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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Life in Uncertain Times

I headed down to the break room yesterday to fill up my hot water kettle in order to make coffee. A couple guys from the plant were in there discussing the corona virus over their lunch boxes.

"Have you heard forty percent of people think that virus comes from drinking Corona beer?"

"Yeah. People will believe anything. They're all getting swept up in this panic when way more people have died from flu."

"I figure the people in charge just want everyone scared so they can tell us all what to do."

"A few months and it'll all be forgotten."

There you have it, the broad assumptions that things will probably keep on much as they've been, seasoned with the belief that "they" are someone manipulating everyone. Back at my desk, with coffee trickling through the cone filter into my mug, I could see the other side of the reaction to COVID-19: Our company put out a travel warning that there was to be no company travel to China, South Korea, or northern Italy. The stock market was down more than 10% for the week.

Through talking with the people in our company who actually deal with China, I know that the economic impact, at least, is very real. People in our Shanghai office have been staying home for the last month (and Shanghai is five hundred miles from Wuhan.) Customers aren't paying their bills and have stopped ordering. No one needs metal cutting tools if their factories are shutting down anyway. And even as people slowly go back to work, they're doing so only while wearing masks that are apparently in short supply. Manufacturing sales had already been slow for the last six months, if the disruption in China keeps up the slowdown could get a good deal worse as the world of manufacturing is all tied together these days.

And then, of course, there are the basic medical facts, to the extent that we know them: the disease seems to spread slightly better than the flu (though not nearly as well as old epidemics like smallpox) and yet the lethality is seven to twenty times higher, depending on which set of currently circulating figures you look at. The fact that it has a long incubation period (giving people to travel around for two weeks before they know they have it) and that many people get it fairly mildly (and thus might not even think they have anything other than a cold) seems like a recipe for a hard-to-contain disease that could circulate pretty widely.

My tendency when faced with these things is usually to assume that after an initial period of worry, everything will be fine. The news loves a good story of impending doom. A few weeks ago, it was that we were going to start World War III with Iran. Once upon a time it was that Ebola was going to sweep the country. This is not merely a modern phenomenon. I'm in the middle of re-reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose for a book club, and Eco's well-researched portrayal of the 14th century is suffused with a conviction that the world is teetering on the brink of the end times.

In our day, we're used to things working out well. Our wars tend to be limited and fought far from our shores. Medical science has made us safe from many of the diseases that used to take the lives of so many people. And yet, if only because we have so much to lose, the fear that it could all fall apart is forever gnawing at our public consciousness. And there is no law of nature that says we must remain safe from sudden reverses.

And so we have these two conflicting reactions, both of which seem to have a lot of plausibility: Everything is going to be fine. Everything could fall apart.

Across the span of history, both of these tend to be true. Things do fall apart, catastrophically, throughout our history. And yet, these catastrophes are not final. Human societies have repeatedly suffered massive shocks and yet continued on, often recovering surprisingly quickly. While our dramatic sense seems to look for finality: everything will be wonderful from here on out, or everything will fall apart and it will be The End, what we see through the decades and centuries is instead that everything is not okay and yet things keep going nonetheless. While from a story sense we're often over-interested in the world ending, the world keeps going, it's we individually that do not know the day or the hour.

So in the end, while we should engage in basic caution and preparedness, it's probably not the next big world defining catastrophe that we should be focused on most. Right now everyone reading this is alive. Eventually, none of us will be, and most of us will end in some way that does not appear in world headlines.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Flu Journal, part 2: Fever Ramblings

Somewhere in this house we have a thermometer, seen as recently as last week. Everyone put it somewhere it's not now; everyone thinks someone else moved it. Everyone's probably right. This is all to say that I don't know how high my fever is right now, but the heat in my cheeks tells me that it is Up There. I've spent about an hour waiting for my three ibuprofen to kick in, with no results.

What else suggests fever is the refrain pounding in my head. Of all the things I could be obsessively playing in my brain -- the complete Hamilton cast recording, American Pie, 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall -- what has taken up repetitive root is the entrance hymn I sang on Ash Wednesday, when I was already a day in to being sick but still telling myself that it was a cold. This was a new song, one I've never heard before. That's always a bad sign.

The refrain went:
In these days of Lenten journey, we have seen and we have heard
The call to sow justice in the lives of those we serve.
The tune is drawn from the great tradition of Glory and Praise, a style that only makes sense in reference to itself. Perhaps "show tune" is the nearest genre that fits, but show tunes need to sell a show. Composers of modern Catholic worship music don't have to sell anything -- their audience is trapped in the pews, like it or not -- and so they're under no compulsion to make their music sound like anything, especially not like a hymn.

But aside from the nothingburger tune, what do we mean by "days of Lenten journey"? Did Jesus spend his time in the desert journeying? He did not. He was still. He was fasting. When did he journey? At the end of his time in the desert, when Satan dragged him around, that's when.

So, Lent is not a time of journeying, but of being still and responding to temptations with the word of God. Concepts we normally associate with Lent are penance, preparation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, but the second line of this couplet hits none of the familiar tropes, but instead focuses on "the call to sow justice", not generally a Lenten theme.

