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

Friday, December 31, 2021

Science and Sanity in the Valley of COVID

 As we reach the end of 2021, and approach two years of COVID, I find myself wanting to look back and assess a bit, because there are two opposite trends that I see.

On the one hand, there are the basic facts of the pandemic: the virus is worse than the common respiratory viruses to which we are accustomed, and two years in we continue to see above-average death rates among adults as a result.

Among those who are 65 or older, we're seeing about 8,000 more deaths than usual per week, which amounts to 20% above the normal rate.  (This data comes from the CDC Flu View dashboard which you can access here: )

Among adults under 65, there have been an average of 5,000 more deaths per week than is normal over the last twelve weeks.  This is 40% above the normal death rate: younger adults are less likely to die in general. 

The group which is clearly not dying much from COVID is kids. The average deaths per week for people under 18 is slightly lower than usual.

The other thing worth noting about COVID is that despite the much discussed breakthrough infections, the vaccines really do work quite well in preventing serious disease (as well as someone well preventing spread in general.)

Looking at the CDC data on COVID hospitalizations by age group for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, even for those over 65 people who have been vaccinated are less likely to end up in the hospital with COVID than unvaccinated 18-49 year olds. 

For all other age groups, vaccinated people are about as likely to end up in the hospital with COVID as are kids, which is to say: very unlikely.

So on these basic facts, the COVID hawks (which is often but not exclusively the left and the 'elite') basically have the story right. COVID is a virus which is causing real ill effects on the American population, and the vaccines really do help a great deal.

And yet, this same group of COVID hawks and elites, increasingly showing themselves as incapable of dealing with the pandemic as a human phenomenon with any sense of perspective. We're treated to a steady trickle of despairing pieces about how people have "given up" on ever living normal lives again. The federal government is requiring kids aged 2 and up in Head Start sponsored pre-school programs to mask all the time, despite the fact that such young children are virtually unthreated by the virus and masks aren't terribly effective anyway. Many areas require people to ritually wear masks while entering restaurants, before taking them off to eat -- something which perhaps does much to visually telegraph concern but does nothing to actually protect people. The private college down the road from us laid off a large number of faculty this year to cut costs, but is still spending significant amounts of money on having people spray disinfectant on all surfaces multiple times per day -- a most shown to be ineffective eighteen months ago.

And aside from these petty gestures of unseriousness, many of our managerial elites seem unable to even figure out what are reasonable measures by which to judge success or failure, emergency vs normality, etc. Two years in to the pandemic, many COVID hawks still seem to be working with the implicit assumption that with sufficient diligence  we will somehow be back to a world in which COVID simply does not exist. Even as with high levels of vaccination and the apparently less severe (but more easily spread) Omicron variant, the metric of case counts becomes less important, politicians and health officials still routinely act as if trying to enact restrictions to get to zero cases is reasonable approach.

By comparison, those (often on the right) who shrug off the usefulness of COVID vaccines and sometimes indulge in a shifting set of excuses to ignore the seriousness of the virus, often have a more healthy basic attitude towards life and the death: There are dangers in the world. Death could come at any time. We must do what we can but also live our lives and accept that we do not know the day or the hour when our lives will come to an end.

On the one hand, I'm deeply saddened (and more than a fit frustrated) that some of those who have faced their own deaths or those of their friends or family have done so needlessly. The COVID vaccines really are quite safe and are good at preventing the virus from being more severe. And yet, this group has a better understanding of the basic issues of life and death. 

We cannot reduce risk to zero. At this point, it's become clear that we also are not going to reach zero COVID. Though deaths and severe illness will be lower if everyone was vaccinated, it is also the case that this may mean that deaths will be higher in the next decade than in the last. Our status quo ante was, all things considered, pretty good from a health point of view. Certainly, we desire to see medical science to continue to defeat infectious and genetic diseases. We want to see new treatments that allow people to live longer and healthier. But there is no guarantee that we were entitled to the death rate of 2019. 

