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

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Lenting


 Since I resolved to wake up earlier for Lent ("earlier" for me means 6:30, and I can feel all you school parents sighing at my ability to sleep in), we have been swept by waves of sickness washing through the children of the house. Most nights, I have slept in about two hour stretches, punctuated by coughs or someone coming in to tell me that they have chills or a sore throat, or by wakeful listening for the sounds of retching, or (last night) by the child standing by my bedside telling me that he missed the potty in the dark, and his pants and the floor were all wet. 

I have persevered, mostly. I have gotten up and said my morning prayer at 6:30, as soon as the alarm went off, except the morning I snoozed while Darwin took a shower, or this morning when a child had come in at 6:00, so I snoozed until 7:00. That's two out of the seven mornings of Lent -- not a great record, so far, but all earlier than I had been getting up. 

That's prayer, I guess. Fasting was going well, until I found myself inexplicably eating all the things. "What's wrong with me?" I asked myself in the evening, as I stuffed Saltines and chugged milk. "Why can't I stop eating?" The next morning, I started my period. I have been cycling, girl and woman, for more than three decades, and I ought to know the signs, but as St. Paul advised, I do not judge myself.

Almsgiving. My two oldest daughters are going to be traveling in two separate weeks to New Jersey to help my brother and his wife as they continue to adjust to life with baby Josh in the hospital in Philadelphia. I don't know of anything more precious to give than children, especially since this means we won't see my oldest daughter during her spring break. And, of secondary (but only just) importance, as a director, I'm giving up my Helena (my second daughter) for a week of Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsals.


Some baby Josh for your delectation

Speaking of baby Josh, an update from my sister-in-law:

Joshua has been able to maintain his own body temperature for over 48 hours now! As long as he is above 35 degrees (Celsius), the doctors remain happy to keep him off the lamp. The ideal temp is between 36.5 and 37.5. (37  C = 98.6 F). They continue to use the heat lamp for care (diaper changes and baths) so as not to make his body work harder than he needs to. But that is just precautionary.

I’m learning that with a medically complex child, there is always going to be something new to worry about though.  Nothing too concerning, but right now we are once again trying to find the right balance between diuretics and electrolytes. Joshua still likes to hold onto extra fluid which finds its way into his lungs. When they up his diuretics, his sodium and potassium levels seem to drop too low. When they take him off any diuretics, he seems to retain fluid and look a bit puffy and give us some hazy looking lung x-rays.

So we celebrate temperature and we pray for electrolytes tonight! And of course we enjoy his cuteness!


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The (Tinny) Rings of Power

 If you want to know what homeschooling looks like, chez Darwin: for the last week my two oldest school children, ages (almost) 17 and 14, have been assigned to read through Bret Devereaux's series at A Collection of Unmigitated Pedantry on why Rings of Power was the monumental, stupendously, pompously, ahistorically awful flop that it was. (H/T to Brandon.) Along the way, there's enough military and economic history to satisfy the discriminating viewer, who sat agog and aghast at the compounding missteps and outright idiocies of the show. 

From the introduction to the series, the first of four posts: 

This week we’re going to take a look at the worldbuilding of Amazon Studio’s Rings of Power from a historical realism perspective. I think it is no great secret that Rings of Power broadly failed to live up to expectations and left a lot of audiences disappointed. In the aftermath of that disappointment, once one looks beyond the depressingly predictable efforts to make culture war hay out of it, I found that many people understood that they were disappointed but not always why. Here I am going to suggest one reason: the failure of Rings to maintain a believable sense of realism grounded in historical societies and technologies (something the Lord of the Rings, books and films, did very well) makes it impossible to invest in the stakes and consequences of a world that appears not to obey any perceptible rules.

...When making a speculative fiction world, the author(s), can either plan out the system’s unique function or they can adopt a real world system, but they generally must do one or the other or risk sacrificing audience investment from a world that lacks consistency.

