Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two kinds of Catholic

The comment thread on my last post has gone on and on .... I feel like I made a mistake in phrasing things the way I did.  I guess it sounds like I might be saying "here are my objections, come knock them down because I want to stay Catholic!"  When really I should have said, "here's what I think, I'm scared it makes me a heretic, reassure me I am still Catholic!"

If you whittle down all the individual arguments (which, if you're interested, are all being hashed out in the comboxes) I guess my real problem is that there are two kinds of Catholic.  And these two kinds of Catholic are as different, to my mind, as two different religions: different in worldview, different in priorities, different in the way they act.  It bothers me that there are two.  I worry that perhaps one is right and one is wrong, and that I am on the wrong side.

The first kind of Catholic tends to prefer things from before Vatican II.  Not the liturgy particularly (though they might) but the general tone of things. 

They believe that unbaptized infants who die go to limbo, and that non-Catholics of any kind, even if they never even heard of the Catholic Church, mostly go to hell.  One of these people told me, "If a man kisses a million lepers and washes the feet of the poor, but isn't baptized, he will go to hell, but if he is baptized and does the bare minimum of receiving the sacraments and avoiding mortal sin, he will go to heaven."

They believe that sin and grace are a sort of bank account; if you've done a certain amount of sin, you owe a certain amount of suffering.  Christ's sufferings on the cross were to pay off our deficit at the grace bank.

They like Benedict and don't like Francis or John Paul II.  Phrases like "who am I to judge" make them very upset.  They like Cardinal Burke.  It is very important to them that pro-abortion politicians are publicly denied the sacraments, and that sodomy is against the law.  They feel that people do bad things when allowed too much freedom, and the job of the state is to keep people from doing all those bad things.

When told that God killed lots of people in the Flood or at Sodom, or that he ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, they aren't bothered.  But some of Jesus' parables about mercy make them feel a bit uncomfortable.

If you ask them how many people go to hell, they will tell you most people do.  They might point out that many private revelations have said this.

They worry a great deal about doing things right: about not using birth control or overusing NFP, about saying the rosary, about getting the liturgy perfect, about going to confession often.

If they get cancer or their friend dies in a car wreck, they say this was God's will and God must have some purpose in it.  Maybe he is trying to teach them something.

They say, "God is good, but it might be a sort of good that doesn't feel or seem good at all to humans."

All of this hinges on a view of God that says he cares very much about rules and about what you believe.  He isn't unmerciful, but they focus more on his justice.  I would like to emphasize that I am not attempting to parody this side; I know good people (some readers, probably) who fit more on this side and are probably better people than I am.

The other kind sees God differently, as loving and merciful without much focus on justice.  They think God cares a lot more about whether you love your neighbor than whether you believe the right things.

They love the Gospels (except for the whip of cords bit; that doesn't seem right) and flip nervously through the Old Testament till they reach the prophets at least.

They see sin as a break in one's relationship with God; grace fixes it.  Christ's redemption had something to do with fixing a relationship, not paying into a bank.  (But I learned the hard way, it's hard to get one of these people to explain exactly how this works.)

They believe God prefers five minutes of heartfelt spontaneous prayer to half-a-dozen rosaries, and don't tend to care all that much about how perfectly the liturgy is done.

They believe that a charitable person who loves God, but isn't Catholic, will probably go to heaven.  Even a well-meaning atheist probably goes to heaven.  They believe that you can think all the wrong things, but as long as you would choose the right things if only you knew, you're still in the clear.  They hope hell is empty, or nearly so.

Politically, they see the Church's role in the public sphere as promoting basic human dignity, but not fighting culture wars.  They probably believe the state has the duty to care for the poor, but not to police sexual behavior.

If they get cancer or someone dies, they believe it's just one of those awful things that happens, not that God willed it specifically.

They say, "God is good, but it is a kind of goodness I can recognize as good.  I am sure God wouldn't do anything I think is evil."

In short, they are the "social justice Catholics," the "touchy-feely Catholics," the "Vatican II Catholics," the "as long as you're a good person Catholics."

The trouble is, I am made very uncomfortable by the worldview of the first camp.  I can't see God that way.  However, probably 75% of camp number two are living in a state of what camp number one would call mortal sin.  There aren't a lot of people who think that God is a merciful being who cares more about the heart than about rules -- and still follow the rules.

I do follow the rules.  I follow the rules because I think following the rules is a way to show love.  It might not be the only way.  I don't really care if it is the only way.  It is the way that God has revealed himself to me, along the story of my life, and the only love letter I know how to send is following the rules.  But for me that's always with the understanding that he'll cover what I'm lacking.  That if I'm totally and completely wrong, he'll say "but you were trying to serve me" and welcome me anyway.  And that for the many people I know who believe something utterly different from what I do, he's got that same mercy ready.

