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

Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Must Go To Hadestown

Last May Leah Libresco Sargent told me to listen to Hadestown, a New-Orleans inflected retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers. In “Wedding Song,” for instance, when Eurydice is won over by Orpheus’s courtship, his singing animates the set. There’s no wirework (which must be a relief to the actor playing Orpheus, Reeve Carney, previously star of the perilous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Instead, the five-person chorus moves tables and hoists chairs, giving shape to Orpheus’s promise that, despite his poverty, “The trees are gonna lay the wedding table.”

In another show, this might be part of the heightened tone of theater, unremarkable as the act of singing is in musicals. Orpheus seems to experience it that way, but Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) clearly experiences it as diegetic action. She turns in confusion to see the usually invisible extras and takes in Orpheus with new eyes. There is a real magic to his song, and the cynical Eurydice, focused purely on survival, begins to consider there might be something more to the world.

The gods have their power established through similarly simple effects. When Hades (Patrick Page) delivers his first lines, his subbasement basso profundo feels like a trick. Nearly every subsequent time he opens his mouth, the audience stopped breathing for a moment, awed.

To match him, Orpheus has an implausible falsetto in his signature song (“Epic”). The first time Carney arced into his high melody, I leaned forward, staring at his mouth, trying to figure out if he was still carrying the tune or if it had been passed off to another member of the cast. It was Carney every time.

His voice, in that register, is unearthly, not lovely. Orpheus hasn’t written this tune, he’s remembered it, and as he performs, it seems like something is singing through him. He isn’t a songwriter, it turns out, but he might be the last person who can hear this song—the original love song of Hades and Persephone, one that the lovers themselves have lost the tune of.

Last September Simcha Fisher echoed her.

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

But I was busy with other things, and then I didn't feel I had time to get into a new show, and life got in the way, and I forgot.

I was wrong, and I beg you not to make the same mistake. You can hear the Original Broadway Cast Recording assembled in this Youtube playlist.

As I have been finishing up the final edits on my novel, I've been listening to this song on repeat -- not, perhaps the absolute best number in the show, but the strings melody at 2:48 is one of the most beautiful things I've heard.


In these days of shutdown, as theaters close indefinitely, the last words of Leah's review take on a bittersharp poignancy:

In the final moments of suspense, even knowing the original story, I watched with bated breath, waiting to see if the production was willing for Orpheus to fail. For him to turn back is predictable. To evade the ending is cheap. But the show has told us at the beginning (and will remind us at the end) that this is an old song, a sad song, and that “we’re going to sing it anyway.” But, in the conclusion, Hermes and the chorus admit that, even knowing and performing every night, they “begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time.”

And for a moment, it’s imaginable that it could. That one day the marquee will be dark and the show will have suddenly closed, with the actors as surprised as the ticket holders for future performances, only able to offer in explanation, “Last night, he made it.”

Saturday, August 29, 2020


I, like all of you, have read about "helicopter parents", those crazy folk who hover about their children's lives, smoothing the rough paths, fighting the battles, fixing the problems. Ha ha! I have laughed, along with you. What's wrong with these nuts? Don't they know their children need independence to develop their own lives and mature into adults? 

Indeed, I've had no problem sending kids off for a week of summer camp or family visiting, without any desire to check the password-protected photo websites or call every day to make sure Junior is doing well. Kids, you gotta let 'em fly, right?

Hoo boy, I never sent a kid off to college.

Perhaps the difference is that when a child goes to camp, or on vacation, or to see cousins, that child is coming back home. It's no hardship to go a week without chatting when you know that on Saturday, you'll catch up and hear all the details and go back to normal. But now a piece of my heart lives three hours away, and I miss her. I want to hear all about how classes went, and what's the deal with auditions, and who she's meeting, and how she's getting settled. I can't shout upstairs anymore every time I see a dog meme or a stupid pun or a Harry Potter ranking article. We don't pass each other in the kitchen and exchange quotes. I like this human, and I miss being in contact with her daily.

On the other hand, I know that no college student wants Mom texting all day with links and photos and advice and chat. I wouldn't have wanted that at 18. I wanted to start my adult life, to be responsible for myself, to make friends without reference to my parents' community, to my childhood. I wanted to reinvent myself, and you can't do that with your parents watching over your shoulder, even lovingly.

But the savvy parent plays the long game. First, have a lot of children close together. Get them through the most trying age, until they're friends even though they all have different personalities. Then when one goes away, the siblings will text each other, and that's how Mom will find out that Saturday is karaoke night and the sisters are strategizing about which song to sing ("Satisfied", from Hamilton). 

