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

Saturday, May 29, 2021

One to Many Relationship

 There's a particularly frantic stage to parenthood, when you're outnumbered by people who can't use a toilet reliably and are liable to consider legos a food group.  For couples at this time of life, it can be months between getting a babysitter and having the chance to go out to dinner and experience adult conversation with pauses and no spilled cups of milk or juice.  I've often told friends going through this stage: it gets better.  Being a parent does not mean 18 years of diapers and spills and poorly enunciated knock-knock jokes.  When your oldest kids are old enough to babysit, a lot changes.  You can get away for a dinner or even a night away from home.

All that is true.

Now I want to spend a moment on the opposite side of that coin.

There's a certain privacy to the stage of parenthood where you can talk with your spouse in front of the kids and they will completely ignore what you're saying.  There's a peace to the time of night when you've put all the kids to bed, and you can sit down and be just adults together.  Despite all the tears, and diapers, and eating odd things, there's a simplicity to the problems of kids under eight or ten.  Parenting young kids can be a big like long term babysitting, and it preserves some of the freedom that was familiar as an older sibling: make sure no one gets hurt and otherwise you're free to do as you want.

One thing that's been hitting me lately about being the parent of three-going-on-four teenagers is that it doesn't really stop.  The kids often don't go to bed until we do or even later.  And unlike in the early days of parenting, you must not talk about things in front of the kids that you don't want them to hear and interpret according to their own context.  On a lot of days, it seems like the only time MrsDarwin and I have to talk privately is the 30 min each night after dinner when we take a walk -- a COVID habit I think we'll keep because it's become so essential to us.

Dealing with the kids problems becomes different to.  There's a simplicity to dealing with the problems of kids under ten.  Stop fighting.  Have some food.  You need a nap.  Let's do some reading time.  Okay, you can watch Phineas & Ferb.  At times young kids become emotionally overwrought, but at least in our experience it's always in ways that are fairly easy to deal with (if occasionally loud.)

With older teens, it's not just that some of the stakes become higher, it's also that you'd now dealing with someone who has a emotions that are in many ways adult, but who do not have adult level experience in regulating those emotions.  A three year old who shouts, "I'm not tired!  Stupid Daddy!" and flails at you with his fists is mostly just funny to the seasoned parent.  A teenager who directs sullen rage at you for a couple days is on the emotionally draining spectrum somewhere between a toxic co-worker and a spouse you're fighting with.  

Similarly, a young kid who isn't doing their homework is a simple discipline problem: You must sit at the table until you get this done.  With an older teen, you could do that, but not only do those kind of tactics not work well with a person that old, but a key point with older kids and schooling is that they are supposed to have learned how to manage their own time.  If you manage their time for them, you may get the work done, but you aren't getting the long term goal done.  You're stuck trying to deal with the more difficult task of encouraging them to take their deadlines seriously and manage their own time.

In dealing with all this, one can feel rather like the aging Bilbo: like butter spread over too much bread.  Even as it seems sometimes like the kids individually feel like we're slow in dealing with the specific things that each of them cares about, by the time that you deal with the needs of each of the four older ones and the more collective needs of the three smaller ones, you have spent a great deal of time.  Add that to the fact that we're not as young and energetic as we used to be, and it's a recipe for feeling tired much of the time.  It's definitely not the same kind of tired which parents dealing with nursing and diapers stage of life experience, but it's constant nonetheless.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Cooking Without Gas

 In the 84th hour of the gas shutoff, I bit the bullet and took a cold shower. 

What was supposed to be a routine inspection of our gas meter in the basement has become a comedy of cold-water errors, with our meter suddenly shut off for leaks on both our side and the gas company's. You need to have your side fixed since it leaks right here by the meter, said the workman. But we're also going to rip our those lines and install a new meter outside since that's the updated procedure. 

Plumbing work -- at least, this plumbing work -- was not on our horizon for this month. The handle of the main shower upstairs is stiff to the point where young children cannot take a shower by themselves because they can't turn it. All the drains are slow and have to be Drano-ed regularly. There's probably something down the trap of my bathroom sink. We have a single-basin sink in the kitchen, for Pete's sake. 

Also in the kitchen is a line for a gas stove, which we had installed when we first moved in. It was aspirational; we couldn't afford the kind of gas stove we wanted, at the time. After the insulation of the antique stove that came with the house caught fire, we bought the cheapest electric model from the scratch and dent place to remind us that one day we wanted to upgrade. Lo, these ten years later we still have that stove.

We live in a house that Builds Character.

But it wouldn't matter if we had a gas stove now, because we haven't had gas since Thursday. Our hot water is supplied by a gas heater, and gas fuels our dryer. The hot water we can live without, mostly, but things are getting dire without laundry. Yesterday we started running cold-water loads and tumbling them dry in cold air. It's time-consuming, but it works.

