and she doesn't particularly care about reading. It's not a skill she has a great desire to acquire.

What has boosted an interest in reading is our new acquisition of a boxed set of Usborne Early Readers. They are charming illustrated and have engaging stories, and the very first ones have parent pages on the left and kid pages on the right, so Junior doesn't feel like you're making him do all the work. And it is fun, oh so fun, to take them all out of the box and sort through them, and then leave them laying around so that your mom yells at you and makes you pick them all up and put them back.

The one CHC book I will praise is the K/1 reading program. It consists of pages you can tear out and fold into little four-page booklets, so your child can feel a sense of accomplishment in reading a book, and you can write on them. I like to underline sound combinations and sight words, and she likes to draw on the pages to complete the story. The stories are cute and fun, but I don't really follow the parent suggestions. Come now, I'm not going to tell my child that maybe the reason why Mom isn't in this story about Dad taking care of the baby is because she's at a homeschooling conference or doing pro-life work.

Which brings me to:

3. I will not be buying CHC next year, for a few reasons. The first and foremost is that the books and workbooks are too Catholicy. I don't just say "Catholic", because everything that participates in the truth is Catholic. But every grammar exercise has some kind of moral or Catholic lesson. Every spelling list has a Catholic bit of vocabulary, or a religious picture. The history books, while not terrible, are very very focused on Church history or Christendom. I feel like there's little system to the handwriting and spelling books for the younger grades. I don't think it's a bad program. But I'm not sure it's for our family, after trying it.

But I am so happy with how the older ones are thriving with a daily schedule of work.

4. As always, my morning starting point is bible study/readalouds. We begin with the morning offering and intentions, read the readings and discuss them, read our meditation, have about 20 seconds of quiet prayer, and then have a chapter of our readaloud. The first book of the year was The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston, an instant favorite. Currently, I'm reading The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's a bit challenging for the kids, though I do make sure to have them tell me about plot points, and to discuss character and themes. I won't say that they love it, but there are times when people are listening intently.

5. We're planning a family dinner out this weekend as a sign of appreciation for how well the kids have jumped into the year and done their work. I know I've felt frustrated with how I have to drag the younger ones through their stuff, but imagine if I was having to sit on the big three as well! So some congratulations are in order.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Non-spoiler review: Beautifully filmed, poignantly acted story of an Irish immigrant eventually forced to make a difficult choice between a life in the old world and a life in the new world. The first half of the movie is very sweet and compelling, but it all falls apart in the second half when the story reveals itself as without a moral core. All the more disappointing for being so attractively done.

Spoilery commentary:

We'd heard lots of good buzz about Brooklyn, and seen some pretty stills, so when I found it on the Boomerang shelf at the library (3 days, no renewals, heap big late fees), I picked it up mostly on spec. Truth to tell, we hoped it would be a romantic movie after a long and tiring week, so we kicked all the kids upstairs and settled in with wine and cookies. And ah, it was so aesthetically pleasing. The Irish lilt, the scenery, the costumes with just the right hint of 50s downmarket, but with such lines! Saoirse Ronan's luminous face, so expressive. And the story was pleasing: Eilish Lacey is a young Irish woman heading to America for a job and living situation that her sister has arranged for her through a priest friend. And although she's not uncapable, people look out for her: her brassy cabinmate on the ship, her landlady, her elegant supervisor at the department store she works at, her worldly housemates, the sweet Italian boy she meets at a dance... There is a wealth of charity that is heartwarming, which stands her in good stead when a tragedy calls her back to Ireland.

And then the tone shifts. Tony, the Italian plumber, asks Eilish to marry him before she leaves, although she's only slated to be gone a month. And when she agrees, they tumble into bed (a move made possible, unwittingly, by her landlady, who has entrusted her with the basement apartment with a separate entrance precisely because she thinks that Eilish is not the sort of girl who will abuse the privilege). The next day they slip off to marry at City Hall.

Back in Ireland, Eilish doesn't tell anyone that she's married, even as her friends are trying to set her up with a guy. A nice guy, a guy who's inheriting his parents' pub and elegant house in the countryside. A guy who is educated, unlike the Italian plumber. A guy who is falling in love with her. She doesn't tell, and she doesn't tell, as she goes out on dates with the fellow and leaves her husband's letters unanswered. As people start making plans around the assumption that she'll be staying in Ireland now. The fellow all but proposes to her, and she all but accepts. But the town gossip gets wind  of the marriage from relatives in America who saw her at the City Hall that day. Eilish takes a ticket back to America the very next day and meets up with her plumber again, and... the story is over.

Saoirse Ronan certainly has the acting capability to play an internal moral struggle, but she didn't do so, because the script gives Eilish no moral struggle. She doesn't wonder if it's wrong to break her vow to her husband. She doesn't struggle against her attraction to the man in Ireland. She isn't ashamed, guilty, conflicted, or proud of setting convention at odds. She is simply living as if her husband doesn't exist. Only when the gossip tries to blackmail her does she own her marriage (after an initial lie), and then not because she realizes that she really loves Tony, or because her vows matter, but because she's angry about transatlantic gossip and wants to go back to a new home where her life isn't everyone's business. The movie allows her to get out of most of the difficult self-examination that would ordinarily accompany a deception of this magnitude.

