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

Thursday, July 18, 2024

What Is A Price?

If you think about running a pricing consulting company some day, it might help to have a book about pricing which you can talk about and give to people to show that you know a lot about pricing.

And if one of your interesting resume items is that you one managed pricing for Wendy's and can tell everyone all sorts of things about how fast food pricing works, you might just consider entitling your book Drive-Thru MBA: Everything You Need to Know About Pricing I Learned in Fast Food 

And if you were writing such a book, you might decide that between the introduction, where you talk about your pricing career and how you took the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger off the $0.99 menu, and the chapter where you dive into price consultant talk and explain why taking a 1% price increase will increase your profits more than getting a 1% increase in sales or a 1% reduction in cost, you should have a Chapter One where you say some interesting things about what a price is in an engaging way.

If I were in fact working on such a project, this might be the draft that I came up with.

What do you think, would you read this book?

Chapter One: What Is a Price?

The question at first seems so basic as to be nonsensical. We see prices all the time: On the shelves at the supermarket. On the windshields of cars at a dealership. On an Amazon page. On the drive thru menu board.

Prices tell us what it will cost to get the product or service on offer. For us as customers, we often think of this limited definition and go no further. But I would like to suggest that prices do so much more. When a business offers us a price, they offer us a chance to render judgment on their entire business model in a package so simple, so easy, that we often don’t think what a powerful tool is in front of us.

How so?

Say I arrive at a restaurant for lunch.

Do they have a comfortable dining room with padded seats and a decorative fireplace, or do they have a few basic tables with plastic chairs?

Do I pick up my food from a service window, or do they bring it to me?

Is my food made to order or is it prepared in advance and sitting under a warming light?

Perhaps we could imagine a truly choose-your-own-adventure world where customers made each of those decisions.

You’ve reached the door of the restaurant. Do you want the dining room to be cheap and utilitarian? Pay one dollar and enter the basic dining room. Do you want it to be comfortable and well decorated?  Pay three dollars and enter the nice dining room.

Do you want your food brought to your table by a pleasant server? Pay three more dollars for service. Happy to carry the food to your own table on a tray? Pay fifty cents for the self-serve option.

But of course this is not what we see.  Instead, the price of all these elements is bundled together in the price you pay for the product. When you get a chicken sandwich from McDonald’s or your funky local bistro, the price for the different levels of service and experience offered by those two establishments is bundled into the price you pay for the sandwich.

It’s entirely likely that the difference in the cost of the actual sandwich between McDonald’s and the local bistro is just a couple dollars. The reason you might pay $4.99 at McDonald’s and $12.99 at the bistro is that the bistro has other costs that it needs to cover. 

The $12.99 chicken sandwich doesn’t just pay for the sandwich, it also pays for the dining room, the staff, the plates and cutlery: all the things which might make you enjoy the experience of eating that sandwich enough to pay more than twice as much as the fast food alternative.

When you decide whether to pay the price for a product, you decide whether the value you would receive is enough to justify the price.  But that term “value” doesn’t just cover the product itself. It covers the entire experience of buying and using the product and even the way that you found out about it.

Value, in this case, is every factor you consider when you decide how much you are willing to pay for the product. When considering the value of a chicken sandwich, the factors may be different on different occasions.

If I am driving from one appointment to another, and I have only fifteen minutes to pick up some food that I can eat in the car along the way, I don’t assign any value to how nice the dining room is.  I want a place with a drive thru which is on my route. But confronted with a McDonald’s and a Chick-fil-A, I will pay the slightly higher prices at the latter (even knowing the piece of chicken is often slightly smaller on their sandwich) because I think the taste is better.

On the other hand, if I’m meeting a coworker for lunch, I would happily pay the $12.99 price at the local bistro. To some extent, that’s because the food is better. But it’s mostly because the bistro offers a nice dining room where we can have a conversation in good surroundings. If I had to choose between two bistros, one with better food but a dining room like a Chick-fil-A, and the other with acceptable food but a very nice dining room, I might well pick the nicer dining room for a lunch meeting. In that case, the dining room and service is a major part of the value I’m willing to pay for.

In yet a third case, if I’m picking up lunch to take back to the office and eat at my desk, all I care about is the best food. I might still happily pay bistro level prices, but I’d be willing to do it at a hole in the wall or food truck with better food over a bistro with a gracious dining room.

What these examples show is that different products and companies offer different value propositions to different customers in different circumstances.

To be successful, a business does not need to be the best value to all customers at all times. But it must be a good enough value at its current prices to enough customers that it can sustain itself.

The cheap and easy food of middling quality, the bistro with the congenial dining room, the hole in the wall with amazing food – all of them offer value in different ways, and for the right place should be able to sustain themselves. But the reason each restaurant survives is not simply the value of the sandwich they sell as a sandwich, it is the overall value of the experience they provide: sandwich, location, speed, dining room, service, etc.

If a business does not provide the right combination of things to offer enough value to enough customers at its current prices, it will not make enough money to survive.

So what is a price?

Price is the way we discover whether we are delivering enough value to the customer to sustain our business.

If that sounds important, it is.

If you aren’t providing value to your customers, that’s not a lot that pricing can do to help you. In the long run, a business can only be successful by providing customers something they want.

But if you are providing something that customers want, finding the right price to capture your share of that value can be the difference between a successful business and a failing one. 

How can you find the right price?  Stay with me and we’ll find out, one hamburger and chicken sandwich at a time.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

No, It's Not 1933

 I've seen it online and I've had people express the concern to me in person: I'm really worried that if Trump gets elected, it could be the end of democracy in America.

Or as a Facebook status I saw being shared around stated it somewhat more bombastically: "If you ever wondered what you would have done if you had lived in Germany in 1933, you might find out come November."

I've been on record since 2016 on why the Nazi analogies show zero understanding of what Weimar politics were actually like (multiple parties with violent paramilitary wings battling it out openly in the streets, in a country with very few functioning institutions of classical liberalism.)

The first Trump presidency had some distinctly positive results and also some bad ones. Trump's full dive into conspiracy theories to argue that he had not actually lost the 2020 election was perhaps its worst hour, ending in the bathos of MAGA protesters storming the Capitol building.

With that as the final note, and the ground that Trump has covered since, I don't think we have reason to think that a second Trump term would be any better than the first, and some good reasons to think it could be worse. There are legitimate reasons to worry about Trump being elected. (There are also extremely legitimate reasons to worry about Biden being elected.)

But all of this "what you would have done if you had lived in Germany in 1933" talk is, frankly, far more dangerous than either candidate.  Nor is it only happening in odd corners of social media.  Here's the latest cover of The New Republic:

And every few days a newsletter from Yale historian and best selling author Timothy Snyder lands in my inbox informing me yet again that the US is on the brink of a complete fascist take-over.

Back in 2016 there was an essay which was much discussed in conservative circle entitled The Flight 93 Election.  It's basic contention was: If Hillary is elected, the US is over. Totally over.  She is like the terrorists who took control of Flight 93 on 9/11. It's possible that if we fight her and take over the plane, we'll crash. But if we don't, we're absolutely going to crash. So we need at all costs to elect Trump, even if he may himself destroy the country, because it's the only slim chance we have of the country not being totally destroyed.

I thought it was a bad argument then, and I continue to now.

However, with all this "it's 1933, what will you do?" talk across the left, I'm concerned that Flight 93 has become the dominant paradigm for partisans on both sides.

This is incredibly dangerous. Why?

