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

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Christmas Cliche Challenge

We've been mulling on and off all year about this article from the WSJ about the standard cliches of the Hallmark Christmas Movie (tm)

However, Hallmark faces a unique challenge: producing three dozen movies about the same holiday while avoiding “Groundhog Day” repetition. 
Often there’s a struggling family business that needs saving, like the cozy inn in “Christmas at Holly Lodge,” the old-fashioned holiday shop in “Sharing Christmas,” or the theater that loses its lease in “Christmas Encore.” 
A big-time star encounters small-town romance in “Marry Me at Christmas,” “A Song for Christmas” and “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” In “The Perfect Christmas Present,” the hero is a personal gift buyer known to his clients as Mr. Christmas—not unlike the nickname for the title character in “Miss Christmas,” whose job is finding the perfect tree for Chicago. 
Executives say it’s the characters that make each movie unique. “Even if there’s a similar tradition in one movie to the next, that doesn’t mean the characters aren’t going on different journeys,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks. The company is a division of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards, Inc. 
In addition to a feel-good finale, there’s an atmospheric checklist for every movie. “Buying a Christmas tree. Wrapping gifts. Thinking of gifts. Baking and cooking meals. Family gatherings. All of the things that you think of as traditional,” says Randy Pope, senior vice president of programming. 
Snow is a dealbreaker. “Every year we get scripts with something like, ‘It’s the first year in the country’s snowiest city that they had no snow.’ Nope. Not on Hallmark it’s not,” Ms. Vicary says.
Somewhere I once read someone describe writing a romance novel following the strict guidelines of the Harlequin imprint as "trying to stage Swan Lake in a phone booth". I would compare neither a Harlequin nor a Hallmark movie to Swan Lake, no matter how many boxes they both tick, but it did get us thinking: is it possible to create something of quality while following these cliches?

SO, in the spirit of the season, and to try and flex my writing muscles, I'm going to try a NaNo-style project in December: an attempt to write a story with real characters and real stakes, but following the cliches of a Hallmark Christmas movie. The article above starts with a few standards:

  • struggling family business
  • small town
  • Christmas tree
  • wrapping presents
  • buying gifts
  • baking
  • family gatherings
  • snow
Last night, the family sat down and compiled a few more:

  • big-city dweller has to come home to small town to learn The Meaning of Life
  • cute kids
  • caroling
  • church service (maybe not in a Hallmark movie, but standard in many holiday tales)
  • party games
  • mountains? 
  • country, as opposed to city
  • some kind of family tradition
  • Christmas lights 
  • a scene in a gazebo
  • Christmas sweater
And we don't even watch Hallmark movies!

I'm not committed to writing a feel-good story. I'm only committed to using these cliches as story prompts. 

If you have any more cliches that really need to be included, or can throw out some basic plot ideas (such as "Big city girl journalist with uptight business boyfriend gets sent on assignment to cover her hometown Christmas parade, meets up with old flame who is now the local sheriff", etc), toss 'em my way. I'm going to spend tonight finishing up a writing deadline, tomorrow pondering this story plot, and tomorrow evening I'll post the first installment. And may all your cliches be merry and bright!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Tis the Season

It's been a week since we last posted, and perhaps you'll understand why when I tell you that I am buying my own screen time at the cost of allowing the 16-month-old to root around in the guinea pigs' cage and throw straw and bedding on the floor. The cage is up on a table, but he knows how to pull up a chair and climb up and open the side door, or perch with his little clingy toes on the edge of the table and reach through the top. He is very happy doing this.

He is not happy at night, when I am trying to wean him. He sleeps in my bed, because we finally threw out the crib that he refused to sleep in or look at or even to countenance being carried toward. Indeed, he was up for a good two hours fussing and throwing himself around the bed, particularly at my head. The fingernails of the small child are of an exquisite sharpness, and he scrabbles diligently at my exposed neck. Consequently, I am at a bit of a disadvantage today, while he is totally fresh and ready for action.

Even with six other children in the house, there is often a failure of eyes on the child, such that over the course of a week, I've twice walked into the dining room to find baby on the table, happily shaking salt over everything. (This might be less of a danger if some of the other six children would clear the table each night after dinner -- or even if their mother did it herself.) This very morning I heard a crash in the other room, and ran from the table where children were doing schoolwork to find that baby had found a box of push pins in the desk and dumped them all over the floor. (This could have been avoided if the box still had a lid.) Later, he threw a lunch plate on the floor and broke it. (This could have been avoided if the plate hadn't still been on the table.) Recently, we've had to be vigilant that he doesn't get into the litter box which now lives near the washing machine because we have a stupid cat to whom we yet feel some sense of obligation. We have to be vigilant because baby has figured out how to open the cabinet under the kitchen sink where the dishwasher packets live. We have to be vigilant because baby has realized that the toilet brush looks kinda like a sword. Basically, we have to be vigilant, and it is small comfort to know that most things could be avoided if only we were perfect.

I have been around the block enough times to know that this is a season. Baby, moving fast toward the terrible twos (which really run from 18 months-four years), will not always be a sweet seven-toothed fellow with a death wish. Eventually he move toward the age of reason, and he'll still do dumb stuff, but at least it will be different dumb stuff. Even now I see my future, in my oldest son, age 10. He is moving into a pre-pubescent... well, I hesitate to call it "idiocy", because I know he's a smart lad, but there's this phase with boys where they just have more energy than impulse control, and they have to roll around and be dopes, and where two or more are gathered the IQ level drops exponentially, and there's a level of selective deafness centered around the range of the maternal voice. Yes, well, we are in that phase.

