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

Monday, June 26, 2017

Progressive Weakness

I have been thinking a great deal about the study I linked to last week, about how the timing of childbirth is dictated not by the size of the baby's head, but by the limits of the mother's metabolic ability to sustain the growth of the baby. In my 39th week of pregnancy, I feel this growing limitation keenly. My energy levels and ability to move around are decreasing. It is harder this week to climb stairs than it was last week, because my ligaments are looser and achier. Climbing up into the driver's seat of the van is also becoming a more painful, onerous process because I'm having difficulty moving my legs around. (Thank God I have no reason to mount a horse -- I couldn't do it.) Each day my stomach muscles carry more strain as the baby grows, and I wonder, "How much longer can I do this?"

Doubtless there are other fast-moving conditions out there. Perhaps someone with a growing tumor feels measurably weaker each day until surgery. Or maybe someone with a degenerative disease can notice each day the deterioration of the affected body parts. I can barely type any more right now because I'm falling asleep, also an increasingly daily phenomenon. Pregnancy is not a disease, we are always told, but it is progressively debilitating. I'm almost done, of course, and even if I go past my due date, the doctor will . But each day it gets objectively harder. He grows, and I slow. He must increase, and I must decrease.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Notes on Catholic Literature

After an uncomfortable weekend of false labor symptoms, the OB has cleared me to go to the Trying To Say God conference at Notre Dame, assuring me that I'm extremely unlikely to deliver my baby in an Indiana cornfield. So now that I actually believe we'll be going to a conference on the state of Catholic literature -- indeed, are driving up to ND today -- it seems a good time to chew over what exactly the hallmarks of a Catholic literature are. And since I had several hours yesterday sitting in the tire repair shop to meditate on the subject, here are a few starting points, not necessarily in any order.

  • Moral Realism. As Catholics, we believe in an objective reality, an immutable truth, and we believe that Catholicism is the systematic revelation and response to that truth. And we believe that humans can act in accord with that truth and move closer to it, or can act in opposition to it and stand in contradiction and defiance of it. Even authors who are not Catholic can tap into this truth of the human person, and the truths embodied in Catholicism, writing literature that takes a clear-eyed moral stance, holding some actions morally correct because they participate in truth, and some actions wrong because they are evil, or try to worm around the essential truth of the human person. And of course, plenty of authors who call themselves Catholics or claim to be writing Catholic literature can write fuzzy moral literature, trying to justify or gloss over moral truths.
  • Free Will. Our actions are not dictated solely by circumstances or nature or nurture. We have the ability to choose good or evil, and every moment is a fresh moment to participate in truth or reject it. 
  • Grace. We do not choose good entirely of our own volition. There is higher help to be had even at the weakest moments of human existence. Even characters who have consistently made evil choices are given the opportunity to accept this grace. Grace comes in many forms: small, sublime, gritty, painful, persistent, dry, consoling.
  • Sin. Our fallen nature means that even the best human will choose to act badly, and most humans aren't the best humans. Humans struggle to choose the good, often failing spectacularly. Many actively embrace a self-centered worldview, either through ignorance or by deliberate choice. Virtue can become more or less a habit, but it isn't a perfect defense against our inclination to sin. And often sin seems more pleasant or easier or more fulfilling than virtue.
  • The Physical World As Sign. Creation signifies a deeper reality. Humans, the pinnacle of creation, can also participate in God's creativity by becoming co-creators, either through our creative works or by direct physical participation in bringing forth new life. Our bodies have a moral significance, and our physical actions can embody love.
  • Quality. The usual formulation is "good, true, and beautiful". What God creates must be good, and if our human creations are to reflect his goodness, truth, and beauty, they must have these qualities. (Interpretations of beauty vary -- it can be stark, lush, simple, amazingly complex, painful, or gracious.) But in a Catholic literature, quality matters. Technique matters. Skill matters. Honesty matters. Truth without skill is cloying and one-dimensional. Skill without truth is hollow and ultimately unfulfilling. 
  • Truth Is Deeper Than Identity. Only God creates. I am not the sole creator myself, nor can I entirely define myself. My "identity", self-proclaimed or assigned by others, is not the core of who I am. Freedom doesn't consist in assembling the right labels, but in finding how I can participate in the deeper objective reality of truth, and rejecting any label or behavior or identity that draws me away from that truth.
Note that none of these ideas depend on Church sponsorship or affirmation, or having a bigger Catholic publishing presence, or building new platforms for new media, etc., though those are often the focus of discussions about how to revive Catholic literature. And yet any attempt to "revive" Catholic literature through Catholic presence in the media has to grapple with the fact that professed Catholics themselves often distort the truths that Catholicism claims to represent. Is Catholic literary culture defined simply by having members of the Church getting published and reviewed? Do organizations devoted to Catholic writing necessarily produce literature that's worthy of being called literature? Do programs that teach writing technique at Catholic institutions focus more on workshoppy technique to the exclusion of actual small-c catholic qualities?  I'm curious to see how these topics are addressed this weekend.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Agony in the 37-Week Garden