Everyone in the family has been through the icy shower at least once, except the little boys. For them, we brought up the electric kettles -- one of ours and one belonging to the college student, now enjoying the comforts of home -- and mixed kettle after boiling kettle with the frigid tap water. The 7yo shivered rapidly through his tepid wash, but the 4yo crouched like a froggy and only came out, yelling, after all the water had drained. He's committed.

I too finally broke down and submitted to the icy waters. My hair I could live with -- the recent humidity has been kind to me -- but one feels sticky in this muggy weather. I stood well out of the icy stream and scrubbed with a washcloth to get the feeling of soap off, something cold water doesn't facilitate. Then I held my head sideways to get as much hair and as little scalp under the downpour. Even without lingering, my feet were numb afterwards. 

The course of true love and of plumbing never did run smooth. The young plumbers who came the day of the shutoff did good and thorough work and and walked us through through their plan -- capping unused lines up to the old gas heater hookups in the fireplace (future owners may curse us, but we're never going to find and run gas heaters); ending our line up near the ceiling instead of repairing the leaking pipe by the meter that would be torn out anyway. They spent two days working, and filmed their tests. The gas company assured us that someone would be out to check late Friday night or Saturday morning.

Sunday afternoon, while Darwin was away at a Boy Scout campout, a gas company employee solemnly attested to me that the system held no pressure whatsoever. When Darwin returned, we went down to the basement to walk through everything, again, and try to figure out what went wrong. 

"I think he tested the wrong line," said Darwin. "I think he tested the pipes by the meter, the ones we didn't repair, which run to the shut-off line at the street."

I had not even considered the possibility that the gas company's own employee would not have understood, when I showed him where our line ended, and told him that everything hooked up to the meter was shut off, which the gas company themselves shut off, would still have tested the wrong line, but it made since of some of the fellow's inexplicable remarks, like asking what we planned to do now with our gas boiler. And I committed the cardinal sin of not standing over his shoulder and watching him test, alas, because I was the only adult in a house full of children, my own and others.

By Monday morning, after my cold shower, the gas company sent out a more competent employee, who understood plumbing, knew what previous work had been done, and retested. And there was still a leak -- a very slow leak, using a different metric than the plumbers had been using, but still enough to keep him from putting in the work order to install the new meter. Once the plumbers come back and find and fix that leak, we can schedule with the gas company to retest again, and if we pass, they'll schedule the meter installation outside, and then we'll have the plumbers hook up our pipes to the gas company's pipes, and then the gas company will come and turn back on our gas. 

Until then we're handwashing dishes in cold water (rinse them well right away, and then apply elbow grease), wearing wrinkled clothes (so, not much different than normal), and taking brisk, brief showers. 

Often I wonder why it is I'm not doing more with my time. Why don't I write anymore? Why can't I add this one project to my life? And yet, dealing with the minor family emergencies that constantly arise with many children of various ages in an old house takes not only all my practical energies right now, but all my mental and spiritual energies. A youngster struggling with the truth. A teen who spent a week in a troubling funk and then snapped out of it. Always, teen falling out and potty-training. Shoes that don't fit. Friends who get too busy to call at the end of the school year. ACT and Stanford Achievement Test and Woodcock-Johnson tests. FAFSA looming on the horizon in a year when our taxes show we made too much to qualify for the Great Stimulus, which means that we're too rich to get financial aid despite having seven children, and too rich to deduct college tuition, and too rich to afford anything except the mortgage and endless repairs of this beautiful, high-maintenance house. In which we still do not have a gas stove, or a double-basin sink, or a working dryer, or hot water.

And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Desiring Heaven

 One of the best new blogs that has come along in some years is Larry Chapp's Gaudium et Spes 22, and his most recent post is one which particularly stuck me.  He's writing about the concern of some more traditional Catholics that the hope that all souls might be saved (expressed notably in current apologetic circles by Bishop Robert Barron, who is in turn echoing Balthasar) is incredibly dangerous because it takes away any reason to practice the faith.  As with most of Chapp's posts, the lead in is long, but I'd identify this as the core paragraph and I think it makes an incredibly important point:

