Saturday, March 25, 2017

A small and familiar cross

I had planned on getting that "modernity and women" post up today, but it's a few minutes to midnight and I've been sidelined all evening by a pretty bad migraine. So it will appear Monday.

We had some thunderstorms roll through last night, and high winds all day today. My head pain is a reminder that it really is spring in Texas now.

The truth is that migraines are a cross that doesn't even seem all that much like one anymore; I've had them for so long that the pain and disorientation are familiar. I know what to do for them and how/when to do it, and unlike my younger self I'm not all that stubborn or resentful about the disruptions to my schedule. If anything, having dealt with migraines my whole life is probably a gentle introduction to the similar disruptions and inconveniences that most of us go on to experience as we age.

I've slept a bit this evening, and now I will probably be awake for a while--at least until I can take another dose of medicine. While I'm awake I will offer this up for those of you who are really struggling this Lent with the kinds of physical, mental, and emotional pain that doesn't go away in two to twelve hours with some relief from things like painkillers, ice, or a darkened and quiet room. God bless, and I'll see you Monday!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Progress on the fiction writing front

I'm working on a blog post for tomorrow about modernity and women, but I'm not going to be able to finish tonight. Today has been a really productive day for me from a writing perspective, beginning with the 3 a.m. finish--finally!--of the first draft of Book Eight in the Tales of Telmaja series. This book took me longer to finish than some of the others, and while I think it may be a bit longer than some of the others the real reason it took a long time to finish is because the story is complicated and a bit dark compared to the earliest books. Several scenes, especially toward the book's ending, required on-the-go rewriting (which is something I don't usually do) and they will probably require careful editing too. There is such a fine line between a dramatic situation and a melodramatic one, and I'm not always sure whether or not I have inadvertently crossed it.

After that, I spent a good bit of the day setting up the final version of the first draft in the template I will eventually use to publish it. I write my books in that template already, but at the moment I am switching between different word processing tools (including using Google Docs so I can work on my Chromebook instead of being tied to my elderly Mac Mini) so it made sense to go ahead and create the template in MS Word. I ordinarily avoid Word as I much prefer Pages for Mac, but the advantage of using Word now is that I can write in Google Docs on either the Chromebook or the desktop and then generate a Word file that can be used for publishing. To be honest, setting up my template in Word wasn't as difficult as I thought, because the most vexing problem was creating the right section breaks to keep real page numbers (as opposed to tiny Roman numerals) from appearing on the title page, copyright page, and the other usual beginning pages of a book. When I created the template initially in Pages I had just as much trouble with the section break/page number problem, so I can't say that my difficulties today had anything to do with Word; they really just have to do with my own lapses in word processing proficiency.

I've been struggling to get back up to speed on my writing projects this year, but I finally feel like I'm making progress. It's a good feeling, and I hope to keep this pace going as I head back into the editing part of my life as a self-published author.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reality is not optional

Laurel Hubbard made history this weekend by becoming the first transgender female to win an international weightlifting title for New Zealand. But her victory in the over-90-kilogram division, in which she lifted a combined total of 268 kilograms (roughly 590 pounds) to best silver medalist Iuniarra Sipaia of Samoa by 19 kilograms (roughly 42 pounds), was not without controversy.
Despite a year’s worth of blood tests showing Hubbard had no more testosterone running through her veins than any of the other female weightlifters competing in the Australian International this weekend, some of those Hubbard beat questioned the fairness of the competition. 
“If I was in that category I wouldn’t feel like I was in an equal situation,” two-time Olympian Deborah Acason, who competes at the 75-kilogram level, told New Zealand news site Stuff. “I just feel that if it’s not even, why are we doing the sport?”

Why, indeed?