However, perhaps scriptural allusions will make the connection clearer:
The wicked make empty profits,
but those who sow justice have a sure reward. Prov. 11:18 
Sow for yourselves justice,
reap the reward of loyalty;
Break up for yourselves a new field,
for it is time to seek the LORD,
till he comes and rains justice upon you. Hosea 10:1 
And he that ministereth seed to the sower, will both give you bread to eat, and will multiply your seed, and increase the growth of the fruits of your justice". 2 Cor. 9:10 (Douay-Rheims; other translations use "righteousness".) 
And the fruit of justice is sown in peace, to them that make peace. James 3:18 (Douay-Rheims; other translations use "righteousness".)
Pardon me if I think it's a stretch to fit these verses into the artificial context of "Lenten journey".


In the course of my Googling to make sure I had the words correct, I came across a composer's note, which stated that the song had been written to focus on the musically neglected Lenten theme of "acts of charity", especially from a social justice perspective. I leave it to the reader to determine whether verse lyrics such as, "In the coolness of evening we'll shelter their dreams," (in reference to the homeless) lives up to this noble aim.

Two hours and counting on the ibuprofen. Any moment now my head should stop pounding and my face cool down...

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Flu Journal

First thing the nurse did, before taking my temperature or looking down my throat, was swab for flu. "Yep, that's what I thought," she said, watching the test register positive almost immediately. "I hear that deep cough and I know."

I had a lot of things I was supposed to do this weekend, and many gracious people have stepped up to fill in for me, hosting the baby shower, directing the chant choir rehearsal, covering PSR class Sunday morning. I guess I need to call down to church and get on the communion list, something I've never done before. I've been Catholic all my life, yet I feel like such a novice.

I've started Tamiflu and am quarantined in my bedroom, and everyone has strict orders not to breath in my face. The incubation period for flu is 48 hours, and that period is nearly up, so scrutiny is intense. God willing, no one else will come down with it.

And no, I didn't have my ever-loving flu shot. I tried, you know. I made appointments at the doctor's office for myself and all the kids, only to be called back and told that they were out of the vaccine. I took everyone down to the walk-in clinic, and found that this one day they'd scheduled a dayful of appointments and had no openings for shots. After that I gave up, and I suppose now I'm paying the price.

So my beginning-of-Lent penance really has been chosen for me. Fasting hasn't been hard -- I don't want to eat anything, and indeed the nurse cautioned me against getting dehydrated. So I nibble a bit, and I lay in bed and ache, and I read when my eyes don't hurt too much. I'm looking forward to when I feel well enough to take a shower, but at the moment the thought of water beating on my skin makes me shudder.

I'm still off Facebook for Lent, so I don't have access to the world of linkage and great articles as I lay isolated. If there's something awesome I should be reading now, share it with me. I got nothing better to do.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

The first day of Lent, and I've spent most of it in bed.

Last night I felt the first touches of some kind of throaty ailment -- shallow cough, aches, weariness. This morning, when I'd planned to get up early and do something spiritual, I instead slept in, sore and heavy and thick of throat. I took a nap mid-morning and listened to the children rattling around downstairs, glad to be unsupervised in terms of schoolwork, but otherwise at loose ends, and I didn't really care because I felt too stupid. I read a bit, but from Sherlock Holmes, not Jillian of Norwich as I'd planned for my Lenten reflections.

I don't really mind. If God has sent me a cold to start off Lent, that's the penance he wants me to take on. As I lay in my warm bed under a cozy comforter, I thought of the news article I read the other day about families suffering in Syria because of fighting, driven from their homes in the winter. A man arrived at the hospital clutching his tiny child only to learn that he'd been carrying a dead, frozen little body. I held that little body to myself as I shivered under my blanket, and offered my cold and even my comfort for that family.

How does one offer one's comfort? I don't know, but the Morning Offering we pray each day at our family prayers starts off: "O my Jesus, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day." I don't know that I'm joyful at this moment, but if there is ease in my enforced rest, surely I can offer that for someone who has no ease at this moment. If I'm warm, I can offer it for those suffering from the cold. If my life circumstances allow me to be sheltered and safe, I've been given a place of respite from which to pray for others.

And then I might have some tea with lemon and honey, even though it's Ash Wednesday. Swallowing it might be penance enough.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Great War, Volume 2, Chapter 6-3

This installment concludes Chapter 6. Next week we'll return to Natalie with Chapter 7.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. “Dearest Henri,” the orphan words looked up at Philomene from the page. In her days in the lycee they had completed composition exercises by rote. “Write a letter to your aunt thanking her for the gift that she sent you. The letter must be at least three paragraphs, and the gift may not be mentioned until the second paragraph.” “Write a letter to your grandfather telling him about a recent occurrence in your family.” Never, however, had she seen a model composition for, “Inform your husband serving in the army that during his year-long absence you have decided to adopt another child.”

Nor had the occasional separations of courtship and married life, with their letters filled with equal parts small household news and expressions of longing, provided training for this need. Even the other letters that she had managed to send to him since the war began had carried as their implicit message: here we wait, staying as much the same as we are able, until your return.