The fact of the matter is that Martin and other like-minded traditionalists get something very wrong. Namely, that the indifferentism and lukewarm laxity that afflicts the modern Church has been primarily caused by a loss of belief in the reality of eternal damnation for most. In reality, the laxity in the modern Church has not arisen from a lack of faith in the eternal horrors of Hell. Rather, the laxity comes from a lack of faith in the existential reality of Heaven. In fact, it comes more specifically from a generalized lack of faith in the eschatological power of supernatural realities in the first place. Because if people really and truly believed in the reality of our liberation from bondage and the joys of Heaven, and truly understood what these realities mean, then the very real possibility of eternal loss would be powerful and palpable. Furthermore, if people had a deeper grasp in faith of what such liberation means then the question of why I should strive to be morally good even if all end up in Heaven someday answers itself. We seek moral goodness because it is liberative and integrative. It opens us to beauty and a holistic happiness. And the more we are on that path the more we begin to realize that Heaven isn’t a Disney World in the sky, or an undifferentiated “reward” for having been a “good person,” but is rather a nested hierarchy of souls that have differing capacities for love, and thus beatitude, depending on what one has done in this life. Jesus says that in his Father’s Kingdom there are “many mansions.” I think this is what he meant. Finally, none of this will come without purgation, in this life or the next. And that purgation will be painful and difficult. Even among those Catholics who feel confident of their ultimate salvation there is still a rigorous desire to do penances now, to lead a life of holiness now, precisely in order to avoid such purgations later. Therefore, I do not need to believe that anyone is in Hell in order to desire the highest and most luxuriant of Heavenly mansions and to avoid the fiery cauldron of purgatory.

I think this gets the problem with so much modernity, including wishy-washy modern Christianity, precisely right.  The problem with them is not that they do not take the idea of sin and hell seriously, it's that they do not take the idea of God and salvation seriously.   Oh sure, it's incredibly common for people to believe in "some kind of higher power" and that we "live on in some way after death".  Lots of people talk about meeting their loved ones again after death or about going to a "happier place".  I think it's only the dedicated few who are serious about materialism and atheism.  But a great many people, including many Catholics, do not really take seriously the idea that there truly is a God, that He is perfect, and that our eternal happiness depends on our willingness to become "perfect as your father in heaven is perfect".  

This, I think, is the truly radical idea which so many have lost.  God is truly and utterly Good.  To experience God totally in eternity is either to be united with Him or to burn in resentment against Him.  

If we really believe that, then the desire to give up much that we desire in this life in order to get used to forming ourselves to God is not a burden.  Rather, it should be our highest wish as Christians.

But for a lot of people, even if they in some sense believe in God, they believe in God as either the giver of prizes or the giver of punishments (or for those who are less "judgmental", God as a vaguely positive force who loves everybody without expecting anything of them.)  This is a God who is not really God in any sense worth talking about.  This is God as a pleasant sunset, a peaceful forest, a soothing musical riff.  These are people whose conception of God is not actually all that far from the ideas of the afterlife which appear in Pixar movies, where we are judged only in the sense of being rewarded to the extent we are remembered and eventually fading into a kindly bureaucratic nothingness.  

If that is the set of beliefs that people implicitly have, telling them that they need to believe in the eternal punishments of hell does not really break through their key misconception.  Sure, they don't really conceive of the punishment of eternal separation from God, but that's mostly because they don't really conceive of God at all, even though they don't actively disbelieve in Him.  

The news we need to bring is not that hell exists.  Lots of people are willing to believe that something vaguely called "hell" exists for "bad people" like Nazis and child molesters.  The problem is that such people think of hell as an eternal penalty box for cinematically bad people.  They don't really believe in the idea that being united with God is morally challenging.  That is the idea which is foreign to people: that God exists in such a way that it matters and demands change on our part in order to embrace the goodness which is God.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Repost: Beatrix Potter, Capitalist Swine

In honor of a recent Beatrix Potter kick here, have a repost of Darwin's analysis of Potter's famous economics case-study, The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.

As you can perhaps imagine, there is much reading in the Darwin family, as we consider it necessary to corrupt the dear little tabula rasas of our children with a mixture of facts and fairy stories from the very youngest possible age. And how better may one corrupt the youth then by wrapping up the harsh teachings of the dismal science in the charming trappings of a bevy of dear little fuzzy animals? Do not allow these subtle deceptions, gentle reader! As I shall demonstrate, under the cover of a whimsical, Edwardian children's authoress, lurks a deadly capitalist in sheep's clothing. Attend, to The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (ebook available here)

