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

Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Year End Post

It's December 31st, and the sidebar tells me that it is our least prolific writing year in the 18 years of the blog's existence.  Though as I say that, the idea of a blog being 18 years old is also rather shocking.  51 posts this year to date is pretty pitiful after years (many years ago at this point) when we averaged more than one post per day. Though, to be honest, I'm surprised that this post will even bring us up to that average. It seems like less.

So what has happened this year?

MrsDarwin and I each directed one play for our local community theater.

In the spring, MrsDarwin directed Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

She is a far better acting director that I am, and thus well suited to helping actors deliver Shakespeare's language with understanding and conviction.  And it was a wonderful cast.  Indeed, our Titania and Lysander are now engaged and getting married in a month or two.  (No particular credit to us -- they came to us as a couple, but they were great to work with.)

In the summer musical, MrsDarwin had her star turn onstage as Golde in "Fiddler on the Roof". I dealt with tech -- and when asked, told MrsD that what she needed to make her performance come alive was to remember that the subtext of every line directed at Tevye was, "You idiot". MrsD is someone who is very cautious with her subtext in real life, so this kind of let-it-all-hang-out combativeness did not come naturally, but in the end, I think she nailed it.

In the fall, I directed Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.  If I have a strength, it's on the management and technical sides of directing, and this was a very technical show with a lot of set and sound and lighting.  I think that in the end, it came out very well.

I read 23 books (if I manage to finish one of the incomplete ones in the next few hours, I'll hit my Goodreads goal of 24), and if there was a theme to this years reading, it was non-fiction books dealing with prehistory.  The one I would most recommend to a general audience is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Writing this year...  Well, it was a bit sparse, not just on the blog, but also on the fiction projects we care a lot about. MrsD made some forward motion both on drafting Mrs Dashwood and also on revising Stillwater for publication. 2025 is Jane Austen's 250th birthday, and MrsD is planning to have a banner year for Austen-inspired publications.  My own output has been disappointing (at least in quantity) -- on the blog, on The Pillar, and on The Great War. I feel age pressing upon me, and as I turn 45 this coming year recognize that I had better get this trilogy done while I can still write in the same voice in which I began.

And then there is The Bathroom Project.

It's 18 months now since I started a total gut and rebuild of a bathroom, thinking I could get it done within 3-6 months.  But someone directing two show and tech directing four and being promoted to a vice president at work all (not to mention seven children and a spouse I like to spend time with) adds up to a lot of commitment.

Still, progress is happening.  I got the joists leveled and the subfloor down, and over this Christmas break I have put in the insulation and moved the cast iron tub in order to re-level and re-position it.

It turns out that back in 1929, the way that they put a cast iron tup in place was to pour a bunch of cement on the subfloor and set the tub on it.  Which I'm sure is great, but if re-doing your walls and tile means you need to move your tub over an inch, it's impossible to do. They built to last in those days, but they didn't. build to be easy to renovate.

So now I'm googling up ways to place one's cast iron tub and we're going to level up the joists by two inches (it was always a big step down into the tub) and re-level the beast as we put it back.

So, from this aging blog to any of you still reading: a happy new years, and may you be successful in planning out your vita nuova in the weeks and months to come.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Tired of Lies

For those in the Catholic media world, peace on earth was slow in coming this advent, as a mini firestorm blew up on December 18th with the release of Fiducia Supplicans, a declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on the pastoral meaning of blessings.

You might think that blessings would be a pretty non-controversial topic, perhaps even a boring one. Blessings are everywhere in Catholic life. It's quite normal for a parish priest, at the request of his parishioners, to bless rosaries and other sacramentals, cars, houses, etc. 

Nor are blessings something reserved only for some spiritual or moral elite. Indeed, it is common for priests to suggest that at communion, those who may not be in union with the Church, or who may be in an unabsolved state of serious sin, cross their arms to show that they would like to receive a blessing from the priest rather than the Eucharist.  In this very common move, it is precisely those who are in some state of sin or disunion with the Church who routinely receive blessings. So in no way are blessings reserved for the few or the perfect.

But this document comes in the midst of an already simmering rift in the Church over whether the Church's teachings on cohabitation, on divorce and remarriage, and on whether marriage can be contracted between two people of the same sex can be changed. The Synodal Way initiative pursued by the German Catholic bishops has openly called for a wholesale revision of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and German bishops have given permission for the blessing of same sex marriages by their priests.  The Belgian bishops have published liturgical text for blessing same sex marriages. And although the Vatican has said that this is not possible, it has also declined to in any way stop the Belgian and German bishops, even while showing in other areas that it is quite willing to interfere in very local liturgical matters and remove bishops for seemingly minor issues (as in the case of the Bishop of Arecibo in Porto Rico.)

It's important to note that the document itself states the Catholic teaching on marriage repeatedly. This is not to say that there not nits which one might pick with it theologically. It continues the recent trend of referring to "irregular" relationships, as if a sexual relationship with the Church considers to be clearly sinful were merely an issue due to some fussy technicality. And its suggestion that a couple can be blessed as a couple (not as two Christians seeking God's grace) while at the same time holding that the union is itself sinful seems hard to maintain to human and practical terms. If this same argument were made for blessing other questionable social groupings (say a street racing club -- those can, I am told, lead to relationships that "are family") one imagines that Cardinal Fernandez would be more hesitant.

But issues asides, the document is clearly one which was written with conscious attention to being compatible with established Catholic teaching.

So why has it been greeted with such sharp reactions?  Why have the bishops of Germany and Belgium (who are explicitly violating its rules) declared the document to be a good start, while the bishops of the many conferences throughout Africa have reacted so negatively that under Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar is working to put together a unified continental response to confusion arising from the document?

Fr. James Martin, SJ, celebrated the release of Fiducia Supplicans by calling a NY Times reporter and photographer to document his first official 'informal and non-liturgical' blessing of a gay couple.

I think it's impossible to look at these developments outside the context of the last thirty years of history among the broader world of Christian communities across the world. 

The issue of same sex marriage has split multiple Protestant denominations over the last few decades. Even as the news of the new Vatican document dominated headlines, the United Methodist Church was completing a massive split over LGBT issues. For Episcopalians in the US, the split came a while ago, with congregations which held to traditional Christian teaching on morality re-aligning themselves to belong to a hierarchy centered on (non-coincidentally) Anglican bishops in Africa. Africa is not merely a thriving region for Catholics, but for a number of Protestant denominations as well, including Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists -- all of whom in the US are dominated by progressive theology (though as with all things Protestant, it's complicated and fractured.)

Growing up, a lot of my friends were Episcopalian, and fairly involved in their churches, so I heard a lot about the developing split in the Episcopal Church over same sex marriage. One of the things that struck me then was the amount of double-talk and outright lying about objectives which went on from the progressive side.

Again and again, I saw people who clearly supported same sex marriage argue, "Why should it be a problem if Gene Robinson is a bishop and openly lives with a same sex partner?  We know that lots of bishops are sinners.  All of us are in need of forgiveness.  Was it ever a tenet of the faith that bishops are without sin?"