And that's when we looked back and realized that we'd never seen Eilish make a moral choice through the whole course of the movie. The first half of the movie, which seemed so sweet, involves other people making choices on her behalf. She reacts, she adjusts, and in ways that seem authentic, but she is never once faced with making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong -- until she is, and then then she fails on every count. The charming performances go a very long way toward masking this deficiency, but eventually the script betrays its moral vapidity.

Brooklyn was a true disappointment. It wasn't a romantic movie at all. Even the ending, as she shows up unannounced to hug her husband, felt unresolved. The movie doesn't indicate whether she'll tell her husband about her Irish fling, and it seems uncharacteristic of her to come clean about that. Better be careful, Eilish -- gossip goes both ways across the Atlantic.


Darwin and I worked up several ways in which you could have retained the same plot within a moral framework.

A. Eilish and Tony could not have had sex.

B. Eilish could have realized in Ireland that she was pregnant, and so realized that her marriage has real consequences that transcend her own whims.

C. Eilish could have simply gotten engaged, and not married, which would mean that she had a real choice to make between the men. Perhaps they haven't had time to buy a ring, and Tony mails one to Ireland, triggering her decision.

D. Eilish confesses to a friend that's she's married, and finds that other people take the idea of marriage much more seriously than she does.

E. The gossip gets back to the Irish man, and Eilish needs to confront the pain she's caused by her deception.

F. Eilish is open about her marriage, but feels that since it wasn't a church wedding, it doesn't count, and takes the steps to dissolve the marriage and stay in Ireland (assuming the Irish fellow would still have her).

There are dozens of ways this could have played out, and the movie makers chose the least satisfying version.

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

Rosamund Hodge, this week's New York Times #3 Bestselling Author for YA E-Books who is also Darwin's sister, has her new novel Bright Smoke, Cold Fire hitting the shelves today.

Sabriel meets Romeo and Juliet in this stunning and atmospheric novel from the author of Cruel Beauty and Crimson Bound.

When the mysterious fog of the Ruining crept over the world, the living died and the dead rose. Only the walled city of Viyara was left untouched.

The heirs of the city’s most powerful—and warring—families, Mahyanai Romeo and Juliet Catresou, share a love deeper than duty, honor, even life itself. But the magic laid on the Juliet at birth compels her to punish the enemies of her clan—and Romeo has just killed her cousin Tybalt. Which means he must die.

Paris Catresou has always wanted to serve his family by guarding the Juliet. But when his ward tries to escape her fate, magic goes terribly wrong—killing her and leaving Paris bound to Romeo. If he wants to discover the truth of what happened, Paris must delve deep into the city, ally with his worst enemy . . . and perhaps turn against his own clan.

Mahyanai Runajo only wants to protect her city—but she’s the only one who believes it’s in peril. In her desperate hunt for information, she accidentally pulls Juliet from the mouth of death—and finds herself bound to the bitter, angry girl. Runajo quickly discovers Juliet might be the one person who can help her recover the secret to saving Viyara.

Both pairs will find friendship where they least expect it. Both will find that Viyara holds more secrets and dangers than anyone ever expected. And outside the walls, death is waiting. . . .

You can find Bright Smoke, Cold Fire wherever fine books are sold.

Want a preview? Read the opening chapters, starting with...

Such Sweet Sorrow

If he does not come soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.
For an hour now, she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.
But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time, she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.
She hopes he will come soon. She hopes he will never come.
The casement swings open.
She stands. Her numb hands draw the sword and let the scabbard drop.
His dark eyes are wide as he climbs through the window, but there is no surprise in them when she greets him with the point of her blade, held to his throat.
He looks strangely small. Just a boy, with messy black hair and a sweet laugh she will never hear again.
Her only love, and now her only hate.
“I see you,” she says, speaking the ancient words for the first time, “and I judge you guilty.”
He sighs, and the corner of his mouth tips up just a little. “I know,” he says, and he kneels and bares his neck.
She can smell the blood on him. He is clean: he took the trouble to bathe before coming here to die. But he spilled the lifeblood of her kin, and she can smell that guilt upon him—she can almosttaste it. Her body shakes with the desire to kill him for it.
She wants him to fight. She wants him to beg. To flee, to threaten, or persuade.
Ever since she met him, she has most terribly wanted.
“Look up at me,” she demands, and he does, his gaze as simple and sure as the night she fell in love with him.
“Why did you come?” she whispers. “You knew what I would do. You know what I must do.”
He swallows; she sees the muscles move in his throat, and she thinks of the blood pulsing just below the skin. He is a fragile, perfect balance of breath and heartbeat, skin and bones and blood. A little world entire, most beautifully made—he was her world, and now she is going to destroy him.
“‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’” She says the words flatly, without tune, but they both remember the sun-drenched afternoon when he sang them to her. “‘Every wise man’s son doth know.’ Why did you come back?
“Because I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “Because I know you loved him. You deserve to avenge him.”
Not because it is her duty. Not because vengeance is written on her skin and the spells that wrote it compel her to obey.
Because she loved her cousin. Because he ruffled her hair and comforted her when she was a little child. Because he is dead and cold now, in a vault beneath their house, his arms sliced open as the embalmers do their work.
And yet even he, her most beloved cousin, never wondered if she wanted to avenge or not.
Nobody ever wondered. Nobody until this boy who kneels before her now.
Slowly she kneels so they are eye to eye, and she lays the sword upon the floor.
“I see you.” Her fingertips trace his cheek; her voice is tiny and soft. “I judge you guilty. But you belong to me now. So all your sins are mine.”
She slides her fingers into his dark hair and kisses him, kisses her dearest sin, again and again. Her heart pounds with the desire to kill him, to wreck and ruin and revenge, but she only clutches him closer, kisses more fiercely, and his arms wrap around her as he kisses her back.
She will not be the one who kills him.
She will give everything else to her family, to her duty, to the adjuration written on her skin.
But she will not give them this.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing about Writing about Writing

Perhaps in your life, you've heard someone pray for a "secret intention" or request prayers in some way that sounds so mysterious that you're dying to know the cause. Some people have a tendency to amp up drama, of course, but it's often true that people find themselves in situations in which they need prayers, but can't reveal the details, or know that the details aren't theirs to reveal. Even mentioning the subject invites speculation, so much so that often it feels like the better option to keep a situation to oneself.

