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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Let Halloween be Halloween

A Small Totoro

One of the advantages of having older kids is that we're able to hit Halloween in waves. First Shackleton, Thing 1, and and a Skunk went off with a group of friends. Then Eliza Schuyler headed off with a friend. And at last Angelica Schuyler and a Swashbuckler in Black headed off with another group of friends, leaving me and a little Totoro to hand out candy.

What we didn't have any of is saints costumes.

On a few occasions, they've participated in homeschooler or parish All Saints Day parties where kids dress up as saints, but even in those years they've also had a Halloween costumer for trick-or-treating.

There's no harm in kids dressing up as saints, of course. My objection is not to that. But it does bother me when Catholic groups feel that they need to do holy counter-programming to Halloween. There is, at root, nothing wrong with kids dressing up as something fun or scary and going from door to door collecting candy.

No, it's not satanic. It's not superstitious. And there's no reason why good Catholic kids can't dress up in fun costumes and go door to door like everyone else.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More Unengaged Voters Is Not A Good Thing

With mid-term elections looming, every venue seems to be blaring with encouragement to vote. News venues; signs in the neighborhoods; the banners of social media sites like Facebook; all have been filled with encouragement first to register to vote, then to go out and cast your vote.

I'm all for people becoming more involved in understanding the issues and candidates and casting a well considered ballot, but I'd like to voice a note of contradiction in all this. We have a tendency to romanticize democracy. Surely the voice of the people is right and deserves to be heard! Not necessarily. In the words of Men In Black's Agent Kay: "People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."

It is the delusion of many people that most others secretly agree with them, so perhaps they urge everyone to vote on the theory that if only everyone voted, even those lazy, disengaged voters who stayed at home and watched reality TV rather than going to the polls, then the candidates believe should have won would have.

And yet, it's the least engaged citizens, the citizens who don't read newspapers, don't watch debates, don't have a clear sense of what the parties are about, and tell interviewers that they voted for the candidate they "wanted to have a beer with" who are arguably most likely to be swayed by big money spent on campaign ads, by the panic of the moment, and by unformed impressions of which candidate is "strong" or "good" or "understands people like me".

As a republic governed by the people, for the people, we should not have legal or procedural barriers that seek to screen out voters based on some measure of how educated or involved in politics they are. If someone wants to cast an uninformed ballot, or even check boxes randomly, I support his right to do so. One person, one vote. But let's not romanticize the uninformed voter. If someone has so little regard for our government that he can't be bothered to show up on election day or in a near month long period of early voting and absentee voting leading up to it, chances are his grasp of the candidates and issues involved is tenuous at best. We don't need one more voter casting his ballot based on celebrity or impulse or what ads he happened to see.

What we need is more involved citizens, not just more voters. And if people aren't going to be involved and educated in their civic choices, it's not great loss if they don't vote either.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Being Rescued By One True Love Is Not A Bad Thing

I read an interview the other day, in which some highly successful woman talked about how she didn't let daughter hear fairy tales because it was terrible for a little girl to grow up thinking all she could do was wait for a man to come rescue her.

The message, as I take it, is: Don't just sit around waiting for someone else to change your life. Be independent. Have dreams. Achieve them yourself. Live your best life. And if love comes along, sure, fine, embrace that too. But don't wait for it to rescue you.

That's not unwise advice, at some level. One should not actively refuse to live and to better oneself out of hopes that somehow love will come descending like a cherub and transform your life.

And yet, to voice that objection to fairy tales strikes me as misunderstanding fairy tales. Cinderella is not passing up job offers or scholarships to clean house, waiting mousily for love to come and rescue her. She is, like many of the young people in fairy tales, dealt a very poor hand: her mother dead, her father remarried to a cruel woman, then her father dead. Trapped in a dead end job, she does the best that she can by being as virtuous as she can, by returning good for evil.

That a fairy godmother sends her to the ball where she attracts the attention of the prince is in some sense simply an externalization of a basically moral point: even in a bad situation, it is more rewarding to be good than succumb to evil.

None of us will be given the chance to marry royalty, perhaps, and swept away a life of wealth and ease. Yet if we do find someone to love, and who loves us, it can be one of the brighter points in life.

Indeed, it's even worth giving up a fair amount of that dream chasing in order to be with the person you love and provide for the chance for your love to be fruitful.

One of the first things I did when we decided to get married was drop all the ideas I'd talked about concerning a creating career and get a job that paid bills. I don't regret that a bit. The dreams I'd toyed with, of trying to be a professional novelist or breaking into film, were nothing compared to a life with my wife and our children.

And even within that more practical way of life, one makes choices for family rather than ambition or dreams. I turned down a job prospect this week, a prospect that would have meant a raise and a company that put a lot more emphasis on the kind of analytical work that I do, but would have meant moving our family to another city, tearing up roots and moving away from friends. There's a slight wistfulness to such decisions, but it's not something I regret. The fact is, my career does not consist of following my dreams. I work my career in order to pay for the welfare of my family. And that love -- of spouse, of children -- is a far greater thing than all the self striving I could ever do.

Why shouldn't fairy tales end with finding love? My beloved is, after all, the best thing that has ever happened to me. What better happy ending will we find?

Friday, October 26, 2018

St. Crispin's Day

A day late, alas, but old women forget:

We only watch this once a year, but it warms my heart that the kids know a great many of the lines and can recite along with Ken.

So get your friends together and get inspired to do... something.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Cancer in the Clergy

This struck me as a fairly perceptive article dealing with the crisis of clerical abuse and vow-breaking, and all the more surprisingly so given that the source is Commonweal, a magazine not necessarily known for its fanatical devotion to Church teaching on sexual morality.

Among those issues is one that no one in the Catholic hierarchy seems eager to investigate: the extent to which there are gay networks operating within the American priesthood, its seminaries and chanceries, and within the Vatican itself. And to what ends? Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs. But it wasn’t just clericalism that allowed McCarrick to abuse seminarians and young priests for decades, even though his behavior was widely known within clerical circles. And it wasn’t just his ecclesiastical clout that provided him protection. It was networks, too.

By networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.

During the nearly four decades I spent writing about religion for Newsweek, I heard numerous tales of “lavender lobbies” in certain seminaries and chanceries, told mostly by straight men who had abandoned their priestly vocations after encountering them. At one time or another, the whispering centered on networks in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, among other dioceses. One of the few priests to complain in public was the late Andrew Greeley, who spoke of gay circles operating in the administration of Chicago’s Joseph Bernardin, a cherished friend of his. As far back as 1968, I heard similar rumors about priests serving in the Roman Curia, mostly from Italians, who are generally more relaxed about homosexuality than Americans and unsurprised when those leading double lives are outed. What concerns me, though, is not simply personal hypocrisy, but whether there are gay networks that protect members who are sexually active.

