Friday, December 23, 2011

Some sages of our own decadence have made a serious attack on the family. They have impugned it, as I think wrongly; and its defenders have defended it, and defended it wrongly. The common defence of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one....

The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

--GK Chesterton, Heretics. Also via RB. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Then live, my strength, anchor of weary ships,
Safe shore and land at last, thou, for my wreck,
My honour, thou, and my abiding rest,
My city safe for a bewildered heart.
That though the plains and mountains and the sea
Between us are, that which no earth can hold
Still follows thee, and love’s own singing follows,
Longing that all things may be well with thee.
Christ who first gave thee for a friend to me,
Christ keep thee well, where’er thou art, for me.
Earth’s self shall go and the swift wheel of heaven
Perish and pass, before our love shall cease.
Do but remember me, as I do thee,
And God, who brought us on this earth together,
Bring us together to his house of heaven.

--Hrabanus Maurus (a Benedictine monk and archbishop), addressed to Abbot Grimold of St. Gall. From Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (pdf), tr. Helen Waddell, and via RB.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

THEY'VE GOT THE FINEST HOME MOVIES THAT YOU HAVE EVER SEEN: Did you know that Less Than Zero is a Christmas movie? It's festive and totally appropriate!

No, it's actually a 1987 adaptation of a Bret Ellis novel; Robert Downey Jr. plays a downward-spiraling coke addict, which was, let's say, a triumph of method acting. It's set in LA, it opens with this song, it's glossy and Swatch-colored from start to finish, its dialogue is on-the-nose ("Did you girls know that you have television sets between your legs?"), and all the players deliver their lines in a kind of actressy drunken rant. I get why people might watch this for camp value. But I loved it pretty unreservedly and found it genuinely painful to watch. Downey is terrific, and Jamie Gertz and Andrew McCarthy (I know!) worked really well because they always sounded fake--they sounded like people who weren't sure how to say the things they had to say. The movie hits very hard on something David Carr also writes really powerfully about in The Night of the Gun: When you've broken a sufficient number of promises, to yourself or to others, there's no way to speak words that can be trusted, and the attempt to do so only makes you more painfully aware of your own untrustworthiness.

The ending is OTT in a way I didn't care for (eta: it's really AfterSchool Special-ish), but whatever, I'm not trying to defend this movie to you. I'm trying to say that I got a lot from what it was doing.
A cunning and obstinate buffoon, Fyodor Pavlovich, while he had a very firm character "in certain things in life," as he himself put it, showed, to his own surprise, even a rather weakish character in certain other "things in life." And he knew which ones, he knew and was afraid of many things. In certain things in life one had to be on one's guard, and that was difficult without a faithful man. And Grigory was a most faithful man. It even so happened that many times in the course of his career, Fyodor Pavlovich might have been beaten, and beaten badly, but Grigory always came to his rescue, though he admonished him each time afterwards. But Fyodor Pavlovich would not have been afraid of beatings alone: there were higher occasions, even rather subtle and complicated ones, when Fyodor Pavlovich himself would have been unable, perhaps, to explain this remarkable need for a close and faithful man that he would sometimes, all of a sudden, momentarily and inconceivably, begin to feel in himself. These occasions were almost morbid: most depraved, and, in his sensuality, almost as cruel as a wicked insect, Fyodor Pavlovich at times suddenly felt in himself, in his drunken moments, a spiritual fear, a moral shock, that almost, so to speak, resounded physically in his soul. "On those occasions it's as if my soul were fluttering in my throat," he sometimes used to say. And at such moments he was glad that nearby, close at hand, maybe not in the same room but in the cottage, there was such a man, firm, devoted, not at all like himself, not depraved, who, though he saw all this depravity going on and knew all the secrets, still put up with it all out of devotion, did not protest, and--above all--did not reproach him or threaten him with anything either in this age or in the age to come; and who would defend him if need be--from whom? From someone unknown, but terrible and dangerous. The thing precisely was that there should be another man, ancient and amicable, who could be summoned in a morbid moment, so that he could look him in the face and perhaps exchange a few words, even quite irrelevant words, and if it's all right and he does not get angry, then somehow it eases the heart, but if he gets angry, well, then it's a little sadder.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"You see, stupid as I am, I still keep thinking about it, I keep thinking, every once in a while, of course, not all the time. Surely it's impossible, I think, that the devils will forget to drag me down to their place with their hooks when I die. And then I think: hooks? Where do they get them? What are they made of? Iron? Where do they forge them? Have they got some kind of factory down there? You know, in the monastery the monks probably believe there's a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now me, I'm ready to believe in hell, only there shouldn't be any ceiling; that would be, as it were, more refined, more enlightened, more Lutheran, in other words. Does it really make any difference--with a ceiling or without a ceiling? But that's what the damned question is all about! Because if there's no ceiling, then there are no hooks. And if there are no hooks, the whole thing falls apart, which, again, is unlikely, because then who will drag me down with hooks, because if they don't drag me down, what then, and where is there any justice in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, just for me, for me alone. Because you have no idea, Alyosha, what a stinker I am...!"