As COVID becomes endemic, the increased death rates of the last couple years can be expected to moderate. Most people will have some degree of immunity due to vaccine or having had the virus. And the virus's desire to have live hosts will select towards less deadly variants. But we may find ourselves living in a slightly shorter-lived world than we were before, and to do so in constant anxiety and strife will not change that fact, must make it more unpleasant. 

On the grander things, those who realize that we must live our lives with the understanding that death is at the same time unexpected and inevitable have the right of it.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Africa and the Demographics of Future Catholicism

 I've got a new piece up at The Pillar which was very interesting to work on, in that I both learned several things I hadn't realized before about world demographics and I learned some new technical and data visualization skills.

The topic is the demography of African Catholicism, and no we couldn't help entitling it "Demography Reigns Down in Africa"

There are two key things to understand about why Africa will be a key part of the face of global Christianity in the coming decades.

First, is that Africa converted to Christianity rapidly during the first half of the 20th century.  In 1900 Africa was only 9% Christian, despite a history of Christianity on the continent dating back to not long after the apostles.  By 1970, 40% of the population was Christian. Today, Christians make up 50% of Africans (42% are Muslim and 8% follow indigenous religious traditions.)  Catholicism has been a significant part of that growth.  In 1900 2% of the population was Catholic.  By 1970 it was 12% and today 18% of Africans are Catholic.

Second, however, is the unique demographic growth of Africa. Commentators used to talk about the Global South as one overall phenomenon, but today Africa stands apart from all all regions as the only continent with a fertility rate significantly above the replacement level. As a result, Africa will become an increasingly large player in all aspects of the world in the coming decades, from the global workforce to the Catholic Church.

There's a lot of detail in the article, and of course I recommend subscribing to The Pillar if you haven't done so already. Although a paid subscription helps support our work, you still get all the articles with a free subscription and simply having more subscribers helps us too!

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Picking Up, Again

Entrance Hall of Saint-Paul Hospital, Vincent Van Gogh

The effect of the last month -- and today marks a month since I stared at a positive pregnancy test -- has been chaotic. It's as if the world turned upside down, and everything in the house crashed around. And then, once I picked myself up and started arranging the furniture and the cabinets so that we could move forward living on the ceiling, the world flipped back over. Now the house is right-side-up once more, but everything I'd started neatening is on the floor again, and I'm bruised in mind and body. 

I don't know what moral one takes from all this, except that being a middle-aged woman is a bitch. But one thing which has jolted me, pleasantly, is the startling kindness of so many. In my darker moments -- and I believe this is true of many of us who could be described as the Older Brother type, those of us who go through life with a stiff upper lip and a minimum of drama, who pick up after others and don't tend to bleed all over the place -- I've wondered if anyone would take a step out of the way if I ever needed help. Lo and behold, many steps were taken. People appeared on my doorstep with food. A nurse friend came over at night to check my blood pressure and oxygen. The Knights of Columbus started a prayer chain. And so many gracious friends sent me messages after I wrote about being pregnant unexpectedly and about miscarrying, sending me love, and telling me their own stories.

It's hard to strike the right balance in talking about pain that's still raw. I wasn't ready to talk about being pregnant, and neither was I ready to talk about miscarriage. Maybe I'm still not ready. The difficult thing about being human is that we must communicate, and that means that sometimes it's necessary to talk about imperfectly processed things. I don't know that if that kind of vulnerability ever feels easier. But I've had to do a lot of it lately, and I have been comforted, not by having my burden lifted, but by others carrying their burdens next to me. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

West Side Story

I can tell you what I saw on screen during West Side Story -- stunning visuals of a neighborhood half demolished to make room for the gleaming Lincoln Performing Arts Center, swirling dresses and a fiery red petticoat, dancing that knocks the breath out of you, and some heartbreaking, star-quality performances from Mike Faist as Riff, the fey leader of the Jets, David Alvarez as his Sharks counterpart Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita, who's ready to make it big in America. Faist in particular is riveting: gaunt, abandoned, a leader of men, and hot damn, can he dance.

