Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I first discovered Adichie through one of her TED talks, entitled The Danger of a Single Story, which eloquently spoke to the problems the result from listening only to a single source of narrative.

Adichie was born and raised in Nigeria, and studied medicine at the University of Nigeria before emigrating to the United States. She then switched her major to creative writing. Purple Hibiscus is her debut novel.

The story is told by 15 year old Kambili, and is set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. Kambili’s father Eugene is a wealthy businessman, well respected for his generosity, and also the publisher of a newspaper notorious for telling the truth about those in power. Outwardly, Kambili lives a privileged life, but appearances are deceiving.

Eugene’s public persona is all good - and indeed he does much good for society and for individuals - but his family sees a different side of him. A fanatically devout Catholic, he expects perfect compliance and submission from his wife, son, and daughter. As the story progresses, his violent response to non-compliance, real or imagined, escalates.

The focus of his fanaticism is separation. Separation from those who are not religiously pure, and from all activities with any hint of paganism. He will tolerate on fellowship with those who do not share his hatred for African traditions. It is not entirely clear what motivates Eugene, or how he became so extremist. He is an enigma throughout the book. Even Kambili, though she loves him, cannot understand him. We never learn what pain in his past influences him, although he clearly has something in his craw, anger that boils over when it is triggered. The scenes of abuse are tough to read as his actions spill over into what could honestly be considered torture.

And yet, he isn’t merely a cruel abuser. He probably enjoys inflicting pain, but he also seems driven by fear that his children will be damned. He seems to be an admirable man in many ways, fighting against corruption and for the rights of the oppressed. He is truly generous to others - although not as much to his own family. But he does seem to have a pathological need for control.

For Kambili, there are two areas in which she incurs her father’s wrath. The first is when she fails to be first in her class. The other, which is a recurring issue, is that she loves her grandfather, Papa- Nnukwu, Eugene’s father. He still engages in pagan rituals, so Eugene refuses to see him. He allows the children to visit, but only for 15 minutes, and they may not eat anything. Even one minute beyond the allotted time, and they are punished.

In contrast to the stifling situation at home is the happy household of Aunt Ifeoma, who the children visit over a holiday week. I strongly suspect that the character of Aunt Ifeoma is a tribute to the author’s parents, as she shares a name with Adichie’s mother and a profession with her father. Even though she is widowed and poor, she is full of love and joy and acceptance. She is Catholic like her brother Eugene, but it is a different variety, focused not on exclusion but on community. Her tiny flat is crammed with books, and filled with laughter from the cousins, who are free to question and disagree - a totally foreign concept to Kambili.

During the course of the book, there is great civil unrest in Nigeria. A military coup results in shortages and violence against dissenters. No one is safe from the threats. The editor of Eugene’s paper is blown up in his own kitchen. Ifeoma’s house is ransacked by thugs working in concert with the police. The way the characters respond to these hardships reveals their strengths and weaknesses.

In the midst of all of this, Kambili also falls in love with a young priest - who appears to return her love, but who is also determined to keep his vows. This episode serves as an emotional awakening for Kambili, perhaps a safe place for her to feel what she is not permitted to feel at home.

I found this book to be a good read for a number of reasons. The writing is generally good, and the story is compelling. I also recognized Eugene’s philosophy all too well. The endless fear of contamination. The distrust of those with other beliefs. The need for control. This is precisely what is sold by cult-like organizations - and the heart of the Reconstructionist viewpoint. One is not to have any community outside of the cult, outside of the “likeminded” group. And there is the fear for one’s children if there is any compromise on this score. My family wasn’t like Eugene’s or anything, but his rhetoric certainly dominated some of the circles we ran in.

I was particularly struck by Kambili’s memory of the first time she was allowed to visit her grandfather.

I had examined him that day, too, looking away when his eyes met mine, for signs of difference, of Godlessness. I couldn’t see any, but I was sure they were there somewhere. They had to be.

In what is surely an ironic twist, while Eugene seems hell-bent on punishing his father until he converts, Papa-Nnukwu continues to pray in his pagan way for the good of his son. For Eugene, love and approval - and even acceptance is fully based on performance. Good grades, correct religion, absolute obedience. Papa-Nnukwu and Ifeoma are able to look beyond the differences and simply love.

