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

Monday, December 30, 2019

Marmee and Marriage in Little Women

With some trepidation (stemming from having seen and disliked the director Greta Gerwig's previous movie, Lady Bird) we're planning on going to see the new Little Women movie, and since it's been a long time since I last read the book, I've been giving it a re-read.

The conventional wisdom on Alcott, to which I subscribed as a young reader, is that she writes great character scenes so long as you can ignore the preachy bits. And it's true that some of Alcott's causes have aged better than others. The temperance movement, a key cause of Alcott's as well as more strident reform-minded novelists, is retroactively tainted by how poorly Prohibition worked out, and it's hard to see it in its period context as alcohol isn't nearly the societal scourge that it was in the 1800s. Dress reform (another other Alcott's topics, which gets significant play particularly in Eight Cousins) is also more amusing than anything else these days. Alcott's other key issue, abolitionism, has aged much better, but it probably comes into her books the least.

However, as I'm re-reading this time through, I'm re-examining the view that the "preachy bits" are incidental to the story and represent a period lapse on Alcott's part. Rather, I'm starting to think that in these sections Alcott lays out the themes that are driving the story. Take this section I read last night, which comes from the end of Chapter 9, "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair". Meg has just returned from spending two weeks with the wealthy Moffat family, where among other experiences of high life she overhears some of the older ladies speculating that Mrs. March is seeking to entrap Laurie into marrying one of the March girls in order to gain access to the Laurence family fortune. Marmee says that she regrets having sent Meg off to be exposed to such thinking.
"Mother, do you have 'plans', as Mrs. Moffat said?" asked Meg bashfully.

"Yes, my dear, I have a great many, all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat's, I suspect. I will tell you some of them, for the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours right, on a very serious subject. You are young, Meg, but not too young to understand me, and mothers' lips are the fittest to speak of such things to girls like you. Jo, your turn will come in time, perhaps, so listen to my 'plans' and help me carry them out, if they are good."

Jo went and sat on one arm of the chair, looking as if she thought they were about to join in some very solemn affair. Holding a hand of each, and watching the two young faces wistfully, Mrs. March said, in her serious yet cheery way...

"I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace."

"Poor girls don't stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward," sighed Meg.

"Then we'll be old maids," said Jo stoutly.

"Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," said Mrs. March decidedly. "Don't be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time. Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidant, Father to be your friend, and both of us hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives."

"We will, Marmee, we will!" cried both, with all their hearts, as she bade them good night.
It's easy to pass over this as Alcott doing some moralizing on behalf of 19th century ideas of what women were fit for, but I'd like to argue that this is perhaps the central thematic point of the book.

First, let's be clear that this is not just Alcott passing on some cultural general wisdom from her time. Indeed, Mrs March is laying out a view of the ends of marriage which is directly opposite to elite practice in her time and place. We've just seen, earlier in the chapter, what society expected young women to do: use their attractions to capture the most wealthy and well born man possible and secure him permanently via marriage.  After that, if the marriage isn't as happy as it could be, well at least you have money and status, and that provides its own consolations.  It's the 19th century equivalent of the "don't have a serious relationship till you've got your advanced degree and your fulfilling professional career all squared away" wisdom that dominates today's elite circles.

What Mrs March says here (and I think with Alcott's clear authorial endorsement) is that this is not the way to form a worthwhile marriage. What is? Her words can seem a little generic. "To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience.... I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace."

The phrases "to be loved and chosen" and "a good man" are too easily taken as cheap. Isn't every romantic comedy about people being loved and chosen? Not as Mrs. March uses the terms. Think about the way in which the workings of her marriage were described by her at the end of the previous chapter, in which she reveals to Jo that she long struggled to master a vicious temper.
"Poor Mother! What helped you then?"

"Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own. A startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply rebuked me more than any words could have done, and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy."
"I thought I'd grieved you."

"No, dear, but speaking of Father reminded me how much I miss him, how much I owe him, and how faithfully I should watch and work to keep his little daughters safe and good for him."

"Yet you told him to go, Mother, and didn't cry when he went, and never complain now, or seem as if you needed any help," said Jo, wondering.

"I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? If I don't seem to need help, it is because I have a better friend, even than Father, to comfort and sustain me. My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning and may be many, but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother."
I think what's being described here is a relationship in which Mr and Mrs March work to help each other grow in virtue. Mrs March believes that Mr March is someone who both recognizes what it means to live in virtue and helps her in her struggle to become more virtuous.

These conversation may seem like extraneous little discussions with Marmee, but they're actually central to what makes Little Women such an enduring classic. What does everyone love about this book? It's about four sisters who all have very different personalities, yet who love each other deeply and respect and help each other. It's fun of course, with the plays and the stories, the Pickwick club and the comic pathos of Amy's will. But what makes these hijinks so fun to read about is the love these characters all have for each other. And where does that come from? It begins with the relationship of Mr and Mrs March, and the way that they have raised their daughters. The closeness which draws Laurie into the family's circle is not an accident, it is a result of the active love the Marches all have for each other. Marmee believes the most important thing that she can give her daughters is the desire to build similar families of their own. This remains a counter-cultural insight.  Society points to all sorts of means of proving worth and status.  However, it's through the family that we create and form new human beings.  There's no more important thing in all the world.  And the March girls do all learn this lesson, in their very different ways. Indeed, that is central to why Jo rejects Laurie's proposal in the second half of the novel. In that scene she says:
"I agree with Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we were so foolish as to..." Jo paused a little over the last word, but Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.

"Marry—no we shouldn't! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like."

"No, I can't. I've tried and failed, and I won't risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don't agree and we never shall, so we'll be good friends all our lives, but we won't go and do anything rash."
She and Laurie have plenty of affection. They have fun together. In the sort of romantic comedy in which the story considers a relationship to be complete once people "get together" that would be enough.  But it's not enough for the kind of marriage which Marmee is endorsing here, in which after "getting together" the couple need to help each other grow in virtue despite all obstacles over many years.

What she's saying here that they lack is that ability to help each other grow in virtue. They have strong wills and short tempers and find it hard to take correction from each other. When they disagree they tend to storm at each other, and Jo believes that during the course of a long marriage they would no longer quickly recover from those storms, but begin to build resentments instead. It's notable that the man she does marry, Professor Bhaer, is perhaps the only person outside the March family who has the ability to help Jo see how she can grow in virtue without provoking explosions along the way.

This marriage ethic is not the reason that people read Little Women.  Indeed, like the foundation of a building, you can admire what stands above without ever noticing it.  Given that many readers wish that Jo had married Laurie and/or despise Professor Bhaer, clearly many people may enjoy the book while actively disagreeing with this approach to marriage.  And yet, I'd be prepared to argue that the engaging relationships between the sisters and between them and their parents, which are what draw people to the book, are in fact the result of this marriage ethic which Alcott puts forth here.  It's the heart of Little Women, and an adaptation which fails to realize that will ultimately remain a shallow adaptation.

On a personal note, it also helps remind me of how I came to the book.  My mom is a huge Alcott fan, and I met the books through her.  As I think about the centrality of Marmee's marriage ethic to the book as a whole, it occurs to me that Mom's affection for Alcott's central message doubtless formed her own marriage, and that her marriage formed her affection for the books.  In this loving, collaborative relationship of two people working towards the good, I see my own parents reflected and I realize why this is one of the books Mom introduced me to as a formative age.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Come Sing O Magnum Mysterium with Me

Gentle readers, if you are anywhere in the central Ohio area and love to sing choral music, tomorrow is your lucky day. I have realized that if I want to sing the great stuff, I'm going to have to put it together myself, and so I am hosting an O Magnum Mysterium sing. I figure if I canvass everyone I know, I can manage to scrape up four parts, even in late December while everyone is traveling. I can sing soprano, alto, or tenor, but I'd rather just pick one.

So! Tomorrow, Sunday December 29, from 3-6, at the Darwin Manor, we will be working through O Magnum Mysterium and then making beautiful polyphony as we sing it down perfectly. Then we'll have a potluck to feed hungry singers. If you are at all close, and if you love to sing, send us an email at

I expect you all here.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Boxing Day

1. Thank you all so much for praying for Roma. She was able to come home before Christmas! She's healing so well -- her swelling around her face has gone down (though her big black eye isn't quite gone yet) and you can't see it, but her head is stitched up like a half headband. She's definitely back to her old self again.

2. When you live in a family of amateur photographers, you're lucky enough to get some great family photos, but the flip side is that you have to wait around while the photogs tinker with the light and settings. I present: The Darwins take a Christmas picture.

3. Some little boys get overwrought on Christmas Day because of candy and loot, and need a calming interlude with their new Totoro.

4. Some boys turn 6 on Christmas Day, and have to put up with their sisters snapping their picture before they can blow out their candles.

5. Some people get a book on Christmas Day, and want to read and ignore the rest of the world, including the daughter taking the pictures.

