Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy Birthday, Kitten!

Today my oldest daughter celebrates her birthday! We have a day of fun and frolic planned, but I wanted to check in here and let you know a little about her.

In order to do that, I told my girls that it was time for the DD#1, DD#2, and DD#3 monikers to go. I had them help me come up with some internet nicknames that I could use when I talk about them--in a day or two I'll create a "Cast of Characters" list with all the Cardigan family nicknames over on the side bar of the blog.

So DD#1, whose birthday is today, is "Kitten." This nickname reflects her love for all of God's creatures, and her special love for cats--which persists even though family allergies won't actually let her have a cat at the moment. Kitten is growing up to be a lovely young lady! She is helpful and responsible, and from the time that she was a tiny child she would insist that her two younger sisters share in whatever she was given (I remember having to explain to her that our youngest baby couldn't actually have Easter candy, yet, one year!). Kitten brightens all of my days with her willingness to pitch in and help, and her tremendous competence in all the things she does. She's taller than me already, and doesn't mind being asked to reach up and get something from a tall shelf for me (it still makes her smile). Her favorite birthday present was bought a few days early this year: a pet Betta fish of her own, in a little aquarium in her room. I knew she'd be able to handle the responsibility of taking care of this little pet because she helps Dad every week with the water changes and maintenance of the big aquarium. We'll be heading off to the zoo in a bit--Kitten's favorite place to celebrate!

Our other two daughters appreciate their oldest sister's sweet and serious nature and abundant generosity. Bookgirl, formerly known as DD#2, and Hatchick, formerly known as DD#3, are looking forward to celebrating Kitten's birthday and spent some time early this morning making her some birthday cards to let her know how much they appreciate her!

God bless, Kitten! You were God's first gift to Dad and me; you've made our lives very rich, and we love you dearly!

Friday, December 28, 2007

That Point

I have just about reached That Point.

Some of you may already have reached That Point; some of you may not reach That Point until some time next week or the week after; and some of you, patient saints that you are, are nowhere near That Point yet.

I didn't use to reach That Point so quickly. In some ways, having my oldest DD born on New Year's Eve helped That Point come faster, but in others, I'm sure just having children in general is responsible for the speed with which That Point arrives. Perhaps in years far distant, when my children are grown and I eagerly enjoy visits with them and the grandchildren (God willing!) That Point will get pushed off a little farther again, but for now, I start fighting the arrival of That Point as early as today. As early as three days after Christmas.

No, That Point has nothing to do with lost tempers or bad moods or the urge to clean every square inch of the house--those points have already come, and I'm sitting in a rather clean (for three days after Christmas!) living room as I write this. That Point isn't even about the plans I keep weaving for the next semester of school, which continually lace themselves in among my other thoughts. It's a lot simpler and more mundane.

That Point is the point at which I start hankering to take down and put away the Christmas decorations.

Now, I know perfectly well that Christmas is a season, and it isn't over yet. I know that leaving up the signs and symbols of Christmas helps us focus on the real meaning behind all the celebrating. I'm aware of the fact that the Wise Men aren't even supposed to be at the Nativity scene, yet, although they often arrive ahead of schedule in our house.

I know that outside decorations aren't the problem, either--I'm very minimalist when it comes to outside decorating, which is a much nicer thing to say than that I'm lazy. We have electric candles in the windows; we sometimes put lights on the front bushes. We didn't this year, so the candles are it--not exactly a huge burden to take down and put away.

Our indoor decorations are modest, too: we have two Nativity sets, the Jesse tree, a couple of candles and assorted Christmas-themed knicknacks. Oh, and the Christmas tree, of course.

Of course. And of course it's the Christmas tree that I'm eager to take down.

It's an artificial tree--my allergies can be bad enough this time of year without adding a live tree to the atmosphere, unfortunately. So I'm not having the "dying brown branches/needles all over the floor" problem that some people are having by now. It's not a huge tree, either--but then, the den it's in isn't a huge room. And it has to be in the den because that's where the fireplace is--the one year we tried putting it in the bigger living room didn't work out well at all.

It's decorated with lots of memories, ornaments I received as a child, ornaments my children have been receiving for the past several years. Putting up the ornaments on Gaudete Sunday is something the girls and I eagerly anticipate every year. We play Christmas music, eat cookies, and talk about where the 'favorite' ornaments came from. It's a Christmas tradition we very much enjoy.

Taking the ornaments down is more of a chore, really. Some years I sneak the boxes inside after the children are in bed and do the whole thing myself. In a way, I enjoy that, too--knowing that the next time the ornaments appear it will be the beginning of another joyous Christmas season, a new year of hopes and dreams and memories behind us again. I may not be playing Christmas music, and the cookies have been banished with the dawn of the New Year's Diet, but there's something very peaceful about it all.

Maybe it all has something to do with the many moves my family made when I was a child. Taking down the Christmas tree is a little like packing, and packing, ironically enough, reminds me of home. Perhaps putting away the tree opens up the space in the corner again and makes me think of the new year and all its new possibilities, thoughts that begin to drift through my mind as soon as I see my oldest daughter's birthday begin to approach on the calendar.

Christmas is a season, and since January 6, Epiphany, actually falls on a Sunday this year the tree won't really come down until at least the Monday or Tuesday after that. I may have started to reach That Point, but I can wait.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Virtual Night Before...