Advocates insisted they weren't trying to change doctrine, they just wanted to have blessings, or have commitment ceremonies, or have house blessings. All sorts of halfway steps were endorsed and people insisted they were obviously the end point and it was conspiracy minded to see this as one big push for same sex marriage.  Until, of course, enough people had become accustomed to the idea and then suddenly it was a push for same sex marriage and congregations which wouldn't go along with the changes were getting evicted from their churches by bishops.

Now, as a Catholic, I think there's an obvious difference here.  Yes, we have some parts of the Catholic Church which are deathly sick and may wither away. Germany and some other European countries may well see an institutional collapse of the Church in the coming decades.  But I believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Catholic Church as a whole and will preserve it from teaching error.

That said, as we can see from Church history, a great deal of confusion, conflict, and loss of faith very much can go on even as though in the long run the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Whether we live through times of re-awakening and evangelization, or times of confusion and apostacy, can very much depend on our own actions and those of the Church's leaders.

When it comes to confusion, there is at least an honesty to the German Synodal Way, which is stating outright that it wants a complete change in Catholic teaching on sexual morality. They may be wrong, but it's clear where they stand.

Far more frustrating are the people who seem like they would be ecstatic if the Church were to change its teaching on same sex marriage, and yet who keep insisting that they are not advocating for any such thing but rather just want to provide people with blessings.

Indeed, one whole line or argument which I have seen is that the way that the Church could gradually change doctrine is by first changing practice -- making it seem completely normal for same sex couples to get blessings from priests while opposite sex couples get marriage ceremonies -- and then when the blessing of unions seems like a standard part of Catholic life, start pushing the question of "how is it fair that some couples get weddings and others only get blessings?"

And knowing that some of those out there insisting "We only want blessings!  We don't want any change in doctrine!" are lying and very much do want to change doctrine makes those who are eager to protect doctrine wary of everyone advocating for blessings, even though (as the new DDF document shows) there is a way of thinking about blessings for people in relationships that the Church sees as sinful which is no change in doctrine and indeed no change in practice from the current one.

For those who've been seeing this issue play out in the wider Christian community for decades, the loud insistence that "We're very, very excited about this important new document, but you guys need to shut up because it absolutely is not a change in doctrine in the direction that we've been advocating for" sounds (to use an overused term) like gaslighting.  People know very well that there are those out there who want to change doctrine and see a liberal application of blessings such as that celebrated for the NY Times by Fr. James Martin, SJ (himself a darling of the Vatican at the moment -- though that may change if his public victory lap is seen has instrumental in causing the explosion among the bishops in Africa) as a means for gradually enacting that change.

I think there are a number of other leaders in the hierarchy who really do think that informal blessings are a way to somehow paper over the growing split on moral doctrine without having to hash out the underlying issues. To these institutionally minded clerics, encouraging blessings (which really are nothing new) provides a way seem more accepting without actually changing doctrine, which they recognize would be incompatible with the Church's self understanding. The problem is that this attempt to have it both ways -- to satisfy those who actually want same sex marriage and also those who want doctrinal fidelity -- risks making the split seem even bigger than it is. Those who are focused on doctrinal fidelity see the offer of blessings to be a sign of loyalty to the pro same sex marriage faction.

It is actively good to be pastoral and tell people, no matter their actions and attachments, that God loves them and wants to shower down grace upon them. It will be a bad outcome for the Church if good priests and bishops become convinced they must be stingy with blessings in order to seem not to be endorsing doctrinal change.

What Church leaders should do is BOTH crack down hard on those within the Church who are flouting Church teaching on same sex marriage, and ALSO encourage the use of blessings for all people who are eager for God's mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  And those who disagree with the Church's perennial and unchanging teaching on marriage and sexuality should at least have the decency to stop lying and admit that they disagree.  The lies are poisoning the whole Church.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Accommodation vs Evangelization and Their Origins

 I have a piece up in the The Pillar this week, advancing a framework for understanding why we see such different responses to the challenges of talking about the Church's teachings on marriage and sexual morality in the modern world.

How is it that among the world's Catholic bishops' conferences we have countries as seemingly different as Germany, Belgium and the countries of Latin America on the "accommodation" side of dealing with these problems, while on the other we have countries like the US and the African nations?

Pope Francis and Cardinal Fernandez hale from Argentina, where 92% of the population is Catholic, although few people attend mass or even marry in the Church, while Fiducia supplicans has come under strident criticism from the bishops of Africa, where in most countries Catholicism is a minority religion besides Protestantism and Islam

If it were simply a matter of affluence and modern economies, one might expect the US and Europe to seem more similar, while Africa and Latin America were on the same side.

I argue that there are different experiences and fears among church leaders in countries where the Catholic Church is the predominant religious force. Clerics who face a region in which the vast majority of residents are baptized Catholics are tempted by a sense of loss aversion: if only they can avoid giving people a reason to formally separate themselves from the Church, then when some point in their lives draws them towards God, it will be the Church and the Church's sacraments which people reach out to.

In regions with more religious competition, leaders in the Church have pushed to realize that waiting passively for the moment of grace may not be enough: if they do not seek to actively evangelize their flock, the sheep may be quickly drawn into another religious community.

You can real the full piece which lays out the argument and supporting details here.

With this post, I'd like to go a bit further and discuss some ideas which did not make it into the Pillar piece.

Obviously, it is the fact that at many times through Church history Church leaders have seen the necessity of evangelizing even though the vast majority of the people under their care are already baptized Catholics.  Accommodation and the minimization of the conflicts between Catholic teaching and the prevailing culture of the time is not the inevitable approach. The Church's history is full of great saints who recognized and sought to remedy the everyday practical unbelief which is a temptation for all of us.

So why, with the mainstream culture seemingly so opposed to Christianity at so many levels -- not just sexuality, but in regards to the meaning and purpose of human life, of possessions, of civil society -- has more of a movement not sprung up yet to bring the Church's message to a desperate world, even in the regions which are, on paper, already Catholic?

I think one could argue that among the "Vatican II generation" there is an idea that is a hangover from the post WW2 moment (when modernity seemed to have immolated itself in war and destruction, and Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain was a key inspiration for the UN Charter on Human Rights.) Catholic leaders thought that the Church was poised to provide answers to a ruined modernity's questions and lead the world into a new age of peace and thriving.

Whatever influence that Catholic vision may have had evaporated in the conflict with the sexual revolution. Even as the conciliar generation "threw open the windows the Church" thinking that the world would eagerly embrace the ideas of churchmen on ending war, pursuing European style Christian Democracy, and creating an economy focused on human ends, the world instead embraced a consumerism which extended to sex, relationship, and human life itself.

And yet many (especially in Europe and that conciliar generation) still see the post-Vatican II Church as clearly providing answers to the secular world's questions if only they could clear the air of questions about sexual issues.

We see this in a conviction that the Vatican can be a key player in negotiating an end to war in general (in individual conflicts such as Ukraine and the Holy Land in particular), and in providing the inspiration for a new culture which will tame carbon emissions.

But in the minds of the vast majority of people, that post-war moment is long past. When you talk with secular intellectuals about "human rights" they instantly think of gay marriage and trans rights, not the vision of Christian Democracy which the postwar generation of Catholic leaders sought to implement in Europe and abroad.  

