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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Jedi and the Drama of Failure

Emily Snyder has an interesting post up dealing with the ways in which characters in The Last Jedi face failure. (The linked post contains spoilers.)

I won't quote Emily's post, so that this post won't contain spoilers, but I'd strongly encourage reading it. While I thought there were arguably some structural issues with the length and timing of some of the sub plots, one thing that I did think was really interesting about those sub plots was the way that characters did fail in key ways and were forced to move on to the next step after those failures. By comparison, most Sci-Fi adventure movies do not allow their heroes to suffer any but the most temporary setbacks.

Though this post doesn't contain spoilers, comments are allowed to, so don't click through to the comments unless you're ready for anything!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Truth and Lies in Historical Fiction

Peggy Noonan has an interesting piece in the WSJ this week discussing truth and falsehood in historical fiction. This was of double interest to me, in that the ethics of historical fiction are something that I've often thought of and also because one of the key pieces she discusses is the Netflix series The Crown which a number of friends have been watching and talking about over the holidays.

There’s dramatic license, which is necessary or nothing’s fun, and historical truth, which is necessary or nothing’s understood. Ideally in any work they more or less coexist, however imperfectly. But in “The Crown” and “The Post” the balance is far off. A cheap historical mindlessness marks much of the first, and there’s a lie at the heart of the second.

I couldn’t help like “The Crown”: it was so beautiful to me. The acting, the stillness, all the money and thought that went into making the rooms look right, the period clothing, right down to the cuff links—in these matters the creators are deeply faithful to reality. In its treatment of history, however, there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.

Example: The treatment of future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is churlish and unknowing. He was not a sallow, furtive weasel of a man, which is how he is portrayed; he was a politician whose humanity, courage and wit even his adversaries acknowledged. He did not deviously scheme, during the Suez crisis, to unseat Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who did not throw a pen at him and call him a liar in a cabinet meeting.

As prime minister his weekly meetings with the queen were not testy, marked by condescension on his side and strained patience on hers. He respected and admired her; she became his confidante. In his diaries he called her “a great support because she is the one person you can talk to.” He would not have taunted her with the glamour and intelligence of her supposed rival, Jackie Kennedy. He would not have taunted her at all.
More absurd is the series’ treatment of President and Mrs. Kennedy. JFK was not, as “The Crown” asserts, enraged with his wife for dazzling Paris on their first state trip to Europe. He was thrilled at her success; it elevated him on the world stage. Suddenly he saw her as what she was, a political asset to be deployed. She transfixed Charles de Gaulle, that stern and starchy old man who was always mad at America, often with good reason. Biographer Richard Reeves quotes JFK to his wife: “ ‘Well,’ he told her, ‘I’m dazzled.’ ”

There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in “The Crown” that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife.

Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

[Note: Apparently JFK smoked cigars often but almost never cigarettes.]

Of course, many would say, everyone knows a show like that is just fiction. Yes, but fiction is a powerful tool which can make us feel like we know the characters we meet. When we portray real people or events in fiction, and do our job well, it's hard for people not to think about people and events through the lens of that portrayal. And as such, I think there is a fiction writers ethics which requires that we not give a consciously false portrayal. When not all facts are known, we might choose to fill in the blanks in a way that leans things one direction or another. There are also many ways in which an author might simplify or combine events while remaining true to their basic spirit. But to knowingly portray someone as something other than they are in important ways seems to me to a great disservice.

The most egregious examples of this sort of thing I'm sure most people would agree with. Holocaust denial, for instance, would not be excused on the theory that "it's just a movie, so everyone knows it's fictional." Portraying a real person as having committed some major crime they did not commit (say if a TV series portrayed Bobby Kennedy as plotting the assassination of his brother JFK) would also be widely rejected.

Those examples sound silly and obviously offensive, but here's one which is so well done that it's hard to dislike: Both Peter Shaffer's original play "Amadeus" and the movie based on it and bearing the same title deviate flagrantly and knowingly from the actual characters and events in the lives of Mozart and Salieri. They're good art, but they're terrible history. In some sense, that almost makes it worse. I know that Shaffer's Mozart bears little resemblance to the real composer, and yet the false Mozart is just so compelling as fiction that it's hard not to think of him when listening to the real Mozart's music. Shaffer wrote really well, he wrote compelling characters and a conveyed a compelling set of ideas. The problem is that he exercised those writing talents in intentionally misrepresenting real people.

Noonan points out that this is doubly problematic in an age where many viewers of these dramas don't know that they're peddling inaccurate portrayals.

Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.

When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

This strikes me in particular when you have shows which put huge amounts of work into historically accurate production design, but which then get historical characters or event glaringly wrong. If it's a matter of ignorance, then it's odd to have a production in which it's worth researching cars and costumes and tableware but not people. If it's intentional misrepresentation... Well, as I said, I think that at a certain level that simply become wrong. If we're going to use the names of real people and events, we should strive to do them justice with our fiction.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-2

The second Jozef installment, and the next hopefully very soon to follow.

Prerau, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. “There are two ways to go about the task,” Major von Brenner said, leaning so close to Jozef that he could smell the pomade with which the older officer’s mustache was styled into stiff upward curls. “Either look at the horse, or look at the owner. If you have a trained eye for horse flesh, you may do well enough with the former. But often enough you’ll miss some detail -- the older horse with unusually good teeth or the young firebrand that’s just a touch lame. Watch the owner, and you’ll never fail. You’ll never get a good horse off a farmer or a carter. They’ll have the big, slow beasts who eat more feed than they can carry, very good for pulling a plow but no use to the cavalry. For cart horses, look to the man of quality who has a set of good carriage horses. But for a riding horse, you need a young man, someone who invests in a racer or a hunter. And the richer the owner, the better the horse. Jews are the most reliable, of course. Always take a Jew’s horse. They have an unerring instinct for value.”

Jozef reflected on this advice as the horse requisition fair formally began. The officers all sat in a line. As the junior officer from the 7th Uhlans, Jozef was seated to the right of Rittmeister Hofer. On Jozef’s other side sat Rittmeister Korzeniowski, the lone representative of the Polish Legion wearing their distinctive square czapka hat embellished with a silver Polish eagle. The Pole was the second to last in the line of officers, the only one placed after him being a leutnant from the supply service there to requisition draft horses.

The non-commissioned officers under von Brenner’s command martialed the civilians and their horses at the other end of the enclosure, then sent them across one at a time leading their animals so that the officers could see the horses move. If they like the look of a horse, they called out, and the horse was numbered, the unit of the officer who had spoken for it noted down, and the horse was led into a holding pen. If no officer spoke up, the owner was issued a paper stating that his horse did not have military value and exempting it from requisition during the next twelve months.

It was indeed mostly the horses led across by well dressed men or uniformed servants that were called for. The shaggy plow horses led through by peasants were let pass, and their owners left the fairgrounds gratefully clutching their certificates of exemption. A few carters or shopkeepers had wagon horses that were well suited for draft work. And matched sets of carriage horses led by their drivers were quickly snapped up.

As the last in line, Jozef and Rittmeister Hofer did not at first get the best picks, but as the officers at the front of the line began to near their quotas they let more and more good animals pass. A black hunter that stepped impatiently behind a liveried groom caught Jozef’s eye in particular, and when it somehow escaped the notice of other officers Jozef spoke for it. The groom scowled to get so close to escape and then see the horse requisitioned, but he led it to the pen where a korporal put a number on its haunch in white paint and noted down the owner’s information.

Jozef was not among the officers rich enough to purchase his own horses privately, but perhaps having helped to pick out good horses for the regiment he would be able to take this one for his use. Jozef watched as the korporal took the halter off the horse which already he already thought of as his and handed it back to the groom. Then the black horse dashed off into the enclosure, tossing his head, until he slowed and approached another horse, nostrils whiffling in greeting.

[Continue reading]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Five Links of Christmas

My dear friends, over the past few days I've been given the best Christmas gift ever: the gift of energy. Whence this drive to get things done, and then the follow-through? Whence this desire to leave the house and go to the store? Whence this purpose? I dunno, but I'm taking it as a gift from God, and running with it.

Alas, this has been a "getting stuff done" energy, and not a writing drive.  And so although I've bought all my Christmas presents and taken all the kids on errands and finished up several projects I started and kept the house basically clean, I haven't written anything here for a week. And tomorrow we're having people over and it gets busy until Christmas...

Anyway, here's some edifying and educational linkage for you.

 The PNC Christmas Price Index. Those among who must educate younguns or who just enjoy coloring will like the printable coloring pages for each of the twelve gifts from the song.

Culinary Arts
Gingerbread Cuneiform Tablets. I've already made the dough, and today we're going to roll it out and impress upon it some Mesopotamian graffiti.

LATER: Hey it turned out well! I didn't put the crushed red pepper flakes in; instead, I substituted a couple good shakes of cayenne. They look ancient, but they taste fresh.