6. But Christmas flowers make up for a lot.

 7. As does good tea in a Swedish mug with an invisible girl climbing a staircase.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Pray Roma Home for Christmas

Friends, here's an update on Roma from last night:
Roma's neurosurgeon said "she is rounding third and heading for home." They have removed her shunt. She should be able to go home by Tuesday or possibly tomorrow [today] if she drinks well and walks around. She is still miserable, but is healing very nicely. Thank you all for your prayers and please keep them going.
It's not guaranteed that she'll be home for Christmas if she doesn't eat and drink as much as the doctors want, so please pray that her appetite would be good and that the family (including Roma's two little brothers who are camped at their grandparents' house) would be able to be together for Christmas.

And thank you all so much for your continued prayers!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Market in Skin

There was an article going around the other day about actress Ruth Wilson's departure from the Showtime drama The Affair. (MrsDarwin tells me that we saw Ruth Wilson in an adaptation of Jane Eyre, but to be honest I hadn't really heard of The Affair, which doesn't sound like my kind of show.) Her reasons are worth reading about:
While Wilson was said to have understood that signing on to an adult drama at Showtime called The Affair would likely involve some disrobing, she ultimately took issue with the frequency and nature of certain nude scenes. Sources, many of whom declined to speak on the record, say Wilson was often asked to be unclothed in scenes where there seemed to be no clear creative rationale for the nudity other than for it to be "titillating," as one person involved with the production puts it. Another source overheard Wilson ask on set, referring to a male co-star, "Why do you need to see me and not more of him?" Wilson had, of course, signed a nudity waiver when she tested for the pilot, but a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson notes that performers must still "provide meaningful consent and be treated with respect and dignity during production." Sources say Wilson expressed her concerns repeatedly only to receive push-back and be labeled "difficult."

Those insiders add that Wilson felt Treem, in particular, pressured her to perform such scenes. "There was a culture problem at the show from the very beginning and a tone-deafness from Sarah Treem about recognizing the position she was putting actors in," says one source with firsthand knowledge of the production. "Over and over again, I witnessed Sarah Treem try to cajole actors to get naked even if they were uncomfortable or not contractually obligated to."
This reminded me of the stories that went around a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke describing herself both as having to become more outspoken to avoid doing scenes she was uncomfortable with and also feeling uncomfortable at some of what she'd agreed to do in early seasons:
Emilia Clarke has revealed that she once refused to perform a nude scene on the set of a project, despite being told that it would “disappoint” her Game of Thrones fans.
“I’m a lot more savvy [now] with what I’m comfortable with, and what I am okay with doing,” she explained. “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, the sheet stays up’, and they’re like, ‘You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans’. And I’m like, ‘F*** you.’”

Clarke also revealed that she felt overwhelmed by what she described as the “f*** ton of nudity” in the first season of Game of Thrones.

“I took the job and then they sent me the scripts and I was reading them, and I was, like, ‘Oh, there’s the catch!’” she remembered. “But I’d come fresh from drama school, and I approached [it] as a job – if it’s in the script then it’s clearly needed, this is what this is and I’m gonna make sense of it… Everything’s gonna be cool."

She continued: “So I came to terms with that beforehand, but then going in and doing it… I’m floating through this first season and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what any of this is. I’ve never been on a film set like this before, I’d been on a film set twice before then, and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want and I don’t know what I want.

“Regardless of there being nudity or not, I would have spent that first season thinking I’m not worthy of requiring anything, I’m not worthy of needing anything at all... Whatever I’m feeling is wrong, I’m gonna cry in the bathroom and then I’m gonna come back and we’re gonna do the scene and it’s gonna be completely fine.”

She went on to explain that it was only while working with Aquaman actor Jason Momoa, who played her on-screen love interest Khal Drogo, that she realised that she could set her own rules about how much of her body she was willing to show.

“It was definitely hard,” she said. “Which is why the scenes, when I got to do them with Jason, were wonderful, because he was like, ‘No, sweetie, this isn’t okay.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhh.'”

I've seen part or all of several prestige dramas from HBO, Showtime, or more recently Amazon or Netflix. In general, the writing, acting, and production values are much closer to movie levels than they are to normal network television. And yet, one of the things that has struck me in watching these series is that the makers often throw in explicit nudity and sexuality as if it's an expected enticement for the audience. For instance, in addition to actual sex scenes, The Sopranos had as a plot point that Tony Soprano's gang owns a strip club, and thus it wasn't unusual to have an unrelated conversation have a strip routine going on in the background. I heard complaints that in Game of Thrones, exposition scenes that the showrunners seemed to think might otherwise be boring were often set in a brothel.

It's fairly common for people with conservative moral values to criticize the nudity and sexuality in series like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, and for more culturally progressive people to tell them to stop being so puritanical. However, the accounts of these actresses point to a problem with prestige dramas which should be fairly understandable through the ways that progressives often talk about the injustices of markets. What both women describe is a situation in which actresses wanting to have a career are expected to agree ahead of time to on-screen nudity, and then pressured into doing scenes which they themselves feel to be exploitative. And yet, it's hard for actresses who want to have serious drama careers with those studios to say no. There is a large supply of people wanting to do this work, and if the production companies want to insist on doing nudity as a precondition for employment, it's fairly easy for them to say, "Do it or we'll find someone who will." This doesn't mean that actresses can't say no, but it means that saying no will often mean saying no to having a serious career. It's a situation in which "allowing" people to do nude scenes effectively means that many people will be put under excessive pressure to do so.

On the question of watching this kind of show, I suppose I'm something of a moderate. I think that sufficiently mature adults can often (though not in all cases) watch shows that include this kind of content without much harm. And yet, what asking about whether the audience is harmed by watching such content ignores is that the content has to be made in the first place. Perhaps conservatives tend not to address this one as much because it's often taken as a working assumption that Hollywood is populated by godless heathens.

However, I think it's worth considering that even if it's often okay for mature adults to see this kind of content, it's significantly less okay for the people making it -- not because it's too sexy and pleasurable, but because it's too exploitative. Making the original scenes can be harrowing. I've read from multiple sources that scenes involving sex or nudity make for awkward and unpleasant filming days. In the Ruth Wilson article linked above, there are complaints from various cast members on The Affair that people who didn't need to be there invited on set for nude scenes and that footage of those days was shown to people outside the production. Additionally, some people associated with the production allege that the writing of content was at times used to exact a sort of revenge against actresses. When Wilson insisted on being written off the show after the fourth season (and an incident that involved one of the directors showing off nude images he'd kept on his phone from on set) the showrunner initially wrote a scene in which Wilson's character was violently raped and murdered. Only after Wilson's refusal to do the scene was the scene downgraded to a murder that did not involve sexual assault.

Even after the scenes have been filmed, cast are stuck dealing with the fact that those images of them are permanently available to the public -- some of whom do not fit the category of mature adults. I recall reading some years ago an interview with a Game of Thrones actress in which she recounted having fans ask her to sign pictures of her that showed her naked. She said she initially felt it was a huge violation of her privacy, and then realized that they had all seen her naked anyway. But what I think this goes to show is that even when the filming itself is done as respectfully as possible, it can result in later uncomfortable situations that the cast may not have thought of or may not continue to feel as good about as when they initially did the scenes.

I'm not necessarily arguing that all such content should be uniformly banned. However, when studios are faced with a situation where some of their audience expect some nudity in every episode, and the rest of the audience is willing to quietly tolerate it as part of the genre, studios will proceed to put the nudity in so as to satisfy those who specifically want it. And as studios work to satisfy the mature content demographic, they'll create a casting environment where it's very hard for actors to say no to doing uncomfortable and exploitative scenes. If one is to weigh the experiences of those who have regrets about the content they were pressured to film and those who don't, it seems to me that few actors would look back on a career and think, "Gee, I really wish I'd been able to do more nude scenes over the years."

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Post-op Roma

An update on Roma from her mom. Thank you so much for your prayers today!
Thanks so much for the prayers and notes today! The surgery, we think, was successful! Lots of recovery ahead and definitely things to watch, but Roma is already back to her opinionated self, so that's encouraging. :) I can't tell you how humbled and grateful we are for all the support - no idea how we will ever be able to express it adequately. We do not deserve you!! Please do continue to pray that the cavernoma is 100% gone. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Deo gratias!

Strange Plots 21


And so, a stranger came to town.

And got an AirBnb. Yes, even Titusville has realized that “safe as houses” means vacant houses. And since the town isn’t large enough to sustain a hotel (anymore; the old inn where Abraham Lincoln definitely did not sleep is now a nifty arts center), and some people like to go to Florida for the winter, there’s both supply and demand. Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and I were able to rent an old bungalow for two nights so that we could spend Christmas in Titusville.

I did say “Mom and Dad”, and that requires some explanation. When I said that I was going to Christmas mass in Titusville, Grandpa decided that he would like to come to. And since he didn’t want to drive up early on Christmas morning, he decided that we would stay the night. When Mom saw us looking at cute lodgings, she jumped in and took over the whole process (and paid for it too, so Grandpa and I shrugged and let her do her thing). Believe it or not, I think that when we had our Thanksgiving fight and I asked her if she was jealous because I was cutting out of the Ramirez gathering, it triggered some kind of introspection. Maybe it was that she was really jealous of not having a family gathering of her own to go to. Maybe she’d always felt awkward and out of place with Dad’s big happy family. Whatever the reason — I didn’t ask; we weren’t on those kind of terms again yet — she decided that she and Dad were coming to Titusville as well to explore Grandpa’s heritage, and (though maybe she hadn’t gotten this far in her introspecting) her own.