Once upon a time there was a village shop. The name over the window was "Ginger and Pickles." It was a little small shop just the right size for Dolls—Lucinda and Jane Doll-cook always bought their groceries at Ginger and Pickles. The counter inside was a convenient height for rabbits. Ginger and Pickles sold red spotty pocket-handkerchiefs at a penny three farthings. They also sold sugar, and snuff and galoshes. In fact, although it was such a small shop it sold nearly everything—except a few things that you want in a hurry—like bootlaces, hair-pins and mutton chops. Ginger and Pickles were the people who kept the shop. Ginger was a yellow tom-cat, and Pickles was a terrier. The rabbits were always a little bit afraid of Pickles.The shop was also patronized by mice—only the mice were rather afraid of Ginger. Ginger usually requested Pickles to serve them, because he said it made his mouth water. "I cannot bear," said he, "to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels." "I have the same feeling about rats," replied Pickles, "but it would never do to eat our own customers; they would leave us and go to Tabitha Twitchit's." "On the contrary, they would go nowhere," replied Ginger gloomily. (Tabitha Twitchit kept the only other shop in the village. She did not give credit.)
See now? Just as you thought you were settling in for a charming story about two animals keeping a shop for assorted fuzzy creatures and toys, what do we find? Competition for sales and a credit market. Let us see what Ms. Potter is filling these tender young minds with. There is a competitive market in the village. If Ginger and Pickles behave in a predatory fashion by eating some of their customers, they shall gain a bad reputation and their customers will go elsewhere. Thus, although it would be natural for this dog and cat to eat the mice, rats, and rabbits who patronize their shop, they restrain themselves because to do otherwise would be to destroy their reputations, and thus their business. Where does Beatrix Potter get this idea? Why of course, from her neighbor to the north:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book 1, Ch2
As if this were not enough, Ms. Potter also praises consumer credit! How do Pickles and Ginger assure success in competition against the shop of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchet? (another cat -- perhaps there's something to these businesses all being run by predators?) They offer credit, and consumers value that credit and so patronize the shop.
Ginger and Pickles gave unlimited credit. Now the meaning of "credit" is this—when a customer buys a bar of soap, instead of the customer pulling out a purse and paying for it—she says she will pay another time. And Pickles makes a low bow and says, "With pleasure, madam," and it is written down in a book. The customers come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles. But there is no money in what is called the "till." The customers came in crowds every day and bought quantities, especially the toffee customers. But there was always no money; they never paid for as much as a pennyworth of peppermints. But the sales were enormous, ten times as large as Tabitha Twitchit's.
As, now we see it. Ginger and Pickles offer a valuable service (unlimited credit) but they have not correctly valued it. They charge no interest, require no minimum payments, and have no credit limits. This causes excessive consumption. And now poor Ginger and Pickles experience the opposite side of Smith's dictum: their customers have no care for the emptiness of the till because their self-interest is unaffected. Since they suffer no disadvantage from never paying, and experience significant benefits (unlimited goods at no cost) they never pay. Ginger and Pickles, like many a bad manager, are looking only at top line: their revenue far exceeds that of Tabitha Twitchet. Yet they have the looming feeling that something is wrong... Catastrophic market adjustment ahead!
As there was always no money, Ginger and Pickles were obliged to eat their own goods. Pickles ate biscuits and Ginger ate a dried haddock. They ate them by candle-light after the shop was closed. When it came to Jan. 1st there was still no money, and Pickles was unable to buy a dog licence. "It is very unpleasant, I am afraid of the police," said Pickles. "It is your own fault for being a terrier; I do not require a licence, and neither does Kep, the Collie dog." "It is very uncomfortable, I am afraid I shall be summoned. I have tried in vain to get a licence upon credit at the Post Office;" said Pickles. "The place is full of policemen. I met one as I was coming home." "Let us send in the bill again to Samuel Whiskers, Ginger, he owes 22/9 for bacon." "I do not believe that he intends to pay at all," replied Ginger. "And I feel sure that Anna Maria pockets things—Where are all the cream crackers?" "You have eaten them yourself," replied Ginger.
Now we see the trouble beginning to break. Ginger and Pickles have not accounted for fixed expenses, their cashflow is breaking down, and their problems are exacerbated by being so far out of step with the market in their terms: They offer unlimited credit at no cost while some of their key vendors and regulators offer no credit or limited credit. They're consuming their capital goods in order to make up for a lack of cashflow. And like many small businesses, they have not fully considered the impact of regulation to their business (they did not plan around the cost of the dog license.) Further, bad book keeping and a lack of separation between business and personal use has destroyed their ability to track their inventory.
Ginger and Pickles retired into the back parlour. They did accounts. They added up sums and sums, and sums. "Samuel Whiskers has run up a bill as long as his tail; he has had an ounce and three-quarters of snuff since October." "What is seven pounds of butter at 1/3, and a stick of sealing wax and four matches?" "Send in all the bills again to everybody 'with compts,'" replied Ginger.