We are also in the season of having three fully pubescent daughters under one roof. Let me tell you that you do not dial up traits in your children, and sometimes the personality that emerges is one that has nothing to do with your own. "May you have a child like you," runs the ancient curse, and yet more puzzling is when you have a child whose drive for conflict runs entirely counter to your own. Many is the time when I have turned to Darwin after the offender has left the room, and said, "That girl is going to get married one day, and God help her husband," and he says, "I'm so glad I married you." 

Just as there are seasons in age, there are seasons in education. I am about to embark on something new with my 8yo, a sweet lovey mama's girl who does well with math and other subjects, but who cannot read. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, and it has finally been hammered into my own brain that even though phonics makes instinctive sense to me and has worked for four of my children, I cannot rewire a brain that works differently by doing the same old thing. To that end, we are starting a very expensive program for dyslexia -- not even the reading program, but the pre-reading sound and pattern recognition program. Thank you in advance for your recommendations, but I am committed to seeing this particular curriculum through, on the advice of a trusted mentor. It is hard for me to back off and admit that not all educational ends can be achieved using the Socratic method and a shoestring budget and my own instincts, but one is never too old to learn.

It's season change for me in other ways. I turn 40 next week, as my children keep reminding me. I've felt 40 for ever so long now, but it's been a mild comfort to reflect that I'm really still only 39. No longer. Did I tell you that I had my hair dyed red for my play? That was about six weeks ago, and it's growing out now. The stark contrast between the rich auburn and the mostly gray mixed with faded brown is pretty striking. I don't really want to make the commitment of time or money to keep coloring my hair, and the auburn, though a great character move, is a bit much for everyday wear. This is all in striking contrast to Darwin, who seems destined to reach a ripe old age with nary a gray hair in sight, whose body remains unaltered by his seven offspring, and who will remain 39 for a whole six weeks longer than I will.

The baby has moved from the guinea pigs to watching Netflix with his siblings, to standing on a table flicking on and off the lights, to disabling my iPhone. Time to get up and move into dinner season, followed by chat season, followed by bedtime for small ones season, followed by older kids' mom-and-dad time season, followed by nursing baby to sleep season, followed by trying to write while falling asleep season. All good stuff, but man, even Mother Earth only has to deal with four seasons. I guess she and I are both getting a bit grayer every day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In Defense of Disliking Ecumenical Services

I just read a somewhat indignant post by Deacon Greg Kandra entitled "Different faiths gathered to pray together. And someone said: ‘Yuck’"

I was more than a little surprised to read that one-word reaction to a Facebook post Sunday night, in which I described taking part in an annual interfaith Thanksgiving service in my neighborhood. The event, held at a reform temple near my home in Queens, brought together nearly a dozen Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy — an imam was to attend, but got delayed and couldn’t make it — along with a few hundred congregants from the different churches.

The commenter who weighed in with “Yuck!” explained that he’s not a fan of interfaith gatherings. So I thought I’d explain just what we did.

In an attempt to rebutt such reactions, Kandra describes the service:
I read a passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, which includes these words:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
A rabbi, filling in for the imam, read this section from the Quran:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, Praise be to God, Lord of all that is created. The Beneficent, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Requital. It is you that we worship and it is you that we seek support from. Guide us to and on the path of integrity. The path that you bestow your favors upon. Not the path that has earned your wrath. Nor the path of those whom are astray. Verily, my prayers and all my actions, my living and my dying, are for you, O Lord, of all that is created.
The Presbyterian minister offered a short but stirring homily on the “path to gratitude.”

One of the choirs launched into a rousing rendition of “Soon and Very Soon.” Two of the reform temple’s choirs — one of adults, one of children— offered “Ki Eilecha” and “Roll Into Dark.” We took up a collection for the International Rescue Committee ( . A minister read John F. Kennedy’s Thanksgiving Proclamation from 1962.

Then, as a final prayer, all the clergy offered the Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6: 24-26).

We concluded by singing two verses of “America the Beautiful” — and that was followed by a little hospitality with a lot of food.
At a certain level I agree with his contention: What is there here that can be offensive? At another level, what I find offensive about these ecumenical efforts is precisely how inoffensive they are.

I agree with the section from Nostra Aetate which Kanda does on to quote that as Catholics we must not engage in discrimination or harassment of those who belong to other religions. But what's in question with these "inter-faith service" events is not "should we persecute other religions" but rather whether it does justice to anyone's faith to gather a group so disparate for a semi-liturgical "service" which must necessarily be so vague in its religiosity as to accommodate everyone's divergent beliefs.

Perhaps what encourages people to engage in this kind of activity is what seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of liturgical prayer. That purpose is not to gather together a community and feel the warmth of the similar sentiments and experiences we all have. That purpose is to offer worship to God.

It may be that when we go to mass on Sunday, we feel a union with and love for the others in the congregation, and if one feels that way one might want to have a similar feeling of union and love towards others who, because they are of different faiths, are not usually at mass. But we must remember, we are not at mass for those feelings of community, and the mass itself is not the less for it if we don't have those feelings. We're at mass to participate in and receive the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the sacrifice that earned for us the graces of salvation.

An interfaith service is necessarily going to aim towards a lesser worship. We can't share the sacrifice of the mass with people who don't believe the mass is truly a sacrifice, or indeed with people who don't believe that Jesus was God and saved us all through His sacrifice.

