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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Saint of No Excuses

The other day I broke down and called the washer repairman. We'd been ignoring the rattling of the washer for a long time, and though we kept adjusting the feet they kept unadjusting. It was shaking so badly that one of the daily assigned chores was for someone to sit on the washer as it went through the rinse and spin cycles. The shaking got gradually worse, until one of the feet started coming off because the threads of the screw were getting stripped.

The washer repairman worked on the thing and came out shaking his head. "It's not good to let the feet get worked out like that," he said. "You need to keep the loads balanced and not overfill it. When it starts shaking like that, it makes itself worse and worse because of how heavy the machine is."

Well, thanks for telling me that! Darwin and I had just been wrestling with the feet the night before and had been unable to get them back in. The repairman had gone at them with a pair of pliers to screw them back in and realign them. So I paid $80 to hear something I already knew. But that's the point: I already knew I shouldn't be overfilling the washer in the first place. I knew the shaking wasn't good, and I took a year to call anyone about it. We knew it was bad for the feet, and every now and then we'd give them a cursory adjustment, but we kept ignoring the problem in hopes it would just work itself out. The repairman didn't make this stuff up to make me feel bad or to accuse me. He was telling me what I already knew. The fact that I have six kids, including a baby, and mountains of laundry to work through each week, and that I'm tired and want to get through the clothes in as few loads as possible doesn't actually change the nature of the washing machine and what it can handle. That's not the universe thumbing its nose at me. It's just reality.

The other day was St. Josemaria Escriva's feast day, and several acquaintances were reflecting on how they really disliked the saint, finding his advice unhelpfully condemnatory or elitist or patronizing. This particular quote gave rise to a long discussion of how St. Escriva was placing heavy and unreasonable burden on women:

4. What would you advise married women to do to ensure that their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to boredom? This question may not seem very important, but it is one asked by many people.
“I think it is in fact an important question and therefore the possible solutions are also important even though they may seem very obvious. If a marriage is to preserve its initial charm and beauty, both husband and wife should try to renew their love day after day, and that is done through sacrifice, with smiles and also with ingenuity. Is it surprising that a husband who arrives home tired from work begins to lose patience when his wife keeps on and on about everything she thinks has gone wrong during the day? Disagreeable things can wait for a better moment when the husband is less tired and more disposed to listen to them.

Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’

That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty per cent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children, as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.

There is no excuse for not fulfilling this lovable duty. Work outside the home is not an excuse. Not even one’s life of piety can be an excuse, because if it is incompatible with one’s daily obligations, it is not good, nor pleasing to God. A married woman’s first concern has to be her home. There is a Spanish saying which goes: ‘If through going to church to pray a woman burns the stew, she may be half an angel, but she’s half a devil too.’ I’d say she was a fully-fledged devil.”
(Conversations with Saint Josemaria Escriva, 107)

I read this, and as with so many of St. Escriva's writings, I think: he is talking directly to ME. People can (and did) argue over the saint's unscientific 80% assessment, but I understand completely what he is saying, because sloth is a great failing of mine, and I know personally how easy it can be to just let it go because I'm so frustrated at the work needed to keep myself in good repair. This isn't for everyone, obviously -- note well the caveat that "naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances" -- but in my own experience, he's right! My own older facade does need more restoration, and frustration and fury ensue when I don't take into account that I'm 35, not 22, and that my body doesn't respond as easily and quickly to what used to work. This isn't to say that I ought to look like I'm 22, but that I shouldn't be discouraged and disgusted if the low-effort, fairly painless fitness routine that worked for a 22-year-old doesn't have the same effects on a 35-year-old, grand multipara body. That's not the saint trying to make me feel bad or accuse me, and it's not the universe thumbing its nose at me; it's just reality.

I'm a step down from Escriva's advicee; I don't neglect myself because I'm striving for some form of holiness. I do it out of pique. Am I responsible for every thought of my husband's? Of course not, and with St. Escriva's emphasis on personal responsibility, I don't think that's what he's saying. But my husband isn't some random guy off the street assessing me. He's someone I love and have given myself to, including my body and my appearance. He actually thinks I'm beautiful when I don't, and I want to be very careful in how I respond to that, because although I find it frustrating sometimes when our perceptions don't line up, I have to ask myself: do I really want him to stop finding me beautiful? I want to feel like it doesn't matter, but do I really want him to feel like it doesn't matter? He's responsible for his own thoughts, but it's not really consistent with my saying that I love him so much for me to make his path harder, to put up obstacles and make him prove the love I don't even doubt, because I can't be bothered.

As I say, this is for ME. Other saints speak more directly to other people. (I personally can't get anything from St. Padre Pio's spirituality, though he seems to have great wisdom and comfort for many others, and since he's canonized I accept that and move on.) There are saints for all temperaments. St. Escriva is the saint for me: a saint for the psychologically healthy, a goad to the one who knows what she ought to do but doesn't do it, a saint who doesn't put up with my personal laziness or sloth, a saint who challenges me to rise beyond my cradle Catholicism and my basic "good person" mindset, a saint who expects more from the one who has been given more. He's the saint of no excuses from people who have no excuses. And whether or not anyone else in the world fits that description and needs that kick in the pants, I do. I'm more blessed than anyone else in the world: I have my own personal saint.

The church is a big tent. Thank God we have mild saints and vinegary saints and patient saints and acetic saints and saints who know when to give leeway and saints who know when not to.  Thank God that everyone is not a carbon copy of me, because what a dull and impoverished church that would be. Thank God that he cleanses the filth from the temple but does not quench a smoldering wick. And thank God for St. Escriva, whose mission is to kick me out of my complacency and smack me right into heaven.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Breaking News from 1914

Tomorrow makes 100 years since Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. The assassination began an at first slow-moving diplomatic crisis which would result a month later, July 28th, in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

The BBC is putting a lot of work into covering the anniversary, and they have an announcement up that they will be covering the assassination tomorrow as live news, giving viewers a flavor of how such an event would be covered if it happened now. News-from-the-past efforts can be kind of hit or miss, but I'm always a bit fascinated by them, so I'll be doing my best to catch some of the coverage. Here's the trailer:

If you'd like to see how it was covered at the time, check out the coverage in the June 29th New York Times.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Marriage, Ideas Do Matter

My commute-read lately has been Emile Zola's Nana, a novel about an actress and courtesan after whom the novel is titled. It's not for nothing that Zola's school of fiction is called naturalism, and as with The Belly of Paris, which I read a while back, this translates into a writing style which both provides huge amounts of sensory description and also takes a very frank and realistic approach to people's emotions and motivations.

Nana is too much a force of nature to be a likable character, but she's fascinating to watch, though at times also painful because of her bouts of self destructive impulsivity. It's probably no great shock, in a novel dealing with the high end courtesans of 1860s Paris and the men in their orbit, that one sees a lot of bad relationship models. The marriages we observe are universally unhappy ones, and many of the characters or yearning for a permanence and security which their actions are not likely to achieve.

This reminded me of some thoughts that I had not got around to forming into a post during a discussion of marriage a while back. The theme which many people felt called upon to write on at that time was that having a Catholic understanding of marriage is not a talisman against marital problems. This is most certainly true. A proper understanding of what marriage is for and how spouses should treat each other does not protect you against mistakenly marrying someone with great either great personal failings or who simply turns out to be hard to get along with. It does not protect you from marrying someone with hidden faults, or un-hidden ones that prove more difficult than you expected. It does not protect you from the shadow of your own or another's past. In short: ideas are not magic.

Nonetheless, ideas do matter -- in marriage as in the rest of life.

A couple who believe that marriage is simply a relationship of convenience which should last no longer than they find it adding to their happiness may, by chance, end up having a fairly successful marriage. And a couple who believe that marriage is meant to be a permanent and loving relationship for the purposes of bearing children and providing companionship may have a tragically unhappy marriage. But the latter set of beliefs is more conducive to happiness than the former.

This should be so obvious that it hardly needs arguing. Would we argue in relation to any other part of life that it doesn't impact the quality of your relationships whether you act well or act badly?

Where people get hung up, however, is on turning these things into absolutes: If you have incorrect ideas about marriage, your marriage will be bad. If you have good ideas about marriage, your marriage will be good.

It should be obvious that both of these are far too simplistic. People, both those with good ideas and those with bad ideas, often don't live up to their professed standards. Some people have good fortune, other have bad. A host of things contribute to the relative success or failure of a marriage. However, none of this means that ideas don't matter. They do.

Stillwater - 47

Melly’s main source of news from Stillwater was Cheryl, a faithful if not fascinating correspondent.

Dear Melly,

Ive been so busy lately because Pugsy has finally gotten back into watching The Dog Whisperer with me and so I had to get alot of the episodes she missed on Netflix. We spend too much time looking at TV now without you here to talk to. Pugsy is lonely without you and doesnt beleive that college is any fun.

Malcolm will be going to New York city one of these weekends to see Rene. I think he will visit with Ian and Alys while he is there. I wish he did not have to fly,,,  I worry myself to death when Richard is flying. Pugsy does not like planes either.