The truth of the matter is that playing a game that pretends that the only thing that differentiates a male and a female athlete is testosterone--ignoring such things as muscle mass and center of gravity and bone structure, which have a lot to do with weightlifting ability--is both silly and unscientific. Laurel Hubbard is not a female. He is a male, who wishes to live as a female. His desire to live as a female can be somewhat accommodated by an understanding society, but it cannot alter reality for actual women, whether in the changing room, the gym shower, or the weightlifting event. It seems so blatantly obvious a truth that I am surprised it even needs to be stated.

Another truth that is impossibly obvious is this one: actual biological women are the ones who will suffer the most under any new trans-friendly agendas, programs, or societal expectations. We are the ones who have to give up our private spaces, and it matters more to us if men are using those spaces than it matters to men if the occasional woman dressed like a man enters theirs. Don't get me wrong; men shouldn't have to put up with it either. But a six-foot-tall male isn't ordinarily going to feel threatened by a five-foot-five woman who thinks she's a man entering his public bathroom in the same way that a five-foot-five woman will feel when she has to share a locker room with a six-foot-tale man who says he feels female today. And male athletes aren't facing the possible domination of their sports by women dressed like men and injecting testosterone; women have a real possibility of women's sports being erased by men who, despite dressing like women and taking steps to reduce their testosterone levels, still clearly have advantages over the actual female athletes.

But the truth I find most irritatingly and blindingly obvious is this: transgenderism is a war on reality. A man can say he feels female, and though I still maintain he does not know and never will know what it really feels like to be a woman there is room to be sympathetic and tolerant. But when a man says, "I am a woman," he is stating something which is not, in any empirical or scientific or rational way, actually true. He can identify as transgender and like women's clothing and want to be surgically altered to appear somewhat female, but what he cannot do is be, in an ontological sense, a woman, no matter how hard he tries. It is as impossible for a man to be a woman, or a woman to be a man, as it is for a fish to become a bicycle; it is not rational to believe in such possibilities. 

Some characteristics really are immutable. I, a short woman, cannot become a tall woman, though I can wear shoes that make me appear taller. I, a Caucasian woman, cannot become an African-American woman, and I think it would be sort of insulting to actual African-American women if I insisted that I could somehow become one of them. And I can no more become male than I can become a marsupial or a mongoose.

When we live in a culture in which such blindingly obvious truths have to be explained and defended, we are living in a culture that thinks reality itself has become optional. Such cultures rarely last long, and are usually replaced, sometimes violently, by cultures that have no problem distinguishing the difference between men and women.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Video screens do not belong in a Catholic church

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to attend Mass at the beautiful new main parish church which is very close to where I live. My family has been members of the mission church attached to this parish for about nine years now, and we sing with the choir there, but it's nice to have the main parish close by now (it will probably make Holy Days of Obligation much simpler, for one thing).

The church really is lovely, and it's clear that a lot of work and attention went into the details. The soundproof, massive confessionals at the back of the chapel used for daily Mass are especially wonderful, and the overall look is of a traditional Catholic parish church.

Which is why the screens were so jarring.

Yes, video screens, mounted on swing-arms along the walls and facing the congregation so that those attending Mass could see hymn lyrics, readings, and so on projected at the left and right hand sides of the church. There were no missals or hymn books in the pews, though in fairness I should say that as the pews have slots to hold such books I don't know for sure if future plans for missals or hymnals might be in the works. Perhaps they are--one can only hope.

Part of my objection to the screens is a practical one. I am one of those people who sings at Mass whether I'm with my regular choir or not. I may not be perfect at sight-reading but I'm adept enough to be able to follow along with an unfamiliar hymn if I can see the music. But the screens don't project the music--just the words. I stood silent during the entrance hymn, which I had never heard before, because without being able to see the notes I had no idea where the music was going. I was not the only one--I would estimate that the vast majority of those attending were not singing any of the music at Mass. But in the old tiny church, they used to--so this isn't a matter of "Catholics don't sing anyway" so much as it is "These Catholics used to sing when they had hymnals, but many of them seem to have given up."

If the goal was to replace hymns with choir-led antiphons (which have easy-to-learn repeated refrains for the congregation to join in) it would be one thing, but somehow I doubt there is any such goal.