I've had the happy experience this week of becoming a proud auntie not once, but twice over, to a fine niece in New Jersey, and a fine nephew in Cincinnati. With these blessed events, along with the arrival of my nephew Robert in February, it's left to me to bring up the rear of the Baby Boom of 2017. I'm glad that my sisters-in-law are delivered of their nine-month ordeals and now get to hold their squishy sweet babies, but now that they've given birth, I  feel free now to write about my own impending labor without giving them undue worry in their last days of pregnancy.

I'm right at the 37-week full-term mark, but I expect to have three more weeks to prep for giving birth. I've been reading Susan Windley-Daoust's The Gift of Birth, a spiritual meditation on the Theology of the Body as reflected through labor and birth, and following her guided exercises. (You can read it for free online here.) I've been resting a lot lately, strangely comforted by this study that claims that the nine-month threshold for human pregnancy is dictated not by relative head-to-pelvis side, but by the metabolic limit of human ability:
Instead, gestation is determined by energy. Studies of mammals show that during pregnancy females reach their species’ “metabolic ceiling,” the upper limit of the amount of energy they can expend. In humans, the metabolic ceiling is 2 to 2.5 times the baseline amount of energy needed during rest. Dunsworth and her colleagues say women reach that limit by their sixth month of pregnancy. Then at nine months, the energy demands of a fetus go beyond this metabolic threshold. “Extending gestation even by a month would likely require metabolic investment beyond the mother’s capacity,” the team writes.
I've been around the pregnancy block a number of times by this point, so the milestones of late pregnancy aren't foreign to me. Some things are new and pleasant: never before have I had the flawless skin that supposed to be part of pregnancy, but it is some consolation for the aches and pains of the third trimester that when I look in the mirror, my face approaches poreless perfection. (My hair is marvelous, too.) They say that once a woman reaches a certain age, she must choose between a nice face and a nice ass, and right now I have a good basis for hoping that the rosy glow of my face distracts from the increasing girth of my lower half.

The front half of my lower half, along with the last occupant.

Also, my PUPPP has cleared itself mostly up. Just as the experts don't know what causes it, they don't know what makes it go away, but my itching has almost entirely ceased, and for that I'm most grateful.

Some new experiences aren't so pleasant.

The other night, I was leaning against Darwin with my arms around his neck, my stomach providing a rather large buffer between us, and despite whatever innocuous conversation we were having, a creeping anxiety began to tingle along the nerves in my fingers. After a moment I identified it: I had been in this position during a number of increasingly painful contractions during my last labor, and my muscle memory was responding in panic.

This isn't the only time this has happened lately. As we were sitting through the end credits of Wonder Woman, apropos of nothing my breath started coming faster and waves of anxiety washed over me. I felt flushed and panicky, out of proportion to what TS Eliot called the "objective correlative". Why? I had had a passing thought of going into labor, maybe a twinge or a cramp or some flashback, and although I could move and talk normally, it took fifteen minutes for the tension and the nervy tingles to subside.

I'm not afraid of dying while giving birth. I'm not afraid that I'll have to have a c-section for some reason, though I'd much prefer not to go under the knife. I'm not afraid of an adverse outcome. I rather expect things to be uncomplicated and straightforward as always, ending up with a snuggly little baby in my arms. I've had lots of practice relaxing and breathing during contractions. No, I am cravenly afraid of the excruciating pain. When I've tried to express this to friends, several people have said, "You've done this six times! What do you have to be worried about?" People, think. A man who has been on the rack six times is not eager to get back on a seventh time. I have a lot of experience with the standard progression of labor, and it almost always gets much worse before it gets better.

