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

Friday, October 30, 2020

Mrs Wilson

 Let me enjoin you, if you have Amazon Prime, to drop whatever you're doing and watch all three episodes of Mrs Wilson, streaming through tomorrow (10/31). 

This is a fascinating story of lies, of family and official deception, of forgiveness, and of learning to have faith in God.

Actress Ruth Wilson plays the title character, who is also her grandmother. Here, she talks about playing such a personal role, and how the family is still learning about the man who was her grandfather.

After watching this with our 17yo and 14yo, Darwin and I were happy to attest that our lives were open books, and that we had people who could vouch that we met at 18, and that everyone knows we just don't have time for any kind of secret life.

ADDED: Also, if you want to stroke your chin and speculate on the accuracy of the depictions of barely post-conciliar Catholicism in England, and was that a historically accurate cutting edge thing? or did the filmmakers just not grok the major shifts going on in the Catholic world at that time?, this series has got your back.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Not for Resale

 So says my author proofs, finally shipped to me on the slow boat after friends had received their paperback copies.

However, you know what is for sale? The paperback version of Unstable Felicity, available at fine Amazon retailers everywhere. And I can attest that the cover is velvety matte and delightful to the touch -- an important part of the reading experience.

Many of you are avidly following our adventures in self-publishing for research purposes, so here's my two cents on putting together an Amazon page for one's book through Author Central. The Kindle book and the paperback are two separate links, and each needs to be formatted. The Kindle version of the book contains the correct formatting for the book blurb:

Jill O'Leary's December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She's a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she'll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.

But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill's baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn't talked to since her father's funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family's inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who's suspiciously eager to reconcile with her. 

Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It's going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending. 

When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare's King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.
The paperback page has the same text, but it will not format into paragraphs. I have copied and pasted; I have entered html code; I have retyped the text. The formatting has not, so far, taken. I recall that Darwin had this problem too putting together his pages for If You Can Get It, so I'm optimistic that my paragraphing will finally be accepted by the powers that be.

Also, a taste of marketing: part of Darwin's marketing plan involves running time-sensitive promotions at discount sites that blast out to huge mailing lists. However, one needs to have a minimum of ten Amazon reviews on a book to list. So far, due to a late-night solicitation of friends, I have eleven reviews. But more is better! So again, let me entreat my devoted early readers to post an Amazon review -- you, my friends, have been built into our marketing strategy.

And thank you for all the kind words I've received so far. I'm grateful for all your literary support!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Holly Wreath

A thoughtful review of Unstable Felicity from Sherwood Smith at Goodreads

This book is a holly wreath.

Or, so my first thought when trying to find a way to sum it up. Being visually wired, I always think in image. The Yuletide holly wreath is a circle, the colors are vivid--the dark red of berries, the bright crimson of the bow that signals "holiday!", the deep, deep green of leaves that are so lovely yet can prick you until you bleed.

All of these symbols resonated so strongly for me--for this is an angry book. There were points when it was right up against my limit, but the sheer strength of it, for me, is that this story is never nihilistic.

The King Lear comparison should serve as a signal for the reader familiar with Shakespeare that no, this is not going to be a coy book dancing around the ideas of holiday and family (and Christmas) and shaking that admonitory finger at the reader, exhorting us to be cozy and loving and grateful because the holiday is "all about" cozy and loving (both family and friends) and grateful.

What the story does is examine how these "family values" can be used as weapons, and boy is that right out of Lear.

The book does not scorn family values. Just the opposite. What it does with such deft, vivid, entertaining grace is put the characters in situations in which they have to confront the emotions that usually get shoved away in favor of all the "busy" of a holiday--traveling a long distance because it's expected, hanging lights, decorating a tree, finding the "right" present, being bundled off to pageants, all in expectation of that first picturesque snowfall (or, if you live in an area where I do, looking for pictures of snowfalls).

The story examines with a relentlessly honest eye how emotions can be far more powerful than guns and swords and knives, because they are invisible, often thrust with the hiltless steel of moral superiority--the dark side of "should" and "ought."

It looks at personal responsibility, and expectation and assumptions, and what a family bond means. What friendship means.

What growing up means.

But there is that bow, and the brightness of the berries and the circle of the wreath. This story weaves in bright threads of humor, and even romance, as well as some nods to other storytelling forms in a slyly meta way that I found enchanting.