She put the cap back onto her drying pen and looked at little Marianne, lying in the small cradle which had held each of her children in turn, and once upon a time had held her as a baby. The baby’s face was pink against the white sheets and her expression was all quiet repose. Even without the natural lassitude that came from having nursed the baby herself there was something in those tiny features. The pointed chin, the softly closed eyelids with their little wisps of eyelash, the tiny white pores against the reddish skin of the nose -- every detail was something that could be contemplated without end. Not only were they small and peaceful, but each feature held the promise of many years unfolding before it. This small bundle of potential which as yet did nothing on her own had bursting forth within her so many possible futures, if only she could be given the time and peace to realize them.

And that was what it was so hard to find the words to tell Henri. Each of their children till now they had made between them, formed within, the product of their love. That she had chosen to add this child, whom he had never seen, to their family without being able to consult him seemed an admission that the family was growing and changing without him. There was no doubt in her mind that Henri would have supported her choice had he been there. It was the necessity of changing the family without his knowledge which made all the more clear that he was gone and that when he returned -- she would not allow the word ‘if’ -- it would be to a different family. And yet that was precisely why it seemed like a betrayal to end this day without writing to him, however long the letter might take to actually reach his hands.

She uncapped her pen again and hesitated with the nib just above the paper. Perhaps in the end the best way was the least artful. She would simply narrate from the beginning.

“This morning I was in the kitchen when there was a knock at the door….”

The letter ran to three sheets, written closely on both sides, as Philomene described not only what had happened, but why she had felt it her duty to make this little girl a member of the family, and also the infant beauty which made her happy to perform that duty. And then in closing, she returned to her love for Henri, to how much she and all the children missed him, to the glimpses of Henri she saw in his son who was becoming a man so quickly. She hoped that soon they would all see him again, that soon the war would be over and they could all live together in peace.

And with such wishes -- and a dash of her favorite perfume, which she hoped might cling to the paper over the weeks it would take to each Henri and give him a waft of memory that would remind him of the times they had spent in close embrace -- she sealed the letter and addressed the envelope to Henri.

This envelope, in turn, she placed in a larger envelope, and this she addressed to the convent in Munich which was of the same order as their convent in Chateau Ducloux. From there it could be forwarded to another convent in Switzerland, and from there to one in Paris, and from there to Henri. It was a slow process that took nearly a month to complete, but it made it possible to exchange letters with Henri even across the battle lines. Already, by this means, they had managed to exchange several letters.

But it was not a sure means. It depended on the tolerance or ignorance of the warring powers, both of whom officially disallowed communication with enemy territory. And in this case, at last, luck ran out. The convent’s packet was opened by an overly diligent German postal official. Among the letters that he found inside was one addressed to “Captain Henri Fournier, 304th Reserve Infantry Regiment”. That, to him, was clear enough proof of the duplicity of these Rome-ish nuns. He threw the small, scented envelope into the fire and for good measure followed it with the rest of the convent’s packet.

Henri, thus, never received the letter. And the disappearance of the packet alarmed the sisters, who held back some months before attempting again to send messages from the Munich convent to France via Switzerland. And this, in turn, would have results for Henri and Philomene that neither the postal official nor the sisters could have imagined.

[continue reading]

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Great War, Volume 2, Chapter 6-2

[I thought I'd hit Publish on this last Sunday when I put up the installment on the Great War site, but apparently not. Here it is now. Next installment is due on Sunday.]

Sorry to miss posting last weekend. Travels continue. I post this section from California, where I'm out helping my mom for a couple days. We're all looking forward to things calming down in March after this eventful February.

But here's the next installment, back with Philomene in occupied France.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. August 7th, 1915. The next morning was calmer for Philomene. She gave the girls breakfast and turned them out into the garden to play. Pascal slept late, and when at last he came down he was more her quiet son of a year ago than the sullen young man who had returned to her from harvest duty the day before.

She cut him a large piece of bread and spread it generously with butter.

“Would you like coffee?”

Even with Grandpere’s black market activities, coffee was far more a luxury now than it had been before the war. The beans had to come from Africa, South America, or from the Pacific. All those sea lanes were firmly under the control of the British Navy, and it was their policy that no cargo ships, even under the flags of neutral nations, could sail to Germany and its occupied territories. Thus even in the Fournier family coffee remained a treat reserved for the most important occasions and even then only for adults. But Pascal was only just back from nearly two weeks with the labor detail. Surely that was a special occasion.

“They made us pots of ersatz coffee each morning during the harvest,” Pascal explained, after swallowing down the over-large mouthful of bread and butter that had blocked his speech. “The older boys said it was made from scorched grain. It was hot, so we drank it, but it was so bitter.”

“This is real coffee your grandfather bought. I can put cream in it for you if it’s still too bitter.”

“Yes please.”

Pascal sat taking large bites of his bread and watched her fill the coffee pot. He was all hers and all little boy. And then a knock sounded at the door.

For a moment neither moved. A knock no longer had the harmless function that it had before, or rather, the function was the same, but the range of reasons a visitor might come to the door had expanded to include many that were as uncomfortable to think on as they were impossible to ignore. Nor could they simply wait for the maid to answer it.

Philomene went to the door and opened it.

[continue reading]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Letters for Lent

Darwin is in California for half of this week, visiting his family, so I'm thinking about long-distance communication. Ash Wednesday is next week. Lent is upon us. And I'd like to continue my discipline/joy of past years and write letters for Lent.