To use the phrase "cancer" may seem to some unnecessarily inflammatory, but I chose it with a certain consideration. What, after all, is cancer? It is a disease in which cells threaten by the body because they have the ability to reproduce much faster than other cells around them, thus causing abnormal growths which threaten the body. It strikes me that in some sense, the presence within the all male priesthood of networks of clerics who are sexually active with each other acts a bit like a cancer. It's not just that these men are violating the sacred vows they have taken before God and the Church, though that in itself is of course very bad. But the fact that these are networks of somewhat promiscuous male-on-male sexuality acting secretly within the all-male priesthood creates a network of extraordinary closeness seemingly tailor made to take over points of power within the Church. A figure like McCarrick must have had dozens of men also in leadership positions within the clergy who had a history of intimacy with him or about whose own transgressions he had knowledge. Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved, and the nature of McCarrick's network must have mixed the two: men with whom he had sexual history and also men who knew that he could reveal their own transgressions.

A priest with a mistress or a history of abusing female parishioners might have the same openness to being blackmailed, but because his former lovers would all necessarily be outside the clergy, he would not have the same network within the clerical hierarchy which combined former lovers and people whose secrets he held.

And so all male sexual networks would have a particular ability to take over an all male, theoretically celibate clerical group which no other type of sexual sin could command in quite the same way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

With A Cherry On Top

It's been a long couple days, but I don't want to let yet another day slide by without a post, so here's a relaxing drink post.

My go-to drink these days is either a straight Bourbon or rye, or a Manhattan. My constant for a number of years has been that while there are plenty of good options for the rye that goes into a Manhattan, the key thing is to use really good vermouth, namely Compano Antica Formula. I don't particularly recommend the (rī)1 rye whiskey mentioned in the post. It's over priced these days. Any decent rye will do. I'm currently working through a bottle of Knob Creek Rye which is quite good for Manhattans. I love Michter's rye to drink straight, but it's almost not robust enough in flavor to make a good mixed drink. Just drink it straight.

Recently, however, I've made two innovations in my Manhattan game, at the recommendation of old friends, and both changes have proved very welcome discoveries.

I'd long dropped putting cherries into my Manhattans. The classic livid red maraschino cherry is a pretty noxious thing, and as I've mixed my Manhattans lighter on the vermouth and heavier on the whiskey over the years, I've not enjoyed the sweetness that comes with those candied fruits. However, a friend insisted that I must try Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries. Simply put, they're wonderful. A bit sweet, but in a dark, rich sort of way, not at all cloying. They're not at all cheap, but a jar of them will keep you going a long time. Worth the add.

My other new ingredient is using Cocchi Vermouth di Torino sweet vermouth. I'd run into my previous favorite, Campano Antica Formula, via the WSJ How's Your Drink column ten plus years ago. It's an outstanding vermouth, and if you've only ever had the likes of Martini & Rossi you absolutely have to try a quality vermouth. It's world changing when it comes to making a quality drink.

As with other sweet vermouths, this is a fortified, sweetened, red wine which has been infused with aromatic herbs. Cocchi is milder in overall taste (less sweet and less herbal) than Compano Antica Formula, indeed it can be interesting drunk straight. By the glass would be way too much, but a small amount to sip as a flavor is actually quite nice. I find myself adding a bit more of Cocchi to a Manhattan than I had been using of Compano, because the taste is milder. But it's definitely a refined, quality sweet vermouth worth picking up and mixing some drinks with. It's even slightly cheaper than Compano, at least here in Ohio.


Friday, October 19, 2018

The Rich Young Man and Ignored Vocations

I was particularly struck by the gospel last Sunday, in which we heard the story of the rich young man:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
We normally think of this in a straight forward way, in reference to the way that wealth makes it easy to be attached to the things of this world above God. This is, after all, what Jesus emphasizes to his disciples "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"

But what I thought of this time in particular is that it's interesting, particularly at our particular moment in the church, to think about the specific way in which the rich young man refuses Jesus's call. By his own account, the young man is already living what we might think of as a devout religious life. What is it that Jesus asks him to do at which the young man balks?

"Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

In other words, Jesus asks him to give up his place in society, his family, his home, and come do God's work full time. What is this in modern terms? To give up one's job and the opportunity to have a family. Take vows of poverty and chastity and take up a religious vocation.

It's not simply the fact that the young man is rich that is the issue. It's that the material and family comforts he has are important enough to him that he rejects Jesus's call to pursue a religious vocation.

Perhaps it's too easy to read this story as simply about the evils of being rich. In modern America in particular it is our particular quirk that in the most wealthy country in the world, virtually no one admits to being "rich". But Jesus is, I think, asking a harder question here. Are you called to follow him entirely in pursuing a religious vocation? Are you prepared to give up the ordinary comforts of the world in order to do that?

As we contemplate the shortage of vocations in the developed world, how many "rich young men" are going away sad from Christ's call?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Christianity in the Modern Age

A friend posted this piece entitled "Elephants in Rooms" from The Catholic Thing and asked people's thoughts on it, and since I needed a post for the day I figured I'd write them up here.

It summarized the economic changes from a largely agrarian world which it describes as one in which families worked together as a whole to a world in which adults work outside the home while retreating to the home for some degree of time together as a family (though that itself is much interrupted by the entertainment and digital world.) This economic change, it posits, is the elephant in the room which has disrupted the traditional mores of Christianity. The conclusion:

We are all “trans” today. Men and women are treated as interchangeable, and since the development of public education, all the traditional functions of family have been farmed out. The family exists today as a unit only of consumption; if that, in light of fast food and fast everything.

The Christian religion (as all other religions) is predicated upon basic, universal, pre-modern social arrangements. These no longer exist, unless they are voluntarily adopted. But they cannot be adopted without comprehensive interference by the vast agencies of government and business which have by now assumed ALL the ancient patriarchal functions.

One might say, as some feminists do, that this makes men unnecessary. It also makes women and children unnecessary, except to generate a labor force, itself increasingly unnecessary due to advances in production techniques. The abortion mills thus make perfect sense: first to free women from distractions to employment, and then to phase out men and women entirely.

This, to my mind, is the elephant in our room. We do all in our power to accommodate it. Perhaps we should work on re-accommodating Christianity, instead.

A couple reactions occur to me.

Firstly, while I think there's a good argument to made that changes in economics and technology have had a major impact on the extent to which 'traditional morality' is re-enforced by cultural circumstances, think it's important to recall that neither traditional morals nor traditional social structures are the central aspects of Christianity. Rather, the central aspect of Christianity is the fact that God became man, suffered for our sins, rose from the dead, and provides the sacraments to us as channels of grace so that we may some day spent the rest of eternity in the beatific vision of Him. I assume that the author of the piece is well aware of this, but it's worth reiterating because too often these days moral practice is seen as the central aspect of religion. Certainly, if we believe that Christ is God, we should desire very much to follow His moral laws. And we often find ourselves expending considerable energy in insisting the God's laws remain immutable. But if God's laws are immutable, then they are in substance no less for this moment than they were for 33 A.D.