I was okay with this. I had not talked yet with Grandpa about Vin’s speculations about the gritty past. Every time I thought about it, I choked up at the thought of an old man hearing this from his granddaughter. Better let Vin explain it, and better that Mom should be there for Grandpa, and Dad be there for Mom. And Vin be there for me.

I’ve been coming to the realization that I’m not the most sympathetic person in the world. Yeah, I know I’m brash. I’d always thought it was my best quality. I tell it like it is. I don’t believe in BS. What you see is what you get — take me or leave me, and if you leave me it’s your problem. But I’d never cared before if I was left. Now it was different. Vin was doing a fine job of driving himself away from me. I didn’t want to do anything to bump him farther along.

I was going to have a chance to practice my less-brashness. Vin’s parents had invited us all to come over to their house after Christmas mass. I considered warning my folks about the particular brand of dysfunction they were about to encounter, but then I thought, why spoil all the fun? I’d already had my initiation into weird Titus family holidays. Maybe Mom would think more kindly of the Ramirez gatherings after this year.

For as close as we’ve lived to the mountains all my life, I don’t recall us ever taking a day trip up into the forest or checking out an overlook. The route was new to everyone but me, and I drove because I knew exactly where to slow down to showcase the most dramatic views. Everyone was impressed: Grandpa deeply, Dad easily, Mom against her will. Then I cruised along the scenic route through Titusville to show off the bricks of City Hall and the gazebo in the square and the neon lights of the diner. I detoured the few blocks past downtown so I could show Grandpa the mission church of Sacred Hearts where he was baptized. Grandpa almost hung out of the window like the little boy he never got to be, consuming every detail of the compact church. I hoped his heart would hold out through the holiday.

Our bungalow was just off of the main drag, a classic little 1920s deal with a porch and a trellis. As Mom unlocked the door, I was all prepared for woodwork and a tile hearth and some built-in bookcases, all the Arts-and-Crafts magic, but what greeted us was nothing. I mean, of course there was furniture there, and a floor, but the place had been renovated by some enterprising investor. Every trace of individuality the house had ever possessed had been methodically stripped off and replaced with greige drywall and laminate flooring and open space and a statement chandelier. It looked like every mid-level hotel lobby you’ve ever seen, and even the ones you haven’t seen but it doesn’t matter because they all look alike.

When Kay and Vin showed up not long afterwards to meet my parents, Kay was befuddled.

“This used to be the Wilson house,” she said, poking her nose in all the closets. “I remember coming over here in high school sometimes. It was old and cramped and beat-up, and tacky as all get out, believe me, but it had so much character. It was alive, kind of like your great-aunt Bertha with her dentures and her one good eye and her coral lipstick. I guess someone bought it to flip and gutted it. What a shame. A lot of history, just vanished.”

“I don’t think it’s so bad,” my mom ventured. “It’s got a dedicated laundry room.”

“So it’s soulless yet sterile,” Kay retorted. I could see the gears in Mom’s head cranking the etiquette meter over to “laugh and nod”. I think she was having a hard time adjusting to being polite to an adult version of me.

When all six of us gathered at the table with our complimentary white wine and holiday cookies to talk over our family discoveries, Vin produced the photos first. He’d gone back to the Historical Society and snapped photos in defiance of the crabby docent, and now he pulled them up on a tablet and enlarged them for elderly eyes.

“Erin and I have found the common maternal ancestor,” he said. “This is Tamar McGrath Sanders, Kay’s great-grandmother and Aaron’s mother. T. on the baptismal certificate.”

“McGrath?” Kay exclaimed. “We’re McGraths now?”

“You’re the McGraths,” I said. “There’s no other McGrath line but you.”

Kay and Grandpa, heads together, pored over the portrait, while Mom looked at it on my phone.

“I can’t see any resemblance,” Mom said, skeptical. But Grandpa patted Kay’s cheek gently.

“It’s you,” he said in wonder. “I see you, honey. My mother looks like you.”

“It is me!” Kay was brimming over, like everyone else, and she and Grandpa hugged each other and laughed and hugged some more.

“The Tituses and the McGraths at peace,” I murmured to no one in particular. “Looks like dreams do come true.”

“But hasn’t this portrait hung on the wall at the Historical Society for years?” Mom protested to Kay. “How had you never seen it before?”

“I don’t spend my spare time at the Historical Society,” said Kay. "How did I know to look for it? How did any of us know to look for it? Every clue to this family tree has been hiding in plain sight.”

“And speaking of hiding in plain sight,” said Vin, swiping to the family photo in front of the mayor’s old house, “here are the fathers with Tamar. Aaron Moore and Demetrius McGrath.”

The photo had to be sent to everyone separately because everyone wanted to study different faces. Grandpa kept hovering back and forth between Aaron and Tamar, devouring the now pixelated images with 85 years’ worth of longing. Mom mostly looked at Aaron Moore, blowing up the photo until it was practically not a face anymore, and comparing it to Grandpa. But Kay, although she focused on Demetrius, needed more explanation.

“I understand Tamar and Aaron Moore because of the evidence of the baptismal certificate,” she said. “But how are you sure about Demetrius?”

“We know that you share a maternal ancestor who can’t be further back than Tamar, but is not Lavinia,” said Vin. “Demetrius is the missing link between the two.”

“DNA, whatever.” Kay dismissed science. “It’s the feud part that has me wondering. How did the Tituses and McGraths have a child together, and no one ever knew about it?”

Vin pulled up another photo on his phone, this time the sweet face and neat braids of Lavinia. He cleared his throat, and swallowed, and looked at me and looked away. “This is where it gets ugly,” he said.

You’ve heard of people wringing their hands. I was doing it now, a big raw bundle of nerves, all my anxiety back in full force as I looked at the these two wonderful people in front of me. They’d been yearning all their lives to learn the truth about their families. I couldn’t bear to see them devastated by the charbroiled bones in the family closet. Vin talked, laying out as dispassionately as he could both the facts and his wild theories. But dispassionate isn’t good enough when you’re talking about rape and revenge and illegitimate children and abandonment and murder and lynching and immolation. Grandpa and Kay were silent as they took in the pieces of the gruesome story, with a silence that was more horrible to me than wailing or gnashing of teeth or the invocation of family curses. They were wishing they’d never taken a DNA test in the first place. They were thinking that maybe it was better not to exist than to come from such a line of evil. Maybe Vin was right. Maybe our meeting — the best thing that had ever happened to me — was not worth all the pain and misery and sorrow that was going to ensue from our revealed history. And still no one but Vin said anything.

Finally I cracked under the strain.

“Oh Grandpa, I’m so sorry!” I flung my arms around him, rather awkwardly since we were sitting side by side in dining room chairs with slippery fabric covers. “Is it too awful? Do you hate us for finding out all these terrible things about your past? Do you think there’s some kind of curse on our family?”

And Grandpa, whose own thin crust of stoicism had cracked so easily over the past few weeks, broke his profound silence with no trace of despair or grief.

“Of course not, honey.” He patted my head just as if he were calming a riled-up pup and even scritched me behind the ears. “I’ve had 85 good, hard years. I was married to your grandmother for the best 50 of those years, and I still have the finest daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter I could wish for. Nothing I learn about my past can change that.” He swiped through the photos again, looking at each face. “All this history helps me understand where I came from, but it doesn’t taint anything for me. It’s not like any of it was my fault.”

He reached across the table for Kay’s hand, and she gave it to him willingly. “And if I hadn’t taken my test, I’d never have met my cousin. At my age, family is what matters most. I’d have endured a much more horrible history to finally be able to see and touch someone related to me.”

“Amen,” Kay murmured, squeezing him in benediction.

“So you don’t think we’re cursed?” I snuffled.

“Cursed?” Grandpa seemed genuinely confused. “Why would you think that?”

“What about what it says in the Bible about the iniquities of the fathers being visited on the third and fourth generation? Some people might call that a curse.”

Kay gave me the eagle eye. “And where did you get that pretty bit of proof texting?”

“Vin said so.” Vin rewarded my tattling by kicking me under the table.

Kay turned the eagle eye on him. “I’d hoped you’d learned a little more scripture than that on Sunday mornings, Vincent. Don’t you remember the other half of the verse, about how the Lord shows mercy to the thousandth generation to those who love him and keep his commandments?”

“No, ma’am, I’d forgotten that part,” said Vin meekly.

“You didn’t want to remember it!” I flung at him along with a good kick of my own, more vigor than impact. “And I told you that this whole history didn’t mean anything to you and me.” Kick. “I told you we could start fresh.” I would have kicked once more for good measure, but this time he trapped my feet between his ankles. “I bet even if I’d quoted scripture about mercy to the thousandth generation you couldn’t have heard me because you were so hung up on the idea of a family curse when you were really just dealing with your own insecurities.”