Yes, Christians, Jews, and Muslims can get together and all express how they are grateful to the one God for all that He has given us, even though in other respects we all believe radically different things about who that one God is. However, in order to maintain the illusion of all being united in worship, it's necessary to make that worship so vague that I question how worth while it is. If Catholicism is true, then the mass is a far greater prayer. If some other form of Christianity is true, and the Catholic Church in error, then some other form of worship would be more true (and thus pleasing to God) than the "idolatry" of the mass. If some form of Islam is true, then surely the worship prescribed by Mohammad is better than some inter-faith weak tea. And if Judaism represents the fullest revelation of God to his people, of which Islam and Christianity are odd messianic heresies, then surely the proper worship is Jewish worship (of whatever tradition one takes to be the true tradition.)

This isn't to say that the divisions between faiths mean that people of different religions should have nothing to do with one another. It's good to understand the faith of others, to understand the truth they do see, even while recognizing the errors. There are also common experiences which religious people even of very different faiths may have in facing our secular world. It's good to understand these commonalities and doing so can help us see people who believe very different things as people who at a human level are not so different from ourselves.

However, I'd question whether trying to create common worship between such different groups, particularly in the formal setting of a liturgical event, is the best thing to do. The meal shared afterwards in this event sounds like a better and more human approach than the interfaith liturgy. It might be a much better reflection of the shared humanity but divergent faiths to simply gather for a meal, have the different religious leaders offer prayers of thanksgiving according to their own traditions, with no attempt to make those something everyone could pray, and then enjoy the human community of eating and talking.

I do not think that the rejection of the sort of least-common-denominator worship liturgy in which interfaith liturgical efforts typically result is a rejection of the humanity and worth of other religious believers. Rather, it represents an understanding that worship is important, and it should be done in full, not in some neutered form that is acceptable to all.

Further, just as we need to remember that worship performs a much deeper function than creating an experience of community, we should also remember that the experience of community need not be liturgicized. We can form friendships and spend time with believers in other faiths without trying to construct some sort of common liturgy for us to share. Let human interaction be human, and respect that the worship of different faiths is different because we do in fact believe different things.

Trolleyology for Turkeys

For all my trolleyologists out there. Hope your family holidays are peaceful, as you eye your relatives, trying to determine who will be the fattest after turkey and pie.

And if you're looking for ways to stuff yourself as well as the bird, I repost my mother's cornbread dressing. (Dressing because I've always served it on the side.)

Amy's Cornbread Dressing

  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano

Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.

Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.

Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.

If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.

Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.

Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thanksgiving Rerun: The Wonder Game

It's almost Thanksgiving, so time to re-run this piece. You will no longer find the Thanksgiving post excerpted below hosted at the link, but enough of it is shared here for you to get a sense of the original.


I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and I was surprised to find myself unmoved. Surprised because Gilead is beloved by many friends whose literary tastes are trustworthy. Surprised because Robinson is a good writer and Gilead is well-written. But it did not grab me. I could not surrender to it. It is a book of much spirituality, perhaps not surprising because the main character is a preacher and has fifty years' worth of sermons to draw on when the narration needs a little religious boost. Our narrator, John Ames, is an old man hastening toward death, writing his testament to his seven-year-old son. Impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, we are told, and the book is suffused -- no, drenched -- with wonder. We are, to be sure, as Fanny Price says, a miracle every way, but the wonder of it began to wear on me long before the end of the book. 

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that, in my corner of the Catholic internet, there are many fine writers who are able to find the grace of the everyday, so that Robinson's reflections are not as novel as they might be to a reader who encounters no other medium through which to examine the manifestations of the next world in this one. I am used to reading the fine writing of Elizabeth Duffy, for example, and Robinson's writing reminded me of Elizabeth's, only Elizabeth is rather more hard-hitting than the mild John Ames, casting a clear eye on rinse/lather/repeat efforts to find grace in the mundane and often unflattering details of life.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally crossed the finish line on all fours.
It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I’d start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back–because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it’s not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory–and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance–that there’s a point between fatigue and falling down that’s quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I’ve felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.
This weekend we put in the garden. I’ve abandoned a large garden way out back that’s so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we dug out sod, turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards. I’ve felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working–like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.
Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, “I want to give glory to God without fear.” I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I’ve looked at it here and again, I can’t think of anything with which to chase it. It’s still a concern of mine, but it’s more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.
In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.

Another reason for my less-than-perfect engagement with Gilead is the grace vs. wonder divide. I didn't find the book so much full of grace as full of wonder,  the gentle wonder of a old man seeing life through the lens of death. So much goodness, so much beauty, if only everyone knew how beautiful they were. All very good things. But I've heard Robinson accused of having universalist tendencies, and I can see that in several instances. There is some ugliness in the book, some bad blood, but none of it manifests in the main character needing to make a moral choice right now, this moment, to rely on grace. In fact, what seemed like a crucial situation, in which John Ames fears that he might be leaving his wife and son to the predations of a malicious character, just melts away into a distant topical problem related to the 1950s setting. Ames does not, in the end, have to confront the necessity of depending on the grace of God to protect his family when he cannot. He has written reams of spiritual guidance and explication over the years, and yet when he appealed to as a preacher for counsel, he repeatedly wiggles out of having to give any concrete testimony to his beliefs. No one's really all that bad, it seems, and the malicious impulses of the heart, sin and evil, go, in my opinion, mostly unexamined, and we settle back into the predictable wonder of every day being the last day.