Second, it's worth recalling that the past was not always as conducive to moral behavior as we might think. The image that we often hear of is of a society in which people married and stayed married, lived in rural cottages, and worked together while rearing their children. This did, of course, happen. But these same traditional societies featured younger sons who were expected never to marry because they didn't have enough money to support a family; women who didn't find or couldn't afford a husband and so became single domestic staff to their own families, 'fallen women' who had few other options than to live by prostitution (thus providing an outlet for the men who would never be able to afford marriage), etc. Traditional societies had their own strong tendencies to vice, it's just that they were different tendencies to different vices than those in our highly fluid economy and individualistic society in which people are told they should value personal fulfillment above all things.

So yes, the modern economy (and perhaps even more so, modern contraceptive technology) have removed many of the incentives which we recall in cultural memory as belonging to the time just before the modern era. As we Christians think about how to live morally within the modern era, we must in part think about the particular ways in which modern society has embedded in it assumptions and incentives towards immoral choices. And yet, all eras present their own tendencies to vice. Our need to find ways to live counter-culturally in seeking virtue is not unique. The culture is different, but it's imperfection is not.

Monday, October 15, 2018

"Men" Is Not A Group Capable of Taking Action

As a child, I recall suffering from the delusion that all adults were in league against me and in constant communication. If my mom asked me "How was school today?" it was doubtless because she already knew about the difficulty I had had with my teacher that afternoon. If my teacher asked, "Did anyone have trouble with the homework assignment?" it seemed obvious that she somehow knew about the fuss I'd kicked in front of my parents over doing it.

One of the problems with the "identity group" approach to politics and thinking is that it engages in a similar kind of thinking, but applied at an even unlikelier grand scale.

A prime example of this was a Washington Post editorial from a few days ago, in which the author opens with an account of yelling at her husband about the misdeeds of men:
I yelled at my husband last night. Not pick-up-your-socks yell. Not how-could-you-ignore-that-red-light yell. This was real yelling. This was 30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling. Triggered by a small, thoughtless, dismissive, annoyed, patronizing comment. Really small. A micro-wave that triggered a hurricane. I blew. Hard and fast. And it terrified me. I’m still terrified by what I felt and what I said. I am almost 70 years old. I am a grandmother. Yet in that roiling moment, screaming at my husband as if he represented every clueless male on the planet (and I every angry woman of 2018), I announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead. If one of my grandchildren yelled something that ridiculous, I’d have to stifle a laugh.

My husband of 50 years did not have to stifle a laugh. He took it dead seriously. He did not defend his remark, he did not defend men. He sat, hunched and hurt, and he listened. For a moment, it occurred to me to be grateful that I’m married to a man who will listen to a woman. The winds calmed ever so slightly in that moment. And then the storm surge welled up in me as I realized the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women. As my rage rushed through the streets of my mind, toppling every memory of every good thing my husband has ever done (and there are scores of memories), I said the meanest thing I’ve ever said to him: Don’t you dare sit there and sympathetically promise to change. Don’t say you will stop yourself before you blurt out some impatient, annoyed, controlling remark. No, I said, you can’t change. You are unable to change. You don’t have the skills and you won’t do it. You, I said, are one of the good men. You respect women, you believe in women, you like women, you don’t hit women or rape women or in any way abuse women. You have applauded and funded feminism for a half-century. You are one of the good men. And you cannot change. You can listen all you want, but that will not create one iota of change.

In the centuries of feminist movements that have washed up and away, good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture. Not once. Bastards. Don’t listen to me. Listen to each other. Talk to each other. Earn your power for once.
Why have good men not taken the trouble to make other men stop treating women badly? Why do good Catholics not end the sexual abuse scandal? Why have good Muslims not made bad Muslims stop committing terrorism?

The fact is, these identity groups which are bandied about so freely are large. Larger, really, than we can conceive of. There are over 3.5 billion men in the world. How many have I met? And even of the people I have met, how great is my ability to bend people to my will, getting them to follow the moral laws that I believe in.

We each have a solemn duty to teach others and lead others towards leading a virtuous life. This duty is serious. Damned serious. Literally. When we sin against others or lead others into sin, we trifle with their and our damnation. And yet each choice is a battle in a war that we will not win this side of eternity. It is not a matter of just getting all men together at their secret clubhouse and getting them to resolve to behave morally. It can't be done. "Men" are not a group which it's possible to change in concrete fashion. We have a duty to teach and enjoin those we have influence over to behave virtuously, and yet even as we do that with all seriousness we must also realize that we will not in a day, a year, a century win the war against evil and be able to settle back in a world where it no longer occurs.

Meanwhile, it deserves to be said: If you find yourself yelling at individual people you know, not because of what they themselves do but because they belong to a vast group which you believe is acting badly in some sense, you are no longer treating the person in front of you as a person. You are treating them as a representative of a group that you resent as a group. And that is wrong.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Regulated Mediocrity

A brief tizzy of discussion moved through the online Catholic world today over reports from the Youth Synod that the English-language working group had recorded some seemingly critical notes on home schooling:
USA has many home schoolers – bishops in USA are not united, as homeschooling can have an ideological basis – kids may have special needs

are parents qualified to homeschool them?
It's hard to discern what sort of discussion was had from such quick jottings, but if Catholic home schoolers jumped to the conclusion that they were being critiqued, it surely was not without having experienced slights at the hands of local churches. Around the time we moved away from Texas there was a good deal of upset in the Austin diocese when the diocesan offices told a large Catholic homeschooling group that the new bishop would not be able to participate in their annual home schooling mass anymore because it would be inappropriate for him to in any way encourage people not to attend Catholic schools. Within our own parish here, we've had the pastor deny groups of home schoolers permission to meet in parish buildings, even though the home schooling families are active in the parish (including teaching Sunday school.) Again, the explicit rationale is that since the parish has a school, he can't give any aid and comfort to those who choose to pursue other schooling options.

It's tempting to see this as about money. Catholic schools are expensive to maintain, and they in many cases rely primarily on tuition paid by the families sending children there to meet those expenses. Parents who choose to school their kids some other way are thus seen as taking needed money away from the schools.

I expect this is the case to some extent. However, I think another perhaps larger motive can be seen in the concern that "homeschooling can have an ideological basis" and the question "are parents qualified to homeschool them?"

Catholicism is the most institutional of institutional religions, and our bishops often think in a very institutional fashion. As such, one of the tendencies I've noticed is that bishops often prefer mediocrity that they control to more varied performance that they can't.

For example, some years ago when I was helping to teach RCIA classes, an edict came down from the diocese that several "sensitive topics" (mostly relating to sex) should only be talked about by people who had gone through diocesan approved graduate theological training. If your parish happened not to have a volunteer catechist who had gone through the diocesan graduate program in theology, you could show a video which was on the list of approved catechetical materials.