And I'm not going to text and ask her to have someone video it and send it to us, no sir, because that would be hovering. But if the sisters get a video, you bet I'll be watching it over their shoulders.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

In Harm's Way

The New York Times has a good factual piece up tracing the movements of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who shot three people during rioting in Kenosha, WI. It's worth reading the whole thing, and there are of course more details which may become clear later (or may not -- how much clarity will come up even in court trying to interview a lot of highly involved people who were running around a chaotic scene late at night is questionable.) Something in it that will seem to confirm the instincts of many on the right is that in both shooting incidents, Rittenhouse fired only after fleeing first and being in attacked. 

But I think there's a wider point that people whose sense of basic civic order has been outraged by week after week of televised looting and arson and violence need to keep in mind: a key element of social order is that citizens have the right to defend their own property and neighborhoods and neighbors, and that civil authorities are supposed to fulfill their duties by doing this for citizens in a restrained, orderly, and well-trained fashion. For roving groups of self-appointed people to travel off to some other community where there's civil disorder, and try to impose their own order is not a help. It is putting themselves and others in harms way.

Even if it's true that Rittenhouse was defending himself in each case that he fired his rifle, he had no business being out in the streets thirty miles from home, across state lines, carrying a weapon. In times like these it's understandable and even virtuous for people to defend their own neighborhoods, but vigilante tourism is nearly as bad for society as riot tourism.

It's in the nature of a seventeen year old male to want to have a cause to go take action for. That's why societies throughout history have found it easy to use young men about that age as soldiers.

But even though it's good to want to guard civil order, civil order is not guarded when self appointed people arm themselves and go looking for trouble. Trouble should never be looked for. Just as George Zimmerman was wrong to follow and confront Trayvon Martin rather than leaving the civil authorities to follow up on his 911 call, armed citizens should not be setting off on their own to try to enforce order on the streets. Arming yourself and then actively putting yourself into a dangerous situation where you may think you need to use a weapon to defend yourself is not something citizens should be doing.  If your own neighborhood is under threat, then it's just to use force to protect your life and home or business. If your neighborhood is not under threat, then the best thing to do is stay home and be grateful that you are not facing that danger.  Going off to find somewhere where there is danger is the wrong thing to do.  

So however eager those of us on the right may have been to see someone bring some order back to riot-torn streets, Rittenhouse's actions are not ones that should be celebrated.  Freelance order from out of town vigilantes is not order at all, it's just a different kind of chaos.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

See Darwin on Ignatius Press Live

 Should you be so inclined, tune in (if that terminology from a past age may be used) to the Ignatius Press Facebook Page at 8:00PM EDT on Wednesday, August 26th to see me (Darwin) participate in a Facebook Live video interview with editor Thomas Jacobi.  We'll discuss my newly released novel, If You Can Get It, Catholic literature, and whatever else strikes our fancy for the space of thirty minutes or so.  And if you've found me an oddly faceless entity for the last fifteen odd years (some of them more odd than others) I can promise you that I will be appearing in actual human form, from the library of our house, not as a legged fish or a heavily bearded Victorian biologist.  (Though, it is true that I am more bearded now, if not more Victorian, than I was prior to the pandemic.)

And if you just can't make that particular time, the video will remain upon the Ignatius Press Facebook page for however long our current digital dispensation lasts, so you can always watch it after the fact.

UPDATE: If you missed seeing the interview live, you can now see the archived version here:

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Ready to Launch

 We spent the past week getting ready for our oldest to go to college on Thursday. I will say up front, I was not all right. Each day my anxiety built, to the point where Thursday morning, every time I had a moment alone I felt my heart pounding and my breathing get ragged.

"This is just anxiety," I would tell myself. "You are not having a heart attack. Every kind of change requires growth and stretching. You are stretching." 

But once we got on the road -- Mom, Dad, and Eldest -- I felt more at ease. It's not as if she's nervous about going. She's been half-gone for a month, chatting with her classmates online, developing a set, starting in-jokes, being on calls until all hours, creating a new social life. 

The night before she left, I heard her in my room (where she could get some peace from siblings) belting out a tune while on a call. 

"Were you singing with the Japesters?" I asked, surprised. (The Japesters are her freshman chums. The rest of us track them through her, as one follows a soap opera or a neighborhood group.)

"No," she said. "This was a call with the Discord fan group for that piano covers guy I watch on YouTube."

"You're in another Discord group?" I said. "You guys call each other? How can you sing over an internet call without the sound cutting out?" 