What the book reminded me of most strongly was the TV show Slings and Arrows, which also navigates the gantlet of invisible knives in its Lear season: intelligent, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, cruel, kind, above all interesting as it seeks out the truth of all those family bonds that we are admonished to honor each year at this time, and then in reknitting them with newfound awareness, reminds us of why they are there.

And if you are one of the kind folk who helped me briefly reach the vast heights of #65 in Holiday Fiction (Kindle) on Amazon, would you be gracious enough to leave a review? Some of the sites that Darwin intends to run promotions through require a minimum of ten Amazon reviews, which is the reason we offered a low introductory price to our faithful readers mostly likely to say eloquent and encouraging things. Strategy, friends, strategy!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Unstable Felicity on Amazon!

Gentle readers, here it is: through tomorrow, you can pick up the Kindle edition of Unstable Felicity for 99 cents!

We have a hard deadline of Wednesday for raising the price to $.3.99, so if you're ready to write an Amazon review for us, jump now!

You might be curious: why 99 cents? Why only until Wednesday? What happens afterward? We'll be laying out our pricing and marketing strategies in our Oak & Linden newsletter, which we'll be sending out this evening. Subscribe here to read about what we've learned about self-publishing so far:

  • More comments about Vellum, our layout software
  • Getting started with KDP, Amazon's direct-to-print program
  • How I became a pseudonym of my husband
  • Watching our sales stats (almost) live
  • Darwin meditates on rereading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series
  • Plus, get a look at our new logo!
If you're waiting for the paperback, that's coming soon. And the audiobook is also in the last stages of post-production. My friends, things are Coming Together.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Unstable Felicity Cover Reveal

 Gentle readers, I am delighted to present to you the cover of my novel, designed by the talented John Herreid!

Jill O’Leary’s December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She’s a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she’ll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.

But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill’s baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn’t talked to since her father’s funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family’s inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who’s suspiciously eager to reconcile with her.

Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It’s going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending.

When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare’s King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.

Hodge's lively novel tightly intertwines tragedy and comedy, leaving her protagonist and her readers grateful. --Leah Libresco Sargeant, Author, Building the Benedict Option

Who would think of combining Shakespeare's King Lear with a heartwarming Christmas tale? Add in a salute to Bollywood, and you have this vivid, insightful story that asks if you can ever go home again. --Sherwood Smith, Author, Crown Duel

Glowing with humor, insight, and the spirit of the season. --Rosamund Hodge, New York Times Best-Selling Author, Cruel Beauty

Many of you followed along with this story when I was posting it as a NaNo titled Christmas in Luxembourg. I've cleaned it up, fleshed it out, and made it into a compact volume suitable for tucking into a stocking, and you may purchase it as a paperback, ebook, or audiobook on November 1.

Or, for our friendly readers: sometime in the next week we'll be offering the ebook for $0.99 for a 24-hour period, to those who (on the honor system) would be willing to write an Amazon review. One thing we've learned about self-publishing: a book needs to have at least ten reviews to be at all viable on Amazon. Fortunately, we have more than ten friendly and eloquent readers, so I know this is a hurdle we'll jump quickly.

We here at chez Darwin have had immense, if exhausting, fun with this whole process so far. If we have even a modicum of success, we'll try it again next year with Strange Plots, and next time we'll give ourselves more than a five-month production window. Until then, enjoy a little Unstable Felicity!

UPDATE: You can buy Unstable Felicity at Amazon!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Bloody Ineffective

Years ago, I read an article by Caitlyn Flanagan in which she talked about a guy who had a stand-up routine riffing on a laundry detergent that advertised itself as good at getting out blood stains. The comic went on and on about who would be buying a detergent to get out blood? Serial killers? Ha ha! Flanagan pointed out that any woman could answer this question. She mentioned a time she'd been at a girls' high school on a warm day, and how the bathroom, the trash can full of blood-soaked pads, smelled like an abattoir. 

This is the phrase I remember, and I'm quoting it at almost twenty years' remove without Googling. My own bathroom trash can is currently full of pads and needing to be emptied before it reaches the abattoir stage. Blood is a reality for women of child-bearing age -- soaking it up, keeping it off our clothes, disposing of the waste. And the waste is big business. The monthly consumption in pads at our house alone indicates that we should buy stock in whatever conglomerate owns Always. 