Say that someone really thinks it's true that if Trump is elected he will turn the US into a fascist dictatorship along the lines of Nazi Germany. Isn't it a constant trope of ethical dilemmas and fiction that stopping Hitler justifies...  pretty much anything? Overturning an election. Attempted assassination. Civil war.

So either these claims of "this is like 1933" are a massive exercise in irresponsible hyperbole (in which case people should stop) or they are a way of saying that people really should overturn elections and commit violence if necessary in order to keep Trump out of power. After all, isn't that what people would do to stop Hitler?

This would be increase the danger to our country even if the GOP under Trump really is pretty dangerous and bad.  Why?  Because once one side of the political spectrum starts engaging in force instead of politics, things can head into a death spiral where the only way to win is to be more successfully violent.

Look at Spain as it spiraled into the Civil War, or Germany as it plunged into chaos at the end of WW1. Back in 1919 (14 years before the Nazis came to power) just as the German Republic was trying to pull itself together, the Spartacist Uprising ended up with the Social Democrats and the Communists fighting it out in the streets of Berlin -- not just with small arms but with machine guns and field artillery. Around the same time the attempt to create a Bavarian Soviet Republic ended in similar street fighting.  In both cases the government ended up seeking and getting the support of veterans paramilitary organizations which, over the following fourteen years, would be integrated into the support of the Nazi party.

So to put it simply: one of the things that caused Nazism was upending the political order to try to defeat the right.

Not only did these kinds of breakdowns in political order make people willing to support an apparently strong man to restore order, the repeated use of political violence and intimidation and fear of those by both sides is what created the permission structure for civil strife and then oppression.

Fanning political division by telling your side that they're going to be destroyed and oppressed if the other side wins makes it more likely that both sides will resort to violence and oppression.  It is a no win tactic, and it is the tactic most likely to lead to violence and oppression.

This is the number one thing I think Americans need to learn about the actual history of oppression. It's not some sneaky thing where after everything has been quiet and normal for years you suddenly wake up and realize that you're living under a vicious dictatorship because you weren't awake enough to notice it coming.

Rather, oppression is invited in because people think they need it on order to protect them from the other guys who are even worse. And the real, bloody, heavy handed oppression is enabled when people enter into a war footing. That might be an external war: oppression under the Nazis was worse and bloodier in the territories they conquered than in places like Italy that still had semi-functional government. Or it might be an internal war. The most oppressive left wing and right wing governments of Central and South America during the Cold War and since mostly sprang from long simmering civil wars in which one side was trying to root out the side's militias.

So am I some sort of Dr. Pangloss insisting that everything will be fine?  What should someone do if they really think that if Trump wins in November he may try to do illegal or oppressive things?

No, I'm not simply being sunny. I'm not saying that people should be calm simply because I don't think anything bad will happen.  I'm saying that even if it's true that Trump is absolutely terrible and bent on doing evil and illegal things, the best things to do would be:

- Vote for someone else
- If he wins, remain peaceful
- Make legal challenges to illegal actions (remember that despite all the attempts to undermine our courts from the political left, they stood as a bulwark against both the attempt to overturn the 2020 election and other Trump over-reaches)
- Vote against his party in the next elections

What you should not do is engage in this kind of behavior or make excuses for it:

And what you should also not do is push the entire situation to become more extreme by upping the rhetoric. When either side claims that this is a Flight 93 election and the country will be destroyed if the other side wins, they increase the danger for all sides.

We are all in this together, and the only way to go from being a two party state (where the other side always has a good chance of winning) to knowing your side will always win is by yourself becoming the dictator. 

Saturday, July 06, 2024

New Phone Who Dis?, or, The Apple Divorce?

Sorrows Altar, Our Lady of Consolation, Carey, Ohio. From Wikimedia Commons

I spent two days without a phone, and I have to say it was everything I hoped it could be.

There's a freedom in not being tethered to one's phone, and it breeds a jaunty attitude toward time and space and directions. I took my daughter and a friend on a birthday expedition to a shrine an hour out in the countryside, equipped as the Neanderthals with only printed-off directions. Getting there wasn't difficult. The shrine is invested in getting pilgrims from the highway to the parking lot, so the signage is clear and easy to spot. We spent a hour in the cool environs of this minor basilica improbably set in a small town in the midst of Ohio fields. The girls explored the lower church with its tributes of crutches and braces, and costumes for the famed statue of Our Lady, while I sat in blissful uninterrupted silence in the upper church. At the Sorrows altar, I prayed for everyone I know who's suffering, and for those I don't know are suffering, and I gazed at the massive windows, all red and blue glowing in dense patterns, without expecting my pocket to buzz with a text or a missed call.

And we got lost finding our way out of town. Twice we went wrong directions and had to turn and retrace our route to the Shrine. On the third try, we found our way back to the highway. I haven't been lost driving in a long time, thanks to Maps and directions and a computerized Irish voice telling me to go past this light, then turn right. But you have to rely on your common sense when your phone dies.

 With no provocation, the screen of my five-year-old iPhone 8 stopped working Wednesday night. I was a bit miffed, I must say -- I had not recently dropped the thing, my kids are all too old to plunge it in the toilet (as happened to a previous iteration), and though it had stopped holding much charge and my screen protector was flaking off little splinters of glass, there was nothing to indicate that it was about to give up the ghost. Darwin took it to be inspected by geniuses while I went on pilgrimage, and the geniuses were baffled and quoted a higher price to fix the screen than it cost to replace it with a comparable model. Common sense dictated the latter course, particularly as the old phone held less and less charge. 

Alas, it turns out that I don't use a phone as intended, which is charging it nightly so it can update, and backing it up regularly. Darwin and I have a shared Apple ID, which predates either of our personal email addresses. From that ID I can back up some shared functions (though not necessarily under my own name or with my own data), but some contacts and messages on my old phone, some dating back years, seem to be lost in the ether. "Is it time, after all these years," Darwin mourned, "for us to get an Apple divorce?"

As Quintin Tarantino said in Pulp Fiction, I don't want to get f*cking divorced. I don't want another account. I don't want to create another password. It's miserable enough trying to remember the passwords I already have as I reinstall apps on my new phone. On the other hand, I went to text someone I really need get in touch with, only to find that my entire message history, and indeed the contact itself, is gone. I synced my phone with iCloud and recovered... five messages from December 2021. Photos, it seems, do sync. I am not a notable photo historian, but it's nice to know that all my boys' videos of jumping off the couch and karate-chopping Lego creations are still extant, taking up all our data. 

Not only do I not want to get divorced, I don't even want to be on my phone that much. A year or so ago, I deleted the one social media app I use, though I still checked it through the internet browser (with a time limit). On my new phone, I haven't opened a browser tab for it. What do you know -- after looking at my email and playing my daily Wordle and checking the weather, there's not much reason for me to be clicking around. I want to click around. I want to fill five or ten or 30 minutes with dopamine hits. But now, there's no dopamine source. Let's keep it that way.

Will I have to establish my own Apple ID? I guess there are good reasons to do so. It won't bring back my lost messages, though. Some of them I can access through the messenger app on my computer, though some, like the 14-person family chat, seem to be lost to the mists of time. I don't know that anything of value is gone -- only the time I spent messaging, perhaps. 

I recently read something I'd written 19 years ago, and felt the severe and mortifying lash of the Total Perspective Vortex. Frankly, if some digital catastrophe destroyed everything I'd ever written before the age of 30, maybe 35, I'd count myself fortunate. Lord have mercy on us, and may we learn humility a gentler way than reading our own past writing. But may it be there when we want to read it.