She shrugged it all off. "It all works out if you sing really loud."

This is probably sound life advice.

By the time we dropped her at college, all worry was gone. She ran into someone from her freshman chat group in the hall. We even met a few of the Japesters, who actually have real names instead of handles. The kids are all right. They are all ready to launch.

Life won't slow down here. Darwin and I talked all through the three-hour drive home. We're planning a launch of our own: we're self-publishing one of my NaNo Hallmark/Shakepeare mashups in time for Christmas sales, and it's all a great game of budgeting, marketing, and design choices. (More on this soon, for devoted readers.) And at home, nothing is static. The 6yo just lost his four front teeth. The almost-17yo is applying for jobs. The almost-12yo broke his arm two weeks ago, and has been brandishing his cast in a perpetual Dab to annoy his sisters. The 10yo is making plans to raise money to go to camp next summer. The 14yo is getting ready to paint her bedroom yellow, the hardest of all colors. The baby, who is actually a big 3yo, is chatting all the time. We miss the Eldest, but we can't sit around thinking about it or people will eat the food off our plates and take over our pillows. We hope we don't see her again for a good three months.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

School Reading Lists and Plans: Grades 6-8

 It's the season for thinking about education in the Darwin household.  Today we drive our eldest out to college -- we'll see how that goes in the time of coronavirus -- but it's also the time for getting people's school assignments ready for the coming year.  By the time, I of course mean "totally last minute".  There are some good and worthy people out there who plan their homeschool curriculum six to twelve months ahead of time.  We're more the "it's a week and a half till we start school, we better know if we need to order books" kind of household.  

If you too are in the middle of last minute school planning (or perhaps getting ready to jump ship from a "distance education" logjam and do something that involves less Zoom meetings, perhaps this will be of some use.

We break down homeschool planning according to age.  MrsDarwin deals with K-5 and I deal with 6-12.  The rationale for this is that from middle school on up the kids can be trusted to sit down and read a book on their own or do a set of math problems on their own in a fairly organized fashion.  The younger ones need someone to sit next to them or look over the shoulder and make sure they are doing work.  Since I'm mostly tied up with work during the day, it makes sense to have me deal with the older kids.  

Math is the most straightforward subject.  For these middle grades we use the Saxon books.  They're basic and perhaps a little repetitive, but they come in clear one-day assignments and the lessons in the book for these grades are at a level where kids can pretty reliably read the explanations to themselves, grasp the concepts, and then go on to do the work.  No crazy techniques that parents can't follow here if they're asked to help out.  We've used Saxon 7/6 for sixth grade and Saxon 8/7 for eight grade.  From there one faces a choice, you could do Saxon Algebra 1/2 (one half) as your eighth grade book, or you can do what we did which was switch over to the series we've used for high school Art of Problem Solving.  Last year, I had our eighth grader use Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra for eighth grade.  I like the art of problem solving books because the explanations of mathematical concepts make sense to me and are much more in depth and example-driven than the Saxon lessons.  However, the kids reaction has been... mixed.  And the books do not break down into simple one-lesson-per-day structures.  You need to look at the chapters and their sub-chapters and figure out a pace for yourself which usually involves 3-4 sub-chapters a week.  Also, the Art of Problem Solving books are, honestly, designed for kids who are deep into math and may want to participate in math competitions.  None of our kids so far fit that description.  I tell them they can skip the starred problems which are designed to be extra-challenging mind-bending problems to help you prepare for competition.  And we have not had a kid decide to tackle Calculus, so I can't speak to that book.  When I was homeschooled myself, I used Saxon straight up through Calculus in senior year of highschool.  It was workman-like, but I felt that in the last two years there were concepts that I wasn't grasping fully.

Science at this level is a bit tricky.  I haven't run into any middle grade textbooks that I'm particularly impressed with.  Science you encounter in 6th to 8th is not going to be the most in-depth science you'll ever read, and often textbooks rely on simplifications that verge on falsifications.  But you are at this point laying the groundwork for a lifetime's understanding of science, and I think it can be worth doing more than "go to the library and pick up what looks interesting to you.

In sixth grade last year I had our 11-year-old read a book I'd stumbled across called Astronomy 101.  I'd actually had our next eldest read it the year before in seventh grade, but I had her read it faster and I then had her read Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man about her pioneering anthropology work with chimpanzees.  Last year I had our eighth grader read Microbe Hunters and The Selfish Gene.  Some might ask why I had our Catholic kid read a Richard Dawkins book.  Selfish Gene is not primarily about Dawkins atheism, but he does definitely digress into discussing his philosophical views at times.  However, after reading several other books tackling evolution at this reading level, The Selfish Gene honestly did seem like the best and mostly clearly written.  So I told our eighth grader to be aware of his viewpoint and went ahead and assigned it.  This is an age when it's appropriate to start making those interpretive decisions as a student.