And as noted above, Middle Earth and the broader Tolkien legendarium draws its sense of consistency when it comes to the world and its societies mostly from a firm sense of rootedness in the realia of historical societies and historical literature. Tolkien has not reinvented new systems of farming, new laws of physics or new systems of social organization. In The Lord of the Rings the world’s consistency depends on its feeling of historical rootedness.

In good speculative fiction then, the creator has a choice: import recognizable, real-world systems that will feel real to an audience or build new systems and then explain their fantastical workings to the audience in a way that renders them understandable. Rings of Power does neither and in the process manages to construct a Middle Earth that is not only ‘flat’ in the sense that the the cataclysms of the Changing of the World have not yet happened and thus the Straight Road to Valinor can still be traversed, but unfortunately this Middle Earth is also flat in the sense that it is rendered dull and uninteresting by the lack of perceptible rules and consequence.

The introduction deals with problems of Scale, Sail, and Social Detail; the three follow-up posts are more specific critiques of metalworking in the world of Rings of Powerthe failures of physics and tactics in the climactic battle in the Southlands, and The Problem of Numenor.

Devereaux makes the point that the writers of the show consistently prefer concept art, clever tricks, and "gotcha!" reveals over solid and time-tested techniques like character or plot development and the accumulated wisdom of the well-documented practices and development of our own pre-industrial societies. Things like ships' sails or the transport and use of horses in battle or the social and economic structures of nomadic peoples have analogies in our world; the customs and practices they developed were not arbitrary, but based in the realities of the technologies of their age, and were often studied and improved upon by the best minds of the age. Any creative artist worth his or her salt would draw on this accumulated wisdom. The creative minds behind Rings of Power seem to want to surprise the viewer at every turn with startling twists, and they mostly succeed in that ambition because their twists are so entirely unmoored in any historical or practical consideration.

This pattern of disregarding precedent when it doesn't suit also applies the to the show's much-vaunted race-blind casting, which is notable only for the specifically modern and piecemeal way it is applied. There is no reason why there can't be racial diversity in Middle-Earth, and indeed every reason why there should be. Tolkien has developed an extensive history of the Elves, which involve three different lines of divergence and settlement, with numerous sub-branches. Why not construct whole societies based on these groups, which differ linguistically and culturally? But in the world of the writers' room, each character is an island, unconnected to parentage or any larger culture except where it suits. Subgroups -- Elves, Dwarfs, Men, Proto-hobbits -- share an arbitrary accent picked from the U.K., but no character is expected to look like he or she descended from his or her screen parents. What, indeed, has reproduction to do with sex?

This leads me to a larger weakness of the show. I think Devereaux's emphasis on not reinventing entire fields that have been the extensive study of countless generations underlines a failing of Rings of Power, and of many other modern endeavors: because the creative minds believe that certain patterns of historical human behavior in the realms of racial and sexual mores have been wrongheaded and made up out of whole cloth, they want to also throw out any other historical norm as being arbitrary. Women didn't sail? Sexist! Sails themselves? Just as reinventable!

 Like Chesterton's fence, however, one needs to be able to explain why these standards were the way they were before one jettisons them into the rather shallow abyss of the Balrog. Else, as Devereaux emphasizes:
And that is the recurring problem with the worldbuilding in Rings of Power, that the audience rapidly finds that cannot have much faith at all that the creators involved have given much thought to these questions. And each crack in the worldbuilding in turn damages the stakes of the peril and the significance of character choices because if the story itself doesn’t have to obey any real rules of cause and consequence and thus the creators can merely opt to have anything happen for any reason then there is no reason to invest in any of it at all. If there are no consistent rules to this world then nothing matters and if nothing matters…why should I care?

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Letters for Lent


 Happy Valentine's Day, you filthy animals! Please accept this sign of my regard.