There are few things more gratifying than getting a good old-fashioned letter. I can't promise that I'll write something for the ages -- more likely you'll get whatever is passing through my head on the day your name comes up -- but my handwriting is legible and I'm set up with my nice pen and some pleasing blue ink and a supply of crisp paper. I'll even buy the pretty stamps.

If you'd like a letter from me written sometime during Lent, please email your name and address to darwincatholic (at) It doesn't matter whether you're local or across the ocean, whether we've never met or we talk every week. If you tell me a bit about yourself, I'll try to write about things we have in common. (I'll write to you whether or not you tell me anything, but I'd like to avoid, say, grousing about child-rearing to someone who has infertility, or going on about the trials of home ownership to someone who wishes they had a place of their own.)

It has been my pleasure in past years to be able to write to some long-term readers and be able to put names to comments, or meet newer readers and form new friendships. And if you feel like it, I'd love to hear back from you.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Quick Valentine Takes

1. Historian Alice Sharp begs everyone to stop spreading spurious stories about the origin of Valentine's Day.
It’s tempting to say that these stories don’t matter. We want, after all, to teach people that marriage is important, and it makes a nice story. Let’s not fall into that, however. Christianity is a faith that makes a historical claim—that God became man and lived with humanity, in a specific culture and empire and year. We don’t need to rely on bad history to teach a lesson, nor do we want to undermine our historical claims by ignoring what we can say. Not every historical question will have a tidy answer of cause and effect. The story of St. Valentine and love, however, gives us a picture of a world in which the saints offered a sanctification of the calendar itself, marking the seasons and the days—even days given over to the most secular of pleasures.
2. Meanwhile, in Heaven, St. Valentine longs to hear the end of it.

3.  It just don't get any more romantic than being rickrolled by the talented Gunhild Carling.

4. Give that special lady in your life the Solomon treatment.

5. ...You know what, my dears? Five takes is about all I can muster for Valentine's Day, a holiday I actually care little about. But if you do care about it, but want to make like you don't because you really ought to be above all that, and then find yourself hurt because your significant other takes you at your word that you want nothing, Simcha Fisher has some wise words.
Several years ago, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.  For so many years, the poor man had been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him. 
I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing, which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted. Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster. 
Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.  So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap and price tag off before giving them to me, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!
6. Enjoy your chocolate!

Friday, February 07, 2020

Thorns and Thorin

Yesterday morning I found myself with a bare-bummed boy on the changing table, kicking his heels as I rummaged around looking for a diaper. But I out of luck, because there was no other package of diapers in the huge cardboard box on the floor. It had been empty for weeks, and I'd been tripping over it every day for naught. And so the boy had to go into a pair of training pants, and I had to run to the store.

Later that day, one of my daughters looked in the washing machine and remarked how disgusting it was. Now, the washing machine is on the fritz. Every time it hits the spin cycle it sounds like an express train roaring through the house. Oh man, I thought. The thing has finally busted, like the repair man said it would and why don't we just buy a new one because the parts won't be in until 12/31/9999 according to the manufacturer's website? But when I went to look in it, the problem was not the spin cycle. The problem was that there were bits of poop all over the drum, and one pair of training pants sitting damply in the bottom.

Baby had pooped while I was gone, and my hard-working children had cleaned him up, put him in the tub, and put his pants in to soak and then wash. They had made sure to get the loose poop off the pants first. But not having the benefit of Mom's 17+ years of experience (the + is for all the years I spend changing younger siblings before we used disposable diapers), they didn't know that you have to rinse the pants out in the toilet or sink first to get all the other bits off.

I couldn't get mad about it, in context, so I added bleach and ran the rinse and spin cycle again, which cleaned off most of the tidbits. Then I wiped out the washer and ran a hot load of towels with the pants. Everything looks okay, and we're all still alive, so that's a win, right?

The washer is not the only thing acting up. As I was leaving for the store, the minivan's brakes were grinding so badly it sounded like something was dragging underneath the car. By the time I got to the end of the block the wheels were grinding whether I was braking or not. Fortunately, I have another working vehicle at home, so I turned around and took the behemoth instead. And I added the minivan to the list of Things That Need Money.

Microwave: stopped working 2 months ago, error code SE which means humidity. $300+ to fix, so for now we're not.
Stove: The large two burners only heat to high, or to low. There's no middle ground.
Living Room Ceiling: bulging under the upstairs shower; held in place by the paper on the ceiling. If we don't look at it, we will not have to do anything about it right now.
College Tuition: Yeah.

But you know what's free? DVDs from the library. And I'm sorry to report of myself that after we watched the last Hobbit movie, I went and got the first two. The past two nights, after I painstakingly get the three younger ones to bed, the older four and I have sat and watched the padded adventures of Bilbo and Co.

It was not all evil. I'd forgotten that the first half of the first Hobbit movie is quite serviceable. It's not until Rhadagast the Brown shows up that things get too ridiculous. (Why is it that when Rhadagast is going to draw the Orcs away from where the company is hiding so that they can escape, he keeps running his sledge in circles around where the company is? Why not just go in straight line somewhere else? I know the filmmakers have some gorgeous NZ landscape to work with, and I'm happy to see as much of that as possible, but let's think strategy here.) The Orcs pursuing the Dwarves, and the whole Necromancer subplot could have been cut, and so could the running time, and the movie would have been better for it.