Except for this past month, when I found myself, at a moment of necessity, at the drug store to pick up a prescription. Dashing down the feminine products aisle, I was confronted at eye level with an elegant matte package proclaiming itself to contain virtuous pads, the purchase of which would benefit girls around the globe who didn't have access to the pads we decadent Westerners take for granted. And they were organic too, nice absorbent cotton with none of that synthetic stuff that was so bad for the environment, both the global variety and the intimate environment the pad would function in. 

Well, I am a decadent Westerner who is short on time and and dripping with money, so I grabbed this handsome package. And now I'm going to be consuming the kind of laundry detergent that our comic thought was so amusing, because let me tell you something else Western science and research is good for: creating products that are effective. Why is it we don't use cotton rags anymore to soak up our monthly blood? Why is it women buy pads produced by mega-corporations with their labs and their synthetics and their R&D departments? It's because they work. It's because they don't leak blood. It's because they aren't thick and bulky. It's because the plastic wrapper doesn't come apart when you open it, and because the adhesive sticks. It's because they don't stink like an abattoir.

Is there a category of product marketed specifically for male needs that makes a virtue of not using the most effective means for the problem at hand? Old-fashioned tools, maybe, or boutique razor blades? But the message of these products is that used properly with methods of craftsmanship, they produce a higher-quality effect that modern mass-produced stuff. And women can and do use these things as well. "Virtuous" feminine products don't make these kind of claims. They rely on empathy and packaging: buy our thing because it's good for other women, and because we put it in an attractive package. Our pads may not work as well as the big-company pads, but that's okay because they're organic. You can feel good about your bulky, leaky pad, because a portion of your purchase goes to help girls in other countries, who presumably also wish not to bleed all over the place.

Empathy is a marketing tool. The only virtue of a pad is how well it works. Women (not just girls) in developing nations deserve products that soak up their blood, regardless of whether they soothe the consciences of harried women in the US. Money spent this way is money wasted. You can't stanch a bleeding heart with a maxi pad.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dangerous Visions


The 1903 move The Great Train Robbery included a tag shot, which was not part of the story but was used either as a teaser or a coda depending on the showing.  In it, an outlaw pointed his revolver directly at the viewer and fired the gun until empty.  Legend has it that this created panic among some viewers, because the experience of being shot at through the screen was so new and so realistic.  (As I sat down to write I briefly searched around to try to verify this claim, which I know I've heard multiple times, and I wasn't finding validation quickly, so we'll stick with "legend has it.")

What's interesting about the story is the reaction of the audience.  As described, the audience reacted to the events shown on the screen as if they were real, as if a gun was really being pointed at them.  In some sense, this is the purpose of all fiction, to inspire feelings in the audience as if the events being seen were real.  Whether we are reading or watching a film, seeing a play or listening to a radio drama, we respond to the story of the characters in question as if they are real people whose fate matters.  We want the couple to get together and live happily ever after.  We want the main characters to escape the perilous chase unharmed.  We want the dog to find its way home.  If you ask a movie viewer, "What's happening?" and they respond "Oh, it doesn't matter.  None of this is real," it's a clear sign that the movie is not being an effective work of fiction.  

However, if the purpose of fiction is to involve us in the characters and events that are portrayed, this means that there is also the question: are there things that the makers of fiction should not involve us in, or which we as fiction viewers/readers should should avoid being involved in?

Leah Libresco tackled some of these issues in a piece for The American Conservative about the French movie Cuties which Netflix caught so much flack (rightly) for advertising salaciously in its US release.

The French film is a coming-of-age story centered on Amy, a pre-teen French-Senegalese girl who rejects one kind of exploitation for another. Amy is alienated from her conservative, Muslim family when her father plans to take a second wife. She looks for a new identity and finds it by joining a dance group that takes their cues from pornography and other hypersexualized women.

The initial advertising presented the hypersexualization without any hint of critique. It showed the young actresses in provocative poses, and made it appear that the intended audience for the film was people who wanted to see prepubescent children sexualized.