Will Smith in a cop movie, set in an LA with Orcs and Elves as minorities? Yes, I think so.

About the great locust swarm of 1875 that devastated Laura Ingalls Wilder's family.

The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history. It would become known as “Albert’s swarm”: in Nebraska, a meteorologist named Albert Child measured its flight for ten days in June, telegraphing for further information from east and west, noting wind speed and carefully calculating the extent of the cloud of insects. He startled himself with his conclusions: the swarm appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles, Child concluded, an area equal to the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. “This is utterly incredible,” he wrote, “yet how can we put it aside?” The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.

The swarms swept from Saskatchewan to Texas, devouring everything in their path. The grasshoppers savored the sweat-stained handles of farm implements, chewed the wool off sheep, ate the leaves off trees. After flying, settling, consuming, and laying eggs, they began marching across the country, millions massing to form pontoons across creeks and rivers. Hoppers were said to “eat everything but the mortgage.” Terrified, people reached for comparisons, likening the insectile clouds to other natural disasters: snow storms, hail storms, tornadoes, even wildfires. “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire . . . the low crackling and rasping,” read a report from the US Entomological Commission, created by Congress to address the crisis. Even modern scientists stretch for language to convey the swarm’s ferocity, calling it a “metabolic wildfire.” It consumed roughly a quarter of the country.

Excerpted from Prairie Fires: The American Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Sacred Music
O Magnum Mysterium.

Tomorrow we're having a sing at our house, and I hope this will be one of the pieces we work on.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part II

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part I 

In his new book To Light A Fire On The Earth, written with John Allen, Bishop Robert Barron talks several times about "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor", and describes her as one of Catholicism's Pivotal Players: "A twentieth-century Catholic writer who radically changed our idea of what religious fiction could be."

Q: Which Catholic publishers published the novels of "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor"?
A: Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: Okay, but what about notable Catholic author Walker Percy?
A: Alfred A. Knopf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: ...J.F. Powers?
A: Doubleday; Alfred A. Knopf

Doubleday may at least be a step toward Catholic publishing, since the Image imprint was formerly Doubleday Religion. Although some of the explicitly religious novels of Louis de Wohl were published by J.B. Lippincott Co., 1960's The Restless Heart (about St. Augustine) and 1962's The Quiet Light (about Thomas Aquinas) were published by Image. Image also published Maria Chapdelaine, the acclaimed Canadian novel by Louis Hémon, in 1956.

In 2017 Image carries eight fiction titles: two collections of Christmas stories, three sequels to the 1983 pop parable Joshua by Joseph F. Girzone, and three heartwarming novels by author Katherine Valentine.


Unlike Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that notable publisher of quality novels by Catholic authors, the Catholic presses nowadays carry a very small catalog of fiction, if they publish it at all.

Ignatius: By far the largest catalog, carrying 74 titles, many of which are reprints of older works or study editions of classics. By my count, however, it currently has listed original novels by 13 authors.

Sophia: Eight titles, three of which are reprints.

Loyola: Three fiction titles, two of which are reprints. (Not included in this count is the Loyola Classics line of fiction reprints, which are oddly categorized under Spirituality and Inspiration -- a very strange place to stick In This House of Brede.)

Ave Maria: no fiction.

Looking down the catalogs of these presses, with their strong showing of Catholic historicals or saint bios, I wonder: could O'Connor or Percy or Powers have been published by these presses? The only contender would seem to be Ignatius (to whom all praise must be given for their thoughtful cover design -- the only press to dignify their novels so), but even so it's hard to gauge the quality of many of their novels when their own authors are blurbing each other's books.

But the larger question is: should Catholic presses be publishing fiction at all? Can they provide the right mix of editorial quality and authorial freedom to allow world-class fiction to flourish? And will their core audience read the final product?


Then there's the issue of what constitutes "Catholic fiction". From Bishop Barron's book, here's his "personal list of all-time great Catholic books".

Brideshead Revisited
The Diary of a Country Priest
Divine Comedy
The Idiot
The Brothers Karamazov

(Incidentally, in discussing Brideshead, the book quotes from a 2013 column that Bp. Barron wrote about the role of beauty in Charles Ryder's conversion, citing the "beautiful" chapel as a motivating force. As I wrote at the time, this is mistaken: the chapel is specifically called out as a gaudy mess, and it's despite it's ugliness that Charles returns to pray there in the end. Waugh, like O'Connor, is an standard name to hand around if you want to sound knowledgeable about Catholic Literature. However, as illustrated by a reference I saw recently to "Julia Brideshead"-- "Brideshead" being the house, and the title inherited by the oldest son of the family, and not anyone's given name -- it's a good idea to check the text before using to make an intellectual point.)

On Bp. Barron's list, only The Diary of a Country Priest would qualify as slightly unknown. These are books drawn from the pantheon of Great Books. They're books with explicitly Catholic content. (Bp. Barron makes the point that although Dostoyevsky is writing from an Orthodox viewpoint, he shares in a Catholic sensibility.) But they draw in non-religious readers by the quality of their prose, the beauty of their imagery, the depth of their themes.

They are, in short, moral fiction. As I said in the last post:
fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through.
If we believe that Catholicism is not just a system or a culture, than Catholic literature must be more than books in which explicitly Catholic characters play out explicitly religious dramas. Catholic literature must be moral fiction, whether or not the characters are Catholic, whether or not it is didactic, whether or not the characters are good.

Indeed, in moral fiction, plenty of bad or ugly things can happen, because in the world people are confronted with moral choices in the midst of bad and ugly situations, and they don't always decide rightly. The weight of the human condition is something that fiction has always grappled with. Flannery O'Connor's works, held up as exemplars of an honest Catholic fiction, are full of the gritty kind of grace that stings and horrifies.

So here's what Catholic presses have to weigh in regards to fiction. Do they play it safe, bestowing a kind of non-magisterial imprimatur, so that a grandmother can pick a title from a fiction catalog with the certainty that it will be edifying and free of inappropriate content for her 12-year-old grandson? Or should they expand to provide a platform for excellent fiction with a Catholic sensibility, even when that fiction is challenging or deals with the darker, less pleasant side of human behavior? Can (or should) Eve Tushnet's Amends, with its plethora of profanity and its characters wrestling with sexual identity without finding neat answers and its essentially Catholic understanding, find a place in Ignatius's catalogue?


Between a fussy infant needing to be held all day, and a fussy toddler coming down complaining of ear pain, I've only been able to write this much by 2am (and this is more than I thought I could get done today). Part III soon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Guadalupana

I watch this every year on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, not so much for the father/son Me-the-can-o pop duo as for humble little Juan Diego staring up at Tepeyac Hill in wonder.

One of the beauties of posting the same thing on the same date every year is that it serves as time capsule. Last year I didn't post; morning sickness. The year before I was just worn out with everything. Another year I remember reading up a lot about the history of the vision before writing up a brief account of the apparition. My grandmother was a great scrapbooker and had rows of albums on the shelves in the attic, chronicling her children's lives and trips she'd taken. And here's my mother of Guadalupe, doing the same for me.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Moral fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part 1

"She was completely reliable in any Internet-based crisis." 

My mom sent me an Amazon gift card for my birthday, so I bought some books I'd been thinking about for a while. Bishop Barron's To Light a Fire on Earth, The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah (I'd been reading this in French on the Kindle, but I forget about Kindle books, and translating the text took up the mental energy I would otherwise have used to meditate on it). Everyman's Library editions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, to round out my set. And Eve Tushnet's novel Amends, which has been on my list for a while.

The Amends of the title is a rehab reality show, where six down-and-out alcoholics of varying cuts are trying to discover if they're capable of change, or if they even want it. Tushnet writes of what she knows -- there's nothing cute or airbrushed about her collection of drunks (or their epic hangovers), only sharply observed scenes with an eye for the telling detail. The prose sparks like a high tension wire, and the sparks leave scars. You can make some interesting comparisons here to the writing of Florence King, though I'd say that King was more unrelentingly savage. Tushnet likes her characters a lot more than King liked any of hers, and so is able to allow even the most outré actors in her story the possibility of redemption.

The novel isn't flawless. Several characters are underutilized or underexplained, and others are perhaps too eloquent for their state in life. (I questioned whether an 18-year-old hockey jock would have conjured up a snowclone from an H.P. Lovecraft quote, even as I nodded at the reference.) I would have liked a two-part structure to give equal weight to events after the end of the reality show, as chapter stacked on chapter gave the impression of a lot of falling action.

But this is nitpicking, because the book itself is a fine example of moral fiction: fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through. It is a Catholic world if you believe that the Church isn't just making up strictures but describing what is true about reality.