As to the second movie: I could happily watch an entire movie just about Aiden Turner as Fili (or was it Kili?), and Lee Pace chewing the scenery in a restrained way as Thranduil was good value, but let's put Legolas and Tauriel the She-Elf in their own movie so that we can all skip it. I'll go to bat for Martin Freeman's adorable mug, though. I wish I could have liked Richard Armitage's Thorin more, but it was just so much glowering under brows.

I just watch for the scenery.

And I caved yesterday afternoon and let the younger ones see the second half of Fellowship, after holding out for 18 years about people who don't read the books don't get to see the movies. I skipped all the orc bits except Boromir's death scene, and I made baby cover his eyes, which he didn't like. Everything was just too truncated to me, but now the kids are agitating to watch The Two Towers.

"No," I said. "It goes even farther astray. Read the books."

"But it's a snow day, Mom!"

"Go read."

I'm left pondering the phrase "Lead us not into temptation." I brought the Hobbit movie into my house, and now my kids are all going to have Peter Jackson in their heads. This is what happens when you are an old parent and don't have the clarity of your earlier convictions. Don't get old, folks. That's all I've got.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

My Day On Stage

I'm in Dubai this week participating in the annual sales meeting for my company. As well as meeting with various people, I had a twenty minute talk I was supposed to give during the general session, the last third of a one hour session being led by the CFO. Twenty minutes to tell a bunch of sales people and sales managers something about pricing that would stick with them during the coming year.

One of the reasons I love pricing is that I like struggling with complex problems and large amounts of data. I've given talks before to pricing conferences, and there my goal has been to help other people understand good ways of tackling such problems. However, in this case, I was presenting to people who were not pricing experts and who were likely to glaze over if I started throwing too many number and charts around. So I'd make a presentation that was very simple: four content slides and a sum-up. My plan was to give more examples verbally as I talked, but I really wanted to focus on my main theme. So I wanted a small number of really clear visuals on my slides, and I wanted to hit my main points repeatedly. I also expected that the CFO would run over his time slot, leaving me only fifteen minutes or maybe even ten to cover my content.

Last light I was really struggling with jet lag when I got back to my hotel room at 10:00pm. I wanted to rehearse and prepare some more notes, but that morning I'd woken up at 2:00am and not been able to get back to sleep. So I decided I'd to my prep in the morning. I set an alarm for 5:00am Dubai time and went to bed.

When that alarm went off at 5:00, was still really tired and felt able to sleep. My talk wasn't till 8:30, so I thought I'd get thirty more minutes of sleep. I reset my alarm, and dozed off again.

Some time later, I surfaced from a dream to see light peaking in from under the hotel blackout curtains. Panicked, I looked at my phone. 8:09. I vaulted out of bed, adrenaline pumping. If I moved as fast as I could, I knew I could just barely get down to the meeting room before the CFO kicked off our presentation at 8:30. But there was zero time to prep. The one thing I did besides get ready and into my suit was to send MrsDarwin a text at 8:15: "Pray for me. My alarm went wrong. My talk is in 15 minutes."

MrsDarwin, wonderful woman that she is, texted back that she was saying a rosary for me, despite the fact it was 11:15pm in the states.

Somehow I sauntered into the ballroom, trying to look calm, at 8:25 and the first person I saw was the CFO, who greeted me as if nothing was wrong (which was far as he knew was true) and offered to let me cut into the coffee line with him.

"All set?" he asked.

"Ready as I'll ever be."

"I wanted to make sure you've got plenty of time, so I've rehearsed mine and got it down to thirty minutes."

More to panic about, but I took my coffee and headed over to the A/V guys to get miced up.

During the CFO's talk I drank my coffee and tried to split my attention between listening an looking over my slides to make sure that I was clear in my mind how I would talk. And he was as good as his word, he wrapped up in thirty minutes and passed the stage over to me.

One of the many debts I owe to my late father (who as a planetarium lecturer for thirty years) is that I have a loud, clear speaking voice -- which naturally becomes louder and clearer when I get in front of a large crowd -- and I think well when talking. I was particularly focusing on speaking slowly and clearly this time because I knew that the majority of my audience were not native English speakers, and something I'd heard from co-workers of that background is that many native English speakers talk too fast when presenting and use a needlessly wide vocabulary which taxes their listeners.

So I introduced myself and my team, and then told the audience about net price. The idea of net price is that at a time when your costs are going down, if you succeed in not reducing your prices as much as your costs have gone down, you have in fact increased your prices (and thus your profit margins.) At a time when your costs are going up, you need to increase your prices enough to cover those higher costs just to keep your profits flat. If you want to increase your margins, you need to increase your prices faster than your costs are going up.

On my main slide, I had one graph which showed a recent example of costs going down while prices stayed relatively flat, and I could tell them about how this had resulted in all of them doing well on their pricing performance metric. I used examples. I talked about how this worked differently for different teams. And I tried to tell the audience very clearly what I needed them to do during the next year in order to continue to win on price.

I said thank you, I asked for questions, and while I was answering the first question the buzzer for the end of the hour went off. I'd filled my thirty minutes.