These video materials were not particularly good. And indeed, some of the people who'd gone through the diocesan grad program weren't that doctrinally sound, or particularly good speakers. But this did give the diocese an appearance of control.

I've seen similar dynamics play out with marriage prep, youth catechesis, etc. There's a strong tendency to try to put in place means of greater institutional control, even if the result does not much increase the quality of the teaching or actively stifles it.

For institutions with this mentality, homeschooling must seem like the ultimate wild card. Sure, the diocesan schools often don't do that great a job at teaching the faith. And their quality of teaching may not be much different from the local public schools. (Indeed, in our own diocese the Catholic schools make a selling point of using exactly the same curriculum as the local public schools, the only difference is that they teach religion as well.) But diocesan schools are at least under clear institutional control.

Home schooling families, by contrast, are under no institutional control at all. They can pick the curriculum they want, teach in the style they want, and there is no way for a diocesan office to intervene. To an institutionally-minded bishop, this must seem dangerously anarchic. And so even though homeschooled Catholic students provide a disproportionate percentage of the young men entering the priesthood in the US these days, there is in the minds of many church men a cloud of suspicion hanging over them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Teaching Boys Morality Is Enough

There's a genre of piece these days in which parents are solemnly advised how to teach their boys not to be rapists. I read one this morning. The suggestions were to teach boys 1) not to bottle up their emotions and then explode into rage when they couldn't take it anymore, 2) to observe basic personal boundaries of the "don't touch people like that" and "don't burst in on family members when they're naked" variety, and 3) to behave respectfully towards others (not hitting, insulting, beating up, etc.)

It's not that any of these are bad ideas. They're good ideas. These are essential elements of raising a boy (or a girl) to be a decent human being. I was raised this way, and I raise my children this way.

If the current consciousness of the dangers of rape and sexual abuse are a good hook to use to remind people that they have a moral obligation to teach their children to behave towards others with basic human respect, all the better, I suppose. I would hope that parents think of the idea of teaching their sons to treat others well even before they read an article about the issue of the moment, but if not, I'm glad that this prompt finally gets through to them.

Why then do I even bring it up, if I agree with the suggestions given?

It often seems as if there is an underlying assumption in the "let's teach boys not to rape" rhetoric that this is a new idea, one which the "old" moral principles do not cover. When Christians attempt to use the concerns of the moment to say it would solve these problems if people obeyed God's law in regard to sexuality, the response is often: "Rape and sexual abuse was pretty common in 'traditional' societies. We can do better."

There's a truth to this which some apologists too quickly dismiss. The past was not a golden age in which people did not sin. Those who cast a rose-tinted gaze on the era before the Sexual Revolution often forget this. Yes, there was abuse and rape in traditional societies. There was also theft and murder and adultery even though these are against Christian moral principles as well. The fact that there was not the same formal challenge to 'traditional morality' that there is now does not mean that people did not sin. Sometimes people's knowledge of morality was twisted by their cultural assumptions. Other times they knew the moral laws but violated them anyway, just as today we hear often enough about "woke" advocates who are revealed nonetheless to have abused the women in their own lives.

However, on the other side there is another fallacy, that because people who are identified as being "religious" are often seen to sin in these ways, that somehow a whole new morality is required in order to teach that get across the idea that rape, abuse, and harassment are wrong. Even some religious writers have caved to this idea, arguing that it's not enough to teach traditional Catholic sexual ethics, but that we must also teach the "everything is okay so long as both parties consent" ethics of the secular sexual morality which is slowly being constructed in its place, so that people will have a backup ethics to follow if they decide to violate Catholic morals.

When ostensibly "religious people" sin in these ways, the problem is not that Christian sexual ethics are unable to convey to people that it is wrong to abuse and harass. The problem is this that people do not always obey the moral codes to which they give outward assent. This is the case whether the code in question is Catholic moral teaching or the secular code of consent at all times.

If men follow the Church's teaching on sexuality, if they treat women with the dignity they deserve as people made in the image of God, they will not rape, abuse, or harass them. If they treat women in those ways, they are not following the Church's moral teaching. We do not need a new moral teaching, a new understanding of human decency, we need to teach and follow the one we have.

Test Strategy

Yesterday afternoon my 16yo took the sample SAT test included in her prep book, and in the evening we sat down together to score it.

I'm not a demanding or pushy parent by any stretch, but I have to admit that my heart was sinking as we totted up the number of questions that were either left blank or were wrong. There wasn't any point in flustering her, but I did start to question my entire schooling ethic. Had I been so lax that we'd learned nothing? Maybe I was failing my children academically? Maybe the final score wouldn't even be college-material -- not a moral failing, of course, but not indicative of the abilities of a bright child. She too could see how things were trending, and her shoulders drooped the further we went. By the time we finished marking all the answers, we were both rather puzzled and distressed.

The score didn't actually make a lot of sense, so we hunted around on the SAT website until we found the metric for calculating what the equivalent final score would be for the raw answers we'd turned out for the PSAT. You had to look up the raw number of correct scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and the total of both Math sections. Those translated into a number that was close to the raw score, but not quite the same. Then you added the adjusted Reading and the Writing scores together and multiplied by 10. The adjusted Math score was to be multiplied by twenty. All this jiggering finally resulted in a number that was recognizable as an SAT score. In our case, it turned out to be a quite respectable number, and we sighed in relief -- and in triumph, because our detecting and calculating had been to good effect and had cheered us considerably.

As we analyzed our data, we realized that the test is not necessarily designed with the idea that every question will even be answered. In fact, you can get a perfect numerical score without answering every question, or if some of the answers are wrong. So, with one more day left to study, we built a test-taking strategy.

1. Go through quickly and answer every question that she can answer easily. That will take care of missing some shoe-in questions at the end of the test sections. For the math section with calculator, that means answering all the graph and word problems first, because those are much easier for her than the equations.
2. Go back and spend time on the lit and writing questions she knows she can solve but needs more time to answer. Work the basic equations.
3. Work through the hardest questions, if possible.
4. Since there's no penalty for wrong answers, guess on the ones she can't answer. Leave nothing unanswered!

As all the questions she missed on the sample test were the harder ones, this strategy will almost automatically guarantee her a higher score on the actual PSAT than on the sample one. And that's something that can build confidence right there.

This morning she went through the sections she hadn't completed in the test time yesterday, setting a time limit and answering questions according to this strategy. This garnered her some more correct answers, and a lucky guess in the math section. We'll see if all this strategy pays off tomorrow, but we're feeling cautiously optimistic right now.

Humpty Dumpty Clericalism

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

‘Ah, you should see ‘em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: ‘for to get their wages, you know.’

(Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)
Though the Looking Glass, Chapter 7

One of the odd dichotomies that crops up as Catholics discuss the scandals surrounding clerical sexual abuse and chronic violation of clerical vows is that some people say "it's about sex" while other say "it's about clericalism", when it seems clear that the scandal involves both. On the one had, the clergy sex scandals clearly involve sex. On the other, I can't think of a better word for a culture among clerics in which they on the one hand continue to give at least lip service to the Church's doctrine's on sexuality and on the other hand cover up for the sexual sins of clerics as if clerics were some protected class to whom the rules of morality do not apply.

For me, as a married person, violation of my vows would be potentially life ending. When priests or bishops brush off other clerics violating their own vows with the comment that everyone falls once in a while, they are engaging in an approach to morality where clerics live under a different set of rules and consequences than the rest of us.

And yet, while you might think that this definition of "clericalism" as a system or mentality under which clerics do not live by the same rules as everyone else, where clerics have an exalted status simply by virtue of being clerics, is a very straight forward definition, there are wordsmiths who would laugh at your simplicity.

Enter theologian and self appointed spokesman for the pope Massimo Faggioli. He writes in La Croix that a set of initiatives kicked off my lay Catholic donors with the aim of investigating cardinals in regards to their handling of sexual abuse cases and their own personal morality represent a case of dangerous clericalism.

Catholics with abundant financial resources and strong connections to the leaders of the U.S. episcopate are trying to fill the vacuum with an agenda that is officially about reform. But, in fact, it is actually corrupting the Church even more, though in a different way.Recently a self-appointed Catholic watchdog group emerged under the name “Better Church Governance.”At a meeting on Oct. 3 at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., the group announced “plans to enlist the help of former F.B.I. agents to investigate the cardinals who will vote for the next pope and assess how they handled allegations of sexual abuse and whether they have remained faithful to their own vows.” In the very same week, another event — called “Authentic Reform” — also took place in Washington. It was organized by the Napa Institute, a group of wealthy Catholics “known for its annual conferences in California wine country” and which “blends conservative theology and libertarian economics, with an emphasis on apologetics, sexual ethics and countercultural anti-secularization.”There is much to say about how the leadership of the Catholic Church has become desensitized to the threat that money represents for the Christian character of the communion of the faithful. This desensitization is one of the consequences of the abandonment of a theology that takes seriously what Karl Marx called “relations of production” and has instead embraced “culture” and “identity” as an opposition to materialism. This post-materialistic theology of culture, focused on “values,” turned out to serve the interests of those who are in control of the “relations of production” — the influential network of wealthy Catholic philanthropists from the right, which recently has built strong ties with conservative bishops in the United States.
If the 2013 conclave took place under unprecedented circumstances (following the resignation of Benedict XVI), the next one could take place in a much more dangerous and uncertain situation for the freedom of the Church. The influx of agenda-driven money has long term consequences on the trajectory of a religious community and of a faith. Just look at the effects of money coming from Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the schools for the formation of the new generations of leaders of Islam – not just in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but globally. This could happen also to the Church, with certain groups of American Catholics using their resources and outreach to create an ecclesial culture that is not exactly in sync with the one embodied by the current pope. Without ignoring the obvious differences, there are certain similarities between the new right-wing Roman Catholic institute in Italy, created under the auspices of Steve Bannon and Cardinal Raymond Burke, and the Saudi-financed madrassas that teach Wahhabism around the world.This poses a challenge to Catholicism that is no less dangerous for the freedom of the Church than the one coming from the Chinese government or from aggressive secularist agendas. But it is more subtle than foreign State interference, presenting itself as offering theologically orthodox assistance to the Church. However, it is actually a new version of the old juridical-political principle “protection draws to it subjection” (protectio trahit subjectionem).In the 12th century, the initiator of “modern” canon law, Gratian, said that there are two kinds of Christians (“duo genera Christianorum”) – the ordained and the laity. He was notreferring to the ability to marry or celebrate Mass as that which separates the ordained from the laity. Rather, he was referring to the distinction between those who can manage Church finances and resources (the ordained) and those who cannot (the laity).We are now in a Church that is trying to get rid, for theological reasons, of this dualistic understanding of authority and power in the Church – what Francis refers to often as “clericalism.”And in reality the line dividing the clergy from the laity has been blurred for a long time now — having become a canonical distinction says little about what the clergy and the laity have in common and what separates them. But we are now witnessing a new type of “duo genera Christianorum” — those who have money (and can thereby influence in the Church) and those who do not. This is creating a new clericalism of money and even dividing the Church in one same nation (today, the United States). But it also threatens to create an even deeper division between the rich churches and the poor ones. This Catholic plutocracy is already one of the major factors in the rift between Pope Francis and some sectors of U.S. Catholicism.Money is indeed talking in the business of Catholicism today. It is not at all clear if there is another kind of currency that can influence the Church and in a different direction. Given all this, the canonization of Oscar Romero next Sunday could not come at a more crucial time.
So there you have it. If members of the laity use their financial resources to shine a light on clerics who use their power within the Church to cover up for their offenses, that is "clericalism". To avoid clericalism, the pesky laity should know their place and leave the clerics to do as they please.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Justice: Individual or Group

I recently read a post urging that society treat the investigation and punishment of rape as seriously as murder. This strikes me as a good idea, given the grave evil of the crime and the personal devastation it causes, but it did bring to mind an interesting contrast.

There's a sort of mini industry, primarily coming from the left of center, of trying to prove that people who have been accused or convicted of murder are actually innocent. (See: Serial, big heavily researched stories for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc. The Innocence Project is potentially also an example, though it's worth noting that they do also work to prove the innocence of people convicted of rape when DNA evidence, etc. make it possible to do so.) Conservatives at times complain a bit that this represents the left siding with murderers over victims.

It's interesting that there's an extreme reversal of this dynamic when it comes to rape, with many on the left saying that any doubt that someone accused of rape is guilty represents acting as if it's not in fact a horrible crime that deserves to be punished. (Of course, this is in certain cases confirmed by reprehensible talk in certain quarters about how sexual assault might be "boyish hijinks".)

I'm thinking that perhaps the dynamic behind this is that there's a general tendency on the left to look out for those perceived as downtrodden by society. People accused of murder (especially if they happen to be poor or minorities or otherwise disadvantaged) seem to fit the downtrodden model, and there's thus a desire to see if perhaps they can be proved innocent or otherwise the victim of circumstances.

In the case of rape accusations, the tendency on the left is to see the accused as the representing a powerful group while the victim represents a historically oppressed group, thus in this case trying to show that the accused is innocent is seen as standing up for the powerful at the expense of the weak.

This contrast came into sharp focus during the last week as Rich Lowry of National Review and Jamelle Bouie writing at Slate crossed swords over what side of the Bret Kavanaugh affair it was more appropriate to imagine Atticus Finch taking.