Robinson is, as I have said, a fine writer, and her wonder-ful images are memorable -- a young couple walking down the street, shaking raindrops off trees; a father and son neatening an abandoned, unloveable graveyard; the image, much dwelt on, of Ames's sooty father giving him a biscuit in the lull of helping to pull down a fire-struck church, an image that seems to resonate more with Robinson that with me because bread of affliction, communion actually has a literal meaning to me.  But again, it's wonder, rather than grace, that jumps out at me. Taking a book's cover blurb as any kind of meaningful analysis is an iffy proposition, yet in retrospect, this sentence sums up the book well:
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation.
The lack of the corporeal vision of God is a problem because the main wonder of creation is that God became his own creation in a corporeal way. The body becomes a literal, not a metaphorical, conduit of grace. A vision of life as a wondrously strange creation without a corporeal vision of God tends to descend into treacle and nostalgia and soft soap.

Robinson is, of course, a gifted writer, skilled enough to keep her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from straying into the romantic and the purely picturesque. And then, and then, there's the wonder of Ann Voskamp:
Mama can kick leaves in the woods like she’s tearing back the crumpled paper wrapped over the surface of things. 
She walks with a stick. 
She dragged it out from under some maple saplings. And then she pins that trail under her right down. 
Like there’s no loud and flippant way she’s letting anything make her miss the now right under her, no way that that now could just up and slip out from under her. 
You could be a sophisticated cynic and miss your whole life that way. 
You walk a bold, amazed way when you know the destination is right here.
There is, apparently, a variety of wonder-drenched writing which drifts into a precious and almost unintelligible aestheticism, the sort of writing someone described to me as "'the tea-kettle's all dancy on the stove' shit".
What had Mary Oliver defiantly scratched down with an inked stick of her own? 
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.” 
Everyone’s wild to stop feeling overwhelmed – but nobody ever wants everything to stop and be over. 
Mama walks like that through the woods. Like she knows it’s going to be over someday… all over. That your face will come tight right up to it and there’s no stick you can fine anywhere to fight time off. 
And then there’ll be that stark moment when you turn and see what you were married to. You can live your life as the bride married to Hurry, having affairs with Not Enough, Always Stress, and Easy Cynicism. Yeah, I guess we all get to choose our own bedfellows. 
Mama always said it and she didn’t care what anyone thought of it: God was her husband. And that ain’t just some metaphor to get the Pharisees all in a prudish knot – it’s brazen Scripture. Take it or go ahead and leave it. We all get to choose our own bedfellows – and who we’ll give our soul to, who or what will get our life. 
Mama’s standing there, already decided. 
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, vowed to Awe Himself, covenanted to Christ –and I took the whole of everything He gave in this gloried world into my open arms with thanks. 
Because really? Yeah, I guess so — Anybody can be a cynic. Cynicism is laziness in every way. 
The real heroes are the ones who never stop looking for the possibility of joy. 
“Here is good. I think we should do it right here.” Mama taps the ground of the trail with her stick, holding here down. Here always has some good if you look at it long enough. 
“Good light.” Mama looks up. 
So that’s where Levi and I drag the tables to. Haul in stumps to stand in as legs for plank benches. Throw old quilts down as tablcloths and lay out the plates. 
“Are we crazy?” I tug at the end of one of the quilts. Mama raises her one eyebrow — “I mean, not in a general, yes, obviously-we-are-crazy sense — but in a specifically in a trying- to- have- a- Thanksgiving-dinner in- the- woods- sense?” 
Mama grins. Winks. Knowingly. 
Yeah – she doesn’t have to say it. 
Wherever you are – Thanksgiving is always for those crazy enough to see grace for the trees.
Thanksgiving is always for the courageous and Grace is always for the risky
We lay out the table and string up the banners and make up our Thanksgiving Tree  —- 
And it’s all ridiculous enough to be meant to be —
This is the sort of lush wonder that never requires one to develop it in a whole paragraph, the kind of cray-cray-crazy abandonment! that's so adorably luminous that to examine it with any kind of critical eye and ask, "What does this even mean?" makes one the laziest of cynics. It's the sort of Pinterest-ready spirituality that makes a brand of turning grace into a species of wonder, a packaged Christianity that makes you feel that maybe your life could achieve the pretty standard set by the author if only you buy her NY Times best-selling gratitude journal and accompanying devotional.

Robinson is better than this. Her wonder actually stands up to cynicism. But for once, for once, I actually yearn for the gritty ugly grace of Flannery O'Connor, because she dares to strip away the coatings and the veneers and the prettiness to show grace in all its raw and destroying beauty. The grace that sanctifies the tedious without stripping it of its penitential reality is a good deal more potent and enduring than the dreamy wonder of a "radically subversive" picture-perfect Thanksgiving table in the woods. The grace that stands in the face of evil and declares that it shall not triumph is more heart-wrenching than the broad and easy path of universalism. Wonder, yes. Enchantment, sure. But only as ancillary to grace, not as its totality.

Friday, November 16, 2018

St. Margaret of Scotland

Today is the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland, who is also my confirmation saint. Brandon had a good biographical sketch of her in his most recent All Saints Day roundup:
Margaret of Scotland 
Margaret was born to the exiled English prince, Edward Ætheling, while he was in Hungary, so she grew up in the Hungarian court of King Andrew I. She returned to England when her father was recalled in 1057; she would have been somewhere around 12 years old at the time. Her father died almost immediately after his arrival, but the family stayed in the English court for a while until, after the Battle of Hastings, Edgar was declared King of England by the Witengamot. Alas, he was never crowned; William the Conqueror invaded and the nobles of England just handed Edgar over. Margaret and the rest of her family had to flee northward to Northumbria. They would eventually end up in Scotland. The story is that they had decided to return to the continent, but their ship was blown off course to a place that is today called St. Margaret's Hope, near North Queensferry. There they met King Malcolm III Canmore (the same Malcolm who is fictionalized in Shakespeare's Macbeth), a widower with two sons; Malcolm was intrigued by Margaret. That she was one of the last surviving members of an English dynasty was probably one of the reasons, although it may not have been the only one. They married in 1070. It was not the kind of marriage one would expect to be successful -- Malcolm was a very rough man and seems not to have had a religious bone in his body -- but they actually thrived together. He seems to have liked the polish she brought to the court and actively encouraged her to do whatever religious work she deemed appropriate. He did not participate in her regular prayer and religious devotions, but he did not at all stand in the way of them. He seems to have particularly liked having a literate wife (he himself could not read); despite his lack of interest in religion, he often had her read Bible stories to him, and he had gold and silver covers made for her devotional books. In order to facilitate pilgrimage to Dunfermline Abbey, Margaret established a ferry across the Firth of Forth, which gives the towns of South Queensferry and North Queensferry their names. She also did extensive charitable work for the poor. Malcolm died at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093; St. Margaret died on November 16 of the same year, just a few days after having received word of his death. She was canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV; her feast day is November 16. 
The curious thing about confirmation saints is that sometimes they find you, and in my case it was after my confirmation.