All the men can dance here, and dance in character. Every male in America should be required to dress like either the Sharks and the Jets (properly laundered, of course, unlike the slum waifs here), though of course the look depends on being rail thin and having the exquisite careless grace of trained dancers playing tough guys. Gee willikers, Officer Krupke, I could have watched them boys all day, so many different beautiful faces.

Speaking of beautiful faces, the luminous Rachel Zegler plays Maria with a deep reserve of inner strength. She's more than a match, vocally and craft-wise, for Ansel Elgort's Tony, one of the film's rare missteps. I don't know whether Elgort's understated performance and punch-pulling vocals were a directorial choice or an actor trying to fill a role he isn't ready to play; I suspect there's a mix of both. Elgort's singing should have been pushed one level richer, but the fault seemed partly in the sound editing that didn't allow his lines or his voice to linger on notes the way that Zegler's sweet singing demanded. He looks right, but his stoic performance is a puzzling choice, especially given the few places where he's allowed to shine. An electrifying game of keep-away with a gun in "Cool" shows that Elgort has the dance chops for the role, anyway.

There's lots of updated script doctoring of the the type I like: deeper character moments, more backstory for everyone, everyone treated as a human, every situation treated as complex. Rita Moreno, the original cinematic Anita, gets a lovely role as the widowed proprietress of Doc's Drug Store. Some of the dialogue is unsubtitled Puerto Rican-accented Spanish, and this is entirely correct. (You'll know exactly what's going on because the actors can all act.) I don't hold the original movie in exaggerated regard, although I know almost every note of the score by heart. This version is directed by Spielberg, and that means we're in competent hands and can relax. 

So that's what I saw. Here's what I can tell you about how this new West Side Story struck me: I walked in the theater sad and grieving, and left happy. And then I dragged all my older kids to see it today, and they left happy. And if it comes to my small historic local theater, I'll see it again, and leave happy again. And I'd take all of you with me if I could. But since I can't, go see it for me, and be happy.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

What To Expect When You're Not Expecting

Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, Vincent van Gogh

The good news is that my ultrasound shows nothing. Not only will I not need a D and C, but I can let go of the worry of passing the baby in a public restroom, a particularly wearing concern when I have spent a quantity of time in clinics and hospital, where everyone wants a urine sample. ("Is it okay if there's blood too? Sorry, I can't help it.") There is still blood, but it is apparently within the range of normal. There is a wide range of normal.

I am not an expert in miscarriage, and not only that, I'm not an expert in my own miscarriage. My one previous experience was when I was 17 years younger, and it was, though not painless, relatively fast. But there's nothing wrong, besides the essential wrongness of the thing itself, with a miscarriage taking longer. There's nothing abnormal about the quantities of blood I have shed, as I realized when faced with the utter unfazedness of the ER doctor and the midwife who felt that the ultrasound could probably wait until Monday; in short, the professionals who see a lot of this sort of thing, as opposed to the worried chorus of everyone telling me to go in, get it checked out, just in case -- none of whom will be paying the ER bills, of course. What was happening was normal, and normal is a wide range.

There is a certain kind of reverse Chicken Little fatigue that drops on you when you realize, "This is going to be okay." The hapless fowl felt the nut pinging his skull and thought the sky was falling. Here, the sky actually has fallen, but it's also just the seed falling to the ground, again, cracking open, like the seed is supposed to do. My shell has been fragile lately, and I've cracked again and again. Biblically, I suppose that means I'm blessed; all I know is that when I've tried to toughen up my shell this week, I've ended up cracking harder in the end. Deal with it now or it will deal with you later -- that's something you can always expect.

I'm still bleeding, I'm still cramping, but it's going to be okay. I feel normal, for the first time in a long time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021


Still Life with Brass Cauldron and Jug, Vincent Van Gogh

I am sorry to tell you that I have been miscarrying since Saturday, and I am still miscarrying in the wee hours of Wednesday. I have been in labor, of a sort, for day, and I am wearing down -- between the cramps and the blood and the effort required not to take these things out on the innocent, which is everyone including myself.