To an extent, Netflix was right about the audience—though the goal of Maïmouna Doucouré, the writer and director of the film, was to unsettle these people, not titillate them. She drew inspiration for the story when she was shocked and sickened by seeing a group of eleven-year-old girls perform risqué dances. She interviewed pre-teen girls to make her film, learning from them the double pressure they felt: first, to exploit themselves for social media attention and second, to call their experience of exploitation liberation.

I’m very sympathetic to her critique, and I appreciate that she grounded her film in real experiences, but I’m profoundly skeptical of offering that critique through film. Critiquing hypersexualization through visual art is very difficult. How can you show the exploitation of a child to critique the exploitation of children? How can you expose the ugliness of a culture that’s entered the mainstream without being even uglier than what people have already acclimated themselves to?

This is an interesting and important question.  

I think the answer depends to some extent on the type of thing one is trying to critique.  Trying to make a movie which critiques the sexualization of young girls is particularly hard because the visual images themselves will carry a message to many viewers regardless of what the director intends them to convey.  Even if a movie is showing young girls acting suggestively in order to make the point that they should not be led into acting suggestively, this intent does not erase the fact that the movie itself is showing young girls acting suggestively.  For some viewers, this may be fine, and they may see the message without being disturbed by the image.  But for other viewers, the image as image will be primary, and the movie will end up causing exactly what it means to critique.  

Leah goes on to make a broader critique, however, using as her starting example the musical Assassins, which is meant to be a commentary on the over-notoriety which people who assassinate presidents achieve.

I took my husband to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and, in the post-show discussion, he said that the thesis of the show is that it is morally wrong to stage Assassins. The concept musical tells the story of successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins and weaves them together into a critique of the American love of spectacle and exceptionality. The assassins would rather be remembered, even infamously, than be ordinary.

At the climax of the show, the chorus of past assassins encourages Lee Harvey Oswald, saying that his notoriety strengthens them all. They need additional acts of violence to fan interest in their legacy. But they don’t just need Oswald, they need us, the audience. We are complicit when we treat assassins (or mass shooters) as objects of fascination. 

I find Assassins’ critique sharp and stinging, but there’s no denying my husband’s point that it argues against elevating assassins while doing just that. I wouldn’t be humming “The Ballad of Czolgosz” around the house without Sondheim using his genius to showcase President William McKinley’s murderer. I can’t guarantee the critique has outshone the spectacle.

Perhaps there's a basic process problem with a piece of art which seeks to argue that popular culture pays too much attention to some particular thing.  If the art is successful, then it will result in people paying attention to that thing, even if only to think about how they should not be paying attention to it.  And if the art is not successful, then it won't persuade anyone of the point.  Thus, any piece whose point is "we should not be discussing X so much" will necessarily fail in its success.  

But I think perhaps there's a broader issue with art which seeks to show us that something is bad through repulsion, whether it's "movies are oversexualized" or "movies glorify violence".  For a movie to be successful we have to want to see it, indeed at some level enjoy seeing it.  A movie which just leaves us feeling tired and disgusted is not a movie that will receive many recommendations.  And so filmmakers try to make their movies something people will want to watch, and in the process undercut the very message they are trying to send.

Thus, I can recall various movies which seemed artsy and important when I watched them in college and which were supposedly providing a dark commentary on how much our culture glorifies violence.  They did this by...  depicting violence.  And while they did make a point at some level, I think in the end they also ended up simply pushing the boundaries of movie violence even further, because at a certain dark level, watching them was enjoyable. From an older vantage point, I'm increasingly convinced that having a movie show violence in order to make the point that violence is overly glorified in movies is a self defeating approach.

How can an artist make that kind of point?  I think part of the problem with showing sexual images to make a point about the over-sexualization of culture, or showing violent images to make a point about the glorification of violence is that the images themselves end up with an independent existence.  Someone can watch them and enjoy them without recognizing or accepting the artist's intended meaning.

The solution, from an artistic point of view, is to change tactics.  What is it that you're trying to convey?  The idea of how a surfeit of sexual imagery or violent imagery ignores the inherent value of the person.  I think that in that case it's important to come up with something which conveys that devaluation, not to simply show the debasing image and hope the people will be repulsed by it.  