“I seem to recall another verse I did learn in Sunday School,” Vin remarked to Kay. “Something about better a corner of a rooftop in peace, than a fine house with a contentious woman.”

“Oho, and I’m the contentious woman in the fine house, right?” I snorted.

“I don’t know as I’d call this a fine house,” said Vin, but his ankles were still pressed against mine.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve only ever lived in the vast metropolises of the New River Valley, but I had never been to a Catholic church that had only one Christmas mass. Father Leonard had said midnight mass elsewhere on his circuit, and two earlier Christmas morning masses at two different parishes. Sacred Hearts was his last stop for the day. If he was exhausted, he hid it well as he greeted Vin like an old buddy.

“I still can't get over the idea,” I said to Vin as we shuffled into the pew, followed by Grandpa, Mom, and Dad, “that you were raised religious-ish, yet you’ve never been to church on Christmas Day. If you’re Catholic, you go to church on Christmas and Easter even if you don’t go any other day of the year.”

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” he replied, and then he out-Catholicked me by putting down the kneeler and kneeling down. “Just watch — I’m picking up all the tricks.”

Father pulled out all the stops on Christmas, with incense and singing his dialogue, but Vin thwarted my attempts to explain things to him by having mastered the missalette in previous weeks, and following along in sections of the book that I didn’t even know were there. I was starting to feel superfluous, but then he was caught out by the Gloria, which he hadn’t heard in Advent, so I retained my home court advantage.

“Is this special for Christmas?” he whispered.

“No, it’s every Sunday. Except Advent. And Lent.”


The first reading was about how beautiful on the mountain were the feet of him who brings good news. Was it irreverent to apply that to Vin? I wasn’t sure what the good news he brought was, exactly, but “mountains” and “beautiful” seemed a good fit. And then I felt a gentle pressure against my foot, as if someone next to me was also inspired by the scriptures. I just avoided melting by quickly scanning the other readings for prophetic passages about Vin. And I felt convicted of impiety when I noticed that unlike me, Vin actually was paying attention to the epistle and the gospel.

As we knelt before Communion, he whispered, “Is it all right if I go up, since it’s Christmas?”

“You mean take communion?” I said, scandalized. “No. It’s sacrilegious if you aren’t Catholic.”

He looked so hungrily toward the altar that I took pity on him. “Little kids who haven’t made their first communion cross their arms like this and get a blessing. You’re allowed to do that, if you want to.”

And to my surprise he did, and back in the pew he knelt instead of sitting. I couldn’t be shown up in church on Christmas by a Protestant, so I knelt up as tall as I could, and closed my eyes instead of watching people’s shoes shuffle past. I knew I should have been praying in thanksgiving or contemplating Christmas blessings, but what kept running through my mind was Vin’s verse yesterday about the contentious woman. Better a corner of a manger in peace, than a fine house with a contentious woman. O Lord, don’t let me the contentious woman. Let my feet on the mountains bring peace, and let Vin find them beautiful. Amen.

Father Leonard waited for us after greeting his various sheep. “Welcome home, Mr. Aaron Moore,” he said, catching Grandpa up in a hug both warm and solemn. “Come with me and see.”

And Grandpa did see, in black and white (now aged to brown and cream), the first record of his existence and his parents. He ran his fingers tenderly over the slight texture of the ink that linked him to A.M and T. Mom too, had to see and touch. Something about the physical reality of of the registrar broke something in her.

“It’s real,” she cried, clinging to Grandpa. “I didn’t believe it was real until now.”

“I understand you are going out to see the burned house now,” Father Leonard said, packing a kit with a stole and holy water and a prayer book. “I would like to come with you, if I may.”

Vin and Father drove before us as we went through town to the old Titus site. I wished I knew what they were talking about, but it probably wasn’t me. The joy of Grandpa seeing his name in the baptismal register was draining away, sapped by the increasingly oppressive journey to the Titus house. This trip was worse than the first time I went out with Vin. Then I hadn’t known what lay at the end of the path, so the path had felt like an adventure. It wasn’t an adventure anymore, and it wasn’t fun either.  The horror of the house so dead that even almost 100 years later it still stifled a family’s normal growth and healing poked little needles of dread all along my arms.

Maybe if I were a better actress I could have played off my moodiness for laughs, but instead it infected everyone else in the car. By the time we were rumbling down the long shadowy drive, the silence was thick and tense. Even Vin’s puns would have been better than this homesickness. Grandpa had lost his mountain-going eagerness and was hunched up in himself, and I wondered if this place would kill him.

But again, as the grim house came into view, it was Mom who was overwhelmed by the physical link to the past. You’d think Grandpa would have been overwrought, seeing the place where his mother died a fiery death, but again it was Mom who could not bear the reality of the rotting shell of the house. Father Leonard comforted her with low words that sounded like music as he put on his stole.

“Are you going to perform an exorcism?” Dad asked, suddenly a good deal more involved than he’d been all day.

“No,” said Father, “I’m going to bless this house, and the family that comes from it.”

“Can you do that?” Vin asked, hesitant to make any pronouncements about a rite not his own. “Is it appropriate to bless it if it's not really a home anymore?”

“More appropriate, I think, than,” —here Father flipped through his pages— “the ‘Blessing for a Blast Furnace.’”

We bowed our heads. He sprinkled us with holy water, and asked God to have mercy on us and wash us with hyssop so we would be whiter than snow, and invoked the angels to watch over and protect all who lived in this home. Then he made the sign of the cross over us, and even Vin blessed himself. It was short and it was simple — so simple it was almost ridiculous for Father to have ridden all this way to say a quick chilly prayer. But Father didn’t seem to feel like he had wasted his time.

“I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord,” he sang to himself, inspecting the ruins. The rest of us walked around with Grandpa, briefly because it was cold and threatened to snow. And oddly enough, the place that had seemed so full of horror and grief was now just dead — not deader than dead like before, but merely dead, ready to be consumed by nature and become part of a larger cycle of life. The Titus had gone out of the old Titus place. I’d thought that Father was only blessing the battered pile of boards that sheltered nothing, but it was more than that. He’d also blessed us, we who were the House of Titus and the House of McGrath and the House of Moore, and we were able to smile in the face of despair.

“What will your parents say when they find out you’re engaging in pagan Catholic rituals?” I asked Vin, joking.

“What, indeed?” he said, and he was not joking.

As he and Father got in his car, I stood with my heart newly thumping out of my chest. “Oh my sweet Jesus,” I murmured in adoration, “this thing is going to happen. This is really, literally, actually going to happen.”

So I was floating on cloud ten by the time we'd dropped Father back at church and gotten to Vin’s parents’ house. Not everyone had it so cushy. Vin took on the responsibility of making introductions to his mom, who was performing today in the key of chatty.

“Mrs. Ramirez, this is my mother, Heather Titus,” said Vin. “Mom, this is Linda Ramirez, Erin’s mother. She’s a professor at Tech.”

“A professor! That must be so much work. All that grading, right?” Heather playfully slapped Mom on the arm. I could see the frost forming on Mom at the point of contact. “I took a few semesters of college before Dan and I got married. I had the densest Spanish professor — you would not believe how inflexible she was. My first semester, I had this friend who was going through a crisis, dealing with some mental health issues, and I was just under a lot stress putting in the time to support her. So I’d missed some classes, and the day I showed up was the day of the midterm. And I asked her, politely, if I could reschedule mine, because I’d been so busy with my friend and I just wasn’t in the mentality to focus on Spanish. It was like I’d asked for her firstborn child. And she got snippy and said that the schedule had been posted on the syllabus, like I’d had time to read that. Professors always think their class is going to be your one priority. I mean, I cared about the material. I just needed some understanding that life happens. But I guess professors have to live in their ivory tower, right? Are you guys hungry? Come on, I’ve got appetizers laid out on the island.”

And she bustled into the kitchen and started clattering dishes around, leaving the rest of in the hall in various states of incredulity. Dan, having had more time than anyone else to become inoculated to this level of tactlessness, didn’t let us petrify.

“Hey, it’s great to see you all!” he exclaimed. “Did anyone catch the game on Monday night?”

And Dad, who had caught the game on Monday night, allowed himself to be led off to the den for some post-mortem, taking Grandpa with him. Kay entered a second later and pulled up at the sight of Mom’s shell-shocked expression.

“Oh boy, is it bad today?” she muttered to Vin.

“She looks like she’ll be on company behavior,” Vin said cautiously.

Kay was not relieved. “That’s almost more wearing than when she’s acting up because then she won’t go away.”

“Also, you never know if or when she’ll crack.”

Kay turned to Mom. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to stay past dinner, and dinner is always right away. Come on, let’s go get it over with.”

“Are there drinks?” Mom asked plaintively.

“Not in this house,” Kay scoffed. “We’ll bust out of here and I’ll bring some of the good stuff to your place.”

