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

Friday, August 31, 2018

We Must Learn The Scandal's Lessons

I remember first running into "the scandal" via some of the far-right Catholic venues like The Wanderer (to which my late grandmother was a subscriber, to our occasional annoyance) back in the 1990s. In those morally outraged pages, I read stories about priests attending NAMBLA meetings or cruising gay bars and perfidious bishops ignoring their sins because they didn't really believe in the Church's moral teaching anyway.

At the time, it seemed to me that the solution was simple: Bishops who were 'progressive' on moral teaching needed to be cleared out, and then solid bishops who believed with the Church would clear out the sinful priests.

As the scandal blew wide open in the early 2000s, and even more so when the swirling accusations about depravity of Legionaries of Christ founder Father Maciel proved to be true, it became clear that the answer was more complex.

It became clear that even some church leaders who claimed to fully support the teachings of the Church were in fact utterly depraved, or at least willing to cover up and protect the crimes of those who were.

Among the abusers and their protectors we have found both 'liberals' and 'conservatives'. One clear lesson which everyone of good will in the Church should have learned by now is that we can never ignore an accusation because someone is on the "our side" in the various theological, political, and liturgical splits within the Church.

This is what I find so dispiriting about the current, highly partisan wrangle surrounding the accusation that Pope Francis knew that former-Cardinal McCarrick had been accused of forcing himself on seminarians and priests under his jurisdiction, and yet give him an significantly more influential place in his circle than McCarrick had enjoyed under Benedict, who allegedly put McCarrick under some, clearly insufficient, degree of restrictions due to the accusations against him. (Up until last year, McCarrick had not been accused of abusing children, only of using his power to sexually impose himself on men under his control.)

If these charges that Francis chose to ignore accusations against McCarrick are untrue, they are a despicable and the man who made them should be disgraced for making them. But if they are true, they suggest that Pope Francis has still not learned the urgent lessons of the last twenty years: that we can never choose to disbelieve or ignore accusations of sexual abuse leveled against someone because he is on "our side" of some factional divide. If that's the case, the pope must learn those lessons, must repent, and must change his ways or resign his office.

However, anyone who responds to these serious accusations simply through a partisan "our guy" vs "their guy" lens rather than insisting on getting to the bottom of the question of how someone like McCarrick rose to the very highest levels in the Catholic Church even while rumors swirled about his forcing men under his control into his bed, is committing the same errors which has allowed and perpetuated abuse for far too long.

If we have one duty as Christians, it is to follow Christ. I cannot believe that it is following Christ to cover up the abuse someone has committed or enabled just because he is on "our side".

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Your Novel Is Different, And That's Bad

During the last month I've been sending off queries to literary agents to see if I can find someone willing to represent my novel If You Can Get It an early version of which some may remember from National Novel Writing Month some years back. Lest that effort prove in vain, I've also been researching publishing and marketing novels independently. A very good resource on marketing for self published novelists is Nicholas Erik's "Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing", which I'd definitely recommend to anyone interesting in the topic. I've been coming to the conclusion that not only is this good information for my backup plan, it's also a good explanation of the difficulties of selling a novel to an agent as well. After all, what is an agent going to do with a novel? Try to sell it to an editor, who in turn would buy it in the hopes of selling it to lots of readers. So really, when you send a novel off to an agent, the agent is thinking: How likely is it that lots of people will want to buy this novel.

Now as I was reading Nicholas Erik's guide, particularly the section on market research, I kept finding my sense of taste rebelling. Erik, like a lot of successful self published novelists, is a big advocate of finding a very defined sub-genre and working within it:
All sci-fi readers are not seeking the same experience; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is a different sub-genre than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation). Study what makes Snow Crash (cyberpunk) a different reading experience than The Expanse (space opera), despite sharing some tropes – or a billionaire romance different from a bad boy rock star one. In many instances, this is an emotional feeling, rather than “include tropes X, Y & Z.” You can identify these differences by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best method is reading books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Still not convinced this process is necessary?

Selling authors have done this for over a hundred years. They will do it for a hundred more, long after your books are forgotten. If you are going to write a romance, understand what readers expect. Thriller? Understand what those readers expect. Want to mash up the two genres into romantic suspense? Fine – understand which elements must be present to craft a satisfying cocktail.

Then retire to your writing lab and execute it.

Let’s address the elephant in the writing room. Because writers often dismissing market research by saying things like I want to write anything I want. This is for my soul. This is for fun.

Fine. Unless whatever you like to read and write is a commercial genre/sub-genre, you’re unlikely to make money, no matter how good your book is. Almost any author who tells you to write what you love – to write the book of your heart, and that readers will connect with that passion – was fortunate enough to really, really like a genre that was super commercial. Passion means nothing. Quality means very little if you miss genre conventions.

Writing whatever you like without any thought to the market will usually result in sadness if your goal is to sell books.

Let me be clear: There is no coming back from a book that misses the market. You face an uphill climb at best, or your book is dead in the water (at worst). Many of the books people claim are “super original” or “weird mashups” are actually right in the genre pocket with some fringe details changed for decoration. That doesn’t mean you have to be super-formulaic and hit all the tropes (although that’s an option, if you’d like). Instead, it means you need to understand what readers want when they pick up a certain type of book. [source]
Now, of course, my first reaction to this was: Wrong! I'm a reader, and I don't just want to read the same tropes in the same sub-genre again and again. Lots of people that I know praise books they like by saying they're different not by saying they're exactly the same as all the other books in the genre. So surely if I've written a book that is unique, that's a good thing. Right?

I continue to think that's true to an extent. However, as I've thought about the actual marketing tactics involved in finding customers to buy my book, I've also come to realize that while he may be a bit off on how readers think, he's dead on when it comes to how to sell books efficiently.