Darwin and I were talking recently about the things that we'd like to write about, but can't. Not because they're bad things; not because they're scandalous; not because they even have to do with us at all. Everyone has some topic they can't breach with the general public. Perhaps that's because one's take on a subject would be painful to someone who might read it, and with whom one does not wish to burn bridges. This is a tricky thing for us especially, who have been processing ideas in public for eleven years, and find it a strain not simply because we like to write and discuss, but because it goes against the goad not to be able to write openly and honestly.

And yet, people are more important. Is it better that I add one more viewpoint to an issue, however unique my insight and experience may be, or is the work of prudence that I remember that people I know and love may find my words painful? If I want to process something, should I do it at the expense of another? Is discretion really the better part of valor? All things will be revealed, the scripture tells us. But until then, we delete that angry post or that thinkpiece or the lyric autobiographical essay because cold prudence is better than hot righteousness.

How mysterious, how worrying this all sounds! So vague and dramatic, and it really isn't. But one simply doesn't get to talk about everything in life. Not everything needs to be aired or can be aired, and perhaps that's all for the best.

And no, there's nothing wrong here. But in this case it did seem better to write vaguely than not write at all, if only because this is something I've thought about for a long time. How clear we want everything in life to be! How cut-and-dried, how black-and-white! Only in heaven do we get total clarity and full understanding.

Prayers for you all today, without needing any reasons or explanations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time Tunnel Politics

Every so often I go back and check to see how this year's candidates are doing compared to how Romney and Obama were doing at the same time of year in 2012.

There's a narrative going around that Romney was a push-over candidate, a designated loser who didn't have the fire to go after actually winning the race. On Sept. 20, 2012 he was going through a rough period, trailing Obama by three points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

The supposedly virile Donald Trump is reputed to have had a great couple weeks, harping on Hillary Clinton's health and exploiting stupid remarks she made about the 'irredeamable' people who are 'deplorables' that support her opponent. As a result, Trump is producing some of his best polling ever. His support only reached this high before during the week after the GOP convention.

And yet, it's worth noting that Trump (at 44% support) is actually polling 1.2% lower than Romney (45.2%) was at this time four years ago.  Trump has less support now than Romney did at virtually any time after getting the 2012 nomination.  The only reason why Trump looks remotely good is that Hillary is a full 3% less popular than Obama was at this time in 2012.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading High School

This is the beginning of the third week of high school for our oldest, and the question I ask her most evenings is, "How's your reading going?" She's working through a somewhat modified version of the approach my parents took when they homeschooled me, and so this year I'm in charge of curriculum for her. I started the year with a list and a spreadsheet. The list contains the reading assignments that I want her to get through for History/Literature during the course of the year, the spreadsheet contains some additional refinement, adds other subjects, and breaks everything up into weekly assignments.

So, for example, the first week of school was:

Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

Six Easy Pieces, Essentials of Physics Explained Intro and Chapter 1

Math (resuming with the series of books she was using last year):
Key to Algebra 4 page 4-18

Warriner's English Grammar & Comp (Complete Course) Ch1, Ex 5, Review Exercise

Didache Introduction to Catholicism Chapter 1

As assigned by tutor

For the first week I went and broke this up into daily assignments, telling her how many sections of the math book to cover each day and to spent three days reading the three chapters of ancient history and two days covering science. (She compressed the reading so she could take Friday off.) At the end of the week I asked if she needed me to deep doing the daily breakdowns and she said she was fine on her own, so now it's just one line of the spreadsheet every day.

I've got the first 18 weeks of the Humanities Program worked out into weekly assignments, and it runs as follows:

Week Assignment
1 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 1-3 (pages 3-69)

2 History Begins at Sumer ch. 1, 2, 6, 7, 13, 16, 17, 25, 37, 39 (about 80 pages total)

3 Epic of Gilgamesh Tables 1-11 (pages 1-99)

4 Never to Die pp. 15-58, 63-96,101-165

5 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapters 4-7 (pages 75-160)

6 [break]

7 The Bible Genesis

8 The Bible Exodus 1-23, Joshua 1-10, Judges 1-16

9 The Bible 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel 1-10

10 The Bible 2 Samuel 11-24, 1 Kings 1-11

11 Starr, A History of the Ancient World Chapter 9-10 (pages 185-226)
The Iliad Books 1-4

12 The Iliad Books 5-12

13 The Iliad Books 13-20

14 The Iliad Books 21-24
The Odyssey Books 1-4

15 The Odyssey Books 5-12

16 The Odyssey Books 13-20

17 The Odyssey Books 21-24

18 [Break]

As we get closer to that roughly halfway mark, I'll assess how well we're staying on schedule and decide how to cover the rest of the Ancient Greek reading list.