At the table, we sat at our place cards: Grandpa and Kay across from each other at Heather’s end, Vin and me across from each other, Mom and Dad across from each other at Dan’s end. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go around the table this time and say what we were all thankful for. Heather had other plans.

“Mr. Aaron, it’s our tradition that the senior member of the family leads us in a blessing. Would you do the honors?”

Grandpa, unaccustomed to leading public prayer, stood up and cleared his throat as if he’d been asked to address the U.N. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Bless us, O Lord…”

“…And these thy gifts…,” chimed in the Catholic contingent, from sheer muscle memory, and Vincent Titus, from very conscious memory.

“That was pretty,” said Heather uncertainly, into the awkward silence that followed the final sign of the cross. “Is that your family blessing? How did you know it, Vin?”

“Google,” said Vin. “Mr. Aaron, can I serve you some ham?”

Plates were filled and forks were plied, and conversation got going again. It was comfortable down at Dan’s end with Mom and Dad. At the other end, Heather said, “It must be a lot of work for your pastor up here to have church on Christmas. Does he mind missing out on spending time with his family?”

“I think they’re in Nigeria,” I said. “So he wouldn't see them anyway.”

“Lagos,” Vin said to me.

“What country is Lagos?” Heather inquired.

“Father Leonard told me that’s where his family lives,” said Vin.

“Oh,” said Heather, contemplating her son having a conversation with a Catholic priest. “Erin, Vin’s gone to church with you, so you ought to come with us some Sunday!”

“I’d have to see how the times line up,” I said as non-committally as I could. “I can’t miss mass.”

“Well, but turnabout is fair play,” sang Heather. “Of course we don’t do church on Christmas, so it was easy today, but maybe you could trade off next time you’re here on a Sunday. We have a great young adults group. I keep telling Vin he should try it.”

Vin indeed looked as if he’d been told that, many times.

“Or Vin could just keep coming with me. He seems to like it,” I countered, and got jabbed under the table by both Kay and Vin.

Heather blinked. “Likes going with you? To the Catholic church?”

“Gosh, seconds anyone?” Dan shouted down the table.

“Vin, have you gone to the Catholic church before?” Heather asked, innocently.

Vin was unable to tell a lie. “I’ve gone with Erin during Advent.”

“What’s Advent?”

“The four Sundays before Christmas,” I said. “Vin’s seen all the Advent candles lit.”

“But now Christmas is over,” said Heather, brightening. “And it sounds like you’ve solved your family mystery and showed everyone the Catholic baptism book.” She smiled at her clever boy sleuth and his mystery-solving prowess. “So there’s really no reason anymore to go to Catholic church instead of our church. Is there, honey?”

“It’s beautiful,” said Vin, with the brevity of one who devoutly wished a conversation to move past him.

“Religion and politics!” Kay chuckled, a tad too heartily, and jabbed me again.

“Idols can be beautiful,” Heather declared with fierce maternal conviction. “But we don’t worship them because they’re beautiful."

"Good thing we don’t worship idols at all, then,” I retorted, willing to suffer jabs for my faith. “We don’t worship anything but God.”

“We’re all brothers and sisters in the Lord!” said Dan. “Pie?”

Heather had caught me out, and she was triumphant. “You worship bread. I read about it.”

“It’s not bread!” I asserted, ready, like the martyrs, to die on this hill. “It’s God!”

“It's an idol!” Terror for her son drove Heather into battle mode. “Human words don’t make bread into a god! Vin, you tell her so!”

But Vin now wore the fixed daze of someone contemplating a flame. “‘The Word became flesh.’ That’s what the gospel meant,” he marveled. “I kept wondering about it all morning, why that was the Christmas reading instead of the traditional nativity story. It’s not an idol. It’s the Word made flesh. I knew it was something, but I didn’t know what.”

No one had expected that answer, and so no one had any reply ready, pacific or combative.

“Anyway,” I said, playing my trump. “Vin has to come to church with me because the children will have to be raised Catholic.”

No one jabbed me this time because the whole table was too busy staring, even Vin jolted from his pious reverie.

“You two are engaged?” Heather screeched.

“No,” I admitted. “But it just makes sense.” Now I was appealing directly to Vin, the ideas pouring out as fast as I could translate inspiration into words. “See how it works? We’re the end of the line. We draw the whole family together into one. And when we have a baby, he — or maybe it would be a girl — will be Titus, and McGrath, and Moore, all together. This is how we heal the family curse, if there really is one. We end the hate with love. But the children have to be Catholic. You have to promise that, or we can’t get married.”

Vin stood up from the table. “Will you excuse us?” he asked at large, coming around and taking my elbow and steering me out of the room. “Go ahead and have your pie. We won’t be back.”

He stopped us at the closet and handed me my coat and purse.

“Where are we going?”

“My place.”

“Okay.” I struggled into my sleeves. “Is it still icy?”

“I salted.”

We got in his car and drove a ways toward town in silence. Then Vin let out a breath he seemed to have been holding since we left the house.

“You are a liability, I can see that right now,” he said.


“You give everything away up front. Isn’t the great rule of showbiz that you’re supposed to leave them wanting more?”

“We’re not showbiz,” I protested.

“Except when we blow up Christmas dinner."

I thought I would laugh, and then I tried it and it didn’t come out quite right. My zeal had congealed in the nippy air. “Are you saying you don’t want any more?”


The Christmas-lit houses drew closer together, and congregated along the main street. City Hall and the square were strung with white bulbs, pure and warm. We turned away from the brightness down Vin’s alleyway, where the darkness gave me some cover for speaking again.

“I’d promised myself that I’d be less abrasive so that I wouldn’t do anything to drive you away, and now I’ve had a blowout theological argument with your mother and gotten you accused of being Catholic, and you know what? I’m not even sorry.” I swallowed. “Mostly. I know it’s not civilized of me and I ought to have a stiff upper lip and communicate solely through raised eyebrows, but I’m a big hot emotional mess and I say what I think and I can’t help it.”

We parked, and he got out and opened my door and offered me a hand.

“I don’t want you to help it,” he said, and instantly I was a different and much more thrilling kind of hot emotional mess.

“Why not?”

“Because you wear everything on your sleeve. I always know what I’m getting with you, and I find that refreshing. Like the reading this morning.” He put his arm around me in case the salt hadn’t made the stairs perfectly safe. “How beautiful on the apartment stairs are the feet of her, announcing peace.”

“Me, bringing peace. That’s new,” I said, just to keep conversation going, soaking up everything he’d said about me.

“Do you want to know what’s not peaceful?” he said, angry, but not at me. “Living with someone who never speaks her mind. Living with someone who forces everyone else to try and adapt to her moods and whims without ever coming out and just saying what she wants. You want to know what’s a family curse? That’s a family curse.”

“You are obsessed with the family curse.” I rolled my eyes, even though he couldn't see it in the dark. “You’re going to drive yourself insane.”

 He put his key into the lock. “Nonsense. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. I want to try something different from my parents, and I expect a better result.”

I could have sworn there was no way to be pedantic and arousing at the same time, but Vin seemed to be a devotee of the school of stupidly logical seduction.

“Oh, have we decided we’re going to get results now?” I demanded in the doorway, not following him inside. “Why are you so cool and collected? Is this how it’s always going to be? I’ve basically told you that I love you, and you take it in your stride with witty repartee and don’t even have the decency to be honored, or insulted, or even flustered in any way, shape, or form…”

I might have gone on pounding my head against that particular wall for any amount of time, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t talk any more, because he pulled me in and was kissing me against the closed door, and he was flustered indeed, and then I was even more flustered. We clutched and stroked and knocked our teeth together once or twice like fools, and everything was more ridiculous and breath-taking than I’d imagined it would be.

“This,” he whispered in my ear once we came up for air, “is how it’s always going to be.”

“Only if you promise to raise the children Catholic.”

“I promise,” he said, holding onto the fourth finger of my left hand, “that I’ll make my first communion before any of the kids do.”

And that’s what happened when a stranger came to town: the ending of one story, and the beginning of another.

The End.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Roma Update

Thank you all so much for your generous prayers and support! Believe me, I feel them and am swept away with gratitude. Here's an update on Roma from my sister-in-law:

"Crazy update and request for immediate prayers! Roma has been out of the hospital for a couple weeks now, with weekly scans and checkups on the blood clot surrounding the cavernoma in her brain. Her latest scan was Friday, and her latest checkup was yesterday (which began at the exact same time that I was ambushed on live radio by Ryan Lopez and John Matthew Swaim with a GoFundMe for Roma – I can’t even tell you how humbled we are and so amazed at the generosity of so many people…wow... but that's a future post!). The checkup was “normal” in that they didn’t see any changes in the scan, and so we continued on with the day. A few hours later, though, a neurosurgery NP called me to say that the doctor met with the radiologist, and actually a LOT has changed. Roma’s clot has “liquefied,” and so the doctor is ready to operate… on THURSDAY! This is happening about five weeks sooner than anticipated. Honestly, I feel like Bl. Chiara is pulling through for us, that there is a miracle in the works, so please pray!