And the sorts of questions that people are actually asking are in fact the ones which too many church leaders seem to see as a distraction: how am I to form relationships and raise a family?  What is a family? What is the relationship between me and my body?  If I could upload my mind into a computer, would that be "me"? Do we have the right to create life whenever and however we choose (from IVF to genetically modified "custom babies") and to end life when we see fit? What do my desires mean in a world where countless internet sights are flogging apparently instant satisfaction?  

And while the Church has answers to those questions, they're answers in clear and direct conflict with the post sexual revolution mores of secular society to which many are as deeply attached as pagan societies were to their idols. At some point, the leaders of the Church are going to have to choose between the credibility they imagine they could have with the leaders of the worldly elite and professing the Church's answers on the key questions of the day. They question is: will they choose to do so, in some parts of the world, while they still have a majority of people being baptized into the Church, or will the wakeup call wait until the collapse is complete.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Penderwicks at Last

Why have I not written? Let me count the ways. No, let me sum up. I have not written because I have not written. Life continues happily apace here in Darwinland. Each day brings some fresh incident, but as they're mostly funny little quotidian things, they're not of much interest to anyone but us. Last Thursday, a week ago now, Child #5 finally had her tonsils out (and her adenoids, and she also had a nasal turbinate reduction, which is to say the surgeon essentially roto-rootered her upper nasal passage), bringing, we hope, an end to the storyline that was strep throat. She is recovering well, you'll be happy to know, even though 13 is geriatric in terms of tonsil surgery.

Life is like that, you know? You blink, and all the little day to day dramas and laughs have built up to time passing. Distilling that time into a narrative, and not just a collection of anecdotes and characters, can be tricky, especially if there's not some overarching drama to resolve. 

Which brings me to The Penderwicks at Last, which I read, and then skimmed, in one bout of increasingly disappointed consumption, rather as one eats the whole box of cereal looking for a plastic prize.


The first Penderwicks book was a delight, mostly -- a story of four sisters and their absent-minded professor of a father (given to Latin quotes, you know, as erudite professor fathers are), vacationing in the caretaker cottage of a grand estate called Arundel. They become friends with the boy who lives at the estate, despite his overbearing mother. Everything is a bit too charming, but the characters and situations are fun, in general, and the adventures innocent -- a bunch of modern children strangely unaffected by the world of screens.

If a book is a success, it is certain to have a sequel. The Penderwicks spawned three sequels of decreasing quality, until the fourth book, The Penderwicks in Spring, badly bungled the sisters responding to traumatic memories of their mother's death. Appalling behavior that called out for clinical intervention was brushed under the table. The author had lost control of her characters, and what were character quirks in the first book became serious social maladaptations, in a way that she was not able or willing to address realistically.

Whence this family dysfunction? All erased with a happy stroke of the author's pen in The Penderwicks at Last, an episodic collection of precious characters and no stakes. Ostensibly the story is about the wedding of the oldest Penderwick sister, to be held back where it all started, at Arundel, and the POV character is the youngest stepsister, 11-year-old Lydia, whose tweenhood seems untainted with any impending hint of adult complexity. But the family's minor wedding drama has absolutely no weight for the reader, nor has any other incident  -- there's no conflict whose happy resolution is not signaled pages or chapters in advance. Scads of oh-so-delightful characters (and dogs, three or four or six of them) surface just long enough to be interchangeably wise and charming. The original four sisters are now remote, blank slates on which the author has inscribed one or two residual character traits to manipulate as she pleases. The book dutifully namechecks lots of literature and music, and we're all aware that the author has read Little Women, making certain plot developments as predictable as tomorrow's date. 

It is right and just for a children's book to be mainly about the microcosmic dramas that seem so desperately important in the moment. The juvie novel devoted to grappling with Big History or current social mores already seems as dated as the Improving Literature foisted upon the defiant Jane Eyre. Make kids' lit small again! But even small things need real weight to register. By the middle of the book, Lydia is already achingly nostalgic for the twee memories she's still in the middle of making, and the reader is nostalgic for the kind of children's book where the events matter as much to her as to the characters. There's no prize at the bottom of this cereal box, just a powdery pile of sugar dust.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Frankly, My Dear, I Give a Thanks

We are at that stage of Thanksgiving cleaning where everything looks worse before it looks better. I have been scrubbing bathrooms, three yesterday, and one left for today. The fifth bathroom is Darwin's purview. He is taking this holiday week to screw down the plywood to the joists, each of which had to be carefully leveled because the previous round of renovations (ca. 1929) saw so much concrete poured that they didn't bother with whether the joists were level or not. But as of today, we will finally have a bathroom floor again for the first time in at least a year, albeit one made of plywood.

Five bathrooms, and something wrong with each one, and that's the story of our big old house.

I'm scrubbing bathrooms not only because it needs to be done every once in a while, but because we have a goodly cast of Thanksgiving guests. Right now the count stands at: 

1) 21yo College daughter, a senior at FUS, staying in room with 17yo sister.

2) My mom, staying in room with 20yo daughter. (She'll be sleeping in 13yo daughter's bed; 13yo has to go in with her youngest brothers, much to her chagrin.)

3) and maybe 4): Darwin's mother, in her first Thanksgiving since relocating from Los Angeles to live around the block from us; and Darwin's brother, who may attend but can feel uncomfortable in crowds.

5) The religion teacher from our parochial school, a recent FUS grad who's also from a big homeschooling family, whom we've taken under our wing.

6) Not a guest, but a resident: 20yo daughter's boyfriend, who rents the large room up in the attic as a studio apartment. He is a lovable fellow who is a delight to have around the house, and he and 15yo son live the bachelor life up on the third floor. I don't often put my head into the bathroom up there, as the boys are expected to maintain it, but about twice a year I give it a maternal scrub.

Various guests have offered to bring various dishes, and everything is coming together swimmingly for Thursday's meal. We have not yet reached the point of needing to send out The Thanksgiving Letter, but it mandatory holiday reading at our house, preferably performed by the 17yo (the one most akin in managerial spirit to Marney).

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Closing the Tabs

One should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and one should not let one's open tabs prevent one from doing other writing. To that end, I (MrsDarwin, posting under Darwin's name in a blast from the past) am clearing out a number of things I've been reading recently (or even not so recently) and chewing on, and wishing I could discuss with others, or, rather, know that others have read so that even if we're not directly discussing them, we share a common mental library.

(Alas for all the many tabs that have been lost, and the discussions that might have been!)

My grandfather died before I was born, and he remains to me a mostly mysterious figure. As is true of many people born poor who are committed to bettering their lot, his hours were taken up with work, family, and church; not much was left for that luxury item we call personality. A big man with paws for hands, in 1926 he got a job with the Consolidated Gas Company as a digger, busting up roadways and digging trenches for the laying of pipe. With his wife he raised six children in a two-bedroom apartment on 145th Street in the South Bronx. During his working life, he went to Mass on Sundays; during his brief retirement, he went to Mass every day. When I asked, people would tell me, “Your grandfather was a very good man,” and leave it at that. He left behind few stories.