Another part of my objection to the screens is the aesthetic. This is, as I said, a fairly traditional-looking church. There is no "in-the-round" seating or gratuitous modern oddity (apart from a large baptismal font of a somewhat modern design as you enter the church, but this is not all that unexpected these days and it was not unpleasant in terms of design). You could easily imagine a pastor deciding to build on the traditional architecture to add other traditional elements. So the screens looked as out of place as a kazoo in a symphony orchestra--they just didn't belong.

I know, because I've heard it from Catholics who are used to screens in their churches, that the idea behind them is supposed to be pastoral and money-saving. In theory the screens will cost less than hymnals, and are touted to be better and easier on the eyesight of elderly parishioners than printed books. I'm not elderly yet, just solidly middle-aged with bifocals, and I can tell you that the screens were hard to read, especially given that you have to turn completely away from the altar to look to your left or right to see one. I'm not sure why people buy into the argument that screens are somehow better than books, given the obvious disadvantages.

My biggest objection to these trendy, trivial pieces of modern culture is just that: they are trendy, they are trivial, and they are pieces of modern culture better left outside the church doors. Given the pace at which technology ages, today's hot new innovative screens are going to be tomorrow's technology nightmares. They will seem as relevant and useful as burlap banners or 1960s hymns before long, requiring expensive updates to equipment and software that will end up costing far more than a quality hymnal like this one. In addition, they add a trivial and temporal note to what is a timeless and eternal act of worship. We have gotten used (however reluctantly) to seeing huge screens at such places as waiting rooms and restaurants and stores, but do we need them at Mass? Shouldn't Mass be a place where the distractions and annoyances of modern life disappear, instead of being mounted along the walls where they will compete with the Holy Sacrifice for our attention?

No, screens and similar "worship aids" simply do not belong in a Catholic church. I am sorry to see them show up where I live, and I hope that the justifications and excuses for putting them in church buildings will evaporate quickly and we will one day think of them as a silly and bad idea that temporarily got implemented instead of a glimpse of further intrusions of what is worldly, banal and mundane into the Mass.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A post my fiction-writing friends may enjoy

Scene: A featureless room, something like a collage made of empty canvases or a completely blank rectangular space.

Enter New Character, who flickers into the space, looking somehow blurred and incomplete.

New Character: Um...hello? What is this? Where am I?

Writer's Voice: Welcome. You have successfully made the journey from fleeting inspiration to fledgling character. This place is a sort of holding room at the edges of my imagination. Just where we go from here will be largely up to you.

NC: To me? But I'm not even sure who I am. Or what I am. These aren't talons, are they?

WV: That remains to be seen. As for who you are, all I know so far is that you are here. I can trace your present evolution--you are part original idea, part blatant theft of other people's good characters, and part archetypal hero--or, at least, archetypal something; I suppose it's too soon to tell if you will be a hero. But your slow evolution across many hours of daydreams doesn't tell us who you are. We will have to find out.

NC: (a little nervously) Okay. Say I buy all of that so far. How do we find out? What exactly do I do?

WV: The goal here is to bring you fully into existence and make you as human and real as possible--and, yes, you will be human in some sense even if those talons stay put. In order to do that, I will be putting you through a series of tests. By seeing how you react to various imaginary scenarios I will not only be able to figure out who you are, but also what type of story you belong in. This is a crucial part of the storytelling process, so I apologize in advance for any inconveniences you might experience.

NC: Inconveniences?

WV: Yes. My tests will be an escalating battery of physical, mental, and emotional stresses, including, but not limited to battles, assassination attempts, imprisonment, various wounds and injuries (some of which you may have received in the distant past but which still impact you in various ways) betrayal by your nearest and dearest, loss of your nearest and dearest due to death from causes ranging from natural to highly improbable to wildly paranormal, isolation, loneliness, fear, and various manifestations of existential dread. I will also need to find out if you are, for instance, the sort of person who would burn his own arm brandishing a flaming torch at a pack of wolves in a desperate attempt to keep your companions safe or the sort who would quietly take steps to toss the smallest and/or weakest member of your group at the wolves in order to escape yourself. These, and similar scenarios, are completely necessary to the eventual development of the story. They will all take place here in my imagination, but rest assured that if my imagination runs away with me and I actually bring you beyond the brink of death it's not permanent or anything.