One way is to avoid imagery all together.  Sometimes the written word is more able to get across ideas and feelings without letting them be overpowered by images.  Perhaps a novel could have tackled the subject matter of Cuties without lending itself to exploitation.  But if the artist wants to use a movie to tackle this kind of topic, I think it's important to think about what will most clearly convey what the moral problem involved does to people.  This may mean a dialog scene or a reaction scene, not a scene where the exploitation you want to critique takes place.  If the director of Cuties wants to make people think about the plight of her young characters, she'd probably do well to focus primarily on these girls processing what the experience of over-sexualization has done to them, not on showing the dance scenes themselves.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Darwin on the Radio: Catholic Education Without Tuition

 I'm doing an every-few-weeks feature on the Son Rise Morning Show where I talk briefly with host Annie Mitchel about a topic related to Catholicism and economics.  A few weeks ago we did an initial segment talking about the concept for the segment.  And then this morning we did an interview discussing two dioceses (Wichita and Jefferson City) where parish schools are supported by tithing rather than by tuition, thus making them "free" for Catholic families other than a book and activity fee (and, of course, the aforesaid tithing.)  You can listen to the interview here.  

The following is not a transcript of the radio discussion, but covers some of the same material and expands on some things I didn't have time for on the air.

In researching the topic, I did some reading about the two dioceses.  It turns out that they have supported their schools from tithes rather than tuition since the point where Catholic school began to shift from the old model where religious sisters, brothers, and priests thought most of the classes to the modern model in which teaching is primarily done by lay teachers who, of course, need to be paid.  While most dioceses and parishes solved this problem by charging tuition, Wichita and Jefferson City made a commitment to support the schools through the parish offertory so that families would not have a financial reason to send their kids elsewhere.

To find out more, I called up Fr. Stephen Jones who is the head of Stewardship for the Diocese of Jefferson City.  

I'd kind of expected to discover that there was some kind of "secret sauce" to how these dioceses made it work.  Anyone who's done a certain amount of parish work knows that Catholics are really bad at tithing, so that a whole diocese could support its parish schools through offertory rather than tuition was really surprising to me.  

The answer was surprising in that it wasn't surprising.  Like Catholic parishes everywhere, they work hard on building a sense of stewardship, but it is an uphill battle.  They do work every year asking people to fill out Time, Talent, and Treasure forms and to think and pray about how they can help the parish and school more.  They remind people that the school is a benefit to the whole community and that it is a way of bringing up the next generation of Catholics in the faith.  But really, the only "secret sauce" is that they have decided to make Catholic education one of the primary ministries of their parish.  The school often takes up about 80% of parish funds, so it limits what other things they can do.  But because they consider the schools to be central to their mission, they prioritize it as they decide how to make their parish budgets.

Often when people look at a parish from the point of view of running a business, I've seen them bring a mentality that you should look at different ministries and functions and determine whether they "pay for themselves".  As in, do they bring in enough donation to support their activities.  Ministries or activities that do not pay for themselves may be encouraged to find a way to do so.  This is kind of like how a business manager might look at different product lines or offices of a business and determine whether some of them were not making a profit.

But of course, a key difference is that the purpose of a parish is not to turn a profit.  It's to bring the sacraments and Catholic teaching to its members.  This means that taking a "does this ministry pay for itself" approach can cause a parish to lose sight of its central mission.  Rather than looking at whether ministries are self supporting, it's probably better to ask: What is our mission and how central to our mission is this ministry?  

A parish does still have limited funds.  It can't support everything, so if there's a situation where there's not enough money to go around, it would be essential to pay for the most essential ministries and then encourage people who are passionate about doing other things to find additional resources to support the additional things they want to do.  

In the case of these diocese, they've made a decision that offering a Catholic education to all children in the parish without placing a burden of tuition upon them is central to their mission.  

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Jerome's Plan for Early Reading Education

In honor of St. Jerome's feast day yesterday, here are his thoughts on teaching a young girl to read, from Letter 107 (403):

Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the style upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. And let her have companions in her lessons to excite emulation in her, that she may be stimulated when she sees them praised. You must not scold her if she is slow to learn but must employ praise to excite her mind, so that she may be glad when she excels others and sorry when she is excelled by them. Above all you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her maturer years.

I would not necessarily follow all of Jerome's child-rearing advice, but this particular educational plan is humane and surprisingly modern.