Friday, September 16, 2016

You Shall Not Take The Name Of Jane Austen In Vain

new online role playing game called Ever, Jane is in the open beta phase of development, designed to appeal to Jane Austen fans who crave a world of tightly-wound irony and tightly-laced tension.
Ever, Jane is an online role-playing game set in the dramatic, romantic worlds of Jane Austen. It invites players to attend sophisticated dinner parties and fancy balls, share gossip, keep secrets, fall in love, get married and climb the ribbon-lined social ladder of Regency-era England. It is definitely not a sex game, though sometimes players get wrapped up in this universe of exquisite gowns and forbidden desire, and they simply can't help themselves. 
"Let's just say that we had to put in private chat," Ever, Jane creator Judy Tyrer says with a laugh. 
To be fair, it's difficult to produce an online role-playing game that doesn't foster sexual relationships and conversations. "It's in every MMO that's out there," Tyrer adds. "The erotica is just the name of the game." 
Even though Austen's novels never delve into the sensual details of intimate encounters, her worlds are rife with sexual tension. As Tyrer explains it, Austen's Regency era was a period of heady debauchery: The Prince Regent was notorious for hosting orgies, and women, once they produced an heir, were largely free to do as they wished. However, discretion was key. 
That's where private chat rooms come in to Ever, Jane. 
"We're not here to make a sex game. That's not our purpose. But we also don't want to ignore the reality," Tyrer says. 
Historical accuracy is paramount for Tyrer. She became a history buff while researching Austen's life and writing, and she's attempting to fill Ever, Jane with as many realistic rules and situations as possible. This means that players can have a private chat room, but they can't flaunt any promiscuity. If they do, they're sent to Botany Bay, a penal colony that's populated with other troublemakers and anyone hoping to play without any rules at all. Botany Bay isn't live yet, which means current players can be as naughty as they wish, but Tyrer and her team are working on it.
It is a strange form of homage, to go to such pains to recreate the generic shell of Jane Austen's historical milieu, to name this game specifically after her, without actually touching the particular moral content and ideas that were at the heart of her writings and thought. As an fannish gesture, it's touching, perhaps; at a moral level, it's a form of calumny against Jane Austen, the ethical philosopher, whose novels explore moral questions and examine how a life of virtue should be lived. Austen didn't chose the Regency era for her novels to be sexy or to amp up the tension. She wrote about it because that's the actual world she lived in. Her characters rebel or conform to the prevailing social order and expectations because that's the framework against which their moral life is lived. The characters most focused on the particulars of dress or social position or straining against social convention are the most ridiculous: Lady Catherine, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele and her sister, Anne Eliot's father. And the characters who most embody the Regency attitudes that so fascinate the Ever, Jane crowd are the characters Austen sees as most morally damaged: Henry and Mary Crawford, with their effortless charm and their banter and their instinctive grasp of courtesies, hierarchies, rules and mores, and their absence of any ethical foundation.

It's clear how the Crawfords, or Lydia Bennet and Wickham, or Willoughby, fit into the world of Ever, Jane. It's rather less clear how the virtual world of Ever, Jane reflects Jane Austen's world of virtue ethics. Playing around in Jane Austen's "world" is the shallowest way of appreciating her and her work, because the heart and soul of Austen is moral change through development of virtue. Ignore that, and you might as well call your MMORPG Fanny Hill.


Maybe, then, the best way of reappraising Austen is to transpose her novels into modern times, see how the stories hold up in a world of different social and sexual mores. Random House tried this with its recent series of Austen reboots. This week I came across "Emma: A Modern Retelling" on the library shelf and hate-read it in one sitting. This modernization doesn't make the mistake of assuming that sexual tension has anything to do with yearning, repressed virgins. Much time is devoted to explaining the sexual history of characters who are not currently having sex, so that we don't need to worry that, say, Mr. Knightley is abnormal because he is not living with anyone. My dears, even old Mr. Woodhouse is not spared the indignity of being matched up with someone at the end, because Emma is about matchmaking, and matchmaking is about sex. Marriage, and permanence, are afterthoughts. Emma's interest in Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax has nothing to do with the personal qualities those ladies exhibit, but rather her mild sexual attraction to each -- mild, because it keeps her from having sex with men, but burns off easily enough to allow her to pivot to Mr. Knightley when it's convenient for the story. What is the secret of Harriet Smith's parentage? Not simply that she is the natural daughter of someone who supports her anonymously, but that her father was "decent" enough (Knightley's words) to let the mother dose herself with his sperm, instead of insisting on having sex as other less principled men might have done.

The premise of these modern retellings, and this one in particular, is that people are so different now than in Austen's time that we need bigger, more scandalous things to make us understand the issues of an Austen novel. On the premise that there's no real character drama in being a rather sheltered young woman who learns that that it is possible to cause other people pain and grief with small thoughtless actions, Emma now pushes an uncomfortable Harriet to pose nude for her portrait, and manipulates Harriet's perception of Mr. Elton by lying about Mr. Elton trying to assault her.

Interestingly enough, the events that Austen considers pivotal to Emma's development -- her easy unkindness to Miss Bates, and her climactic character choice to listen in friendship to what she thinks will be Mr. Knightley's profession of love for someone else -- are mostly glossed over. The picnic at Box Hill, where Emma insults Miss Bates to her face, is a muted plot event because most of the characters are high on marijuana-laced cake. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The author never even allows Emma to make the decision to consider Knightley's feelings above her own, because Mr. Knightley is not allowed to make the difficult choice to tell Emma about his feelings. That office falls to Harriet Smith, who is matchmaking because matchmaking is what the book is about.