Say you're a writer, like me, with a book you want to sell to other people. You release the book on Amazon and you tell your friends to read it and review it. They do. Now you've sold two dozen books and you have four reviews, all positive. However, people browsing Amazon do not simply go to a page which says, "Show me books which have sold a few dozen copies and have four positive reviews" and find the next gem. How do people find books?

Well, I often find books via reading reviews in the WSJ or other major publications. However, forget about that one, because those publications don't review obscure, independently published books

Next option: I often find books via the "related to this item" links on Amazon. Some of these are generated by Amazon's algorithms, based on what books actual consumers have also bought, but others actually ads. If you want to sell your book, you find another book which is similar to your book, and you pay Amazon to show your book as a "related to this item". As you sell more books, you hope that your books starts to show up in the "also bought" lists as well.

Now here's the challenge. If your book is very unique and not like other books, what other book to do you pay to advertise it next to? Let's look at the two books I'm reading at the moment:

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers is a fantasy novel set in Los Angeles. The books advertised on that page are all other fantasy novels.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre is an espionage thriller, and all the ads on that page are espionage thrillers.

Now, I'm a real reader, and I've bought both of these books within the last month and am currently reading and enjoying both. But here's the trick: my actions are hard to predict. Sure, some people who go to the Alternate Routes page will also want to buy The Honourable Schoolboy and vise versa, but that affinity is hard to predict. Other people will have ended up on the Alternate Routes page because they want to read an urban fantasy. Those people may be persuaded to read another urban fantasy as well, or instead, and the ads are targeted at them.

Even the 'also bought' links will generally be based on close affinity. For Honourable Schoolboy the 'also bought' links are all other le Carre novels. For Alternate Routes they're all fantasy novels, two of them also by Tim Powers.

This doesn't mean that the average reader of le Carre or Powers only reads other books of the same sub-genre. Many of them may have eclectic readings tastes. But all genre readers are alike, while each eclectic reader is eclectic in his own way.

Indeed, we've been trained to look for books through affinities. If I were looking for another spy thriller, I would start by looking up a book by le Carre or Alan Furst, and then I'd look for related books. If I were looking for an urban fantasy, I'd start from Tim Powers. If I were looking for a military history novel, I might start with Jeff Shaara.

So if you've written a unique book, it's not that people may not want to read it, it's that you will have a much harder time finding the people who want to read it. This means the the pull of genre is not so much that people only want to read novels that conform to genre tropes, it's that you will more reliably find people through the means of the kind of similarly which genre provides than you will through wide open advertising to "everyone who reads".

I find myself wondering if in our crowded media landscape (with the advent of self publishing there are hundred of books coming out on Amazon every day) there's far more market pressure to conform to genre than there might otherwise be. Imagine if only twenty books came out every week, and if you subscribed to a newspaper with a good books column you could read reviews of all of them. In that case, you could easily read a review that might alert you to the attractions of a unique book that you might not otherwise find. Movies end up following this model. There are few enough of them coming out that if you follow a major newspaper you can read reviews of basically all of them. Thus, a quirky movie has the chance to explain to people it's charm.

However, instead of a score of books coming out every week, we have hundreds coming out every day. Only the largest releases get any kind of review in a major publication. So how do you find books? Via advertising. And how does advertising find you? Via placement on similar books. And how do you find similar books? By identifying every more granular sub-genres.

You advertise your zombie novel on the pages of other zombie novels. You advertise your medical thriller on the pages of other medical thrillers. You advertise your Amish romance on the pages of other Amish romances. And so on. People write to genre not because readers only want to read novels that conform strictly to genre, but because in the vast pool of books and the vast pool of humanity, it's easier to track down readers who might want to read your particular novel if you write a novel which is clearly similar to other novels that people already like.

Standard Movie Villain Dialogue

(Movie: The Scandal.

Scene: a boardroom, any boardroom. Big windows look out on a cityscape. We are too far up to see the little people. At the head of the table: a villain, any villain. Bald, with slicked back hair. A gaunt bony face with three chins. A cold lean ascetic body, rings sunk into a pudgy hand. One eye is ice blue and the other is as black as the abyss. As he speaks he twirls his mustache.

Across the table is a reporter. Just picture a movie reporter -- you've already got one in mind.)

Reporter: The people deserve to know: how did you get this job? Did your mentor, the recently disgraced Director, pull strings to get you to this level? There are rumors that you weren't even in consideration for this post.

Villain: (shrugs) It's not as though I just fell out of the sky.

Reporter: How will you answer the allegations that the CEO, lauded throughout the world for his compassion and inclusiveness, was aware of the Director's atrocities -- the abuse of his subordinates, the workplace harrassment, the children he raped? What do you say to your former co-worker's bombshell revelations about the Director, your corporation, and your CEO?

Villain: The CEO has a bigger agenda. He's got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the business. We're not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.

Reporter: But according to these allegations, your boss has known for years about the corruption in the organization, particularly in regards to the Director. Why didn't he take action before?

Villain: The record shows whenever there's actionable information, the boss acts.

Reporter: Many critics are calling for him to say something, anything. More strident voices are even demanding that the CEO resign. People are in pain and expecting answers from him

Villain: Quite frankly, they also don’t like him because he’s a Latino.

Reporter: He's an Italian immigrant.

Villain: (shrugs)

Reporter: You were fairly close with the Director. How could you not know about his crimes? He mentored you and promoted you. You even presented him with a major award and acknowledgment of his service at a company dinner only a year or two ago. Is it possible you could not have known, even then, about his reputation?

Villain: (smiling) I wouldn't be so stupid and foolish as to allow him to be recognized.

Reporter: Your organization has taken a aggressive stand for stricter ethics, and for the protection for employees and children. How then should the public feel about your organization as we uncover more and more evidence that your own management has used their positions of trust to flaunt the policies you have in place to protect the vulnerable?