But one story about him has stayed with me. He worked six days a week, but on some Sunday afternoons he would take the subway into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He often went alone, because no one else in the family wanted to go with him. But his most frequent companion was my mother, who as the fifth child and fourth girl was perhaps the least regarded member of the family and wanted attention. After he died, she reflected on those museum afternoons.

“He didn’t say anything,” she said. “He would just walk through the galleries silently. He never pointed out particular paintings or statues, or expressed any particular enthusiasm. I wish I had asked him why he went—but I never found that out. He must have gotten something out of it, because he went over and over again. But he had no words.” My mother was to study at City College and become an elementary school teacher. She would visit museums all over the world, sharing her thoughts about art with anyone who would accompany her. I have her journals; they are about the art she saw. Art became a part of our family life. And behind it all was my mother’s unsatisfied curiosity about what motivated her father, the silent man in the museum.

There is always a residuum of mystery in individual choice. But I now see one obvious reason why my grandfather came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: He had been invited. A group of wealthy men had built the institution in the hope that men like my grandfather—ditchdiggers, pipe fitters, bricklayers, and others who labored to manufacture, build, and repair—would learn of the glories of men and women who likewise worked with their hands: artists. But the story of the museum begins far away, in Paris, and with Richard Morris Hunt, the man who more than any other brought the fine arts to New York City.

The brothers — Ferruccio, Attilio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello and Orazio — deftly juggled dual professional identities. While their main business was executing the visions of famous sculptors like Daniel Chester French, whose design for the figure of Abraham Lincoln the Piccirillis carved out of 28 blocks of Georgia marble weighing 150 tons for the Lincoln Memorial, they also sculpted their own original works.

Attilio and Furio were academically trained in Rome, and Mr. French esteemed the two men so highly as artists that he acquired original works by both for the Met while serving as the head of the museum’s board of trustees sculpture committee in the early 20th century.

...Nonetheless, the Piccirillis have been largely forgotten, lost in the shadow cast by renowned American sculptors like Mr. French himself.

Now, Eduardo Montes-Bradley, a 63-year-old filmmaker reared in Buenos Aires, wants to elevate the brothers’ legacy, casting a new spotlight on their work in a documentary he has been working on for two years. The film, “The Italian Factor,” portrays these carvers not as stereotypical unskilled immigrant laborers in “funny paper hats,” as he puts it, but rather as prodigiously talented artisans indispensable to public art in the city and in America at large.

  • Only related thematically: Meet Mr. Mincione, a longform interview at The Pillar with Raffaele Mincione, the "Anglo-Italian investment manager who sold a London building to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State".
Mincione’s name has become synonymous with the scandal of Vatican finances, and linked inextricably to the other nine defendants with whom he is on trial, some he has done business with, and some he’s never met. 

Along the way, Mincione has faced serious questions about his work for the Vatican, and his relationships with the other defendants, none of which he’s been willing to answer at length in public before.

But Mincione is adamant that he is innocent, an honest businessman unfairly caught up in a scandal in which he’s become as much a victim as the Vatican — and potentially standing to lose even more.

After years of declining interview requests, Mincione agreed last month to speak with The Pillar. In the course of several phone calls, he offered to answer any questions about his dealings with the Vatican and, as he put it, “back up everything I say with documents.” 
  • A delightful piece about persistent research, in which an obscure and seemingly useless federal project turns out to have very human origins in the needs of a specific community: The Mystery of the Bloomfield Bridge, by Tyler Vigen.

  • While searching for the price of yarn in Jane Austen's day, I came across references to this new book, which I've just reserved through our interlibrary loan program: Jane Austen's Wardrobe, by Hilary Davidson. 
  • That same search turned up this lovely blog post on Austen's approach to turning one article of clothing into something new and fashionable through retrimming and touching up, and how the world needs more of the same: Jane Austen, Scarcity, and Mawmaw's Quilts, by Jeni Hankins.
  • The best £10/month (the only £10/month) I spend is my Patreon subscription to Victorians Vile Victorians. One does not need to pay to read VVV's delightful daily dose of Victorian flash fiction, inspired by period paintings, but the Blitherer has delighted me enough over the years that I'm happy to subscribe. Patreon is often used, I feel, as a monthly charity, but in this case, there is really a daily return, for which I am pleased to contribute.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Mrs. Dashwood, 14



A clatter at the door, a bustle in the hall, and Margaret dashed into the kitchen shouting, "He's here! He's come!"

"Who is it, Margaret?" called Mrs. Dashwood, scattering potato peelings from her apron as she rose. But Margaret was already gone, urgent to be underfoot where anything exciting was happening. "He" must surely be Willoughby returned, for Margaret would not have been half so thrilled to see Colonel Brandon riding up to the cottage. Now Marianne's sorrow, at least, would be instantly transmuted to golden joy, and her family might have all the comfort due to them after such a trial of faithfulness. Where grief is great, tears must always be near at hand, and yet one could almost be tempted to think Marianne too prodigal in her methods. It was only natural that the sight of Willoughby's sprawling script on a book's flyleaf, or the sound of the duet which he was no longer there to sing, would move his dear friend to transports of anguish in his absence. But perhaps it was not necessary to play the duet again to provoke tears, if the first time did not suffice? Indeed, Elinor had already tidied the music from the piano and shelved it amongst the exercise books, where Marianne would be unlikely to browse.

Now, apron neatly hung and her dress and hair smoothed, she was once again the gracious matron, ready to receive company. A hand to the knob and a step into the hall -- and there, amidst the flurry of bonnets and the shawls, not Willoughby, but another young familiar face peering anxiously at hers, hat in hand, hoping for welcome. 

"Edward! Oh, dear boy! How long you've been!" she cried, flying to him. "How thin you are! How worn! We'll soon have you well fed. But why have you never written these last months?"


What blissful simplicity, to be nothing more complicated than an omniscient, gracious mother again! It was clear to the meanest understanding that Edward thrived on kindness, and that kindness had been denied him far too often. She delighted to take full advantage of her maternal privileges to give him the warm embraces that his own mother would never deign to bestow. How any mother's heart could be so cold toward her own child, she could not fathom. Or could Mrs. Ferrars's schemings be a blind kind of love that imagined that her offspring could simply be forced into some mode, regardless of his own tastes and inclinations? 

Dear Edward must blossom here. She would make sure of it. He had not often been treated as a person in his own right, poor lad. At Norland she had observed how gratefully he responded to any attempt to draw him out. Now she delighted in charming Edward into conversation, not just for her daughters' sake, but for his, and had the joy of seeing not only him, but also Elinor, become more open and liberal in spirits. 

It was not to be expected, of course, that everyone should be content at the same time.

"It's not fair, Mama," moaned Margaret, maundering into the room and flopping against her mother trying to read in bed. "It was my idea to imagine that someone should give us a large fortune apiece, and Edward speculated on how Elinor and Marianne should spend their money, but he never asked me what I should do with my wealth. Edward only wants to talk to the big girls, not to me."

"I'm sure that's not so," murmured Mrs. Dashwood, her finger keeping a patient mark under the next stanza of verse. "Pray tell, what would you do with your riches?"

"I would take us all away -- yes, Edward too -- to explore some exotic locale. Borneo, perhaps, and we could hunt tigers. Or to Antigua, where we could succor Our Brother the Slave in his Anguish, as the pamphlets urge. Or Pittsburgh."