This leads to an interesting point. Amends is a novel with a Catholic sensibility, but it wasn't published by a Catholic press. It wasn't published by a press at all -- it's self-published. In a sense, I don't know how it could have been otherwise: the Catholic sensibility, particularly in sexual matters, is too pronounced to make it likely that a mainstream press would publish it, and the particular profane foibles, flaws, and inclinations of these characters make it almost inconceivable that a Catholic press, even one that had a fiction imprint, would touch it. (There's no sex in the book, if you're keeping tabs at home, and yet the characters have profane, messy lives that don't fit neatly into easy categories.)

I'm giving myself permission to write several short posts based around this idea, instead of putting off writing one long one, so tomorrow I want to reflect about Catholic publishing and fiction.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Have We Reached the Limits of the Classical Liberalism Bargain?

Jen Fitz had a post up pointing out the interestingly double standards which are used at times in adjudicating questions of religious liberty versus the moral sensibilities of the majority and minority in the country on touchy issues such as gay marriage.

From pp. 98-99 of the transcript:

MS. WAGGONER: . . . I have three brief points in rebuttal: First of all, the bias of the Commission is also evidenced in the unequal treatment of the cake designers, the three other cake designers who were on the squarely opposite sides of this issue. If — if the Court looks at the analysis that was provided by the Colorado court of appeals, line by line they take the opposite approach to Mr. Phillips that they do to those who are unwilling to criticize same-sex marriage

JUSTICE GINSBURG: And they say they wouldn’t — they would say no to anyone who came with that request?

MS. WAGGONER: No. The Colorado court of appeals said that they could have an offensiveness policy, and they said that those three cake designers were expressing their own message if they had to design that cake. In Mr. Phillips’s case, they said it wasn’t his message. It’s simply compliance with the law. In the other case, they said that the cake designers, because they served Christian customers in other contexts, that that was evidence it was a distinction based on the message, but in Mr. Phillips’s case, they ruled the opposite way.
Colorado found that if a baker who served Christians generally, but then declined to make a cake with a Biblical message because the baker found the message offensive, that baker was not discriminating. In contrast, a Christian baker who serves gay clients generally, but declines to accept an order for a specific event the baker finds offensive, does not receive conscience protection. (And note: The Christian baker in question was willing to sell an off-the-shelf cake to the gay clients.)

The Supreme Court argument she links to is here.

It should go without saying (but it may not in our current climate) that the issue of cake baking in and of itself is fairly trivial. What we're mostly seeing here is the result of opposite sides of culture war trolling each other to establish the limits of the law. However, the difficulties that the case outlines are real, and they point to the increasing difficulty of maintaining the principles of liberal democracy in an increasingly religiously and culturally fractured society.

The great compromise of classical liberalism is that we agree to give error rights. We allow some room for people to disagree with our deeply held beliefs without being punished with the full force of the law, while agreeing to enforce laws that provide all of us with basic common goods. Thus, for instance, we support laws punishing murder and theft, but we don't support laws punishing heresy. Sure, we might see that convincing someone to belong to some hair brained sect is damaging to that person, so there'd be an argument that it would be good for the government to protect its citizens from being the victims of wrong theology. But according to the compromise of liberalism we agree that the evils of stamping out error in some areas can be worse than the evils of allowing the error to exist and trying to use our own individual persuasion and influence to warn people way from error.

This works when there's some basic agreement in society about what's right and what's wrong. For instance, we agree enough that killing innocent people is wrong to ban murder even in cases some societies don't (dueling, honor killing, etc.) and yet we can tolerate dissent on other issues on which we disagree. Of course, even this example starts to show how our societal consensus is falling apart, as even the ban on murder is currently being argued about in cases such as euthanasia, infanticide, etc.

Tolerance of dissent worked so long as the issues dissented on were ones we were willing to leave up to people's individual discretion. What religion you belong to is not from a believer's point of view something trivial. It might be a point on which a person's salvation hinged. But there was at least some level at which we could argue it was something justly left to each person to decide. But as we come to disagree about more and more fundamental issues, the idea that we can leave issues up to individual conscience becomes more difficult to swallow. And as this tolerance according to the principles of classical liberalism becomes less attractive, the alternative will become more attractive: get control of the mean so power and then use that power to disenfranchise your opponents as much as possible so they never get the chance to turn the tables on you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

I Remember MrsDarwin: The 39 Steps

I thought I'd put up the last of my I Remember MrsDarwin lying liar birthday posts, but lo! Three years later, my pal Steven is back with a false memory, and not just a paragraph, but an entire glorious work of thrilling fiction harkening back to my recent call for casual fiction, only not so micro. In the spirit of the thing, I would just like to say that I totally did not go to college with Steven, nor was he ever a roommate of Darwin, nor did I help set up him and his wife. Nor did we once go on a "date" down to Damon's while Darwin had a night class, where we sat and counted down the minutes until Darwin was out of class. We actually didn't order the Blooming Onion, though; that thing was repulsive.

So here's a "memory" so long and repressed, you'll have to click through to read the whole thing.


 A Caper with Cate
by Steven Kinney

I hate writing the first line.

You have no idea how much pressure there is in writing that first line. How can I possibly compare with some of the great first lines out there: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” - that’s an instant classic right there. Seriously, nobody has read the rest of the book, it stands out as a mainstay of literature just for the first line. On the other hand, I can probably beat “Call me Ishmael”. That’s just lazy writing there.

If you didn’t realize it yet, I’m not a writer. I not all wordy like Hemingway and I don’t have a complex story to weave like Aesop, or a deeply philosophical message like Austen.

My story is simpler than that: I met a girl.

Okay, sorry I’ll be politically correct, ‘I met a woman’. It’s just that doesn’t sound as good as a one liner, you know?

Now, I have to tell you upfront, this isn’t a love story. If you want to read a love story, I recommend looking up S. Morgenstern. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cornered that market. This story is rather more of an adventure than anything else. It’s got fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunts, bad guys, good guys, beauty, spiders, pain, death (or at least mostly), bravery, cowardice, strength, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion, miracles. It’s really not too bad. Hopefully it won’t put you to sleep.

No, this isn’t a love story. I want to be very clear about this now, so you aren’t confused as I go on with it. Seriously, people today always assume you can’t just be friends!

It all started before we met.

See, now that would have been a good opening line! I should have used that one.

We met on a park bench outside a cafe.

Even that was a better opening line than what I used! I really need to work on this.

It started off with the usual pleasantries. From there moving into small talk, and eventually migrating into conversation. Before long we had a real, audible connection. As she spoke of her interests in arts and music, great books, even coffee, I’ll admit, I was attracted to her. Not physically, of course. I mean, sure, she’s build with all the right angles and pronouncements. There’s nothing wrong with noticing that, that’s just being observant. Nothing further occurred to me about it. Obviously her brown - gold hair, with just the right amount of curl to keep it interesting was hard to miss, aesthetically, I mean. I did notice the deep green in her eyes. From a genetic point of view, that’s an interesting quirk, that’s all. Yes, I suppose, if pressed into it, I would say that she was pretty. Beautify even. Not that I cared about that at all. I’m just completing the picture for you, that’s all.

Isn’t it funny how, these conversations strike up and you realize you’ve never introduced yourselves properly. I’ll tell you, it isn’t. It’s not funny at all. She got up from that park bench, said goodbye, and I realized that I didn’t even know her name. Don’t look at me that way, I told you that this isn’t a love story. It’s not. Of course I thought she was interesting, and I enjoyed our conversation, but I wasn’t going to go and spend days trying to find her just by listening for her alto voice passionate and earnest. It wasn’t like that.

I mean, I did happen to see her sipping a latte through the window of the cafe. It’s true, I had been by that cafe a couple times a day since we met… but it was close by, so it wasn’t really a big deal anyway. She waved me in to join her. She must have seen me as I walked up, because it wasn’t like I stopped and stared while working up courage or anything. That would be very out of character for me.

No need to be rude, she had invited me in, so in I went.

In point of fact I walked around the corner to the entrance and then back around to where she sat. By the time I arrived she had moved the other side of the table, facing me as I approached. She was comfortable, happy even. A book on the table beside, interrupted and waiting, I was graced with a smile that showed me her entire dental history, a clean and sanitary history, I might add.
I recall, distinctly, that the table wasn’t quite level, and the chair anything but comfortable. As I moved to sit, she introduced herself, “Cate!” as she held out her hand for mine. In fact, I’m quite sure that there was conversation that day. Clearly we must have spoken, but if I’m to be honest, I only recall that one word.

That’s how I met Cate.

* * * * *

You know you have a real friend when that friendship leads you to be the best yourself can be. That’s what real friends do. They learn about each other, and then try to become more of what the other needs in their life. That’s how I take care of Cate. For example, I know that Cate has brilliant things to say and it’s best not to keep them to herself. I encourage and challenge her to speak freely and I listen attentively. More than once I’ve been so entranced by her eloquence that I’ve receded into my mind, in a state of trance, pondering deeply, while my body goes limp.

Cate pushes me too. That’s how I came into this current situation I’m in. Most of the way through successful robbery, stuck waiting for her to rescue me. I’m really just sitting here thinking it all through, this is all backstory and flashback stuff.