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the Net
Not a pixel was stirring, not e'en a LOL pet.
All the photos were hung at "Three Sons" and at "Bean's"
In hopes that St. Nick saw them on an iScreen
The children were offline, but not yet asleep
And Dad and I thought that we'd take just a peep
Not expecting much traffic or planning to post
Just deleting a spammer or two, at the most
When all of a sudden my mailbox chimed
Like some noise I would mention, if only it rhymed
Away to my inbox I surfed pretty quick
And opened the message with one well-placed click
The light from the ceiling shone bright on my screen
But there wasn't much lustre at all to be seen
Still, what to my wondering eyes should then scroll
But a message marked "Sender: S. Claus, @ N. Pole"
I saw at a glance that the note was quite long--
What could St. Nick be saying? Was anything wrong?
More wordy than typed Christmas letters it seemed
And I found myself thinking that Claus had been meme'd.
Hi, Red, it began, quite informal and breezy;
The tone was so friendly that I could breathe easy.
I hope you're not reading this on Christmas Night!
If you are, then I know my suspicions are right.
I'm afraid, don't you see, that you're online too often.
He went on; but never the blow did he soften.
He mentioned some dates; his facts were not fiction
He knew all the truth of my blogging addiction
He saw that I'd blogged when I should have been sleeping
(I was truly amazed at the logs he'd been keeping.)
He wrote rather sternly; I'd have to improve,
Or my name from the "nice" list he'd have to remove,
He did give me practical, friendly advice,
Which he said would ensure that I'd stay on the "nice."
(So if I don't blog for a day or for two,
You'll understand just what I'm trying to do.)
As I came to the end of his note, I nodded;
Claus's advice surely should be applauded.
Then I noticed that written in letters quite big
Was this bit of wisdom, under his sig--
Celebrate Christmas! Rejoice, Christ is born!
Pray and give thanks through the night, to the morn!
Make merry with presents, with tree and Yule log!
Celebrate Christmas! (Now, get off that blog!)


Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Plans

I planned to go to Mass yesterday (of course). I didn't plan to stay home with a child who was feeling ill. Thankfully, the illness turned out to be the beginning of a cold, but since the combination of that and some sinus blockage made her feel quite, quite ill until late in the afternoon, she and I missed Mass anyway.

I planned for my family to go to Midnight Mass tonight. But it's going to be rather cold by eleven o'clock p.m., and even though DD#2 is feeling much, much better today (and has no fever) I don't want to take her out that late and turn what is shaping up into a mild cold into something worse. Our church does an earlier vigil, and though I don't much like going to an early Christmas vigil, prudence is suggesting that is the best option.

We usually go to Midnight Mass, and when our late choir director first began discussing his plans for the music at this year's Christmas Masses we were all pretty excited about them. I'm praying for his widow today--this is going to be such a hard Christmas for her; and the ambitions plans for the music have been, of necessity, simplified, since we don't yet have a new music director.

My husband was planning to run an errand after Mass yesterday, but since he had two of the girls with him and no Mom to take them aside and distract them, he had to go out and do it today. No matter how hard we plan, there's always some last minute chore needing to be done on Christmas Eve!

I was planning to cook some shrimp as a treat for my girls' lunch today. I forgot that we used up the last of the frozen shrimp we had, and didn't buy more. We had plenty of other lunch foods on hand, but it's not what I planned.

The more my plans, large and small, get rearranged, though, the more I'm thinking of the saying that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans. It's so easy to get bent out of shape when the things you intended to happen don't happen, or the plans you carefully crafted fall apart like a house of cards in a tornado. The truth, if we really examine it, is that life is a series of unplanned events with small interludes of intact plans laced around them, giving us the illusion that we're more in control of things than we ever are.

But that illusion can shatter pretty rapidly, leaving us anywhere from frustrated, as I've been lately, to devastated, as those who have had major sorrows occur recently can attest.

And then we recall the first Christmas.

Mary, planning to remain a virgin consecrated to God, is told by an angel that God plans for her to be the Mother of His Son without loss of that virginity. Joseph, planning to take Mary into his home, learns that she is pregnant; he plans to divorce her quietly rather than shame her. He, too, is visited by an angel who changes his plans according to the will of God. The two of them, planning for the arrival of the Child, must instead journey to Bethlehem; and wherever Mary had planned to give birth I'm sure she hadn't planned on a stable. Among the well-wishers greeting the Baby I don't think either Mary or Joseph planned on shepherds, and I doubt they expected the three visitors from the East--or their symbolic gifts. I'm sure that Joseph didn't plan on taking Mary and Jesus to live in Egypt, either.

But the Holy Family shows us how to deal with alterations in our plans: graciously, obediently, lovingly. They radiate the example of the trust we should have in God, even when He sees fit to turn our lives upside-down, and far more when the ordinary events of everyday life change the plans we thought were set in stone. He is in charge; His Will will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Following the Holy Family, we can learn to set aside our grumbling and frustration, and accept with grateful and obedient joy whatever He chooses to do with our lives.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I'll Have A Blue...Er...New Year?

It's official. Pantone's color of the year for 2008 is Blue Iris, which is "a mix of blue and purple that suggests dependability and magic."