As the time approached for me to settle on a confirmation saint, I was in a quandary, being unilluminated by any clear saintly vision. I didn't have a great devotion to anyone in particular at age 14, and I didn't even know which qualities I wanted to select for. At the time my mother was reading aloud to us a biography of St. Margaret of Castello. Poor Margaret had a difficult life, being small, deformed, imprisoned, abandoned, and finally a kind of anchoress. Her personal virtue was admirable, but I didn't feel particularly drawn to her. However, I had to pick a confirmation name, and as my mother's middle name is Margaret, I chose that in compliment to her and for the poor unloved Margaret of Castello, whom I felt ashamed of not honoring more.

Several years later I first heard of St. Margaret of Scotland, and felt that here was the Margaret I'd been waiting for. An educated woman, a mother and queen with a Shakespearian connection! As I'd been confirmed "Margaret" with no identifiers, I assumed the mantle of Margaret of Scotland.

I don't know the legitimacy of switching out Confirmation saints, but I believe that good Margaret of Castello, humble as always, was kind enough to lend her name and hold St. Margaret of Scotland's place until I found her.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

All I Ask

We are in the midst of the crazy season here, which means theater. I just finished my turn as Peggy Grant in our community theater's production of The Front Page, and this weekend my three oldest are participating in the local parochial school's night of scenes. Friday is a two-show day, which is its own form of chaos, and I've compounded that by accepting a request to sing at a wedding on Friday afternoon.

Now, wedding singing is not actually stressful. You cantor the psalm and the alleluia, you sing hymns chosen by the bride and groom, an Ave Maria if they want to light a candle to Mary. And you get to watch a wedding which has no emotional involvement for you, to admire the dresses freely, and to mist up at the vows simply because marriage is a beautiful thing. And all of this from the peace and remove of the choir loft. All in all, I enjoy it.

And yet. Here is a hymn selected for this Friday's wedding, freely chosen, I assume, by the bride and groom.
Refrain: All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you. 
V1. Deep the joy of being together in one heart and for me, that's just where it is. 
V2. As we make our way through all the joys and pain, can we sense our younger, truer selves? 
V3. Someone will be calling you to be there for a while. Can you hear their cry from deep within? 
V4. Laughter, joy, and presence: the only gifts you are! Have you time? I'd like to be with you. 
V5. Persons come into the fiber of our lives and then their shadows fade and disappear. But...
 This, a musical commemoration of the Last Supper, is "All I Ask of You" by Gregory Norbet, OSB, and the monks of Weston Priory, not to be confused with the infinitely more tuneful and emotionally compelling song of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Webber, OBE. The Right Honourable The Lord Lloyd-Webber, Kt, however, not having chosen a vocation that compels him to the service of God, makes no pretense about crafting music suitable for use in the liturgy of the Mass. Mr. Norbet, a Benedictine at the time of the writing of this song, must be held to a higher standard.

The guidelines for wedding music at our parish are: "With all due respect to other styles of musical expression, only liturgically appropriate music may be used at weddings. Popular and secular music, such as Broadway, film music, top 40 songs, and taped music (previously recorded music) are not appropriate for liturgical use in Church during the wedding ceremony." What then, makes this particular song liturgically appropriate? The tune is not distinguished, and the lyrics cross the line from banal to "bad Google translate from Japanese anime theme song".  And yet: it is printed in a missalette compiled by Oregon Catholic Press, an accepted source in our diocese for worship aids.

So we must search for responsibility higher up. What editor at OCP listened to this hymn, read the words, and thought, "This is a shoe-in for Catholic worship! Parishes will certainly benefit from having this hymn in our collection, and the words express an accurate and suitable expression of our Catholic beliefs"? Last year's editor, apparently; All I Ask of You is not included in the 2019 Breaking Bread missalette, soon to be found in the pews of our parish. However, our bride and groom are getting married before Advent, when the old missalette is still in force. And All I Ask of You is #490 in the 2017-2018 Breaking Bread. Perhaps OCP has turned over their music editor, and may the tenure of the new tastemaker of Catholic liturgy be orthodox and appropriate.

To drill down to the level of personal responsibility: why am I, the person on the spot from whose throat the lyrics will be issuing, singing this dreck? To be succinct: because I'm being paid to do it. The song is not openly heretical and has been approved, I assume, by our music director and our priest. The bride and groom must like it at some level, and it won't invalidate their marriage. I will register a protest to our music minister that this song should be on our list of acceptable wedding hymns. All I can do otherwise is to offer it as a sacrifice for the bride and groom and to ask God that their marital love will not be limited to the confines of their "younger, truer selves".