Most succinctly, Lowry argued that in a world of #BelieveAllWomen the Atticus Finch who reduced Mayella Ewell to tears in the courtroom with a line of questioning that proved the accusation that Tom Robinson had raped her could not be true, could no longer be seen as a symbol of American legal integrity. Bouie, on the other hand, argued that what was notable about Atticus Finch was his willingness to stand up for an oppressed class that were habitually disbelieved, and thus that to walk in the tradition of Finch would be to support women who have been raped or abused. He concludes:
If you want to make the Atticus Finch analogy, you must understand the actual dynamic of the story in question. You can claim the mantle of Lee’s hero if you are standing in defense of the marginalized, giving voice to claims of innocence, or victimhood, that are otherwise ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. You can claim Atticus if you fight for the powerless, for those who might truly lose everything from speaking out, who feel the weight of society against them. Looking at our society and the ubiquity of sexual violence—looking at the extent to which women are presumptively challenged and men presumptively exonerated—there are opportunities to deploy the Atticus Finch analogy for those who want to use it. It’s not in defense of Brett Kavanaugh.

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those classic novels "everyone has read" that I somehow managed to miss reading in my youth. I read it for the first time a couple years ago, when Harper Lee's original novel (a rejected draft dealing with an adult Scout going home to the south and dealing with her memories, which memories an editor suggested she make the main subject of the novel instead) was published as Go Set A Watchman. The paroxysm of the moment was "new Harper Lee novel reveals Atticus Finch was a racist" and I was curious to go read the book which everyone else had read as a teenager.

What struck me reading Mockingbird was that Atticus Finch is not really any kind of an anti-racist. He's not out to overturn a system. Indeed, he insists on deference to system and to age, as when he makes Scout and her brother help out the (fairly nasty) old lady in town when they respond to her insults aimed at their family by destroying her flowers. We eventually find out that Atticus didn't even volunteer to defend Tom Robinson, he was assigned to do so and reluctantly agreed to take the assignment.

However, Atticus is someone who believes deeply in the integrity of the law and its process, and having been assigned to defend Tom, he investigates, becomes convinced that Tom is in fact innocent, and sets about proving it.

What makes Atticus admirable -- particularly in the context of the 1930s era South in which the story is set, and the 1960s America in which the book was published -- is that Atticus considers the fact that Tom is innocent far more important than the fact that he is Black. Atticus preaches a kind of humanism which involves taking people where they are at and understanding them, whether it's Tom the falsely accused black man or Mrs. Dubose the morphine-addicted, racist old lady who mocks his children because he's representing a black man.

In this sense, it seems to me that Atticus represents a vision of justice which is correct: a blind justice which is concerned only with the question of "Is the accused innocent or guilty?" It does not seem to me that he endorses a the view, common in the more identity-driven sectors of the left, that we should decide which side to support strictly on the basis of which identity group they belong to and not whether they are right or wrong.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Working the Land

I'm only up for a brief post tonight, because I'm sore all over and barely propping my eyelids up. I took the day off work today -- a planned day off originally scheduled to do a catch-up with the older kids for whose school schedules I am responsible -- and ended up spending the afternoon and evening on heavy yard work. Several months ago we'd had our driveway resurfaced, and this left me with a little cliff ranging from 12 and 30 inches high at the edge of the lawn where the digger had cut into it to lay the asphalt. Today's task was to break down that little cliff, till it into a slope, and get it ready to lay new grass seed down.

We all have out deeply held yet basically inexplicable beliefs about what kind of work makes one a "real person", an "ordinary person", a person who hasn't got above himself. For me, one of these is doing my own yard work. I know there are lots of good reasons why people hire this out to people with more expertise and more power tools, but I've never had a "year guy" for basic things like mowing and planting and mulching and digging. If I need a tree more than twice my height cut down, I'll hire someone. If I need plumbing or roofing or even certain kinds of painting done, I'll hire it out without a qualm. But to me, an able bodied man who doesn't go out and put in the sweat to keep his yard in order is a man who is passing out of "hard working American" territory. Indeed, I remember with a certain pride in my ancestry and industry the time I was slogging away on a Texas summer day digging a hole a plant a rose bush, when some neighborhood teens wandered by and shouted at me "Stupid wetback! What ya doin?" (Before someone says anything about the white privilege of the teens, I'll note for the record they were all black, which just goes to show that racial assumptions and prejudices are complicated.)

So I borrowed my neighbors tiller this afternoon and got a mattock out of the garage and spent the afternoon breaking sod and moving dirt.

If any of you want to start one of these trendy workout routines where you use real world motions to tone your muscles, I can assure you that both swinging a mattock and perhaps more surprisingly wrestling a tiller that's cutting through thick grass root systems and dry soil, are really great workouts. I hurt in lots of places that I don't normally use in my office existence.

Complaints Against The Church, Good and Bad

There's been a lot to accuse members, and indeed leaders, of the Church of lately, and so a lot of people have been engaging in accusing. Given some of the ways that many of our shepherds have fallen drastically short of living up to the task which Christ has given to them, that's entirely right and proper.

And yet, as I watch people making their complaints, it strikes me that some come from a spirit of faithfulness while others from a spirit of rebellion. And while we as Americans have a soft spot for rebellion, when it comes to matters of God it's worth remembering that there's one great rebel in the history of salvation, and he represents the ultimate turning away from God.

One simple division which strikes me in terms of how people complain against the Church consists of complaints that members and leaders of the Church are failing to life according to the Church's own teachings, versus complaints that the Church's teachings been promulgated by "the powerful" in order to oppress the faithful. The former is a reminder that the doctrines which Christ gave us are greater than we are, and thus that we owe to them obedience no matter how difficult that may seem. The latter attempts to put ourselves above the Church's teaching.

In assessing all this, the difficult balance it to remember that at all times the Church has been peoples by sinners. Thus, at any given time, though in each time according to the spirit of that particular moment, people are living out the Church's teachings badly, and mistaking some of their personal and cultural preferences, the sins they prefer to indulge and mistake almost for virtues, for "what the Church teaches". And yet, we are told, indeed, we are promised, that the Church is no merely human institution. Despite all the sinful people responsible for the everyday running of the Church, the overall teaching authority of the Church is protected by God.

Thus, we must remember that at any given time, many of our leaders may be lousy Christians, and yet at the same time that if we find ourselves claiming that the Church is wrong on some issue, that e are rebelling against Christ not following him.

Calling on Catholics to dedicate themselves more deeply to following the Church's teaching is the path back towards Christ, demanding that the Church's teachings change is the path away from Him.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Query Life

I've been sending out query letters to agents for my novel, If You Can Get It, (an earlier draft of which some of you may have read on the blog as a NaNoWriMo six years ago, but which has been quietly removed from the archives since I'm not trying to sell it) since early July. I've now sent out 98 queries. It's an interesting process.