After last year's bold choice of Chili Pepper Red, ("Chosen for its pizazz and sophistication and its hint of ethnic taste...") and the year before last's selection of Sand Dollar ("A neutral color that expresses concern about the economy...") I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Blue Iris is such a nice calm, meditative color. Clearly the people who chose it think that we're in for a year of peaceful introspection, right?

(Of course, after that crack about the economy, one wonders if the powers that be at Pantone decided to select a blue color as a show of solidarity with Democrats in an election year. But banish the thought! If official color selectors can't be trusted to maintain their strict neutrality, who can?)

There are, of course, dissenters from Pantone's choice. Margaret Walch, director of the color association, believes that the yellow-green shade known as "bamboo" will remain prevalent. Every woman in America except for the three unfathomably slender, well-complected dishwater blonds who are actually capable of wearing "bamboo" without looking like a faded reflection in a spotty mirror of a decaying picture of their own great-grandmothers would like to have a word with Ms. Walch about her preference, of course.

Tempted as I am--and as you probably are--to laugh at the triviality of selecting an official "color" for the year, of coming up with breathless descriptions of same, of investing the whole process with a level of gravitas that, quite frankly, continues to elude this year's hapless presidential primary candidates, we can't help but realize the affect color has on our lives. Each of us responds to it at levels that are nearly primal; colors can change our moods, alter our perceptions, and even help to create their own realities for us.

To take one obvious example, think of the use of color in product packaging. As the New York Times article I linked to suggests, none of us can quite accept the imagined creation of a green can of Coca-Cola. If I asked you whether "Blue Iris" was closer to "Chips Ahoy Blue" or "Frosted Flakes Blue," you might have to check a package against the color; but chances are you can visualize both of those products as being sold in blue packages. Think of four or five products you buy on a regular basis, and I bet you know exactly what color the box or container is.

Product designers know how important the color of a product is, how much we might be influenced to buy or not to buy based on the color and design of a box or label. So the notion that there is a "color of the year" probably does matter quite a bit to people in many different industries, from fashion design to advertising to furniture manufacturing; people in these industries are paying attention--and they're going to be interested to see whether or not we are.

One of the things that makes me wish that a more "crunchy" life were possible is this reality that we are being constantly manipulated in our consumer choices, by people who spend months deciding on the new hot color, or by people analyzing our grocery receipts to determine purchasing patterns and create new algorithms that will allow them to control product placement to increase our expenditures within their stores, or by people who study the whole process of branding and seek to imprint our children at younger and younger ages with brand awareness and brand preferences that the marketers hope will remain with them for their whole lives.

And this kind of manipulation goes far beyond our consumer choices; you can see it at work in our current election season, as each Republican candidate tries to outdo the others and position himself as the real, genuine, bona fide, Christian article (accept no imitations!). I'm just wondering which of the candidates will be the first to appear on the campaign trail wearing a tie in "tomorrow's color"--Blue Iris.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Friendly Advice to Small Catholic Internet Stores at Christmas

Dear Small Catholic Internet Store,

Chances are you're a tiny business. Maybe you're home-based; maybe you have a real store in some part of the country. Perhaps you've worked and saved and struggled to build up a godly, family-run business so that you could escape the corporate nightmare and create something that would be an inheritance for your children, a shining star to the world, something more than mere profit-seeking. Maybe when you tell other people about your business, you use words like "ministry" and "apostolate."

All of that is wonderful, believe me.

And we out here in the world appreciate you, and what you have to offer. The world is full of secular goods at Christmas time, and it's nice to be able to browse the virtual aisles of stores filled with items that have a little more obvious connection to the Reason for the Season.

So I'm not trying to pick on you, or to be too harshly critical. But I do a lot of my Christmas shopping online. Most of it, in fact. And each year I do more, as I grow tired of the picked-over offerings, the crowds, the lines, and the attitudes prevalent at the brick and mortar stores.

And because I do so much of my Christmas shopping online, I've started to pay attention to customer service: the good (like stores that have free shipping for almost the whole month of December) the bad (like stores that will cancel your whole order and not tell you till six days before Christmas, because they're out of stock) and the ugly (like the stores that want your business but never mention Christmas. I won't bother linking to them).

Now, dear Small Catholic Internet Store, you know I don't hold you to the same exact standards that I apply to the really big companies. I don't expect you to provide free shipping, online real-time order tracking, or similar amenities. But there are a few things that would help our relationship tremendously, and that would help me to choose you for more and more of my Christmas business. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Communicate. There's nothing more frustrating than placing an online order, and then hearing nothing, or nothing beyond an automated order confirmation. If you're having trouble with my order, if your vendor has run out of the Second Shepherd figurine, if you forgot to schedule a U.P.S. pickup for a couple of days beyond when you told me my order would ship, if your five-year-old was helping to pack my order and chipped St. Joseph's nose and you won't get a replacement statue for a month, call me. Chances are I'll be very understanding and willing to work with you--but I'm not going to be very happy if I don't hear from you until it's too late for me to make other gift arrangements!

2. Be professional. I know you're a small family business, and I like that. But if you provide a "business phone number" for me to call, and I call it, and a young child or inarticulate teenager picks up the phone and blurts out "Hello?" then I'm not going to know that I've reached the "O'Malley Family Wee Bit of Irish Catholic Gifts 'n Goods," am I? It would be better to use an answering machine than to use the same phone line for your home and personal needs that you do for your business.