There are moments when it all falls into place for me.  When I see that there's a very delicate balance between too much fear of God's justice and too much presumption on God's mercy; when I realize that God is greater than my conception of him and that perhaps the rule-bound way that's so scary to me is his way of leading people to himself too; when it is clear to me that the reason there are few (or, comparatively few) attempting to walk this fine line with me is that walking the fine line is hard -- not that I'm doing it wrong.

At other moments, I look at it and say to myself, "This brokenness cannot possibly be of God.  The reason we're walking so far afield is because before 1960 it was all camp one, all the time, and since then it's been all camp two.  And the reason for the shift is that deep in our gut, we are following the world.  We followed the world in the early Church and in the Middle Ages, adopting harshness and legalism because those were the coin of the day, and we're following the world now when we suddenly say that being a good person is enough.

"Either that, or camp one is right, has always been right, and God is the stern judge I can't bear to imagine spending eternity with.  If that is what the Church is, I want no part of it."

That's the part that scares me.  Everyone says, "So long as you decide you will believe whatever you discover the Church teaches, you're in the clear."  Only I won't.  I believe in God's goodness, God's mercy, his infinite store of love, more than I believe in the Church.  I don't think that's doubt, exactly.  Maybe it's a deeper kind of faith.

The dark voice whispers, "This is pride, that you think you could know what God is based on your own reason, instead of trusting the Church to tell you."

Perhaps it is.  But when it comes down to it, I need a God who is love and mercy, who treats his children with the sort of gentleness that I try to have with mine.  I need to strive to be like that God, and not the other one.  I need to trust in that God, and not the other one.  And I just can't believe that God would give me this need for him, and then fail me on that.

Friday, November 21, 2014

7qt - mostly about faith struggles


I don't really like theology, as a subject.  Oh, it's not my least favorite (philosophy wins that award, hands down) but every time I try to study theology or understand it, I wind up feeling less sure of everything than when I started.

And yet lately, everyone I talk to has been getting an earful, because I have so much stuff I'm working on figuring out.  Questions like, "Does God punish people?" and "Why does God seem so different in the Old Testament from the way he seems in the New Testament?" and "When we say God is good, how are we to define goodness in a way that isn't circular?" and, most of all, "How am I to know this isn't all a big scam?"

That last question is the scary one.  After seeing how Regnum Christi functions, I have trouble trusting that all religion isn't just a way of controlling people.  In the past, I have heard and believed the argument that the apostles would never have endured martyrdom for a scam.  But now . . . it occurs to me how many of us pledged our word that Maciel was innocent of whatever he was accused of, and I'm not so sure.  We weren't consciously lying -- we were just that convinced.  You can convince yourself of almost anything.


My answer that I have gone to in the past, to comfort me when I am freaking out about it, is -- so what?  What is Christianity, if it's not true?  Well, it's a set of beliefs and practices that convince people to treat others better and which can be comforting.  It carries within itself notions like the dignity of man, the benefit of sacrifice, free will, and continuous self-improvement.  Even if it weren't true, I would still think Christianity was a net beneficial influence on humanity.  There is a reason the Church has survived so well -- it's a set of cultural ideas that definitely have a place in society.

However, a lot of things the Church teaches and does do not help society, but rather propagate itself.  Evolution favors the fit, but it also can favor the over-fit -- cancer, invasive weeds, and so forth, things that destroy the ecosystem.  Christianity and Catholicism in particular have mechanisms that keep people from leaving -- for instance, the belief in hell.  Religions that believe in hell naturally suffer less attrition than others, because people are afraid they'll go to hell if they leave.  A layer is added if you say that doubt is a sin that will send you to hell.  So maybe the safe choice is to not even question.

This is a very scary line of reasoning to me.  Ever being told I shouldn't question is a major trigger for me, and so I question anyway, because I figure sincere questioning isn't doubt, but a search for God who is Truth in the first place.  Yet I still worry .... maybe all my doubts are my own fault for asking questions and I should just stop.  Only what sort of trust do I have in God, if I think even examining my faith, discussing it, and reading up about it will destroy my faith?  Surely he has answers to all the questions?


Why I am I so scared?  Well, you see, I'm not the stereotypical questioner I used to imagine -- someone who's just trying to find an excuse to leave so they can sin.  Even if I weren't Catholic, that wouldn't change my moral standards.  My conscience, wherever it comes from, is pretty strict.  I can't think of a single rule the Church has that I don't agree with.  I'd no sooner use birth control than I would take up bulimia, because it feels equally wrong to me.  So, no, I'm not looking to get out of anything.