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Nov. 11th, 1918, The Guns Went Silent

The timing of the US federal holiday of Veterans Day is based on the celebration of Armistice Day, the day that the fighting was halted in World War One, on November 11th, 1918. The armistice had been signed early on the morning of the 11th, and 11:00AM Paris Time was chosen as the hour at which hostilities would end, so that word could get to all units on both sides of the Western Front.

This restored recording from the Imperial War Museum records the sounds of war going silent on that eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918. A moment later, a birdsong can be heard.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018


One type of creativity cancels out another, so they say (actually, I just made that up, but it feels truthy), so in this month of ramped-up theatrical activity, I've done almost no writing. The resulting atrophy makes it difficult when something happens which I want to write about, such as the fact that on Monday the family doctor sent my 4yo to the emergency room down at Children's Hospital for a spinal tap to check for meningitis, but the Children's doctors diagnosed him as actually having a strained neck muscle and sent us home untapped.

How shall I write this up? As an inspirational tale of gratitude and relief ? But I don't feel all that grateful, and I was never all that worried about the possibility of meningitis in the first place. As a snarky account of sitting in the waiting room assaulted by an hour and a half of godforsaken Disney channel sound-stage sitcoms? That was pretty bad, actually, and I have all sorts of thoughts about the infantilization of the mind of the American child and the decay of dramatic and literary sense inspired by three episodes of Bunk'd. But I am already crabby (thank you, American political scene, and yes, I did vote), and this is not a subject upon which it would be too easy to wax sarcastic without the slightest leavening of charity, and in the glut of electioneering I do not need any more incentives to set charity aside.

Perhaps I can turn this into a wry post about how after 16 years of parenting I'd be chagrined to find that I can't tell a strained neck muscle from meningitis, except that apparently the family doctor can't either (a line I honed on Facebook, except that I was tired and added a year to my parenting count). Perhaps I can craft a rant about what if we didn't have the insurance to cover a what-if trip to the ER, except that we already wrote that post when the now 8yo was sent to the same ER for a skull fracture. (Note: I have very distinct memories of Darwin writing this post, but it appears nowhere in the archives. Maybe we only talked about it? Maybe it languishes in draft somewhere?)

As the 4yo finally made it back into triage, the nurse looked at him and said, "Oh, he is favoring one side of his neck." And as I noticed that too, I felt the first swellings of panic. What if there actually was something wrong, and I really couldn't tell? What if we were heading into some long ordeal with my poor little fellow? But both my head and my gut told me that he was going to be fine, and after a few hours, we were walking out with a heating pad and a negative strep test. Because yes, another sibling has strep -- that's why we were all at the doctor's office in the first place.

As I lay in bed Monday night, staring at the spot where my little Bible normally sits on my nightstand, I realized that I hadn't learned anything. Even though the day had been eventful, I was ending it almost exactly the same way as every other evening, with no sense of this day having been a particular gift, or having been spared the worst. Indeed, I wasn't even reaching for my Bible to read my nightly chapter, because I'd put my Bible in my purse when I wasn't sure how long I'd be at the ER. I contemplated how ungrateful I was that my general feeling that nothing serious was wrong with my son was confirmed, and how, in a world where people suffered for the Word of God, I couldn't even bring myself to walk downstairs to get my Bible. And then I rolled over and went to bed.

And God had mercy and did not call me to judgment in the middle of the night, but allowed me another day and another chance to recognize my many blessings and make a sacrifice of praise.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Why I Am Still Conservative in Trump's America

Tuesday is election day, and marks two years since an election which did not go at all the way that I expected. I didn't vote for Trump (or Hillary) and I went into the evening feeling sure that Trump would lose. He didn't, and if American politics had been toxic and divisive before, it's been even more so since.

I remain opposed to Trump and to those others cut from his mold who have come to increasing prominence in the GOP over the last two years. Some friends (both progressives and those who were of the right but now consider themselves sufficiently anti-Trump that they think it is necessary to vote in Democrats at all levels in order to purge the party of him) have asked me at times why I would continue to describe myself as a conservative in these times. Some have described the remaining GOP coalition as being made up entirely of "people who think abortion is the only issue to vote on and out-and-out racists".

Abortion and euthanasia are important issues to me, as are other "values voter" issues such as opposing redefinition of gender and family, protecting freedom of religion, etc. However, I'd like to set those aside for a moment and talk about why even setting aside those issues I'd find the Democratic party as it exists now to run mostly contrary to my preferences. The exercise of setting aside some of my most strong political preferences may seem odd, but one of the arguments that I hear often is that it's either impossible to make progress on these issues as this time or else that these life/moral issues would be better served by a "whole life" approach of getting people better jobs and benefits, thus removing their motive to make use of abortion, euthanasia, etc.

The Economy

To my mind one of the more moronic political slogans is "it's the economy, stupid". It may be true that a key swing segment of voters will vote for the party currently holding the presidency if the economy is going well, or the opposing one if it's going badly, but I don't think that the president has much sway over the business cycle. I don't think Bush deserved blame for the 2008 crash, nor Obama blame for the low employment during his presidency. I don't think Trump deserves credit for the record lows in unemployment we're currently experiencing. And if the Democrats get the White House in 2020 and the economy tanks again shortly afterwards, I won't consider it their fault either. I think that when people try to do "analysis" where they look at levels of unemployment or poverty by presidential administration over the last fifty years, they're mostly showing their analytical bankruptcy.

However, I do think that overall economic policies can be more or less conducive to a strong economy and the way that the human person works. If I look at the economic policies most popular among the bright young up-and-comers on the left side of the political spectrum, they are:

- Guaranteed employment or else universal income guarantee separate from employment
- Free college for all
- Tax the rich / eliminate inheritance
- More and stronger unions
- More regulation of companies, busting of monopolies, crack down on banking, etc.