In another poignant scene, Ifeoma and Kambili’s mother have a discussion about Ifeoma’s needs. Since the university hasn’t been able to pay her regularly, she is suffering from a lack of basic food and fuel. Kambili’s mother urges Ifeoma to ask her brother Eugene for help. Ifeoma remindes her that he offered before, but conditioned it on compliance with his will. Ifeoma would have to join certain religious organizations, change her daughter to an religious school. She would even have to stop wearing makeup. Ifeoma confesses that she would very much like nice new things, but she “will not ask my brother to bend over so that I can lick his buttocks to get these things.”

“Eugene quarrels with truths that he does not like. Our father is dying, do you hear me? Dying. He is an old man, how much longer does he have, gbo? Yet Eugene will not let him into this house, will not even greet him. O joka! Eugene has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job. If God will judge our father for choosing to follow the way of our ancestors, then let God do the judging, not Eugene.”

Therein lies the heart of it. Eugene - and many of us as well - feel compelled to force others into compliance with what we perceive to be God’s will. We use disapproval, shunning, and whatever means are at our disposal in our attempts to force them to do what we believe they should do.

Eugene not only fails to convert his father, he loses the hearts of his family. He ultimately sacrifices everything - his life included - on the altar of “purity” but saves no one. He has not built, only destroyed.

The book ends on a more hopeful note. I was curious if there was a sequel, as the story ends with a hint that there is more to tell. However, that story remains unwritten. Adichie’s subsequent books tell other stories, not this one.

As is common with books written in other times and places from our own, there are some things that are unfamiliar. The level of corruption in Nigerian society and the chronic shortages are things that we rarely face here in the modern West. Most of the characters mix English and Igbo in their speech. There are lingering wounds from colonialism that we probably don’t tend to acknowledge. However, I did find, again, that one of the benefits of reading literature from other places and times is that the common experiences of humanity shine through. Despite the differences in culture and experience, I could relate the emotions of the characters to my own experience. People like Eugene, Ifeoma, and Kambili exist all around us, but they are not always easy to recognise. And, like Eugene, we need to discern the difference between doing God’s work and doing God’s job.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein

Source of book: I own this.

I recently read an article pointing out a number of ideas that either were supported by the Republican party or probably would have been but for one thing: President Obama publicly supported them, thus making them anathema. (The most obvious of these was the payroll tax cut, which was fine under G.W. Bush, but then opposed after Obama supported it. There are plenty of others.) This is one of the reasons I just can’t take politics these days. 

Another victim of this tribalism is, in my opinion, Cass Sunstein. I really wasn’t aware of his books until President Obama nominated him for the delightfully named Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (It is hard to imagine a better bureaucratic name. I mean, it could be the name for just about anything.) At that time, a certain group of conservatives, largely centered around the talk radio circuit, went ballistic, accusing him of all kinds of crazy political and legal positions. One would have thought he was the reincarnation of Marx.

But, it turns out, he really wasn’t and isn’t any of those things, but rather, a thoughtful law professor with plenty of ideas that should appeal to conservatives. But, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, I guess.

I reviewed Nudge last year, and found it intriguing, not the least because it seemed to present an interesting alternative to heavy handed government regulation and control to protect average people from a variety of ills, from difficulty in saving for retirement to vulnerability to scammers. Sunstein called his idea “libertarian paternalism,” and it left individual choice in place while making the “default settings” of society more likely to lead to good results. To me, this seemed a natural idea for a conservative (like myself) to embrace, as it didn’t limit choices. Rather, it allowed the natural human inertia and difficulty in making intimidating decisions to work toward safer, better results. It lowered the difficulty level for the average person, particularly those with less education, familiarity with financial systems, and less free time on their hands.

The conservative response to this idea baffled me. The two possible explanations seemed to be either that they really, truly and deeply, wanted most people to fail (and some I suspect do hold this view) or that they rejected it out of hand because Obama supported it.

Sunstein also skews conservative on a few other issues, including support for the death penalty, advocacy for judicial restraint (and the related support for Chief Justice John Roberts), and support for military tribunals. Even libertarians might like his belief that the government should stop regulating marriage, replacing them with civil unions. He also has some more traditionally liberal views, such as support for limited affirmative action, and a view of taxation as a necessary good rather than evil. His unwavering support for free speech rights, which are central to this particular book doesn’t favor either side, as I will note.