Esther has been very busy since you left. She is already making plans for next years ball. I guess you will be the queen again. Pugsy will have to do your hair again, haha!! Richard said that it was too soon to make plans for the ball and Esther asked him if he would care to take the preparations in hand. It is a big work and I am glad I dont have to do it because I am just too busy with Pugsy.

Everyone sends their love, especially Malcolm and Richard and Pugsy. Maybe one of these days we will have to drive up to Baton Rouge and see yall. Tell your mama hi for me. I am sure she must be glad to have you at home again.

Love, Cheryl xxoo

Melly was glad for assurances of Malcolm’s love in any medium, but she did wish for an email from him, even just a few lines, to let her know how things stood between him and Alys. Of course he was busy right now. It was the beginning of the school year. And of course between the business of school and the business of Alys, he was too preoccupied to spare many thoughts for her. Still, it was one large step for him to visit New York. What were his intentions? Was he going to hash things out with Alys at last? She yearned to hear from him one more time before her hopes came to nothing.

Oddly enough, and after all these years, Melly finally had daily assurance of being loved. She’d never thought of herself as being any kind of a role model to anyone, but now Leonie looked up to her with an almost alarming eagerness. This was how a mother must feel, looking down at her tiny baby, first understanding the power that she has over this person’s moral development. But Leonie was no baby. She was ready to take an active part in her own improvement. At first the sisters met at the library on campus to study, Leonie flipping through the course textbooks while Melly tried to recreate the class lectures from her notes. But this was so unproductive, and deeply unsatisfying, that Melly began to recommend books that she thought Leonie might learn to enjoy. Initially she was hesitant to give reading advice, fearing that Leonie would think that she was bossy and vainglorious. Leonie took no offense, however. She wanted to read what Melly read and love what Melly loved. It was a new pleasure to her, reading with a friend, and she was determined to wring every last drop of mental nutrition out of it.

On days when they couldn’t borrow one of the family cars, the sisters rode the bus to campus. Late one one of these afternoons, as they walked out of the library together, Melly heard a man’s voice calling her name. She turned in surprise — it wasn’t Malcolm’s voice, and who else would be looking for her? — and to her horror, saw Ian Winter striding toward her, the lovelight bright in his face.

Melly had often worried what she would do if she ever had to meet Ian again, and her strategies had all the benefits and drawback of every imaginary scenario, the benefit being that can be played out over and over again to produce different effects, and the drawback being that a final action need never be settled.  Would she run away? Clam up? Slug him? Interesting options all, but when presented with the actual meeting, she found that all virtual actions were subordinated to her habit of civility and the reality of the situation in front of her: meeting Ian in public where it was unlikely that he could press any sort of advantage, not wanting to raise any suspicions in Leonie by unwarranted rudeness, and being able to interact with him in his role as Rene’s benefactor instead of her adversary. She leapt into the breech before he could spin the encounter his way.

“Let me introduce you to my sister, Leonie,” she said as neutrally as possible through the nervous pounding of blood in her head. “Leonie, this is Ian Winter. He’s the one who helped Rene go to New York City by introducing him to his uncle, Carson Winter.”

“How do you do?” said Leonie, leaping forward and pumping Ian’s hand fervently. “Mama was so impressed when she heard about y’all — she saw your uncle on Oprah.”

In an agony of suspense, Melly watched Ian pause and pivot almost seamlessly, toning down the eagerness in his expression to an affable charm.

“You’re nobody until you’re on Oprah,” he said, pitch-perfect as the aw-shucks benefactor. To her vast relief and surprise, Melly saw that he had taken her hint. He cast no telling looks at her as he chatted it up with Leonie (how like Rene she was!), and when he did turn to greet her and shake her hand, he didn’t linger over it or do anything to make her feel uncomfortable.

“I hope Alys is well?”

“She is, and she misses you. I haven’t been able to see much of her, and I just missed Malcolm. He’s flying up this weekend to help Rene settle in.”

Malcolm in New York this weekend! He would see Alys, that was certain, and it was likely that by the time he flew back to Stillwater on Sunday they would have come to some kind of agreement. There had been leisure at Stillwater over the summer and things had been allowed their own pace, but surely, surely in the course of Malcolm’s weekend trip Alys would allow herself to hear Malcolm and understand him. Ian must have an opinion on the matter, but Melly couldn’t think of any way to ask him about it with betraying herself, nor did she especially want to hear him talking about Malcolm. She cast about desperately for a change of subject.

“Do you see much of Rene in New York?”

Rene was an easy topic, and safe. They made pleasant chit-chat about Rene in the Big Apple until Leonie rejoined them, slipping her phone in her purse, and said, “Okay, I’ve called Mama, so she knows to expect us.”

Seeing Melly’s puzzlement, she said, “Didn’t you hear the plan? Ian is going to drive us home and meet Mama. She’s so excited.”

Melly stepped aside to let Leonie into the front seat of Ian’s rental car. She needed the solitude of the back seat to compose her whirling thoughts before her head pounded apart. Ian at her family’s house! Of all the humiliations! Who would be at home right now? Mama, obviously, but Andre? Marc? Her father? She wished the back seat might swallow her. It wasn’t proper to feel that way about her family, but there it was. No one was likely to change in the next few minutes, so that would put an end to Ian bothering her ever again. Her own vanity appalled her. How many times had she wished she would never see Ian again? That was what she had wanted, what she still did want, but not like this, not because of disgust with the Arceneauxs.

She had been almost impressed with him earlier. Leonie was a sharp observer, but Ian’s manner had been absolutely correct the whole time: easy, but not familiar, gracious in exactly the right way not to raise any suspicions that he and Melly had ever interacted in anything other than a blandly social way. Melly had feared that she’d have to beat him off with a stick; instead, it had been a tonic to her soul not to have to steel herself against profanity or crassness or volume. Not since Malcolm left had she been an equal in a conversation.

The house had never appeared meaner than when Ian pulled up in front of it. The late afternoon sun could not mellow the ugly bricks nor soften the iron bars on the windows. The air conditioner groaned and dripped in its futile labors. Ian made no remark, but Melly was mortified as she saw the neighborhood through his eyes. She marched up to the door. Better to get this over with sooner rather than later.

The first surprise was that the place was presentable. Nanette Arceneaux’s energy reserves were hidden deep within, but she did have them, apparently. Surfaces were cleared (Melly feared to see the floors of the bedrooms, but stuff did have to go somewhere) and the carpet had even been vacuumed. Nanette had even mixed up a pitcher of sweet tea for the nephew of the man who’d been on Oprah. Conversation was easy: it was all about Rene. Between the four of them they could dredge up enough anecdotes to fill a book, and Ian endeared himself by recounting the New York trip in brilliant detail. Nanette laughed and admired and declared she’d never heard anything so funny in her entire life. Relaxing had just started to seem like a viable option when the doorknob rattled preparatory to admitting another Arceneaux.

But it was not her father. It was her older brother Raymond, stopping by to drop off his baby before he went to work. Raymond had always been the most agreeable of the three boys other than Rene, as evidenced by his ability to find and keep a girlfriend, and soon he and Ian were hitting it off while Nanette showed off her little granddaughter. Leonie was laughing and joking along with the guys. Melly’s back began to untense. It was starting to seem possible that she might escape this entire episode unscathed either by public disgrace or further contact with Ian.

And in stumped Jean Arceneaux, with Marie-Helene in tow, and Melly’s back seized up again. It was too early in the day for Jean’s drinking to kick in, but that meant that he was apt to be dry and irritable. At no time did he ever look like he’d just stepped out of a bandbox, especially when dressed to combat the summer heat, but today his grungy flip-flops and wife beater were particularly egregious beside Ian’s prep casual. Marie-Helene’s grape popsicle was melting down the front of her tank top as she sized up the stranger. Melly braced for the worst. This was her family, not fancy New York society. So be it if Ian never talked to her again.

But Melly had forgotten to account for one thing. This was indeed her family; it was also Rene’s family. He’d gotten his charm from someone, and amazingly enough, it was Jean Arceneaux. He could be bright and funny when he set his mind to it. He could tell a ribald story in Rene’s cadences. He could work a room. So could Ian. The two of them set to it, with occasional interjections from Raymond. The spectacle of Ian Winter in her family’s dingy living room, exercising his particular gift of making himself universally loved, was almost too fabulous to credit. When the topic worked its way inevitably toward LSU football, she thought that perhaps she could escape to her room, but as Jean flipped on the Friday night game and Raymond took his leave, Ian settled on the love seat next to her.

Now that her father’s attention was settled, Ian hoped he might be able to have something approaching a private conversation with Melly, but in this house it seemed that private conversation was an oxymoron. Sister Leonie, the sharp one, perched on the couch opposite them, her eyes glittering too much like Rene’s for Ian to feel that any innuendo could go unnoticed. He’d already figured that this one was going to have to be won over if Melly was to be approached, since Melly seemed fond of her and the way to Melly was through those she loved.

“What brings you back to Baton Rouge?” Leonie asked, fixing him with her full attention. “You didn’t come down all this way to tell us that Rene says bonjour?”