I'm not going to go through each of these individually, as it would take at least one lengthy post to discuss each, but I will attempt to address what I would see as the general themes which these policies exemplify and why I disagree with them.

The first theme is a belief that people will flourish more without having to make choices with the necessity of survival in mind. You shouldn't have to take a lousy job just to make sure you have food on the table. You shouldn't have to think about how you will pay for college before deciding whether to go or what to study. Wages should be collectively negotiated, not based on the market value of the work or the performance of the individual worker but rather on the collective agreement (which to reliably benefit all members of the group the most typically means seniority and jumping through administrative/training hoops.)

I think that this misses a basic aspect of human nature. Our natural tendency is to be self involved, and to seek what seems like the least work and most pleasure in the short term. If people are guaranteed an income separate from doing work that others find valuable enough to pay for, a lot of people will choose not to do the hard work which even in a highly technological society is necessary to make our food, build our cities, manufacture our goods, etc. Even if, at some level, we know that all of this work needs to be done and done well, when the living that we know we need to earn is not dependent on it, we don't tend to work that hard or that well. We see this in the communist regimes of the last centuries. About half the agricultural product of the USSR was produced by the tiny portion of cultivated land which was under private control, while the massive collective farms which were allegedly the full time job of the collectivized peasants were far less productive.

The second theme is the conviction that democratic and regulatory processes are able to administer many areas of the economy much better than market processes. According to this way of thinking, it's fairly easy for people in general or regulators in particular to judge when the market is being over-greedy or wasteful. I think often these urges to regulate result from over simplification, and the proposed fixes are ineffective or actually destructive to the common good.

Self Defense

Another area in which the left tends to prioritize collective action over individual is in defending oneself against threats to life, limb, or property. To this way of thinking, allowing wide access to the weapons that people could use to defend themselves makes it too easy for people who want to hurt others or themselves to get hold of weapons. Thus, it's better to restrict access to weapons to law enforcement, and for people to rely on law enforcement to provide them with any protection they may need. We see the logical extreme of this in countries like Great Britain, where people have on occasion been prosecuted for defending themselves against an intruder in their own homes with something as otherwise inoffensive as a kitchen knife.

I recognize that allowing people the access to such weapons also allows them the choice to misuse them to hurt themselves or others, and that a world in which no firearms were in private hands would be a world in which there were fewer people murdered, but at a basic philosophical level, given the choice between allowing self defense and giving exclusive power of defense to the state, I'd still pick allowing self defense despite these risks.

Town over City

As "the big sort" increasingly results in densely packed urban areas that vote for the left versus more rural areas that vote for the right, the left has increasingly accreted policies that favor dense urban areas and the groups associated with them: renters over owners, urban professionals over families with children, etc. Having grown up in Los Angeles and eventually found my way to semi-small town Ohio, I have the expatriate's dislike for a lot of the urban fixations, including rent control, restrictive zoning, and the massive infrastructure boondoggles needed to get even more people into the dense urban cores of a half dozen cities. To the extent that one of the axes of modern US politics is regional, I favor the "flyover country" axis over the the urban hub axis.

Foreign Policy

In some ways, the US seems caught in the foreign policy contradictions of the late Roman Republic: we're one of the few global powers capable of enforcing order, yet we quickly become discouraged and resentful when it turns out that showing up in some country peripheral to our sphere, knocking over the regime there, and setting up  favored rulers doesn't automatically result in peace and order. The left has been reflexively against our imperial entanglements since the Vietnam war. Originally this was through a mix of wanting to help the Soviet sphere and more idealistic feelings (often somewhat accurate) that the US was stomping on smaller polities. These days it's basically all the latter, mixed with a sort of holdover anti-US sentiment that perhaps results from the former. However, the right has also become increasingly frustrated with our "foreign entanglements" as a new isolationism has taken hold.

The US is certainly not always on the side of the angels in the international sphere, but overall I think it has done more good than bad as a global power, and I think that a US retrenchment would be more likely to result in increased regional wars than in a reduction in them.

Law & Order

There's blame to spread around here, and I almost didn't include it because right now there is deeply rooted in much of the right a reflexive willingness to argue that any police officer that uses deadly force was right regardless of circumstances. I don't agree with this tendency. However, I do still have a much more conservative approach to law and order than a progressive one in the following sense: I deeply believe that we cannot have a thriving polity unless it is a polity of laws. Those laws will at times have to be enforced using force. The laws will have to be enforced even if the people breaking them are mostly disadvantaged in various socio-economic ways.

I think the difference in mentality here is well captured by the point during the Ferguson riots when several of the bright young writers of the left were writing pieces about how rioting was a reasonable reaction to the oppression of the Black community, about how this was a way to strike back against the economic and political elites, because they didn't care about peaceful demonstrations. "What is the optimal level of rioting?" asked Matt Bruenig, writing at Gawker.

I'll never consider burning down people's businesses, cars, or homes to be an acceptable means of agitating for change. Perhaps it's that I'll always be a child of Los Angeles, but I'll always see the forces of spontaneous social order as the Korean immigrant shopkeepers who armed themselves and protected their stores from being looted and burned, while I'll always see the madness of crowds as the mob that pulled innocent truck driver Reginald Denny from his big rig and smashed his head with bricks on live TV.

Economics, self defense, foreign policy, regional priorities, law & order.  All of these issues put me on the right rather than on the left. 