Ten Price Commandments

Much of my time at work the last few months has been taken up with a profitability project.

Up until recently, we suffered from a problem a surprising number of mid-size companies have: we knew overall how profitable we were, and how profitably various product lines or manufacturing plants were, but we didn't have good data on what individual items cost, and thus on which items and customers were more and less profitable.

Over the last six months, we did a major project to get that item level cost data, and so now for the first time we have good, detailed information on which items and customers are profitable and which are not.

You might think that this would make it easy to increase our profitability: just take the stuff you're losing money on and increase the price or (if the customer won't accept the higher price) stop selling it.  Ta da!  Higher margins.

But everyone can come up with all sorts of excuses for why this just isn't possible: This is a strategic loss leader!  If we don't match (money losing) competitive pricing on this product, customers won't buy our other profitable products.  If we win this business (at a loss) it will lead to winning other (profitable) business, or maybe we'll build up enough sales volume that our cost of producing it will drop.

On and on it goes.

Those of us in the finance department decided it was necessary to put together a clear and short summary of what rules we needed to follow around pricing and profits.

"We need a ten commandments of pricing," I joked.

"Yes, that's exactly what we need," the CFO replied.  "Can you write one?"

I cheerfully signed up to write a pricing decalogue. After all, I write all the time, often about religion, and I'm a pricer, so why not?

Then I found myself staring at a blank page and feeling like everything I wrote was just variations of "don't lose money".

In the end, my solution was to think about how the actual ten commandments are structured.

The first three commandments are a basic statement of what is true: There is one God. We should worship him and no others.  Then the following seven commandments explain how we should live in relation to others due to those truths.

I tried to structure my pricing commandments the same way.  The first three attempt to sum up what is true about pricing and profitability.  The following seven then describe how we should conduct business based on that truth.

And here they are:

  1. A good price is lower than the value of the product to the customer (better than the price of the next best alternative plus the difference in quality/service) but higher than our cost to produce the product and run our business
  2. Price is the way we discover whether we are delivering enough value to the customer to sustain our business
  3. We as a business exist to turn a profit: if we are selling below cost, we are not paying for our people and our owners
  4. A market segment where we command strong margins is a segment the market is telling us to be in. A market segment with low margins is one where we are not currently delivering value.
  5. Customers who offer us high margins want us. Customers offering low margins do not. Believe them.
  6. New business that starts at low margins must come with a business plan for how it become higher margin and checkpoints at which we see if we followed the business plan
  7. Never sell below product cost (cost of material + manufacturing before fixed overhead): sales at negative product margin do not help with absorption or overhead, they are a deadweight loss
  8. We should seldom sell at a product margin below our SG&A rate
  9. Acquiring business by pricing at low or negative margins buys us bad business: we want new business at accretive margin rates
  10. Retaining business by matching a competitive price which brings us to low or negative margins retains bad business: sometimes we need to let go

Thursday, July 04, 2024


 "In your forties," the eye doctor tells me as he jots down what magnification I should look for, "your eyes can change suddenly." Early- to mid-forties, says Dr. Google, is when presbyopia kicks in, a fancy word for age-related farsightedness. I am mid-forties exactly, 45, and sure enough, this past year I've started to notice that it's harder to focus on things close up. My eyes are remarkably healthy, says the eye doctor, good nerves and 20/20 for distance (which must mean that I was formerly more acute than 20/20, because it seems like distance isn't quite what it used to be either). 

For someone just starting in on presbyopia, drugstore readers are good enough ("buy a pack," says the doctor, "you'll lose one pair") at a mild 1.25 magnification. And what do you know, suddenly my phone screen is crisp, and the paperwork at the table, readable before, is now comfortable. "Dawg, you look like an old granny," howls my tall, suave 15yo son, who has never been old or fat a day in his life. Dawg, I feel like an old granny. I don't need my eyes to tell me that I'm aging. I feel old. I miss the days when my veins and ankles didn't puff at the mere thought of eating something salty. I envy the boundless energy of friends who always seem to be on the go. I am not always on the go, but I'm always pulled in seven different directions. 

This evening, I sat down on the couch with my readers and my almost 7yo son, who can sound out letters just fine but scornfully resists all my attempts to trick him into helping me read a book. I sat, I say, but quickly found myself drifting off to sleep between pages. I'm not the only snoozer in the house. My oldest has spent most of the week since surgery napping, and my second daughter, down with strep, has also been asleep all day. They have not been reading in their waking hours, mostly, but watching Columbo or other vintage mystery shows. Columbo is a show the whole family can get into, gathered in the living room, tucked on couches or a college beanbag which is absolutely not going to take up permanent residence on my floor. "Oh, just one more thing," we all chant dutifully as Columbo bumbles back into the room to deliver the coup de grace to the perpetrator, who always deserves it.

It's about my speed right now. I want to read something real and essential, something that sharpens my intellect. On my nightstand is The Cloud of Unknowing, which I'm dipping into in small bits. I started reading James in my Bible the other night, and fell asleep. Best I can do a lot of days is the Office of Readings -- just the readings, not the Psalms as well, because I often get interrupted. And then, this evening, when the heat and the humidity finally balanced out to something endurable, I took a walk with my daughter, who turns 14 on Friday, and we passed a Little Free Library. Among the books was one I'd read a review of in the Wall Street Journal, an escapist beach read, and friends, I almost picked it up. I don't even know myself anymore.

"Mom," said my daughter, "do you know in the books section at Kroger they have something called Amish Romance? Why do people even read that? What are they about?"

"I have never read an Amish Romance," I said, truthfully. "I think people are looking for stories about love and connection and happiness, and they feel like something that seems old-fashioned is more wholesome."

"And there are the books with guys with no shirts on. Why do people read those?"

"People read those kind of romances because they're bored or lonely, or because they just want to read about sex."

"That's gross," proclaimed my daughter, who is in a pious phase. "Why do people want to read about that?"

"People sometimes look for a neatly-packaged thrill in fiction, because real life is often messy and tedious and has the added complication of being real."

"I think it's weird. Mom, look, that house is for sale. Mom, do you like that house? Someone I know said that someone she knows said that her mom said that houses were too expensive here. I think her name was Megan, or maybe it was something else..."

We strolled on, our evening constitutional untroubled by silence.

Perhaps an inexpensive pair of reading glasses from a chain drugstore is the magic bullet that suddenly removes all barriers to reading, and magnifies my energy and attention span along with the print on the page. I'd certainly read that neatly-packaged fiction. I expect, however, that my readers will go missing as often as my laptop and phone do, and I'll find the same culprits fooling around with them because it's funny to make things look bigger. "Look, Mom!" they'll say. "Mom, look. Mom, did you know..." And so we grow, in age, and, perhaps, in grace and wisdom, and eventually, time will make readers of us all, even the almost 7yo.

Monday, July 01, 2024


I am told by Google that 23 years is the Silver Plate Anniversary, a faux finish for a year without a nice round sound like 20 or 25. I haven't come across anything silver-plated lately, unless it was an item in the nirvana that is the local college theater's props lockup (where we hunted for Music Man decor). For us, 23 years is the Show/Recovery/Surgery/Wound Care anniversary, with the attendant exhaustion that goes along with all that.

The Music Man had a fabulous run. We nearly sold out every show. Audiences were enthusiastic, and well they should have been. Our excellent cast put on a marvelous production and broke all box office records. The final run-up to the show went so smoothly that I didn't have any stress dreams at all during tech week, which, as any director can tell you, is an anomaly dearly to be wished.