NC: Wait--what?  I didn't agree to this!

WV: I'm afraid you did, the moment you took shape enough to appear here. But perhaps some of my older characters can explain things better.

Various Old Characters, much more distinct and real than the New Character, appear.

Old Character 1: Settle down, youngster. Let us tell you what's what.

NC: What could you possibly tell me that would make me agree to go through this?

OC 1: Well, for one thing, it's not personal. The writer doesn't hate you. She's actually quite fond of you, to get you this far and consider making you a main character.

OC 2: That's true, you know. I ended up a side character. It isn't bad--at least I exist in a story. But everybody knows the main characters get the best scenes.

OC 3: I failed my early tests and ended up a recurring character. It's steady work, but only the most avid readers ever even notice me.

NC: So you're saying that if I go along with these tests, if I do well, I'll be important somehow?

OC 2: The main character isn't just important somehow. He or she is the reason the story comes to life. Without a good main character there isn't a story.

OC 1: (chuckles) That's the truth. I'm a main character, so I know. It may not be fun to do all of this preliminary work, but believe me, it's necessary.

NC: Necessary? How? Why?

OC 1: The writer can't tell the story until she knows you. Really knows you, inside and out, knows what you like for breakfast and your current preferred weapon in single combat or your past as a tax attorney or whatever. All of that stuff tells her what the story is about. Then, too, she knows how you react to things, which is important when the story is moving along rapidly. She can't stop the action every single time to decide how you feel about snakes, or whatnot.

NC: (slowly) I suppose that makes sense.

OC 2: Of course it does. And you want to be a character, because otherwise you go back and wait for another opportunity, which might never come along.

NC: I see. (pauses for a long moment) Okay. I'll do this. Even if I think that I'm not likely to be a tax attorney, not with these talons.

WV: You never know. Let's get started.

Scene changes dramatically. New Character, becoming more visible, is running at full speed over a mountainous terrain, pursued by shapeless creatures who appear to be firing some sort of quills at him; the quills explode on contact, but New Character manages to dodge them all as he leaps over the ground. Suddenly he finds himself at the edge of a cliff. Grimacing over his shoulder, he mutters "It's always something," as talons protrude from his hands and a giant triangular wing, reminiscent of a glider, emerges from his shoulders...

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Or, why Catholics can't have nice things

A little St. Patrick's treat at our house today. Yes, it's still Lent.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Or, as it's called on the Internet, "Happy day my bishop did/did not grant our diocese a dispensation so we could have meat on a Lenten Friday and why I am/am not happy about it."


In our diocese of Fort Worth the bishop did grant a dispensation--the cathedral here is St. Patrick's and there are plenty of Irish-Americans in the diocese, so the dispensation seems like a wise pastoral move. We still had meatless pasta tonight because that's what I had planned, but we weren't being smug about it. I don't have a problem with my fellow Catholics happily eating corned beef and cabbage or even a steak tonight, provided they live in a diocese under a similar dispensation. And, obviously, I don't have a problem with Catholics choosing to abstain from meat voluntarily, whether from spiritual or housekeeping motivations, either.

What I do have a problem with are the fights between the people who sigh and roll their eyes so hard their keyboards break over these weak bishops granting (and weak Catholics gleefully accepting) a dispensation from one of only a handful of Fridays in the year when American Catholics are even obliged to abstain from meat on the one hand, and the people who act like a dispensation is a Holy Meat-Order of Obligation such that choosing not to eat meat anyway amounts to some kind of scrupulous Pharisaical pride that is more dangerous to the soul than eating a hamburger on Good Friday or something on the other.