Will re-presenting the bill "with compliments" achieve anything for our shopkeepers? One doubts it. They would be better off announcing a change in credit terms ("Beginning Monday next we shall begin charging interest on all outstanding balances, and we shall enforce a credit limit of 5s 6p for anyone wishing to make additional purchases.") However, they may well have spread so much easy credit around by this point that such a move would simply set off a round of bankruptcies.
After a time they heard a noise in the shop, as if something had been pushed in at the door. They came out of the back parlour. There was an envelope lying on the counter, and a policeman writing in a note-book! Pickles nearly had a fit, he barked and he barked and made little rushes. "Bite him, Pickles! bite him!" spluttered Ginger behind a sugar-barrel, "he's only a German doll!" The policeman went on writing in his notebook; twice he put his pencil in his mouth, and once he dipped it in the treacle. Pickles barked till he was hoarse. But still the policeman took no notice. He had bead eyes, and his helmet was sewed on with stitches. At length on his last little rush—Pickles found that the shop was empty. The policeman had disappeared. But the envelope remained."Do you think that he has gone to fetch a real live policeman? I am afraid it is a summons," said Pickles. "No," replied Ginger, who had opened the envelope, "it is the rates and taxes, £3 19 11-3/4." "This is the last straw," said Pickles, "let us close the shop." They put up the shutters, and left. But they have not removed from the neighbourhood. In fact some people wish they had gone further.
And there we have it. A troubled business is hit with excessive taxation and immediately shutters. Because the taxes were too onerous, no tax revenues are even collected.
Ginger is living in the warren. I do not know what occupation he pursues; he looks stout and comfortable. Pickles is at present a gamekeeper. The closing of the shop caused great inconvenience. Tabitha Twitchit immediately raised the price of everything a half-penny; and she continued to refuse to give credit. Of course there are the tradesmen's carts—the butcher, the fish-man and Timothy Baker. But a person cannot live on "seed wigs" and sponge-cake and butter-buns—not even when the sponge-cake is as good as Timothy's!
With competition eliminated, Tabitha Twitchet raises her prices -- perhaps partly due to selfishness and the knowledge of a captive market, but also in order that her shelves not immediately be picked bare by the sudden increase in the number of customers. Further, if she gets her goods from the same vendors and Ginger and Pickles did, those vendors have just suffered a major financial reverse as a result of having to write off all the goods they were never paid for by Ginger and Pickles. They may well have raised prices on Tabitha as they try to make up their losses and avoid following Ginger and Pickles into ruin. Still, consumption is down and there is unmet demand. Will market forces encourage new competitors to Tabitha Twitchet's de facto monopoly to come into play?
After a time Mr. John Dormouse and his daughter began to sell peppermints and candles. But they did not keep "self-fitting sixes"; and it takes five mice to carry one seven inch candle. Besides—the candles which they sell behave very strangely in warm weather.And Miss Dormouse refused to take back the ends when they were brought back to her with complaints. And when Mr. John Dormouse was complained to, he stayed in bed, and would say nothing but "very snug;" which is not the way to carry on a retail business.
I must say that I agree: that is indeed no way to carry on a retail business. The alternate vendors who have come into play because of the competitive vacuum and Tabitha Twitchet's high prices are selling inferior product and offering poor customer service. The market has still not righted itself. Will it? Is an equilibrium to be found, or will it be necessary to nationalize the shops in order to achieve a better outcome?
So everybody was pleased when Sally Henny Penny sent out a printed poster to say that she was going to re-open the shop—Henny's Opening Sale! Grand co-operative Jumble! Penny's penny prices! Come buy, come try, come buy!" The poster really was most 'ticing.There was a rush upon the opening day. The shop was crammed with customers, and there were crowds of mice upon the biscuit canisters. Sally Henny Penny gets rather flustered when she tries to count out change, and she insists on being paid cash; but she is quite harmless. And she has laid in a remarkable assortment of bargains. There is something to please everybody.
Awwww. Don't you love happy endings? The market has brought forth a new competitor for Tabitha (who probably never wanted Samuel Whiskers as a customer anyway, after the way he tried to make her son into a rolly-polly-pudding in a previous book) and Sally Henny Penny has learned from the mistakes of Pickles and Ginger. Consumers are doubtless sad not to have credit available to them, but perhaps eventually one of the two shops (or even a third new one!) will make credit available on reasonable terms, which will allow customers to buy in lean times without getting in over their heads. Then perhaps we can have an exciting little story about credit markets! In the mean time, we can rejoice that the local market has righted itself and that such a remarkable assortment of bargains is available at Ms. Henny Penny's shop. Wasn't that a good story, little capitalists? Do come again next Friday, and remember that you must ask your parents for a shilling to give to the storyteller, or else the storyteller will turn you out of the room just at the exciting part.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Dying to Self like a Mother