“He does,” said Ian, “and that would be worth a trip in itself, but I’m here on business too.” He could feel Melly stiffening on the other side of the love seat. “I make films, but the project I’d been planning to work on next has been shelved because we couldn’t fill a key position with the right person. So I had time to think about what I’d like to move on to, and I kept coming back to the beautiful architecture detail I’d seen down here, especially at Stillwater. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

Leonie had to admit that she’d never been in the big house. “Melly tells me that it’s beautiful, though.”

“Stillwater is beautiful, but it’s almost writ too large, and it’s already perfect.” He carefully kept his eyes away from Melly to allow her time to relax again once she realized he was not here to press his previous offer. “I need a a different canvas, something more intimate, and not so remote as Stillwater. I’ve always been interested in urban renewal, and the idea of shooting a documentary about buying and restoring a historic house right here in Baton Rouge has been growing on me. I flew down to start scoping out locations and to get leads on local craftsmen, people who are familiar with these houses and their construction and who know how to do the job right.” He smiled. “Maybe you’d have some leads for me?”

“Look around this place,” Leonie suggested. “Does it look like we’ve ever had any skilled craftsman plying their trade here? But I take off my hat to you. You don’t think small. What are you going to do with this house once it’s all restored? Put it back on the market for any hoodlum to buy and destroy?”

Marie-Helene marched over to them with the baby in her arms and deposited her on Ian’s lap.

“Ava wants to see you,” she said, wedging herself in between Ian and Melly. The baby lunged at Ian’s fingers and tugged them inexorably toward her mouth, pausing only to chirp an encomium as she gave his hand a gourmand’s scrutiny. Then she thoughtfully sank her fine sharp tooth into his knuckle and mumbled a little song of love as she chewed. Ian was charmed.

“Do you know I’ve never held a baby before?”  he said.

Melly was finally jolted into speech. “Never in your life?”

“No.” He worked his finger out of the baby’s mouth and stood her upright on his lap to get a better look at this small stranger. She burbled solemnly at him, wrinkling her small brow, patted his face with moist hands, and latched onto his jaw. “Hey!”

Marie-Helene giggled and kicked her heels as Melly reached across her to detach Ava. Ian handed the baby to her. They made a pretty picture snuggling together, and now no one would have any reason to think it odd that he should look at Melly with undisguised admiration.

“You asked what I’d do with the house once it’s finished,” he said to Leonie. “I’m thinking about living in it myself. I’ve never had a home of my own. I’ve stayed with my uncle for a long time, and I’ve floated from apartment to apartment, but there was never anywhere permanent that I could point to and say, ‘This is mine.’ I’d like to have a family place, a real base of operations, somewhere stable and welcoming, and beautiful enough that when I walk in the door and look around, I feel like I’m really, truly home.”

Melly bent her head over the baby and murmured in her ear to conceal a sudden upwell of tears. Ian had baffled her emotional defenses with his disarming seriousness. She had not even thought him capable of such sentiments. It was a good sign that there might be hope for him yet, that perhaps the Ian of Stillwater could improve. For his sake, though not for her own, she hoped it was so.

“Hey!” yelled Jean Arceneaux from his recliner. “Y’all hungry? I’m ready for dinner! How about it, Ian? You staying to eat with us?”

Ian saw the wave of emotions sweeping across Melly’s face: apprehension, horror, and finally, a pleading glance directly at him.

“I’m afraid I can’t,” he said with just the right tinge of regret in his voice. “I’m expected somewhere else this evening. I appreciate the offer, though.” And this time he was rewarded with a smile from Melly, a genuine smile of gratitude and relief.

He stood up and shook himself free of Marie-Helene hanging onto his arm. “I was thinking of going down to the waterfront tomorrow morning before I need to fly back. I’d be very pleased if I could convince you ladies to come along with me.”

Leonie had to work, but Marie-Helene was thrilled, and of course, Melly had to accept for her sake. She accompanied him to the door, the baby on her hip.

“I hope you enjoy your dinner,” she said as he stepped outside.

This time he met her eye and would not let her drop her gaze. “I will enjoy it as much I can enjoy anything without you.”

For a moment of suspense, she thought that he might take her hand, but he turned and walked to his car without touching her.

There was much fruit for meditation in the afternoon’s encounter, and Melly, pleading a headache, was able to lie down in privacy and sort her jumbled thoughts. Ian was not over her, and he should have been over her. When had she ever given him any encouragement? Certainly not today. But there was much to approve of in his new venture, and in the way he had been so kind to her sisters. The memory of his concentration while holding the baby almost made her laugh. She was pleased by his perception that taking her hand would have been unwelcome, and impressed that he’d acted on that perception. But most palpable, embarrassing though it was, was the relief that Ian would not be eating at her house. A shock of adrenaline still coursed through her as a vision of her family at dinner flashed into her mind: everyone raiding the fridge for whatever looked good, microwaving whatever seemed edible, fighting over the last frozen burrito or Hot Pocket. She tried to imagine Ian looking into the refrigerator at the motley assortment of processed food products on the peeling wire racks… No. It was too terrible. Her manners were the result of her own personal preference, but he had been raised to expect everyone else to behave politely at table too, and that was the sort of prejudice that was hardest to overcome.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Do Nursing and Drinking Mix?

Medical science admitted some years ago what most Europeans would have told you all along: While heavy alcohol consumption is seriously dangerous for a developing baby, it's okay for a pregnant mother to have a little bit of wine or beer once in a while. However, it seems all pregnant mothers have at least one story of a bystander saying, "You're drinking? But that can't be good for the baby!"

Nor does the helpful advice stop when baby is safely born. Nursing mothers are also often warned that it can't be good for baby to get "all that alcohol" in mommy's breast milk. Books and articles tend to take the "better safe than sorry" line as well. Advice website Baby Center answers the question thus:
Will it harm my breastfeeding baby if I drink wine, beer, or hard alcohol?

It could if you don't take precautions. The same amount of alcohol that makes it into your bloodstream makes it into your breast milk.

While the amount that's transferred if you drink a glass of wine is relatively small, your baby is tiny and has an immature liver. That means she can't process the alcohol as well as you can. Infants younger than 3 months process alcohol at about half the rate of adults.
While no one knows the true effect that alcohol has on breastfed infants, it's probably wise to abstain – at least in the very beginning. Some experts recommend breastfeeding moms avoid drinking alcohol until their baby is 3 months old.

How can I safely have an occasional drink?

Wait at least two hours after you finish a drink before nursing your baby to give your body a chance to clear the alcohol.
You can time your drink so that your baby won't be nursing for a few hours afterward by having it right after a feeding, for example, or during one of your baby's longer stretches of sleep.

Or you can pump and store your milk before having a drink, then feed your baby expressed milk from a bottle. (Pumping after you drink won't clear alcohol from your system any faster – it will still take at least two hours.)

Another option is to feed your baby formula in the hours following your alcohol consumption.
Pretty serious stuff, eh?

This sounded wrong to me, especially given that they start off by saying "The same amount of alcohol that makes it into your bloodstream makes it into your breast milk."

Alcohol does indeed get absorbed into the bloodstream relatively quickly after you drink it. It then circulates with the blood until the liver metabolizes it, something the liver does at the rate of 0.015 of blood alcohol concentration every hour. However, there's a lot of blood in the human body, and so the alcohol that you drink quickly gets diluted to a much lower level -- aside from the fact that even as it's being absorbed into the blood the liver is already metabolizing it out.

A common legal definition of intoxication is 0.08% blood alcohol concentration. By comparison, the concentration of alcohol in wine is often around 12%. In other words, the concentration of alcohol in wine is 150 times higher than is the concentration of alcohol in the blood in an intoxicated person. So saying that breast milk absorbs alcohol at the same rate as blood, and thus that your "milk alcohol concentration" is the same as your blood alcohol concentration, is not actually saying all that much. Compared to any kind of drink, blood alcohol concentration is just not that high.

Still, babies are small, and at least some sources say that they metabolize alcohol only half as fast as adults, so perhaps the small amount of alcohol has an outsize effect. Let's run the numbers.

Blood alcohol concentration can be estimated using a formula called Widmark's Equation after the Swedish physician who developed it. The formula is:

([constant for body water in blood = 0.806] x [number of standard drinks containing 10 grams of ethanol] x [factor converting grams to Swedish standards used for calc = 1.2]) / ([body water constant = 0.49 for women][body weight in kg]) - (metabolism rate = 0.017 for women) x (drinking period in hours)

I've assumed a very small mother (130lb) who drinks two 5oz glasses of wine in one hour. This puts her at 0.08% BAC, right at the legal definition of intoxication -- she should not drive. Now, mommy sits down to nurse her new baby. I've assumed a very tiny baby at 8lbs. I've also cut the rate of metabolization by half per the mentions of babies metabolizing more slowly.

Baby consumes 5oz of Mommy's milk, which now as an alcohol content of 0.08%. I ran the same equation for baby and got a negative number. Why? Because the tiny quantity of alcohol (the same amount that is in one fifth of a teaspoon of wine) would be metabolized by the baby in less than the hour it would take to get fully into the blood stream. If we take away the effect of metabolization, we get a blood alcohol level for baby of 0.005%

Looked at another way, the effect that drinking the milk of Mommy (who as a light weight who's slammed two full glasses of wine in one hour is now legally intoxicated) would have on baby is the same as the effect that drinking one half ounce of wine would have on a 130lb woman.