But the author seems to have read Austen and knows that moral awakening is important to her. And so, Emma is given some insight: "she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives: the ability to see, even for a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person. It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more than the pursuit of the goals of the unruly ego." Yes, empathy is the great moral good which is the end of all our moral striving, without which happiness cannot be achieved: "She realized that happiness is something that springs from the generous treatment of others and that until one makes that connection, happiness may prove elusive."

Unhappily, this book was unable to convince me, even for a brief moment, that the author could see the world through Jane Austen's eyes.


If sex is not the only matter of significance in the world -- if virtue, and a good character, and the ability to choose a good that exists independently of our desires and whims are things that have the significance that Jane Austen believed they did -- then maybe it's time to stop using her name as a brand to market projects which resemble hers only through the most superficial imitation of plot or style. "Austenesque" means something rather deeper than Empire dresses or irony or the early 19th century marriage market. It means moral clarity and virtue ethics and sexual standards based on a traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Stop taking the name of the Jane in vain.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

At Fault

It is my policy, generally, not to write in rage, so after composing and trashing several mental reams ranging from the furious to the maudlin, let me step back and tell you the very fine news that there is nothing wrong with me. I am in perfect health. My blood pressure, of a morning, is 120/80. Every lab a doctor runs at a checkup comes back just peachy. Even my teeth are good. My diet isn't a problem. I'm eating about as healthily as a modern American can without veering off into faddishness.

The reason I am tired and sluggish, the reason I'm not losing weight, seems to boil down to the fact that I'm too damn lazy.

The doctor didn't put it that way, of course. He asked about my level of daily activity, which ranges from "laundry" to "dying of heat on the couch". He looked at my chart and noted that four years ago I weighed forty pounds less than I do now. In those four years, I gained sixty pounds of pregnant, but that means that in 2.5 years since pregnancy I've only lost twenty, and almost ten of them were the baby himself. So now I'm to get 45 minutes of cardio a day -- "not Olympic level, just walking or something", because clearly I'm not even getting 45 minutes of walking around a day -- and take a multivitamin.

Is it the sixth baby? Four years ago I had a two year old as well. Is it getting older? Four years ago I was 33. Is it the move? But four years ago we were already in Ohio. Is the summer heat? Four years ago we didn't even have the a/c in the kitchen window.

So. I've had several days to stew this off. A week, in fact, in which I've discovered that I have a step counter on my phone, and in which I have boosted my daily count. A week in which Darwin and I have run 2.5 miles three times. A week in which I gave up sugar to support my sister giving up sugar. A week in which I did all these things and dropped not a single pound.

These things are not enough.

The fact that I can pick up running 2.5 miles after not running in ages, and that after a sedentary summer I could climb the toughest mountain in Virginia pretty handily, suggests that I am capable of a good deal more physical activity than I currently do, and that I need to do far more than I have any desire to do. My desire, to be honest, is to sit on my fat ass doing nothing, because I like to be comfortable, more than I like to be slim, or muscular, or be willing to have sex when I actually want it because my current weight makes the blood pressure risk of sixty extra pounds an okay prudential judgment...

I see that I'm violating my policy of not writing in rage.

Having to confront that a problem is My Fault is liberating, in a sense. I don't have to wait around any more hoping for a diagnosis that explains my weariness at some deeper level. I just have to get started on 45 minutes of cardio a day, or 10K steps, or improving my running distance. And these are concrete things. I can take one more step, as I tell myself when I'm running. I hate running, as it happens. I never feel light and easy. I feel every pound jouncing around on my frame. But I can do it, and without any more effort than getting up earlier than I want to and going out of the house when I don't feel like it. For the rest of my hopefully-not-goddamn life.


Looking back, I see I've been hating running for a good ten years.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

It's Not Conservative to Seek A Gotterdammerung

There's a rather poor case for Trump masquerading as an intellectual one at the Claremont Review of Books under the title "The Flight 93 Election". The author's conceit is that for conservatives, the country is like the hijacked Flight 93 on September 11th:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

As he builds his case, it's clear that this isn't just another hysterical case of a conservative trying to talk himself into supporting Trump because Hillary is so bad (which, of course, she is -- the problem is that Trump himself is little better and comes with a side helping of destroying the conservative movement and party), no the author believes that American culture has reached a point of collapse such that incremental changes are an insult to its problems. There needs to be a massive showdown in which conservative cultural principles either win or go down in the flames of the country's complete cultural and social destruction, because if we don't have the showdown Right Now, he believes that the country is going to self destruct anyway. Thus the Flight 93 analogy.

Not only, he argues, are conservatives wrong to try to stick to an incremental approach, if they don't support "fundamental change" in the country's cultural direction they aren't really serious in opposing the liberal agenda anyway.

But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.
Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the author is never all that clear on what exactly Trump would do to achieve fundamental change. He doesn't say what Trump will change or how he will change it, other than being rude in the face of political correctness and seeking to exclude Hispanic immigrants, whom the author blasts as "Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty".