We give birth, or we die. There's no way through but out. I know all this. I'm no stranger to having a baby. Out of my six births, five have involved grinding, miserable contractions, culminating in the terrible moment of the baby tearing your body apart as you give birth. Perhaps this time will be better. Perhaps I'll try my first epidural. Perhaps lightning will strike again, and I'll have another painless labor. But my body is gearing itself up for the long ordeal, and each weird but painless Braxton-Hicks contraction or gas bubble or shift in internal pressure reminds it that the storm is coming. 

I handle the panic attacks the same way I'll handle the contractions: breathing, counting, praying. Even Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemani, so I think I'm allowed to be increasingly anxious about my own lesser impending passion. There's a lot of toil to go before I get to say, "It is finished."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Personality and Homeschooling

We all had a summer cold last week. While the kids took it easy and vegged out in front of The Great British Baking Show, I took the opportunity to do a little homeschool planning for next year. For some people, planning involves actually opening books, counting chapters, scheduling out work, etc. For me, it involves reading about philosophies and going down rabbit holes doing personality research.

Recently my second daughter took a Meyer-Briggs test and determined that she was an ESFJ. Reading up on the ESFJ type, many things fell into place for me. (Although of course a generalized personality profile isn't going to get everything right, there was enough that rang true on this site that I found it overall helpful.) Her personality is almost the opposite of mine. We approach many things from different angles, and often end up frustrated with each other.  Understanding her strengths and weaknesses helps me to give her a better educational experience.

We went the round of personality tests with the older three girls (15, 13, and 11) and discovered different results.

Eleanor: INFP
Julia: ESFJ
Isabel: ESTJ

For reference: I am INTJ and Darwin is ENTJ.

For some personality fun that even the younger ones could get in on, the kids found a site that sorted them into their Hogwarts houses:

Eleanor: Ravenclaw
Julia: Hufflepuff
Isabel: Gryffindor
Jack: Slytherin
Diana: Ravenclaw
(I'm guessing that William is Gryffindor, based on his willingness to do just about anything, no matter how reckless. Maybe that's just being three, though.)

I'm putting myself in Ravenclaw because that's what I like.

All this knowledge is well and good, but how does one apply it to homeschooling? Simply Convivial has a page devoted to how personality type affects your homeschooling style, which was fascinating even for the kids to apply to themselves. But for me:
INTJ - the determined homeschool mom. 
INTJs are the most rare type among women, but you will find them disproportionately represented in the homeschool world. That's because they have zero tolerance for stupidity, they have drive, and they prefer to be unconventional and do things their own way. An INTJ will always create a system that is consistent with her principles, but following-through on it quickly becomes tedious and draining. Likewise, she has a keen awareness of the underlying worldview or principles she encounters, but her sense of her physical surroundings suffers the more she exercises her attention to ideas. 
Strengths: confidence, problem-solving, ability to turn theory into practice, fostering independence in her children 
Difficulties: handling noise & hubbub, obsessing, showing affection, noticing emotional or physical cues 
Style: nothing scripted, everything researched, decisions made based on their own priorities and principles; generally focused on reading & writing with few outside commitments or activities or also likely to be STEM-invested.
As with everything, it's not 100% applicable, but pretty close. For example, I don't have difficulty picking up on emotional or physical cues. I simply choose to overlook them if I don't want to reward certain histrionics with notice, or if they are out of proportion to the situation. But I do carefully note when outbursts or frustrations seem to coincide with being sick or hungry, or with monthly cycles, or whether some people just need a nap or quiet time. It's not hard for me to pick up on emotional cues, and it's not hard for me to ignore them either.

But four functions are not enough to understand personality. Let's kick it up to eight.

These four functions — intuition, sensing, thinking, feeling — are actually eight. Each of them can be introverted or extroverted, used for internal operations or external activity.
Here’s a handy chart to help summarize this information:
How you learn and what you notice (by cognitive function).
Each of the Myers-Briggs types has a primary function, a secondary function, a tertiary function, and an inferior function. Every primary/secondary pair has one introverted and one extroverted function, one perception and one decision function. The lower two will be sort of a mirror pair of the top two.