In fact I'm not looking for a way out of the Church at all.  I want to be Catholic.  I'm holding onto my faith by my fingernails, because with it threatened like this, I realize I really do want to believe it all.  It's hard to even say why.  I know it isn't because I want to feel superior (I don't; I know some wonderful atheists) and it isn't because I find much comfort in it.  A little bit of it is because the Church is the only community I know -- probably 75% of my friendlist is Catholic, and the sort who would be very upset with me if I left.  Some of it is straight-up fear: if it turns out that God is a vengeful God, I don't want to be on the bad side of that -- even if I were 99% sure it was all a hoax, that 1% would come with scary consequences so best not to risk it.

But I think perhaps, on some level that I can't quite put into words, I really do love God and want to be with him.  I want to live in a world that has that much kindness and truth in it.  I want to have someone to say thank you to, the many times a day when I need to say thank you.


But for the moment I feel I can go on.  I had a scary couple of days when I really felt it must all be false; less a real argument against any part of the faith than just a fear that I'm getting manipulated again and I don't want to have my life and beliefs turned upside-down again and maybe it would be morally wrong to hide my head in the sand and try not to think of my doubts, because it would be lying.

But I had a good talk with John, who pointed out that he, at least, is one person who believes the whole thing without either painting God as a big jerk or hedging his bets for fear of hell.  You see I have this deep distrust in my ability to know anything, and there are so few Catholics I know whom I trust much more than myself.  But there is John.  I have a great deal of trust in him.  If I can tell him all my worst doubts and they don't trouble him, I think for the moment I can go on.

I've also resolved to read the Gospels again.  The rest of the Bible is an iffy proposition; some things are great and uplifting and other bits are upsetting.  So I'll start with just Gospels.  It's a start.  Because Jesus is the sort of person I really would like to know, not because of fear but because he is so easily recognizable as Good.


In other news .... gosh, what else is going on?  Michael has been sleeping very badly, and worst of all, won't let you leave the room if you come in at night to comfort him, so you have to stay there for half an hour or more.  If you try to sneak out, thinking he's asleep, and he isn't, he comes fully awake and wails that he needs you to "be wif me!"  And for fear of waking Marko up, you just have to sit back down and wait.

Because I have a great husband, though, I am not handling much of this.  I'm staying with Miriam, who actually sleeps through the night once in awhile (knock on wood or the Internet Curse will get me) and so I get more sleep than John does.  We've even moved a sleeping bag into the boys' room so John can sleep in there if he has to.  Sometimes he's in there from 4 am to 6, when the kids get up for the day.  I sure hope this stage doesn't last.


Today I buckled down and actually sewed the dress for Miriam I said I'd do weeks ago.  It took me like an hour.  Funny how I can put off things for so long that wind up being really no trouble to do.

The fabric is just a receiving blanket that I happened to have.  Since it's cotton flannel, it's nice and warm and soft.  I would have preferred pink trim, but the green was all I had.  No pattern, I just cut it vaguely Miriam-shaped and sewed it up.  I had planned to put a button opening in the back, but when the neck hole went over her head easily, I skipped cutting an opening.

For my next trick, I want to knit her a headband with a flower on it so people will know she's a girl even though I don't dress her in pink much.

She is three months old now, and just reached the stage when she immediately rolls to her side when I put her down.  Still can't roll all the way over, unless she's on a very uneven surface like a pile of blankets.

She's not asleep in this picture; she's just super excited about that thumb.  


Marko has all of a sudden gotten super affectionate.  Not in the sense of wanting affection from me -- he's always had stages where he wanted lots of attention.  But in the sense of figuring out what I like (hugs and kisses and saying I love you) and very pointedly doing them.  It seems a little artificial, but I think he's just finally wrapping his head around the idea that he can make other people happy by doing certain things, so I appreciate it and tell him so.

Anyway, what is sweeter than a little boy who says "Come back here, I want to kiss you"?  He is not always so good about listening, he sometimes pinches his brother, but he really does care about making us happy and that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  You see, kids don't love their parents when they're little ... they need us.  But Marko is finally reaching a point where he's ready to give back.

How was your week?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Just punishment?

I'm afraid I might be a heretic.

A friend of mine posted this.  One of his points is that hell is an infinite amount of punishment for finite crimes, and it seems to him that a good God would not do that.

I replied that hell isn't punishment, it's the natural consequence of choosing to be without God.  Existence without God, and without any of the things God has made except for yourself, would be miserable ... and that's what I think hell is like. 

In fact (I reasoned) I don't think I believe in "retributive justice" at all.  Retributive justice is the idea that all wrongdoing deserves punishment, apart from natural side-effects (I'm going to call those consequences, for the sake of clarity) or punishments intended to teach (I'll call those discipline).  But punishment just because every evil deed has an equivalent punishment, just like the laws of physics, regardless of whether it does any good?  I don't believe in that.  It makes no sense.