Not so much the week afterward. Every night I shook awake, dreaming of props and missed cues and notes to give the cast, and wondering whether we were going into the Saturday night or Sunday matinee. Perhaps it was delayed stress, or perhaps it was other stress manifesting: on Tuesday after the show closed, one of our college daughters had surgery to drain an awkwardly-placed abscess which was draining through a fistula.

The medical saga here is one that many people will recognize. Our daughter has been feeling increasingly poorly since the beginning of the semester, yet we couldn't get anyone to look at her. The college clinic passed her on to a specialist, who couldn't schedule her until right before graduation. She was increasingly unable to sit or even lean on anything, was dropping weight, was fainting, and so I drove up and took her to the ER in the nearest big city. The doctor didn't even examine her. "It's not life-threatening," we were told. "Take over-the-counter remedies." The GYN looked at her, but passed her on to a GYN in our city, who didn't have an open appointment until July. The week after she came home, I took her to our primary care doctor, who suggested that she could be seen by the surgeons at the local hospital, if she wanted. 

And finally, she saw the surgeon, and the surgeon saw her. Actually looked at her on an exam table, and diagnosed her immediately. I was never so glad to hear that someone needed surgery. There was a real problem, not just in my daughter's head, and it could be repaired! 

The abscess, as it happens, was larger than the surgeon had expected, and the corresponding wound care is rather intensive. It is in a location which is almost impossible for the patient herself to tend. It must be dressed and repacked daily, surgical packing nudged with a q-tip into a gaping incision, accompanied by murmurs of, "I'm sorry, honey," and "Okay, we'll take a break for a second." This kind of procedure makes me wonder if I squandered my education on theater, when I knew from freshman year I was going to get married, and consequently could expect children. Why did I not go into nursing or pre-med? 

This is generally a daily process, but yesterday we unexpectedly had to change and repack twice, an unhappy process. It is perhaps providential that this surgery didn't happen while she was in college. How could she have recuperated from this away from home? How could she have rested like she needs to during the semester? Which of her group of friends (a nice set of young people, to be sure) would have been willing or able to pack a wound in an exceedingly awkward location? How would this work, even at home, if there was not someone whose job was the household and its concerns? It's not that I'm trained to this kind of work. It's that I'm available to do it, and in the right sphere of intimacy to assist this particular vulnerable human body.

This is my 23rd year in this role of our marriage partnership. It is a partnership, and we are a team. Marriage is many things, love and friendship and companionship and affection, but it's also an operation, and we are operating partners, keeping things running in our areas of competence so our family has a stable foundation on which to thrive. We work and build and repair, and we don't just patch over the weak places in our foundation so that it looks good from the outside. We do the painful and boring work of chipping them out and making them stronger, of packing wounds in intimate places from the inside so that they heal properly. No silver plating here.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Character, Being Proven

The Music Man opens in two weeks (eleven days, really), so Darwin and I went out to dinner on Saturday night, taking advantage of one of our last free evenings until the show closes. It was a lovely dinner, outside on the airy patio of a Turkish restaurant, and we had delicious, free-ranging, in-depth discussion of the kind we treasure so much. On the way home, we drove one of our favorite routes, a moody, leafy lane along the river.  

"I love you," said Darwin, kissing my hand. "We're heading into a busy time, but I love being busy with you."

"Yes," I sighed. "I wouldn't do it with anyone else."

"I know it's going to be crazy this next week, with William at Webelos camp..."


"Camp is this week, right?"

"...It's not on the calendar."

"I could have sworn I put it on the calendar."

"Hon, are you telling me that we signed William up for camp the week before production week? He's in the show. And Diana has CGS training all this week, down in Columbus."

"Well, you said at the time that you didn't know if you'd put him onstage because he wasn't behaving."

"...I did say that, yes."

I outsource my memory to Google, it turns out, and what is not on the calendar is not in my brain, but this system only holds when events are put on the calendar. This week the calendar has its revenge. It seems I have scheduled two children for activities in opposing directions of Ohio, while I run rehearsal four nights a week (and Saturday morning) for a show that opens next Friday. 

But affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, which does not disappoint (Romans 5:4-5). It is easy, of course to be loving and graceful after a perfect dinner date, and another thing to be able to pivot elegantly and with good cheer. How else is my true character revealed to my husband or my children except through how I act when faced with obstacles or setbacks? 

Here's one thing I've learned: it's lots easier to suddenly pack up a kid for Webelos camp than to have weeks to get stuff for the diocesan youth summer camp, and it's easier packing up boys than girls, and it's powers of ten easier to pack for Kid #6 than for the older kids, because we already have everything we need sitting around. All we had to buy was a beater sleeping bag, and that only because we didn't want to send the high-quality Scout camping bags with the 10yo. I also spent Sunday afternoon planning a carpool for the 13yo's training in Columbus, so that I only need to drive down to drop off three chatty teens on two mornings, neither of which is the day camp begins or ends. 

Some of the time I spent planning for camp was time I'd meant to spend reblocking part of my show, because I'd counted on having a traveller curtain midstage to close, making it easier to do big set changes quickly during transitional scenes played downstage. The very script has a traveller written into the stage directions for this purpose. However, since the last time our company was in the theater, the tattered old traveller was removed, and in its place two nice velvet legs now hang -- much neater, but less functional for my purposes, as they're only for masking the wings and aren't wide enough to draw all the way across the stage. And so we'll need to pull the main curtain and play our short scenes in the side alcoves or on the stairs leading up to the stage. This challenge, while at first frustrating, has led to more creative, more effective staging than my original concept, and the show will be better for it. 

So today I'm sitting with my script and my music cues, finishing up marking out exactly how each of these transitions will play. Because I have to do this work, I'll have it ready to give my music director and my backstage manager, so that when we move into the theater next week for tech rehearsals, we won't have to be figuring out this timing on the fly when we're also trying to set lights and sound. And affliction is producing endurance, which produces proven character, which produces hope, which does not disappoint.

Our local paper has a writeup about The Music Man -- read all about it! And if you're in Central Ohio over June 21-23, come join us in River City. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Guest Post: Is there really an "anarchic" character to modern Catholicism?

19 years ago today, a 26 year old wrote a post entitled "Kick-off" in these virtual pages, declaring his intention to try his hand at blogging. It's odd to think how long this blog has been a part of our lives, but one of the very best things about it is having made a number of friends whom we met here.

One of those is named Agnes and writes from Hungary (where she was once kind enough to host our eldest for a couple days during her semester in Europe.)  She sent an email in response to my recent post on "The Anarchic Character of Modern Catholicism" which struck me as detailed and thoughtful enough to be a good guest post on its own, and so with her permission I post it below:

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Anarchic Character of Modern Catholicism

The confluence of several different news stories related to American Catholicism struck me as underlining how the Church has changed since Vatican II. 

One was the commencement address that launched a thousand hot takes, given by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker at Benedictine College. The wider world went into a tizzy because the football player, who is also a traditionalist Catholic, said that many of the women in attendance might find themselves treasuring their vocations as wives and mothers more than their careers. But in Catholic circles, the speech drew anger from some because it mentioned in passing various opinions about the Church: that NFP was "Catholic birth control" and should probably not be used, that people should not be too close with their parish priests, that the bishops were  misleading their flocks, particularly about Covid, etc.

Another was the AP feature story about Catholicism in America (which despite coming out ten days before the commencement happened to pick on Benedictine College, among other places, as an example of American Catholicism taking "a step back in time".)