Seriously, don’t look at me that way, I told you already this isn’t a love story, it’s an adventure.


Read on, if your faculty of suspension of disbelief is strong enough.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Confessions of Confirmation Catechist: The Examen

I recently read a book about building Confirmation programs, written by a catechist at a large suburban parish with an apparently unlimited fund of volunteers and money. In it, he advocated for a new kind of mentor program, where instead of having dry Confirmation classes, Confirmation prep involves one-on-one relationship-building meetings in cozy, comfortable settings. These meetings stress the personal relationship aspect of building Church membership. Volunteerism and ministry are actively encouraged, and personality profiles help the student understand where his or her gifts are best used. The doctrine can come later. Right now, the students need to learn that Church is people.

Or something like that. I'm simplifying inexcusably because I'm still tired from being the single Confirmation catechist, spending an hour and a half in a big barren school cafeteria each Sunday afternoon with ~40 eighth graders, trying to impart the doctrines of the Catholic church into which they're being confirmed. I want to be liked, I guess. But people come and go. Mentors move up or out, or change jobs, or lose their faith, or disappoint at the human level. The truths of the Church don't change whether or not Mrs. Darwin is someone you admire and think is really cool, or whether she made you put away your phone or switch seats so you'll stop snickering with the guy next to you.

Anyway, since I'm not running a megachurch retention program, this past Sunday we discussed the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. I didn't have any brilliant insights you can't find anywhere else on the web. Several people remembered that they'd heard the phrase "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" in the Nicene Creed, and they even remembered that we'd discussed the Nicene Creed a few classes back, which I consider a solid win. We made family trees to illustrate the idea of being able to trace back the apostolic roots of the church. I totally forgot to tie that in with our list of popes we've been memorizing, even though I made a note to bring it up.

But our main activity of the day was to prepare for Advent, and for next week's Confession service, by praying the Examen. I dearly want my students to pray. I want them to remember to turn to God sometimes. The best way to instill this is to pray with them, so that they have a model for prayer.

I wasn't entirely taken with any Examen templates I found online, so, guided by Leah Libresco's discussion of the Examen in her book Arriving at Amen, I put together an outline.


Daily Examen

1. Gratitude
Think about the good things God has given you, both overall and specifically for today. Thank him for the blessings and the opportunities he gives.

2. Grace

Ask God for clarity so that you can see your life not just from your own limited viewpoint, but with as he sees you.

3. Review

Look back. Today, how did I fall short of being who God wants me to be? Did I commit any sins? Did I fail in showing love? Was I absorbed in myself? 

4. Repent

Ask God to give you sorrow for your sins. Tell him you’re sorry, and ask for his forgiveness.

5. Resolve

Look forward. What changes can I make to love God better tomorrow? Think of one change you can practice tomorrow to help you grow closer to God and bring his love to others.

Our Father.


I made the students separate and find a private spot somewhere in the cafeteria, as long as they were within eyeshot of me. I broke up clusters so that people wouldn't be distracted by their friends, or feel too self-conscious to pray. I asked them to close their eyes as they prayed each step, so that they could shut out distractions, and not be a distraction to others.

We started with Gratitude. So many people think that being Catholic is all about feeling guilty, but here we start with giving thanks for the good things we've received, or the good things of the world in general. Every blessing, every gift and talent, all beauty comes from God, and by giving thanks we're able to get out of our own heads for a bit.

"Jean-Paul Sartre says that Hell is other people," I said, "but I think hell is being stuck in your own head."

Several people seemed to agree.

We took a moment of silence to pray. My default in these class moments is the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer, since only the Holy Spirit can move and work in the souls of anyone, let alone a group of teenagers who don't really want to be in class.

The next step was to ask for the gift of Grace, to be able to see our lives through a divine lens and not just from the narrow perspective of our own viewpoint. How often do we beat ourselves up for failing when any outside observer could point out the challenges we're facing? How often do we think, "Oh, I'm a good person," when others could point out some pretty bad ways we've behaved? We want to see ourselves honestly so we know where we need to change, and for that we need God's grace to shine a light into our souls.

A moment of prayer.

Review. It's time to look back. You don't have to take on the burden of going over your entire life, or the whole school year, or even the week, but just this present day. How have I failed today? Specifically, how have I sinned? How have I separated myself from God? And what haven't I done? There are sins of commission -- things you do that are actively wrong -- and there are sins of omission -- times when you should have acted but didn't. When did I fail to step up and show love?

A moment of prayer.

Repent. All of our examining consciences and dredging up sins won't do us any good if we don't immediately turn those sins over to God and ask for his forgiveness. And that's all we have to do. We don't have to beg or cower or plead for mercy -- God is waiting for us, like the Father with the prodigal son, who didn't even let his son finish his speech before he's calling for the fatted calf and throwing a banquet. But we do need to ask. God doesn't force his grace on us. Grace can shine in through the smallest opening, but we need to take the first, tiny step toward it. If you're not sorry for your sins -- "I told her to go to hell, and I don't really care!" -- ask God to grant you sorrow and contrition. Next week we're going to confession, and that's our opportunity to be fully restored to union with God. In absolution, God forgives and forgets. People may remember your sins and bring them up to you, but God doesn't. They're completely dissolved and obliterated in the ocean of his mercy.

A moment of prayer. By this point I'm watching the clock to see if we can eke out the process long enough so that I can have an early release. Come, Holy Spirit.

Resolve. We're bound by time, so unlike God, who sees everything as the present, we have to look back, and then look forward. This is where the rubber meets the road. Living the Christian life means turning toward God, trying to orient ourselves toward him. You've reviewed your day and identified some things that have kept you from God, some blocks you've put up. Can you think of one concrete change you could make tomorrow to move closer to him? One concrete way to show love? This isn't about making a huge resolution. The world offers us specific times to change -- on Monday morning, at the start of school, at New Year's. As Christians, we don't have to wait to make a New Year's resolution. We can make a new second resolution. "Now is the acceptable time!" says St. Paul in one of his epistles. And one of the last things Jesus says in the book of Revelation is, "Behold, I make all things new." You're not trapped by the past. Every instant offers a opportunity to turn anew toward God. But we also don't have to feel burdened by the weight of our entire future. Pick a change you can make right now, or an action you can do tomorrow, without needing to deal with the entire psychological weight of the rest of your life.

A moment of prayer.

We end with an Our Father -- a prayer that almost repeats the entire process we've just gone through. We thank God for his gifts, we acknowledge how far he is above us -- "who art in heaven", we acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, and talk about how we'll change and forgive others.

Glory be, it's 5:05! A few moments of wrapping up and cleaning up, and I can have them out well before 5:15. Amen.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Tax Plan Cometh

I'd seen some people discussing today how the Senate tax plan which was just passed would affect middle class families. The element which seems to cause the most concern is that the plan eliminates the per person exemption which currently allows a married couple with children to take $4,050 for each member of the couple plus for each dependent child off their taxable income. On the more positive side, the new plan also increases the child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child and increases the standard deduction from $12,700 to $24,000. For many families this might mean that the standard deduction is actually a better deal than the itemized deduction and result in a decrease in taxable income. (source on tax plan changes) Another major change not specific to families is that the deduction for property taxes is capped at $10,000 and state and local income taxes would no longer be deductible.

I Wasn't sure exactly how these different factors would balance out. I created a fairly basic model which dealt with just the major deductions and credits in question and applied the new rate table. I then ran three scenarios, families of four making $50k, $100k, and $200k per year. The last of these is the sketchiest as at that income level under the current tax regulations the child tax credits mostly phase out and the alternative minimum tax starts to phase in. According to the new Senate plan, both of those would happen at much higher income levels, so they would cease to be factors for the $200k family.

According to my estimate, the family making $50k would see a slight reduction in the amount of credit they get back, going from -$2,780 in tax to -$1,261.  In other words, they would be worse off by around $1,500 due to the expanded child tax credit not being refundable.

The family making $100k would see a reduction in the amount of tax they would pay, from $3,047 to $739.

The family making $200k would see a decrease in their tax burden from $24,353 to $22,349.

Families that would be most likely to be worse off as a result of the new bill would be families with a number of children who currently get back a net credit rather than paying federal income taxes.

Here are the scenarios:

While I've made a good faith effort here, I'm not a tax expert. If you see errors please point them out and cite sources, and I'll be happy to make corrections.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

This... is a mustache, certainly, but not The Mustache.

The mustache was always going to be the star of Murder on the Orient Express. Not the precise, controlled mustache of years past, no: a luxuriant, impossible mustache, as big as the all-star cast of Kenneth Branagh's derailment of Agatha Christie's classic. The mustache is romantic, larger-than-life, and so is this iteration's Poirot. Mark Steyn compares Branagh's Poirot to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes in the glamming-up, dumbing down department, and though Murder on the Orient Express isn't as silly as the recent Holmes outings, he touches on a point. This Poirot has been Holmes-ized, with a flair for action. He is big, he is beautiful (oh come on, Branagh's a bonny boy). His cape blows in the fresh mountain breeze. He strides atop a rail car. He chases a suspect. 