And yet, if you do believe in it, it explains all kinds of things.  If "evil for evil" is an unchanging law of the universe, that even God has to follow, then the redemption is explained easily.  God couldn't forgive our sins with a wave of his hand, somebody had to be punished, and Jesus took care of that.  (This is not by any means the only way to explain the redemption, in case you are made uncomfortable by this description, as I am.)  And it explains the entire sin-cured-through-sacrifice model of the Old Testament -- though, honestly, I think that it's a pretty shallow way to understand that symbol.  Sin is not a thing that can be destroyed by killing goats -- God is rather explicit about that even in the Old Testament.  Couldn't you argue that sin is the destroying of your relationship with God, and you restore it through sacrifice by once again acknowledging God as the ruler of your life?  The sacrifice itself is just a symbol of God's importance to you, that you care enough to give something up for him.

Well, so far as that goes, I'm not a heretic.  I think.

My argument is just this: retributive justice doesn't exist in the real world, and when people attempt to apply it, it does not help.  That it doesn't exist is obvious: some sins aren't punished at all (and the world doesn't implode), and most of the suffering that happens to us isn't a result of sin at all.  And as for when people attempt to apply it .... isn't revenge bad?

When one person sins, that causes a horrible unbalance .... but any attempt to rectify the imbalance by visiting a "punishment" on the sinner just makes things worse. That's why forcing the Germans to pay reparations for WWI helped cause WWII. That's why every bomb exploded by Hamas leads to an attack by Israel, and every attack by the Israelis just ends up bringing on more bombs by Hamas. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ends, in real life, with everyone being eyeless and toothless. And that's imagining that humans even could work out some kind of calculus for one kind of retribution each crime deserves -- a life for a life, perhaps, but what is the proper punishment for rape? for mass murder? Even assuming we could figure that out, when have we EVER seen that retribution heals sin, even in the slightest? Surely if this were really the way the world works, we'd be able to see some examples in the visible realm?  (Retributive justice is an argument for the death penalty, but I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, so .... no help there.)

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (Mt 5:38-9).  If Jesus recommends this sort of behavior, why the heck wouldn't it be universally good?  Why couldn't God do the same thing -- when we sinned, forgive us?  (And, in fact, from where I stand, that's exactly what he did.)  If retributive justice were an immutable law of the universe, why would he then recommend we not follow it?

And the reality is, in real life, Jesus' recommendation works.  When someone is angry with you and treats you badly, if you retaliate, they escalate.  If you respond with forgiveness and kindness, their anger often dissolves.  When my kids misbehave and I punish them, they get angry and misbehave more.  When I listen with understanding and try to explain how to do better, they so often surprise me by behaving better.  

So much for why I don't believe in retributive justice.  But that's where things get hairy.  If I am firmly convinced that retributive justice is wrong and that a good God wouldn't practice it, and it turns out the Church tells me it's right and a good God has practiced it, well, I'm a heretic. 

Today I got into a facebook debate on this topic (on purpose, I was hoping for a good explanation) and unfortunately I'm being proven wrong.  With respect to my interlocutor (because it really is a very thorough answer), here's what started to get me worried:

"It may seem gratuitous to you that God should add punishment beyond what is entailed in the loss of the beatific vision to the souls in Hell, but that opinion is difficult to reconcile to both the theological tradition and the Magisterium's teaching on Hell and Purgatory though the ages.

It is hard to reconcile the position that the pain of Hell is nothing but the pain of loss. E.g., Innocent III specifically distinguishes the punishments of original and actual sin on this basis, "The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of Hell." I don't have time right now to determine what degree of theological certitude that attaches to the thesis that there is a positive punishment beyond the loss of the beatific vision inflicted on the damned, but it is at least deeply engrained in theology, and even magisterial teaching, and it certainly seems to be included in the Scriptural depictions of Hell. Hence it seems at least rash to deny it.

Second, the entire theology of indulgences presupposes that beyond simple preparation of the soul itself for the beatific vision, there is a debt of punishment due to sins (even after they are forgiven). His Holiness cannot snap his fingers and purify a soul of its selfishness or its attachment to sin, but he can snap his fingers and by fiat apply the superabundant merits of Christ, which were left to the Church, to pay the debts of particular individuals for their sins. That's what an indulgence is. That's why a condition of an indulgence is that you already be free of any attachment to sin; The Church can't declare you free from an attachment to sin (only one [thing] purgatory does for the soul) but she can free you from your debt (the other thing that purgatory does for the soul) . If you deny that there is retributive justice, you deny that there is a debt of satisfaction due for sin, and if you deny that, then you take away the justification for indulgences, and so are committed to denying that the Church has the power to grant indulgences."