3. Don't Nickel and Dime Your Customers. This is a big one, to me. I recently placed my first--and last--order with a Catholic company that shall remain nameless here. I was appalled to be charged a shipping charge roughly as much as the cost of the item I was ordering! And this was not a heavy item--it was an 8x10 unframed print. It gets worse, though--a glance at the company's shipping chart showed that they would charge more than the cost of some of their items with their "base shipping" rate--for such tiny items as refrigerator magnets. Let's be honest, companies--shipping is costly, and no one expects you to "eat" the shipping costs on your end of things. But your customers won't appreciate being charged considerably more than the going rate to ship small or lightweight items just because your shipping chart is ordered more toward your convenience than a realistic view of how much it really costs to mail things.

This is equally true for "nickel and dime" charges like handling charges, packing charges, and the like. I would rather have you charge me $14.99 for an item than charge me $11.99, and then tack on a $1.00 handling charge and a $2.00 "packing materials" charge. What I especially don't want you to do is charge me $11.99, $3.00 "handling," and then $8.95 for shipping for a small lightweight item. Trust me--I'll delete the item from my virtual cart and shop elsewhere.

4. Create Customer-Friendly Return Policies. Again, I understand that you are a small business. When you sell an item, you are counting on that sale. If I decide six months later that I no longer like the item you really can't do anything for me; reasonable return policies are always acceptable.

Further, some of the items you sell may be personalized. If you put my child's name on a First Communion photo frame, for instance, I realize that you don' t want the frame back just because Aunt Sarah bought one too. But I do expect you to take back even a personalized item if it arrives with my child's name misspelled (perish the thought!) and I expect you to be reasonable about this.

What is entirely unacceptable to me are store policies that are designed to confuse the customer and make it extremely difficult for him to return anything; I also won't shop at a store that won't take returns on whole groups of items. I'm sorry, but if a person is willing to pay several hundred dollars for a 14K gold religious medal, you should be willing to take that medal back if it doesn't meet the customer's expectations. You don't want to anger any customers, of course, but the ones who can afford your best merchandise are the last ones you should be willing to anger, and nothing will make such a customer angrier than to be told, "I'm sorry, we don't take gold medals back; you should have read our return policy before you ordered."

5. Remember That I Am the Customer. Yes, we're fellow Catholics; yes, I applaud what you're trying to do; yes, I see your store as something good. But I also see your store as a business, and myself as your customer. I don't expect you to fawn all over me; I don't want you to act as though I'm your only customer: but I do expect you to remember that I am the customer, and that my business should be at least as important to you as it is to me. Maybe I only ordered a handful of inexpensive items from your clearance section--this time. Maybe I'm a little anxious that the item you promised would get here by today hasn't shown up yet. Maybe I'm planning to order, but need a response first to the email I sent you asking about the item's dimensions or colors or fragility. Maybe I received an item that isn't at all what I wanted, and doesn't even look much like the picture on your website. Whatever the case, this is the moment when you win or lose my business not just for today, but for always. Keep that in mind before you respond to my questions in a snippy or unhelpful manner; treat me like a customer, but treat me like a human being and a child of God, too.

Small Catholic Internet Store, just keeping these things in mind will greatly increase your chances of being on my ordering list next Christmas--and not only next Christmas, but for Baptisms and First Communions and Confirmations and weddings and maybe even an ordination or two someday. In addition to my three children, I have two sets of parents and parents-in-law, eight siblings, two brothers-in-law, two sisters-in-law, fourteen nieces and nephews (so far), and one convent full of extra "sisters." Only one of those people isn't Catholic, and we're working on him. :) So all I'm saying is, I represent a whole lot of potential future business for your small Catholic Internet Store, and I hope you'll consider my friendly advice!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Potluck Wednesday, Volume Fifteen (Christmas Break!)

Woohoo! The Cardigans are officially on Christmas break. So, naturally, it has taken me all day to get to this post!

There are lots of bloggers out there with Christmas-themed posts; if I miss any good ones, feel free to point them out in the comment boxes (even if it's your own blog!)

First up: Danielle Bean's Christmas Contests! Guess what her husband bought her for Christmas, from this shop or this one, and win a prize! And bragging rights!

Suzanne Temple says: Help! She has received a request for figgie pudding for Christmas! Now, some people have left links in her combox, but I know I have several UK readers--surely one of you has actually made figgie pudding and can tell Suzanne step by step how it's done. Right? Right?

Karen Edmisten has a whole list of helpful links for those of us who, for whatever reasons, are stuck in the house. 'Tis the season, after all!

What are your favorite Christmas carols? Lorri wants to know!

Dale Price has some wonderful news to share! Congratulations, Price family! There's nothing quite like a bassinet near the Christmas tree, with a wide-eyed infant to remind us of the joy of the season.

And last, but not least, my regular guest blogger "Freddy" has written a thoughtful piece about Christmas gifts and giving that I know you'll enjoy. God bless, all!