For Reading/Literature I'll just list off what we've had people read in the last few years. 


The Winged Watchman
The Borrowed House
Farmer Boy
Swiss Family Robinson
Children's Homer
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
Edith Hamilton's Mythology (maybe a stretch for a lot of kids, but this one really got into mythology)


Katie John
Hobberdy Dick
Alice in Wonderland
Through the Looking Glass
A Little Princess
The Good Master
Swallows and Amazons
Between the Sword and the Wall
The Revolution is not a Dinner Party


One is One
Till We Have Face
The Great Divorce
The Great Gatsby
The Man Who Was Thursday
End of Track
The Last Days of Night

These lists are fairly personal.  I skipped books that the kids had already read, and tried to fit the books to their interests and to some extent to the periods they were covering in history.  I certainly wouldn't consider the lists normative, but they're all books worth reading if you are looking for ideas.

In history, choices are kind of tricky.  I had the sixth grader read the first half Gombrich's Little History of the World, and then supplemented that with individual books on Greece and Rome including the Oxford Children's History of the Ancient World.  In seventh grade, I want him to cover Medieval to Modern, and I'll use the second half of Grombrich, but I need to find something else as well.  Last time we did seventh grade, I used a number of stand alone books to cover industrial revolution to the present day:

Sally Wister's Journal
Patriot's Daughter (about Lafayette's daughter during the French Revolution)
Napoleon and the Napoloeonic Wars (by Albert Marrin)
Captains of Industry
Mill Girl
Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse
Garibaldi, Knight of Italy
The First World War by Hew Strachen (his concise volume, not the massive one)
World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone

For eighth grade last year, I had out eighth grader read Land of Hope by Wilfred McClay

Our approach to grammar and composition has honestly been a weakness, probably because MrsDarwin and I write so much and thus the exercises in books mostly seem really tiresome.  We've used various books out of the Warriner's English Grammar & Composition series, which are solid, old school grammar, usage, and composition books.  

Religion is also a topic which is a bit scattered.  MrsDarwin does daily bible readings with all the kids as well as reading reflections on the readings, etc.  They're enrolled in the parish religious education program, which MrsDarwin teaches in.  And there's also usually a book, though I'm not as good as I should be about keeping up assignments.  

In eighth grade a year ago I assigned The How To Book of the Mass, St. Francis of Assisi by GK Chesterton, and Story of Soul by St. Therese.

A year before that I made use of an illustrated series on Church history and had her read The Church in Revolutionary Times, The Church and the Modern Nations, and The Church Today.  That series is quite good and evenhanded in its dealing with Catholicism and Protestantism, and it has a good world-wide viewpoint, but it's unfortunately long out of print.  With some searching, you can find decent copies used at reasonable prices, though.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Reviewed: Fortnightly and Otherwise

Brandon Watson's fortnightly reads are, like his blog in general, wide ranging and erudite.  A philosophy professor with an ability to sound like an instant expert on anything from the post office to the politics of Alexandria in late antiquity to the various Scouting movements, Brandon is worth following in general if he's not on your regular read list he should be.

Given that many of the fortnightly reads are classic books which Brandon has had sitting around for a while and is reading or re-reading as he sorts through his library, I was exceedingly flattered when he picked If You Can Get It to read over the last two weeks, and his review did not disappoint.  

Jen's world is a world in which the most real things are brands, which are stable and familiar and often genuinely handy, and the story is filled with brands, both real and fictional: AppLogix, Aspire, Mercedes-Benz, Schneider and Sons, Starbucks, Coke, Jaguar, Home Depot, and more. Her life there is a busy life, a life full of things she likes. They are the usual building blocks of our modern world, in much the way that personal reputation and family name once were. But this brand-structured world in which we live, while it provides endless opportunities to fill your life full of useful things and interesting activities, creates a strange gap between a life filled full and a fulfilled life. What we like often falls short of what we want; we can and do distract ourselves from the lack, paper the gap over by filling our time with other things, many of which are often interesting but none of which are the right kind of thing for fulfillment. Busy-ness is not the business of life. But by filling up our time we can miss seeing how much we are missing until something shakes things up.