"Does Edward want to go to Pittsburgh?"

"Oh, certainly. He maintains that he has no taste for the picturesque."

Mrs. Dashwood permitted herself a brief glance at her page. "Tomorrow you must tell Edward of your plans. I have no doubt that he will enter into them as fully as you could wish."

"But Elinor will pass remarks on anything I say, and be satirical, and Marianne will either tell me I am too conventional and staid in my language, or cry over Willoughby."

"My dear, if you are to be deterred from conversation by the mere anticipation of your sisters' loving reception, you will seldom have the opportunity to speak at all."

"But it isn't fair!"

"No," sighed Mrs. Dashwood. "It is not fair. Console yourself with the reflection that not all unfairness is deprivation. It may happen one day that you receive beyond your merit. Will you complain then, and demand the strictest justice?"

Margaret pondered.

"No," she said at last. "But then I would also be kind to those who want to take part in conversation, and not always be hushing them or talking on about my own interests."

"That is something you could do even now, without needing a large fortune to improve your manners."

"I suppose." Margaret slid off the bed, but idled by her mother's side. "Mama, have you noticed Edward's ring?"

"I have."

"Have you noticed the plait of hair in it?'

"I have."

"Have you noticed that it is exactly the shade of Elinor's hair?"

"I have noticed," said Mrs. Dashwood, giving her daughter a loving push toward the door, "that it is often the course of wisdom not to mention everything one notices."

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Evil is in the Act

The Hamas pogrom on October 7th was the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust, and yet the slaughter and Israel's military response to it are playing out against a background of long-term conflict in the Holy Land in which many people have strong loyalties towards one side or the other. Loyalties have a way of clouding moral thinking, and modern society is not particularly good at moral thinking the first place.

Shadi Hamid (whose work at Wisdom of Crowds, particularly its podcast, I often find interesting) had a piece in the Washington Post which seemed to throw some of those modern confusions into clear visibility. (I've attempted to share a non-paywalled link, we'll see if that worked.)

While condemning the actions of Hamas, Shadi (who is Muslim and the son of Egyptian immigrants to the US) seeks to draw people's attention to the cause which motivates Hamas and those Palestinians who support them. But then he attempts to tie this to the question of whether Hamas's act was evil:
This is not to say that Hamas wouldn’t have committed its gruesome killings had political circumstances turned out differently. There is no way of knowing. But it would also be a mistake to dismiss Hamas’s terrorism as mere “evil.” As the philosopher John Gray notes, “A campaign of mass murder is never simply an expression of psychopathic aggression.” To describe the things we can’t comprehend as evil is a cop-out. It allows us to believe something is wrong with “them” but not with us. And, paradoxically, it exposes an unwillingness to take terrorists seriously, reducing them to “crazy” or “irrational” adversaries. They usually aren’t.
This draws on a common modern assumption that "evil" is a nihilistic action which is embraced because it is evil. But of course, this means that anything which sympathetic people do isn't really evil. This mode of thinking leads to a view in which there are bestial, almost literally "inhuman" evil people (often, rhetorically, Nazis) and then there are "basically good people" whose actions are at worst regrettable, but never evil.

But such thinking makes moral judgement almost impossible, nor is it in line with traditional Christian thinking.  Aquinas taught than any action is taken with some good in mind. We may be putting a lesser good above a greater one, or we may be using an evil means to achieve some good that we desire, but even when someone is literally damning himself through his actions he is motivated in some sense by good.

That isn't to say that there is no evil. When we sin we do evil. But to say that we are going evil does not mean that we do not have some good in mind when we act.

With that in mind, saying that the actions of the killers in Hamas were evil does not mean saying that they were incomprehensible. Wanting to have political control of what you think of as your homeland and wanting to bring glory and honor to your people are not in and of themselves incomprehensible or wrong. However, intentionally killing the innocent as a means to any end is always evil. And expansively defining your "homeland" as an area which would need to be cleansed of many of its existing inhabitants (as those who state their political goal as "from the river to the sea" do) is defining control of your homeland in a way which can only be achieved by depriving others of theirs.

So are Hamas and their sympathizers necessarily "crazy" or "irrational"?  No.  But they have very much committed acts of hideous evil and they should be condemned for it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Home Again, Jiggety Jog

Friends, we are home.

I am so grateful to all the excellent staff at our parochial school who build a warm, supportive environment, and all the wonderful parents who shared so much wisdom with me. At the same time, it became increasingly clear to me that we are homeschoolers down to our bones, and that it is traumatic to uproot almost two decades' worth of routine and expertise, even for a good cause. 

Indeed, it turns out that necessity is more crucial than idealism in making a huge life change. My desire to help our parish school transition to a liberal arts models was good, and must have had some purpose because it seemed to be the prompting of the Spirit. But (and this realization was the fruit of many sleepless hours pondering) when a woman of my age makes a major life change, it's often because there's some underlying dissatisfaction prompting it. Your husband doesn't talk to you anymore; you go to grad school. Your kids blame you for screwing up their lives; time to move and get a puppy. However, I didn't have an underlying dissatisfaction. I loved my happy home and homeschooling life, and wanted to share those benefits with my parish as it moves the school in that direction. 

Yet when I gave up those benefits myself, I was bereft. I moved through my day like the Little Mermaid, walking on knives of grief. God did not give me eight extra hours of energy to compensate for the time I was out of the house. Everyone was tired all the time, and at nights I barely saw my older children because I was so exhausted. I mourned our morning readalouds and Bible time. We all resented homework at night, remembering that we used to do the same kind of tutoring work during the day, when we were fresh. I didn't know when to grocery shop, and the house fell apart.

Lesser considerations, perhaps, if school was a necessity due to job and family considerations. But we knew it was not, and we knew that there was another way to live.

I had already told our gracious principal that we intended to go back to homeschooling in December, when the tonsil situation became acute. My 13yo daughter had chronic strep and had already missed a week of school (a stressful situation in itself when you are a working parent having to make attendance decisions for the day at 6 AM), and I was hoping we could put off having her tonsils out until January. No, said the doctor, she's too old to wait. It doesn't get any easier the older you are, something I can attest to as having had my tonsils out at 11. 

And so, after consultation with the principal, I stepped down as music teacher and we withdrew from school at the end of the quarter. Today we see the ENT to consult on the next tonsil steps.

Part of the radio silence here has been due to the feeling that it was impossible to write about this transition as it was ongoing, because we never seemed to hit a stable point where I could get enough of a handle on our situation and feelings to document it publicly. Now we've found our feet again, we hope we will find our words as well. Perhaps we will slip as easily into writing again as we have into being at home.

Here, have some pix of the youth in their Halloween finery.

No. 1 being mysterious

No. 2 and boyfriend as Barbenheimer

No. 5 as Unspecified Literary Character, No. 6 as Boy Eaten By Dino, and No. 7 as a Panda

No. 3 as Wednesday Addams

No. 4 as The Joker

Thursday, October 19, 2023

All Aboard the Orient Express

Dear friends, we are alive. 