The first challenge is to give a sense of what your novel is about (basically a hook followed by a summary for the 20-30% of the story) in a short and punchy letter. This is harder than it sounds, and I've revised mine repeatedly during the last few months. Here's my current one:

Jen Nilsson has an MBA, a Bay Area condo, and a great job as a product manager at a tech company. And if her big product launch goes well next month, she may finally land the marketing director job she’s been gunning for. But then her younger sister Katie, fresh off a fight with their parents back home, blows through the front door, dumping cardboard boxes of possessions onto Jen’s couch and a lifetime of personal drama into her lap.

Family is family, so Jen agrees to let her sister stay, even though impulsive Katie, with a newly minted liberal arts degree and no plan for her life other than not to let their mother tell her what to do, sums up everything that frustrates Jen. Somehow she’ll turn her sister into a model adult. But then Jen’s product launch is canceled and she’s laid off.

Jen feels like the floor has dropped out of her world. Katie tries to step forward and support her sister, but her wages at Starbucks are less than the mortgage and her attempts at cooking and home maintenance tend to spiral into catastrophe.

Jen’s got to find a new job, not just to pay the bills but to rebuild her shattered pride. At last she seems to have found the perfect lead, but with each interview she becomes more sure the company’s dysfunctional from top to bottom. When she’s finally offered the job, her instincts tell her to turn it down. But how can she turn down the job she so desperately needs?

She takes the job, but within days her fears are confirmed by an email from her new boss. She’d better dust off her passport. She’s got to be in China next week.

IF YOU CAN GET IT is mainstream fiction which explores the humor and humanity of the business world in the mode of THIS COULD HURT and THEN WE CAME TO THE END but finds its heart in the deepening relationship of two sisters as different as Elinor and Marianne of SENSE AND SENSIBILTY. It is complete at 72,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The comparisons in the last paragraph I added most recently and with extreme reluctance. I don't actually think that my novel is hugely similar to any of these, but what I eventually reconciled myself to is that comps are a shorthand for evoking in the agent's mind a sense of what the novel is like in tone and theme beyond the very short pitch which is in the query itself.

To find agents, you go to either a writers market such as one can pick up at the library, or a website with lots of searchable listings of agents. I use, which not only has a searchable list but also lets you record who you sent queries to and what responses you've received.

Different agents what different materials. Some want just the query letter. Some also want a brief summary of the entire novel including the ending. Some want you to include the first five pages or first ten pages or first chapter or first three chapters in the email you send.

And once you send your email, you wait for a response. How long? Well, I have a spreadsheet to tell you.

Of the 98 queries I've sent out, I've had 44 responses: 39 outright rejections and 5 requests for either the first three chapters or the whole manuscript. The other 54 queries I haven't received responses on yet, and from what I've seen it's typical that about half the time you get no response (which means "no".) All five positive responses came within the first two weeks after sending my query. Of the negatives, most responses have been fairly quick, but there's a long tail.

You also start to get a sense of when agents are clearing out their inboxes. I've received the most responses on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Many agents clearly spend their "free time" answering queries, as a fair number of responses have come in during the evenings or on weekend, but I don't record the time I get emails in my spreadsheet, so I can't graph that one for you.

Rejections are basically all form letters and provide no specific reason for the rejection. Some of this is doubtless to save time, and I suspect some of it might also be to avoid having writers try to argue the reasons for rejection. A fairly typical letter might be:

Thank you for writing to me about your project. While the idea has some merit, I don't think that it's right for me. However, publishing is a very subjective business, so I strongly encourage you to keep trying. It may well be that your project is just right for another agent.

[Note: this is not the text of any one agent's rejection, it's a just a typical example that I made up after reading lots of them.]

Rejection is, of course, disappointing, but it's part of the game. So as my own bit of amusement, I've been compiling the text of all the rejection letters I've received. Here's some word frequency art based on all thirty-nine.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Test Prep

My oldest daughter is gearing up to take the PSAT at the local high school next week, so it's been a time of review. When I registered her, I was handed a test prep booklet and a SAT practice test, which has formed the basis of our review. I say "our", because she and I are going right back to Algebra I.

Looking over the booklets, I find I can answer the literature/reading comprehension/writing questions at the speed of reading. This is not difficult at all for me -- it's the kind of thing I do every day. The math was... the math was harder. I have, literally, a high school math education, as do many liberal arts majors who never had to take a math class in college. As I look at the questions, both in the test booklet and on Khan Academy's prep site, I remember doing these kind of equations as a teenager -- pages and pages of equations, hours and hours worth of work each week. I just don't remember how they were done. Some things I recall. Balance the sides of equation. Consolidate terms. Cross-multiply and divide for percentages. But there are many concepts and processes that I have to relearn -- linear and quadratic equations, polynomials, trigonometry. These things are not instinctive for me.

On the other hand, there certain kinds of percentage word problems and graph reading that I do find more instinctive. Perhaps these are the kinds of things I have occasion to do nowadays, or the kind of analytic reading that one needs dealing with stats in the newspaper, etc. I can interpret charts in the science articles fairly easily, and when the problems are cast in concrete terms (According to the chart, how does the price of gas change from 1972-1985? If Annie bought 73 pieces of fruit and 23% of them are apples and the rest are oranges, and the next day she bought 104 pieces of fruit but the percentage of oranges stayed the same, so how many oranges were there on the second day?), I find them laborious but not impossible to solve. Some of these problems also can be answered by going with the common-sense solution, and my daughter and I have both found that to serve us pretty well in practice questions.


This isn't the only humbling learning experience I've had lately. The same daughter is taking an online biology course, which requires reading and essay questions and lab work. I have tried to read her biology textbook, and it has taught me something: about myself, not about biology.  I'm sad to learn that in terms of biology, I'm the counterpart of those obnoxious people who are so proud of the fact that they think the Odyssey is stupid, and they've lived a perfectly fine life, thank you very much, without ever having read some dead Greek writers.

Cell structures, molecules, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, aquaporins: I read about these things, I look at sentences, sentences made of words which individually I understand, and yet these words put together into a concept of biology slide right off my brain. If I look at them long and enough and read them aloud, I can memorize them for a moment, but when I look away from a sentence, I am unable to tell you what it was explaining. I feel like I have biology dyslexia.

My daughter, fortunately, understands what she is reading, and can explain it convincingly (though not in a way that really takes root in my memory). Her main struggle is with the quintessential homeschool maturation process, in which you learn that yes, in a class you really do need to write out the answers and turn them in, even if you feel like you understand the material perfectly, and that your grade is going to be affected if you don't. And thus I put in far more effort superintending a student studying something that I cannot directly help her learn than I do actually teaching other children material I know well.

This biology illiteracy has served to give me much more sympathy with my 8yo daughter, who has difficulty reading. I have always read almost effortlessly, but for my daughter, who has dyslexic symptoms, the words just seem to slide off her brain. Rules such as "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" have to be retaught almost every time. It helps me to be patient with her when I think of my inability to make any sense of the diagrams in the biology textbook and how anything I picked up has been through dint of sheer memorization. I don't understand my daughter's particular struggle -- I have never in my life had difficulty reading -- but my weaknesses elsewhere inform my ability to help her learn.