So I don’t get it. His views seem pretty moderate on average, hardly ideologically driven. If anything, he works hard to consider a variety of arguments and even discuss the potential weaknesses of his point of view. Really, the ideal of how a lawyer - or judge - should approach things.

I also want to mention a concept that Sunstein pioneered which gets a quick mention in this book, but should be a required concept for all students, in my opinion. Sunstein calls it an “availability cascade,” but what it really describes is the tendencies that lead to things such as a fear of flying despite the low relative risks. It is the desire to find a single explanation for complex issues, and to overvalue certain unlikely risks over other, much more serious and widespread risks. More on this later. 

The central theme of Why Societies Need Dissent is that if dissent is suppressed, either by governmental or societal forces, necessary information that prevents errors is never considered. As a result, societies that fail to value and listen to dissent are more prone to fatal errors than those who encourage a variety of voices.

Now, dissenting ideas themselves are neutral. Some ideas are objectively ludicrous, such as the opinion that the sun revolves around the earth. But many more are in gray areas. There is no one objectively right answer, and it is important that multiple perspectives be considered so that errors do not compound by being unopposed. Sunstein proceeds to flesh out these ideas, and tease out, using a number of studies, the ways that groups act with and without a healthy dissent.

There are two particular reasons that I connected with this research. First, there is a whole chapter on the dynamics of three judge appellate panels. As a lawyer, this was fascinating on so many levels. (For example, did you know that a Democratic appointee on a panel with two Republican appointees tends to vote slightly more conservative than a Republican appointee on a panel with two Democrats? Sunstein has a ton of research demonstrating this.)

The other hits even more close to home. Why do cults tend to go from normal to crazy so fast? How do groups of seemingly normal people start espousing positions far more extreme than any of them would by themselves? (In my own life, how do normal decent people decide to silence women, keep their kids out of college, and make their kids dress like Victorians?)

To start at the beginning, Sunstein looks at two countervailing forces. “Ideological amplification” versus “ideological dampening.” If a group of people generally share the same ideas, they will tend to get more extreme, while those groups who have differing ideas will tend to moderate the more extreme ideas.

The most amazing facet of ideological amplification is that if a group of “likeminded” persons talk only among themselves, they tend to come to conclusions that are far more extreme than any of the individuals espoused before they deliberated as a group.

Here is an interesting twist: the way that individuals identify themselves and others as part of the majority group or not influences this dynamic. If all the individuals strongly identify with each other, they tend to suppress their own dissent in order to further group solidarity. This also occurs where the dissenter is identified as an outsider - his view can be safely ignored. The ideal balance appears to be where all members are loosely part of the group, but not so close to the group that they would sacrifice their views for peace. The worst, therefore, is when there is an “us versus them” dynamic, either the group against every other view, or a polarization of the viewpoints within the group.

This tendency to follow one’s own group is chillingly seen in experiments in which volunteers “punish” other volunteers with electric shocks for wrong answers. Monolithic groups tended to cause far greater shocks, particularly when they believed planted “experts” on the benefit of administering these shocks. Sunstein noted that this tendency is seen where people are far more willing to cause pain and destruction to others if they believe (and their friends believe) that it is for the good of society, such as in imposing draconian jail terms for drug offenders.

I noted above the “availability cascades.” Cascades in general tend to occur when one person expresses an opinion, thus influencing the others to keep silent. One highly confident person can thus impose his will on others who lack the confidence of their opinions. This is particularly apparent in fear of risk, as noted above. If one person starts a fear, then the others join in, not because they have actually researched the risk, but because they believe the original person. Probably one of the greatest modern examples is that of food fears, whether fear of pesticides or GMOs, or whatever. Nearly nobody actually looks at the research on the risks, or considers actual evidence (such as a declining cancer incidence rate). Rather, fear feeds on fear, and facebook post feeds on facebook post.

And yet, despite a notable lack of evidence that there is significant risk of harm, the paranoia continues.