In other words, if Mommy is drinking moderately, there should be no discernible effect upon her nursing baby.

Translation: Beer is nourishing.  This one drinks it.  That one doesn't drink any.

UPDATE: A friend provided this link where a mother takes an empirical approach, measuring the alcohol content of breast milk after drinking varying amounts of alcohol.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Meanwhile in Iraq

With the election of President Obama, the US public made it pretty clear that it didn't want to hear about Iraq any more, and in general the media has complied. As a result, the recent explosion of sectarian violence bordering on civil war has seemed comparatively out of the blue. I found this New Yorker piece by Dexter Filkins helpful in catching up on recent history and how things came to this pass.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not My Book

I was checking out a pile of books at the library a few days ago, and something on the counter by the librarian's elbow made me catch my breath:

I was utterly flabbergasted. No! My title! How could anyone take my title?

So I checked it out, and I read it. It's a historical, set in the titular Minnesota town, ca. Civil War era. It has twins separated shortly after birth, and escaping slaves, and a whorehouse, and a bad mother, and a priest and a nun and an orphanage. The author reaches for lyricism, and sometimes achieves it, but the style can give a reader whiplash: the POV jerks back and forth too quickly, especially in the early dialogue scenes. Also, less is more with characterization: I felt like so much information was poured out at once that it made the characters too slippery to grasp.

The author depends a bit much on a certain vulgarity to set the historical tone. Everyone stinks, or has bad breath, or scratches lice or whatnot. I started blocking it out about the time that the author signaled how bad a corrupt judge was by having him scratch a hair from his armpit to study. The structure is episodic, and the characters are all mysteriously bound up to one another, whether they ever intersect or not. Connections are made or missed, but there's a frustrating lack of development that made me wonder why some of the stories were even being told. One character dies so arbitrarily that I wondered if the author was drawing from a historical source, because it made so little dramatic sense.

But what really made me raise my eyebrows was the portrayal of historical Catholicism. I did a bit of searching around and discovered that the author had been raised Catholic, and there's some of that flavor to it: a more contemporary Catholicism just moved back in time, with some oddly unconvincing details thrown in for color. A priest visiting a brothel weekly to hear the prostitutes' confessions, and then lining them up to distribute Communion, in the 1840s? The priest shouting up general absolution to the prostitutes on the balcony because the streets are too muddy for him to come in? The priest hearing the nun's confession face to face in a closet (a closet? in the 1840s?), with absolutely no reference to the historical form of confession? Indeed, confession seems to be the main sacrament of the Church, though there's little enough feel for what confession actually is. The nun, a sympathetic character, gives cliched advice about how Catholic women should make lots of good Catholic babies. The priest and the nun doubt in strangely modern language. The Rosary makes a historical-color appearance. The priest has mildly lascivious thoughts and takes the discipline with a horsewhip. Come on. There's simply no sense that Catholicism is actually an institution with its own history, with practices that have had different forms at different times. For all I know, every incident that rang false was meticulously researched, but in that case it helps to signal why something was being done differently than the norm. Otherwise it really does read as if the author really doesn't know what she's talking about and is making a lot of unforced errors.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Manufacturing Data: School Shootings

Someone I slightly know wrote on Facebook the other day with the comment, "Every day my husband has to go teach high school, I worry all day. Teaching is becoming the most dangerous job in America."

This comment was inspired by a map that's been making it around social media which purports to show "the 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook". The map is based on a running list compiled from news reports by Everytown for Gun Saftey, a Michael Bloomberg affiliated "grassroots" advocacy group for gun control.

The interesting thing about these kinds of data manufacturing efforts by advocacy groups is that at times when there is no other "data" available about some topic which catches the public imagination, such informal efforts at statistics can catch on with media venues and become received wisdom. And yet, the criteria for putting together such a list is often highly influenced by the fact it's an advocacy organization doing the compilation work. In the case of the "74 school shootings" list, the criteria listed are:
Incidents were classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented in publicly reported news accounts. This includes assaults, homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.... Incidents were identified through media reports, so this is likely an undercount of the true total.
Part of what makes this kind of advocacy work is that people have an idea of a "school shooting" is: Some disaffected student decides to go out in a blaze of media glory and blazing guns, or else some insane adult decides to go to a school and slaughter as many innocents as possible before turning his gun on himself. There are a few famous incidents (Columbine, Sandy Hook) which fit this model very nicely, and the "74 school shootings" claim gives the idea that there are many other similar incidents which just haven't received as much news coverage.

However, when someone goes through the list of school shootings and starts to look up the news stories, a much wider range of events starts to emerge.

For instance, #10 on the Everytown list is a shooting at Hillside Elementary in San Leandro, CA. The actual news report says:
Investigators in the East Bay say they have leads, but no suspects, yet in the murder of a 19-year-old Laney College student. Travion Foster was shot and killed just before 9 p.m. Wednesday in the field behind Hillside Elementary School.... Foster was shot and killed Wednesday night in the field behind San Leandro's Hillside School. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department say it appears Foster was involved in a game of dice with several others, when gunfire erupted.

#9 is a shooting at Indian River State College in Florida, which resulted from police chasing a man brandishing a gun in a pickup truck around town until cornering him in a parking structure on the college campus, where a shootout ensued which injured a college-student bystander before the suspect was successfully arrested. The news story reports that police chief Sean Balwin "said he believes the man ending up at the college was just a coincidence."

Gun control advocates could certainly point to these as incidents showing that guns do show up in crimes frequently in the US, but they certainly don't fit the profile of "school shooting" which exists in the public's imagination. And yet the argument that more needs to be done to reduce gun crime in general is somewhat problematic for gun control advocates because gun crime has reduced by around 50% over the last thirty years, even while gun laws have generally been relaxed and gun ownership has risen. Thus, it becomes necessary to produce a "trend" towards some specific kind of gun crime which demands legislative action. And so we have this effort to produce "data" by collecting news reports around a term which everyone thinks they know the definition of, but using a set of criteria which does not match that definition.

The effort also takes advantage of people's inability to think very well about unlikely events. "Almost one school shooting per week!" is the claim being made based on this somewhat inflated "data". Allow the count for a moment and consider what the denominator to that numerator is. There are around 125,000 schools in the US and around 4,000 colleges. If there are 52 "school shootings" per year, that means there is a 0.04% chance of any given school experiencing a shooting any given year. In other words, the average educational institution can expect to experience one shooting every 2,480 years. And that's only if we count events like murders over late night dice games in the field next door as "school shootings". A tighter filter could easily push that number out to a school shooting every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Please check your laser pistols and flint axes at the door, children.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stillwater - 46

See here for Malcolm's driving lessons
See here for Alys's inability to spell Arceneaux


This conversation left Melly lower than at any point since she’d moved in. She had believed that she was used to being alone at Stillwater, whether in person or in convictions, but now she began to see the vast difference between the yearning loneliness nourished by a beautiful place, and the wretched loneliness of standing alone in the shadow of the valley of death. No one in her family shared her convictions; no one acted the way she acted; no one loved what she loved. The family was a catalogue of vices: her father’s mockery, her mother’s indifference, Andre’s crudeness, Marc’s malice, Leonie’s wrath, Marie-Hélène’s immoderate craving for attention.  And yet, they weren’t unique. Everywhere in the neighborhood, everywhere in the city, there were similar scenes of squalor playing out, petty malices and degradations taking place in homes. Everywhere she looked was ugliness; at night it closed in on her in the small house. Melly tried not to despair. She knew there was beauty and goodness and truth in the world; she’d seen it. She knew there was love; she’d given it. And yet, this exile in ugliness showed her more clearly how separated she was from Malcolm. His family wasn’t one great big unrelenting scene of dysfunction like hers was. To be sure, there were moral problems at Stillwater, and they’d only been accentuated by the arrival of the Winters, not caused by them. Somehow the gentleness of Cheryl had not been transmitted to Sophia. Somehow Richard’s responsibility had completely bypassed Dick. But there was peace to be found at Stillwater, and beauty, and joy. Melly wondered when was the last time her family had known joy. Raucous laughter and cheap beer were a poor substitute.

She had also lost her tenuous connection to Leonie. When she’d first arrived at home they had made conversation, the first faltering attempts at meeting one another on an adult level. It had been strange and exhilarating to find a companion in a sister, to find that a sister could be a companion. There had been no precedent for that between Cheryl and Esther, or Sophia and Olivia. Melly had dreamed ahead to the day when she and Leonie could be friends, true friends, sharing more than family ties and early memories. That had changed after the strife with Marc. Leonie had been uncharacteristically somber afterward, keeping her own counsel, barely speaking to Melly in their room or in the car on the way to campus. This latest rejection was a sore blow. It seemed that here too she was to stand alone.