Moving to the new location, Jen and Katie buy a nice little Sears home, updating and redecorating which gives them an extra focus in their lives, and introduces them to the handyman, Paul Burke, whose world and life is in some ways very different from Jen's, quiet and local, Catholic and focused on productive craftsmanship. Her work continues to be important to her, but everything having been unsettled through such a short stretch of time leaves her much more open to seeing the ways in which her life, busy and satisfying as it might often be, is not covering all the bases.

It was a bit interesting coming to this book after The Screwtape Letters, because I think there's a sense in which one can say that if that work is about internal temptations, this one is about the external temptations of the World. One thing that's very nice about the story is that it takes no easy roads out. It's not that the brand-structured culture of global consumerism is all hollow, or unproductive, or even always unsatisfying. It's not that the world would be better if we were all farmers or craftsmen and there were no product managers with MBAs or the endless layers of middlemen that make up the modern corporation. There are reasons why we have these things, and some of them are tied to very genuine benefits. Nor is it the case that there is any position -- any position at all, no matter how true -- to which you can convert and magically all things will thereby align with the ideal. We are all seekers, always in need of more, in this life. But the world around us can distract us from the fact that we are, in fact, in need of more; it can fill our bellies without nourishing us, fill our minds without enlightening us, and fill our time without cultivating us. What it offers is often fine in itself; it's just not everything we need. Brands and endless choices and availability are often great. They just can't replace faith or family or friendship, or any number of other things. The danger is that we can get so filled up with what is offered that we fail to get what we need -- indeed, that we sometimes fail even to realize that we aren't getting what we need. Sometimes we need a new vantage point to see some of the gaps in our life. And then we need to make the choices that start to fill them.

Do, of course, go read the whole thing. And this coming fortnight, Brandon is back to older works with a read of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Also a very erudite reader, Bruce McMenomy has a review up on Amazon:

This is being categorized in some contexts as a religious novel, and that’s probably unavoidable, given that it is published by Ignatius Press. That fact may recommend it to some who otherwise would not have noticed it; it will probably discourage others who either just don’t like religious fiction or have been fed up with heavy-handed fare one so often finds.

Yet insofar as this is a religious novel at all, it is not so much about proselytizing for anything as about unpacking the idea that people of faith (even of different faiths) incorporate their beliefs into their lives in ways that are not merely the superficial cultural identifiers one sees in pop-culture depictions of religion, but organic, personal, and hard-won. By itself, that is worth considering, absent the more tendentious baggage that typically accompanies it.

If You Can Get It, however, is not just narrative scaffolding to make that or any other point. It’s a modern comedy of manners, and it seems almost frothy until one begins to discover its thematic sinews. Some of those have to do with religious belief, but others, more persistently central, address the nature of human relationships, and especially the bittersweet tensions that beset families where the members, though they may all be of good will, are not always of like mind or disposition. The two sisters who are the principal characters of the story do not even share convergent narratives of their common past: one particularly telling piece of the plot turns on sharply inconsistent recollections of a childhood incident, and how those memories have shaped them differently.

The quietly encouraging implication of the story is that those relationships, and even the memories, are not immutable, but can, with care, continue to evolve — a process that will draw people together in some ways, and apart in others. Such evolution is part and parcel of the growth of the individuals themeselves. Hodge offers the reader no facile shortcuts: nothing obviates our need to address the each other’s humanity honestly and charitably.

The book wryly observes varied human interactions and behaviors, contradictory and absurd as they sometimes are; it also offers a somewhat dyspeptic and occasionally hilarious look at modern American and international corporate culture, and the decisions that it may lead people to make, while sparing us a gratuitous scold en route. It even quietly sketches an alternative model for how to think about our place as human agents in the economic landscape.

As a piece of storytelling, it never let me go or lost my interest: twists and turns along the way kept me engaged, and satisfied with the sense that even what I had not anticipated was, in retrospect, inevitable. With the economy of a stage play with a limited cast, it provided an amusing, thought-provoking, and generous reading experience, and left me wanting to see more. To have pulled that off in a slender premiere novel like this one is no mean achievement.
And lastly, a very brief review which appeared yesterday by a reader on Amazon, and which somehow really struck me:
[This] story is so well told, so peacefully, honestly, and morally told, that I'm inclined to believe that I'm as capable of writing of writing the sequel as is the author. I hope he does it. this is far more book than the excellent reviews led me to expect. I could have missed it -- you shouldn't.
Watching reviews and sales of the book as a data analyst must, one of the things that I've come to realize is that reviews and book sales act kind of like atoms in the lead up to a nuclear chain reaction.  When someone writes a positive review, some number of people read it.  Of those, some don't think it sounds like their kind of book, some mentally file it away as "I may want to look that up some day", some add it to a list to pick up later, some buy it right away.  Of those who buy it right away, some read it right away, and some read it later.  Of those who read it right away, some write reviews and some don't, and that new round of reviews begins the cycle again.  