There's a far more fundamental problem to address here. The author claims that if conservatives don't support a radical change to bring the culture back into line, then they are admitting that conservatism is wrong. I would go the opposite direction and say that the author's claims make it clear that he is no kind of conservative. Think of the kind of problems that he's pointing to in the piece: the breakdown of marriage and the family, crime, the collapse of education -- not just through schools not doing a good job but through a loss of a sense of what it is that we even want to teach our children. Serious types of cultural breakdown. And yet he argues that these cannot be addressed gradually. Instead, we need a strong leader who will reverse these problems all at once.

How do you address a problem such as the breakdown of marriage in the family during 4-8 years? Set aside the laughable idea that this could be accomplished by someone lauds adultery and trades in his wife for a new model every decade or two. That can't be accomplished by anyone. Culture does not turn on a dime. What happens, in this imagined future, to all the people who think that marriage is not important, that kids are only an option, or that having kids outside of marriage is a perfectly good idea? Do they all just suddenly change their minds? Are their experiences erased? Do they themselves vanish and get replaced by other people? How do the schools and universities get fixed? Do we simply hatch an entirely new set of teachers and professors out of pods and send the old ones back to the factory?

Conservatives do not promise to turn the culture on a dime because they are truthful, not because they are timid. Our culture does indeed have many and grave things wrong with it. (This makes it similar to cultures of many other times and places -- our problems are our own but our fallenness is universal.) But trying to correct those problems will be slow because it requires the conversion of hearts and minds, and the process of people learning to live another way. It took us a long time to get to where we are not, and creation is slower than destruction.

What this author proposes isn't conservatism, it's a right wing Great Leap Forward. Or perhaps is something all too familiar from recent history, the reactionary version of this:

I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

No, this author isn't not a leftist. The world that he imagines is different from the one Obama did eight years ago. But his idea that the world can be suddenly changed by the intervention of a strong leader is exactly the same. It's a belief which is profoundly un-conservative, and indeed that presumes that conservatism is wrong about human nature and human experience. It presumes that we can suddenly eliminate corruption and vice in some titanic win or lose struggle, a Gotterdammerung in which we risk all in order to win all. But if conservatism is right about how human nature and human culture works, this won't result in a new creation, just in destruction.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Readalong: Maria Chapdelaine

While we were on vacation, I picked up a slender Image book from a shelf, part of the very random collection of books scattered throughout the lodge. This book was called Maria Chapdelaine, a novel written in 1913 about a girl living in the wilds of French Canada, who has to decide between three suitors and the different lives they promise. The author is Louis Hémon, a Frenchman living in Quebec who drew from his recollections of life in Péribonka, a small town built where the Péribonka River flows into Lac Saint-Jean.

Hemon wrote in French tinged with the Quebec patois. The edition of which I read the first few pages was in English, but the language was simple and clear, and I thought that perhaps I could read it in French. And so I am, with a old library copy from the 20s. When I slant the pages in sunlight, the press of the letters casts shadows across the old rough paper. The book is, in its way, like the story: simple, old, plain.

Maria, as best I can tell past my basic decoding of the text, seems to be a bit shallow, her head turned by a recent sojourn across the lake to the town of Saint-Prime, where the houses are built close together and the forest has been cleared away so that the land is clear, free of the ubiquitous stumps. She regrets that her father has the drive of one who must clear the land, who gets the itch to move once a semblance of civilization takes root. She is a bit vain, but seems at root a good girl who knows that the life her family leads is one that will always involve isolation and grinding hard work. But the right man might promise a better life...

I don't understand every word of the French, but I find if I read a paragraph or a page and work it out from the context, I grasp the story about as well as if I look up every word I don't know.  There are some Quebecois constructions that don't make a lot of sense on a word-by-word basis but are decipherable as part of a paragraph. I am getting a good sense of the vastness of the Canadian forest, the bleakness of the northern winters, the sound of the ice melting on the river, les pionniers dans leur maisons de bois.

For example:

Alors ils se mirent tous à parler une fois de plus del la saison qui s'ourvrait et des travaux qui allaient devenir possibles. Mai amenait une alternance de pluies chaudes and de beaux jours ensoleillés qui triomphait peu à peu du gel accumulé du long hiver. Les souches basses et les racines émergeaient, bien que l'ombre des sapins et des cyprès serrés protégeât la longue agonie des plaques de neige; les chemins se transformaient en fondrières; là où la mousse brune se montrait, elle était toute gonflée d'eau et pareille à une éponge.


Then [the family] started to speak once more of the springtime which had begun, and the work that began to be possible. The month of May alternated between warm rain and beautiful sunny days which won out bit by bit over the accumulated ice of the long winter. The low stumps and (?) emerged, although the shadow of the various trees protected the long agony of the patches of snow; the roads transformed into mudpits; where the old brown foam of snow (la mousse brune, an elegant bit of description) piled up, it was like a sponge full of water.

I did look up gonflée, which I'd guessed as "pockmarked" but actually meant "inflated". Racines I passed over, as well as les sapins et des cypres serrés -- clearly some kind of trees (cypress, obviously, but I don't know serrés unless it's related to serrated, and perhaps sapins is saplings?).


I'm going to spend September working through Maria Chapdelaine, and I'd love to have company, in either French or English. (Project Gutenburg has the French online.)