And through the rest of the day, people kept coming up to me and telling me that the presentation had been really good. Sales people. Executives. The CEO. I feel like MrsDarwin and her rosary ought to get credit for this, because I could not have come into it less propitiously that morning. You could even say I deserved to fail. But somehow I didn't.

And fascinatingly, the two things I heard most from people were "I felt like I could really understand what you were saying about pricing," and "You seemed like you knew so much detail." This from a presentation in which I spent half my time talking about one simple graph.

I think maybe if there's a lesson to be learned here (other than: set two alarms) about how to present, it's that it actually can help if your slide is simpler than what you say while you're talking about it. If the slide had a ton of detail, and you provide the quick summary, you give the impression of a big complex topic of which the audience has only skimmed the surface. If you have a simple slide, and you provide extra detail verbally to illustrate the simple point, the audience is allowed to think that they grasp the simple point and that you are someone who knows the additional detail that supports it.

But anyway. That was my day on stage. And now we'll see how jet lag treats me tonight.

Lord of the Wrongs, Part II

After yesterday's post about Peter Jackson and his cinematic missteps, a friend recommended I check out the documentary about the making of the Hobbit movies, an account of creative upheaval and actors just trying to make do. It sounded like a great dose of schadenfreude. And lo and behold, the library had the third Hobbit movie (Battle of Five Armies) in the stacks, so I sent my daughter down to check it out, and we all settled down in the living room to enjoy the special features.

You must understand that we'd had a series of disappointments over the course of the evening, because a) I'd made cabbage and potato soup, which no one wanted, and b) I have been reading The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, which promised me excellent and easy ricotta cheese through the application of Science, and we'd planned to have warm ricotta and toast for dinner, except one doubled recipe later, we had two teaspoons of fresh ricotta and eight cups of vinegar whey that refused to curdle. I followed the recipe to the letter, I even used a thermometer, but no dice. So, when we pulled up the special features to find only a documentary about New Zealand, and that wouldn't even play on the library disc, and I had a couchful of expectant children, I pivoted.

Friends, we watched the first half of Fellowship together.

I felt this was fairly harmless. For one thing, the kids have heard this on audiobook, however little they may have been paying attention. For another, the imagery of the Shire is lovely and not far off Tolkien's own drawings. Jackson makes the Hobbits sillier than they need to be, but it's hard for me to disapprove too much of the glorious curls of Hobbiton. I skipped through the Isengard scenes as having too many ugly orcs for small children late in the evening, and we stopped after the Council of Elrond, which the kids are mostly familiar with in this incarnation.

It was just getting too late at night to watch any more. But also, Arwen had just showed up. And it's here that Jackson starts getting silly. Sure, you have the Wizard Battle in Isengard, which my kids laughed their way through. But at least there's the faintest textual basis for this strife. But Jackson's dopey Arwen, with her dopey dialog, just did me in. I had to pontificate on the omission of Glorfindel, and my 11yo son, who knows about Glorfindel because of the Project Elrond scene in The Martian, nodded knowingly. I'd also forgotten how cheap some of Jackson's effects are -- Frodo being carried to Rivendell, with the floating head of Elrond speaking Elvish, was a real lowlight.

After driving sleepy children upstairs as the Orcs drove Merry and Pippin, after the long slog of getting the 2yo to settle down and shut his eyes, I settled down to read The Return of the King, with which I'm nearly done. The Ring destroyed, Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing, the Hobbits awakening on the Field of Cormallen, the crowning of the King. I was just drifting off to sleep when I received a text.

At 8:15 AM Dubai time, Darwin, jetlagged, woke up and realized that his alarm had not gone off, and that the presentation that he had traveled halfway around the world to give was starting in 15 minutes. Could I pray?

And so, at 11:15 pm Ohio time, I got up, and I sat on the edge of my bed, and I prayed. I was the proper person to do it; who should pray for a husband but a wife? All I could do was love, and so that's what I did. I sat with Darwin in spirit and was calm and peaceful in his stead while he had to rush frantically, and I started my rosary.

As I prayed, I got up and went around the house, locking doors, moving the laundry, turning off the lights. When I poked my head in the library to see why the light was still on, I found my two big girls were up, sitting on top of each other in the library couch. So I roped them in and made them pray a rosary with me for Dad. And then we needed to stay awake and find out how things had gone, so there was only one option for both waiting and offering up some suffering.

The library DVD of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies beckoned.

And so, my friends, I attest that I have now viewed the last Hobbit movie, and it's a visually spectacular dog. Some of the scenery was neato, like the Lost Mountain and the halls of the Dwarves, but the story was just bizarre, especially since I hadn't seen the second movie. Any scene with the lady elf just brought everything to a clunking halt, and I really had no idea what was going on with Gandalf in the stronghold of the necromancer, or why Galadriel could lift him up like he was made of balsawood. My daughters and I attended to the important things. I maintained that Aiden Turner as Fili (or was it Kili?) was hot; my 16yo, bored to snoozing, couldn't see it, but knew and approved of Richard Armitage because he played John Thornton in the BBC's North and South.