"Well, I never!" you exclaim, and you are right. This is not Poirot, so don't watch it as Poirot and you'll do okay. The scenery is arresting: an elegant piece of locomotive art steaming through Balkan mountain majesties. Doubtless the special features on the DVD will tell us how the whole thing was computer-generated, but I'd be happy to watch a feature-length film of the background shots. The cast was pedigreed but underused. How much does it cost to have Judi Dench dial it in? Most of the movie is Kenneth Branagh being fantastic: starting off the movie revealing a flashy solution to a non-canonical crime featuring a rabbi, a priest, and an iman (yes, even the movie acknowledges that this sounds like a joke set-up), tussling with suspects, flashing his blue eyes, and addressing an old photograph of "ma chere Katharine" with soulful soliloquies that would have played better as prayers.

Speaking of prayer, if you're really hot to trot to see a Poirot done right, hie thee to the library and check out the 2010 Murder on the Orient Express featuring the incomparable David Suchet. This version, I feel, gets at the heart of what makes Poirot tick: his longing for justice, and his comfortable conviction that he is there to see that justice meted out. Rarely, rarely have I seen a book-to-movie adaptation that makes a change that improves on the original, but here the screenwriters, aided by Mr. Suchet's pitch-perfect Poirot, make the detective grapple with his inability to perfectly administer retribution. Where Branagh substitutes a photo of chere Katherine, Suchet speaks to God, aided by his trusty rosary. It is better that way.

It's hard to speak of Murder on the Orient Express without talking about the solution. In this day and age, it's hard to imagine that many people don't know whodunit, but I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that in the most incomprehensible turn of all, Branagh neglects any discussion of one of the key elements of Christie's denouement, where Poirot expounds on the need for a formal system of justice to convict criminals, and the particularly English format of the trial.

It's been years since I've seen Sidney Lumet's highly acclaimed version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. I have requested it at the library, but in the meantime, to fulfill our longing to watch a perfect British mystery, we wandered only as far as our own movie collection and pulled Gosford Park off the shelf.

Gosford Park is the ideal form of the country house mystery -- guests down for the weekend, drama above and below stairs, a murder, an inspector. But here, the inspector is a a piece of comic incompetence played by Stephen Fry. "We only want people with a connection to the dead man!" he says, dismissing half the household from suspicion in fell swoop, ignoring evidence, destroying fingerprints, and missing every clue that director Robert Altman has laid out for you, the viewer, to pick up on over repeated viewings. Every scene, every prop, every toss-off bit of dialogue heard in passing has a connection to the dead man and the complicated household he's assembled. And, like Murder on the Orient Express, like all the best of the genre Murder Mystery, the theme is the long reach of sin and how it scars everyone it touches, until sin begets more sin.

And speaking of begetting, at the end of this new Orient Express, Poirot detrains at the remote station of Brod, where he is met by a British officer who gives him an urgent summons. "There's been a death... on the Nile!" Pretty prescient considering that the murder always takes place in the middle of the book. But Branagh seems to have no qualms about tinkering with the details, so expect the mustachioed marvel to careen through the Egyptian desert in a camel chase a la The Sheik. Once you've lost the mustache, it's all up for grabs.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Cornbread Dressing

Although the evening commitments have eased up now that our theater season is over (though please help me convince Darwin to audition for Twelve Angry Men because he'd be so great, can't you see it?), life with seven kids is busy enough that the writing gets pushed to the back burner. And so, speaking of the back burner, here, in lieu of a piece of real, elegant prose, is a re-run of my mother's cornbread dressing recipe. I know there's various kinds of stuffing-type foods, and each has their partisans, but for my money this is the best dish at the Thanksgiving table.
  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  1. Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.
  2. Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.
  3. Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.
  4. If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.
  5. Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.
  6. Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.
Happy Thanksgiving! We thank God for all of our readers and friends, and anyone who's dropped in here at the blog over the past dozen years. May your plates be heavy and your hearts be light.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-1

It's been a long, long time. The last couple installments went up right around the time baby was born. That threw the household into more of a time organization crunch than I expected. I'm trying to make a push until the end of the year to finish this 4th chapter and also the 5th.

Near Sandomierz, Galicia. June 8th, 1915. The 7th Uhlans were surrounded by dead. Not because there had been any pitched battle, but because the town of Sambor had, in its wisdom, built its cemetery on the only hill within miles.

Jozef sat in the shadow of a monument on which two angels held up a scroll proclaiming that Irena Wyrzykowski had been a beloved wife and mother from 1829 to 1873 and waited while Oberleutnant Niemczyk scanned the distance with his binoculars.

It was not a very high hill, and yet because the rest of the plain along the Vistula was so flat, it afforded a view which stretched more than a dozen miles.

“Any sign of the Russians?”

“Nothing beyond a few smoking cottages. They’re doing their best to leave nothing behind for us.”

The oberleutnant, serving as temporary squadron commander since the Rittmeister had been wounded in the second day of the offensive, turned his glasses to look down the river road towards the west instead. “The infantry is coming up. We should be relieved by noon.”

In the end, it was not until the cavalrymen were finishing their lunch among the graves that the long line of infantry in their dusty gray-blue uniforms came marching by the hill. Their officers, on horseback but wearing the shoes and leg-wraps of infantrymen rather than the boots of true cavalry, directed some companies forward and others up onto the hill. These were Landsturm sappers, older men, bearded, slouching, their marching order ragged. They carried rifles on their shoulders, but also oversized shovels lashed to their packs. Their mission was not to fight but to dig the fortifications from which others would.

“How goes it with the mole soldiers?” called one of the troopers. “Will you dig your way through and attack the Orient?”

“Go suck a horse, pretty boy,” one of the infantrymen called in reply, while the rest simply hunched their shoulders and kept moving.

Oberleutnant Niemczyk ordered the squadron to mount up, and as the Landsturm set to with their spades to begin turning the hill into a fortification, the Uhlans rode back down the highway to make camp. Once there, however, Jozef did not find his name on the roster of assignments with the other junior officers. Instead he found a summons to Oberst von Bruenner, commander of the regiment.

The retreating Russians had left standing no buildings in the village worth using as a headquarters. The Oberst made himself at home in a tent instead, and did so with some style. When the guard outside pulled back the tent flap and bowed Jozef in, he stepped onto a rug which covered the ground. Oberst von Bruenner sat on a folding camp chair in front of a wooden writing desk. Jozef came to full attention and saluted.

“Provisional Leutnant von Revay, Sir.”

There were several other chairs and stools arranged in a horseshoe facing the desk, perhaps unmoved since the Oberst had last met with his squadron commanders, but he did not invite Jozef to be seated. For a moment the Oberst remained immersed in a paper on his desk, then he signed it with a flourish, got slowly to his feet, and returned Jozef’s salute.

“Yes, von Revay. I hear good things about you from Oberleutnant Niemczyk.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have two things to tell you. First, you may drop the ‘provisional’. I have received approval for your promotion to a full leutnant.”

The Oberst picked up the paper he had just signed and held it out to Jozef. There it was in elaborate black printed letters: a commission to the officer corps of the Imperial-Royal Army.

“Secondly,” went on the Oberst, “I’m detaching you on a special mission.”

[Continue reading]

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Microfiction, or, You Should Write

Last month some friends of mine participated in Inktober, where you follow a one-word prompt to create a drawing for each day of October. It's like NaNoWriMo for artists. I was delighted each day to see the drawings they posted, no matter how dashed off or sketchy, all far above the level of anything I could do in the artistic line.

NaNoWriMo is about long-term sustained creativity in the writing department: 50,000 words in one month. It's all kinds of fun, but it's just too much work to do casually. But just as my Inktobering friends made small drawings each day, so other friends have turned their hands at casual microfiction, dashing off a story here and there. I like this -- the idea that drawing, or storywriting, is not some rarified skill left to the professionals, but something that a person ought to be able to do in their spare time, just for fun.

So today, some microfiction excerpts, published with permission.


My friend Janelle Ortega took on a fun task: describing how she would introduce people in a novel. Here's what she wrote for me, on St. Crispin's Day.

Even with so many people it was cold. It was late October. Some would have thought to bring sweaters but most wouldn't have. Burning dust floated out of the vents as it always does the first time at the beginning.

Usually the smell bothered her but not tonight. She was dealing with her stomach.

That stupid quote.... "I still get butterflies but now they fly in unison" came to her head. She could practice til her voice faded, perform nightly, get continuous standing ovations, but still she was nervous. There were those who called themselves "thespians" hundreds, thousands, and each one of them claimed "I'm never myself unless I'm on stage" Bah, Cat knew that lie, heard it since high school. No, for her, being someone else was why it was all so exhilarating. But still, those nerves. Even between acts, even playing multiple roles....