UPDATE: Reader Catholic Bibilophagist notes that Amazon has a free Kindle version of Maria Chapdelaine in English.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Last-Minute Reading List, or How I Ditched the Reading Curriculum

Well, there's no way to tell this so I come out looking good, so I'll just say it: we're starting our schoolwork for the year tomorrow, and I didn't look at the reading comprehension books from our curriculum until today. We'd flipped through the history and the science and the lesson plans, but I'd passed over the reading comprehension books because, frankly, they seemed rather negligible. Slender paperbacks with saint stories -- not much for reading comprehension, I thought, but no matter. We would assign some actual literature, of course, I told myself, ignoring the red flag going up about a curriculum that doesn't assign any novels even at the seventh-grade level. And we were going to stick to the curriculum because I always run into organizational trouble when I go my own way. I know this. We would do the work.

So I paid no attention to the reading comprehension books until this morning, as I sat with my tea at the dining room table covered with piles of books sorted by grade. I wanted to get a handle on what each kid was doing the next day. Be ready, you know? And as the fifth grade pile was next to me, I consulted the lesson plan. Up for the first morning: a four-page story about Maria Goretti.

There are ways and there are ways to tell children the story of an eleven-year-old girl canonized for forgiving the man who murdered her in an attempt at a violent rape. We used to have a coloring book about Maria Goretti, part of a series by Mary Fabyan Windeatt, which did a good job not only of bringing out Maria's character as a pious, cheerful, sensible Italian farm girl living in poverty at the beginning of the last century, taking on work and burdens that a girl of her age should not have had to carry, but also built up in an appropriate way her increasing dread about the advances of Alessandro Serenelli. But there are other approaches to Maria's story as told for young people, approaches that build her up as a plaster saint, approaches which use weaselly roundabouts to tell what not actually a story for children. And if you combine the plaster saint approach with poorly structured story, badly written, you will have the story I read this morning.

My fifth-grader is not the world's absolute innocent, but we haven't had That Talk yet, and I'm not sure that I want That Talk to grow out of a discussion of what rape is. And I don't want a discussion of chastity to come from this particular version of Maria Goretti's life, because it makes chastity sound sickly sweet and precious.

I turned pages in disbelief, and then I fell to skimming because it pained me to read it. Then I paged through the rest of the book, threw it aside, and said, "Damn." Never will I teach "reading comprehension" with such sappy prose, such faulty style, such bad structure.

And so, the day before we start school, here is a beginning of our new and improved"reading comprehension program", pulled in a rage from our bookshelves this afternoon:

1st Grade:
Angel in the Waters, Regina Doman
Jamie and the Pooka, Tomie dePaola
A bunch of Beatrix Potter books
Mouse Tales, Arnold Lobel
Faith and Freedom readers from Catholic School, that my brother used when he was homeschooling
Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff
Little Bear, Else Holmelund Minarik
The surviving Bob Books
Grimm's Fairy Tales, in the edition I loved as a child
Bean and Ivy, Annie Barrows, a chapter book.

3rd Grade:
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Louis Sachar
Henry and Beezus, Beverly Cleary
The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
Looking at History: From Cavement to the Present, by R.J. Unstead
Growing up in Viking Times, by Dominic Tweddle
Danny Kaye's Around the World Story Book
Jenny Goes to Sea, Esther Averill
26 Fairmount Ave, and Here We All Are, Tomie dePaola
Book of Saints, by Fr. Lovasik
One Day in the Tropical Rain Forest, by Jean Craighead George
Sand to Sea: Marine Life of Hawaii, by Stephanie Feeney and Ann Fielding
George Washington Carver: Scientist and Teacher, by Carol Greene
Our Friends From Other Lands, by the Daughters of Saint Paul (old textbook with saint stories from around the world)
Heroes of God: Saints for Boys, by Daniel A. Lord, S.J.
Seabird, by Holling Clancy Holling
Faraway Home, by Jane Kurtz

5th Grade:
On This Long Journey, by Joseph Bruchac (Scholastic novel about the Trail of Tears)
Blazing West, Kathryn Lasky (Scholastic novel about Louis and Clark)
The White Stag, Kate Seredy
Misty of Chincoteague, and Stormy, Misty's Foal, Marguerite Henry
Snow Treasure, Marie McSwigan (Kids sneak gold on sleds past Nazis -- I loved it as a kid)
I, Juan de Pareja, Elisabeth Borton de Trevino
The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois
Father Damien and the Bells, Arthur and Elizabeth Odell Sheehan (Vision book)
Katie John, Mary Calhoun
Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge
All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor
Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Carl Sandburg's poetry in an edition for kids
The Trumpeter of Krakow, Eric P. Kelly
The Wright Brothers, and Dolly Madison (Landmark books)
George Washington's World, Genevieve Foster
The Stars, H.A. Rey
Junior Great Books, Series 4, Part 1 (and Part 2 if I can find it)
The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, Anne Terry White, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, Rachel Field

Seventh/Eighth Grade:
Fighting Prince of Donegal, Robert T. Reilly
My Friend Flicka, Mary O'Hara
Life in the Renaissance, Marzieh Gail (Landmark Giant book, with many color plates)
Lincoln: a Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
Mother Teresa, Maya Gold (DK biography)
Old Yeller, Fred Gipson

Ninth Grade: 
Mrs. Mike, by Nancy and Benedict Freedman
Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
(Already has a bunch of Humanities literature assigned, Ancients through Romans)

The short lists for the older grades are because so far, I've only gone through the kids' shelves downstairs.