And a third was a twitter post from Amy Welborn, which talked about how for a time in the '70s and '80s, basic devotions such as the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration were so much seen as part of the past which should be abandoned after the Council, that Bishop Barron talked about how he took up Eucharistic adoration from the seminarians he taught at Mundelein, because it simply hadn't been a part of his own formation.

Throw all these together, and what strikes me is the extent to which Catholicism in the post Vatican II age, at least in the US, has become increasingly anarchic even as it has become more orthodox and conservative.

In the era directly after the Council, there was a sort of implosion. An institution which has long been famous for certainly suddenly gave the impression that all was up for grabs. In Frank Sheed's 1974 book The Church and I he writes: 

"The Church itself has been turned from a teacher into a question mark. These last dozen years there seems to be no assertion or denial that Catholics in good standing do not hold themselves free to make: so that one is left wondering what is the point or even the meaning of membership of the Church." (p305)

And later, on the very last page, this bleak uncertainty:

"What lies ahead of the Church? This book is about the Church as I have experienced it and I have not experienced the future.

"Glance at today's questions. Will celibacy become options for priests? A priest friend of mine has not desire to be married but is convinced that marriage is his priestly duty, indeed that in future only married men will be ordained. Will that happen? Will there be women priests, they too married? Will there be part-time priests, all working at another profession? Will there be less centralization and on what lines? Will the laity be given more to do? Will there be a return to unity between us and the Orthodox and what changes will that make necessary? How far will Ecumenism take us with Protestants?

"All these may roughly be called structural questions. The Church will re-shape itself, more or less ideally.  It always has. I do not know what the new shape will be. I don't even know what I want it to be." (p384)

So many things which had seemed age-long had changed, that even one of the great Catholic apologists of the 20th century, a man who had got his start with the Catholic Evidence Guild, standing on free speech spots and answering questions about the faith from all comers, did not feel he could say anymore what was changeable and what was not.

In the Catholic parish life of the 1980s and early 1990s, as I was growing up, it wasn't just that you needed to educate yourself about the faith if you wanted to have any understanding of it.  It was that priests, catechists, and diocesan publications were often providing active disinformation.

But sorting correct information from false information was hard because there was controversy about what was even a good source of faithful Catholic teaching. Any source written before the Council could be waved away with "oh, but the Council changed all that" and among recent books or articles, there was not a clear measuring stick of orthodoxy.  Should you believe Fr. John Harden's catechism or Fr. Richard McBrien's books and articles?

That measuring stick became available with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1994.

Side note: I was fascinated, when looking up its dates, to see that John Paul II had ordered the development of a universal catechism as a result of the synod of bishops he called in 1985 to assess the results of Vatican II twenty years after the closing of the council. Maybe it's because I remember 1985, but somehow the years between 1965 and 1985 seem like a lot more time than the years between 2004 and 2024.

Even so, for quite some time it tended to be the case in many parts of the country that if you were a well educated and faithful Catholic, it was because you'd researched everything from doctrine to Church music and art yourself.

The result is that for the post-Vatican II generations of orthodox Catholics, many have learned to trust their own reading over what they received from the local Church institutions. This has allowed a number of good and vibrant ministries to spring up with the purpose of providing good Catholic information.  But it has also allowed a whole spectrum of hucksters and kooks to take root as well.

The same instinct to do your own research and find sources of information on the faith when your local parish is not providing good formation can, if one lacks the ability to choose well between good sources and bad, lead one far down some very strange rabbit holes.

And this is the tough and weird thing about modern Catholicism.  Of course progressive Catholicism is individualistic, with people wanting to believe that the Church will change to adopt their views on whatever issues.

But because of the three decades of institutional freefall after the Council, orthodox Catholicism too is anarchic in its own way: used to assuming that the hierarchy and institutions of the Church may be wrong, and that you need to instead do your own research to arrive at the truth.  Because, in the chaos after the Council, that was true.  And yet, at some level, the Church which we who are attached to what the Church has historically been yearn for is a Church which in its institutions both teaches the truth and punishes error. We want that, and yet at the same time we have been trained to ignore those very same institutions in order to protect the truth -- from them.  How do we then hand the control back to them, when we're used to the idea that the self-trained laymen is often going to be more faithful than the person who went through the Diocesan-approved masters in theology?

And yet, as the priests and bishops of our own generation move into positions of authority in the Church, and hear the appeals of the laity for better quality in catechesis and in liturgy, the only way they know to achieve greater quality is through institutional enforcement.

For instance, years ago in our parish in Texas, I was the "NFP guy" for the RCIA program, because no one else wanted to have to talk about the Church's teaching on sexuality.  (The other topic they always called me in to talk about was death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It seems so appropriate that the topics I was asked to cover were death and sex.) And then, under a new bishop, the word came down: no one was to give a talk about NFP, sexual ethics, or the theology of the body unless they had gone through the multi-semester diocesan catechetical training.  If you didn't have someone with that certificate, you had to show an anodyne approved video instead.

In one sense, the diocese was doing exactly what orthodox laity kept asking: trying to enforce quality in catechesis.  But what the orthodox laity wanted was not to shut them down in favor the retirees who'd had the time to take diocesan classes, they wanted the bishop to somehow just make unorthodox teaching in parishes not happen.  And unfortunately, bishops don't actually have a good way to do that. What they do have a good way to do is require credentials.

I do not know how all this changes, and ecosystem, once thrown into chaos, heals only through stages. But in the meantime, even (or perhaps especially) among those most attached to the Church as it once was, there is an anarchistic streak which evolved as a means of self preservation, and which now is a deep part of the character.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Home as Public Space

A Public Space

Friends will be happy to know* that as of this Saturday, the eldest Darwin is now a full-fledged college graduate. Her sister, at the same time, has finished up her 12th-grade classes at the local community college, and is now a high school graduate, making us 3/7 in the post-grade-school department. We plan to hold a party of Hobbit proportions for them both some time in the summer (all the more necessary since the college grad finished high school in 2020 and so had no celebration at the time). You're all invited, of course. I do sometimes wonder (in my tired moments) why we should bother throwing a specific shindig, since it seems like we have so many people passing through this house on a daily and weekly basis that every day might as well be a grad party. The House As Public Space has been my frequent topic of meditation of late.

As anyone who talks to me for two seconds knows, we are in the throes of rehearsals for The Music Man. Most of our rehearsals are held in the basement of a local church, pastored by a dear friend (and cast member). Hospitality is a great charism of this congregation, and the basement, with its kitchen, is used by many different groups. There are tables, chairs, a nursery, and any kitchen utensil your heart could desire (in triplicate). Each group who uses the area has the honor and responsibility of resetting the space in readiness for the next comers, who will in turn refresh it for the group that follows. Many of the organizations that use the basement, like our community theater company, are not specifically affiliated with the congregation, but simply need a Public Space in which to meet.

Our house, to a lesser degree, is a Public Space. The dining room is not merely a place where our family congregates to dine a few times a day. It is a Schoolroom, an Office, a Meeting Place, an Acting Studio, a Game Room, and a Sitting Room. The population of the house, both residents and guests, varies from day to day. I am not always entirely sure how many people will be sitting down to dinner, or how many of them will be actual denizens of this household. 