An interesting side story: I was talking with my family last night about the phone call with the NP, and I noted that they had never used the word “liquefied” before – they had always talked about the blood clot needing to be “reabsorbed.” Now, I recognize that the liquefying is probably implied when it comes to a blood clot being reabsorbed by the brain, but still, it was the first I’d heard them use that term. And that point led me, ever the Catholic nerd, to start talking about St Januarius (San Gennaro), whose dry blood relic can miraculously liquefy. There are three days each year that it will happen – I looked it up – September 19th, the Saturday before the first Sunday in May… and December 16th!

What this tells me is that the saints in heaven have heard our prayers for Roma, and they are praying to the Lord for her, too. I’m still ready to see her miraculously healed prior to surgery, but I will also be grateful just for a successful surgery, and for my little girl to get back to her old self. Lord, Thy will be done!

We don't know the exact time of surgery on Thursday, but we've got to be there at 5:30am for pre-op stuff. So please just start praying now!

Bl. Chiara Luce Badano, ora pro nobis! Mater Dolorosa, ora pro nobis!"

Nixon Isn't A Good Model for the Trump Impeachment

As congress debates impeachment, this 538 piece on the development of support for the impeachment push against Nixon is interesting reading. TLDR: While right before his resignation the push to impeach Nixon was bipartisan, that was a very, very late development with most Republicans supporting him till the last minute.

However, I think there's a key difference in the nature of the scandals that led to that change to a bipartisan push to get Nixon out.

In Watergate, it was known from early on that a crime (breaking and entering, illegal wiretaps, various other election "dirty tricks") had occurred and that it had been done on behalf of Nixon. However, Nixon insisted that he had not known about or protected those who did the crime. What finally caused Nixon to lose the support of his own party was when it became clear via the tapes that he had known about the crimes from the planning stage on, had approved the crimes, and had helped to cover them up afterwards. That Nixon was revealed to have participated in what he and the public had labeled crimes was key to his fall. (Even so, a lot of Nixon voters continued to support him and held that the Watergate crimes were run-of-the-mill politics, which arguably in the JFK and LBJ era was true.)

The Ukraine scandal seems fundamentally different in that the facts of what happened have been pretty much agreed on from the beginning. Trump supporters mostly agree that Trump used his control over military aid to Ukraine as a negotiating tool to ask them to investigate the Bidens. Indeed, far from being contrary to Trump's image in the way that Nixon's involvement in the Watergate break-in was, what Trump is accused of is very much in keeping with his "tough negotiator" image. This his behavior comports with what his supporters were expecting when they supported him to "drain the swamp". It also comports with what Trump opponents feared his presidency would mean: that he would play fast and loose with our international commitments while seeking "deals" that might well stem from ideas he got from unreliable sources.

In this sense, I don't think that there's much likelihood of a Watergate style shift to a bipartisan consensus that this scandal means Trump needs to go. Trump supporters have already expected this kind of behavior and indeed to some extent selected him because of it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Roma on my Brain

Friends, I am writing as dedicatedly as I can to finish Strange Plots for you, but first I would like to tell you what's been on our hearts recently.

My sweet five-year old niece Roma, my brother Will's daughter, spent ten days in the hospital in November, including Thanksgiving, while doctors worked on diagnosing the source of bleeding on her brain. The upshot of it is that she's going to have brain surgery, perhaps as soon as Thursday, to remove a cavernoma, an abnormal clump of blood vessels in the brain. So it's not cancer, thank God, and the surgery should permanently resolve this problem. But it's scary to have a five-year-old undergoing brain surgery.

And it is expensive, vastly expensive.

Perhaps you, like me, figure that there would never be any point in asking for money from friends, because if you're already better off than most of the world. But, "Ask and you shall receive," as someone very wise and loving once said. So if you're considering donating five or ten dollars here or there over the holiday season, please think about helping out Roma. And please know that whatever amount is raised here, it will still be a drop in the bucket to the actual costs the family will face.

And thank you, thank you, my dearest friends.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Elite Moderation

In the aftermath of last week's UK election (in which the Tories won a significant victory, winning a number of seats with Labour voting records stretching back to the 1920s) a couple people were sharing around this old Jonathan Haidt piece from the Guardian on "Why working-class people vote conservative". I think it's right as far as it goes in describing how people with more conservative leanings don't necessarily see themselves as "voting against their interests" when prioritizing cultural issues.
One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavours. In my research with colleagues at, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate "taste buds" of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral "cuisine" makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticise your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one's willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: "Conservatives need not apply."

In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the "cultural" issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalisation and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.
I think this certainly covers a significant portion of what motivates non-elites in voting for right wing politics. However, I think often a certain amount of right wing economics is as much an attraction as the right wing cultural politics. This seems counter-intuitive to a left wing which seems convinced that anyone who is not a millionaire would benefit from supporting their economic policies.

For instance, lowering taxes and simplifying taxes are both fairly popular ideas with the rank-and-file right. Sure, it may be that more actual dollars from a tax cut go to the rich (the rich already pay the majority of the federal taxes, so a broad tax cut naturally helps them most) but a lower tax rate is a lower tax rate. Indeed, seeing your income tax drop by $2,000 may mean a lot more to someone making $50k a year than seeing it drop by five times that much would for someone making five times as much. Tax complexity is also particularly frustrating for less affluent conservatives. If your total tax refund is going to be $500, having to spend $100 of that on getting help to file complicated forms is all the more frustrating. You just paid a 20% tax on your refund due to tax complexity. Whereas for those whose lives are already complex when it comes to finances, having to deal with a tax accountant may seem perfectly natural. So even though a flat tax would be a massive windfall for the rich, the idea that you could fill out your taxes on a form the size of postcard and just be done is massively attractive to the lower earning kind of conservative.

I think also, however, that it can at times be easier to have a right wing approach to actual benefit programs when one is comparatively low income. Perhaps I'm over-extrapolating from personal experience, but I know that back when I was trying to pay rent in California while we lived off a $14/hr income, I was far, far less sympathetic towards benefit programs. I didn't want to be given what I saw as a handout. I wanted to have enough money left to cover our monthly expenses. Earning a raise or promotion at work seemed like it was a validation that I was working hard and doing work better than others could. I valued those things tremendously. By comparison, getting a raise as part of a "raise the minimum wage" effort would have simply emphasized how close to the bottom I was and made me feel like I was getting paid just for showing up, not because I was doing work well. Union-based approaches to work also frustrated me, because the union environments I'd encountered were very focused on how much breaktime you got and only doing precisely the work you were supposed to do -- by contrast I was always convinced I could make myself stand out from the pack (and thus eventually make more money) by showing that I could work longer, learn faster, and do more types of work than others.

From where I sit now, it's a lot easier to sign on to the basic guilt pitch (not everyone is as fortunate as you, and you need to make sure that there are benefits for those who aren't) and also for the elite pitch (some people simply aren't going to excel in their jobs, and we need to make sure those people make a good living wage too.) As a result, I'm more moderate on economic issues than I was fifteen years ago, and I think that's pretty directly as a result of making more money. Indeed, I'd go further and say that these kind of elitism-based arguments are one of the things that tends to push many elites into the moderate-to-center-left political camp. Sure, maybe elites would be a bit better off under a more right-leaning kind of tax-and-spend policy, but the upper middle class easily lets itself slide into a self perception as the tribunes of the working people standing up to protect them against the real elites in the top 1%.

I wouldn't have drifted towards the center if I didn't think I was right to change, but I try also to temper my current political commitments by imagining what my younger self would think of my current self. No one likes to be looked down on, and I think it's pretty common on the middle class right to swat away elite offers of "let us help you, because you'll never be like us" with the scorn such condescending sentiments deserve. One of the essentially right wing insights that I aim not to let go of is that people expect the basic dignity of being given the room to make their own livings, not to have it handed to them by their self appointed social betters.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Strange Plots 20


Strange plots of dire revenge.
Titus Andronicus, 5.ii

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

This call and response pounded in Andrew Titus’s head day and night. The Lord giveth. The Lord had certainly given to Titus: given him the election and the ordination to be a minister of His wrath. And the day of His wrath was coming, burning like sinners in the lake of fire. But Our Lord had also said be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Titus was being harmless, oh so harmless. To the world he was weak, while he waited for the day when the wisdom of the serpent would spring loose and make the wicked fall into their own nets.

The Lord taketh away. When he had first seen his Lavinia lying broken and bloody on the floor of the barn, her face a pulp, the soul within him had cracked. When he saw the blood between her twisted legs and found her undergarments askew, inside out, the horror running in his veins turned to fire. No one must know. No one must see her like this. Scooping her up, he rushed her to the car and laid her in the back seat. She must go to Roanoke, to the hospital, to the best doctors. Titus tore down the mountain, every curve, every jolt, a spur to more speed. Haste. He must make haste.

Yes, he must confess: in his haste, he had erred. The doctors were somber as they spoke to him. Lavinia should not have been moved. Her spine… Well, they were doing all they could. And there was serious concern for the brain. The gynaecologist, too, was reticient. It was too early to tell.