Now, what is amazing about this is that there are serious, known risks out there. In fact, there are two big things one can do that have far more effect on one’s health than any of these scares. What are they? Number one: quit smoking. Number two: exercise strenuously four times a week.

And yet, most - not all but most - of the people I know who are continuously posting food scare articles (or anti-vaccine articles for that matter) don’t exercise regularly. And many are overweight or obese. Ignoring the real risk for the fake one.

How does this occur? Sunstein points to “reputational pressure.” If a mom, for example, doesn’t agree with the fears of her peer group, she is considered a neglectful mother. It’s far easier to just go along with the fear de jour. This is one of the most serious problems within “likeminded” groups. Weird beliefs persist because to question them would mean a loss of reputation.

This is the major reason that Sunstein worries (as do I) about the current state of free speech. There seems to be an increasing tendency toward self segregation in the ideological sense (and in the racial sense, for that matter.) We tend to live in neighborhoods and shop at stores and worship in churches with people who largely share our demographics and our ideas. As Sunstein puts it, “many people show a desire to live in echo chambers of their own devising.”

I must mention in this connection that the entire chapter six, entitle “The Law of Group Polarization” is excellent. It explores the dynamics of terrorism, street gangs, cults, and even arguably more benign groups such as political parties and religious organizations. Just as terrorists do not even consider that competing views have merit, and thus devolve into extremism, groups of all sorts are prone to place competing views in the category of “them.” That is, our enemies. People whose opinions (and dissent) don’t matter. Thus, dissenters are either silenced or driven from the group, and their counterbalancing ideas are never considered.

Finally, Sunstein notes that it isn’t enough just for ideas to be out there in the ether. Ideas are most effective when they are associated with people. Thus, it is one thing for a group of middle class white people to discuss racial profiling, but it is another altogether to hear an African American friend describe his or her experiences.

But the value of diversity does not lie simply in learning facts. Much of it comes from seeing a range of perspectives, including the emotions attached to them - and from being in the actual presence of people who have those perspectives and cannot be easily dismissed.

Note on “likeminded”:

I use that term for two reasons. First, Sunstein uses it. Second, it is a significant buzzword in both homeschool and patriarchal circles. The idea is that one should only fellowship with people who think the same way. And certainly, one’s children should only be exposed to people who think the same way. As Sunstein shows, this is a recipe for disaster. It is also a hallmark of terrorist groups and cults.

This comes from the Presuppositionalism from the Van Til and Rushdoony underpinnings, which teach the idea that only those with the same narrow religious beliefs can even arrive at any truth. Opinions from outside of the orthodoxy thus cannot - by definition - be true, and can thus be discounted. With the insistence that women remain silent and out of leadership, this reduces the source of acceptable opinions to a small group of men who hold certain beliefs, and anyone outside of that small circle is automatically ignored or actively fought against. Hmm, what could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Washington Square by Henry James

Source of book: I own this. My wife found a lovely used Heritage Club edition of this for me.

Henry James is one of those unjustly neglected authors. I suspect that part of this is due to the fact that some of his most famous works don’t really fit with our modern sensibilities. (I’m thinking perhaps of Daisy Miller, which I found to be less interesting than others of his works.) I myself discovered James late in life. For some odd reason, I had an idea that he was a difficult author, which is not the case, in my experience. He isn’t overly wordy, particularly compared to savants like Dickens, Hugo, or any number of Russian authors. Neither are his books all that long. Many are better described as novellas rather than full length novels.

I previously reviewed eight novellas and short stories, including Daisy Miller about four years ago. One of the things that strike me about James’ writing is his amazing command of the English language. He straddled the line between American English and British English just as he straddled both worlds. His use of words is precise, deliberate, and yet endlessly creative. I never tire of his way with words. (Another of my favorite authors, James Thurber, also felt this way.)

Washington Square is definitely a full length novel, but it isn’t terribly long. It also has a fascinating history.

Henry James was an odd person in many respects, but was particularly unusual in that he may have been a genuine asexual. He never had a romantic relationship, at least that left behind any proof, and seems to have had no interest in doing so. He wasn’t antisocial at all, however. He was always out and about, a good conversationalist, unoffensive, and the perfect sort to round out a little dinner party. And, he was always on the prowl for a good story or tidbit to use in his writing.