Villain: It’s not just about the us. Let’s look at all the agencies and institutions that deal with children on a day-to-day basis.

The Scandal was never produced. The script died in workshop, panned by reviewers for its heavy-handed villain. "His clich├ęd, boiler-plate dialogue makes a mockery of the serious issues this script is trying to address," one wrote. "Completely unbelievable," another said. "Is this meant to be a melodrama? No one would ever deliver lines like this in this situation." A third said, "This is just the stereotype of a bureaucrat, not a fully developed character."

Unable to find market on the big screen, it was relegated to Chicago's local TV coverage. Viewers were undecided whether it was a horror film or a dystopian black comedy. The most common response was incredulity, because no one actually talks that way in the face of scandal and distress and heartbreak.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Fighting Evil Should Know No Factions

Yesterday in a historically unique event, Archbishop Vigano, a former nuncio to the United States, released an eleven page document in which he claimed that former-Cardinal McCarrick's predations (at least against young priests and seminarians) were reported to the Vatican even before his installation as the Archbishop of Washington DC in 2001. Vigano further says that Pope Benedict privately ordered McCarrick to move out of the seminary to which he had retired and to cease acting publicly as a leader of the church. (Though McCarrick was sidelined, he certainly did not withdraw into a life of prayer and penance.) Vigano claims that although he himself warned Pope Francis right after his election that McCarrick “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.” Pope Francis nonetheless make McCarrick a global spokesman for the Church (sending him on various diplomatic missions) and also used him as a primary advisor on who to promote from the United States to key episcopal sees and to curial positions.

The claim that McCarrick was rehabilitated by Francis after Benedict sidelined him is hardly a controversial one. Here's National Catholic Reporter trumpeting the same claim back in 2014 in a puff piece about the "globe-trotting Cardinal McCarrick":

The day before a newly elected Pope Francis was to be formally installed at the Vatican in 2013, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Basilica when he passed out at the altar and had to be rushed to the hospital.

It was a scary moment, and especially odd to see McCarrick stricken; even at 82, the energetic former archbishop of Washington always had a reputation as one of the most peripatetic churchmen in the Catholic hierarchy.

Doctors in Rome quickly diagnosed a heart problem -- McCarrick would eventually get a pacemaker -- and the cardinal was soon back at his guest room in the U.S. seminary in Rome when the phone rang. It was Francis. The two men had known each other for years, back when the Argentine pope was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. McCarrick assured Francis that he was doing fine.

"I guess the Lord isn't done with me yet," he told the pope.

"Or the devil doesn't have your accommodations ready!" Francis shot back with a laugh.

McCarrick loves to tell that story, because he loves to tell good stories and because he has a sense of humor as keen as the pope's. But the exchange also says a lot about the improbable renaissance McCarrick is enjoying as he prepares to celebrate his 84th birthday in July.

McCarrick is one of a number of senior churchmen who were more or less put out to pasture during the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But now Francis is pope, and prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper (another old friend of McCarrick's) and McCarrick himself are back in the mix and busier than ever.

McCarrick in particular has been on a tear in the past year, traveling to the Philippines to console typhoon victims and visiting geopolitical pivot points such as China and Iran for sensitive talks on religious freedom and nuclear proliferation.

"I truly believe there should be a religious channel in handling things where you do not have the diplomatic channel," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" last month after a trip to Tehran.

McCarrick travels regularly to the Middle East and was in the Holy Land for Francis' visit in May. "The bad ones, they never die!" the pope teased McCarrick again when he saw him.
Perhaps I'm jumping at shadows, but I have to say that Pope Francis's jokes in this piece also sound a little dark at this point.

Nor does Pope Francis's refusal to give any response to Vigano's claims exactly seem reassuring.

So what to make of all this.

Even in our current straits, I'm finding it a bit hard to believe that Pope Francis recognized that McCarrick was a serial abuser and yet decided to make him a major part of his leadership team anyway. If that is true, then against all appearances Francis is a deeply evil man and we have all been victims of his duplicity.

And yet it seems impossible to conclude at this point that there's nothing to Vigano's claims. If they were totally untrue, the pope and the Vatican could always do what we do with totally false claims: say that they're false.

One possibility is that Francis was told that McCarrick was accused of forcing himself on seminarians and young priests, and had been "put out to pasture" by Benedict as unsound, but that Francis liked McCarrick and considered many of his critics to be ideologues, and thus decided that they were trafficking in false rumors.

Another possibility is that Francis believed reports to some extent, but interpreted them as, "He's been unfaithful to his vows on occasion, but he's still basically a sound guy and he's on the right side when it comes to what the Church needs right now." (It's worth noting in this regard, that so far as we know it was only accusations of McCarrick luring priests and seminarians into his bed which had made it to the Vatican at that point. It's not clear that any accusations that he had abused children had yet surfaced.)

Both of these would suggest that the holy father had allowed himself to put factional concerns above basic concerns of good and evil.

If there is one thing we have learned after the last eighteen years in which waves of abuse scandal revelations have washed over the Church, it is that we can never assume that accusations of abuse are false simply because the accused is on "the right side" of some internal Church division. Abusers have been uncovered in every sector of the Church.

The other possibility (that Francis believed the reports enough to think that McCarrick had had a fling or two with seminarians but still considered him basically sound) is even worse. There is no ideological alignment, no set of speaking or administrative skills, so important that we should wink at a bishop who lures subordinates into his bed in order to retain his talents. The Church's purpose is to bring Christ's grace and truth to the world. Sin and lies can never be the servants of grace and truth.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Quick Takes on Fake Stuff

1. Every day this week (and most days last week) Darwin and I have looked at each other and said, "Someone should write a post." We even discuss what we want to write about. And then -- nothing. So here's a roundup of the things we would be writing about, were we to write.