Perhaps you know the tired smell of old blood, the first indicator that something is wrong. I do.  And I know the smell of the clots, huge slithery malignant plops of blood. And I know the smell of fresh blood, copious amounts of it, cups and cups passed into the little pot of the frog potty which has been sitting mostly unused in my bathroom for ages, so convenient for searching for the slippery little sac which shows that baby has been passed whole, without leaving bits inside. And I will surely find, in days and weeks to come, elusive spatters of blood turning dead and brown in my bathroom, reminder of a semi-week of loss.

The ER has assured me that apparently one can go on soaking several pads an hour and cramping until one's follow-up appointment, as long as one is not light-headed. One has not been been light-headed. One has been all too conscious, awake in the middle of the night, quivering in pain or fury or self-pity or any number of the emotions which everyone assures me must be so all over the place right now. Perhaps they are right: the ER tech doing my ultrasound asked my name, and I found myself dripping tears into my stiff blue surgical mask. 

I have put a lot of effort into remembering that feelings are not a guide to anything except feelings, but as I drag into the eighty-fourth hour of dull ache and more (though less) blood and no reassuring sac, the feeling of grace is stripped away and I am laid bare to the reality of grace. Mankind cannot bear much reality, and neither can womankind, who already are confronted with the reality that their bodies will betray them. So little is in our control, and all we do is try and lay a good foundation on which to rebuild after the storms. Maybe that's the only fruitfulness there is, in the end.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021


Jakob Seissenegger, Portrait of a mother with her eight children, 1565

"Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." -- John 12:24

This doesn't seem to get easier any way I say it, so: having just turned 43, I'm pregnant with my eighth child, who will be born a week before my second child goes off to college.

I've spent a lot of time over the past week and a half falling to the ground and dying, and staring at the wall, and screaming into a towel in the bathroom so the kids won't hear me. It is an odd quirk of being human that sometimes you are called upon to exemplify what you believe, even when it is not convenient or fun. Hello, I am pro-life and follow the teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage and sexuality, but I didn't think I'd have to be literally open to life again. If this is what the purification of purgatory feels like, this stripping away of every illusion I have about who I am and what I can control, I hope I may go straight to heaven when I die.

I am no longer young, even by the reckoning of the Ancient Houses of Men, and now I know that there are many doors that are closed to me, and I cannot see the doors that will open in the future. 

And so, having donated all my baby clothes and thrown out everything except the changing table, which is still in use after almost twenty years, and having mentally moved into the next phase of life, I find that I'm still fruitful, just not in the ways that I choose. Which is the story of the grain of wheat: it falls to the ground, not of its own will, and cracks open, as everything that grows must do, and the old husk is consumed by fruitfulness. I fear, selfishly, for my old husk. It's not in the greatest shape, after falling to the ground and dying seven times before, but it's the husk I have. I am scared of the ways pregnancy will consume me, ways I may never recover from. 

It is early days, and I am still adjusting, but there is no point in keeping pregnancy a secret when soon I will need all the help I can get. I'm sure I will get it too; the congratulations pouring in have a manic undertone of relief -- thank God it's you and not me. I know; I've been there. 

None of this has to do with Baby, who is already doted upon by the siblings whose most fervent wishes have been granted. Baby is a gift, and is loved, and will, as the kind priest told me while I sobbed in confession, be a great source of joy. I know this. Intellectually, I know and believe all these things, and my life is ordered so that I may live what I believe. But even Jesus prayed that the cup may pass, and sweated blood. It's only human.

Readers of Mrs. Dashwood: I had a premonition that November would be a difficult month for writing, though I had no idea. It seemed an important story to tell at the time; it seems very distant now. Perhaps my mojo will return, and the idea will bear fruit, or perhaps that's part of the husk that will die.