Of far more significance, liturgically speaking, is the upcoming season of Lent, for which we are all no doubt prepared. For the past several years, I've started pre-gaming my Lent, so to speak, by practicing some penances in advance -- fasting, adding in some prayer, turning down spot pleasures. I thought this was some odd inclination of my own, only to find out that there used to be an entire liturgical period, Septuagesima, devoted to this very practice of winding down for Lent. (I had seen the word Septuagesima before, being knocked around in the circles of people who complain a lot about things liturgical, so perhaps I'm at fault for not paying enough attention before now to what it referred.) 

This is the story of my spiritual life: an inclination, a conviction that seems unusual or against the grain, only to discover that scholars and sages through the centuries have pondered this very thing, only it never was covered in my religious education or in the circles I moved in. I nearly wept reading Hans Urs Von Balthazar's Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? This idea, which I had been tracking through my reading of the Bible, carefully noting down all verses that seemed to point to the idea that once all evil had been consumed as by fire, what was good, being of God himself, could not be lost and must indeed come back to Him and be joined to Him, was not a strange borderline heretical notion of my own, but one that had been openly debated through the ages. Our faith was far bigger, far more expansive and strange and wonderful than the dry, open-and-shut Baltimore Catechism Q&A would have one believe.

Indeed, it was about this time that I finally acted on an inclination that had been gaining force for years, and rid my house of the Baltimore Catechism, the Tan Children's Bible, that awful book of saint stories with the garish paintings of sickly virgins and purple Africans gratefully accepting baptism from a handsome priest, so popular as a First Communion gift (you know the one I mean), and indeed any children's book that accepted as a description of holiness that "he practiced the strictest chastity and had a devotion to our Blessed Mother". What does that even mean? What does that look like in practice? How can this pat pious depiction of dead-eyed saints have any truck with the immensity of joy and suffering to be found in Jesus, the growing understanding of Christian maturity that so much of what we know we do and can not know?

What have they to do with Love?

***

All this is to say that it's time for Lenten Letters. Should you like to receive a letter from me during Lent, please send your name and address to darwincatholic @ gmail.com, and I will do my best to write to everyone during Lent itself (though some years it's stretched out to Pentecost). I just write about whatever is on my mind at the moment, rather like the blog itself, so I suppose it's less of a correspondence and more of a "Have the fun of opening an envelope and getting what you get". I can't promise this year to use the nice paper and the fancy pen, but there will be a stamp and a flap to slit and an enclosure to withdraw that is not a bill or appeal or a summons. And many days, that itself is enough to make one smile.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Sonnet: Octave and Sestet

I said I would read the last chapter of Gaudy Night, and so I did; then I went back and began at chapter one, and so until I wrapped the final chapter again in its proper position. Lord Peter may be a damn sight too sensitive, and Harriet Vane too stubbornly, willfully blind, but then, without conflict, whence plot?

One element, not of plot but of theme, is that in Oxford Harriet finds her creative voice again, welling up in the severe scholarly beauty of the stone city. She writes the octave of a sonnet about the university as a fixed point in a whirling world, and puts it aside, unable to find a turn for the sestet. (The sestet, in the Petrarchan sonnet, turns the octave, or challenges it, or answers a question posed.) Later, while flipping through her notebook after she's lent it to Peter to study her case-notes, she finds he's finished the sonnet, using the sestet to turn the peaceful fixed center of the octave into the love-driven whirl of a top. This infuriates Harriet (not least because Peter's lines are better than her own), but it also intrigues her into giving Peter a long-overdue reassessment.

I myself had some quiet hours today, our broken washing machine causing me to spend several hours running loads of laundry at my mother-in-law's new house around the block, empty until she moves out in the spring. And I, like Harriet Vane, had a first line pushing up a small green shoot. And so, after I'd finished my blocking for the next rehearsal, as the last load tumbled about the dryer, I took up my pad (mostly used, like Harriet's, for the business at hand), and turned some lines, of which these are the final form.