Ruh-roh.  I don't know if it is dogma that God steps in to add extra punishment onto the torments of hell in the name of "fairness" or justice (I hope not), but the indulgence thing was declared by Trent, complete with anathemas and all.  The Church does teach that it has the right to grant indulgences.  Indulgences make no sense from my point of view of purgatory -- that it's simply a time when you are taught to love God more and freed from all the things that are keeping you from him.  Because God (or anyone) can't just snap their fingers and make that happen; it's a process that you have to go through on your own time.  In fact it seems nonsensical to me that there should even be a purgatory if God has the ability to just whisk us out of it.  Why would a good God do that?

Okay, so the right thing to do is probably just to admit I'm wrong and start believing that the universe is ruled by this unfathomable law of tit for tat, a certain amount of suffering for every sin.  That God himself can't forgive us without visiting the suffering on somebody, like his own son, or ourselves after our death.

The trouble is, I absolutely can't believe that.  I can't believe that God would create me with a strong sense of good and evil, and then do things that put him on the "evil" side of the equation.  I can't believe that punishment (as opposed to consequences or discipline) can ever be a good thing.  I can't believe that forgiveness is the exception and not the rule.

And that spells trouble.

If anyone can figure out how to save (what's left of) my faith in the Church at this point, please, please speak up. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

7qt, mostly about writing stuff


This morning the kids have emptied out the bookshelf and are now using my pastry brush to paint the front door with water.  I should probably stop them, but on the other hand, they're getting along!

This past week or two has been a really rough one for Michael.  He was sick with a fever on Sunday and Monday of last week, and subsequently he has just been unusually crabby.  Meltdowns in the middle of nowhere, involving screaming and flailing and hitting.  They say wraps are great because the baby can nap and you can get stuff done.  But really there is no way to hold a sleeping baby and "get done" the soothing of a truly mad toddler.  In fact, odds are good you can't accomplish either, because the toddler is flinging himself onto you screaming at a zillion decibels, grabbing any part of you OR the baby he can reach, and then once he does wake the baby, the baby is hungry and you have to take care of her instead of the toddler.  But it's hard to feed a baby either while someone is screaming and climbing up your face.

Nights have been bad too, but on the bright side John handles wakeups with the boys almost exclusively.  And a good thing too, because when I try to get involved apparently I do it wrong and they get really upset.  When he had that fever, John was up with Michael every hour or more ... and that was the day of the election, so he got up early after that night, shaved, and was off to the polls!  He's kind of a hero like that.

Marko feels neglected in all this, so he chooses to wait for a moment when Michael is FINALLY playing quietly, then walks up to him with some treasured toy and says, "This is mine, and I'm never going to share it with you ever ever."  You can imagine how that goes down.

BUT, the past three days or so haven't been bad.  There has been significantly less pinching and biting.  You know things have been bad when you hear yourself saying, "Today's been pretty good, Michael only had two meltdowns of half a hour each."  But, well, improvement is improvement, I'm not going to knock it.


Yesterday was the last really nice day of fall.  At least I assume it was.  It was 60 degrees, blue skies, the last of the leaves looking really gorgeous.  We went for a walk by the river because that day was MUCH too good to waste.  Today the highs are predicted for the forties .... boy am I glad we took that walk while we had a chance.  Have I ever mentioned that I hate cold weather with the fiery heat of a thousand suns?  (If only the heat of my hatred for it would warm it up!)

We had a little adventure with our heater recently.  We did our usual beginning-of-winter call to the oil company to order our oil for the year.  The fellow came out in the torrential rain to go fill up the tank.  I was just discovering a diapersplosion on Miriam when he came around the house and knocked on the door.  His eyes were squinched shut and he wanted a rag.  Apparently when he tried to fill up the tank, the oil went in just fine, until suddenly it built up a lot of pressure and shot the nozzle out, complete with a fountain of heating oil in the poor man's face.  Heating oil eats through raincoats, apparently, and is none too good for eyes either.  Luckily after I let him in to wash himself off, he said he was fine ... but his raincoat would have to be thrown out entirely.

So of course this is the moment that we had to ask the kids, "Did either of you put something down there?"  I was certain they hadn't, because I watch Michael like a hawk and Marko knows better.  But nope, Marko immediately fessed up.  He'd had a friend over, and he's utterly squishy in the face of peer pressure, so when she suggested opening up that valve he's not allowed to touch and stuffing it full of leaves and sand, he had gone right along with it.  I cannot figure out why he won't obey me that blindly.