Washington Square came about as a result of one of these parties. An actress, Fanny Kemble, who apparently had a reputation for running at the mouth, told a tale of her brother’s unsuccessful attempt to marry a plain and dull girl for his money. James wrote down the particulars after the party, and a few years later used the plot for this novel.

Fanny Kemble herself was a bit fascinating too. She was British, married an American plantation owner, and after their exceedingly bitter divorce (in which she, like most women of the era, lost custody of her daughters), wrote an account of her life on the plantation that became an abolitionist classic. Her elder daughter was the mother of author Owen Wister, considered the father of the Western novel.

James followed the plot of the story Kemble told him rather closely, but turned it into a compelling psychological drama between the young woman, her father, and the suitor. There are two books written prior to Washington Square which appear to have influenced James in the direction he took the narrative. The first is Balzac’s EugĂ©nie Grandet, which I have not read. The second is Harry Hotspur of Humblethwait, by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope. In fact, that was the first Trollope novel I read, back in my high school days. I can see elements that match in the stories, but the authors go completely different directions with their characters.

[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]

The stage is set by the history of Doctor Sloper and his family. He is successful, lives a comfortable life, and marries a woman of good intelligence. Alas, she and their son die, leaving only an unexceptional girl, Catherine, who is neither beautiful nor witty. She is a deep disappointment to her father, despite being an adoring, devoted daughter.

The story opens with her at age 25. She meets Morris Townsend, a young man who is a bit of a spendthrift, but who takes a liking to her. Or at least her future fortune, as her father suspects. She falls in love with Morris, her father objects, and threatens to disinherit her if she doesn’t dump him. 

Catherine and Morris. Illustration by Lawrence Smith, from my edition of the book.

So far, this isn’t surprising. After all, Morris is out for her money. So to an extent, her father is right. However, his behavior toward his daughter is the very opposite of loving and compassionate, and it ends up costing everyone in the end.

Early on, Morris and Dr. Sloper have a conversation in which Dr. Sloper expresses his disapproval.

“Did you really expect I would say I was delighted, and throw my daughter into your arms?”
“Oh no; I had an idea you didn’t like me.”
“What gave you the idea?”
“The fact that I am poor.”
“That has a harsh sound,” said the Doctor, “but it is about the truth—speaking of you strictly as a son-in-law. Your absence of means, of a profession, of visible resources or prospects, places you in a category from which it would be imprudent for me to select a husband for my daughter, who is a weak young woman with a large fortune. In any other capacity I am perfectly prepared to like you. As a son-in-law, I abominate you!”
Morris Townsend listened respectfully. “I don’t think Miss Sloper is a weak woman,” he presently said.
“Of course you must defend her—it’s the least you can do. But I have known my child twenty years, and you have known her six weeks. Even if she were not weak, however, you would still be a penniless man.”
“Ah, yes; that is MY weakness! And therefore, you mean, I am mercenary—I only want your daughter’s money.”
“I don’t say that. I am not obliged to say it; and to say it, save under stress of compulsion, would be very bad taste. I say simply that you belong to the wrong category.”
“But your daughter doesn’t marry a category,” Townsend urged, with his handsome smile. “She marries an individual—an individual whom she is so good as to say she loves.”
“An individual who offers so little in return!”
“Is it possible to offer more than the most tender affection and a lifelong devotion?” the young man demanded.
“It depends how we take it. It is possible to offer a few other things besides; and not only is it possible, but it’s usual. A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact; and meanwhile it is customary in these cases to give a few material securities. What are yours? A very handsome face and figure, and a very good manner. They are excellent as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.”

I quote at length because the dialogue is so good. It is a fine example of the repartee that James writes well, and I love the maneuvering that these two scheming characters engage in.

Dr. Sloper, though, is unmoved. In fact, he is quite unconcerned with the effect this will have on his daughter.

“If Catherine marries without my consent, she doesn’t get a penny from my own pocket.”
“Is that certain?” asked Mrs. Montgomery [Morris’ sister], looking up.
“As certain as that I sit here!”
“Even if she should pine away?”
“Even if she should pine to a shadow, which isn’t probable.”

As will be seen as the story unfolds, this callousness will be the undoing of a relationship.