How you decide the right thing to do (by cognitive function).
This is key to understanding how to manage energy for your type.
If everything you do requires you to act outside of your primary function, you will be worn down quick as anything. It’s extra work to use anything other than your top one or two functions.
Again, applying this to my children, it seems to account in some key ways for their personalities, in ways that make me laugh out loud with recognition.

So for me, my functions are:

Primary: Ni -- introverted intuition. Perspective is key; wants deep insight.
Secondary: Te -- extroverted thinking. Effectiveness is the goal; wants to do what works.
Tertiary: Fi -- introverted feeling. Authenticity is the goal; wants to act with conviction.
Inferior: Se -- extroverted sensing. Sensation is thrilling; wants verifiable information.

Looking at the bottom two functions, the tertiary Fi explains why I've never been able to make Latin work in our homeschool. It seems so authentic! But just feeling like "real homeschoolers do Latin" is not enough to make it stick for me. And the inferior Se says everything about my avoidance of hands-on science experiments, and why last year's time-intensive lab-heavy science curriculum was dropped within weeks. And it speaks to why co-ops wear me out and make the rest of the day dead time.

On the other hand, the primary Ni fits perfectly with my readaloud culture and love for big ideas and the big picture. The secondary Te explains why we keep coming back to certain workbook math curriculum and phonics pages. They just work.

The next step to create a plan based on this information. I've been reading through some planning series at edsnapshots and flipping through the posts at Simply Convivial. Also, even if you're not battling serious illness or physical inconvenience, there's a lot of good advice and perspective to be gained from Brandy Vencel's series, The Low-Energy Mom's Guide to Homeschooling, which contains the post where I found the eight function personality chart above.

You'll notice that none of this is about specific curriculum choices. That comes later, to my mind, because if there's one lesson I learned over this past year, it's that you have to know who you are and how you function before you go throwing just anything onto the bookshelf.

Monday, June 12, 2017

1918 in History and Wonder Woman

Over the weekend MrsDarwin and I had a chance to catch the Wonder Woman movie, which the eldest three children had already watched and enjoyed on opening weekend. I enjoyed it a good deal as superhero movies go. It's not a genre that I'm deeply into, but I do enjoy light hearted action spectaculars, and super hero movies are where a lot of that acting, directing, and writing talent are directing their energies these days.

Within the range of superhero movies I thought this was better written, acted, and directed than most. Gal Gadot is not only visually striking brings an innocence and warmth to the Diana/Wonder Woman character which really carried the movie. While Diana learns during the course of the movie that saving humanity from self destruction is not as easy as she initially thought, her idealism becomes deeper rather than jaded as she gains a clearer view of what people outside of the isolated island of the Amazons are like. There's a key way in which I think the ending could have been more interesting in that regard, rather than sticking with the traditional battle-between-gods ending of a superhero movie (in this case, literally, since the world of Wonder Woman is one in which a modified Greek pantheon actually exists) but I'll address that in the spoiler section after the break. Overall, a good movie and I'd recommend it.

One of the interesting things about this Wonder Woman is the choice to set it in 1918. The comic book character originated in 1941 and her early adventures apparently involved fighting the Nazis as well as various criminals. The movie's creators explained the decision as follows:

When Heinberg and producer Zack Snyder were first breaking down the story structure for the film, WWI was appealing for a few reasons. “It’s the first time we had an automated war,” Heinberg says. “The machine gun was a new invention. Gas was used for the first time. New horrors were unleashed every day.”
“World War I is the first time that civilization as we know it was finding its roots, but it’s not something that we really know the history of,” [director Patty Jenkins] adds. “Even the way that it was unclear who was in the right of WWI is a really interesting parallel to this time. Then you take a god with a moral compass and a moral belief system, and you drop them into this world, there are questions about women’s rights, about a mechanized war where you don’t see who you are killing. It’s such a cool time.”