With a novel like this which is difficult to classify by genre (and thus hard to advertise in a simple "If you like My Sister's Australopithecus, you'll love this moving novel of love and anthropology!" fashion) reviews are a key means of new readers finding the book, but it takes a lot of reviews (or very widely read reviews) and a lot of people telling their friends how much they enjoyed the novel to get a chain reaction going which sustains sales at a steady or growing level.

And of course, if you haven't got a copy of the book yet, but now feel like you'd like to have one, you can always pick one up yourself!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

2020, in emails

 Dear Dance Moms and Dads,

We're so excited to send out our catalog of classes for this coming semester! Please note that this year all students will be appropriately socially distanced. All students over the age of 18 months should wear masks. No parents will be allowed in the studio during classes, unless their student is under six. (Correction: we've just gotten word that parents will be allowed in the studio if they are wearing masks. If they are not wearing masks, they should not be on our grounds at all, even to let students out of the car, as per our CYA protocols.) Keep dancing, and let's stay healthy!


Dear Parents,

We are so excited to welcome your student to campus! Please note that you are not allowed in the dorms this year, and in fact we don't really want you on campus. It would be most convenient for us if you'd hire a helicopter and parachute your student in, along with all her belongings. There will be no fall break this year, as per our CYA protocol, so the first time students will leave campus will be at Thanksgiving. Please have your student pack up her whole dorm room and bring it home during Thanksgiving break, to avoid a repeat of spring semester, as kids who thought they were going home for ten days still don't have most of their possessions six months later. Reach for the stars, and let's stay healthy!


Dear Employees,

Thank you for your valuable contributions to the company during this stressful time, and your patience with our ever-changing situation. All employees will now be remote for the remainder of the fiscal year. Our new CYA protocols state that all participants in company-related Zoom meetings must be masked to avoid the negative publicity that would ensue if someone were to screenshot a meeting and share it with the implication that our employees don't wear masks at home. We're all in this together, and to help foster solidarity, everyone's pay will be cut by 10% until the earnings pick back up. Keep innovating, and let's stay healthy!


Dear Volunteers,

Thanks for all your dedication and hard work! We're so excited to get started on our planning for this year! Let's meet to exchange ideas. We can't actually gather on the grounds of the place you'll be volunteering, due to our CYA protocols, so how about everyone bring a folding chair to the picnic tables the parking area the empty lot behind the Piggly Wiggly? God bless, and let's stay healthy!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


A while back a friend shared an entertainment news story about actor James Roday deciding to go back to using his real last, Rodriguez.  The reason why he started using a made up last name is interesting: when people would see the name James Rodriguez applying for a role, they'd expect him to look very Mexican.  They'd invite him to try out for roles like gang members.  And then when Rodriguez, who is half Mexican, showed up looking like a fairly average white guy, they'd tell him he didn't look right for the part.  So since for an actor their name is part of their brand, he started working under the name of James Roday.  Now that he's established himself, he's decided to switch back to Rodriguez out of solidarity with his background.

Actor James Roday, who is now going back to his real name of James Rodriguez

This struck me as interesting because I live on the other side of that coin: like Roday/Rodriguez half my ancestry is Mexican but I don't look at all Mexican myself.  But since it's my mother's half of the ancestry that originates in Mexico, I also have a name from the Irish/English side of the family.  

None of which would be tricky if talking about coming from a Hispanic family was like talking about coming from an Irish family, a background which relates to foods you grew up with and bits of culture and memory which have carried over from the old country.  But in the US having a Mexican background is not just a piece of family culture or history, it's considered to be membership in a race and thus gets tied up in notions of racial politics.

This stood out to me as a teenager, when I decided that I'd deal with the fact that the PSAT and SAT didn't allow you to put your race down as "mixed" by listing myself as "Hispanic" on the PSAT and "white" on the SAT.  

I hadn't done any prep before taking the PSAT, and although I was generally good in school my scores were a "good but not great" 90th percentile.  This was not good enough to qualify me for any National Merit scholarships, but it did qualify me for a Hispanic honor role recognition, which was apparently only given to the top 1% of Hispanic students taking the test.  