The PSAT is next Wednesday. Whether we'll have enough time to get through all our review, I don't know. My daughter also doesn't particularly remember how she did a lot of Algebra II, but it's easier for her than for me,and she's younger and more mentally malleable than I am. The benefit of age and experience is increased perspective and a vast mental library, but boy, is it humbling how hard it is to pick this stuff up again.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Stories Without Villains

In one of the set piece incidents in War & Peace, Dolokhov -- a hard drinking, heavy gambling, constantly womanizing character with a cruel streak who is at times cited as one of the books villains -- take the opportunity of a dinner party to taunt idealistic and often hapless Pierre Bezukhof with the rumors that Dolokhof is having an affair with Pierre's wife. Pierre challenges Dolokhof to a duel, and despite being both inexperienced and short sighted, shoots him. Pierre goes off shattered by the belief that he has killed a man, even his wife's lover, but Dolokhof is in fact only severely wounded, and he is carried off to be nursed by the old mother and doting sisters whom he loves. It's an interestingly human moment, and I think points to the interpretation that Tolstoy's massive novel does not really have a villain. Even Napoleon (responsible for the French invasion of Russia, unless you accept Tolstoy's rather tiresome approach to historical philosophy) comes off as very human during his brief moments in the narrative: congratulating the wounded Prince Andre for his bravery fighting against the Russians, trying to decide where to dedicate a hospital to his mother, shocked and hurt that the Russians to not welcome his enlightened rule.

A villain is a quick and easy way to add extra tension to a story and keep the plot in high gear. Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe novels spring to mind as ones which are propelled by their particularly over-the-top villains. The longest running one is the loathsome Obadiah Hakeswill, but every novel features at least one and sometimes several villains of unremitting cruelty, venality, and often cowardice as well.

This kind of approach can make for a fun, fast moving story, but I tend to think that the best novels do not make use of the crutch of having a thoroughgoing villain. (Having said this, someone will probably point out a novel that I love which leans heavily on a villain to keep the plot moving.)

The reason, I think, is that a really thorough villain ends up being a less human villain. Fiction is, after all, a distillation of live. It concentrates it, draws out the bits which make a more comprehensible story, offers clearer plot and more resolution. To say that a novel is not fully like life is no insult. Naturalism taken too far becomes boring and aimless. The author's job is to evoke real life while still providing much more structure and intelligibility than real life does.

Yet I think good writing does well to keep certain human realities when describing characters, and one of those, I think, is that the world is not really much populated with villains. Many people do bad things, and indeed one of the things that a novelist needs to do a good job of is showing how even "good people" often cause complications for their lives by performing wrong actions. And yet even the people we might think of as the antagonists in our lives, people who make us suffer through their actions, tend to do so for reasons other than simply wishing to be the worst people possible.

Dolokhov is a great example of a character who makes many evil choices, causes severe trouble for multiple characters in W&P, and yet is not really a villain in that his goal as a character is not primarily to defeat or cause trouble to the main characters. He is a more rounded character: at times heroic, often destructive. He seems as real on the page as any other character in the novel.

Monday, October 01, 2018


One of the trends throughout this blog's existence is that our posting has generally decreased each year. 2006, our first full year of blogging, we put up 524 posts. Last year we had only 145, and last month was one of our lowest on record with only seven posts.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Social media to some extent has gobbled the blog world. I read Facebook and Twitter more and blogs less, and as a result an idea sometimes gets no further than a longish post on Facebook.

I'm also busier than I used to be, both at work and at home. I used to write most of my posts during quiet moments at work. These days I pretty reliably do not have quiet moments at work. It's not exactly that I'm doing more as that what I do has changed, following the path which advancement often causes. Twelve years ago, I often had stretches of time where I'd kick off a database to update and have thirty or sixty minutes of downtime while I waited for it to finish. My work was mostly focused on producing data (pulling it from my company's massive enterprise data warehouse and compiling it into useful data cubes) and then processing it into reports that would be useful for the teams that I supported. Once in a while, because I still know a little more SQL than anyone working for me, I still have stretches of quiet project time pulling data, but in general my work these days involves meeting with people on other teams, understanding what they need to know in order to run the business, turning those questions into projects for my people to investigate, and then explaining the results of those investigations to the proper audiences. Rather than spending my time coding and analyzing (with breaks while the processor did my work for me) I spend my time meeting with people, often with few breaks.

And when I do have breaks... Well, too often I'm wasting them on the social media listed above.

Blogging in the evenings would seem a rational response to these problems, but our time of life has shifted since we began our blog as well. Back in 2005 when we began, our oldest child was three years old. She's now sixteen. Divisions and alliances shift among children as they age, but at the moment one of our divisions is between the big three and the little four. The big three are all girls: 16, 15, and 12. All are full grown enough to regularly steal their mother's shoes (except those who are now a size larger) and they are deep within their own projects. Our second oldest organized, directed, filmed, and edited the Spiderman trailer from this last weekend, a project which brought the whole family to a cluttered standstill for three days worth of crunch time as they completed it. The oldest has set out to complete Inktober, with daily ink drawings throughout the month. But more often, it's simply that the teenagers like to stay up late and still enjoy talking to us. This is a thing not to be wasted, and so many is the happy hour I've spent listening to one or another of them talk about her current interests and concerns.

For many people a little older than we, this would constitute the fullness of family life, but of course we also have the small four: three boys and a girl, ranging in age from 10 to 1. They also keep us on our toes. I provided quite the show taking all four of them grocery shopping Sunday afternoon, with the ten year old pushing a second cart so we could fit everything. People shake their heads and say, "You have your hands full." And I don't have to decide whether to say, "This isn't all of them," because they happily do it for me. The performance art of shocking people with our family size is apparently something in which all ages can happily indulge.

And, of course, I have other writing projects now that I'm trying to get under control. I took a pause on the World War One novel earlier this year in order to try to get If You Can Get It (a light modern day novel of business and sisterhood) polished and submitted for publication. Ninety-eight queries later, it's starting to look like if I want that novel to see publication (and I do) I'll have to go the indie route.

Yet despite all these reasons for writing less, I value the blog a good deal. Furthermore, some of the things on which I've been spending my time (cough, Facebook, cough) are not ones that I find all that valuable in my life. So for this month I'm setting myself the challenge of writing a post a day. Some may be short, but then, one of the freedoms of blogging often is that one doesn't feel the constraint that every post must convey something significant in the most exhaustive and correct way possible. Blog writing and at times should be occasional and brief, providing a first assay at laying out some thought. And too often, as I've written less and less on the blog, I've allowed the idea of sitting down to write to be too daunting and thus too slow, thus making posting even less frequent.