It's also obvious that it was visually interesting to the film makers, letting them use a steam-punk palette blending the Edwardian and the modern that contrasts strikingly with the fantasy-Hellenic ethic of the island of the Amazons. 1918 is a year short of a hundred years ago, and as such it's edging into the mythic past of popular memory. World War II, by contrast, is still "grandpa's war" to a lot of people, and as such still has a prosaic quality to its appearance. And the Great War famously stood on the threshold of modernity. When Diana visits a department store in London, she's shown clothing that wouldn't be much out of place in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. (Actually, one of the later Holmes stories, "His Last Bow", involves Holmes catching a German agent as the war is beginning in 1914.)
And yet we also see airplanes, tanks, poison gas, and a fairly fanciful version of one of the German heavy bombers which were used in the latter part of the war.
Yet I wish that the filmmakers had incorporated a bit more of the actual historical dynamics of 1918 into the movie. It would have fit well, and perhaps even helped round out a final scene which was one of the few somewhat weak writing choices in an otherwise well done movie.

First the history:

By the spring of 1918 the major powers had been at war for nearly four years. The mobile and incredibly bloody months of fighting in 1914 had brought both sides of an exhausted standstill and the troops had dug defensive position, the trenches which are the primary visual impression that we have of World War One. During 1915-1917, both sides took turns trying to break the stalemate through building up their industrial capacity to allow attacks using hitherto undreamed of quantities of munitions, new battlefield tactics, and new weapons such as poison gas and tanks. But each new development by one side was met by new counters by the other, and so rather than the hoped-for breakthrough both sides had been forced to content themselves with waging a campaign of human and material attrition, hoping the other side would run out of men, munitions, and food first.

In 1917 two potentially game-changing things happened. Imperial Russia fell to a series of revolutions, the last of which delivered the communist Bolsheviks to power. The communist leaders negotiated a separate peace with German, taking one of the key Entente powers out of the war and giving German vast swaths of Ukraine and Poland from which to draw food. However, the United States also joined the war, declaring war on German in April 1917. While peace on the Eastern Front meant that Germany could shift many of its troops from the East to the West (potentially giving them a large enough numerical advantage to stage a war-ending offensive) the entry of the US into the war promised that over the next 1-3 years millions more troops could be added to the Entente side, shifting the balance of power distinctly in their favor.

To try to end the war before the US became a major factor, Germany staged a massive offensive on the Western Front beginning in March 1918. These smashed through the French and British lines, advancing up to thirty miles and putting Paris under serious threat of occupation for the first time since 1914. However, the battered French and British troops still had enough fight left in them to inflict massive casualties on the attacking Germans, who also suffered huge difficulties keeping their troops supplied as they advanced over the broken landscape of the Western Front. The Germans suffered nearly a million causalities during the attacks, and ended them an exhausted force. With fresh (if inexperienced) American troops pouring in, the Entente began their own offensive in August 1918 and during the next three months retook all the German gains from the spring offensives, then drove them back another fifty miles, ejecting them from virtually all of France and from parts of Belgium.

At the end of September, General Ludendorff (the quartermaster general of the Imperial Army and the right hand man of supreme commander General Hindenburg, and recrafted into a villain in the Wonder Woman movie) declared that a collapse of the line might be only hours away and the army's general staff encouraged the civilian government to seek an armistice with the Entente. The civilian government proceeded to open negotiations, but these were made slow by the fact that Wilson wanted the Kaiser to abdicate and be replaced by a fully democratic government while the British and French wanted a peace that looked a lot more like a German surrender than the high minded phrases of Wilson's fourteen points had suggested. In this sense, the British and French were simply noting what the German high command had also seen: that the German army was increasingly a beaten force. They knew they could crush the German empire militarily fairly soon if there was no armistice, and though there was eagerness to end the war (and the horrifically high casualty rates which the resumption of mobile warfare had caused) sooner if possible, they wanted to make sure that the fangs of their enemy were fully pulled if they were to lay down arms.

Throughout October the allied armies continued to advance and the negotiations continued. At the last minute, objecting to what he saw as the harsh terms of the armistice, Ludendorff changed his mind in late October and insisted the German army should fight on. However, by this time it was clear that the German Empire was in a state of near collapse and revolution. On November 8th a delegation of German officials crossed the lines to negotiate the final terms, though they were in little position to push back against allied demands. On November 9th the Kaiser abdicated and a republic was declared. At 5:00AM on November 11th, they agreed to the armistice, which was to be effective as of 11:00AM that same day (deemed to be as soon as word could be got to all positions on both sides.)