I was kind of embarrassed to realize that the PSAT scores of Hispanic students were enough worse than the average that you could be 90th percentile overall but 99th percentile among Hispanics, but I showed the certificate to my maternal grandfather and he was proud of my achievement.  

Some colleges were also proud of my achievement, but in a less flattering way.  Harvard sent me a recruiting letter in Spanish.  This was difficult because I couldn't read Spanish.  My maternal grandparents had spoken it as children.  My mom had learned it as a foreign language in high school.  I had never learned it at all.  I got someone to translate the letter for me, and it turned out to explain that they had services which would help me with English if I applied there.  They never sent me any recruiting materials in English.  And indeed, I'm pretty sure they would not have admitted me as a white student.  When I took the SAT (after having got myself a book of sample tests and practiced) I got a 99th percentile score, but even so the only top ten college that I applied to only wait-listed me.  

I suppose I could have taken the Elizabeth Warren path and put myself down as a "person of color" but it seemed clear to me that when you checked the "Hispanic" box, a college expected you to have grown up poor in the bario, or struggle to speak English, or be able to write essays about how you worried that your parents would be deported.  I had grown up in the middle of the middle class, with a father who was a science educator and a mother who taught us at home and brought us up to share her love of books.  Claiming to be "Hispanic" according to the definition that colleges and employers had in mind seemed like it would be clearly dishonest.  And I didn't want to take benefits and considerations which were set aside for people who had truly grown up disadvantaged.

But there is a frustrating aspect to the fact that in the US these days, discussions of background are so frequently tied up with discussions of discrimination and oppression.  It means that someone like me, who doesn't look Hispanic enough to have someone making negative assumptions about me, and who doesn't have a Hispanic last name, ends up seeming like he'd be somehow faking to talk about coming from a Hispanic background.  

As racial problems go, being dismissed as "yet another white guy" by politically active online warriors is the most first world of problems, so I'm not exactly here to complain.  But it is a rather cut-off feeling at times.  I'm proud of the stories of my ancestors who walked across the US/Mexican boarder around 1900.  I'm proud of my grandfather who excelled at his studies despite having to go to the schools for Mexican kids rather than the ones for white kids in the little mining town in New Mexico where he grew up.  And I'm proud of the American identity that he built for himself and his children, through a career in the Navy starting in 1945 when he has seventeen.  I wish that the way that the US talked about race didn't mean that if you weren't oppressed because of your background, you can't claim it without seeming like a poser.

Monday, August 10, 2020

21 Days to Boldness

Need some strength going into the academic fray? Some intrepid Catholic high schoolers in the Columbus area, including our 16yo Julia, have created 21 Days to Boldness, an online retreat for anyone ramping up to the new school year, and today is Day One! You can sign up for daily emails, or follow along on the website. 

What is 21 Days to Boldness?

21 Days to Boldness is a do-it-yourself retreat made by high school students from around the Diocese of Columbus. 21 days before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, we will enter into a time of prayer and fasting as a community. Each day, this page will be updated with a reflection that should take ten to fifteen minutes to complete. Each day, we will pray for the holiness of a different group of people at and around our schools. There will be saint biographies, encouragement from people around the city, and even a challenge on a specific way to live with boldness that day. We truly desire to see our community set on fire with new love of Christ, we hope you’ll join us on this retreat to make it happen!

Who can participate?

Anyone! While certain parts of the retreat will be geared towards high school students, we are inviting anyone who wants to participate to join us. Parents, siblings, graduates, teachers, youth ministers, and even clergy are all more than welcome.

When does it start?

Our first day of prayer will be on August 10th and our last day will be on August 30th, the day before school is scheduled to begin. If the first day of school is changed for some reason, we will be sure to discuss our options and update this page accordingly.

For Day One, Julia roped in her grandpa, my own Pops, that man of scripture, to give a video reflection on humility. Check back on Monday to read Julia's own reflection on St. Thérèse.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Book Give Away Winners and Some Reviews

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in the blog giveaway to win a copy of If You Can Get It. We had so many sign-ups that we drew two names, and so readers Mike and Callie have inscribed books wending their way through the US mails to them.

But of course, if you didn't win but would still like to have a signed copy, drop me an email at and I'll send you a signed bookplate which you can put into your own copy.

There have been some really wonderful reviews that people have written of If You Can Get It, and I wanted to share a few.

JulieD has a review up at HappyCatholic:
I couldn't put this book down, which is really surprising when you consider it is the sort of story that I usually avoid (2 sisters making their way in the modern world today).