Given this public use of space, I've been trying to be deliberate in resetting the room for the next use. Have we cleared the table after dinner? Have we removed the serving dishes from sideboard, and put away the leftovers? Are the schoolbooks, if not put away, pushed to the end of the table or moved to the shelf under the windows? Do the vases of flowers that appear at intervals need fresh water? Are the extra chairs put away? Is the floor vacuumed? Is the table vacuumed? (Yes, I've cut the Gordian knot of housework, and use the vacuum for every even remotely applicable purpose.)

This is not to say that the room is immaculate. There are game boxes on the window sills, buckets and jackets and someone's set design project on the chairs that line the wall, decks of cards tucked on the display shelves of the china cabinets, and hay under the guinea pig's cage in the corner. But if the main body of the space can be usable on short notice for some other purpose, we have done our job. 

Family life ought to be a training in resetting for the next users, though often we get too comfortable to bother. How many times have I walked in the kitchen to get ready for dinner and found that someone made cookies and left everything sitting out? How many times have I walked in the dining room in the morning and found that nobody put away last night's dinner? How many times have I come into the living room after the teens had a movie night to find popcorn bowls and seeds all over the rug, and forks and mugs shoved behind the curtains? There's an ease that makes family life pleasant and informal, but sometimes that immediate ease hinders a future chance to make someone else at home in your house. I often find myself resetting in the morning, and that's okay, but wouldn't it be nice if after each use, the rooms were reset so that they were pleasant to walk into, and presentable when the next person suddenly drops by? 

This is a family house, well-lived-in, and we like to live comfortably with each other. At the same time, everything we have is given us in trust, for others. Our house doesn't just belong to us, but is held and administered so that we can share what we've received. And we have received much -- how much, I realize more and more as the years go by. Any family blessed with happiness, stability, and mutual love has an obligation to open themselves, within prudence, to others who yearn for these things themselves. I do say "prudence", because each family has their own gifts and strengths, and their own boundaries which must be maintained for the flourishing of its members, especially the children. 

And speaking of the children: a bonus shot of Mrs. and Miss Darwin, commencing the commencement.

*This statement, now a family catchphrase, often headlined the society announcements in the newspaper of the small Mississippi town where my grandparents lived.

Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Shields Up

Several times lately I've had cause to be reminded of my deep seated tendency not to talk in person about what I really believe on various topics: faith, politics, etc.  (If this seems odd from someone who has written a blog on precisely these kind of topics for nearly 20 years: congratulations, you are reading my long term pressure release valve.)

Thinking of Rome many times a day -- and also Facebook's weird tendency to show a blogger link as censored if I don't include an image.

There is, of course, the conventional wisdom about topics not suited to dinner conversation, with religion and politics topping the list. No one wants to be at the dinner table where someone throws out a conversational gambit like, "So, what do you think, should Israel just ethnically cleanse Gaza?"

Certain topics are recognized as being contentious and so we tend not to bring them up in situations where we don't want to have contentious conversation.

But I think there's a deeper sense in which society is pretty good at teaching us that if we're far enough off the beaten cultural path, people will not like you if they know what you believe. And having internalized this pretty thoroughly, even when I'm talking with people who are also interested in topics like religion, it takes a sort of effort to say something like, "The Catholic Church teaches that using artificial birth control is wrong, and that's in some ways hard and frustrating to live by at times, but I also thing it's true and important, and so we do that and would not want it any other way."

There's a feeling of incredible relief when you meet another person under circumstances that make it clear you actually agree on such topics and can discuss Church teaching openly on any topic without feeling like you're suddenly going to be attacked and have to defend yourself.  It's not that I'm averse to arguing (again, look at my online activities, though I don't have the energy I once did) but the sense that "other people don't like people like us" is so strong that one doesn't necessarily want to spoil an otherwise congenial social relationship.

Additionally tricky is that for most of my life, just because someone goes to the same Catholic parish and is active in the parish doesn't mean that they actually agree with the Church on any number of topics, or indeed that they don't hold Church teaching in contempt.

Indeed, growing up in '80s parishes in California, it was pretty much the assumption that everyone from the catechists on down thought Church teaching was misguided at best and evil at worst.

In the intervening 40 years, a lot of those people have physically left the Church, as they had intellectually long before.

But even so, one often feels one needs to look for clues before one knows whether one is talking with someone who thinks cohabitation, sterilization, abortion, and euthanasia are normal and reasonable things or moral evils.

The result is both that I usually find myself living behind a shield, and feeling especially close and grateful to any group which makes it clear to me its possible to let the shields down without fear of being suddenly labeled as some kind of a moral freak.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Doodling in the Blank Spaces for Attention

 I saw several references over the last few days to a newly released book, God's Ghostwriters by Candida Moss.  

The author's name struck a chord with me, and sure enough, I'd written about one of her previous books back when these virtual pages were rather must bustling.  That previous work, The Myth of Persecution, made the argument that the "age of persecution" in the Church was a myth. Moss admitted that martyrdoms did happen, but she contended that persecution was not universal and systematic, and that the Romans had their own self consistent reasons for punishing Christians anyway, such that it should really be thought of as prosecution rather than persecution. (The original blog post gets into it in a fair amount of detail and also quotes a number of ancient sources which clearly cut against Moss's argument.)  

To that I'd add a more recent post looking at trends in papal sainthood, which noted that 27 out of the 31 popes before the Edict of Milan were martyred, while another 3 were once on the martyrology but were removed because so little is known of their lives that modern Church scholars questioned whether they were really martyred or not.  With at least 27 out of 31 early bishops of Rome dying for the faith, you can see why the "myth of persecution" got going...

But now Dr. Moss is back in the news with another popular history book. This one seeks to address the role of enslaved scribes in the composition and transmission of the Bible.

This isn't an uninteresting topic. Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire, and indeed early Christians were mocked as belonging to a religion of slaves and women. In addition to various "servants" in the Gospels who were probably slaves, in Paul's letter of the Colossians we see Paul sending the escaped slave Onesimus back to Philemon with instructions to treat Onesimus as a fellow Christian should.

Further, as Moss points out, the act of writing and transmitting writing in the ancient work involved a lot of manual labor which was often performed by slaves or freedmen.  We think of slavery as being the domain of unskilled work, but there was a whole trade in highly educated Greek slaves in the Roman Empire, slaves who served as the tutors and scribes of the educated class. Even for the decidedly non-aristocratic apostles, use of professional scribes (who were probably slaves or freedman) may well have been how epistles and gospels were actually committed to papyrus.

Moss points to evidence from Paul's own epistles that they were dictated to a scribe. In the Epistle to the Romans, the scribe actually names himself at the end.  "I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord." (Rom. 16:22) Moss says that the simple name "Tertius" (which means "third") suggest he was a slave.

But that word "suggests" is where the weakness in this whole enterprise comes in. Moss's project here is to show how enslaved scribes, copyists, and couriers were a major influence on the words of the Bible and their spread throughout the Roman world. She's like to bring this invisible aspect of history into the light.  But because the contribution of slaves is at best hinted at, she basically has to imagine the history she presents, which means that what she conveys is necessarily speculative and influenced by what story she wants to tell.

Was Tertius a slave or a freedman?  What was his relation to Christianity and Paul?  We don't know, other than that he conveys his own greetings to the Christians in Rome as Paul is listing off everyone else who sends greetings.  (To me, this would hint that he knew or was known of by Christians in Rome, though Moss doesn't seem to spend time on this.)  Did Paul's scribes set down exactly what he said or did they polish up his rhetoric with their own flourishes and arguments?  We really don't know and can't know.