The Wonder Woman movie is set in these final days of the war and involves an attempt by the movies villains to prolong the war just as it is coming to an end. However, aside from the fact that an armistice is being discussed an a character named General Ludendorff is trying to prolong the war and achieve a German victory, the setting is more of a generic WW1 than the particular moment of fall 1918. When Wonder Woman encounters the trenches of the front line, her guide tells her that despite heavy fighting these lines have moved only inches in the last year of fighting. The negotiations for an armistice are ongoing, but in the movie world it seems to be a general agreement of both sides to stop fighting, rather than an allied victory. I think there are some interesting choices the writers could have made to incorporate more history and at the same moment strengthen a weakness of the ending.

Spoilers to follow:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death Comes for the Guinea Pig

Last Saturday evening we were running all over the house, straightening up for a Pentecost potluck. People were yelling at each other, tripping over each other, bossing and objecting and protesting. Added to that was the mechanical noise -- the dryer, the dishwasher, the vacuum I was pushing around the dining room, sucking up dinner debris and the hay around Piggy's cage. Piggy, whose given name (not given by us) is Big Electric Piggy, has been a resident of the dining room for the four years since her cage was put there temporarily while her owners across the street staged their house to sell. They moved, she didn't, and ever since we've been the bemused caregivers of a guinea pig.

Piggy is a harmless creature and doesn't do anything novel, so I thought it odd that she was laying on her side kicking her back feet in a way I'd never seen before. A second later, I realized that she was convulsing. I called for Darwin, and he and everyone came running, and the evening abruptly shifted gears.

While Darwin snuggled Piggy in a towel, the oldest googled for information about guinea pigs and convulsions, discovering in the process that the life expectancy for piggies is 4-8 years. Piggy was at least 10 years old, though nobody knew for sure, so the prognosis didn't look good. Everyone took turns patting her head and telling her she was a good piggy, and after about ten minutes she grew very still and her eyes became glazed and opaque.

A shoebox was found, and a grave was dug, and Piggy was interred with all due ceremonies. The mourning continued on, with younger children wailing for the lost pig, and stuffed animals needing to be located and tucked in with everybody for comfort -- Piggy more essential in death than she ever was in life. In the morning, grief was assuaged, and we went on as usual, but without the little presence in the corner of the dining room to give an amiable squeak every now and then.

The kids are already asking for another guinea pig, but I'm not willing to add another animal into the house before the baby is born. But I do think we'll get another piggy soon. She was a good and gentle creature, and probably more missed now by the parents than the children. I told the kids, the night she died, that she was probably nibbling grass now in the Garden of Eden, and why not? Piggy was the least offensive creature that ever lived, and the primal paradise seems about the right place for animal souls. I hope she's adding her small squeak to the celestial harmony.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

D-Day: Planning, Chaos and the Human Decision Maker

I was reading this old Atlantic piece by WW2 army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall, in which he recounts the fates of several of the hardest hit companies that landed on Omaha Beach 73 years ago today.

D-Day is a fascinating intersection of complex, detailed planning and completely unpredictable, seemingly chaos-driven, human choices and experiences. Massive amounts of planning, logistics, and training went into getting the American, British, and Canadian troops to the Normandy beaches, delivering them in effective landing craft and providing them with the necessary equipment. The attack plans, the naval bombardment, the areal bombardment, the parachute drops-- all were meticulously planned.

And yet the story of many of the units which went ashore is one of chaos: Boats foundering, boats landing in the wrong place, men drowning or wounded in the water.

The breakthroughs off the beach are seemingly a combination of unbelievable courage and complete chance. Many brave men full of initiative were killed without any chance to lead up and off the beach. Others escaped horrendous fire by seemingly random chance and led the way inland.

Those who trained the men in the first waves might have had a good idea which men had the most leadership and courage, but they had no way of knowing which would have the opportunity to use those skills.

Does this mean the work of the planners and trainers was all for naught? Was the operation really simply a matter of chaos and chance? Was it the sort of battle in which the work of the staff and logistics officers were useless while the day was won by the bravery of individual grunts, NCOs, and junior officers?

The answer is that all elements were essential to the success: the grunts, the planners, the supply lines, and a dose of luck.