2. Amazon is streaming a version of Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence. We read the review of it in the WSJ, and found it highly praised although controversial because whodunit has been altered from the book. Hm. That's not the only thing altered from the book. This Ordeal by Innocence had fantastic production values, excellently claustrophobic cinematography, and costuming to make your fifties-lovin' heart sigh. But the sensation factor was amped up to eleven. The essence of the Agatha Christie oeuvre is that petty evil spills out into larger evil, that sin cascades through generations. And everyone sins. Ordinary people sin, and then compound their sin, and that's how the ordinary, unexpected person ends up taking a life. Not everyone takes vengeance or malice to this level -- the point of Ordeal by Innocence (the book) is that as long as murder is unsolved, the innocent will suffer suspicion, and will suspect each other. Only truth brings relief.

3. But this movie runs roughshod over Christie's moral realism. The altered ending is ultimately bizarre and unbelievable. This family is so dysfunctional -- more dysfunctional than the family of the book, and that's saying something -- and everyone is so grotesquely nasty or traumatized in one way or another, that the human, personal element is lessened. Instead of watching it and thinking, "Yes, I understand how an otherwise ordinary person could be driven to this extreme," the viewer sits back passively, complacent in his conviction that this could never happen to me because these people are so ridiculously messed-up. The movie underlines this through it's horror framing, and indeed, I noted that the script writer is Sarah Phelps, who penned the recent adaptation of And Then There Were None, a similarly horrorized production of what is already, without embellishment, a pretty scary story.

4. Which brings me to the hollowness of aesthetics. This production of Ordeal by Innocence was the total package: visually compelling (if at times overwrought), well-acted, well-costumed, dramatically structured. And all in the service of a hollow, ultimately false conclusion. The moral content of all this packaging is rotten.

Several months ago I was browsing a pretty little gift shop, and came across a book of postcards. "Great American Authors" was the theme. Each postcard had the silhouette of an author and a quote. The silhouette was artsy. The quote was in elegant calligraphy. The paper was thick and satisfying to the hand. The whole had a crafty, authentic aesthetic.

One of these authors is Jane Austen (bottom left).

My friends, how much knowledge of literature does it take to know that Jane Austen is not a Great American Author? And it takes merely the act of flipping through Emma to realize that "There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart" is not actually an encomium to tenderness; Emma is trying to convince herself that tenderhearted Harriet Smith is a better friend for being a complete feather-head. The quote, in context:
"There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart," said she afterwards to herself. "There is nothing to be compared to it. Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction, I am sure it will. It is tenderness of heart which makes my dear father so generally beloved—which gives Isabella all her popularity.—I have it not—but I know how to prize and respect it.—Harriet is my superior in all the charm and all the felicity it gives. Dear Harriet!—I would not change you for the clearest-headed, longest-sighted, best-judging female breathing. Oh! the coldness of a Jane Fairfax!—Harriet is worth a hundred such.—And for a wife—a sensible man's wife—it is invaluable. I mention no names; but happy the man who changes Emma for Harriet!"
5. Another quote, top center, E.B. White: "Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder." (source, Charlotte's Web.)

This sounding not much like something E.B. White would actually say, I did a google search for the quote on the text of Charlotte's Web. The direct wording brought up nothing, but when I searched for wonder, this passage from chapter 11 was the closest analogue:
On Sunday the church was full. The minister ex- 

The Miracle 


plained the miracle. He said that the words on the 
spider’s web proved that human beings must always 
be on the watch for the coming of wonders. 
This is perhaps less akin to the starry-eyed postcard sentiment than to another quote from Charlotte's Web:

“But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.” 

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied 
Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost any- 
thing they see in print. Does anybody here know how 
to spell ‘terrific’?” 

...which itself is misattributed on the internet, with pages of results for the fake packaged version:

“Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They'll believe anything they see in print.”


(A note: "trust" and "gullible" and "print" never appear together in the text of Charlotte's Web.)

6. While we're at it, let's clear up another faux-tation. A favorite inspirational sentiment of many is attributed to St. Augustine:
Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.
Let alone for the moment that this does not have the ring of anything an intellectual of the 4th/5th century would say, let alone St. Augustine. What does this even mean? Hope does not presuppose anger

The most cursory of Google searches turns up not a single text actually attributed Augustine of Hippo, but a circular firing squad of people attributing the quote to Augustine because they found, somewhere else, someone attributing the quote to St. Augustine. (Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Archbishop Chaput, who said in an address to the National Prayer Breakfast in 2005:
St Augustine, who had such a deep influence on the mind of our new Holy Father, once wrote that, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are." Are we angry enough about what's wrong with the world -- the killing of millions of unborn children through abortion; the neglect of the poor and the elderly; the mistreatment of immigrants in our midst; the abuse of science in embryonic stem cell research? Do we really have the courage of our convictions to change those things?
The earliest version of this quote I can find is from Speaking of Christianity: Practical Compassion, Social Justice, and Other Wonders by Robert McAfee Brown (1997):
My own greatest help comes from Augustine -- not from his philosophical struggles with neo-Platonism or privative evil, but from a reflective comment whose location in the Augustinian canon I wish I could pinpoint. Augustine writes, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

Brown specifically says that he does not know where Augustine says this. He offers no context, or even milieu where others might source the quote. He does not say where he first encountered it, or why he thinks it is from Augustine.

I trust you are not so gullible as to believe everything you see in print.

7. Now I don't remember what else we talked about posting.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


About a week and a half ago, I was asked to help sing at a wedding. It was a Catholic wedding, but not a Mass, and there wasn't even much music. However, the bride had requested an Alleluia, and not just any Alleluia, but, for reasons that were personally and culturally significant, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, like so:

I only know one verse of Hallelujuah, the one that goes:
I heard a stern and secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don't really go for music, do ya?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth,
The minor chord, the major shift,
da da da da da da da, Hallelujah!
But it didn't matter what words I knew, because not only did the bride want to sing the verses herself, but they weren't the original words, and they weren't in English.