So, there we are. We're sticking with the curriculum for other things, though -- until I grow insane from the beat-you-over-the-head Catholic content of every single subject. The notes for parents assure me that this is how we teach our kids eternal truths of the faith, that this is how we raise lifelong Catholics. I wonder, rather, if this is how we raise hothouse flowers whose beliefs wilt in the real world.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Strange Contradictions of Dehumanization

There's a piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal about novelist Ian McEwan's upcoming book, Nutshell.
The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel “Nutshell” first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. “We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,” he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

What unfolds is a short murder mystery in a grand, decrepit Georgian home in London, featuring a pregnant woman, her estranged husband and his brother—now the woman’s lover—told by the married couple’s unborn child. The mother-father-uncle love triangle, and the narrator’s paralysis and helplessness, evoke another famous work of British literature that served as an inspiration for Mr. McEwan.
Near the end of the interview, the interviewer asks the question which came first to my mind, and McEwan brushes it off rather derisively with a non-answer:
Given the charged debate over abortion, a preternaturally sentient unborn child could strike some readers as a pro-life argument. Is that your intention?

I only get this question from America. I’m not going to enter into the charged debate about this. I’m from a generation that largely took for granted a woman’s right to make a decision on this, provided that this is done early enough.

But in the whole of writing this book, the issue of pro-choice or pro-life didn’t even cross my mind. I don’t think it crossed the mind of any European who came near the book either.

There are, of course, various ways one could answer this question. They wouldn't necessarily need to be answers in line with Christian beliefs about the dignity of life. He could have said, "Well, look. One can write a novel based upon any conceit. Richard Adams wrote a novel from the viewpoint of rabbits, and for them exterminating their warren with poison gas had something of the magnitude of a war crime. But that's merely a function of imagining a point of view different from those that actually exist. To a rabbit, this might be a crime against humanity, but to us it's simply humane pest control. If a child in the womb had the sentience of the narrator in my book, perhaps it would be a crime to kill her, but of course we know that's only make believe."

A somewhat loathsome view, perhaps, but it would have a coherence to it. What's odd to me is the way in which McEwan refuses to even engage with the question which his novel should naturally bring up. Oh, it's something only an American would think of. Well, perhaps, but if so isn't that perhaps a problem?

One of the great things about literature is that it can provide the reader a window into the plight of someone very different. That could mean something as distant and time an place as putting yourself into the place of a peasant in Ancient China, or something as nearby as a boy reading a book written from the point of view of a girl his own age. In this sense, literature can be very humanistic, in that his humanizes people different from ourselves. Yet here we have an author saying of the main character of his book that it's not even a question of interest (except to those Americans) whether people like his main character are persons with human rights and all that goes with them. To not even have an interest in the question seem to show a serious lack of moral imagination.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Sympathetic People File Frivolous Lawsuit, Face Consequences

The first headline I was read something like "Survivors of Aurora Shooting Forced To Pay Cinemark $700k!" Of course, that kind of thing had me wondering, so I clicked around a bit and came across this account in the LA Times.

At root is the following basic problem: a crazy young man went into a movie theater and shot a lot of people. The shooter has been sentenced to life in prison. He is no longer a threat to the public. However, many of those injured in the shooting have suffered great hardship, trauma and expense. How are they to be repaid?

Apparently some of them concluded that since the person to actually perpetrated the crime was incapable of making restitution to them, the solution was to sue the movie theater chain on the theory that it had been negligent in not keeping them safe.

They were on the verge of losing the case, and the judge told them as much. He urged Cinemark and the plaintiffs to reach a settlement. The settlement offered would have left the 41 plaintiffs with $150k to split, and committed Cinemark to making some changes in their safety procedures, which would theoretically decrease the likelihood of such a mass shooting occurring in a Cinemark again. (To me, this seems like a reach, given that we're talking about such a profoundly infrequent and unpredictable occurrence in the first place.) Some of the plaintiffs decided not to take the settlement offer, and the judge proceeded to rule against them. Result? According to Colorado law, if you sue and lose, you are responsible for the legal costs of the person you sued. This leaves the plaintiffs on the hook for at least $700k in Cinemark's court costs.

No one wants to see people who have already suffered much be hit with even more suffering, but on the basic legal matter it seems very likely to me that this outcome is entirely just. I find it very hard to believe that Cinemark did anything negligent of a sort that could be expected to result in a catastrophe such s the Aurora shooting. To hold them liable for the victims would be unjust.

What it seems like people are struggling with is the fact that there's not some deep pocketed person to hold responsible for the crime so that people can receive recompense for their suffering. And yet given that the criminal is completely without means to make restitution to the people injured, what recourse is there really? None. The shooter was entirely capable of creating evils that he cannot remedy. The fact that he did so in a Cimemark movie theater does not make them at fault for it any more than a stranger bursting into my house and shooting my guests would make me at fault for his victim's injuries.

I think it is the case that to the extent that people have become incapacitated and unable to care for themselves as they had in the past, society has a duty to help take care of those people -- just as it would in a situation where someone was disabled through some more normal kind of injury. But they are not owed the kind of vast punitive damages that litigators so often seek. Terrible, terrible things sometimes happen in the world, and there is not necessarily someone who owes it to us to make them up to us. That is simply how the world is.

Moreover, being sued for frivolous reasons is itself a painful and destructive experience. Sure, Cinemark is large, but they are ruled by the same laws as those who are much less deep pocketed. The law requiring those who bring unsuccessful lawsuits against others to cover the legal costs of those they attempted to sue is actually a pretty good way of causing people to think twice before using the very process of law to punish those they don't like.