The Perfect Gift

by Freddy

Someone once told me that there were two kinds of people in the world: givers and receivers. It's never more obvious than at this time of year. The difference is easy to spot. Some people you talk to are excited beyond belief about the hints they've managed to drop, the deals and sales that will make it possible for their loved ones to buy them that perfect little something they have their heart set on, the bits of whispered conversations they've overheard. Others are just as excited about the things they've managed to find for their loved ones, things they have hidden away, their eagerness to see the looks on their faces come Christmas when they open that perfect gift.

The dark side of the receiver's habit is well known. Greed and dissatisfaction can make the receiver an unpleasant companion or confidante. "I can't believe they thought I'd like that!" they complain, or, "Nobody really knows what I like!" they whine. Someone actually told me once, "I know it's the thought that counts, but what on earth could they have been thinking?"

Believe it or not, the giver has a dark side as well, albeit a bit more subtle. "It is better to give than to receive" may be an accurate old saying, but "generous to a fault" doesn't always have a positive meaning. Some people really are generous to a fault. They give to make themselves feel good, without regard to the feelings of others. They can even give with malice aforethought, to anger or to embarrass. They enjoy the feeling of smugness when their gifts were unanticipated and cannot be reciprocated. They are sure that their gifts are never as appreciated as they ought to be, and pat themselves on the back for their overwhelming generosity.

If we don't know how to receive as we ought, we often don't know how to give as we ought either. But of course Christmas isn't about either giving or receiving that perfect little something. We've already got that in the Nativity of Our Lord, presented not in glam wrapping paper but in swaddling clothes, dusty with the straw of the manger. The perfect gift. And Mary teaches us how to accept such a gift -- with praise, with love, and with open generosity that welcomes the shepherds and wise men into the light of the Lord. All our giving and receiving is in childish imitation of that great Gift. And if we see ourselves as the children we are we can give open-hearted and fearlessly.

We decorated our Christmas tree this past Gaudete Sunday. Each of our children has a box of ornaments except the youngest who was born last March. Our 13 year old couldn't put up his own ornaments until he made one for his baby brother. A paper snowflake, decorated with markers and strung on a bit of yarn. A perfect gift.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Political Skirmish in the War on Christmas

I wonder who fired the first shot in the current battle in the War on Christmas?

Was it Mitt Romney, in his "My Religion May Be Weird, But I'm Not, So Elect Me" speech? True, he doesn't even mention the word "Christmas" in the address, which was delivered on December 6. But he did talk an awful lot about the role of faith in public life, which might have made the other candidates a little nervous.

So they got in on the act: first Huckabee with his "Shucks, Folks, Let's Forget All This Liberal Mean-Spirited 'Campaigning' Stuff And Have Ourselves A Merry Little Christmas (Which As You Know Is a Christian Holiday And I'd Just Like To Remind All of Y'All That I'm the Christian Candidate)" ad. Naturally, various attacks against the ad and Huckabee ensued.

Then it was Ron Paul, with his, "I Think Sinclair Said Fascism Would Be Wrapped In a Flag And Carrying a Cross, but Please Don't Think I Mean Anything Negative By That--and Have You Seen My Christmas Message?" interview.

Staying out of the argument, the thrice-married nominally Catholic candidate did what any other covert secularist would do: he went shopping. Hate to mention this, Mr. Giuliani, but buying angels won't help your campaign--or your image--much; and posing for Christmas cards only slightly beats out posing for holy cards, you know.

So why does any of this count as part of the War on Christmas?

Because the War on Christmas isn't just about our incredibly hypocritical retail industry, which bites its knuckles all year long hoping that Americans will be seized with strong consumptive fits centered around Christmas shopping but refuses even to use the word "Christmas" in their advertising and marketing schemes. At the deepest level the War on Christmas is about viewing the Birth of Christ as something which we can objectify, commodify, and exploit for our own purposes, whether those purposes are about profit, politics, power, or pandering.

But the exploiters of Christmas should look to the actual Christmas story to see themselves within it. Politics? A census demanded, a very pregnant woman and her husband journeying away from their home at a most inconvenient time. Profit? There was no room for Joseph and Mary at the inn. Power and pandering? A deceitful king, alarmed at the news of the birth of the King of Heaven, pretending to want only to pay homage to this new royal son, but secretly plotting His murder.

The War on Christmas has been going on for a very, very long time. But no one who tries to exploit the Birth of Christ for his own purposes ever succeeds. It's something the participants in the current political-themed skirmish in this battle might want to stop and ponder for a moment or two.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Are "Protestants" Really Christians?

Chances are good that my post title got your attention. You might even be a little angry.

Imagine how much angrier you'd get if I wrote post after post attacking Protestantism as a "false religion," wondering out loud if my Protestant friends would ever truly know Jesus, worrying that they were all going to Hell, and deriding them for having abandoned the ancient Biblical worship of Christianity for new "worship services" that are more like pop-psychology than real prayer.

Now imagine how you'd feel if you found out that my blog, where these imaginary posts had been interspersed with recipes and homeschooling ideas, had just won an award.

If you were a Protestant Christian homeschooler, I bet you'd be pretty upset about this.

Well, guess what? It happened. Only the blogger bashing somebody else's religion is a Protestant Christian, and the religion she's bashing is Roman Catholicism.