"No, there are no hooks there," Alyosha said quietly and seriously, studying his father.

"Yes, yes. Only shadows of hooks. I know, I know."

--The Brothers Karamazov (tr Richard Pevear and Larissa Volonkhosky)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"THE PROPER BASIS FOR MARRIAGE IS A MUTUAL MISUNDERSTANDING": Notes I didn't use for my review of Premarital Sex in America. Sorry about the length! I thought this book did a good job of advancing the ball in terms of our understanding of American ideas about marriage and sex. It's worth your time. Everything that follows is something I thought as a result of this book, not necessarily something the book said itself, unless it's in quotation marks.

Oh, and: I snagged the epigraph for my review from the Cigarette Smoking Blog.

p1: "premarital" no longer typically implies sex between two people who eventually do marry one another--pre-marital sex. (Although Maggie Gallagher points out that according to the CDC, "32 percent of currently married women under the age of 45 say they have had only one sex partner in their life. ... If the data are accurate, they suggest there are at least as many adult women under the age of 45 who have never had sex with anyone but their husband as there are gay people in the general population.")

p34: Especially after high school, oral sex isn't an alternative to intercourse; it's a warmup. Thinking of it as a birth control strategy, a means of maintaining "technical virginity," etc, requires a lot of naivete about human nature.

p60: 1/5 of sexually-active young men have had sex on the first day of knowing someone! And only 13% of s.a.y.m. have waited more than a year for sex.

pp 60-1: men w/fewer economic resources tend to have more partners, not fewer

p61: guys who've had more partners tend to be quicker to perceive women as less attractive after sex

(With all of these correlations and statistics, the point is not to say, "There are no exceptions, and people never change!" If you don't think this stuff applies to you, maybe it doesn't!--although I do generally think we're less exceptional than we'd like. And the stats might help you see places where you or someone you love does fit the average models, and therefore where you do need to put more conscious effort into changing or into addressing their issues. Knowing what kind of emotional baggage many people bring away from the experiences you've had can help you jettison that baggage--in part by suggesting that you're not uniquely messed-up if these are issues you have. Anyway, this is one of the many, many things I wanted to say in the AFF piece to mitigate its advice-column or preachy quality, but I ran out of room....)

p64: Birth control has made women slightly more like men (i.e. able to have relatively less-consequential, less-costly sex) rather than making men more like women (i.e. desiring high-cost, high-commitment sex)

p88: A girl says oral sex is "vulgar" but women should be nice and "giving" in relationships and do it anyway. This gets at one aspect of what you might call the Dan Savage worldview which I hadn't considered: If social norms shift such that the default is more like the "Good, Giving, and Game" model where you do the sex act you'd (strongly, in the case of anal sex, as Regnerus and Uecker find) prefer not to do, women have to give in a lot more often than men. (Assuming that this shift in social norms doesn't radically shift which sex acts men vs women object to and how strongly.) The "GGG" model can be just another way of playing on women's altruism--and our preference for justifying our actions as altruism even when there are a lot of other motives in play.

[ETA: I should make clear that I think this gender imbalance is an unintended consequence of the "GGG" idea. I mean, I don't think Dan Savage came up with this phrase in order to prey on women's insecurities! But I do think it plays into some of those insecurities.]

p104: "Hooking up" is more common at elite universities than lower-tier ones. Elite-U students are too focused on their educations and future careers to make time for an intense relationship, basically, but they still want sex.

p107: imbalanced campus sex ratios (i.e. more women per man--an increasingly common situation) lowers women's control of sexual relationships

p110: The authors imply that there isn't a script for regretting casual sex--they write as if seeking out sex is scripted but regretting it is more authentic or less socially-condoned, and I'm not convinced that's true.

p126: if college sex ratios remain the same "for long," 26 of 100 women will have to marry down educationally

p137: there's a minority of women for whom "no strings attached" sex is the ideal (though, p157, not an especially workable one). What I take from this is that there's a need to convey, culturally, that this preference is less beautiful, that beauty requires vulnerability. (One danger is that in making that point we might unintentionally sound like we're invoking Love in the Western World-style anti-marriage romantic tropes.)

p141: Very weak link between sexual behavior and depression in men (unlike the correlations for women between, e.g., more sex partners and a higher incidence of depression)--did they look for links to aggression or self-destructive behaviors? In other words, when we look for "depression" are we ignoring how the same emotional distress might manifest in people with more testosterone? They mention that men often express hurt differently, pp162-3, but don't really explore the idea.

p152: "The Sex Itself Is Not the Problem"--it's number of partners. Currently being in a sexual relationship typically makes women feel better. "Indeed, the sex is operating as it tends to--bonding persons, deepening relationships, and fostering greater interpersonal intimacy."

p161: "One study of casual sex in college notes that the most likely pairing is between self-confident men and distressed, depressed women."