I had a middling, weary day of parenting this past Sunday, which would be nothing noteworthy except that it was Mother's Day. I don't pay tons of attention to these kind of big days, but at the end of a long and undistinguished Sunday I would have liked my slice of cheesecake that had been sitting temptingly in the fridge all day. I was not the only one tempted; some child snuck enough of the cake that there was not enough for everyone. 

It was particularly disheartening because the culprit has been struggling with being truthful, and whenever I think it's finally behind us some little lie crops up and smacks me in the face. I hate lying and dishonesty with a passion, more than any other vice. It makes me feel so very low to see someone lying reflexively about something that's patently obvious. But I also know that yelling and endless lectures do little good, and much harm. So in the end it was decreed that no one would have dessert, because there was not enough anymore for everyone. Tomorrow, if it was still untouched, we'd parcel it out somehow.

As I nursed a headache after shepherding disappointed, ranty children through the bedtime routine, another child turned up to tell us, with emotion, that we had been too harsh in our punishment of the culprit and exposed that child to ridicule and it wasn't good discipline. This child, of course, had neither been on hand for the initial incident, nor knew anything of the lying problems we had, because it isn't that child's business. And so, Mother's Day featured another unglamorous aspect of mothering: people think you should be merciful when you need to be strict, and strict when you need to be merciful.

If parenting has any power to make a person into a saint, it's because it is a constant immersion in reality. You must pivot or perish. Your idea of your child -- and I don't mean your idea of a child, but your image of your particular child -- must constantly be tested and measured against the real complex human in front of you, and your idea must give way. Your methods must be tested against truth and reality, and both truth and reality must triumph over your preconceived notions (no matter how recently the notions were conceived). Your parenting philosophy means nothing if it cannot withstand the heat of your actual child and the light of what God asks of you. And God asks you to die to self, every day, every minute, every millisecond, to let the shell of your ideals and dreams and petty fantasies crack open so that something better and more divine can take root. You cannot grow without dying to self, and you cannot nurture your child without letting your illusions decay into fertilizer, which is mainly what they're good for.

We are approaching the end of our school year, thank God, but really we ended a few weeks ago, when it became clear that we had to face some of our illusions about our homeschooling process, and let them fall to the ground and die. Darwin and I had been trying to push our kids through an intensive reading program that would have been ideal for the bookish and driven kids that we were. Our kids are not us. Elementary, right, and yet it's taken us years to come to grips with this. For the past few weeks, we've dropped everything but daily readalouds and intensive Khan Academy for math, because it's external and I can easily check that the work is actually getting done. 

Failure? No. Failure in homeschooling or in parenting is continuing on rigidly with the same program regardless of the evidence that it's not working. Failure is an inability to pivot. Failure is refusing to die to self and let something new take root. Failure is pushing your children into a mold and punishing them for not conforming to it. 

And thank God, it's almost June, and like the billions of cicadas about to descend on middle America, we are ready to cast off the shell of our old self and spend all summer outside, screaming.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, now that I'm no longer the age of the stars

This post will possibly make no sense to anyone who is too young to remember the 90s. I make no apology. I am not speaking to The Kids here, but to The Eldritch, who remember a time when Leonardo DiCaprio reigned supreme on the silver screen, with his iconic hair and his cheekbones and (from the perspective of a now 42-year-old mother) his scrawny body. Somebody give that poor kid something to eat and put him in high school(googles DiCaprio's age)college.

Gentle readers -- and I call you "gentle" because it's just become obvious to me how old I am, so speak kindly to me -- last night I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for possibly the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1996, when I was 17. 

My birthday is in December, so in general I can calculate how old I was a given year by adding one and the appropriate tens digit. In 1996 I turned 18, which is more than Claire Danes did. Through the magic of IMDB, I've discovered that Claire Danes is about six months younger than I am, and it's just destroyed my whole paradigm. 

I never saw an episode of My So-Called Life, just as I never saw Beverly Hills 90210 or any of the other water-cooler TV shows. (Or whatever the equivalent of the water cooler is in high school, which I never attended.) But I heard about it, and I read about it, and I always wondered if I was missing out on something, if imbibing these touchstones of pop culture would give me some kind of panache, or some touch of Danes's flawless skin and acting savvy. I remember reading an interview with her, about the time that Romeo + Juliet came out, where she said that the rhythms of iambic pentameter worked themselves into her brain, so that she was saying stuff like, "Oh mother, will you pour the cereal?" at home. 

Mother. Cereal. Danes was 16 when she shot Romeo + Juliet. I now have two daughters older than 16, and one who's younger but looks older. Danes and DiCaprio passionately smooching, characters in the first flush of love? It's not sexy any more. What are they thinking, putting a 16-year-old actress in that kind of situation? 