If you wonder what Darwins have been up to, watch no further than this trailer for our production of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Darwin and stage managed by me. It has been a wonderful show to work on, and a perfect example of what we love about theater: a fantastic cast and crew, each of whom brings a strong work ethic and immense creativity to their role. I think I say this about every show, but this has been one of my favorite casts to work with. 

If you are local to Columbus, we are performing this weekend and next, tickets at the door or online here.

We are currently exhausted by life right now, but you shall hear more from us after this weekend.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

How It's Going

We are slipping. For about two and a half weeks, we went to bed very punctually, every school child tucked in early so we'd be ready to get up sharp. Every morning felt like the morning of a big road trip, a bit of shock and awe and hitting the ground running.

But our family culture has been shaped by 22 years of late nights, and our best conversations and problem solving and inside jokes happen after the rest of the world is in bed. That culture cannot just be shifted on the whim of trying out the school lifestyle, even though the school lifestyle is predicated on getting up early. The question now becomes: do we really want to shift that culture? 

And we still have eight months left in the school year.

Most people who make the shift from homeschooling to institutional schooling do it because in some way, homeschooling has failed them. There's no judgment in that. Everyone's family culture is different and requires different trade-offs, and sometimes school offers a stability or an accountability that serves a family in the way that it needs. But we are not failed homeschoolers. We love homeschooling, and miss it, with a visceral, breathless ache. Our marriage, our family from the very start, our intellectual development, our way of interacting with the world, has been shaped by the freedom and flexibility that homeschooling offers. Our friendships, the way we serve our parish and our neighbors and our families, all of these were strengthened by our easy, gracious way of living and learning, remote from bureaucracy and management techniques. A family is not run like an institution.

Our family culture has also been shaped by having an adult on the ground, able to pivot to meet the day's challenges and pick up the slack. Household maintenance, doctor's visits, emergencies, and the freedom to be gentle with a small human who may not be incapacitated, but may need an easier day than the regimentation of a school day spent out of the home can provide. The freedom to be in house as dinner simmers all day. The freedom to pick up and drive to visit family out of town. The freedom to start something while one is fresh.

I am in awe of my friends who are long-term teachers. They do amazing, necessary work. I also do amazing, necessary work. But I did long-term amazing, necessary work before this year, at home. And that work is still necessary, and I still want to do it.

And there are still eight months left in the school year.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Climbing the Roller Coaster

It's been busy times in the Darwin household over the last week. MrsDarwin did her first two days teaching at the parish school, and the three youngest kids attended school for the first time in their lives, after having been homeschooled up until this point.  I dropped the eldest off at FUS for her senior year of college. And the second eldest is getting ready to start at OSU next week as a sophomore, while the third and fourth kids are gearing up for another year of high school, which includes taking courses at the local community college.

We have four vehicles in the driveway, and we're juggling five work schedules (even the fourteen year old has a job at a country sausage shop on Saturdays) and play rehearsals, music lessons, bible studies, cub scouts, boy scouts, community chorus, and I don't know what all.  It's a busy time of life.

And yet, it has been striking me lately that we are like the cars of a roller coaster, creeping every more slowly towards the peak at which we'll suddenly start hurdling down again.

When we had only very little kids, we were in some ways very busy. People needed diapers changed and food spooned into their mouths, and we had to make sure no one swallowed a magnet or fell off the changing table. But we didn't have to worry about the kids having their own personal commitments and we could talk about adult subjects in front of them or put them to bed and still have hours to ourselves.

At this stage in life, each child has a set of commitments and emotional needs.  I haven't had to change a diaper in years, but there are a lot of other kinds of time investment which come with living in a close community with all of these other humans.

But this will all pass strangely quickly.

It was occurring to me this morning that in five years, our youngest will be eleven and the next youngest fourteen. The thirteen year old who is currently so full of chat will be a legal adult and in her senior year of high school.  And the 21-year-old who is heading into her senior year?  Imagine having a 26-year-old daughter. And the next about to turn 25.  Indeed, it's not unlikely that there will be in-laws and grand kids five years from now.

Ten years from now?  The youngest kid mid-high school and the next youngest in college, while all the rest are our in adult life.

Somewhere in these next few years we'll reach the crest of this parenting roller coaster, moving at an exhausted crawn, and begin to move downwards, slowly at first and then with terrifyingly gathering speed.  The rearing of children which has seemed to take up more and more time as we move through life will suddenly begin to take up less and less, and rather than the busy move through each day with our young charges we'll be watching from a bit more of a distance as these young people launch out into their independent lives.

The roller coaster isn't a bad image, as I'm somewhat excited thinking about it, but there's also a sense of vertigo. Having written this blog since were had only two kids, a lot of our parenthood has been chronicled here, but it seems like in some ways the next few years will see the biggest shift of all, and I both am excited and can't quite imagine it.

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Tale of Two Couches, and Being Worried About Many Things

The Stairwell of (Furniture) Doom

(This is a time capsule post, so at the end of the year I can look back and laugh at myself.)

Last Wednesday we descended on IKEA en masse, in the big van, to buy a loveseat. Our daughter's boyfriend rents our large attic room as a studio apartment, and he'd been wanting a couch for a while, to give him (and my daughter) a place to sit other than the bed. And, rather suddenly, his parents were coming for dinner, so it was a good time to make the space look furnished to an adult level. 

Normally, I would consult Craiglist or Facebook Marketplace for furniture, being of the generation that never bought anything new as a child. But getting things up to our attic involves navigating the attic stairs, a tightly curving passage that has brought many a large item to grief. The last time we tried to get a fully assembled loveseat up there, when our lodger first moved in, it involved six people getting increasingly testy as the couch stuck, gouged walls (we're still missing chunks of plaster), and threatened to jam permanently in the stairwell. The only way anything large gets up those stairs is in a flatpack.

If anyone does flatpacks, it's IKEA. Since the issue was not necessarily price but portability, my daughter and her boyfriend settled on the loveliest settee in the store, a rolled-arm piece in a moody grey-green. We were all jovial as we waited down by the doors for the packages to be rolled out to us, the couch not being in the pack-it-up-yourself aisles. And we were suddenly unjovial when it came out to us in a huge box.

"Maybe it's in pieces inside the box," we said, and we took it home (the van is that big) and opened it. It was not in pieces. It was perhaps the only mostly-assembled loveseat IKEA sells (we had to screw on the legs, but that was it). And we could tell by the measurements that it was simply too big to fit up the attic stairs, legs or no. But it was handsome, far nicer than the tattered loveseat in the living room, and so we did not part with it. My daughter's boyfriend, a good sport, did his best to hide his disappointment. His parents were arriving in three hours.

So Darwin (who was working from home) and I set up shop and did research on how all IKEA's couches are assembled, and came up with a list of five or six that could go through the attic stairs and over the top of the stairwell in flat pieces. I stayed at home and spearheaded the last-minute cleaning and cooking while Darwin and the young man headed back to IKEA, found a full-sized couch that came in pieces (because it was easier to get a disassembled couch than a disassembled loveseat), and arrived home just as the parents pulled up. A delightful evening was had by all, dining and singing and putting furniture together.

That was Wednesday, I say. Thursday morning, I rushed over to my mother-in-law's house to bring her an ice pack (actually, a bag of frozen peas) when she'd fallen and bruised her knees. Darwin was at work, but it was easy for me to help because I was at home.