They also explore the direction of the causal arrow here (i.e. which came first, higher incidence of depression or higher number of partners?)

p177: Catholics marry "early" (before age 24) second-last after black Protestants! And that's even though Hispanic men are more likely to marry early. "Catholics, Jews, and the religiously-unaffiliated." I know there are a lot of reasons for those numbers, but I am pretty sure it's not a good sign for the spiritual and vocational formation of Our Young People.

p182: I would like to distance myself from the authors' sunshiney reading of our economic crisis. That is all.

p183: Young adults believe that identity-formation should happen before marriage, as vs. marriage being one of the biggest sources and shapers of identity; p185: If you change within marriage that's viewed as a threat to the marriage, so marriage requires you to stop changing and to have already done your identity-formation. This seems to me to be a result, in part, of divorce "scripts" like, "He's not the man I married." We don't hear nearly enough about how to reshape or renew a marriage when a spouse changes.

p186: wishful thinking and misinformation about peak fertility

p188-9: parental resistance to young marriage--this is a major factor

p190: learning to be "good in bed" as a "transferable skill set," rather than learning to please the specific person you love and marry

p194: idealization of marriage means no relationship can live up to it

p220: the effects of childhood/youth mobility on later marriage outcomes: maybe "they get used to breakups." p221: Early geographic mobility is correlated with both liberalism and a higher number of sex partners--and the sex-partners correlation remains even after various common-sense things are controlled for like race, age, socioeconomic status, and parents' marital status.

p231: In discussing demography, the authors use this phrase: "the unintended byproducts of often rational and optimal decisions by regular people to have fewer children and a life richer in economic success and personal experiences." I have bolded the part that is bizarre and telling.

p232: The fruits of the Second Demographic Transition are money and freedom

p234: "Blues grow... by conversion... higher education and social class mobility. Reds tend to grow by reproduction."

p234: "Reds" are guiltier, more conflicted (earlier we've seen how much they're torn between a script in which marriage and family life is the primary goal and a script in which career and economic stability is the primary goal--and those scripts really do conflict for them). They're torn between two worldviews, marginalized--they don't stand within their own POV the way "blues" seem to. (Obviously this is wildly generalizing, but as a wild generalization I think it works. There's a reason I wish I'd titled my review of Red Families vs. Blue Families, a book written from an intensely "blue" perspective, "Written by the Victors.")

And on that depressing note, I guess I'll end. I like the authors' decision not to do the obligatory last chapter where they offer their ten-point plan for cultural renewal. You'll note that I couldn't resist it myself. They're humbler than me.
“Have you seen the listening snake?”
bramble clutches for his bride,
Lately she was by his side,
Woodbine, with her gummy hands.

In the ground the mottled snake
Listens for the dawn of day;
Listens, listening death away,
Till the day burst winter’s bands.

--from John Gray, "The Vines--To Andre Chevrillon," whole thing here

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"BREAKING 'THE RULES'": In which I review a couple books:
Why don’t Americans know how to get and stay married? Whatever we think the word means we still value marriage very highly: The National Marriage Project and the Gallup poll organization have found that between 80 and 90 percent of American teens want to get married someday. And yet we delay, we divorce, and we churn through relationships so quickly that in 2004 only 61 percent of American children were living with both of their biological parents. Why can’t we get and keep what we say we want?

Maybe we lack role models. As we wander around aimlessly, the pejorative term “extended adolescence” has become the euphemism “emerging adulthood.” Kate Bolick’s much discussed Atlantic article, “All the Single Ladies,” seems to offer this explanation for its author’s eventual surrender to singleness.

And yet two recent books argue that a big part of our problem is that we do have role models, conventions, cultural mores, and rules to follow. It’s just that the rules don’t work. Paul Hollander’s Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America and Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying take very different approaches to the question of how Americans mate and marry. Extravagant Expectations is a work of pop-philosophy that muses about how modernity and the Romantic movement have influenced personals ads and internet dating. Premarital Sex is a research-based look at the sexual practices and beliefs of young Americans from a broad range of class, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Yet both end up arguing that Americans today are working from fairly well-defined “scripts” about love, dating, marriage--and selfhood. Perhaps, they conclude, our marriage problems ultimately spring from a flawed understanding of what it means to become an adult.