It was quickly established that Titus had been in Roanoke that afternoon, during the time Lavinia had been attacked in Titusville. That, along the realization that she would not die, was enough for the city police. Let the local authorities take up mountain crime.  Her clothes were released to Titus, and he was encouraged to get some rest.

Sitting on a bench in the hospital lobby, he clutched her dress, the very one he’d bought her in Roanoke months earlier. How sweet she had looked in it at church. But why had Lavinia worn her nice dress for a day at home? Had she gone into town? He examined the garment, forcing himself to study the smeared blood. He passed it through his hands, feeling the fine gauzy fabric, the elegant stitching, the stiffness in the pocket. He put his hand in the pocket and pulled out an index card. On it, scribbled in pencil in Lavinia’s precise hand, was a recipe for “Mrs. Sanders’s Meat Pie.”

He must not be hasty. He must think. He must wait. “For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth,” he murmured. “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

Months passed, but he waited. He gave it out that Lavinia had fallen, that she was paralyzed, that she could remember very little of her accident. He was careful never to suggest that anyone else had been to his farm, that Lavinia’s accident had been anything but an accident. He must suffer the tares to grow among the wheat until the harvest was ready. He had nine months until he knew which shade of McGrath must die: red or black.

Nine months to observe the wages of sin. Aaron Moore had the sleek oily look of a man who had feasted on stolen bread. It was no part of Titus’s business to hand, so he said nothing, but the mayor ought to look to his household and his own wife. At the other extreme, Demetrius seemed to live the life of a hermit. He sat rigid in church, eyes straight ahead, his attention fixed on the Word of God. His sin was ever before him, and he trembled for the judgment to come.

Titus could wait, and he could pray, and he did pray night and day: “Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies: thy right hand shall find out those that hate thee. Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.”

He would destroy the seed, and he would root out the evil from the land. The misbegotten child of wickedness must reveal its father, and then it must die.

And one summer day the call came summoning Titus to Roanoke, neutrally worded so as not to alert anyone who might be listening on the party line, and he drove into the city to receive the word of judgment. At the hospital, he was ushered into a room. Lavinia had been carefully propped up in her bed, and the nurse, standing beside her, had moved her arms into position to cradle a tiny child, swaddled and bonneted.

“Look, Daddy,” she said in her slow new voice, but it was a voice of wonder, “This is my baby girl. I named her Helen.”

Titus’s hands trembled as he took the little creature. As he looked down at her, her new face wrinkled and fell. She tossed her head in minute rage, disarranging her bonnet, revealing a shock of red hair.

For a moment he saw, not the seed of wickedness, nor an innocent baby, but red-haired Allan McGrath extending his hand in peace across the gate, a moment before he was shot. Before Titus shot him.

He said and did what was appropriate, but he was shaken to the core, seized with doubt. This baby was innocent, as innocent as Allan McGrath had been. Titus had already killed a blameless man once, and it must not happen again. The innocent must not suffer, as Lavinia suffered, as Allan McGrath had suffered. There must be no more murder, for the sake of this tiny Helen. She must not bear more sorrow than had already been inflicted on her, before she was born.

It was not until he was driving home that he was able to think clearly. He had indeed shot Allan McGrath. Executed him. Titus had executed Allan McGrath as an indictment on the whole McGrath clan for the death of his son Quintin. And if he could shoot point-blank a McGrath who was personally innocent, did he not have the courage to wreak vengeance on the McGrath who had personally violated and maimed his daughter? For the Lord was a zealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

But perhaps if Titus killed the iniquitous father and removed his evil from the earth, his sin would not affect the third or fourth generation. Lavinia’s daughter would have a fresh new start. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out. Helen would be a Titus, not a McGrath.

At home, Titus sequestered himself in his house and devoted himself to prayer and fasting. Show me, O Lord, your will. If I am to work your vengeance on the McGraths, give me a sign. For a week he prayed, paying no attention to news from town that the Mayor’s wife had given birth, that her child had been deformed, that it had died. God be praised. One less McGrath in the world.

And then, the sign came, clear as the knock on his door late at night. Opening it, he found Mayor Sanders and Demetrius McGrath on his doorstep in the sweltering darkness, the Mayor twitching, jittery with adrenaline, the boy streaked with summer sweat.

“I don’t know who to turn to but you, Titus,” rasped the Mayor, “but I think you’ll be willing to help me, when you know.”

In the back seat of his car was Aaron Moore, bleeding, bound, and gagged, eyes glittering in the light of the Mayor’s flashlight.

“I caught him breaking into my house,” Sanders explained. “I didn’t feel that I could take him to the police station, or they might ask why he’s bleeding. But I didn’t think I could just release him.” His politician’s smile was a mere rictus. “And so I’m asking you to hold him here for me, in your barn.”

“You thought that the police would question why you struck a colored man breaking into your home?” Titus refused to be moved by Sanders’s obvious distress. “And why is it that you turn to me, Clayton Sanders?”

The Mayor was too destroyed to hem and haw. “You’re a man who demands strict justice, above the demands of the law and the courts. If I take him to the police, they’ll question him.”

“And what will they learn?”

The reek of desperation was strong on the Mayor as he clutched at Titus. “I dug up the grave in the backyard. I needed to see my child, do you understand? But it wasn’t there. There was no body. Aaron Moore stole the baby and hid it somewhere.”

“Why would he do that?” Titus asked, impassive.

“Because it was his.” Demetrius spoke for the first time, pale but resolute. “If Aaron Moore goes to the police, everyone will know about my mother’s disgrace.”

“Oho.” Andrew Titus was very still, but a fire seemed to be flickering at the edges of his aloofness. He turned deliberately to Demetrius and looked at him for the first time. “And you, boy, do you disapprove of this wantonness of your mother’s? Do you renounce the sins of the flesh?”

“I do, sir,” said Demetrius, afflicted with conviction. “I believe that God will punish the evildoers.”

Andrew Titus clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re right, boy. And you shall be a minister of his vengeance.” He turned to the mayor, his former sleepiness suddenly transformed into action. “I will help you, Clayton Sanders. What do you want done with this adulterer?”

The mayor was wild-eyed. “He must disappear. He must be silenced. No one must know.”

“And so he shall,” Titus decreed. Then he drew himself up and declared the word of the Lord upon Aaron Moore. “They shall die of grievous deaths; they shall not be lamented; neither shall they be buried; but they shall be as dung upon the face of the earth: and they shall be consumed by the sword, and by famine; and their carcasses shall be meat for the fowls of heaven, and for the beasts of the earth.”

The weight of the wrath of the Lord hung heavy upon the farmyard, bowing the heads of the men. Then Titus strode toward the barn, all business.

“We’d best go in my truck,” he said. “It has more room for supplies.”

Deep in a cornfield, in the midst of the midnight rustling, Titus crouched beside the figure bound to a pole and buried up to his chest, and pulled the dirty gag from his mouth.

“Make a sound and you’ll regret it,” he said, softly, deadly.

Aaron started on a stream of choice profanity, but Titus clamped his jaw shut with sweaty fingers.

“The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things,” said Titus. “I am a man of infinite patience, Aaron Moore, but the Mayor and Demetrius may start to wonder why I’m not coming back to the truck just yet. If you cooperate with me, I may come back tomorrow and let you go.” He released Aaron’s mouth.

“Free me now, Andrew Titus,” croaked Aaron through cracked lips, “and I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Otherwise, you’ll get nothing from me.”

Titus extracted a bone-handled knife from his pocket and drew it lazily over the tip of his finger.“I believe you’ll tell me what I want to know regardless,” he said, wiping the blood on his other palm.

Aaron blinked fiercely against the sweat dripping in his eyes. “I’m not afraid of pain.”

“You will be.” Titus held the knife under Aaron’s chin. “But I think you’ll tell me because what I want to know will cause me pain. What happened to my Lavinia?”

Aaron’s face glowed with a sheen of malice. As he spoke, low and venomous, Titus listened stoically in the dark .

“You did what I asked, so I will grant you this,” he said. “I’ll wait to cut out your tongue until after you’re dead.”

Back at Titus’s farm, once out of the truck, Demetrius fell to his hands and knees and was sick on the ground.

“Leave him here tonight to clean up,” said Titus to the Mayor. “Go home to your wife. Tomorrow night, here, she and I will talk peace terms between the McGraths and Tituses.”

“But she just had a baby a week ago,” the Mayor protested, his hysteria bubbling closer and closer to the surface. “Is she even allowed out of bed? She could still be bleeding.”

“Women aren’t that fragile,” said Titus. “She’ll come.” He placed a hand on Demetrius’s shoulder, almost affectionately. “Demetrius will help me make the place comfortable for her, won’t you, son?”

As the mayor rumbled down the driveway, Titus steered Demetrius toward the black house.

“Come, boy,” he said. “Come on inside and I’ll show you what I have in mind for tomorrow.”

But Demetrius pulled away, though at great cost, and faced Titus squarely. The only thing visible was his white face, mask-like in the dim light of the moon.

“Andrew Titus, I must confess to you.” His agony drove him to his knees. “If I die in my sin, the Evil One will drag me straight to hell.”