But now clothes so damp in the crisp air. Her socks thin, she can feel the seams in her boots. Smelling the early morning fires and rotting leaves, a different fear strangles her and she turns to the king....

"Oh that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today"
That he might have something to ease the fear of death. Speak oh King!"


Inspired by a conversation about my oldest daughter, who unlike her parents yearns to be a gamer, a friend who runs a game night sat down and wrote up this tale.

An Exercise in Justifying My Hobby as a Dungeon Master, or
What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons
by Jeff Kinney
The tiny bell jingled as he opened the door.

He really wasn't sure what he was doing there. He'd outgrown such things years ago, but he did have a vague recollection of where to go, what to search for. And the shop looked promising.

Bookshelves lined the store. Some were the standard metal ones, but further in were a hodge-podge of wooden ones, some even boardering on antique. They were laid out in parallel sets, exposing their wares in a mostly organized fashion. The spines of hardbound books, boxed sets of games, cards and dice, figurines and statues.

He walked in cautiously, not seeing anyone else in the shop. A voice rang out from the back, suggesting that the proprietor would be out shortly. He moved toward the shelves and ran his fingers lightly over the covers. The Player's Guidebook. Guide for Dungeon Crawlers. Monsters Compendium, Volumes I through V. Another set was fully devoted to that popular sci-fi show that came out a few years ago. He smiled ruefully. Not much seemed to have changed.

A man with a considerable gut, balding at the top but clearly compensating for it with a bushy beard, came out of what was likely the store room.

"Sorry. Would you believe how often I have to go back there and fight off the Rat King and his subjects?" the shopkeep said with a grin. "So, what can I help you find?"

"Not for me. My daughter, actually. She wants a game to play, but I hate to see her staring at a screen all the time. Something cooperative, maybe, for her and her friends. I was hoping I could find her something here."

The shopkeep sized him up, then smiled again. "How long has it been?"

"Excuse me? How long since what?"

"Since you played! I can see it in you. You've been to far off worlds of your own making. You've conjured up fantasies through forbidden lands that only you and your friends knew of. Or was it an exploration of space, filled with aliens and robots and blasters? Aha. That was it, isn't it."

"Guilty" he said sheepishly. "And it was many years ago. My mid teens, I guess."

"Yeah, pretty much everyone feels awkward about then. Always easier to believe yourself to be a badass warrior or a hidden magical talent, or a superhero in disguised as a normal kid. So, what's the girl into, other than escaping reality."

He shrugged. "Theater. Reading. Talking with friends and hanging out."

The shopkeep grunts and takes you back into the shelves. You find more books like those in the front. On the shelves a marker had inscribed 'Role Playing Materials' over a swath of masking tape, but it was the mural above it that caught his eye. A child, reading a book under a blanket by flashlight, while above her, a charging warrior raced toward a bellowing monster. Below the image, a message was written in flowing script:

"Dragons are not real. But they can be defeated."

He looked up, bemused. "Chesterton?"

The shopkeep nodded. "Horrible bastardization of it, but I couldn't get the kid who painted it for me to write the whole thing up there. But it gets the point across."

He nodded. A moment later, a few well-worn books were being stacked up in his outstreched hands. "What are these?"

The shopkeep huffed, pulling himself from the floor with effort. "The basics. Enough to get her going. You'll know soon enough what kind of adventures she wants. Come back and we'll get her proper things if it sticks. Those are loaners, so try to not write in them too much."

He was taken aback. "Free?"

"Well, if you want I can get you the newest versions at $40-$50 a book. But unless you learn how to make the game an adventure, they'll likely sit next to the cleats she outgrew when she was eight and wanted to play softball."

"Dance shoes, actually" he murmured, still a little off balance by the man's instincts.

"Sure, sure." He pulled out a small bag from the counter, and put in a half dozen dice from a collection of hundreds. "I'll charge you for these though. Kids always lose the dice. $3.48 plus tax?"

"Um. Yeah." He was struggling to regain control of the situation. He felt like he had been swept up in something without even realizing what was going on. "Seriously, why are you doing this? This can't make you much money."

"Nope, it doesn't." The shopkeep pulls out a box of flashy foil covered playing cards. "These pieces of cardboard keep me afloat. I do the games because I love seeing kids tell stories about how awesome they are. If it works, yeah, she'll come back and buy dice, or books, or miniatures. Or she'll make up her own stuff. But there will be stories. Stories of her and her friends saving the town from ravaging monsters, exploring the haunted mines, or discovering some brand new magic. She'll tell those stories, legends of her own making. She'll stop pretending the be the warrior-princess and act like it. And if it worked for you, it'll probably work for her too. I assume it DID work, yes?"

He nodded and paid for the dice, though he did not following the shopkeepr's logic. As he walked to the door, the shopkeeper called out again.

"Let her know gaming nights are Thursdays! And you're welcome at the table too!"

He walked out, slightly unsure of what had just happened, ringing the bell on the way out. As he laid the books on the passenger seat of his car, a pamphlet fell out from between the books.

'What To Do When Your Daughter Wants to Fight Dragons'

He smiled. Yes, this might do just fine.


And a contribution from myself, an Orphan Opening from last January.

Of course everyone was more secretive because it was Christmas time, and everywhere the echo of muffled giggles and running feet hinted at mysterious doings afoot. Children disappeared into rooms and slammed doors as Marie hauled laundry or half-unpacked boxes up stairs and through corridors. Somehow nine children seemed like a lot more when they rambled around a huge old house than when they were all jammed in the small living room of the unlamented heap they used to call home. At least the kids had been easier to count then. Now it was impossible to tell who was who between all the mops of curly tangles disappearing with packages into empty rooms. Empty rooms! Such a novel concept before, but in this house, there were plenty of places for a child to hide away.

Up in the attic, Marie didn't dare search through the opened boxes for the Christmas decorations lest she disturb someone's cleverly hidden present cache. Still, there were plenty of sealed boxes up there to go through, stacked amid the detritus of previous homeowners: magazines, records, dress-up clothes, books, and even a photograph of the original family to live here. The stiff sepia-toned parents were slightly too blurry for Marie to feel that they looked on her in judgment, but the young girl stared clear-eyed at the mess, ringlets carefully arrayed over her dark dress.

"Never saw this much chaos in your life, huh, kid?" Marie muttered, and then felt bad at the thought of one child rattling around in this pile, between the great rooms downstairs and the small servants' bedrooms on the third floor. Well, the old place had life aplenty now. Three middle girls in three separate bedrooms, wrapping, though at a glance who could say which one was Rachel, Melanie, or Nell? A quick peek in the nursery revealed two little boys who were either Pete and Joe, or Joe and Pat, or Pat and Pete crouched over some legos. A teenager reading huddled under a blanket in the living room -- was it shaggy John or shingled Mary Alice? And then the kids had met the neighbors and were always vanishing next door and then popping in again with friends in tow, leaving Marie with the disconcerting feeling of there being at once too many and not enough children underfoot. At least the baby was always easy to track: small, attached to someone's hip, and definitely bald.

At last the tree was up, the house was decorated (thanks to the kids), and the presents were stacked, but Marie felt even less settled in the house than when they'd first moved. She never thought she'd miss having no personal space, but now the only time everyone was gathered in one place, all accounted for, was at dinner time. At least in the old house she'd had some kind of sense of where everyone was at any given moment. Now children could isolate themselves, someone always sneaking off alone to throw off her mental headcount. Even Dan confessed himself defeated, laughing on Saturday afternoon as he tried to tally his children in the confusion of rooms and neighbors.

"Be grateful," he told Marie as he kissed her in the kitchen. "This is a great neighborhood. I think I saw one of the neighbor kids behaving nicely in the library when our own were upstairs shrieking in the bedrooms."

Marie wondered how her house must sound to the other mothers on the street.

At least on Christmas Day, the noise and fighting were confined to the family. Presents had been opened and abandoned, dinner was made, the kids had set the table, and Marie even took a few moments upstairs to put on a fresh sweater and some lipstick before entering the fray. The dining room resounded as kids jockeyed for coveted positions. There must have been fighting, for in the twilit living room Nell, or Melanie, or Rachel sat with her back to the world, contemplating the glowing tree and refusing to budge. "Grant us peace," Marie sighed as she opened the dining room doors. A burst of Christmas cheer greeted her, and everyone sorted into their spots. At the head of the table opposite her, Dan; four tousled heads down each side; and in the high chair, sweet bald baby, leaving Marie standing by the one empty chair, her own, stifling the summons she'd been about to give to the small ringleted presence still behind her in the living room.