Friends, I have given up trying to be a liturgical crusader, a cause that used to be very important to me. I won't justify musical innovation on grounds of liturgy; it's clearly an abuse. But right now my role seems to be not advocacy, but obedience to anything not morally suspect, and I've stopped putting my energies into trying to introduce Gregorian chant, and into simply singing what I'm given as excellently as possible. As it was, this request was okayed by the presider and relayed to me by the bemused pianist, and we figured out how to make it work with as much dignity and as little embarrassment as possible to the bride, an amateur in all senses of the word.

Also a week and a half ago, I sat on my bed staring at my NFP chart, trying to figure out why my period seemed to be late.

When the first niggling feeling that things were not on time began, various dramatic possibilities flitted through my mind. Perhaps I'd just take a day away to absorb this huge new development, and just come home whenever I felt like it. Let Darwin figure out what was going on himself. Maybe I'd just sit in my room and cry. Maybe I'd bear it bravely for several days until I was certain, but how would I break the news to Darwin?

And then I actually looked at my chart, which I usually update at night, in the dim lamplight, while trying to nurse baby to sleep, and realized that my life hack of updating my chart on the back of an old chart because I hadn't gotten around to ordering new ones had failed me when I'd somehow skipped from day 17 to day 19. I wasn't quite late, yet. I simply wasn't on the day I thought I was, which had repercussions for me in a month in which I'd had a cold and had used mucus-thickening cough syrup. And there was no one to blame but myself.

"You goddamn idiot," I said to myself. "You GODDAMN idiot."

Which was a lie, actually, as the one thing I hadn't done in the scenario was sin.

That afternoon when Darwin came home and kissed me as I stood over the stove stirring a pot while a child hung on my leg, and asked, "How's it going today?", I didn't make a dramatic fuss or bear up bravely by myself. I said, "Actually, let's step out on the porch," and we shut the door on the protesting child as I explained.

"Trust the biology," he said. "You recorded the signs, right? What does it matter what day it is if the signs were correct?"

"I know," I said, "but if I was off a day, maybe I was seeing what I thought I should be seeing? I was sure at the time, but now... I even thought we were waiting a extra day, but my count was off, and the cough syrup..."

We pondered, quietly. Recall that when we talk about NFP, or the difficulties thereof, we're only ever talking about sex. What would it have mattered what the signs were, if we didn't act on them? Why didn't we always build in an extra day? Why put ourselves through this stress? But did we even need to stress if we'd followed the signs correctly?

A day passed. Two days passed. I spent my nights awake, mostly in prayer. Help me get through this, Lord. Please, please, guard my blood pressure. Help me deal with giving birth at age 40, with veins and stupid support hose I thought I'd never have to wear again. Help me deal with the school year, and my Confirmation class, in the midst of nausea and fatigue. Help me run my household and not neglect my children and husband. Help Darwin. Help me deal with the scorn, the snickering, as I have children number 7 and 8 in less than two years. Help me weather the contempt even of my fellow Catholics who will take my failure as one more feather in their anti-Humanae Vitae cap, who demand more honesty and proof that NFP isn't all happy clap-trap and then seize on any honesty as evidence that the teaching itself is wrong.

And so I began to make changes. I took my vitamin and stopped taking sugar in my tea. Darwin and I walked a mile each day. I started trying to cut out one of the baby's feedings at night. And still I waited: day 29, day 30.

On Saturday morning, day 31 of the cycle, Darwin and I walked downtown, and we talked about facing the reality of an unexpected, geriatric pregnancy. How would the household need to be structured during these months? What should I cut out from my schedule, if anything? How could he get home early each night? How could we help each other through this? We were anxious, scared even, but we looked to the future and even bandied about some baby names.

That afternoon, right before I walked out the door to go to the wedding, I started bleeding: not the spotty bleeding of implantation or the old, tissue-heavy blood of miscarriage (both of which I know), but the true, brilliant, lifeblood of a period. Darwin had been right: trust the biology. And God be praised for his mercy, and for letting the mother of seven children languish.

At the wedding, I sang the refrain of Hallelujah for the congregation, trying to walk an appropriate line between style and occasion. The glowing bride belted out the verses to her grinning bridegroom as the pianist slowed down as much as he could and looked to me to bring him in on the refrain. The presider waited patiently, having worked with the couple for a year to bring the wedding to fruition. He knew, as I should have known, that concessions are made for the weak, not the strong, and that the sacrament is the sacrament whether or not the music meets my taste.

Back in the choir loft, I listened to the questions before the vows:
Have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?                   
Are you prepared, as you follow the path of Marriage, to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?                   
Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?
Yes, I thought. Yes, we entered into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly, and we work hard, daily, to keep our marriage uncoerced, free, and wholehearted. Yes, we were prepared to love and honor each other, even in a time of stress. Yes, we were prepared to accept children lovingly from God, even when his timing was not ours. We had been ready to accept! We had been put to the test, and we had not blamed each other or turned cold or lashed out, but had prepared to receive good from the hand of the Lord. We  had turned to each other for support and comfort, not knowing what the future would hold, only knowing that whatever happened, we would face it together.

We took another walk in the evening, to a local wine bar. We discussed concrete changes we would make, now that we'd been given a reprieve. No more haphazard charting on the back of paper charts, with only one set of tired eyes looking at the data -- time to download a charting app to reduce as much as possible the human error of recording the wrong day. We discussed whether we should spring for a fertility monitor, but decided against it at this moment, as, in the end, the biology had been correct. We talked about how it would look to enter a maintenance mode to avoid a possibly complicated and hazardous pregnancy as I get older. We cast our discussion forward for the first time to that next hurdle, menopause. "I never thought I'd say this," I said, "but I wish I were 55. How cool would that be?"