Just before Thorin's prolonged death scene, my 11yo appeared in the room, holding the baby who'd woken up, so by this time I had five kids in the living room, gawking at the absurdity of the character of Alfred, the bad guy from Laketown, stuffing his bosom with gold and sneaking off. Where was he going to go? Everyone in town knows he was a coward during the battle. Where is he going to take that gold? Where will he spend it? Did the filmmakers think about the fact that there are no other human settlements within leagues and leagues of Laketown? It just makes no sense.

Finally, at 2 AM, I was in bed. Darwin had texted to say his presentation had gone well and been praised. The kids were down. The 2yo was snuggled against me, with his pink cheeks and damp curls. And I was reading Return of the King, because I couldn't get to sleep. The hobbits journeyed back to the Shire, and instead of well-deserved rest they had to clean up everyone else's mess. The evil they faced was small, internal, insignificant compared to the epochal events they'd just participated in, but fully capable of harming generations if not stopped. And it was their responsibility to take charge, because they were Home.

At 3 AM, drifting off, I laid down my book, said a final prayer of thanksgiving, and I went to sleep my last thought was:

I'm totally going to the library tomorrow to get The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, just to complete my hatewatching binge.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Lord of the Wrongs

I've been rereading Lord of the Rings over the past two weeks, taking it fairly slow and reveling in the descriptions and the geography of Middle Earth. And over me has crept an insidious desire to rewatch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, just to refresh on the visuals. Heck, we even have two box sets -- the theatrical release and the extended versions. So what's stopping me?

It's that I know this impulse is a mistake. When the movies first came out, I was excited, like many other people, just to see the thing done. And no money was spared on costumes or special effects or settings (though more on that later). But Jackson's failure is a failure of vision and understanding. Each time I read a new scene and think, "Boy, I'd like to see that on film," I remember something bizarre about the movies that makes me mad just thinking about it.

For example: I read the chapter about the Rohirrim assembling at Dunharrow, and considered rewatching that scene for the winding road up to the safe haven, with the Pukel-men at each turning. And then I remembered that Jackson had so rewritten that episode that Elrond shows up to tell Aragorn that Arwen is dying of Sauron-plague or something. 


I wanted to rewatch the Mines of Moria, to see the road that led to the mines, and Gandalf at the bridge, and even the misplaced conversation between Gandalf and Frodo about Gollum. Then I remembered the ridiculous CGI-laden scene with the staircase falling apart.


I thought about watching the charge of the Rohirrim and the battle of Pelennor Fields. Then I remembered Legolas and the elephant.


I thought about watching Frodo meeting with Faramir, then I remembered that Peter Jackson rewrote Faramir's character so that he decides to take Frodo to Gondor, and then in Osgiliath they meet a Nazgul.

Oh my stars.

Darwin was the one who pointed out the cinematic lack of agriculture anywhere in Middle Earth but the Shire. Tolkien, who lived a key formational time of his life in the country, had a good grasp on how exactly a kingdom is fed, and incorporated small details into the text that suggest a broader economy. In the films, though, no farms surround Edoras; no rich townlands on the fields of the Pelennor, with rick and cottage. Minas Tirith is surrounded by -- nothing. Where do they get food?

I know that this is partly because Jackson was filming in New Zealand and had to leave a minimal footprint, so when he build his Edoras set he couldn't also turn the surrounding fields into farms. So we get lots of pretty imagery in the films, without the smaller corresponding touches that would give those images life. Pretty, but dead. This fake awesome ethic -- immediately impressive, but incoherent on two seconds of rational thought -- pervades all of Jackson's Tolkien forays. If you're not already convinced of this on the basis of the Hobbit movies, I don't know how I can move you with further persuasion.

On the other hand, Darwin is gone for the next week, and I need something to do with my evenings. Please, people, talk me down from watching Lord of the Rings.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Sown Among Thorns

A few days ago, we had the gospel parable of the Sower and the Seeds, one of my favorites. The seed falls where it will, some among the thorns where it takes root well, but the thorns choke it out and refuse to allow it to flourish. The thorns are, as Jesus explains, worldly cares and anxieties which overshadow the necessities and demands of the Christian life.

I love the phrase "sown among thorns", which is going to be the title of my as-yet-unconceived novel. And the concept resonates with me because I live among the thorns, the cares and anxieties of worldly life. Not bad cares and anxieties, mind you; just the average family chaos that can dim everything outside of it. If we have any readers left at this point of blog negligence, they'll have noted that January was an unusually fallow month here. Not for any exciting reason, but simply because of the thorns.

Our oldest daughter, 17, has applied and been accepted to Franciscan University, our alma mater, and leaves in August. This entails a lot of fuss in various ways, of course, but one of the January ways was the filling out of the FAFSA. To be brief, we are on the hook for a great deal of money because we make a great deal of money, and having seven dependents doesn't make that much of a difference. Fortunately, we'd begun a process of retrenching a few months earlier, but I think we had not fully grappled with the cost of college until we saw some hard cold numbers.

As it is, with a scholarship and some other small aid, our assessed family portion of our daughter's tuition is about 2/3 the sticker price, and that's a bit of a shock. Retrench, retrench.

Our big blue van is back at home, after the hit-and-run damage. We had the insurance deductible, of course, and then the shop asked: did we want to replace the bumpers, dented and rusting out? For an extra fee? We sat and discussed present financial necessity vs. tax return coming up vs. needing this van to last for about ten more years, and opted for yes. Unretrenching. At least the shop washed and vacuumed it before sending it back.