Little wonder, then, that Melly was actually almost pleased to receive some sign that anyone took any personal interest in her, even if that sign was a letter from Alys. The letter had been a nine-minute’s wonder in the household. The Arceneauxs received mail daily, to be sure; the family had its fair share of bills and ads and circulars and summons. But a letter, a hand-addressed letter, on stationery — it was a novelty, an extravagance, almost suspect. Who wrote letters anymore? Alys Winter did, apparently. Melly’s heart sank when she felt the weight of the thick, creamy paper in her hand and saw the elegant script of the address, so suggestive of a wedding invitation. But no, it was a genuine letter, and it was genuine Alys.

New York City 
Ma chere Melusine (you see I’m brushing up on my French; I can even spell Arceneaux now), 
I found this paper, a relic of a more virtuous era, at an estate sale last weekend, and my very first thought was that it was meant for Mellly. Now that I think about it, this letter even looks a bit like you: skin as ivory as paper, hair as black as ink, and lips as red as sealing wax. Accept no apples from strangers. 
But what is there to write about? Your brother is too busy in town to talk to me, and mine is here, but so wrapped up playing the auteur on his latest film project that I barely see him. I’m glad of it, though. All play and no work makes Ian a bad boy. He needs something serious to steady him. And whatever he sets himself to, heart and soul, he usually achieves. 
Malcolm promises me he’s going to visit New York one of these weekends, but he won’t commit further than that. The work of a teacher is never done. It seems that he might be called upon at a moment’s notice to grade a paper or chaperone a prom. I hope it’s not the latter; I don’t know if I can compete with the charms of all the gracious young Southern belles with their wrist corsages and their carefully applied concealer. 
Oh! I exchanged messages on Facebook with Sophia, of all people. She’s thinking of coming to New York sometime to soak up the cultural atmosphere. You remember how devoted she was to the arts. We were chatting away nicely, and then I mentioned that you might eventually be working in New York for Ian, and suddenly I couldn’t get any more likes. I shouldn’t tease her, I know; it’s not her fault that you’re talented and she isn’t. She’ll get over it in time. A handsome husband with money is pretty good solace for what ails you. 
Ignore my silliness and write me a long, pretty, sensible Melly letter, something to encourage me and settle Ian. 
A bientôt!
Cherchez les femmes!
Sacre bleu!
Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Melly sat in the small privacy of her bedroom and and read and re-read this characteristic note. It was a breath of fresh air, a friendly splash of charm and wit, something bright and beautiful she could hold in her hand. It was a jab of the penknife, a fresh stab of anxiety to her Malcolm-loving heart, a mockery and dismissal of principle. How ought she to respond? It was incredible that Alys thought she would be impressed by Ian’s industry or Sophia’s jealousy. To Melly, the industry was a reminder of Ian’s idle mischief at Stillwater and the jealousy an indication that Sophia hadn’t put that mischief behind her. Surely that wasn’t too far in the past for Alys to remember. How could a mind as quick as Alys’s be so undiscerning, so selective, in recalling the past and interpreting it? How could she and Alys have such differing memories of the same events? They had both seen Ian’s flirtation and Sophia’s attraction; Alys hadn’t scrupled to mention it in her letter. How could she forget so quickly how distressing and awkward that time was? Melly shook her head. She had sifted through her memories of the spring, trying to be faithful not just to her impressions of what had happened, but to reality, but when she started to meditate on how and why she knew what she knew, she found herself on the edge of a great philosophical gulf which extended above, below and beyond her, past her powers of finding out.

She longed to discuss the subject with Malcolm. He would know the words to give form to the imprecise concepts that hovered on the tip of her brain. And yet, he and she also seemed to have differing memories and interpretations of anything having to do with Alys. He saw her faults, Melly knew; they’d discussed them many times. They both saw the same actions, the same accomplishments, the same flaws, but they drew differing conclusions from them about Alys’s character.  This difference in perception, and the realization that the wedge it drove between them was likely to become permanent if Alys ever let Malcolm succeed in his pursuit of her, was one of the main reasons that Melly had chosen to be here, in Baton Rouge, going to college.

 College. It sounded so… so unlike her. She had done her best to approach higher education with an open mind, and her objective analysis had confirmed what her subjective bias had predicted: she did not like college. She was used to struggling in school and knew how to work hard at studying, but the concentration it demanded of her left her drained. Somehow learning had never seemed difficult when Malcolm was explaining things to her. Then connections had been made, and links forged between one subject and another. All knowledge had seemed part of a great whole. He knew how to make everything (except how to drive) seem worth knowing. When he talked about reading, she wanted to read. When he talked about philosophy, she wanted to think. When he talked about theology, she wanted to pray. At college, her professors had exactly the opposite effect on her. Her Business and Professional Writing class made her feel as if the alphabet were her greatest enemy. Principles of Economics made her feel that everything involving money was fundamentally irrational. Nothing made sense after Intro to Philosophy. She didn’t know what effect college would have on her reading; apparently she wasn’t supposed to take any classes that involved novels or poetry without first having the proper prerequisites. And just to make everything more miserable, she had been registered for German instead of French.

At St. Mary’s, everything was new and big and overwhelming, and there was nothing familiar to ground her. At Stillwater she had been a member of the household, if not of the family. Here she was just one more drop in an ocean of interchangeable students. No one expected anything of her. She felt that her classes were hostile territory and that her professors would scorn her, if they knew who she was. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate on the lectures, she found her mind wandering back down River Road to the fabulous plantation house standing amid fields of cane ripe for harvesting.

One day, during her second week in Baton Rouge, she waited on the steps of St. Mary’s chapel for Leonie to finish her janitorial shift and drive her home. Her schedule and Leonie’s didn’t always match up, which made commuting together tricky, but this offer of a ride had been the first real exchange they’d had since the conflict over Marc’s poster, and Melly had accepted as much to have contact with anyone as to avoid taking the bus. The ride in had been quiet but not strained. Perhaps there was hope that they might, in time, develop some kind of working partnership. Leonie could drive her to school and Melly could… well, she didn’t know what she could offer, but surely there would be some way to uphold her end of the arrangement.

She still had half an hour until Leonie’s shift ended, though, and the September heat was oppressing her. Behind her the chapel loomed, its delicate Gothic spires reminiscent of the few icicles she’d seen, but pleasantly inverted and dripping upward. The vast central doors were surmounted by a tympanum renowned for being the best backdrop on campus for wedding pictures or selfies. She wondered that several times over the past week she had heard the chapel described as bland or appalling or just plain ugly. What an odd quirk of taste it was that the same building could be described so differently by people seeing, presumably, the same thing. Malcolm had called it lovely, and in this, as in so many matters of taste, Melly agreed with him.

Last week she hadn’t had much desire to spend any more time on campus than necessary, but now here was a chance to sit in a cool gracious space for a time and refresh herself with arches and aisles, to soak up the stonework and the statues. Her heart lifted as she tugged open the great door. At last she could feel at home, in a place in which the symbolism would accurately reflect the signified.

And once again, she was wrong, she was deceived, she was promised much and given nothing. The chapel had been improved past recognition by a star architect since Malcolm had last seen it to describe it, and the barren interior was free from any imagery so vulgar as to aspire to beauty or reach a theological conclusion. Melly stood in shock, trying to find any focus point in the unlandmarked space. Across the church, behind the stark altar, hung a large ashen tapestry embellished in a strange grid-like pattern. She crossed over to examine it more closely. After staring for a time, the lines took on the semblance of meaning: it was a street map of Baton Rouge. There was I-10 and I-110, there was Airline Highway, there was the Mississippi bounding the left edge of the tapestry in a broad brown stripe. With some careful calculation, she could even place her family’s house. Somehow it was no comfort to know exactly where she was on a big cartographic rug.

She moved aimlessly through the church.The venerable stained glass windows had been carefully removed and reassembled to hang in a museum, and in their place geometric shards of glass scattered rainbow light across the polished concrete floor. Melly stepped into the glow, trying to find something lovely and familiar in the play of the colors on her hands, but the mottled light aged and withered them. She turned them this way and that, fighting off a swell of tears. So this was her punishment. She had made an idol of Stillwater, but God was a jealous God and now she must do bitter penance. How could she live bereft of beauty? How much bruising could her soul take before it bled and scabbed and crusted up? Even this holy place, this house of God, contained within it no balm for her relentless ache for loveliness and order and permanence.

Turning to leave, she paused before an alcove in the rear which held a sculpture of writhing metal arms that could have been the Holy Ghost, could have been St. Teresa in ecstasy, could have been a homage to 9/11. Hanging almost hidden, a dying candle sputtered out its vigil behind a casing of smoky red glass. A small tabernacle was jailed behind the twisted metal, as lonely and isolated as Melly herself. She sat and gazed at it through a haze of tears. You and I, we are both exiled in ugliness, she thought. We must be meant to be here, or we wouldn’t be here, but oh, it is hard to persevere without any encouragement or love.

She wiped hastily at her eyes as someone else pushed open the big doors and entered the church. Quiet footsteps sounded behind her, and then, to her surprise, stopped at her side. She looked up to see Leonie regarding her with an earnest, almost puppyish expression.