At other times in our marriage, we've been called upon to accept an unexpected pregnancy. Our table is populated with unexpected olive shoots -- not all surprise pregnancies, but children whose personalities and gifts exceed anything we could have expected based on their parents' limitations. But this time, this time the cup passed from us, and for that I sing a blessed and broken Hallelujah.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why I Still Believe In A Church Run By Evil Men

In the latest news cycle relating to abuse and the Catholic Church, a Pennsylvania grand jury has released a massive report looking into abuse in various dioceses within the state. Over the course of 70 years (primarily from the 1960s through the 1990s) 300+ priests abused over a thousand children, while bishops of the dioceses in question tried to secure silence to "avoid scandal" and far too often transferred known abusers to new assignments where they would have the opportunity to abuse again. Among the bishops who was responsible for such transfers was Cardinal Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington DC, who just finished expressing himself to be Shocked! Shocked! that his predecessor Cardinal McCarrick was himself an abuser of children, seminarians, and priests, whose victims previous dioceses had attempt to buy silence from via settlements.

But it is not just Wuerl. It is not just McCarrick. It is not just 'liberals' or 'conservatives' or any other group one faction or another might want to see as at fault. A number of bishops, past and current. clearly have not acted in what most of us normal people would consider to be minimal virtue and human decency when confronted with people in their charge who committed unspeakable crimes. A number of bishops decided to be institutional men rather than men of God.

Confronted with this, I've seen some people announce that they can't belong to a Church which can't safeguard children, a Church in which too many of the bishops have so severely fallen short.

I myself am not going anywhere. Indeed, having read all this horrific stuff, I'll be in church with my family tomorrow evening, because it's the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

What's wrong with me? Why do I continue to belong to a church obviously run by evil men?

If my reason for belonging to the Church was that I thought the people running it were exclusively good people, I would have been gone a long time ago. This is the tragedy and the beauty of Church. Its truth does not come from the people running it. Its truth comes from God. The people running the church here on earth are usually so flawed, so small, so wicked. But these flawed and sometimes wicked people do not define the Church. I don't show up to church because I believe in the bishops, or in my parish priest, or in the pope. I show up because I believe that God, that perfect, infinite, all powerful being, revealed Himself to sad and flawed humanity, and offers His body and blood every day upon the altar for us in the Eucharist.

Does this mean that we need to fatalistically accept that the Church cannot improve? Far from it. Every one of us, as Christians, has a duty to follow the commands of the Jesus who said that rather than that one should corrupt one of these little ones, "It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea."

We must end this reflexive attempt to "avoid scandal" at the expense of putting more innocents in danger. We must tell the truth about the evils done. We must punish those who have by act or omission perpetuated abuse. We must, as Christ's Church, strive to act as Christ would have us do: the Christ who could be both forgiving but also furious against injustice. But we should not leave.

“Do you also want to leave?”

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Trailer Madness, or, How I Spent My Summer

Late last night, the Very Young Artists finished up their massive project: a shot-for-shot remake of the trailer for The Last Jedi.
For comparison, here's the actual trailer.

Back when I was a kid, we spent our summers trying to come up with ideas for secret clubs, or running around barefoot outside. The youth nowadays are more sophisticated. It helps, of course, to be massively organized, have a lot of siblings and spare time, and be able to ride herd on recalcitrant actors. All the kids (and the neighbor) are here except the 4.5yo, because that's a hard age.

Filmmaking is a lot of work! Sitting here by me on the desk is a clipboard with detailed filming info: number of shots in the trailer, length of shot, who's in each shot, lines, props, etc. Some of the filming was done in January, so our Rey was shivering outside wrapped in a huge jacket between takes. (Note, also, the three modes of Rey: Rey, Big Rey, and Mini-Rey.) This weekend's big filming push, which yielded 30 of the 80+ shots, involved sprinkler work, clear fishing line, Lego construction, painting, color editing, greenscreen editing, voiceovers, a forgotten pair of glasses, and trying to coax the baby to reach out his hands. (I'm reminded of something I read about filming little Kirsten Dunst's scenes in Interview with the Vampire, which involved isolated bits of getting a reaction from a child with appropriate techniques like "think of your dead pet", which were then edited together with other shots to give those bits of acting a very different final slant for the movie.)

I'm impressed by the ingenuity the kids showed in finding filming locations, making backgrounds, approximating scenes for which they couldn't match the special effects (a quantity of ground red chalk went into the making of this film), and learning about color editing and voice-overs. Everything was shot on location in our house or in the yard, and the costumes were found in our closets or sewn in our own costume shop. The props are courtesy of our lightsaber/Lego collection. We did buy the trailer music, but almost everything else is homegrown.

Starting up school again is going to be such a drag, even though I'm nowhere near as focused a taskmaster as the 14yo director.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Don't Bet on Total Victory

"We're going to have to do some crazy discounting and drive prices down in order to take out the competition," a sales leader explained in a recent meeting.

"That'll drive the profit out of the category. Start discounting all that money away and it won't come back."

"Just in the short term. Once the competition goes under, we can stop all the promotions and make good money."

It's a good theory. But here's the problem: You probably won't reach the point where there's no competition and so you get to turn the market more profitably again. Even if the current competition goes under, if you try to take advantage of the situation by pushing prices up, that will likely result in new competition entering the market. It is much easier to drive prices down than it is to build them back up again, so it's really important to think trice (and then again) before starting a price war. And starting a price war because you think you can drive the competition out of business and then use your virtual monopoly to build prices back up again? You are kidding yourself. You don't get profitable monopolies unless the government is enforcing them.