Titus laid a hand on Demetrius’s head and gently forced it back so that Demetrius was looking up at him. “Yes, my boy,” he soothed, drawing a bone-handled knife out of his pocket. “I know.”

The next day, Titus worked feverishly. He fumbled through the unaccustomed task of mixing pie dough, consulting a battered book of recipes. For the filling, he followed the recipe for “Mrs. Sanders’s Meat Pie”, which he had painstakingly transcribed from the card found in Lavinia’s clothes. The original he had stored with her things in Roanoke. He could not bear to look at her handwriting while he minced and mixed.

By evening, anticipation had tuned Titus’s taut nerves to a jangling sharpness. He stood at quivering attention on his porch to welcome Tamar as she set careful heavy foot out of the Mayor’s car.

“You have never been to my home, ma’am,” he said, offering her his arm with eager care, “but I pray that this will visit will mean the end of conflict between our families.”

Tamar did not accept his arm. She clung to the car door and swept surveillance over the farmyard, the porch, the front windows. “Where is my son?”

Titus, humble Titus, was quick to assure. “He’s inside, ma’am, and a valuable lad he is.  I could not have made ready without him. A fine boy, you ought to be proud of him.”

She lumbered past the hands extended to help her, creaking up the front stairs without the assistance of either man, husband or foe. “I want to see Demetrius.”

Titus rushed to open his front door to her.  He bustled about the farmhouse chamber which served as both living room and dining room, offering Tamar the cushioned chair at the head of the table, trimming oil lamps and setting them about the room, straightening the pretty knickknacks that Lavinia had made to cheer the house.

Tamar clutched the arms of the chair and lowered herself gingerly onto the seat. “Come to the point, Titus,” she said, sitting bolt upright through sheer force of will. “I am too old to play games with you. Where is my son?”

Titus stood across from her at the other end of the table, his little speech prepared and rehearsed. “We have overseen much fighting, you and I. And who has suffered most for our pride? Our children. Let us end this, once and for all.” He fetched from the sideboard a rustic pie and set it before her with twitching hands. “A peace offering, ma’am, while we talk.”

The bone handle of the knife he cut with was so discolored that Mayor Sanders  privately resolved to cut his own piece separately. Titus set a large slice on a plate before Tamar, savory juices oozing from under the thick paste. The hunger of the new mother was on her. Reluctant to eat under Titus’s roof, she still could not resist taking a bite. Then she stiffened.

“This is my meat pie,” she hissed. “You stole my recipe, Andrew Titus.”

“I borrowed it from my daughter,” said Titus. “She had the recipe in her pocket when she had her fall. I thought it too generous of you to let her have it, and since you hold it so closely, I felt myself honor-bound to say nothing. Won’t you tell me how I did?”

It was hard for Tamar to recover from the shock of her own recipe. She took another taste.

“Your flavors are off,” she said.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Titus with obsequious glee. “Perhaps I’ll get it right with practice. Here!” he said sharply to the mayor, who was about to serve himself a slice. “This is entirely for the new mother. She must eat to keep up her strength. You see, ma’am,” he continued to Tamar, who was now eating greedily despite herself, “I’ve heard all about your baby.”

“Have you,” mumbled Tamar around a mouthful of pie. “I doubt it.”

“Yes, your child with Aaron Moore. Come, come, we’re all adults here,” he said, as Tamar choked and tried to rise. “There’s no need to play the innocent. Aren’t we here to make peace? In fact, I want to congratulate you on your double accomplishment. There are not many women who become a mother and a grandmother in the same week.”

Only Tamar’s eyes moved, tracking Titus’s every gesture as he roamed about the room.

“Yes, a grandmother!” he beamed. “I see I’m the first to give you this happy news. Your grandchild was born in Roanoke. I’ve seen her and held her. A little girl.”

“See here!” the Mayor objected nervously. “What are you talking about?”

Titus and Tamar, locked in their private war, paid him no heed.

“You see, Lavinia gave birth too,” Titus said, his voice growing ever gentler and more menacing. “Such a striking child, with that red hair.”

“Where is Demetrius?” Tamar’s stillness was no longer shock, but the tensing of an animal at bay.

“Such an honest boy.” Titus leered at the memory. “He was good enough to tell me all about how you and Aaron Moore encouraged him to pay attention to my daughter. Such loving attention. God in his mercy has seen to it that she remembers nothing, but now I know.” He loomed over Tamar now. “Yes, I know.”

“How dare you, Titus!” squeaked the mayor, frightened out of his depth. “My wife and I are going home.” But again, he was unheeded.

“Where is my son?” Tamar moaned. “Where is Aaron?”

“Haven’t you guessed? They’re with you now.” The light from the oil lamp flickered madly in Titus’s eyes. “They’re inside you, as close as your heart. Did you like your meat pie? Did you enjoy my little additions? Just for you, I added a new ingredient — tongue.”

Tamar rocked in her chair, keening and crooning to herself.

“Would you like to see your Demetrius?” Titus roared. “Come hold him!” He yanked open a closet door, and a red-haired body tumbled out and flopped on the floor. Its gory face stared blankly at its wailing mother, the throat gaping in a hideous smeared grin.

“Aaron Moore regrets he can’t be here in person,” Titus crowed over Tamar’s clamor, and the retching of the mayor, “but now you’ll always carry a bit of him with you too, now that you’ve eaten him. See that knife? It’s the one I used on both of them. And I’m going to use it on you.”

For a moment, Tamar clutched her stomach in agony. Then she rose from her chair like a banshee and screamed to fill the house, an unearthly wail of horror and grief. Titus roared with triumph at the sound.

Tamar seized an oil lamp and threw it at his face. “Burn!” she shrieked as the lamp exploded and flames dripped down his face and chest onto the floor. “Die!”

Titus, screeching like a stuck pig, did not beat the flames off his body. Hands ablaze, he seized Tamar and wrestled her to the table. Inch by struggling, fiery inch he forced her head down and ground her face into the pie. Fire flowed across both of them as they struggled, setting the tablecloth and the carpet alight. Suddenly Titus gave an inhuman bray and dropped Tamar to the floor as he arched in new pain. From his back protruded a bone handle. The Mayor, shaking with his single burst of bravery, sobbed and fainted.

Titus staggered through the smoke toward the door, but stumbled and fell as fingers trapped his leg. Tamar, her red hair now singing and crisping around her flaming face, hauled herself up his writhing body. Their screams rose and blended in weird overtones as she grasped the knife and wrenched it from his body. Blood spurted from the wound and sprayed over her, doing nothing to douse the flames.

With a horrific effort, Titus rolled himself over. Tamar had managed to pull herself to almost standing, still holding the knife. Maternal blood was dripping down her legs.

“Kill me!” Titus howled from cooked throat.

Tamar raised her blazing arm and hurled the knife. End over end it rotated, striking and shattering a windowpane. The pane shattered and then imploded as the rush of fresh oxygen created a backdraft that blew the room into a consuming inferno. The rage of the fire finally drowned out all other cries.

Luke Titus and the sheriff stood looking down at the four charred bodies that had been pulled from the remains of the house. Luke fingered the sooty knife he’d picked up. The sheriff contemplated the state of the house, the state of the bodies, and the Mayor’s automobile in the yard.

“I’d say accidental death,” he murmured.

“Accidental death,” Luke Titus agreed, burying deep in his mind the memory of his father shooting Allan McGrath.

Luke Titus stood looking down at the bed where his scarred immobile sister lay sleeping. He looked down at the child in the bassinet, her red hair beginning to curl in wisps against her creamy forehead.

“We tried contacting your father,” the nurse explained. “This institution is not equipped to care for infants. The child cannot stay here anymore. It must go to a home. Where is her father?”

“Dead,” said Luke, burying deep in his mind the memory of the smoking ashes of Demetrius McGrath.

Luke Titus knocked on the door of a dreary farmhouse outside of town. A haggard man opened it and stared at the bundle Luke held.

“How’s she doing today?” Luke asked.

“Poorly,” said the man, stepping aside to let Luke in.

In a rocking chair by a window, a woman was bent almost double, clutching her aching breasts. Luke knelt by her and held out the baby.

“I brought you something, Maud,” he said.

Maud looked at the child, then away. “It’s not my baby.”

“No, but she needs to eat. Her name is Helen.”

Maud took the whimpering infant and unfastened her dress, and for a moment both woman and child shrieked, one in pain, the other in confusion.

“She’s had a bottle. She can’t nurse,” Maud said through gritted teeth.

“She’ll learn,” said Luke, standing.

“Where’d you get her?”

Luke hesitated. “Lavinia’s.”

A gleam of life flickered in the woman’s eyes. “You don’t say. Miss Priss herself. No wonder Daddy sent her away so fast.” She tried to coax the infant back on to her bursting breast.

At the door, the man said, “But Lavinia’s alive?”

“She can’t care for the child.” A rustle of money, changing hands. “I’ll be back to see her now and then. Treat her as your own. You’re all the family she has now.”

As he drove away, he buried deep in his mind the memory of the existence and damnation of Tamar McGrath.