“I thought you might be here,” Leonie said, shifting her weight awkwardly from foot to foot. “I mean, I knew you were in here because I saw you go in.” She glanced at the strange metal sculpture and then around the arid nave and then back to Melly. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”

“No, go ahead.”  Melly slid further down the single pew in front of the tabernacle. Leonie sat, settled, fidgeted, took a deep breath, and turned suddenly to Melly.

“I’m really sorry about this weekend,” she said in a rush of words. “I thought I could make some big point by being dramatic, but I only made everything worse. I know you must think I act like a baby, throwing a tantrum when I don’t like something, and I’m embarrassed about that.”

“No, I don’t think that!” said Melly in surprise. “I thought you were angry at me for getting involved.”

“Angry!” Now Leonie was surprised in her turn. “I was so impressed with how you were so calm and could make everything sound reasonable and right, and suddenly I could see how I must look to you, loud and destructive and doing whatever comes into my head. And I was ashamed of everything: myself, our family, our house… You must be so disappointed to come back here and live like this after being at Stillwater.”

Melly could not immediately respond to this. Leonie rummaged in her purse and handed her a tissue.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said fiercely. “I can’t bear it at home sometimes. We’re so corrupt and trashy, and everything we do is degrading. I hate it. I hate that I either have to eat or be eaten. But you do things differently. You didn’t fight with Marc, and you didn’t let him roll over you. You just… were. That’s what I want to be.”

For the next hour they sat together in the empty chapel, Léonie pouring her heart out to Melly as if she’d never been able to confide in anyone before. She talked about her plans for the future: “I could get need-based aid for college, but it would be all stuff I’d have to pay back. And I’m not a genius like Rene. So what I figure is, I’ll work janitorial here until I can make some connections in administration, and get a job working in the registrar’s office or something, and put myself through school debt-free with free employee tuition.” She talked about her place in the family: “Mama’s always liked the boys best, so they get away with murder. And Marie-Helene is the baby, so it’s not like anyone has ever counted on her for anything. But she doesn’t care one way or the other for me. Maybe it’s a good thing. I’m not blinded by favoritism. She’s never given me anything that could buy me off.” She talked about her frustrations: “Sometimes I think our family is so corrupt that it’s going to take some tragedy to purify us.” Melly listened and nodded encouragement and felt humbled. She’d just been mourning the lack of beauty in her life now, but Leonie had lived in this disorder for years and years, without the benefit of Malcolm’s teaching or Stillwater’s peace, and still the clear hot flame of righteousness burned undimmed within her. She knew how to get things done in the context of the Arceneaux family, the only context she’d known. True, she ran on indignation, but it was an indignation borne of a true desire for order and justice, almost purified of selfishness. She and Leonie saw the same evils, but Leonie was active where Melly might withdraw.

“…And so,” Leonie said, almost shyly, “I thought that maybe we could be useful to each other. I want us to be friends. I want to you to love me. You know how to be good, and I only know how to be angry. I need your advice, and your example, and your help. All kinds of help. I know I don’t have a lot to offer, but I’m sure I could up with some way to help you too.”

Melly threw her arms around her sister. “I do love you,” she whispered. “You’ve already helped me.”

The colored light had finally crept far enough across the floor to illuminate the tabernacle at the heart of the twisted metal cage. At its foot, for a brilliant, peaceful moment, the Arceneaux sisters embraced, dwelling in perfect unity.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Myth and Reality: Orphanages and Mass Graves in Ireland

In one of those examples of a story which could be easily packaged to provoke strong emotion getting instant world-wide circulation regardless of the merits, the world was swept last week by the story of a 800 children supposedly dumped in a septic tank in an Irish "mother and baby home" -- a sort of combination maternity home for unwed mothers and orphanage for their children.

The image of 800 little bodies left in a septic tank is unquestionably horrific, and soon outraged editorialists and bloggers were comparing the home, run by the Bon Secours order of nuns, with the crimes of Nazi death camps and the Rwandan genocide. Then more news stories began to come out suggesting that the outrage was to a certain extent the result of mis-reporting:
Is it true that the skeletons of nearly 800 babies and children have been discovered in a septic tank in Ireland?

No. Contrary to a great deal of reporting, including two stories published by The Washington Post, it doesn’t appear that there are 800 skeletons in a disused septic tank. Many of the early stories appear to have conflated two different sources of information. One comes from a local historian, Catherine Corless, who has discovered death certificates for nearly 800 babies and children at the home, which was run by the Bon Secours order of nuns from the 1920s to the 1960s. The other comes from two local men, who say that they found some kind of crypt beneath a concrete slab in the area containing a number of skeletons when they were playing as boys in the early 1970s. One of the men estimates that 20 skeletons were contained in the space. These two different sources have been conflated into the claim that a mass grave of babies and children was found in a septic tank. Corless, who appears to have been the crucial initial source of information, has since claimed: “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”

Sorting through the many news stories, the story that seems to gradually emerge is one with a sort of everyday darkness rather than the horror story initially suggested. The mother and child home was not run as a death camp, and there is not evidence that children were killed deliberately or that their deaths were covered up. Indeed, the reason why we know the exactly number of children who died at the home, 796, is that a local amateur historian went through the process of requesting death certificates from the government for all children who died at the home during its years of operation from 1925 to 1961. This average of 22 children per year died of infections and communicable diseases -- ailments that today could easily be treated but which in the third world conditions that prevailed in Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. Infant and childhood mortality was high in Ireland during the time the home was in operation and death rates among illegitimate children and orphans were 3-5 times higher than the general population.

The relationship of the Catholic Church to the harsh conditions and high death rates in these sort of institutions is a complex one.

In poor countries, people without the protection of family often suffer horribly. In poor countries such as India today, the fate of unmarried mothers and their children is distinctly harsh -- and clearly in that case this cannot be blamed upon repressive Christian morality. The mother and baby homes were state institutions funded by county taxes, but given the poverty of the country and the perception that "fallen women" were among the undeserving poor, the funding provided was very low. In 1954, funding for the home was apparently 26 Irish Pounds per resident (mother or child) per year. Translating such prices across nations and times is difficult, but if the historical currency converters I'm playing with are right that's something under $2,000/yr in current US dollars.

There's a sense in which the fact that these homes were all run by religious orders simply underlines the the Church's tradition of serving the poor and needy. Unmarried mothers and their children were otherwise in danger of living on the streets, if they lived at all, and it logically follows that if you set out to serve the poor and marginalized and an already poor country, you'll end up dealing with people who live in pretty bad conditions.

At the same time, in a country in which the Church is as dominant as it was in Ireland in 1925-1961, few people are going to question the behavior of religious, particularly when it comes to how they treat people who are poor and marginalized anyway. So there was little other than their own consciences to keep the nuns who ran the home from treating mothers or children badly, and plenty of social prejudice which might have made it seem that they "deserved" it.

It may well be that religious orders ran such homes more more humanely than one might have expected secular authorities in a similar environment with similar funding to do -- and yet the fact remains that it was Catholic orders who did the work. In a country which has seen incredibly rapid improvements in living conditions during the last sixty years, Catholic run institutions and the suffering that was at times associated with them seem like part of a receding nightmare, and it is far easier to indulge in broad anti-clericalism than it is to understand and reckon with the ways in which the experience of poverty led the whole society to behave in ways (and suffer lacks) which in modern affluence seem unimaginable.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Do We Worship the Same God?

On Pentacost, Pope Francis held a meeting at the Vatican with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres in which each prayed for peace. This has caused angst in some quarters on the theory that an inter-faith prayer meeting smacks of religious indifferentism. As such things go, it seems to me that this was actually very thoughtfully managed by the Vatican. The three leaders assembled together outdoors, and each then offered a prayer separately on the theme of peace. Given the obvious doctrinal differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this seems a far better way to do things than trying to somehow compose a prayer or service which members of all three faiths can wholeheartedly participate in.

One of the claims which I saw come up in a number of discussions of this among Catholics, however, is: Muslims don't even worship the same God as we do.

Father Longenecker wrote a fairly good piece responding to that claim. His argues that the fact that someone's understanding of God is defective or incomplete does not mean that person is not worshiping "the same God". There is, after all, only one God:
The real heart of your question is that you can’t get your head around the idea that Muslims worship the same loving Father in heaven that we do.

It’s a problem you share with many Muslims who are horrified not only at the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity (they think it is polytheism) but they are also very resistant to the idea of God as Father. Allah is completely transcendent and any idea that we impose human characteristics on to him they find abhorrent.

So how can we say that they worship the same God?

Simply because there is only one God.

If someone worships God as he conceives of him he is worshipping the one, true God.
One can see Fr. Longenecker's affection for C. S. Lewis coming through here, as this line of thinking will be very familiar to readers of Lewis's The Last Battle. It's not a bad way of looking at things, but I think there are a couple other elements of this which are worth thinking about.

In the sense that Fr. Longenecker is speaking, someone who sincerely worships Zeus is worshipping God. In the sense that there is no Good but God, I think that's clearly true. But it is still possible to worship false Gods. Whether one holds that Zeus simply didn't exist, or that he was some sort of non-human being who was not God, it was certainly possible to worship him and in worshipping him, one was worshipping something other than God.