This diligent Catholic blogger has been keeping tabs on the situation. Particularly useful is Elena's list of links to specific anti-Catholic posts that the blogger, Candy, has written, since Candy has a tendency to hide her archives and make it less likely that the unwary Catholic reader will recognize her hate-filled bigotry at first glance. But as any one of Elena's links demonstrates, Candy has an ax to grind against Catholics and the Catholic church, and she isn't above some KKK-style ranting about false religions in addition to some truly ugly discourse about a "counterfeit Mary and Jesus" that is highly offensive to Catholics.

You would think that the people hosting the Homeschool Blog Awards might find some of Candy's posts to be a violation of the spirit of the awards, but you'd be wrong. Elena has documented some of her communication with them here; I can vouch for the letter she received, as it contains many of the same words and phrases as the letter I received when I wrote to complain.

And that's where I have a big problem with this. It's not about "ruffling Catholic feathers" or about Candy expressing her beliefs. I'm in favor of free speech, myself; but if I were running an awards blog, I wouldn't allow people who expressed hatred or bigotry toward any group of people to be eligible to win. It's just that simple.

After all, if Candy were "ruffling Jewish feathers" by saying that she thought Jews weren't saved, do you think the Homeschool Blog Awards people would overlook that? If Candy were "ruffling minority feathers" by expressing a belief that white people were the chosen people and other races should serve them, would the Homeschool Blog Awards people say, in effect, "Well, she's not attacking any one individual person, so it doesn't matter?" If Candy were "ruffling Muslim feathers" by...well, that's silly; Candy wouldn't dare, would she?

Homeschool Blog Awards members, why is anti-Catholic bigotry the only bigotry still generally acceptable to many other Christians? Why is it okay for people like Candy to mock our religion and show open disrespect and even hostility to our faith? Why is it that you dismiss Catholic concerns about this whole situation with condescending talk about how Catholics need to accept people who aren't "like" us and a presumptuous hope that we Catholics can "forgive" Candy for her strident, vile, ugly Catholic-baiting and Catholic-bashing? Would you talk this way to people offended by one of your award-winning bloggers' racism or anti-semitic views, if such a blogger were ever to be nominated for, and win, one of your awards?

Frankly, I can't imagine you permitting an openly racist or anti-semitic blogger to win an award; I certainly can't imagine you telling a minority or Jewish person what you told me, which was this:

I'm sure you already did the best thing you could have done since you did not agree with "Welcome to Keeping the Home"... and that was to vote against her in her category! I hope you'll participate next year so that you can nominate some great Catholic bloggers so they can be in the awards. I know there were many that were nominated this year. :) Thanks for putting your personal grievances about that one blog aside so that you could join in the fun for 2007.

Rest assured, I won't be nominating ANY Catholic bloggers for a Homeschool Blog Award next year; I won't be participating in their contest in any way at any time in the future, either. People who are not even remotely troubled by hateful bigotry against Catholics are not people with whom I choose to associate.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Minimalism and Generosity

You Are a Minimal Christmas Tree

You're not a total Scrooge, but you feel no need to go overboard at Christmas.

Less is more, and your Christmas reflects refined quality.

So, I never do these quizzes. Almost never. Rarely. If it's not a chilly rainy Friday afternoon eleven days from Christmas when my brain is starting to resemble a cranberry mold after too many days of online shopping till way past midnight to meet not only Christmas obligations but also my DD#1's less-than-a-week-after Christmas birthday with a few things thrown in for DD#2 whose birthday's only a month or so after Christmas and I know from past experience both how fast that month will go and how little will actually be left on store shelves till sometime in the middle of March when the retailers give up and actually order new stock again. If you know what I mean.

Anyway, I thought this one was fun, though I can't vouch for the accuracy, considering that I spend much of December feeling like I'm trading in any crunchy conservative impulses I might have for the ease of point-and-click shopping and way too much materialism. I often find myself wondering if it's even possible to be American and celebrate a truly "minimal" Christmas, especially with children. On the one hand, I definitely don't want to raise my children to be part of the "more is better" culture or to expect lavish gifts in large amounts piled beneath the Christmas tree. But on the other hand, I have sometimes encountered those who seem to revel in a kind of uber-minimalism, a view of the world that finds the purchase of more than one present per child to be a betrayal of their commitment to a simple life, and who frown on the misguided masses who still participate too much in the commercialism of Christmas. And I wonder: are they right? Am I wrong?

The problem, as I see it, is that it's so hard to tell avarice from minimalism, to separate the Scrooge from the saint. I have an uneasy feeling that restricting my children to a single gift each at Christmas would be more a temptation to my own worst impulses than anything done truly for their benefit; I would be tempted to impose my own values on them as I searched for "quality" or "meaningful" gifts, instead of seeing the world through their eyes, through the eyes of children to whom sparkly berry-scented lip gloss in bright plastic tubes is still an exciting gift, and who still value some of the transient toys of childhood that never do survive until one is an adult.

As each year passes, though, my children begin on their own to want things that are more "adult" in terms of quality and value. They're girls, after all; clothing items and craft supplies have begun to crowd out toys and games on the wish lists already, and it won't be too many years before their lists won't contain a single item that the most simplicity-oriented adult wouldn't approve of.