Moss believes she's doing a form of justice to these long dead slaves, saying, "Though their work has been erased and mischaracterized, enslaved people are as central to the history of ideas as they are to the history of labor. Any accountable Christian history involves telling a story in which our understanding of the origins of ideas, texts, doctrines, and traditions is interwoven with the stories of the enslaved workers who participated in these projects. Unfree workers should not be relegated to the footnotes of intellectual or religious history; they deserve a place alongside the apostles, emperors, and bishops who helped make the Roman Empire Christian." (page 14)

It seems to me that even with this goal, if one were to be honest, the most one could do would be to lay out what you saw as the gaps and then provide what background information we have about Roman slavery and how it may have fit into the writing and copying of the Bible.  But that wouldn't be the sort of exciting book which would pull in the Amazon seller rankings for Little Brown.

So instead, Moss appears to have decided to write a work which can be most charitably described as speculative, eliding the extent to which the history she is "revealing" is in fact history she is making up.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Repost: π with Jesus

Enjoy our annual repost of 2017's π with Jesus, mostly meant as a reminder to eat yer pie today, but also because we are up to our eyeballs in Life -- all good and wonderful, but busy and one thing after another, from audition prep for The Music Man, to children turning 18, to helping young people buy cars, to having a college senior and a kindergartner at the same time. 

It's the second week of Lent, which means that observance has lost its zest. I don't know about you, but I'm yearning for a bit of chocolate. Not a bright, hopeful yearning; a dry, intellectual, arid yearning, because I know I'm not going to eat chocolate anyway. I just want it because it's better than not-chocolate.

So we search for a reason to celebrate, and not the corny-beef celebration of St. Patrick's Day dispensations (which St. Patrick would have disdained) but something rounder, to bring us full circle. And lo! It is Pi Day, 3.14. But we cannot fudge on Pi Day without bringing it into some greater religious context. And not just the context of "God made it, and it is good," because God made chocolate too, and we're not eating that.

Of course, the key question is: would Jesus have known about Pi? Not known-known as God knows all things, but as a person growing up in a first-century Jewish culture, in the course of his human knowledge would he have been likely to encounter the concept of Pi?

Dr. Google offers us thoughts on "mathematics in ancient Israel pi", presenting The Secret Jewish History of Pi:
The relationship between a circle’s diameter — a line running straight through cutting it into two equal halves — and its circumference — the distance around the circle – was originally mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Kings in reference to a ritual pool in King Solomon’s Temple. The relevant verse (1 Kings 7:23) states that the diameter of the pool was ten cubits and the circumference 30 cubits. In other words, the Bible rounds off Pi to about three, as if to say that’s good enough for horseshoes and swimming pools. 
Later on, the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who knew that the one-third ratio wasn’t completely accurate, had a field day with the Bible having played fast and loose with the facts, arguing in their characteristic manner that of course it depended on whether you measured the pool from the inside or the outside of the vessel’s wall. They also had fun with some of the Gematria – the numerical value – of the words in the original passage, which when you play around with them a bit indeed come a lot closer to the value of Pi, spelling it out to several decimal points.
"Secret" here might be a bit sensationalistic, seeing as 1Kings is not exactly an occult piece of literature. The Journal of Mathematics and Culture May 2006, V1(1) offers us a more scholarly explanation via Lawrence Mark Lesser's article "Book of Numbers: Exploring Jewish Mathematics and Culture at a Jewish High School":
A value of π can be obtained from I Kings 7:23: 
“He made the ‘sea’ of cast [metal] ten cubits from its one lip to its [other] lip, circular all around, five cubits its height; a thirty-cubit line could encircle it all around.” 
It appears the value of π implied here is simply 30/10 (an error of 4.5%) until a student asks if we need to consider the tank’s thickness -- given three verses later as one-handbreadth, so the inner diameter is 10 cubits minus 2 handbreadths. (Of course, this is also a chance to discuss issues of measurement!) Using the Talmudic value of 1/6 cubit for one handbreadth, the inner diameter becomes 9 2/3 cubits and dividing 30 by 9 2/3 yields more accuracy (error: 1.2%). Applying a more subtle and technical approach to I Kings 7:23 (see Posamentier & Lehmann 2004 or 20 Tsaban & Garber 1998), the ratio of gematrias for the written and spoken forms of a key Hebrew word (for “line”) in that verse is 111/106, which when multiplied by 3 yields a very refined approximation for π : 333/106 (error: 0.0026%). Very few words in the Torah have different oral and written forms. 
By Jewish Encyclopedia [Public domain or Public domain]

Jesus was well versed in the law and the prophets, and it is not a stretch to assume that the account of the building of Solomon's Temple and the fashioning of the great pillars and vessels of bronze was known to him. Could he have known about pi? Could he? Should we doubt his scriptural knowledge? Listen to this.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:46-50)
Do you not understand? Jesus, in the Temple itself, astounding the teachers with his knowledge and his answers, and talking of his Father's house -- the very house for which the bronze vessel was created*? Even his parents could not understand Pi, as happens with so many parents dealing with their children's math.

My friends. The Scriptures themselves proclaim Pi. Take and eat.

*Not actually the very house, since it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and not the very basin, since 2 Kings tells us that the Chaldeans destroyed it. But still.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Art of the Backlist Book

 Back in 2020, fresh from the experience of my own novel being published by Ignatius Press and then publishing MrsDarwin's Christmas novella independently under out imprint of Oak & Linden Press, MrsDarwin wanted a reading copy of Fr. Robert Hugh Benson's classic book The Friendship of Christ. Used copies in good condition were hard to find, and so she went on Amazon and found a paperback copy for $5.00.  The problem was, that copy was the one shown here on the left.

Not only was the cover itself aggressively ugly and the interior formatting bad, but the person who had set it up (using a print-on-demand service, which allows people to publish books at very low cost, because copies are only printed and bound as orders come in) had clearly got a bad scan of the original book off the internet and thrown it up on Amazon with no proof reading.

Originally published in 1912, Benson's book had an Edwardian notion of formatting and punctuation. He used Roman numerals frequently in making biblical citations, and the scanning program had in many cases not recognized these Roman numerals correctly, turning them into a jumble or Arabic numerals and letters: the sort of mistake which could turn Psalm 3 into Psalm 111.

In addition, Fr. Benson had used the numbering of the Psalms in the Douay Rheims Bible (the standard English tradition at his time) which are numbered differently from what Catholics would find in modern translations.

Since we had just had the experience of laying out a book for publication, and MrsDarwin was so filled with indignation of the shoddy product which was being put in the hand of the reading public with an interest in Fr. Benson's writing, we decided to put out our own reprint edition.

We started with a freely available scanned online text, but then MrsDarwin spent 20+ hours comparing it line by line with a photographic scan of the original 1912 edition, identifying all the mistakes in the text-scan and correcting them.  She also provided updated scriptural citations so that readers could find Benson's references in a modern translation of the Bible.

I searched for an appropriate image for the cover, and found it in a detail from Giotto's The Last Supper, which shows Jesus among the apostles.  I bought the rights to a large, high quality image of the painting from a stock photography site specializing in historic art, and designed a simple, but I hope elegant, cover, inspired by the types of covers used by Penguin and Oxford World's Classics reprints.

Then the challenge was to get the book visible on Amazon.  Left to itself, Amazon will show the cheapest edition of a book available, unless some other edition sells much more. 

However, I couldn't price our edition lower than the cheap one already dominating on Amazon, because with our more readable formatting selling it at $5 would mean selling it at cost.  We couldn't beat the $5 edition already out there.