Is Allah a false god?

It seems to me that we have to say "No." Muslims worship the one God of Abraham. They take the Old Testament of our Bible to describe God's relationship with man. They believe (wrongly) that Jesus was a prophet rather than God. But then, Jews do not believe that Jesus was God. If we hold that Muslims do not worship "the same God" because they do not believe in the Trinity, then we have to hold that Jews do not worship the same God either -- and that's rather problematic given that we believe God Himself came to earth as an observant Jew.

Another concern I've heard expressed is that Islam stems from the revelation which Mohammad allegedly received from God via the Angel Gabriel. Obviously, as Christians do don't believe that a "revelation" which denies the divinity of Christ and our salvation through His sacrifice on the Cross is a true revelation. With the end of Apostolic times came the end of general revelation. There will, if Catholicism is true, be no more prophets. So, if this revelation which we must consider false is the source of Islam, and God would never have sent a false revelation, must this not mean that Muslims do not worship the same God?

I don't think that necessarily follows. Clearly, as a Catholic, I do not believe that the Koran is the word of God. That means that I would have to conclude that Mohammad was either either deceived or lying when he claimed to receive a revelation through the Angel Gabriel. If deceived, this could be either the result of some kind of natural delusion or a result of some real supernatural creature (but not one of God's faithful angels) giving him a false message.

However, it's entirely possible to tell an untruth about a real person. By telling an untruth about a person, we don't somehow create an alternate, false person. We just tell a distortion of the truth. Even if we take the position that Mohammad was spoken to by a fallen angel, this would not mean that Islam worships some other God. There is, after all, only one God who revealed Himself to Abraham, and this is the God that Islam names as Allah. Lies always exist in reference to truth, they don't exist on their own. If the father of lies or one of his servants was the source of Mohammad's revelations, what could be more mischievous than to base his lies in the obvious truth of God's revelation of Himself to Israel and the Incarnation?

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Stillwater - 45

Technically this is half an installment, but after pulling the 4 AM shift last night I'm too tired to finish up the other part tonight.


For a creature of habit like Melly, the difficulty of uprooting from her beloved ground was compounded by an inhospitable environment. Even a comfortable new home would have been a jolt to her, but such a home as she found herself in was a sad shock to her system in every way. Her head ached and her lungs burned from the acrid stench of the cigarette smoke no one else could smell any more. (“I make those guys smoke out on the porch so it don’t get into the house,” her mother said.) Neither Nanette’s pantry of low-cal snacks nor her father’s fridgeful of beer and Hungryman dinners offered her any nutrition. The whispers of past pain haunted her legs, now weary from her treks to the bus stop and across campus. But more wearying than walking was the sloppy moral atmosphere of the Arceneaux household.

It wasn’t as if Stillwater had been preserved from original sin. There had been plenty of vices there: Dick’s crassness, Sophia’s self-absorption, Esther’s officiousness, Cheryl’s indolence. But there had also been manners and civility and a genuine affection from certain corners. At Stillwater there was reasoned discussion and give-and-take; there were common courtesies and indoor voices. Nobody slammed the door; nobody screamed down the street at his brother; nobody shouted over the angry music blasting out of a car stereo. Profanity was not unknown, but it was used as seasoning, not as the appetizer, entree, and dessert rolled into one. Melly had often been frustrated by the way the Winters seemed to substitute social graces for moral clarity, but as much as she was embarrassed to admit it, it was more pleasant to spend time with Alys and Ian (when he was on his good behavior) than with her own family.

Melly had never been particularly close to her mother, but as the oldest girl, she had been of a certain use, especially when she’d been healthy. There had always been a baby to jog around or change or feed. Now that all members of the family could feed and bathe themselves unaided, Melly realized just how little common mental ground her mother shared with her. Nanette wasn’t particularly cold or distant or malicious. She wasn’t particularly anything. She went to work, she came home, she watched TV.  “Me-time” was her mantra. Any woman with seven children had a right to relax now and then, whether it was an extra twenty minutes in the shower or a special snack before she settled down to the serious business of checking email. She’d gotten all her children through their infancy alive, which was a wonder considering her boys, and it had been a relief to send them off to school one by one where the teachers could take them off her hands. Now that most of her children were grown and working, they were big enough to work out their own squabbles, and she rarely raised her voice to assert her maternal authority until the level of household chaos passed her capacity to block it out.

 She had certainly developed that capacity to formidable levels. Melly was amazed at the kind of behavior her mother judged too petty to penalize. Marie-Hélène, as the baby, was spoiled and egged on in all kinds of precociousness by Jean Arceneaux and the boys. As a result, there was a disturbing undercurrent of sexuality in the way she moved and talked. She wasn’t a budding Lolita by any stretch, but she was a born entertainer and talented mimic, and she knew she could get attention by parroting what the girls did in music videos. She made innuendos she didn’t understand because her brothers thought it was funny. She wore clothes that she didn’t have the body to fill out because her dad encouraged it, wanting everyone to know that his baby was pretty. It wasn’t that her father and brothers particularly wanted her to develop into the kind of woman they were encouraging her to be as a child. They thought it was cute and harmless to see a ten-year-old girl acting provocatively, and egged her on to shake her booty or sashay around swinging her thin hips, without considering that the way she was learning now to interact with men — manipulating, craving attention, performing — would be a difficult mold for her to break as a woman, if she ever realized that it could be broken.

Nanette did not see this, or if she saw it she didn’t care, or if she cared she thought that this was just the way it was. You know how men are.

One person did not think that this, or any aspect of the Arceneaux household, was the way it ought to be. Melly had hoped that she and Léonie would get along easily, that they would understand each other, that they could be everything that sisters ought to be.  There was a lot of admire about Léonie: she took a lot on herself, doing most of the cleaning and what little cooking was done, and she had Rene’s drive to better himself, if not his whiz kid brilliance. The Arceneaux way of living appalled her. She saw her mother’s laziness and her father’s crassness and her brothers’ boorishness and she burned with a crusader’s zeal to cleanse the filth from the temple. But she had a hair-trigger temper and her methods were coarse, combining all of Rene’s showmanship with none of his finesse. She saw, she loathed, she berated, and the usual result was sound and fury. Melly could appreciate the instinct behind Leonie’s outbursts, but in practice, they tended to escalate problems more often than they solved them. And she made no distinctions. Respecting her elders was more honored in the breach than in the observance: Léonie cussed out parents or brothers with equal aplomb.

Between Léonie and the boys there was ancient enmity. Melly found it hard to blame her for that. Marc and André were crude and brash and sleazy. André, the older, had some redeeming qualities: an affection for his mother and Marie-Hélène; a good set of mechanical skills combined with a strong work ethic, which had earned him promotion at the garage; a rough kind of honesty which had kept him off the streets and out of trouble. Marc, however, was a nasty piece of work. Melly, two years his senior, remembered how mean he was even as a little boy, with his sullen attitude and his petty cruelties and anger management issues. In those days Rene, the default authority of the house even at a young age, had kept Marc in check both through his example and the easy force of his personality. Melly remembered Raymond, her next brother, as being competent and basically fair as well. But Rene had not lived at home for a while, and Raymond now had an apartment with his girlfriend and their baby, and no power had arisen to take their place. André was a bit the worse for the lack of old-brother guidance, but his essential good nature had stood him in good stead. Marc didn’t have an essentially good nature. He was volatile and violent. He’d been in and out of juvie. He was someone to steer clear of.

Léonie could not steer clear of Marc. They were like oil and water, only mixing in turbulence. He went out of his way to antagonize her, and she was all out of moderation. Shortly after Melly moved in, Marc upped the ante in their running feud by leaving his bedroom door open. This in itself wasn’t offensive, aside from the smell, but it did expose to the view of all Marc’s newest bit of interior decor, a poster of a petulant blonde astride a motorcycle, hung directly opposite the doorway. And this in itself wasn’t unusual for the guys’ room, since both were mechanical buffs, but the blonde wore nothing but makeup, and her exaggerated physique was designed to attract the eye, not deflect it.

Melly was familiar with the basic elements of female biology, being female herself, but pin-up photography was not part of the artistic and aesthetic heritage of Stillwater. Richard Spencer would never have permitted such a thing in his house, and Malcolm wouldn’t have chosen to have it. Melly had never had cause to give any thought to what resided on Dick’s phone or computer, but she could attest that his bedroom walls were offensive only to people who hated LSU. Now gleaming masses of flesh confronted her every time she stepped out of her bedroom. Marc had hung the poster so that it was almost impossible not to see. It drew the eye of everyone passing down the hall, would they or no, especially if she leaned in to shut the door.

Melly was distressed, not only by the the poster and the attitude behind it, but by the response of her parents. Jean Arceneaux simply wasn’t bothered. When Melly essayed some timid words on the topic, he belched out a laugh. Boys would be boys, and he’d had a few photos in his day… His unsympathetic amusement at her prissiness made him deaf to any further appeal, so she tried her mother. Nanette listened placidly to Melly’s concerns but showed no signs of putting her foot down.