Anyway, we had a plumber out last night, and he quickly set it right for not much over a hundred dollars.  Next step is to have the oil people out again to finally fill us up for the winter.  And the moral of this story is, if you have an oil heater and the pipe is on the outside where the kids can reach it ... just put a dang lock on it.


I had a picture to show you, but unfortunately my camera cord has gone missing.  Last time I saw it Michael was trying to use it as a necklace.  I think I took it from him, but I don't know what I did with it after that.

So just imagine a monkey stuck to the fridge in the pose of crucified Jesus.  Marko put it there, but Michael kept trying to take it off because he didn't want the monkey to be crucified.  (Of the two of them, Michael is less of a psychopath; he seems to possess some grains of empathy.)  John and I, being morbid, just got a big laugh out of it.  We thought perhaps there had been a monkey rebellion and he was just the unlucky tenth monkey to get decimated.  Maybe you had to be there.


I was talking with a friend yesterday about good qualities it's important to have in a friend.  Can you think of one to top kindness?  I can't.  And that's particularly good news, because kindness is something anyone can develop if they value it enough to put in the effort.  My friends vary a lot, but they are all kind people.  I think I can get along with anyone who is kind.

This is doubly true for marriage.  If any of y'all are single, pass by the "bad boys" and the "hot jerks" and just marry someone who is truly kind.  If he's considerate of the waitstaff in a restaurant and sweet to his mother and wouldn't dream of being mean to a homeless guy who asked him for change, just marry the dude.  You won't do better.  Someday, you'll hurt his feelings and he will be mad at you, so find a guy who is decent even to people he's mad at.

John is not only kind, he's considerate, so double win for me!


I've realized, on looking over the one book I've finished, one book I have to rewrite, and one book I've begun to outline, that my writing may be a bit formulaic.  Yes, the plots are all different, but I have some particularities about characters.  It just seems a book isn't complete unless it has:

-one protagonist who needs to overcome or accept the flaw that's been holding them back their whole life
-one false flag love interest for the protagonist
-one real love interest
-one young girl working on her coming-of-age journey, after which she will be ready for love
-one mother who needs to face the demons of her past
-one very serious man who is good at fighting
-one younger man who is a bit more lighthearted
-one member of the royal family, with the magic powers that entails
-one prophet
-one elderly but cryptic sage

These are often combined -- you know, the prophet could be the love interest or the mother or (who knows?) both; the protagonist could be a young prince with magic powers or a girl who can see the future.

My question is, this is a bad thing, or just the way the game is played?  I don't want to be boring and predictable.  On the other hand, fantasy is one of those things that comes with tropes people just expect.  I have to be careful not to rewrite the same book a bunch of times; however, writing a book with no mothers in it is just not something I care to do.


At any rate, I am having ideas and fun but not really making much progress.  It's kind of always like this.  Starting a book is like pulling teeth.  Once I reach the halfway point and am really invested in getting the characters out of their messes, I stop eating and sleeping and bathing in my eagerness to write, and 5,000 words a day isn't hard to crank out.  Right now it's more like .... two paragraphs.  And then the next day I erase one of them because it sucks.  And then I find out that in 2000 BC, England didn't have snow in the winter and I have to rewrite ALL the descriptions, only I don't want to so I waste my whole evening reading blogs.

Sigh.  This is not much of a NaNoWriteMo, unless you want to call it "national NOT writing month."  Oh well, the main point of this isn't to wind up with a book any time soon, but to fill my head with fun stories and ideas.  Someday, though, I want to get these books done.  There will be four.  And when they are all done, then I'll figure out what to do with them.


For the sake of clarity, let me just list the books in this series, because I'm afraid I tend to be confusing:

Book 1: About 16 pages written, and lots of ideas floating around.  I want to write it now but I have to research a LOT before I can really start ... which is tiresome and I don't think I'm quite up to it at the moment.
Book 2: One draft written, but it sucks.  I am going to have to rewrite the whole dang thing.  Still, I love the basic idea and I'm pretty excited to get started rewriting it.  I think I should turn my efforts in this direction since Book 1 is stymieing me so thoroughly.  To that end I have checked out two books about Celts from the library.  When I first wrote it I didn't think it was going to be about Celts, but it turns out it is.
Book 3: This is the one I wrote the third draft of last year.  I went through last week and made all the edits I'd been meaning to do, so I think it's actually DONE.  And I still like it, so maybe it really is good.  I don't know.  Some of you read it and gave me some useful feedback, but no one said it should be scrapped, so I'll assume it's good.
Book 4:  This one comes immediately after book 3 and has all the same characters, which means I'm excited about it already, but I don't think I can close off the series until I've finished books 1 and 2 ... I need to know more precisely how I am going to set up the main story arc of the whole series before I will know how to tie off all the knots.  I have ideas, though.