This is not the way I will be able to spend my days soon, when I will be contractually obliged to be at school from 8-3, teaching. My fears and anxieties about this cycle so rapidly that it's best to just let them wash over me without trying to solve any of them, but I am indeed sorry to lose the flexibility to shape each day to the necessity at hand. At this moment, I wish I were sending the kids to school and staying home myself -- which is exactly the opposite of the way I felt when I first made the choice to teach. As I say, there's no point in reasoning with any of this. 

School starts on Thursday, but my first full day of meetings is tomorrow. We have the school uniforms at little expense, thanks to the uniform exchange, and the school supplies at greater expense. It burns up my homeschooling heart to buy three sets of markers and to write the kindergartener's name on every crayon, though of course I understand why it's necessary. There's going to be a lot of adapting to an institutional setting, if not for the kids, then for me. The amount of new passwords I've had to create in the past week is maddening. 

I'm clinging to the first enthusiasm I had when I wanted more children than my own to have the musical building blocks that will last them a lifetime, and hoping that my first days in the classroom will revive that energy. I'm hoping that at the end of the day, I'll have anything left for my own family, and for the production of Murder on the Orient Express that Darwin is directing, and that I've committed to stage manage. Lots of other people go to work, and some even reenter the workforce after 22 years, and they survive it.

And now we're off to buy school lunch supplies, and tonight is the last round of auditions for Murder, and then maybe I'll sit on my new loveseat before I go to bed and get up early to go to work. 

Monday, August 07, 2023

100 Years of Kids

 At some point over the last month or two, the kids realized that in September there would be a week during which their ages summed up to 100 years. Unfortunately, it was a bad time for a celebration, because by then our eldest daughter would be back at college and unable to attend. So they scheduled a slightly early 100th birthday part for this last weekend. 

I slow cooked 10lbs of chicken with Mexican style spices and put out quantities of Spanish rice, refried beans, and tortillas. Various friends brought food and drink, and I made a large cake and picked up candles in the shape of a 1 and two 0s. Forty or fifty people came through the open-house style event, bringing together the different spheres of our lives: church, theater, the kids' friends, etc.

Even without this particular reminder that we have 100 years of life experience that have sprung from our marriage, I'd been thinking about the next generation lately. Our eldest is heading into her senior year of college, and we have one more in college and two in high school. Going into parenting, you imagine all your children being just like you and your spouse. I'd pictured the kids all reading the same books we enjoyed, taking the same approach to school, and having the same ambitions for their careers.

Instead, the thing you realize as a parent with many children is how staggeringly different these humans can be. We do not simply reproduce ourselves. We produce these completely independent and very different people, whom we sometimes struggle to understand, despite how much we love them and want to know everything about them.

So far, no one seems "just like us" when it comes to favorite books or academics or talents, but instead we find ourselves with people who have a great many interests and abilities which only partly overlap with our own. We are our own crowd, not just in numbers but in variety.

As I watch the kids working their way through school and taking their first steps into working, and try to nudge them in directions that seem like they would be most conducive to being able to support a family, I do worry at times. We've managed to work our way up to making much more than either of our sets of parents have. Will the kids be able to do as well in the career world as I have?

It's natural to worry, because we want good things for our kids.

But there's also a hierarchy of goods. I find that the things the kids have most consistently picked up from us are the things we do as a part of a community, which for us ends up meaning Catholicism and community theater. All of the kids, thus far, seem to have made these things very much their own, though as in all other things they each approach these activities in their own way. 

Perhaps if I'd made my career or my reading and intellectual interests the center of family activity and conversation all the time, those would have been the things that the kids had picked up most from us. But if it's a choice between those and the connection to faith, morals, and arts which they have instead picked from us, I think the path we're on is the better one. 

And clearly, 100 years is not nearly long enough to spend around such excellent people. Although the fact that they rack up another communal seven years to their total for each twelve months by the calendar underlines how exhausting it can often be to serve as the axle from which so many different spokes go out, watching these people grow into their adult selves is one of the best ways I can think of to spend my life.  Here's looking at you, kids.

Monday, July 24, 2023


Second daughter

Daughters One, Four, and Three

Three times this week I have started writing a post, about why I can't write a post because I keep getting interrupted by real life, only to be interrupted by real life -- an emergency molar extraction for a child, the wedding ring being repaired, the million demands on the at-home parent when dad and oldest brother are canoeing with the Scouts in Virginia for a week. This weekend everyone was home, and so we took it in shifts to watch Barbie. I have four daughters, ages 21-13, and they went first, all dressed up because it's fun to dress up sometimes. The girls came home with opinions, but wanted to wait to discuss the movie until we'd all seen it.

So Darwin and I went, not in costume, because although it's fun to dress up, it's also nice not to have to dress up. And we were amused, for the most part. I am not a great fan of Greta Gerwig's oeuvre. Lady Bird left me unmoved by the angsty, self-absorbed teen protagonist, and Little Women was a revision of the literary source ungrounded in historical realities and attitudes (and burdened by the talented but ubiquitous leads, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet). But perhaps, we thought, Gerwig might have the overblown touch necessary for a camp property like Barbie.

In part, yes. The early absurdity of Barbieland, in which the perfectly sculpted characters move and act in ways believable to anyone who's ever watched kids play with their toys, was Technicolor fun -- and fun is the operative word in a movie based on a toy. But you've seen just about all of it in the trailers. Gerwig succeeds, to an extent, in humanizing her main Barbie character, aided immeasurably by the talent of actress Margot Robbie. But the only way she can deal with Ken, or with any male character in the movie, or any character who is not Margot Robbie Barbie, is by making them more, not less, of a caricature. And that's a problem in a movie that's trying to tread the ground covered with far more real human drama by The Lego Movie, which managed a much smaller-scale real-world crisis with surprising humanity.

Humanity is in short supply here. Indeed, Gerwig wants to use Barbie to make a profound point about the role in women in society, but she can't succeed in grinding her pink plastic ax to a razor's edge because she's unwilling to make any profound points about the role of men. Every man in the movie, from Ken to Will Ferrell's cartoonish Mattel CEO to a comically irrelevant husband and father (a toss-off gag), is as plastic and malleable to Gerwig's whims as Gerwig wants to claim that women are to the patriarchy. And this one-note story service isn't limited to the men, who are never presented as actual people. A real-world mother and her teenage daughter become Barbie's guides and co-conspirators, urging her to act and to value herself for herself. The bond shared by Barbie and the mother is surprisingly effective. But the teenage daughter, a vicious little piece of work -- all the abrasiveness and clever self-absorption of Lady Bird without the internal life which gave Lady Bird her context -- is like Barbie herself, only the prop that makes the mother "Mother". 