These sisters are polar opposites who are 10 years apart, so there is a generation gap also. We follow Jen through career crises which shake her confidence in herself. Her experience in China made me laugh. I can easily believe the scenario is true to life. I really liked all the business experiences — they were well explained and I was on board. Meanwhile, Katie plays X-box all day until told to get a job. Which she breezily does at a Starbucks. I liked watching Katie find her levels of competence, none of which had to do with a job in the business world.
The publisher compares Jen and Katie to the sisters in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. (I'd say the book is more like Emma, actually, considering Jen's journey from having the perfect life to realizing others might have more on the ball than she thought.)

Thinking of that helped me see why I liked this book. Jane Austen talked about normal, ordinary life with regular people who were out of money, had lost their boyfriends, had silly parents, and who thought they were in control of their lives. This book is the same sort of story. It is not Jane Austen to be sure. But it doesn't try to be. In some senses it reminds me of the gentle novels by Elizabeth Caddell or Enchanted April or Miss Buncle's Book. Although it is not those novels either. They are hard to categorize and so is the appeal of this one....
Click through to read the whole hting. Her point about the novel being difficult to categorize is something that's been particularly striking me as I try to do my part to market the novel. A standard marketing approach is to identify readers who like a particular book or TV show and assure them that if they like that, they will find this to be more of the same. That works great with clear genre books, but less well with difficult to classify pieces. And this, apparently, is just such a difficult to classify novel.

Another reviewer who talked about the difficulty of classifying the novel is someone who reviewed it on Goodreads. I'm particularly gratified by this one because it's written by someone I didn't know and also someone who isn't Catholic and thus was addressing the novel with an outside perspective. As such, I couldn't be more happy than to see this kind of reaction:
This book is fantastic, but I'm having a really hard time characterizing it. It's not romance, though there's romance in it. It's not women's fiction/chick lit, though it has many elements of that genre. It's maybe something like faith literature (if such a thing exists), because frankly, this book is one of the best examples I've ever read of that (maybe made-up) type. But even saying that is unfortunately misleading because while faith is an important part of the story it is so naturally and thoroughly presented that it isn't at all didactic or pushy or any of what too many "faithful" authors fall into when they try to let their faith be the ends and means of a story.

The thing is, faith (or even religion) doesn't even show up until well past midway in the story. Hodge does an incredible job pulling me into Jen's life and making me care about her. She's so lonely and barely knows it, so seeing her navigate one big disruption after another and come into herself through those disruptions was brilliantly done. Building the connection with her much-younger sister is only the start of her reevaluation of her priorities and I loved being along as she stumbled and learned and grew.

And even more brilliantly well-done is Hodge's use of the specific to connect with and illustrate the universal. Jen's family was nominally Catholic growing up so we see lots of that variety of faith in the story as her parents and their community come on-scene later on. But we get a lot of variation within that specific community; from Paul, the deeply devout but thoroughly humble, to her parents who are enthusiastic with the simplicity of the newly re-converted, to her sister who we see go through a discovery and exploration journey. Jen's own journey is more complex and maybe that's the power of this story; for if the point is to show Catholicism as superior then it's interesting that our only viewpoint character explicitly doesn't end up following that path herself. She gains respect and understanding for it. And becomes an enthusiastic supporter of her newly-devout family. But it's clear that isn't going to be her path, or at least, not in that way.
A note about businessy things: Jen is a capable and high-performing manager/director and we see a lot of that on the page. Hodge obviously knows his stuff and gets literally all of the details right. This is a rare and powerful thing and one I deeply appreciated. Better still, he doesn't bog down on those details at all, instead putting them firmly in service to the story. I'll read more of him for this alone because, like action sequences, business details are really hard to translate into story without bogging down. So seeing someone do so seemingly effortlessly is a real treat.
A note about Faith: I already said most of what I wanted to about this topic above, but am adding this note to those it might reach who are Mormon (like me). Get this. Read it. It's fantastic and I think you'll really enjoy it.
You can read the full Goodreads review here.

I think the answer to the difficulty I mentioned, of marketing a hard-to-classify novel such as this, is that it really has to spread by word of mouth and reviews. As such, if you read it and enjoy it, do please post a review and tell others that you enjoyed it. I don't begrudge the world the chance to read Sassy-Talking Strong Woman Saves The World From Evil With The Help Of Scruffy Man VI, but I'd like to think there's a place in the literary world for endeavors such as this as well.  

Amazon reviews and ratings are also particularly helpful, so if you've read the novel (and especially if you've bought it from Amazon and would thus be a "verified buyer") do please take a moment to give it a star rating or write a review.