Adding to the drama is the presence of Dr. Sloper’s widowed, childless sister, Mrs. Penniman. She is a bit of the feckless romantic sort, who fancies herself as having a role in all of this, even though all she does is irritate everyone. She is, however, excellent as comic relief.

Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as a brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranian chapel - subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was not chilled by trifles - and of the guilty couple - she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple - being shuffled away in a fast-whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs…

All Mrs. Penniman’s attempts to encourage the couple to elope come to naught, however. Catherine finally asserts herself to her father, and one of the most poignant arguments ensues. If one can even call it an argument. Catherine is so meek and quiet that her side of things might barely be called a disagreement, except that she does, ultimately, defy her father in a very quiet and timid way. It is too long to quote at length, but suffice it to say that eventually, Dr. Sloper calls into question Catherine’s very desire to be good - which is really her strongest point. He expects her to trust him completely as to the matters of her own heart - even though she is 25 years old.

“Have you no faith in my wisdom, in my tenderness, in my solicitude for your future?...You make nothing of my judgement, then?”

He explicitly expects her to take all this on a mere faith in his judgment as greater than hers. She finally cannot take the way he disrespects her and her own viewpoint, and she is never thereafter able to have a close relationship with him.

For a while, there is a little tension between them, but she ultimately continues to play the devoted daughter, even while she knows she will never feel the way she did about him. For his part, all this is just more fun.

If the Doctor was stiff and dry and absolutely indifferent to the presence of his companions, it was so lightly, neatly, easily done, that you would have had to know him well to discover that, on the whole, he rather enjoyed having to be so disagreeable.

Catherine, though, has discovered a new reserve of strength. She knows she will inherit a small legacy from her mother’s side of the family, so at least she won’t starve. So, she determines that she will never expect to inherit from her father, because the price of his money - and indeed his approval - is too high. For her, nothing would be better than to be able to leave his house, because as she sees it, if she lives under his roof, she feels obligated to obey him. He agrees with the general sentiment, but is disturbed to see a sign of non-compliance in her.

Predictably, once it becomes completely obvious to Morris that there is little money to be had, and that Catherine is either unwilling or unable to persuade her father to the contrary, he throws her over. Dr. Sloper turns out to be right. And boy, does he ever enjoy it. His sister is horrified that he would gloat at such a time.

“It seems to make you very happy that your daughter’s affections have been trifled with.”
“It does,” said the Doctor; ‘“for I had foretold it! It’s a great pleasure to be in the right.”
“Your pleasures make one shudder!” his sister exclaimed.

Catherine cries a bit in private, and accepts some sympathy from Mrs. Penniman, but she would sooner be damned than show a crack to her father.

Now, this is where the story takes an even darker turn. Dr. Sloper and Catherine continue to live together for another couple of decades. He tries to encourage her to marry a couple of subsequent suitors. One is a widower more interested in her ability to care for his children than her, but the other seems genuinely interested. When she isn’t interested, he assumes that she still carries a torch for Morris.

“[W]hy doesn’t she marry?” he asked himself. “Limited as her intelligence may be, she must understand perfectly well that she is made to do the usual thing.”

Still, even at this point, he remains condescending and insulting. And suspicious. But Catherine isn’t pining for Morris. Rather, she is just damaged.

From her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years. There was something dead in her life, and her duty was to try and fill the void.

Even after this, there is still another twist of the knife. As Dr. Sloper approaches the end of his life, he demands that Catherine promise not to marry Morris. Even though she has no intention of doing so, she cannot bring herself to promise this to her father. She is now nearly 50 years old, and he is still trying to control her, and prove he is right.

“I don’t think I can promise that,” she answered.
“It would be a great satisfaction,” said her father.
“You don’t understand. I can’t promise that.”
The Doctor was silent a minute. “I ask you for a particular reason. I am altering my will.”
This reason failed to strike Catherine; and indeed she scarcely understood it. All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquillity and rigidity, protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, and in her father’s thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine’s dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.
“I can’t promise,” she simply repeated.
“You are very obstinate,” said the Doctor.
“I don’t think you understand.”
“Please explain, then.”
“I can’t explain,” said Catherine. “And I can’t promise.”