And DiCaprio, poor emaciated waif. I wanted to pat him on his tousled head, stomp out that cigarette (not menacingly, like John Leguizamo's feline Tybalt, but in a maternal fashion), and feed him the meal that his Hollywood handlers weren't letting him have. Danes too. Honey, eat another bowl of that cereal, for Mother.

Danes and DiCaprio, interestingly enough, were the weak Shakespearean links in a production populated with heavyweights. Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence, Paul Sorvino as Old Capulet, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, and Harold Perrineau's electric Mercutio in drag -- all give human cadences to Shakespeare's poetry. (And Paul Rudd, who must have Dorian Gray's portrait aging in his attic, looks the same now as he did 25 years ago as Paris.) The youngsters do yeoman's work, but they sometimes feel as if they're uttering lines. Both are exceptional actors, and compellingly watchable, but sometimes one wanted a bit more language and a bit less L.A.

But what a production! The whole decadent, decaying world oozes with the most toxic cultural Catholicism, and it works. Latinate Capulets outfitted by Dolce and Gabbana, Irish Montagues prim in the older generation, and punk in the youth. (For more on the costuming of the film and its effect on fashion, read Romeo + Juliet's Sonnet of Style.) Pious plaster Virgins and a technicolor Sacred Heart on a Hawaiian shirt. Whoring on Friday, confession on Saturday, and a deliciously gaudy Novus Ordo on Sunday, replete with lace-albed choir boys warbling When Doves Cry. And guns, guns everywhere, emblazoned with flowers and crosses and the Sorrowful Mother gesturing at her flaming heart. The veneer of aesthetic devotion covering a beating heart of lust: lust for power, lust for revenge, lust for blood, lust for beautiful young bodies. 

This veneer is thin. As Juliet waits for Romeo, before she learns of Tybalt's death, she rhapsodizes about their coming wedding night:

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world shall be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (III.2)

I started when I heard Danes say this. The line as I'd memorized it is, "Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die..."* There is a world of difference between longing for Romeo to grace the heavens after his own death, and offering him up living as a suttee to grace Juliet's funeral pyre. As it turns out, I'm in the wrong here (see note below). But the world of this production does reflect this essential selfishness of Juliet's. Even the two innocents, Romeo and Juliet, are simply softer, prettier, cleaner versions of their feuding forebears. This is a world without grace or forgiveness, where "civil strife makes civil hands unclean". Action replaces hope, and prudence is more honored in the breech than in the observance.

My teenagers, for the most part, thought the movie an interesting look at the antediluvian world of the 1990s, and opined that their shaggy 12yo brother could benefit from Leo's hair stylist. "Why is everything so Catholic?" one asked, surveying Juliet's bedroom shrine. "Is this a particularly Catholic play?" 

"No," I said. "And can you believe that Claire Danes is about six months younger than me?"

The girls studied Juliet's eternally youthful face. "No," they said.

*My flaking paperback Folger Library edition, from which I must have memorized the passage, bears me out, but the historical record tells a different tale. Every early version from the Second Quarto (1599) on has "and when I shall die". The First Quarto (1597) does not, but only by omission: Act 3, Scene 2 has only four lines for Juliet before the nurse enters, cutting 25 lines of the famous monologue beginning with "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night". The Folger Shakespeare Library has facsimiles of these early versions, and their online reading text has "when I shall die". Why does my old paperback say "he"? Alas, the book has lost the cover and all the front pages, so I don't even know when it was printed, but the price on the spine is 45 cents. It's probably as old as I am, which, as we have established here, is old.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Pope St. John Paul II, Modernist (theatrically speaking)

 I had the great good fortune this weekend to see a production of The Jeweler's Shop by Karol Wojtyła, Bishop of Krakow (best known, of course, for his later career as the Bishop of Rome, Pope St. John Paul II). A group of Catholic young adults in Columbus decided, in best theatrical tradition, that they wanted to put on a show, and tackled Wojtyła's dense text creditably, with several fine performances and original music. The Jeweler's Shop is a show that's rarely performed, so I was delighted to have the chance to see it so close to home.

It's not that The Jeweler's Shop is a difficult show to stage -- no large cast extravaganza, no big sets, no special effects tour-de-force. It is, in fact, deceptively simple. Most of the action is interior. Most of the script consists of monologues to the audience, with lyrical passages of "rhapsodic" mediations on love. Those rhapsodic passages are key to understanding Wojtyla's approach to theater.