This movie is, in fact, a middle-aged woman's dream world of matriarchal relevance, where daughters are inexplicably hostile and then inexplicably appreciative, where Barbie can be sexy without sex because men are all emasculated buffoons (Barbie and Ken, as specifically revealed in dialogue, have no genitals), where men seem to be able to take over society simply by uttering the magic word "patriarchy", where women are Supreme Court judges and President and Chemists without having to demonstrate a lick of the grunt work that goes into politics and higher education. One of the few moments in the real world where the humor gives a nod to truth is where Ken is at a hospital demanding to be allowed to do surgery because he's a man, and the tired woman in scrubs tells him no. "Let me speak to a doctor!" he insists. "I am a doctor," retorts the woman, and you believe it in a way you don't believe in Nobel Prize-Winning Barbie. Ken doesn't ever act the way that boys play with corresponding toys such as GI Joe because, as Darwin noted, Ken was never a boys' toy, only an accessory to Barbie. The movie makes this point early on, but doesn't resolve it in an interesting and truthful way on its own terms.

The contrast with The Lego Movie, which did succeed on its own terms, is informative. There, each story line, toyland and real life, resolved honestly in its own world, and that worked because The Lego Movie only attempted to make a small, intimate point about the real world: the conflicts between the ways parents and children interact with beloved toys, and how that crisis of control can be bridged by love and some sacrifice. No matter the scale of the work of fiction, the only true points that it can make about the world are small and intimate and interior, because people are themselves small and intimate and interior. 

Barbie the Movie, however, wants to make a grand point about the necessity of feminism to counteract the oppressive demands society puts on women -- a society, it should be noted, that is 50% women. How do all these highly-qualified Barbies come to be oppressed by a buffoon like Ken? How can a vote to change the Constitution of Barbieland be so scary that the Barbies have to lure the Kens away from voting, when Barbies outnumber, and can therefore outvote, the Kens? Why does the grand plan to defeat the Kens give credence to pick-up artist cons? Why does the unbrainwashing of the Barbies work by capturing each one and forcing her to listen to an impassioned speech, when every intervention I've ever seen on that model in real life mostly makes the intervenee dig in and put up defensive walls? That's fantasy, if you like.

In the end, the movie's frenetic pace grinds to a halt as Barbie is encouraged to actualize herself into being human by the ghost of her original American promoter, Ruth Handler (whose historical significance in Barbie's propagation consisted of manipulating markets by bypassing parental gatekeeping and selling a German sex doll directly to children through the medium of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club). This is the lull where, in sleepovers yet to come, the girls (who mainly want to watch fun Barbieland antics and the Kens' farcical yet satisfying dance-off) wander off to have cake or open presents or check memes together. No one wants to watch Barbie being human in a movie which doesn't have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. It succeeds at moments because Gerwig, who is a talented procedural filmmaker, gives Barbie flashes of real insight. (A moment of wonder, where a stunned, luminous Barbie realizes the individuality of each person at a park, touches transcendence.) But she can't extend that humanity to every character. As a result, where the movie is absurd fun (and that's most of it), it works, and where it tries to be deep -- well, what better time to engage in real-world interactions like cake and sharing memes? Not every movie is so considerate as to telegraph where you can stop paying attention to it.

In case you were wondering: the four daughters (who enjoy the advantage of being surrounded by hard-working, supportive father, uncles, grandfather, and boyfriend) enjoyed the funhouse aspect, but were unmoved by being told how oppressed they were, either by the plastic dolls they don't play with, or by the destructive unfriendly kind of teen girl they avoid in real life. "Why didn't they give her some backstory to show why she's so cruel?" one asked. My 14yo son, disappointed because his parents ruled against him seeing the extended nudity in Oppenheimer at this moment in time, but understanding and accepting the reasoning, decided against seeing Barbie, and I'm glad of that. He's not irrelevant to the women in his life, nor a jerk, nor an idiot, just a guy who knows that a Pitch Meeting spoof will tell you more about the movie than the movie itself.

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Change is as Good as a Rest

No rest, but lots of change coming...


First off: we are not dead, we are just in the theater. And you can be too! We are putting up Fiddler on the Roof this weekend, Friday July 14-Sunday, July 16. If you happen to be in the Central Ohio area, come see us! Various Darwins appear in various roles: I am Golde, Eleanor is the Singing Russian, Isabel is in the Dance Corps, Jack is a Jerky Russian, William is a Jewish Boy, and Darwin is Tech Director. 

Golde is a great role, and I enjoy playing her, especially against our Tevye who is an old pal of mine, but I've felt all along that that I haven't been getting her quite right. Darwin, who's been watching the rehearsals from the balcony as he's setting the tech, put his finger on the problem: "You're softening the lines," he said. "You can't imagine scolding like Golde does in real life, and so you're trying to deliver these lines the same way you would if you found yourself saying this kind of thing at home. But Golde doesn't pull her punches. She's always performing, to an imaginary audience or to God, and she's always projecting, "Can you believe the shit I have to put up with?"

He's right, of course, and I found that it's opened up the role for me to stop projecting my personality onto Golde. Go big or stay at home. It helps to break the fourth wall and kvetch directly to the audience. Being in costume also helps me get into character, as does just running the show every night -- that's where most of my best work happens in terms of building character and picking up business. It's much easier to add bits once you have a set and props.

So come see me (but not my hair; that's verboten) and some of Delaware, OH's finest tread the boards in Fiddler!


And here's the change: 

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at CUA on the Ward Method for teaching music to Catholic schoolchildren. It's the best program you've never heard of, based on quick and simple lessons that build facility with intonation, sight reading, notation, composition, and conducting, leading to fluency with Gregorian chant. Trained vocalists and musicians at the conference were all saying, "I wish I'd had this as a kid!" I'd like my own children to have this excellent foundation in music, and not just my own children, but the children in my parish and in my hometown.

And I told our pastor that I'm willing to go full-time teaching the Ward Method at our parochial school this year, and in order to support that, we're enrolling our three youngest children in kindergarten, fourth, and seventh grades.

This is a leap of faith for me, akin to descending to the Titanic in a bathysphere. Our school is transitioning to a Montessori/Classical model, which is one reason we feel it could be the right time to make this change, but as the transition is ongoing, I don't have any assurances that my youngest will actually be part of the Montessori roll-up. We have never operated in a school environment, with all the regulation and regimentation and schedule that entails. I mourn the disruption of my comfortable, pleasant family lifestyle, in which we operate on a different timeframe than the rest of world, moving at our own pace, free during the days for reading and appointments and workmen and grocery shopping.

I sought the wise counsel of a friend, which helped me to see that in all of this, I'm mainly wrestling with myself. My older children, when I presented the idea to them, all shrugged and said, "Sounds good, you should do that." The younger kids are very excited to go to school, far more excited than I am to send them. Darwin, able to work from home most days, will continue overseeing of the two high-school kids, who will still be taking community college classes. I've been volunteering at the parish with both music and children for more than a decade now, so I'm not an unknown quantity there. This new situation formalizes much of what I've been doing informally for a long time, and perhaps that what is giving me so pause now that the initial feeling of grace and confidence has deserted me: I value informality and flexibility, and now I need to discipline myself and conform to someone else's schedule, to which I will be bound not as a volunteer but as an employee.

Doubtless the excitement of my first decision will return. I've been on an emotional pendulum, crying all morning before I enrolled the children (a sorrow, as I say, shared by no one else), a Martha worried and anxious about many things. I trust that I'm also doing the one thing necessary: listening to Jesus and doing as He asks.