All of January was a lead-up to February, in which Darwin will be traveling a good deal of the time. His company's international sales conference is being held this year in Dubai, and at this moment he is in the air, probably over the Persian Gulf. Dubai is probably about as safe as anywhere in the Middle East -- safer, probably, because it needs to project the image of being a secure place for people to indulge in Oriental luxury -- but still, one is nervous. And one is alone at home for a week with seven children, so one needs to keep up business as usual.

All the thorns have not been secular. This past Saturday Darwin and I gave a talk at our parish's marriage prep program about Christ Restores God's Plan for Marriage (the program's title). The total amount of work we did for this was watching the official video on Thursday night, taking some notes, and deciding we could do it better, but the logistics of the day of the presentation were made more complex by the fact that the two oldest daughters were in the car all day, delivering a friend back to FUS after being in the car all day on Friday picking up the friend so they could all watch the musical Anastasia in Columbus. Fortunately for us we have a third oldest daughter who needs to pad out her Confirmation hours with some babysitting.

No doubt even the most generous reader's eyes are glazing over at this point of family minutiae, but here's my point: these are the thorns I live among: teenagers driving places, husband on the other side of the globe, other small peoples with their own needs, obligations here and there.

In the midst of all this, I've been rereading Lord of the Rings. I've just finished The Two Towers, with Frodo and Sam creeping down through Ithilien, guided by Gollum, to get to the secret pass into Mordor. At one point, they hide among thorns.
Their twisted boughs, stooping to the ground, were overridden by a clambering maze of old briars. Deep inside there was a hollow hall, raftered with dead branch and bramble, and roofed with the first leaves and shoots of spring. there they lay for a while, too tired yet to eat, and peering out through the holes in the covert they watched for the slow growth of day.
Here are thorns as unexpected safety and protection, outwardly forbidding yet with unsuspected interior space. They're no good for permanent settling, but for passing through for a season they offer structure and support. I'm trying to keep my thorns from overwhelming my interior space, and I'm trying to use that space as Frodo and Sam did: watching, waiting, listening.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 6-1

I'm traveling off and on this month (editing this section for posting from the Chicago airport before flying to Dubai) so it's possible that at some point during February I'll miss a post, but here's the opening of Chapter 6, where we're back with Philomene and life under German occupation.

Chapter 6

1. Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 19th, 1915.
Since the boys in the town had been drafted into work parties during the spring planting, it came as no great surprise when the notices were posted stating that all boys aged 10 to 16 were liable for fall service: in late July for the wheat harvest, and again in September for the sugar beet and apple harvests.

Pascal refused to let Philomene see him down to the town hall. She stood at the door and watched him walk down the street, his bag slung over a shoulder, newly broad, and a pair of Grandpere’s old workboots on his feet. This boy, so nearly a man, who did not look back at her as he walked down the street, was a different person from the one who had seen his father off at the train station a year before. He had passed Philomene in height, and though she still had to fulfill a mother’s office in reminding him to wash himself with the new regularity his age required, there was a newly muscular quality to his back and shoulders that was more of Henri than of the boy she had nursed and cradled and held close all these years.

Henri. It had been nearly a year since that sunny day on the train platform, that last kiss through the door of the passenger car, as the wind carried away steam from the locomotive. A year, an age, a lifetime. Now here was Pascal with his voice showing the first signs of deepening, and a worrying silence creeping over the boy who had told her of all his thoughts and hopes. And little Lucie-Marie, now full to bursting with all the words her five-year-old mind could string together. It would not be a quieter house during these ten days with Pascal gone. But there was, gnawing at the back of Philomene’s mind, like termites in the structure of her stability, the feeling that one by one her men were being taken from her. First Henri to serve in the army. And now Pascal, by the labor detail, but also by that angry gaze he turned upon the world. And even her own father, now pulled deep into the world of buying and selling necessities hidden from the occupying Germans. How long until that took him away from them? Right now his activities gave them luxuries such as meat and coffee and sugar. But at any moment the consequences of this double life could snatch him away and leave her alone.

It was no great comfort when the ten days were past and Pascal returned. He came back tired, tanned, lean, and silent. He slept in his room for hours on end, trying to make up for the days in the fields and the nights spent on hay piled in the barns. When at last he came down he went out into the garden. Philomene was glad to see it. The girls were running and playing in the sun. He could provide a set of watchful eyes, and it was good to see him rejoining the family. She went happily about her work, and it was some time later that she went outside to see how Pascal was getting on with the girls.

The girls were building themselves a lean-to with old garden stakes. Pascal was not immediately visible to the eye, and Philomene asked after him.

“He’s behind the cucumber frames,” said Lucie-Marie. “He’s boring.”

Philomene found him sitting against the wall, behind the cucumber frames as his sister had described. She saw him wave a hand before his face while putting the other behind his back, and only after a moment realized that he was stubbing out a cigarette with one hand while waving wisps of smoke away with the other.

“Where did you get that?”

Pascal responded with a shrug.


He might be taller than she was, and harbor the anger of a boy who felt he should be a man fighting the occupiers of his home, but the edge which had entered Philomene’s voice still demanded obedience from him.

[continue reading]