“Now don’t you go riling Marc up,” she said. “It’s bad enough Léonie fighting with him all the time.”

Melly made what she thought would be a sure-fire argument. “But it bothers Marie-Hélène. I can tell. She’s… it’s hard, especially at her age. It’s embarrassing to her, but she can’t look away. I really believe Marc thinks it’s funny.”

“Marc is going to do what Marc is going to do,” said her mother with easy resignation. “Just leave him be and don’t start a fracas. You ought to shut up that room anyway. What ought to bother Marie-Helene is the mess in there.”

When Léonie spoke to her mother, she didn’t bother to mince words. “Mama, get off your lazy ass and tell Marc to take that thing down.”

Melly was shocked, but Nanette merely heaved the sigh of the ages as she sat hunched at her computer. “Hush your mouth, Léonie. You give me a headache. I swear I’d give anything for a little peace in this house, just once.”

After a week of slamming the door every time she passed the room, Léonie’s outrage flamed into action. One night when she knew Marie-Helene was spending the night with a friend, she waited until the boys went out for cigarettes, then went into their bedroom and ripped down the offending poster. For good measure she made a clean sweep of every image of a girl on the wall, regardless of whether they were Marc’s or André’s or clothed or not, and bore them triumphantly into the girls’ room where Melly was sitting on the bed, trying to study.

“I can’t think that was the most philosophical way to resolve the problem,” Melly said cautiously as Léonie shoved the posters into a trash bag and kicked it under her bed.

“I don’t even know what philosophy means,” said Léonie with the pride of one for whom practice has finally trumped theory. “Here’s what I know: those pigs think they can get away with anything. It makes me furious to see that crap hanging up. Marie-Hélène walks past that room all the time! Marc and André have got to learn some respect for women.”

“But how can going into their room and stealing their things teach them respect for women? I don’t think it will make them respect you very much.”

“I don’t care if they respect me. I want them to respect women in general.”

“Respecting women in general doesn’t mean much, though, if they don’t respect women in particular.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Léonie flopped on her bed in her frustration. “This isn’t academic. There was a big picture of a naked lady hanging up, right where everyone including my little sister had to see it every day, and now there’s not. I think in this case the ends justify the means.”

The front door slammed to herald the return of Marc and André. Léonie grabbed the last Harry Potter book from her nightstand and turned the pages with purpose, but Melly could see clearly that she was paying more attention to the fuse smoldering across the hall than to the words in front of her.

A moment later, shouting was heard. Melly thought she still had a moment to steel herself for the coming assault, but Marc barged into the room without a warning knock, André close behind him. Of course there was no knock. Where did she think she was: Stillwater, where these little niceties mattered? No one knocked in this house, just as no one shut a door when she could slam it, or spoke in a civil and moderate tone when he could shout.

Marc was shouting now. “What were you doing in my room?”

“What’s the problem, boys?” said Léonie, looking up from her book a touch too nonchalantly. “Why the rage?”

“You know damn well what the problem is!” Marc’s anger made the small room seem to contract even further. “Don’t even deny that you were messing around in there.”

“Why should I want to deny it?” Léonie played her cool against Marc’s heat. “If you guys are going to flaunt your trash on the walls, you shouldn’t be surprised when people take it out.”

André shoved past Marc.

“Screw his stuff,” he said. “You had no right to take down all of my things. C’mon, Léonie, I’m not a perv like Marc. I’ve never put up naked girls where everyone can see them. Give me back my stuff, at least.”

“Lay down with dogs, get up with fleas,” said Léonie with a shrug. “You’re in the room, you look at Marc’s poster, you’re just as culpable as Marc here.”

“Fuck you,” said Marc.

“Fuck yourself,” said Léonie, flaring up. “You guys are disgusting. You think you can slap some girl up on your wall like she’s your personal property. Well, guess what?” She was off the bed now, ready for a rumpus. “Get used to war, because I’m done with rolling over and playing dead every time you jerks shove your stone-age attitudes in my face.”

Marc was done with the preliminaries. He closed what little distance remained between him and Léonie. Melly, terrified by the way his face twisted with wrath, willed herself not to shrink back against the wall.

“Where is my stuff?” Marc hissed at Léonie.

“I’m not going to tell you,” Léonie spat back. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Last chance: give it back.”

“Make me.”

“Stop!” shrieked Melly, jumping up as Marc raised his hand. “They’re under the bed! Leave her alone!”

Marc and Léonie dived for the bag at the same time and tore it, spilling the posters all over the floor.

“Whose side are you on, Melly?” Léonie shouted, kicking and tearing the posters. “You want him to put a naked woman right back up?”

“No,” said Melly, trying to breathe easily as she sat and massaged her shaking legs.

“Then what are you going to do about?” Léonie challenged for the second time, with almost as much hostility as when she’d faced down Marc. “What do you think we should do, if you’ve got so much philosophy?”

Three flushed faces confronted Melly in tense expectation.  Never had she felt so much an outsider in her own family as now, when she was being set up as some kind of arbiter of morality. Shouting and the threat of violence had been bad enough, but the pressure of everyone’s expectant silence bearing down on her was far worse. She hesitated, just in case her desperate hope of Rene walking in the door now (knocking or not) and taking charge of the situation were to be fulfilled in the next five seconds, but it seemed such relief was not to be.

“If it were me…” she began, but that didn’t seem right. If it had been her, she would not have been in this situation in the first place, so it seemed disingenuous to play with hypotheticals.  How would Rene say it? “I mean, I think you ought…”  She swallowed and looked at her hands. “I think you ought to give them back the posters and offer to pay for the damage.”

André stared at her. Marc’s glower turned to smugness. If Leonie had turned over her comfy pillow and discovered a roach underneath, she would have glared at it in with the same expression she turned on Melly.

“What do you mean?” said André, struggling to understand this bizarre new pacifist sister in his house.

“You heard her,” said Marc, allowing Melly’s moral authority since it turned out to be to his financial advantage.

Leonie said nothing, and Melly’s heart sank even further at the thought of being the target when her sister’s pressure cooker of disgust finally blew. Maybe being reasonable could stave that off. “Did you ever try asking Marc to take the picture down?”

“No,” said Marc. “Léonie prefers vandalism.”

“Yeah!” said André. “No one ever asked me to take anything down.”

“What good would it have done? ” Leonie asked the ceiling.

“None.” Marc was as complacent as a cat in the cream.

The pressure cooker exploded. “So what’s the point of asking?” Leonie demanded. “What’s left? One thing. Tear it down. But you,” she rounded on Melly, “you’d call that stealing. I thought you’d be different. I thought I could count on you. But no. Guys can do anything they like in this house, but when a woman insists on getting some respect, you call it stealing.”

“I call it stealing,” said Melly in a small voice, “because it is stealing.”

“See?” said Léonie in bitterness. “I was right. You want that girl back up on the wall so Marc can jerk off at her. You make me sick.”

“No,” said Melly, still not looking up. “It makes me feel sick to think of anyone being just a body to be… to be stared at, without even a name.”

“Her name is Aimee Martin,” André protested. “She does lots of posters and stuff. It’s her job.”

“Even worse,” Léonie said. “You know her name and you still treat her like a thing.”

“She gets paid,” said Marc, suddenly a devotee of the free market.

“So money makes everything right!” said Léonie scornfully. “She gets paid, so it’s okay to lust her up. You get paid to put your shitty picture right back up. What a world, where nobody ever challenges anything Marc does. You can’t even deal with someone so vile. ”

“But we were dealing with him,” said Melly. “We shut the door, every day, every time it was opened. We stayed vigilant.” She glanced up at Leonie’s hot face and willed her to understand. “You and I can’t control Marc’s behavior. We can’t force him to do the right thing. But we can be constant in doing the right thing ourselves, and…” She sagged under the memories of the responses she’d provoked by holding out against Ian. “Sometimes doing what’s right can be taken as a challenge.”

Léonie held to her point. “But you’d know it was still in the house! Don’t you think we have an obligation to get it down, to get it out, to destroy it by any means necessary, even if it means stealing?”

Finally, Melly knew exactly what Rene would say to this. “I don’t think there’s ever any obligation to sin.”

There was silence. Melly’s defensive efforts had exhausted her.  She longed to have some quiet time to think over her arguments, to see if she’d said anything stupid or just plain wrong. Marc and Andre stood awkwardly, grappling with the unfamiliar concept of sin. Léonie snatched up a handful of crumpled posters, and Melly prepared herself to hold the course for another round.

“Here,” Léonie said with an effort, flattening out an image of a scantily-clad girl draped over a car and handing it to André. “I’m… I’m sorry I trashed your stuff. I’ll pay for the damage when I get paid.”

No one moved for a moment.

“Forget it,” said André, handing it back. “I didn’t know they bothered you.” He left the room.

Marc kicked through the pile until he found Aimee Martin on her motorcycle. He smoothed the creases and looked at her sultry glare and airbrushed body. Then, with an ugly gesture, he crumpled the poster into a hard ball and threw it in Léonie’s face. A drop of blood welled up on her forehead where it struck her.

“You owe me,” he said, and slammed the door.