God saw that it was good, and so you are,
And so your eyes have taught my eyes to see,
Your tongue my tongue to taste, heart's library 
As richened by close reading, your memoir;
As longing for your light, my double-star,
My soul entwined with yours, nor wanting free,
Now two, now one, now like the One-in-Three,
Love's unity begets love's avatar.
But still the veil this veil├ęd flesh and mind 
Conceals, nor ever fully rent in twain
Until at last we know as we are known;
Until within that blessed Thought we find
The Father of our friendship; so attain
Our dim loves' one true dawn, all space o'erthrown.



Friday, February 10, 2023

Darwiniana

 Sometimes I wonder, "Why don't I write, when I have so many ideas I want to chew on and hash through and meditate on? Why is it so difficult to dedicate the time to distill some of these musings into coherent lines so that you, my friends, can also think about these things with me?" -- which is, for me, the purpose of writing.

And then I consider my afternoon yesterday, in which, confidently prepped for my evening blocking rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream at 7:00, I went to church at 4:00 to drop off my boys at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, then dropped my 12yo daughter off at Confirmation class and started teaching the 7th grade Bible Study, at 4:30, and how five minutes into class I received a call from my 5yo's teacher, saying he'd thrown up, and how I had to call Darwin with all my students agog, and how, in a first in my experience, when I stabbed at his number from my contacts, Siri (which I never use) had slipped in a suggested number from some message that was one digit off from his phone number, and so I had an awkward conversation with a wrong number -- that I dialed from contacts! With my students agog! And then I had a full hour and a half between the end of classes (because the boys got out of their class half an hour early, although it was just the one boy now), so I made dinner while Darwin ran to the store (after bathing the cheerful, vomit-crusted boy), and we arranged which older child would babysit the boy because everyone else was called in some capacity to rehearsal, or had to be at the theater for production meetings. And how, when I got home from rehearsal at 9:15 (because I ended rehearsal right on time at 9:00! but had to talk to various people and then shut up the theater), the boys were up late on the computer because everyone was too dragged out to put them right to bed, and there was a bit of fuss, and then I came into the kitchen to talk to Darwin and was followed by three older children, who all spoke to me at the same time, each chattering cheerfully about whatever was on his or her mind (and wholly unconnected to anything their siblings were saying), to which I needed to attend and make individual reply. And how, at 11:00, I sat in bed with my laptop, thinking about writing, and determined not to scroll down social media or pick up Gaudy Night which I suddenly had the strong urge to re-read, so instead I fell asleep reading a scholarly article I dearly wanted to finish and talk about. 

So the main reason I have time to write at this moment is because I called a sick day, ignoring the constant murmur of episode after episode of Lost Cities of the Andes or Mysteries of the Dead Sea or whatever documentary series my 9yo is binging.

And these are all good things, important things because they are so small and so make up the very foundation that everything else is built upon. We are in no crisis right now (except for the slight underlying dread that the other shoe is going to drop with the one child out of the three younger ones who hasn't thrown up this week), and all the many projects that we have in hand are moving forward, if glacially at times. 

The most immediate of these projects is A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'm directing and Darwin is tech directing. We are in blocking rehearsals (which I love), which require me to do a lot of time-consuming preparation (which I love). We perform March 30-April 2. That's eight weeks away -- not so far away.


Darwin and I spent a weekend away from the family at the preserved Victorian house of a 19th century industrialist that he found listed on Vrbo. It was a revelatory, refreshing weekend of delight, which functioned as a writers' retreat once we decompressed enough to get used to people not talking to us all the time. And on the second day, I started revising Stillwater. I wrote and wrote, surrounded by beautiful woodwork, with no one but Darwin in my immediate vicinity. And now I've sent the first half of the manuscript to a copy editor, and am plugging away resolutely at my own edits for second half, and have spoken to my cover designer, with an eye to having the thing published in time for Christmas this year.

I do want to tell you all about this marvelous house, and show you the pictures I took so that everyone can understand how the rooms flowed together and where the back corridors were, because I know that your eyes will not glaze over like my children's did as I explained each of the 60 photos. But here, a photo of tilework to whet your appetite. Ignore the wallpaper and that one modern patch, and contemplate the original toilet that flushes when you pull up on that that lever under the tank. 