It's funny that I'm writing fantasy, but since it's historical fantasy, I still have to do bucketloads of research.  You would think a big reason to choose fantasy would be so that you can make stuff up instead of having to stop and google every five minutes "pictures of ancient Camulodunum" and "distance from Manchester to Bath, walking directions."  But thank goodness for the internet.  With Google street view, I can even see what every inch of the route looks like.  (And I do my due diligence.  I have nothing but contempt for authors who put potatoes on King Arthur's dinner table, or allow people to cross distances in a day that earlier in the book took a week.  This is one of the reasons I have to rewrite some old stuff -- I was anachronistic and sloppy a LOT.)

Still, next series is going to be either in a made-up place or somewhere I've actually been.  England has such fabulous mythology, but I don't know what the air smells like, and that's a real downside.

How was your week?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Liberty and safety nets

I've always been a bit in conflict about libertarianism.  On the surface, it's a great idea -- keep government to a minimum and people will be able to make the choices best for them without a lot of pressure.  And practically speaking, government tends to attract corruption and it wastes a lot of money.  And with so many competing interests, it often winds up not delivering a very good product in the end -- in its attempt to please everyone, it pleases no one very well.

But lately I've been running into a lot of criticism of libertarianism -- that it ignores the poor, for instance.  "Screw the poor," they say, is not a Catholic attitude -- we have a responsibility to the poor.

Now libertarians answer, quite justly, that they can care for the poor on their own time, it's not only government that can do that job.  However, it seems sometimes that the rhetoric goes further than I can agree with.  A libertarian might say that it is fundamentally unjust for their own money to be taken ("at gunpoint," as they like to put it) to help the poor, regardless of how much the poor need the money.

And that, actually, is not a Catholic view of property.  The right to life is absolute; the right to property is not.  Property is given to man to steward, but it comes with the responsibility to share with the less fortunate.  Here's St. Basil, a Father of the Church:

“But you say, ‘where is the injustice if I diligently look after my own property without interfering with other people’s?’ O impudent words! Your own property, you say. What? From what stores did you bring it into this world? When you came into the light, when you came forth from your mother’s womb, with what resources, with what reserves did you come endowed? No one may call his own what is common, of which, if a man takes more than he needs, is obtained by violence. . . Who is more unjust, more avaricious, more greedy than a man who takes the food of the multitude not for his own use but for his abundance and luxuries? The bread you hold back belongs to the needy, the clothes that you shut away belong to the naked, the money that you bury in the ground is the price of redeeming and freeing the wretched.” 

In fact, it has long been our teaching that you have no right to your excess when someone else lacks a sufficiency.  So if you are starving to death, you may morally "steal" food from someone who has more than enough, because it you have more right to it than he does.  This upsets a lot of people, raised on the idea that property is an absolute right, who think that taxation is theft.  I myself think that property isn't as simple as all that, as I wrote ages ago.  At any rate, from a Catholic moral perspective, taking from those who have more than they need to give to those who don't have what they need to survive isn't theft -- and for the government to do so on behalf of all of us is well-supported in Catholic social thought as well.

So much for the right of government to tax and to set up a safety net for the poor.  Is it practical?

First, consider the alternative, private charity taking care of everything.  Does it work?  I do not have time to waste on ideas that don't actually work.  And the libertarian answer that if only we didn't have to pay taxes, we'd have more to spare for the poor, is useless -- we do have to pay taxes and that's not likely to change.  After all, a lot of taxes don't go toward supporting the poor, but toward funding our government itself.  In short, I'm not asking what would happen in an ideal society, but what is likely to be possible in our political climate.  Is there a specific policy I can support now?  Because it is absolutely unacceptable to me to tell the poor they have to wait for help until the income tax is abolished .... i.e., forever.  Even worse is when conservatives get together to come up with things to cut from the budget, leave corporate welfare, military spending, and waste -- and cut food stamps.  That's where you're going to start?

There are many, many families right now in America who would not be able to live without the various aid programs we have now.  Unemployment is high even among those who are seeking it -- so it's no good to say "just get a job"; there aren't enough jobs.  And what about those who are not able to work, the disabled, for instance, or single mothers who are the only caregivers for their children?  There's a whole lot more need than there is available charity.  One in three children in America is born to a single mother, and half of these kids are in poverty.  How can private charity keep up with that level of need -- without letting people slip through the cracks?