I do in some ways find myself more in agreement with the left (or the center) on immigration.  And I find Trump repulsive in multiple ways.  And yet, given my overall political beliefs, there little to make me want to vote in Democrats either, since almost everything they would do would move the country further from how I think it should work rather than closer. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter and the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Over the last month I've been participating in an online group that's reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrud Undset, a massive historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, but it reads to me more as one) set in 14th century Norway. Unset wrote Kristin in the early 1920, and was received into the Catholic Church shortly afterwards in 1924, something that shows in the knowledge and realism with which religious matters are discussed in the book. However, it wasn't a niche-only success at the time. Indeed, Undset won the Novel Price for Literature in 1928. In more recent years, Undset's fame has perhaps waned a bit, but it's arguably on the upswing now, as suggested by this piece in Slate from last year about Kristin Lavransdatter.

In recent years, however, there have been signs that Kristin Lavransdatter is beginning to build up an international following to rival her domestic one. Her rescue from literary obscurity started in 1997, with the release of the first volume of Tiina Nunnally’s new translation into English from the Norwegian. Nunnally’s elegant interpretation strips the text of the leaden medieval-isms (“methought,” “belike”) favored by the previous English version. These days, Undset encomia are a staple on Catholic-interest websites, and certain corners of literary Twitter flog the series relentlessly. In 2015, William T. Vollmann told the New York Times that Kristin was his favorite fictional character, noting correctly that the trilogy “bears many rereadings.”

Kristin Lavransdatter’s three volumes total more than 1,000 pages, which follow the daughter of a wealthy farmer from age 7 through her dramatic death. (I won’t spoil major plot twists here, but if you’re worried, stop reading this and just go buy the books already.) In The Wreath, Kristin meets the great love of her life, who is not the man her parents chose for her. (The also-ran isn’t an awful guy; she could tolerate him “especially when he was talking to the others and did not touch her or speak to her.”) In the second book, The Wife, she gives birth to many sons and deals with the fallout of her husband’s rash meddling in royal politics. And in the final volume, The Cross, Kristin watches her sons grow up and, oh, by the way, reckons with the future of her immortal soul.
If HBO is looking for its next miniseries, it should give Kristin Lavransdatter the proper adaptation it deserves. (A Scandinavian film version directed by Liv Ullmann in 1995 was plagued with production problems and received middling reviews.) Rereading the trilogy this fall, I kept thinking of Olive Kitteridge, another powerful novel about a prickly mother turned into a worthy HBO miniseries. This trilogy includes illicit sex, affairs, a church fire, an attempted rape, ocean voyages, rebellious virgins cooped up in a convent, predatory priests, an attempted human sacrifice, floods, fights, murders, violent suicide, a gay king, drunken revelry, the Bubonic Plague, deathbed confessions, and sex that makes its heroine ache “with astonishment—that this was the iniquity that all the songs were about.” And yet all the outward drama is deployed in service of a story about an ordinary woman’s quietly shifting interior life. Another tempting comparison is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, whose huge commercial success suggests there is a market for series in translation about fierce, complicated women navigating their culturally conservative European milieu.

To sell the Kristin Lavransdatter novels as “hot” in terms of either content or buzziness somewhat misses the point, though. “Listing the strengths of Kristin Lavransdatter will not make the novel fashionable,” the scholar Otto Reinert wrote in 1999. “It is unexciting labor to claim merit for the conventional.” He was referring to both the books’ style and their moral tenor. It would be criminally simplistic to describe the series as “conservative,” but there’s a reason it appeals so powerfully to a certain kind of bookish Christian reader. As flawed as Kristin is—she is proud, lustful, brooding, and fails to live up to her own moral standards—she is a devout believer, and the books are intimately concerned with her relationship with God. Undset was a Catholic convert, and one of the most remarkable things about the trilogy is that it’s a rare literary depiction of religious people that is both empathetic and unsentimental.
It definitely seems to me that Undset deserves to be remembered and read as one of the better writers of historical fiction out there. Her portrayal of medieval Norway is seamless and utterly convincing. Not only do you find yourself believing that this is how people lived and thought and acted in a time and place very alien from our own, but she does such a good job of putting us into that world that we understand within the context of the novel why these people acted and thought the way that they did, even while realizing how alien their world was in some ways.

This got me thinking a bit about what the purpose of historical fiction is. Why should we come to understand how people lived and felt and made moral choices in a world far away in time and place.

One reason is simple curiosity. Fiction can be a powerful and involving way to help us understand what people experienced in other times. In this way, a novel may actually serve as a better introduction to understanding some era or event than reading a history book about it. Years ago, a friend whom I had asked for a recommendation on a book about the Spanish Civil War recommended Jose Maria Gironella's massive historical novel The Cypresses Believe In God rather than a history book, and it is indeed a great way to understand the divisions and suffering in pre-war Spanish society and how they spiraled into actual war. On a smaller canvas, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is probably the most accessible way to get a grasp of the Battle of Gettysburg, because of rather than in spite of the fact that it's a novel rather than a history book.

However, I think there's also a human and moral reason for reading historical fiction which goes beyond curiosity about other times. We are often very deeply embedded within cultural and moral assumptions of our times. These become unthought-of-axioms for us, underlying our thinking without being much examined. One way in which we can be drawn to look at and question our beliefs is to see the universal human experiences and situations we face through the different lens of another time and culture. With what's familiar stripped away, we're forced to think more deeply about what is actually a virtuous or wrong way to behave. And once we've been forced to think that through about another culture, understanding how human interactions and moral choices play out in that world, we can look back at our own world through eyes which are now partially those of a stranger, a person from another place or time, and see things more for what they are rather than what we assume them to be.