You don't have to be A Writer to write fiction. You don't have to want to be published. You don't need to write a novel. Fiction writing is a skill, sure, but it doesn't have to be rarified. Just sit down and write a thing. And share it with me -- I want to read it.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

NFP and Truth (and Suffering)

This is the second in a series of posts dealing with NFP and some recent controversies surrounding it. The first post dealt with how accusation that Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae because if he did otherwise the Church "should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" is fundamentally a concern about the nature of the Church and the authority of the Church's teaching power, not an accusation about clerical misogyny or failing to listen to the experiences of married couples. In this second post, we're going to talk about NFP itself, some of the problems with it, and some of the problems with how people talk about it.

Back in July, Melinda Selmys (whose post series inspired this one) had post on NFP (Natural Family Planning, lest the insider acronym be unfamiliar to anyone) which was somewhat inspired by the "NFP awareness week" which many in the Catholic online world were conducting.
So it’s NFP awareness week, and nothing will do a woman more good in the midst of a faith-crisis than blogging about NFP…right?

Anyway, I did end up reading one of the many NFP articles that are circulating this week. The upshot of this one is that the woman who is writing it hates NFP. It doesn’t improve her marriage, or increase intimacy in her relationship, and it’s not really preventing her from getting pregnant. Her body doesn’t have time to recover between pregnancies, and she’s experiencing pregnancy loss – possibly as a result. So far, so familiar. However, she is continuing with it because she believes in the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church and so she is being obedient even though it is causing her suffering and she doesn’t understand why it’s a good thing.

Also, painfully familiar.
I remember when the awareness week was going around, and I recall studiously not taking part in it, despite the fact that NFP has been fairly intimately connected with our lives for the last sixteen years. There is too often, I fear, a boom and bust cycle to NFP boosterism. The bust is not always the kind of complete questioning of Church teaching authority which Selmys's struggle with it seems to have led to (following up on the above linked post in which she questions why the Church teaches someone in her situation must not use contraception, she went on to a four part series on papal infallibility, which she more or less rejects now, demonstrating I think that rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception ends up hinging on questions of doctrinal authority, not sexuality.) But even when the result is simply grim compliance rather than attempted rejection of the Church's teaching about contraception, I think that the tendency of NFP boosters to over-promise results in the ten-to-twelve-years-into-marriage disillusion with those promises which I've often heard from other Catholics.

MrsD: Perhaps it was around NFP Awareness Week when I heard someone who'd been married for a few years and had a few young kids, bemoaning the fact that no one had ever mentioned that NFP was so hard, and why did no one ever talk about this? And I said nothing, because we already wrote that same post back when we'd been married a few years and had a few young kids ourselves. It seemed like we were constantly fighting this monthly battle pitting desire against risk of pregnancy, and dear God, how long would it go on this way? Well, the answer is that nothing in life is static. NFP has been, intermittently, a trial, a slog, a blessing, a lifeline, and just a thing that we do or don't do, depending on necessity.

By now the term "NFP" is almost too fraught, carrying connotations of some big oppressive system. Say it with me, though: all it is is 1) observing the signs of female fertility -- a morally neutral act -- and 2) using those observations as part of a prudential judgment about whether to have sex based on the possibility of pregnancy as a result. That's a bit long to type out, so at least in this series of posts, all "NFP" refers to is this basic idea of observation and decision-making process, not the guidelines and rules of any particular system -- Marquette, Creighton, CCL, whatever. And these rules are not moral imperatives. The Ten Commandments are moral imperatives. The injunction against contraception is a moral imperative backed by the authority of the Catholic church, all dissent to the contrary. Not having sex on day seven when mucus is present is not a moral imperative, and pregnancy is not a punishment for breaking that rule. It's simply a guideline.

There are two different ways that NFP advocates often over promise. One has to do with ease and accuracy of method, an area of technical over-promising if you will. This often seems to have to do with wanting to make NFP seem like an easy and reliable way to space pregnancies, and so choosing (perhaps unconsciously) to make things sound more universal and consistent than the variations of actual women's biology are. The one of these which we ran into as a young married couple was the insistence (at the time at least) in Couple to Couple League materials that you didn't need to worry about fertility coming back quickly while you were breastfeeding, and that you'd probably have a couple infertile cycles coming off of that post-partum infertility in order to let you get used to it. Well, MrsDarwin was the one who gave the OB a double take on the first appointment for our second child by answering the question "when was your last period" with "eighteen months ago."

My impression is that this technical simplification/over-promising has gotten somewhat better over the last sixteen years that NFP has been on our radar (CCL has, for instance, apparently scaled back somewhat it's claims about ecological breastfeeding always resulting in long post-partum infertility) but it's still often the case that when someone talks about the difficulty of knowing when is and is not a fertile time, there are eager people who turn up to explain how the sufferer is doing it all wrong. This defensiveness (it would be easy if you would just do it right!) can be an additional frustration for people already having a hard time with NFP, but it is not the kind of problem that I'd like to talk about in this post. Rather, I'd like to discuss the more relationship-focused aspect of NFP discourse.

If you've moved in these circles, you've probably heard the claims: NFP will divorce proof your marriage! It improves communication between husband and wife! It encourages respect for the whole person! It increases intimacy, and each return to sex after a brief period of abstinence is like another honeymoon!

NFP Is Not Magic
One of the problems with claims such as "NFP improves your communication!" or "NFP will divorce proof your marriage" is that they seem to suggest a rather confused idea of what NFP is and why a couple would practice it. When a couple uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, what are they trying to achieve? Their immediate goal in using NFP is not to reduce their chances of divorce or to achieve better communication (though both of those are good things!) but rather to avoid getting pregnant.

Now, as we think about avoiding pregnancy, there are two obvious ways to succeed. The absolutely sure fire method is not to have sex. Your humble correspondents here spent four years dating and engaged as hotblooded and very fertile young people, and yet by this very simple expedient of not having sex, we never got pregnant through that entire four years. By comparison, after getting married and starting to have sex, we got pregnant within two months.

Yet, though not having sex is an age-old, cheap, and incredibly reliable means of not having children, it's not one that most married couples want to sign up for. Why? Because in addition to making babies (the procreative aspect) sex provides couples with a powerful means of expressing love and unity (the unitary aspect.)

Thus, couples have, throughout history, sometimes wished that they could have sex and enjoy those feelings of unity without risking getting pregnant, and attempted this by means of various barrier or chemical means. (Yes, both barrier and chemical birth control was known in the ancient world -- it was just somewhat less reliable than the modern medical versions of these methods.) And yet the Catholic Church, in keeping with the teaching of Christians dating back to the earliest days of the Church, teaches that rending sex intentionally sterile by using artificial contraception is wrong, because it intentionally removes the procreative aspect from sexual intercourse.

So how does NFP fit into this situation? Natural Family Planning consists of observing the wife's natural cycle of fertility and abstaining from intercourse during the periods when she is fertile. In other words, it's the age-old means of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, but made somewhat less draconian by allowing couples to target their abstinence just towards the times when they might conceive. During standard cycles, this would mean abstaining for a week or two at a time out of each month, rather than abstaining totally. (Some health issues can, however, make the signs of fertility much harder to read and thus require a couple who very urgently need to avoid pregnancy have to abstain from sex for much longer.)

NFP to avoid pregnancy is nothing more or less than targeted abstinence, allowing the couple to avoid pregnancy by giving up sex some of the time rather than all of the time. This is why claims that NFP itself is "contraceptive" in its mentality so clearly fall flat. Avoiding sex is always a moral means of avoiding pregnancy, and NFP is nothing more than avoiding sex.

Why, then, do we see all these expansive claims about the benefits of NFP which have seemingly little to do with avoiding sex or avoiding pregnancy?

MrsD: At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. Now the presence of God was immediate; his holiness was not hidden, and the veil ceased to provide a lulling sense of being hidden or protected from the gaze of God. 

NFP is not magic. It doesn't divorce-proof your marriage, because married couples who use NFP can still sin in other ways. It only improves communication if a couple chooses to communicate. But it does rend the veil. It strips away the false sense of security and certainty that contraception provides. It shines a sometimes harsh white light on the characters of a husband and wife and how they respond to the necessity for chastity and prudence. Light can help a person see, or it can dazzle and blind. That's not magic. That's exposure to truth. 

Nor is contraception magic. Using the veil of contraception to hide from the demands of chastity might allow you to have sex when otherwise you'd have to abstain, but it doesn't make chastity moot. Hiding behind the veil of contraception may give a false sense of control, but doesn't mean that having sex in a fertile period will actually never result in pregnancy. Why is it that Mary is praised for asking how it's possible that she can become pregnant while Zechariah is punished for doubting for asking the same thing? Because Mary's question is predicated on not having sex at all, sex being the natural process through which babies are conceived. Her situation actually requires a miracle. The situation of Zechariah, a married man, does not. Since humans do not actually create life, we do not control whether any particular act of intercourse will or will not result in pregnancy. We can only cooperate with the biological systems God has given us, and if we want to avoid pregnancy, that means avoiding intercourse when scientific observation indicates that the female, whose fertility waxes and wanes, is fertile. Methods of contraception do not provide perfect security if a couple chooses to have sex while the female is fertile. God does not, with the exception of the Incarnation, will that conception take place outside of intercourse (which is why IVF and other assisted-reproduction methods are such grave evils), but pregnancy resulting from intercourse is not a miracle, contraception or no. 