I'm not really satisfied with this piece, and I ended up leaving out a lot of important stuff from the Regnerus/Uecker book, so later I'll post some of my notes from that book.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

--Antonio Machado; whole thing is here

Thursday, December 08, 2011

SINCE IT'S THE FEAST OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION (for two more hours), here's Peggy Fleming, "Ave Maria." (And Nicole Bobek's lovely program from the same event.)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

DO THE RIGHT THING: I don't care much about Tolkein, but I liked how this post (via Wesley Hill) delineates two different kinds of morality tale: the one about the difficulty of knowing which choice is right, and the one about the difficulty of doing the good even when you know it.

Tangentially: I've just watched two recent adaptations of Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. I really don't approve of how much they mistrust their audience (they're very tarted-up with chase scenes and self-referential inside jokes and that sort of thing, and the language is mostly simplified) so I don't think I recommend them, even though I did like a lot of things I think most people wouldn't, such as Minnie Driver. I always like her. Anyway, the story of An Ideal Husband is strong enough that it's still very moving. Earnest is harder to get right--so much of its humor depends on the contrast between the ridiculous triviality of its characters' scruples and objections, and the genuine emotional weight of those scruples' consequences. You have to make it both dizzy and poignant.

Both of them are morality plays, of course; in Husband the wrongdoing is really serious, while in Earnest it's the exact opposite of that. There's a sort of meta-moral to be drawn from the fact that the forgiveness which makes the comedic ending possible is the same in both plays.
NEW YORK TIMES STORY BINGO 2011. Not always quite on-target (the aura-cleansing one) and it's not like Fashion Week clothes are supposed to be off-the-rack wearable, but enough of this works that I will allow it. Via IP, but I'm adding this lady to the blogroll because she is funny and interesting and so are her commenters.
AN OPIUM-ADDICTED SAINT. And one who was actually forbidden to receive Communion for decades due to his addiction.
AND THE RED DEATH HELD DOMINION OVER ALL! Christopher Coe's I Look Divine is a slender, self-consciously perfect little poison gem of a book. It's a novel about two brothers in the 1960s through the 1980s: the narrator is obsessed with his brother Nicholas, and Nicholas is enraptured by himself. The book begins as the narrator is preparing to clean out Nicholas's apartment after his untimely death, and so a lot of the glassy humor has a dark tinge.

This may be the actual gayest book I've ever read, which is really saying something. It deploys the imagery of homosexuality as narcissism. And yet in its final paragraphs this claustrophobic, folie-a-deux novel opens up into a kind of Dance of Death in which we see that Nicholas's ideal of personal victory through style and sexual conquest is not an exclusively gay pursuit. Across time and culture, humans assert and exalt themselves in the teeth of death.

This book is a perfect combination of brittle witticisms and haunted memorial. Like I said, the gayest thing I've ever read.
KITCHEN ADVENTURES: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Mostly my leftover adventures this post-Thanksgiving have been far from adventurous: turkey sandwich, toasted turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce and apple and munster, soup with leftover whatnot, macaroni and cheese with leftover whatnot. All tasty, none innovative. But! I had most of a can of cranberry sauce left over, and I pretty much never eat it except with turkey, so I had to get creative. And so yesterday and today I have had what might actually be the best breakfast food I have ever eaten anywhere, even England.

The recipe is stupidly simple. You need chickpea flour (yes, this is another socca recipe!), cayenne, salt, cinnamon, dried rosemary, butter, water, and cranberry sauce.

To make the batter, mix all the dry ingredients together and add water. Just guess how much if you've made socca before; if not, here's a recipe with quantities. While you're mixing...

Brown the butter very slightly in a pan. To do this, melt it... let it get foamy... then there will be a point where you can see that it is just starting to shimmer from golden into tan.

That's when you pour the batter in. Let the pancake cook until it starts to bubble on top and slides very easily along the buttered pan when pushed by a spatula. Flip it and brown the other side.

Plate with the sauce, say grace, and devour! Best accompanied by a glass of whole milk.

This is immensely tasty: sweet but not too sweet, spicy enough to play really well with the cranberry sauce, and filling. I've tried making savory socca with an egg and some milk replacing the water in the batter, and that was great; it would probably make this dish even better, assuming improvement is possible. I seriously loved this and am already wishing it were breakfast time again.
By definition, the language of liberalism fails to engage on common terms with the communion of saints and the lordship of Christ.
--Christopher C. Roberts, Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage

One thing I found heartening at Oriented to Love was how many of us--from quite varying religious, philosophical, and political perspectives--made strong critiques of the liberal rights-framework as applied to homosexuality, without backing away from our commitment to seeking justice for LGBT people. A bit more on that, probably, in the write-up I'm doing for PRISM magazine.