At the beginning of the book, it was hard to like Catherine. I am not really fond of docile women, and Catherine doesn’t come across as terribly interesting. However, her development as time goes on until this crucial denouncement is thrilling. And let me say, this final stroke gave me chills. It is one thing when she rejects her future inheritance when she believes Morris will marry her. It is another thing altogether when she does so for her own self respect. To be able to say to her father that she didn’t give a crap about his money or his wishes if he wouldn’t show her respect is quite the step for her, and it made me fond of her in the end.

Dr. Sloper never does come around. He proceeds to disinherit Catherine, adding in a final insult.

“[H]er fortune is already more than sufficient to attract those unscrupulous adventurers whom she has given me reason to believe that she persists in regarding as an interesting class.”

So in the end, everyone loses. Dr. Sloper dies, having destroyed his relationship with his daughter. Catherine remains an old maid. Morris seems to regret not marrying Catherine despite her reduced fortune. And what has been gained? Dr. Sloper gets the satisfaction of knowing he was right about Morris, but he has been very wrong about his daughter all along. He sacrifices the opportunity he had with her on the altar of being right.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The California Condor - Part 3

Two years ago, I wrote about the California Condor, on the occasion of my first chance to view them in the wild. In a follow up post, I added a few pictures taken by my second cousin, Heather, who has mad photography skills.

This year, the kids and I re-visited Pinnacles and were able to see more condors. When we visited before, Pinnacles was a National Monument. In 2013, however, it became our newest National Park. The main change appears to be an increase in the number of rangers to staff the park. I must say, it would be nice if the rest of the Federal Government was as helpful as the National Park Service.

Again, I would like to make a plug for Pinnacles as an unknown gem, kind of in the middle of nowhere (at least by California standards), and full of beauty. The heart of the park is an eroded core of a long-extinct volcano. It also happens to be located on the San Andreas Fault, the boundary between the North American Plate, and the Pacific Plate. On average, the fault moves laterally at the rate of 1.3 inches per year - the same rate as the growth of fingernails. Over the course of many thousands of years, the bulk of the volcanic core has moved north, leaving the sliver of the eastern side 195 miles to the south, in northern Los Angeles County. (That part is called the Neenach Pinnacles.) Hiking is the main attraction, as it is in most National Parks, but there are also talus caves to explore, plenty of wildflowers in most springs, and some spectacular views of the Salinas Valley, and the coastal mountain ranges.

And also condors.

For a bit of history on the California Condor, see my previous post.

If anything, we had an even better condor experience this time.  

First, we were able to get a great view of one from the High Peaks Trail. This is Condor #444, aka “Ventana.” Her biography can be found here.
I was able to get a sequence of photos of her as she left her nest and flew to an outcropping. 

Although I did get some of her on the rock, my cousin-once-removed Judy got a better picture. (With her superior camera. All my photos are with my subcompact Sony Cybershot. Nice and light, but limited.)

Condor #444 “Ventana.” Photo by Judy Whitworth. Used by permission.

Later that evening, back at our campsite, we watched no fewer than five condors circling over the ridge. Pinnacles (and indeed the entire western United States) has hundreds of turkey vultures, but it is possible to distinguish them by their flight patterns. Turkey vultures tend to wobble, and they have a bit of a “V” shape to the wings. Condors don’t turn fast, and they soar with wings straight out. The definitive test, though, is the feather color. Condors have a distinctive white patch forward on the wings, while turkey vultures have white on the trailing edge of the wing. 

With binoculars, we were able to catch a good flash of the distinctive white when the condors would turn at the right angle to the sun. Endlessly and effortlessly circling, higher and higher, until they were dots in the sky. (For a bird with a nine foot wingspan to become a dot, I expect they were pretty darn high in the sky.) 

Condor soaring on the thermal. Photo by Judy Whitworth. Used by permission.

I am reminded of the description in the various Thornton Burgess books of “Ol’ Mistah Buzzard,” who would soar “up, up, up into the blue, blue sky, until he was just a little speck.”


Just a few more photos, because I can't resist. 

Condor #444. Iphone through a spotting scope. Photo by Heather Leigh. Used by permission. 

My second daughter on the trail. Photo by Heather Leigh. Used by permission.
I LOVE this photo. 
The kids. Picture by me.