Of course it's simple to say, "Those people's poverty is a result of their bad choices."  In some cases that is true.  But why should a single bad choice on the part of the parents leave the children in danger of starving?  Is that a Christian attitude?  To say nothing of how making single motherhood unaffordable does a lot more to encourage abortion than it ever has to stop people from having sex.  The thing about using poverty as the stick to "disincentivize" behavior we don't like, is that some people will not respond to the incentive and wind up being punished.  I refuse to accept that in a wealthy country like this one, any child should ever have to starve or be homeless.

So I have always bucked the libertarian trend -- if we can't come up with anything better, I say keep the safety nets where they are.  I think it's despicable for the Republicans to take a look at the Farm Bill and choose to cut food stamps -- a tiny portion of the spending on that bill, but the really crucial part.  Yes, food stamp spending is up lately -- because more Americans qualify for it.  And as for welfare, I found out a few months back that the stereotype I always hear -- the single mother too lazy to work, living off welfare checks -- is completely false.  You have to be working at least 30 hours a week or actively seeking work in order to qualify for welfare.  This doesn't make sense to me -- it seems quite the runaround to have women working 30 hours a week, spending half or more of it on daycare, and then getting a check to actually live on.  Why is it better for them to pay someone else to watch their kids so that they can bag groceries or flip burgers, when their kids would probably much prefer to have their mothers around?  Call me a socialist, but I think giving mothers the choice to care for their kids themselves is something our society could stand to invest in.  I would love to see statistics on this, but I am relatively certain that one of the things that makes the outcomes of the privileged kids so much better is that their parents have the ability to be involved.  Would letting mothers stay home without losing their welfare check help kids get out of poverty when they grow up?  I think it very well might.

To that end, I've been reading up lately on the negative income tax.  The basic principle is simple: if you make under a certain amount, instead of getting taxed, you get a check to help make up the difference.  It's scaled so that any hours worked will increase the total amount a person has to live on.  For instance, if you were getting a check for $10,000 a year, and get a job that pays $5,000, your check doesn't decrease to $5,000, but to, say, $7,500, so that now you have a total of $12,500 to live on.  But even if you don't work, you still get something -- a sort of bare minimum, depending on how many people are in your household, and what it might take for them to survive.  Ideally I think you'd want to have the thresholds set differently depending on where you lived and what the cost of living was.

What I like best about it is that it does not police or infantalize the poor.  When poor people are constantly required to justify their existence, prove they're searching for work, only get aid that can be used for specific things.  And yet, what poor people need the most is just money.  They know better than anyone what they need to spend it on -- medical bills, daycare, groceries, an old car so they can stop spending all their time and money on the bus.  Isn't the fear that "they'll just blow it on stupid stuff" a way of saying poor people are dumb, that they can't be trusted to look out for themselves?  Sure, you'll blow it on stupid stuff if you're stuck in a poverty trap and don't think you can ever get out, but if you have a reliable source of income, you have hope of improvement, and you will use the money you get to climb out of poverty.

I asked a friend today if he thought this system would keep people from working -- would they just sit on their duff and accept a bare-bones existence rather than getting a job?  And he pointed out that even not working for a paycheck can be an investment.  J.K. Rowling was on welfare when she wrote her books.  Would we really want her flipping burgers for fear of starvation, when a few years of leeway allowed her to write the books that let her escape poverty for good?  Being able to take a year or two off from the workforce (albeit with a very low standard of living -- we can't afford to make it luxurious, and we wouldn't really want to make it too comfy anyway) means that people can go to school, take care of kids, start a business, do some job training, and permanently get out of poverty instead of constantly having to choose short-term survival over long-term success.  Now some people might choose not to work.  But that's the case now; there are always people who will find a way to game the system.  Still, I do believe most of us don't like living off of charity of any kind; we have a strong instinct to support ourselves, to give back.

I'd be interested in learning more about this.  It's not, strictly speaking, a libertarian solution, but it was favored by Milton Friedman and F. E. Hayek, which (to me) means that some hardcore capitalist smarts back it up.  And it means less bureaucracy and government interference without neglecting the poor.  What do you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

John won!

 John came in third out of seven in the town council election -- which means he is one of the three new council members!  In additional good news, the other two were both political allies, so this means a big change in the council -- less cronyism, more conservatism.  I have high hopes they'll be able to do a lot!

Voters re-elect Tharpe, two newcomers

I have two main thoughts:

First, I am so very proud.  Nothing makes me happier than to see those I love get appreciation, recognition, and success.  John is so pleased that he actually won something -- and I'm thrilled to finally be hearing "your husband is a great guy!" instead of "I don't know what you see in him," which was the usual reaction in college.  Kind of affirms my skill at choosing, you know?  Though I always knew he was a good pick. ;)

Second, I am SO GLAD that campaign is over at last!  It was exhausting.  Now we can finally have some Saturdays as a family again!
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