The planners could not have known which men would have the chance to make it through the storm of fire on the beaches, but they were responsible for getting enough men there, on time and with the right equipment, so that whoever did have the opportunity to lead men off the beach would be able to do so. The plans for a huge operation such as this can seem mechanistic: put all the pieces in place and expect them to move through the planned motions like pieces on a game board. However, these are thinking pieces, responding to the situations they face with fear, bravery, leadership, or paralysis. At each individual point, the success or failure of the attack was the result of the very individual actions and reactions of the Allied attackers and German defenders. And yet it took incredible planning to put all those men there, with the confidence that in the chaos of the day enough of them would win through.

Itch Report

To all who made recommendations for treating poison ivy, my grateful thanks. I'm sorry to report that the Zanfel didn't do anything for my case except to pop the innumerable sensitive blisters on my forearm. On the other hand, my 11yo, who used it on her face, cleared up very quickly.

The poison ivy on my arms lingered on for another month. Finally I went to the urgent care and was given a prescription for a steroid cream, Benedryl, and Pepcid. (Something about Pepcid is supposed to disrupt the poison ivy? I didn't find that it worked all that well.) Everyone knows that oral steroids are the fastest way to clear up poison ivy, but they're also a class D drug in pregnancy, and certainly counterindicated for someone as far along as I am. Like I need baby getting any bigger!

The cream didn't work much better than a placebo, to be honest, and the patches on my arm looked like I'd been badly burned. I eventually switched from the steroid cream to a scar cream to try to mitigate the permanent damage. Now, seven weeks later, I'm finally healing up. My blotches are still visible, but much milder and smaller than they were. Much as having a body wears me out, it's remarkable to watch it healing itself from the edges in. The texture of the skin is creeping back to normal, even if it's still sensitive and itchy when brushed.

All well and good, but then, as the poison ivy was first showing signs of healing, I broke out in itchy spots elsewhere: stomach, upper arms, the backs of my thighs. This itch, friends, was misery. I still have a scab on my shin where I scratched the skin off in a frenzy. I laid awake at night, rotating through the inventory of scratching, wondering what on earth was going on. It wasn't poison ivy anymore. This was something new, and unfair, I thought, considering that I'd just been through one iteration of itch.

One day my daughter wanted to see what the baby looked like, so I pulled up a pregnancy website and read about 34 weeks. After we cooed over the baby image, I read down the rest of the page and came to: 
If you notice itchy red bumps or welts on your belly, and possibly your thighs and buttocks as well, you may have a condition called pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP for short). 
Up to 1 percent of pregnant women develop PUPPP, which is harmless but can be quite uncomfortable. See your healthcare provider so she can make sure it's not a more serious problem, provide treatment to make you more comfortable, and refer you to a dermatologist if necessary. Also be sure to call her if you feel intense itchiness all over your body, even if you don't have a rash. It could signal a liver problem.
I consulted Dr. Wikipedia and did a little self-diagnosing. 
Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP), known in United Kingdom as polymorphic eruption of pregnancy (PEP),[1] is a chronic hives-like rash that strikes some women during pregnancy. Although extremely annoying for its sufferers (because of the itch), it presents no long-term risk for either the mother or unborn child. PUPPP frequently begins on the abdomen and spreads to the legs, feet, arms, chest, and neck.[2] 
Papules and plaques usually start appearing on the abdomen (although not on the umbilicus/bellybutton) and often spreads to the legs, chest, underarms, etc. The face is usually also spared and does not seem to become affected. 
Skin distension (stretching) is a common factor in PUPPP, which is more common in mothers with large fundal measurements and/or those who are carrying large babies, twins, and triplets. The papules and plaques often first appear within stretch marks.
Certain studies reveal that this condition is more frequent in women carrying boys, although no formal research has been conducted. Statistics cite that 70% of PUPPP sufferers deliver boys. Some researchers think it has to do with male DNA interacting with the mother's body causing irritation. 
PUPPP's occurs in about 1 in every 200 pregnancies and is not always easy to diagnose.
My children are delighted to think that I may be carrying twins or triplets (dream on, kids).

When I next went to my OB, I mentioned it, and had my self-diagnosis confirmed, every internet researcher's dream. My many friends who sell essential oils will be glad to know that the OB said that the only thing he'd ever heard of that helped the PUPPP itch was lavender oil (properly diluted), and that I've already acquired some lavender oil, but thanks anyway. And it does seem to work! I slather myself up each evening, and my itchiness is generally appeased.