It was with this recent set of work drama in mind that I ran into this article from the political realm, the basic thesis of which is that faced with a Trump administration which is willing to break with precedents, the Democrats should 'preserve democracy' by using tactics to create a lasting Democratic majority:
The list of those changes is dizzying. Grant statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, and break California in seven, with the goal of adding 16 new Democrats to the Senate. Expand the Supreme Court and the federal courts, packing them with liberal judges. Move to multi-member House districts to roll back the effects of partisan gerrymandering. Pass a new Voting Rights Act, including nationwide automatic voter registration, felon enfranchisement and an end to voter ID laws. Grant citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, creating a host of new Democratic-leaning voters: “Republicans have always feared that immigration would change the character of American society. Democrats should reward them with their very worst nightmare.”
The theory is that once these tactics have been used to totally wipe out the GOP, it'll be possible to return to a new political 'normal'. Let's leave aside how lousy and destructive a lot of these ideas are in and of themselves: The premise that one party can use them to totally wipe out the competition and then set about rebuilding a nice polite political system is completely unbelievable. One party states only tend to come about when the government is using active repression to keep the other parties down.

We humans tend to think in stories, and stories often have neat endings. The world is put out of joint by an evil force, a band of heroes come together and fight the evil force, they win and the world returns to peace.

Because we think in stories, we want to think that the world can be made to work out in similarly neat terms: We rally against some force, defeat them, and then they're gone and we can go back to living just as we'd like.

However, in business and in politics (probably in other areas of life too, though I'm not thinking of good examples right off) this instinct to achieve the total victory and then be done actually serves us rather ill. Not only will you not get the total victory you're hoping for, in which your opposition ceases to exist and no new force arises to context the ground, but you'll also have to live with the aftereffects of all the things you did in order to try to achieve that total victory.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Pooh Styx

With Disney giving people examples of how not to do a Winnie the Pooh story about the perils of middle age, I thought it was time to reach way back into the archives to one of my youthful compositions.

The Comedy of Pooh
( A tale of redemption )
by Don Grundy

Chapter I
In which Pooh finds himself in a gloomy wood,
is confronted by three strange animals,
and meets an old friend.

Halfway through life’s journey, Pooh found himself in the middle of a gloomy wood. Not a dark, mossy, oak wood, nor yet a dry, sandy, beach wood: It was a gloomy wood. A wood in which melancholy seemed to cover the ground like snow. The gloom increased with every hopeless-sounding gurgle of the stream and every mournful hoot of an owl.

Not the owl, Pooh reminded himself. Owl had died an ignominious death some years before, eventually becoming a decoration in a hunting club. Some of the animals had said it was Christopher Robin’s hunting club. Pooh didn’t care. It’d been years since he’d seen Christopher. He’d dumped them. Besides, Owl could be pretty trying at times.

There was a wind blowing through the trees. A cold, biting, wind. Pooh pulled his hat down over his ears and tightened the belt of his trench coat. “Hellish cold,” he muttered. “I need a smoke.” He shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit up. He stopped, leaning against a tree, and took a couple of long drags. Yes, that was better. Always good for calming the nerves. They said they’d kill you if you smoked them long enough, but who cared? Everyone else was dead. Roo had been shot up in a gang fight a couple years ago, and Kanga had been hit by a bus. Rabbit had ended up in the stew pot, and Eeyore had ended up as dog food. Piglet had got his when the Hundred Aker Wood was bombed during the Blitz. Tigger had disappeared. They said Christopher Robin had bought it during the war, but no one knew for sure.

He tossed the cigarette aside and stepped on it with his booted foot. Nothing worked out. You had to expect that when you were middle-aged.

“Which reminds me,” he said to himself. “Where’s the path?” Looking around him he could see no path, only trees. He searched all about him, tried to retrace his own footsteps, and repeated every curse he knew. No good.

At that moment the sun’s rays cut through the press of trees to the east. The sun was rising. He stood looking at it, shielding his eyes from the sun with one paw. It beat down on him, bright and warm. How long had it been since he had simply stood in the sunlight, enjoying the warmth, anyway? He pulled off his trench coat and draped it over a tree branch, then took off his hat and set it on top of the coat. Yes that was much better. The sunlight brought back memories of the days before he had held a job in middle management. (Had held a job in middle management. He’d been fired last week.) The days when he had simply lived in the wood. A bear of very little brain in a world that did not require brains. A world where hums and expotitions were the truly important things in life.

“Days that are gone,” he reminded himself. “No more pathless days; I’ve a road to follow now. I’ve a job to do.” He shrugged back into his coat and put on his hat.

But he could not turn away. The sun hovering above the peak of the mountain, almost as if it rested atop it, seemed like a beacon leading to some unimaginably better land. A land where a bear could live in peace. And despite his resolve to search for his path, he found himself climbing the mountain, ascending towards the sun.

After a time he realized that his coat was gone. His hat and boots were gone. He stood in fur alone as in the old days of the Hundred Aker Wood. He shivered. It had been too long since those days, he was used to the clothes.

Then he heard a sound like shouting and laughing rolled into one.

Before him, blocking his way, was a Backson. It ran rapidly in circles, chasing its tail. “Like a Woozle,” Pooh thought. It’s eyes were alight with excitement. Its whole being seemed to radiate fun and youthfulness. And yet it seemed to have no idea where it was or what it was doing. It constantly blundered into things, and the bruises and scratches in its hide showed that it had been blundering about for some time.

For a time Pooh waited, hoping it would stop and let him pass. It did not. Finally Pooh gave up and struck out towards the north so that he could circle round it before moving farther upward. Yet he had gone only a short way farther up the hill when he again found himself blocked. Before him paced a Jagular.

Its fur was ruffled and disorderly, and there was an angry light in its eyes. As it paced back and forth it growled constantly. Occasionally it would make swipes in Pooh’s direction. When he tried to approach it, it made as if to pounce on him. Pooh backed away, deciding to circle north again, and thus get around it.

But he had not ascended more than a hundred yards farther when he was confronted by the third and most terrible beast, a Heffalump.