NFP Requires Virtue
Read some news or opinion piece online, and you've almost certain to see advertisements for quick fix remedies: This simple exercise will get you totally ripped in five minutes a day! This little pill burns fat like nothing else! Local mom discovered this one simple trick!

The attraction of such claims is that they promise some desirable result that normally takes a lot of work (building muscle, losing weight, etc.) with very little work or time investment. The alternative is building the habit of actually eating well, exercising, etc. If you do that work, which is hard and requires forming good habits and having the discipline to keep them, you will not only achieve the goals of less fat or more muscle, but also side benefits such as sticking to a schedule, continuing to do things even if they are hard, etc.

The side benefits which are often cited in regard to NFP are sort of like these side benefits of eating right and exercising: if you go about NFP in the spirit of building good habits (a virtue, after all, is also described as a habit to the good) then practicing NFP will help you grow in virtue in other ways. Because NFP means, at times, saying as a couple: "It would be unhealthy for us (physically, emotionally, or financially) to get pregnant right now. I don't want to put my spouse through that. So I will not press my spouse for sex at this time. I will find ways to express my affection for my spouse that don't make my spouse crazy."

If you build these habits, you will find they apply in other areas as well. If I can not pester my wife for sex when I know she is probably fertile and is not ready to get pregnant, then I can also not pester her about the state of the house of the schedule of her activities. If I can not demand sex when it would cause a pregnancy we are not ready for, I can not demand sex when she is sick or is so pregnant that it is uncomfortable or is not in the mood. (I've read in the past that pregnancy and immediately after a baby are born are periods when husbands sometimes initiate affairs. This sounds incredibly heartless, but for couples who don't normally have to deal with periods of abstinence for any other reason, these might be the first times that a husband would encounter the necessity of not having sex for an extended period because of his wife's health.) If we can sit down and have a rational conversation about whether we are ready to get pregnant at the moment, and if not agree to abstain during potentially fertile periods, then we can sit down and have a rational conversation about what family time commitments to take on, where to spend our money, and whether we can afford that home renovation project.

But practicing NFP will only help in this development of virtue if one actually practices it in a virtuous way. If the desire to avoid pregnancy means that a couple utilizes self mastery and communication and consideration for each other, then they will strengthen these virtues in themselves and experience the benefits of these virtues in other areas of their lives. But we're fallen human creatures with fallen human desires. When we're faced with doing something hard, we often lash out at others to express our frustration. This isn't something unique to sex. Last weekend I was tilling over a section of the yard and digging out the area where I'll be building a retaining wall. It was hard work, harder that expected because the area was criss-crossed with roots. After a couple hours of hard labor with the sun overheard, if the kids came up with some question I was growling and snapping at them. My frustration with the roots and sun were turned, unvirtuously, into frustration with my children, and I treated them ungraciously as a result. Mastering our desires can also be hard work. If our response to that difficulty is to lash out at our spouse, to pester and accuse, to seek other forms of release, then facing this hard work becomes not a school of virtue but a school of vice.

Is NFP at fault here? No, not in and of itself. Ask about the reason that couples fight and you'll hear a couple standard ones: money, sex, relatives, work. All of these are things where we might have to make difficult decisions, have to allocate scarce resources, have to choose between competing desires. Put people under stress and force them to make choices, and at times they will respond by behaving badly. The rigors of practicing NFP are no different.

But is it an extra burden which no couple, or not all couples, should have to bear?

MrsD: Feelings are feelings and desire is desire. It arises unbidden at inconvenient times, or refuses to make an appearance at the right time. And it's unequal -- one spouse's desire may inspire the other, but it may also frustrate. So desire itself is not a good regulator of sexual life within marriage. But virtue is. The virtue of justice calls spouses out of themselves to render the particularly marital form of love that is intercourse even in spite of daily frustrations or the thousand stresses of life -- and to never withhold intercourse as a punishment. The virtue of temperance reins hotblooded spouses in from pushing the erotic  limits with degrading or sinful acts, or keeps one hotblooded spouse from pressuring the other to do something unwanted. The virtue of fortitude allows a married couple to be open and emotionally honest with each other even at the most vulnerable times, and sustains them through bouts of abstinence or the natural sexual imbalances that are a normal part of married life. 

And prudence, the queen of virtues, is the practical application of these virtues to every aspect of a couple's sex life. It takes the question of achieving or avoiding pregnancy from an abstract consideration (Is this a healthy time to get pregnant? Can we afford another child?) to the nitty-gritty choices couples make each instant. If I don't intend to get pregnant, but signs indicate that I'm fertile tonight, I should not have sex. If I should not have sex, I should be careful about the way I present myself to my husband (who is, of course, on the same page with me) so I'm not sending a false message. If I don't intend to have sex, and he doesn't intend to have sex, should I push at him this way? Should I touch him there? Should I let him do this particular thing which is awfully sexy? Prudence looks at each action, each moment, and allows me to exercise my judgment over whether this is a particularly wise action right now, or whether it's going to lead me closer to either a lot of frustration. Am I willing to gamble the chance of nine months of aches and pains and a delightful but demanding baby at the end on the chance of a moment of pleasure? If not, am I pushing myself toward a moment of insanity where I just don't care about the possible consequences? Is finally making the decision to have sex at this moment actually an act of love and surrender, or am I allowing lust to make a fool of me? Sex has a unitive aspect, but people can be united in making poor decisions. Prudence takes the facts gleaned from NFP observations and turns them into the moment-by-moment action or sacrifice that is the lived Christian life.  

NFP Is Not Impossible
Sometimes we like to imagine that things we don't like have horrific consequences.  NFP opponents sometimes claim that some couples or some men just can't deal with the periodic abstinence it requires. By this theory, the Church's teaching about contraception must be wrong because some couples both can't deal with abstaining during fertile periods and also can't deal with having lots of children, so if both of those are just out, just totally impossible for them, then obviously God must mean for those people to be allowed to use contraception. After all, marriage is supposed to be a source of joy, not of suffering!

We guys are notorious for claiming dire physical results for not being satisfied. "Oh, baby, it'll hurt if I don't!" Let's be clear, though: abstaining from sex is possible. No one ever died from lack of sex. Men who respond to the need for temporary abstinence by turning to porn, to masturbation, or to other women are not the victims of some sort of dire necessity. They are choosing to do the wrong thing. It's sometimes hard not to do the wrong thing. And as Catholics, we are given the sacrament of confession to turn to and receive both the forgiveness of our sins and the graces to avoid sinning again.  But the basic truth remains: doing the wrong thing is wrong.

And indeed, there are many others that we are in union with when we experience the difficulties of abstaining for a time. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have not been able to find a spouse, who are separated by distance or death or health from their spouse, who have vowed celibacy for life, or who are in the time of waiting after meeting someone and before getting married. Many other people are having to make the same sacrifices that we are, and if they are without the tantalizing presence of the spouse with whom it would not be a sin to have sex, even if it would be imprudent in potentially causing a pregnancy which would be a risk to health or resources, those people also lack the compensations of at least being physically near someone whom they love.

God's grace is sufficient to the tests that are put before us.

MrsD: The first of the Ten Commandments is, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." That sex is a good thing does not make it the greatest thing. That it is the form of love particular to marriage does not mean it is the only way, or the highest way, of showing love in marriage. That it is tantalizing, powerful, desirable does not mean that it is irresistible. In fact, we already know that sex is a limited, temporal, earthly form of love because in heaven, where love is perfected, there is no marriage or giving in marriage. Is it good to have sex in marriage? Yes, of course. Is it impossible not to have sex in marriage? No, of course not -- and as an example of this, we have the ultimate model of the family, the Holy Family, not plaster saints, but a real husband and wife living under conditions of celibacy. Through God's grace, they achieved this not by not desiring one another, not because they were too boring or holy or frigid to have sex (and although we know that Mary remained sinless, we're not given much of a window into Joseph's struggle except being told that he was a virtuous man), but by the actual, practical fact of abstinence. 

One thing we know: that God never commands us to sin. His will is perfect, and ours are not. We want things that are not right. We desire things that are not good. We desire good things, but at inappropriate times. We justify bad means on the theory that they will achieve good ends. We imagine that our particular circumstances give us some personal wiggle room within universally binding moral norms. Because we are human, we fall, sometimes through negligence and sometimes through actively rejecting the possibility of God's grace. But grace means that nothing God commands is an impossibility, even when it requires something as painful and humbling as setting our own imperfect wills aside.

Part 3 will deal with sex and the mistaken views about it that contribute to the difficulties in discussing the Church's teaching on contraception.