Friends, I could have looked at the vintage towel bar and toilet paper holder all day long. Bliss.

(But MrsDarwin, you say, you have umpteen boxes of subway tile stacked in your daughters' bedroom, waiting to for the gutted upstairs bathroom to be put into a state to receive them. Hush, I say. Hush.)

I shall go, and contemplate what I will feed a houseful of delicate appetites on a Friday in Ordinary Time when we've only done the Aldi's run and not the Kroger shopping, and find my cleaning cloth so that I can degrease my kitchen, and vacuum the dining room table (best cleaning hack ever -- try it yourself), and then I might sit down with a cup of tea and sigh over the last chapter of Gaudy Night. And then I'll start in on next's week blocking. Those young lovers in the forest aren't going to choreograph their own thematic slapstick.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Update on Joshua

Many of you have been praying for Joshua, and for that, many many thanks. Here's the latest update from my sister-in-law. She has been at CHOP with Joshua this week, while my brother is at home with the three older ones, with an assist from my mom. Joshua will likely be in the hospital for quite some time, so the family is learning how to manage this very complex care situation.
UPDATE:
Joshua is 1 month old today!!! (Yesterday was his official due date). He has lost most of the fluid and inflammation from being on the ECMO and the doctor’s think we can now observe and measure his “true” size! Joshua is 19.5 inches and 8.2 pounds. He has long legs, big feet and the longest fingers!
Joshua has had his IV and PIC line removed. This makes it much easier to change his diaper, do PT exercises, and give him snuggles! He is receiving breast milk through a feeding tube and no longer needs any supplemental nutrition. This is a big step because it means he is finally regulating his blood sugar better. He continues to rely completely on the ventilator to take breaths but has been able to maintain his oxygen saturation with minimal support. His oxygen levels frequently drop when he is agitated (he doesn’t like diaper changes or being repositioned), but we are learning what his body needs to keep his oxygen steady.
They did an ultrasound of his brain a few days ago and the impact of the brain bleed remains stable. This means that little has changed either good or bad. It could take months for his little body to reabsorb all the blood. In the meantime, the bleed has caused significant compression on the ventricles of the brain. They are watching for cerebro spinal fluid that may build up. Though, there is significantly less swelling on the brain this week.
The doctors keep saying ”we are waiting for Joshua to show us what he can do.” The doctors need to follow Joshua’s lead. But it is still believed that the damage to the brain is significant and permanent. The brain stem was most affected by the bleed (the amount of fluid caused the whole brain to shift out of place). He has yet to open his eyes and his pupils are not dilating. The doctors say it is unlikely that he will ever be able to breathe on his own because the part of the brain that communicates with the lungs is not functioning. He also has not shown any gag reflex which means he cannot protect his airway. He will likely be a candidate for a tracheostomy, but the earliest he would be stable enough for that is probably at 3 months old. We will meet with the airway response team in the coming weeks to learn more about this option.
The doctors cannot give us any clear picture of what the future will hold. He may start to develop new pathways in his brain and we may see more potential for what Joshua will be capable of doing. However, it is likely that he will not regain any additional brain function and will continue to need all the supports he is currently on.
Whether Joshua shows small signs of improvement or none at all, we are grateful that he is here with us now and responding to some stimuli (mostly in his feet and legs). We will continue to care for him and meet his needs as they are currently presented. We are learning what it looks like to care for a medically complex child with severe brain damage. But we also know that the doctors do not have the final word on Joshua’s life. We continue to entrust sweet Joshua to the Lord and pray for his healing. We will enjoy all the snuggles we can get and we will love and care for Joshua just as he is - all the while hoping (but not expecting) that we will see “happy surprises” as we move forward!


Joshua currently has a relic of Servant of God Emil Kapaun near his cradle, and a friend is sending a relic of Bl. Julia Greeley. So pick your favorite contender for canonization, and please join us in praying for this sweet boy.