So instead, I decided to price our edition at $9.99.  This seemed like a fair price for a well made trade paperback reprint of a public domain work, and it would allow us to make three dollars in profit on each copy sold, which mean that I could pay for amazon placement ads to make our edition the top of the stack.

Although Amazon sometimes chooses to feature various other editions of Friendship of Christ at the top of its results, our sponsored product ads always show up near the top.

No one will ever get rich selling copies of Friendship of Christ, but there is a steady backlist demand for it.  Since publishing our edition at the end of 2020, we've sold about 300 copies per year, or a bit over 1000 copies total.

We end up spending about $200/yr on Amazon product ads in order to remain the top result whenever anyone searches for Friendship of Christ, so our total profits per year on the book are perhaps $700.  Not princely, but not bad for a few weeks of intensive (and enjoyable) work doing proofreading and formatting, it's at least a project that pays for itself and it provides readers a much more readable and attractive book than the cloud edition.  You can see it for sale here.

I'd always kind of meant to try our hands at more reprint projects, but things had been busy and we hadn't got around to it until I got fired up by a poorly made copy of The Great Gatsby a friend had bought for her daughter's high school class.

The 200-page book was crammed down into 110 pages and printed with narrow margins in an oversize 6x9" format, making it look more like a pamphlet than a book. (The cheap edition is the second from right.  Ours is the one on the far right.)

There were multiple cheap editions like this on Amazon, and they were taking up all the top slots when you looked for The Great Gatsby. There were editions from real publishers like Scribner's and Penguin, but they were far down the list, probably because Amazon had already squeezed their profits so much they couldn't afford to pay for top placement.

Not just that, but the top cheap edition had multiple printing errors in it. For instance, in the section where Nick reads the list of resolutions written by a youthful Jay Gatsby, the list was completely unformatted with strange block characters scattered through it. The editor had not even proof-read the online text they used. (Cheap edition at top, ours at bottom)

So we decided to see if we could pull off the same gambit on a much more popular text. We started with the full text of Gatsby from Gutenberg, but we then checked it line-by-line against the original first edition text. We also discovered from the Fitzgerald Archives at Princeton that Fitzgerald himself had made several corrections in his 1925 copy of the first edition, changing or adding words and phrases.

We incorporated all of these changes (which we documented in an Afterword) and added a second Afterword with a selection of the original 1925 reviews of the novel. Then we laid it all out and created a cover with the same care we'd used on our own books.

It's listed on Amazon now, and it remains to be seen whether product ads declaring "Avoid cheap print on demand editions!" will be enough to lure readers away from the badly formatted $5 editions. (Our edition at right) I was particularly pleased with the little roadster line graphic I spent a day designing for the bottom color bar. After reading about the history of the "Celestial Eyes" painting by Francis Cugat which appeared on the cover of the original edition, I knew that we needed to use the painting on ours as well.  Fitzgerald apparently loved the cover, and said that he "put the painting into the book", which from his letters appears to mean that the painting inspired him to add the thematic image of the billboard with the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg.

Once again I'm trying to beat out $5 competition with a $9.99 book, and it remains to be seen if sponsored product ads which say "Avoid cheap print on demand editions!" and product copy which explains "Unlike bargain-priced print-on-demand copies, this volume is attractively formatted with clear, readable text and standard margins. As in the 1925 original, the text of this edition runs to 200 pages. Cheap versions which compress the text to 120 pages or less are cramped and hard to read." will be enough to win over customers from the cheapest editions.

It may be that while it's possible for us to win on a comparatively small backlist item like Friendship of Christ, that there are simply too many people willing to spend money on promoting bad, cheap editions of Great Gatsby for us to win out.

Still, we have very much enjoyed the process of putting out nice, clean reprint editions of books which are afflicted with shoddy reprints. If there are any books which you've been frustrated to find primarily represented by bad reprints, that you'd like us to consider tackling, let us know which books they are.

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Strange Demographics of the Russia-Ukraine War

 In my wallet, I still carry with me the selective service card I received when I turned 18. Since that was in 1997, and the Selective Service Act only allowed for the calling up of men aged 18-25, it's a pretty empty gesture at this point, but I keep it with me as a reminder.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year, there are headlines about how the average age of front line Ukrainian troops is 43. To our American eyes, that suggests a country which has already run out of draftable men aged 18-40, a country in the final stages of defeat, such as Germany in 1945 or the Confederacy in 1865.

Ukraine is indeed facing a manpower shortage, and will need to make some tough decisions if it is going to continue the war. However, the tough decisions are not necessarily the ones we might imagine from our American context, and they're the result of Ukraine's very post-Soviet demographics.

As of now, Ukrainian law only allows for men aged 27 and above to be mobilized for combat duty. A controversial new mobilization law which is being debated would lower that mobilization age to 25. Men aged 18-25, the entire draft age range in the US, have as of yet not been drafted for service at all.

This may seem odd.  Recruiting or conscripting 18-year-olds for military service has been such a staple of US military history that those who walk about the need to avoid some conflict habitually talk in terms of "sending our 18-year-olds off to die". This isn't a matter of picking on the young. Combat is incredibly physically demanding, and young men peak in their ability to simultaneously handle extreme physical activity and ignore their own mortality at the age of 18-20.  I do what I can to stay in shape, but that only makes me that much more aware that at 45 I move lower and get injured more easily than I did 25 years ago.

So why is Ukraine exclusively mobilizing non-prime age men for their army?

The reason is that like the rest of the Soviet world, Ukraine experienced a massive decline in fertility from the mid 1980s on, hitting its lowest point around 2000. 

Strange though it is to think about, 2000 is now 24 years ago, so that period when Ukraine's fertility rate had dropped to just one child per woman was the period when today's 24 year olds were not being born in Ukraine.  Thus, if you look at the number of people of different ages in the Ukrainian population prior to the war, you see the smallest populations in the prime military service age range.

So why is the war being fought by Ukrainian men in their 30s and 40s?  Because there are almost twice as many of them as there are men in their early 20s.  As of 2021, Ukraine had 1.1 million men aged 20-24 and 1.9 million men aged 35-39.

Add to that the fact that if the country is going to rebuild and have another generation of children after the war, that small generation of young men in their late teens and early 20s need to survive to have families and hold jobs. They are quite literally the future of the country.

Of course, young people are always the future of a country.  But in more normal demographic situations, young people are more plentiful. In 1966, when the US drafted 382,010 men aged 18-25 into the army for the Vietnam War, the demographic pyramid was almost exactly an inverse of what Ukraine has now.

Those 1966 draftees represented less than 5% of men of conscription age. If Ukraine were to tap their 20-24 year olds for the 500,000 men their army says they need to mobilize, they would need to mobilize half the Ukrainian men in that age range.

Russia, of course, faces a similar overall demographic problem.  The difference is simply that Russia's population is three times larger.  In grinding trench warfare which has come to resemble WW1 with drones, even with Russian casualties often higher than Ukrainians ones, they simply have more men to send into the meatgrinder.

This is, of course, why Ukraine is so eager to get more and better military aid for the US and the rest of NATO. The American way of war for the last hundred years has been to substitute firepower and technology for bodies. This still doesn't always work. In Vietnam, the US military was successful in inflicting far higher casualties on the North Vietnamese than the US suffered; the problem was that the North Vietnamese were willing to go on suffering those casualties and the US was not.

If Ukraine is going to manage to continue to defend itself with anything like success, without completely giving up their future generations, they will need to employ Western style military technology and tactics to achieve a similarly lopsided casualty ratio.