You see, it's not good enough for some of the avid abstainers that they can still choose to abstain from meat during a dispensation anyway; they have to malign the people who are taking advantage of the dispensation and cast aspersions on the episcopal authorities who grant them. And it's not enough for some of the happily dispensed that they get to have meat today if they want it; they have to insist that anybody under a dispensation who chooses to stay meatless today must obviously be a holier-than-thou sort who should be held up to ridicule for not having a proper Irish feast (even if they are not Irish at all). We can't just be happy for each other and happy for the Church on this feast of this great saint, because that would stem the outrage and stop the gossip and stanch the bleeding from the circular firing squad wounds, but we can't have that. And this is why Catholics can't have nice things.

It's true: whenever you find Catholics online having minor disagreements about liturgical matters or Catholic customs or modes of (morally acceptable) living or politics--dear heavens, the politics--you will find people on both sides of any such issue bristling with outrage and certain that their way is the one right and proper Catholic way, and that everybody else is doing it all wrong. Charity goes out the window; brotherhood takes a flying leap from a parapet; civility walks the plank, and patience, prudence, and propriety plummet into the icy waters of discord and disdain. Instead of building each other up for the sake of the Kingdom, we all--and I include myself--seem more interested in a bit of recreational shredding not only of ideas, but of the people who hold them as well. We may dress it up in fancy language, but a lot of our Internet internecine debates are every bit as silly as arguing over whether Bishop Thusandso really ought to have let the rabble have corned beef today, or whether Catholic Neighbor A isn't being more Catholic than the pope in choosing to eat grilled cheese instead.

We can do better than this, and we owe it to saints like St. Patrick to try.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Writer's diary: getting over the fear of endings

I've been working, for the past two days, on finishing the first draft of the eighth book in the Tales of Telmaja series. For those readers who don't know me from my old blog, I write and self-publish children's fiction; at present I have books in both the Tales of Telmaja series and a newer series, The Adventures of Ordinary Sam, available for sale. You can read more about them at my website, and both paperback and digital copies can be found for sale here.

Last year I managed to publish three of the six books I have available so far. I had hoped to keep that pace going or even accelerate it a bit, but the first three months of this year have been unexpectedly busy in other areas. That's one of the reasons I decided to blog more frequently during Lent: sometimes I have to break out of a habit of putting everything else first and writing way down near the bottom of the list.

I think anybody who pursues an artistic or craft-based interest will get this. It's extremely easy to decide that some household chore or bit of planning must urgently be done, and that one's artistic endeavors can always wait. What I've learned as a writer is that this isn't true. When you have the kind of time available that is conducive to writing, even if it's only five minutes, you will lose a lot if you let that time slip away or squander it folding socks or something.

This year, I lost the momentum I had going during November's National Novel Writing Month as December began, and never really got it back. Four months later I'm looking back at a bewildering kaleidoscope of things like Christmas and New Year's and four out of five family birthdays and a couple weeks of flu and the birth of four kittens and the persistent and escalating havoc wreaked by those kittens and I don't wonder that I haven't finished Book Eight yet--I wonder that I managed to complete the last two chapters and part of the epilogue at all.

But now that the end of the book is drawing near, I'm fighting a different battle: the "fear of ending" battle. Every writer knows this one, when your attempts so far to stifle your inner editor (as the good people at NaNoWriMo put it) suddenly fail and you start to believe there's some mystical perfection swirling around book endings and that if you don't get the ending exactly right on the first try you will ruin the whole book. No matter how silly that sounds when you actually put it in words (as I just did) it's a persistent fear, at least in my experience. It's hard to let go and move on to the next stage, the editing and proofreading and editing and proofreading and editing and...well, you know.

Still, there comes a time when you just have to push through it. You have to quit looking for household chores and hanging out on Facebook, and just finish the darned book. Because you want to publish three more books this year, and because April is coming, and it's time to switch gears and write the third book in your other series beginning April first--and that's no joke.