When people hear that a Catholic pope was formerly an actor and a playwright, their understandable assumption would be that he was a classically trained, old-school showman, standing in the solid theatrical traditions of Shakespeare and well-crafted plays and big proscenium-arch acting. And so, it is perhaps a shock to encounter the actual work of the man. Karol Wojtyła was no traditionalist. He didn't act in the kitchen-sink realism style of Stanislavski, or write standard five-act dramas replete with old-fashioned stuff like dialogue and scenes and story-telling structure. As a man of the stage, he was an experimental modernist.

For Wojtyła, theater was a ritual, as stylized as a liturgy, a vehicle for the Word. The actor is on stage to convey not a character, but an idea, which takes root in the minds of the audience who hear the spoken word and grapple internally with the problem the play propounds. This style, in which the word becomes, in effect, a vehicle of the internal movement of the soul, is called Rhapsodic. As he himself explains:

The Rhapsodic company has accustomed us to a theater of the word. What does this mean? Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word constitute an essential, primary element of every theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless, the position of the word in a theater is no always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as "song" -- separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes "rhapsodic", and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. (Wojytła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 372)

This rhapsodic vision is best realized in small-scale, experimental productions, with minimal set and a few significant props, and it was well-suited to the kind of underground resistance theater that Wojtyła spearheaded under the Nazi occupation of Poland. The rhapsodic group proclaimed the great patriotic Polish dramas and epics, stripped down to their essential ideas and staged not as dramatic scenes between characters but as ideas and themes presented directly to the audience:

[The Rhapsodic Theater] made of them not traditional 'adaptations for the stage', but always specific and authentic uncoverings of the very essence of the works, their thought and ideas, their authors' intellectual vision. This is a novel and revealing approach. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 373)

The religious, intellectual Rhapsodic Theater troupe forged on after WWII, under the challenging conditions of the Communist regime, which favored experimental theater, but of the atheistic, psychologically intrusive style pioneered by Jerzy Grotowski. (Fans of cult cinema will recognize his name from My Dinner with Andre, in which Andre tells Wally Shawn [later of Princess Bride fame] about his time with Grotowski's theater troup in Poland.) Grotowski also saw theater as liturgy, but unlike the Rhapsodists, he wanted theater to be literally liturgical, embued with the power to evoke in reality what it proclaimed through the word. Wojytła's rhapsodism was confined to an intellectual experience, in which the audience members would grapple internally with an idea and let it come to fruition in them through personal conversion and then practical action. Grotowski wanted his actors to literally experience the suffering or the ecstasy they were performing on stage -- an emotional transformation rather than an intellectual one. Many of his actors went on to have mental breakdowns through the abusive theatrical workshop training Grotowski subjected them to. 

However, Grotowski was a card-carrying communist, and the Rhapsodists were practicing Catholics championed by Bishop Wojtyła, a thorn in the side of the Communist regime. In 1960, the year that Wojtyła wrote The Jeweler's Shop based on his years of pastoral experience with married couples, Grotowski's Laboratory Theater was just getting off the ground, with funding from the government. By 1967, the Communist government of Krakow had suppressed the Rhapsodic Theater, in large part because of its association with Wojtyła, newly appointed a Cardinal. Grotowski went on to great acclaim in theatrical circles, and Wojytła went on to become Pope, and we shall see who is remembered as more influential.

The Rhapsodic Theater did tackle more traditional styles of drama, but Wojytła himself realized that this style wasn't really suited to dramas built on standard theatrical elements such as characterization and plot. As bishop, he wrote a review of Actors in Elsinore, the Rhapsodic take on Hamlet using various scenes from Shakespeare:

This Shakespearian production has been a great effort for the rhapsodists, because Shakespeare, as I have said, is not at all rhapsodic but theatrical, dramatic, comic, and tragic in his own way. He re-creates life and does not evade its concrete events; on the contrary, he enriches his plays with them. It is not easy to isolate in Shakespeare a pure construction of ideas or to stylize the action in a rhapsodic fashion to give sway to the word. For this reason, while agreeing that this production... had its origins in the rhapsodists' profound need for self-definition and undoubtedly expresses that need, one must also state that it is a new confirmation and experience of the proper direction of this particular theater. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 378)

 So! Wojytła's plays are not well-crafted theater pieces in which the dialogue and plot does most of the work, independent of the skill of the actor (which is why A Mid-Summer Night's Dream can be performed by middle-schoolers and still be basically intelligible). And this is why you generally won't see the pope's play performed by your parish drama club, and why I was so excited to see any performance of it. It was written both as a Catholic meditation on marriage, to be contemplated individually by readers, and as an experimental piece of theater for a troupe trained in the particular and demanding style of Rhapsodic theater.  

(For all drama clubs: Wojtyła's most traditionally-crafted and accessible play is an earlier, more obscure work, Our God's Brother [1949], based on the life of Polish patriot, artist, and religious brother Albert Chmielowski.)