I can't help but feel that when those years arrive, I'll be glad we had the years of bright-colored plastic toys, festive shiny plastic "gems" and wobbly pretend high heels, scented lip gloss and soft furry stuffed animals. I'll think fondly of early whispered requests to Saint Nicholas, including last year's hope for a toy stuffed camel, and the year that somebody desperately wanted a set of Scooby-Doo characters, and the year somebody else hoped for a musical snowglobe. I'll be fondly remembering the glee on little faces when each of these items, meaning little or nothing to an adult, was unwrapped by a wondering and joyful child.

Our Lord told us that if we're really going to be fit citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we have to become like little children--and little children don't value what adults do. They manage to see the wonder of the universe in a single smooth stone or a feather found in the yard; their pockets are full of such treasures. To them, the riches of Solomon are worth less than that snowglobe that plays "Silent Night" as glittery "snow" cascades down around the Holy Family; and when a child misplaces such a loved object, how desperately does he search for it! With what sorrowful energy does he turn every toy box upside down in his quest! And what joy, what peace, when it is found! Like the shepherd with his lost sheep, or the widow with her lost coin, is the child who has lost what to the adult is just a piece of junk, worthless, fit for nothing.

Thus do the worldly see our faith: worthless, a rag from childhood, worn out with years of being dragged around by a foot or a corner or a floppy ear. But when we capture for a single moment again that childlike joy in what we know to be the greatest gift we have ever received, however little it seems like to the worldly who give it no value, we once again remember what it is to be a child, to place a simple trust in the One who gives us everything we need, and even more than we could ever request.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

It's Not Easy Buying Green

From the New York Times comes this report on the dilemma facing the fashion-savvy environmentally aware consumer: is it better to buy the $295 organic cotton jeans, or the $7,600 "recycled fabric" dress?

Oh, to have such troubles.

But as the article itself points out, the "greenest" consumption solution is the solution that doesn't involve consumption. The clothes that are friendliest from an environmental perspective are the ones you already own, especially if they're machine-washable (and drip-dry).

My closet is filled, by this criteria, with environmentally friendly clothing. Mom-friendly clothing seems to overlap the environmental criteria, I find. Even though it's been years since I've been spit up upon with any sort of regularity, it didn't take very many instance of that sort of thing occurring on the shoulders of dry-clean only dresses before I stopped buying things that couldn't be washed; the single dry-clean item currently in my closet is a skirt I bought a few years ago to wear to a wedding. It's quite pretty, and it's possible to wear a skirt more than once without cleaning it, which is why I still own it. All the other dry-clean fabrics I used to wear have long since been donated to charitable institutions or have died natural deaths; it's just not practical for a homeschooling mom whose day can randomly involve clay, paint, or science experiments involving such ingredients and vinegar and baking soda or celery stalks and red food coloring, to own and wear dry-clean couture.

Still, the Times article is interesting, because if fashion designers are starting to strive to attract the sort of green they want from the sort of customers for whom "saving the environment" is almost as important as buying and owning the latest fashions, then eventually this new view of "green fashion" will trickle down to us ordinary folks.

And though the pricey designer green wearables will always be out of the reach of most of us mere mortals, imagine what shopping for mom-friendly clothing might be like, if the fashion industry really does go "green?"

Picture it, fellow moms. Stores with racks and racks of practical, washable clothing. Simple cuts to decrease the amount of energy needed to produce each soft natural-fiber garment; simple pieces that coordinate with lots of other simple pieces to cut down on the number of garments it's necessary to own, and to encourage thoughtful and sustainable consumption. Rows of skirts that can be worn every day (because a simple skirt requires less manufacturing than slacks, which involve more complex piece-work, and such things as zippers or buttons). Dresses that look special and nice, and can be tossed in the wash along with your grungy sweats and the baby's sheets.

It's a dream, isn't it? But if green fashion consumers start making inroads into the fashion industry's product lines, anything is possible. It's even possible that the types of clothing many of us homeschooling moms wear on a near-daily basis could become the height of fashion!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Potluck Wednesday, Volume Fourteen (Better Late Than Never)

Hello! Sorry about the delay; I usually try to post these a bit earlier on Wednesdays. There's plenty out there to share!

Jen at "Et Tu" has this wonderful pair of posts to share, true reminders of our need to trust in God and to follow where He leads us.

Ragamuffin has a post about a quality of liturgy we often overlook: peace.

Karen Edmisten's little Ramona has two really good ideas about fudge.

MommaLlama's Christmas card photo. Because I really appreciate people who are cool like that! :)

The incredibly talented Maclin Horton dissects The Day The Earth Stood Still--and has some really terrific insights on war and peace.

In case you missed it, Paul at Thoughts of a Regular Guy reports on the decision of the San Joaquin Episcopal Diocese to separate from ECUSA.

Happy feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

I read a question from an atheist recently: how can we Christians claim that God is Love, when He plans to punish with eternal fire anyone who rejects Him?

This is, of course, not a new question. It comes up time and time again, frequently from the sort of atheist who is more emotional about his faith than intellectual, and who seems to think that this question proposes some sort of unanswerable conundrum.

Wait a minute. His faith? you ask.

Surely you realize that atheism is a faith, right? It may not be an organized religion, though that's not entirely impossible; but it is a religion. It is a firm, unwavering, and unshakable belief in unbelief. Unlike the pagans who worship false gods, the atheist worships the notion that there isn't a God at all; he is quite religious in his opinion on the subject, and may even be said to have a devotion to it.