I'm beginning to think, though, that we should just name baby Spot.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Reading, Translating, and Decoding

As we wrap up a year of family German classes (fulfilling foreign language requirements for the old kids and providing a chance to for me to check off something that I've been wanting to learn in order to help with research, etc.) I find myself taking stock of my abilities in the language. What I want, even more than the ability to converse fluently (which I have little opportunity for) is the ability to read in German relatively well. Right now I'm at something of a halfway stage. I know enough of the grammar and the most common words that I can translate a passage, with ample help from a dictionary to look up words I don't know. (Honestly, I'm usually just typing unfamiliar words into my phone or computer, because it's faster than turning pages to learn meanings.)

However, as I was working through a couple pages of German this way the other night, it was striking me that aside from my vocabulary issues there's still something fundamentally different about what I'm doing in comparison to how an actual German reader would deal with a text. What I'm doing right now might be better termed decoding, because in some ways I'm still turning things into a more standard English structure as I figure them out.

For instance, the use of a past continuous is very common in German, and a standard sentence order in that case is: [Phrase denoting time or place] [helping verb: a form of sein (to be) or haben (to have)] [subject] [object] [past participle].

Laying something like that out in English might go like this:

Early in the morning had we on the train to Berlin to ride.

Of course, in English we'd keep the verb together, and a natural order would be something like:

We had to ride on the train to Berlin early in the morning.

Now, these are easy enough words that I'd make it through fine on my own and wouldn't even be consulting the dictionary, but throw in a bunch of vocabulary and I find myself going back to my old schoolboy Latin habits. Latin, of course, also has the habit of saving the verb for last. We all get the explanation during the early weeks of our first Latin class that this creates a sense of anticipation as you want to find out what is being done by the subject to the object in the sentence. However, I virtually always did what a lot of beginning decoders of a foreign language do: I would identify my subject, then jump to the end of the sentence and wee what my verb was, then go back and pick up the rest of the sentence. In essence, I was transforming the sentence into English sentence order as I went along.

This is fine for getting the sense of what's written, but it strikes me that if you stick with this, you never really move into thinking in the other language the way a speaker or reader of it would. Germans, I would assume, are not constantly jumping to the end of the sentence to see what the participle is. They see "hatte" (I had) or "war" (I was) and then they just hang on until they reach the end of the sentence and find out what I was or I had been doing.

Perhaps speed and vocabulary is a good part of what helps here. When I'm reading in English, even a weird sentence order doesn't leave me hanging so long that I get confused or frustrated and go searching for my verb. I'm moving fast enough that I take in all the parts and assemble them into a sensible whole.

So continuing to improve my vocabulary is probably part of what it will take to move from this decoding or translating approach to actual reading, but the other part is to develop some greater flexibility of mind such that I don't find it hard to simply process the sentence in the order that it comes, rather than mentally rearranging it to its "correct" order.


Jen Fitz has a great response post on developing natural reading ability in a foreign language.

Bearing also has a great response post about techniques for addressing alien grammar.

Boy, all this engagement is also like the old days of blogging. I should write about language learning more often!

Friday, June 02, 2017

One Impossible Thing, Before Breakfast

8:30 am, Friday. Summer.

One child in the bedroom, on the laptop, with earphones on, after bellowing, "Get out!" at siblings.

One child in the shower, bellowing "Part of Your World".

One child sitting on the floor, sifting through the container of the guinea pig's "cereal".

Two children on Netflix, watching Weird Wonders of the World.

And one child standing at my shoulder as I try to write out a grocery list.

"Mom? Is it true that the man pees into the woman, and that's what makes a baby?"

"Wha...? No, he doesn't pee."

"Then what does he do?"

"It's a different fluid, called sperm. The sperm is the seed that fertilizes the woman's egg."

"So he pees sperm into her belly button?"

"No, not the belly button... And he doesn't pee."

"So, the man basically doesn't do anything?"

I struggle to keep down a shout of laughter, but my face is fighting me, just as it did the other day the second after I demanded, "Why did you call your sister 'buttface'?"

The child knows something is up. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing. The man has to put his private parts into the woman to get the sperm in her."

"In her bottom?"

"No, where she pees. The baby has to go in the same way it comes out."


"Yes, isn't it? And that's why only married people who love and trust each other should do anything to make a baby. Now let me make my list if you want to go to the picnic today."

Well, it is pretty bizarre when you think about.