It did not pace or run as the other two animals had done. At first Pooh was not frightened, despite its seedy appearance. But there was a cold light in its eyes, and when he tried to more forward, it struck him with its paw sending him tumbling down the mountain. As he rolled through the underbrush, he thought he could hear the beast snickering above him.

He came to rest in a gorse-bush near the bottom of the hill. He fur was tangled and dirty, and one of his eyes was swelling shut where the Heffalump had struck him. He struggled to his feet and looked up towards the sun. The slope seemed to stretch on to infinity and beyond, he had rolled all the way to the bottom.

He muttered a curse under his breath and turned to go. It was too hard; it wasn’t worth it. He was about to start off again in search of his road when he heard the voice, a voice he had not heard in a very long time.

“Hello, old friend,” it said. “It’s been a while.”

Sadly, the narrative breaks off at this point. However, notes on later chapters indicate that the voice is that of Christopher Robin. If I should find more of the manuscript, I shall certainly provide you with it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

A Moral Crisis

One doesn't have to be a close follower of the news to have heard about the scandal of (now former) Cardinal McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington DC and jet-setting fundraiser bishop who has been revealed as a man who used his position of power within the Church to force sexual attentions on priests and seminarians and who is also was recently, credibly accused of having abused at least two under-age boys.

It's bad enough knowing that a major churchman defiled his office in this way. What is however perhaps the larger scandal is that it seems clear that a lot of people in the Church (particularly people among the bishops and other administrators running the human institutions of the church) have known at least something of these activities for a very long time and have remained silent.

[W]hile the church responded quickly to the allegation that Cardinal McCarrick had abused a child, some church officials knew for decades that the cardinal had been accused of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching adults, according to interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times.

Between 1994 and 2008, multiple reports about the cardinal’s transgressions with adult seminary students were made to American bishops, the pope’s representative in Washington and, finally, Pope Benedict XVI. Two New Jersey dioceses secretly paid settlements, in 2005 and 2007, to two men, one of whom was Mr. Ciolek, for allegations against the archbishop. All the while, Cardinal McCarrick played a prominent role publicizing the church’s new zero-tolerance policy against abusing children. [source]

The Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey had received official reports of McCarrick's behavior by 1994 at the latest, and by 2004 the Dioceses of Trenton, Metuchen and Newark had jointly paid a settlement to a man who had been sexually harassed by McCarrick.  Some people did try to take steps to halt the aggressive climber's rise within the Church, including a group of priests and lay people who tried to send word to the Vatican via the papal nuncio to the US back in 2000 that he should not be made a cardinal.  However, many more people must have heard the rumors (or even known the facts) about him and yet done nothing.  Accusations of his sexual escapades were also circulating among hard right Catholic blogs and news venues, but they always came without named sources and could be written off as ideological attacks on McCarrick, who was generally seen as mildly left of center in politics and theology.

One immediate move at such times is to speak of practical solutions to make sure that this cannot happen again: policies, procedures, reviews, oversight boards. 

These things are necessary and that work must be done.  But it seems to me that if we allow the institutional church in the US off the hook with adding another layer of bureaucratic procedures like the ones put in place after the last explosion of media attention to clerical abuse in 2002 (in a procedural effort shaped by the very abuser at the center of this scandal, I might add) we will have failed and failed deeply. 

It's good to have better administrative structures and policies in place.  Yet let's remember, it was the very administrative structures and policies of the church which McCarrick used to cover up his crimes.  We should do procedural reforms.  It's the very least that any large organization should do after someone abused power in this way.  But the Church is also an organization whose reason for being is to communicate Christ's grace and Christ's law. What we see in McCarrick is someone using the machinery of the church to protect and perpetuate vice in the most cynical fashion possible. I cannot imagine how someone who believed that there is a God or that there is a hell could act as McCarrick has done.

So while, yes, we need organizational controls, it seems to me that much more we need leaders in the Church to be willing to name this for what it is: cynical and systematic evil. We need bishops to be willing to label evil as evil and fight it as evil. We've had enough of administrators and their organizational caution.

Any leader in the church, lay or clerical, who thinks that it is in any way advantageous to the church to keep quiet and allow a bishop to cover up a life of grave sin is a leader that we do not need.

We are all sinners, some may say. Who are we to judge? How can we say that we won't tolerate a sinner as a bishop?

All bishops are sinners. All of us are sinners. But if someone is to be a leader in the church, he should be prepared to admit his sins, repent of them, and resolve not to commit them again.

It is important to understand that McCarrick's sin is not some kind of "oops, I went too far" slip. What we have heard of in the cases revealed already (which may well prove to be only a few of those which occurred) is not of some sort of heat-of-the-moment lapse. These are cold, cynical, planned, and frequent violations of his vows of celibacy and his obligations towards priests, seminarians, and youth whom it was his duty to help and protect, not assault. We hear, for instance, that McCarrick would invite seminarians out to his beach house for the weekend, but cancel the outing if he did not get enough RSVPs to assure that he would "run out of room" and have to put one of the men in his bed with him.

We cannot allow the Church to be the kind of institution in which it is acceptable to keep around and hush up the evils of such a man because he's a good fundraiser or a good speaker or a good organization man. We must be the kind or organization which recognizes that his actions are directly contrary to the very purpose for which the Church is on earth. Our purpose is teach virtue, his is to practice vice. Our purpose is to lead people to heaven, his path is towards hell.

There is no one single wrong instinct that leads to this wrong approach of covering up such evils rather than purging them. There's the sense of pride which doesn't want to admit that we had one among us who did something so wrong, and prefers to cover up instead. There's the false sense of mission which doesn't want to give up the talents of a successful fundraiser and schmoozer. There's the moral indifference which doesn't want to seem puritan for attacking someone's sexual behavior. All of these lead to the same place: to a church which does not in fact have any purpose because it exists not to preserve truth but to preserve itself.