When it comes right down to it, there's no more evidence for the non-existence of God than there is for the existence of God; some might say that there's actually more evidence that God does exist than that He doesn't. Faith isn't about proof; we would lose our freedom to chose to believe or not if God manifested Himself in such a way that we absolutely had to acknowledge His existence, and He Who gave us free will won't play games with that will.

But if faith isn't about proof, neither is unbelief. The unbeliever has no empirical evidence with which to prove the non-existence of God; he simply believes in his unbelief, with a strength and fervor that puts some iterations of belief in God to shame.

Just as there are some Christian believers who are more intellectual about their approach to faith, studying the writings of the early Church Fathers and absorbing every scholarly book they can on various topics relating to Christian history, thought, doctrine and teaching, so are there other Christians who are more simple in their approach, reading popular devotional books and applying their Christian beliefs to every day life with a becoming and inspiring simplicity. And just as there are atheists who revel in intellectual atheism, revering science and reading about the thoughts of prominent atheists, so are there simple atheists, who get quite emotional about their creed of un-creed, and who think that asking questions about a loving God condemning people to Hell is the ultimate trap for a Christian.

Of course, it's not a trap at all; it's not even the smallest of stumbling-blocks. Any Christian worthy of the name will be able to explain charitably that people condemn themselves to Hell by rejecting God totally in this life; they can also explain that not only will God's justice not permit those who never served Him on earth to remain with Him in Heaven, but that also God's mercy will not force those who hated Him in this life to be forever in His presence in Heaven.

The intellectual atheist understands the force of this argument, and rarely brings up the question. But the emotional atheist will still be very likely to reject this argument, and to demand that God be a sort of Divine Nanny Who will treat the most recalcitrant humans as if they were naughty three-year-olds, and who after a good long scolding for their ugly behavior will allow them a place at the table and a portion of treacle tart no smaller than the piece awarded to the good children.

Now, God does, we know, treat us far more mercifully than any of us deserve, and it may be that there are any number of highly surprised atheists in Heaven, all of them made to see how even in their unbelief there were moments when they were serving God, united to Him, and how perhaps a strong and sudden longing in their hearts at the moment of their deaths was enough to permit them eventual entry into the Heavenly Kingdom (after the "good long scolding" of Purgatory, first). But to insist that God is somehow obligated never to punish, or that the very idea of Hell negates the love of God, is obviously quite wrong.

Even in our human relationships we can see that it is not always possible for love to prevail. A mother may always love her child with the closest thing to unconditional love that is possible on earth, but if her child turns from her, lives a life of crime, goes to jail, and even from jail pours out scorns and slanders against his mother, refusing to see her, to speak to her, or even to read her letters, he really doesn't have any grounds to complain that his mother doesn't "really" love him, when what is obvious is that he doesn't really love her. If we refuse to accept our Father, to seek Him, to listen to Him, to serve Him, to visit Him in prayer, to read His "letters" contained in the Bible, or even to believe that He exists, on what grounds ought we to complain, should the dreaded eternal punishment be, in fact, our eventual fate?

But our Father has done so much for us. In the fullness of time He sent His Son to save us; it's as if the mother in our fictional scenario had permitted her son's brother to go and take his place, not only in jail, but on death row. That is the love of God: that He would come to earth as a Man, that He would teach us to see the Father in Him; that He would suffer, and die the ignominious death of a criminal, a death we all deserved. And He did this to give us every chance imaginable to seek Him, to find Him, to spend eternity with Him in Heaven, to be forever in His Presence, and to know the unspeakable joy of eternal life.

To say that God is not Love because He permits some of us to turn away from us, even forever, is to ignore the lengths to which He has gone to give us every opportunity to know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next. It shows not only a misunderstanding of God, but also a complete lack of understanding of the nature of love.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent Rhythms

It seems that as each year goes by the month of December falls into a predictable rhythm.

Christmas songs pop up on the radio. Shopping occurs, a lot more randomly and with more aggravation than any of us would have believed when we were small. Cards are bought or ordered and wait in stacks to be addressed and mailed (I smile when I remember the neat pile left out on an actual table for days the first year my DH and I were married; by the second Christmas there was an almost-one year old toddling around the house, and the cards were done in snatches and bits, as they still are today). Secret and not-so-secret "wrap sessions" take place; there's the usual shortages of tape, and the usual complications involving Christmas wrapping paper.

This second week passes quickly, I know. Soon it will be Gaudete Sunday, the day when I let most of the Christmas decorating flourish. The Baby Jesus has to wait to make His appearance in the creche, but the stable itself is made ready. The Christmas tree goes up, though the decorating isn't all done immediately. By then the shopping is finished except for the inevitable one last-minute thing that vanished too early from store shelves; even the stockings will soon be hung and ready, their deflated emptiness a reminder that we're still prayerfully preparing our hearts for the celebration of the Birth of Christ.

I know some families put off even these small signs until the Fourth Sunday of Advent, or even Christmas Eve, but for someone as scattered and unorganized as I often am it's more peaceful to get things going on Gaudete Sunday; we can then return to that hushed feeling of expectancy, instead of looking at the calendar in horror as we realize that Christmas falls on the Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday (this year, for instance). If you are the sort of mom who can handle the task of home decoration in a mere day or two, instead of spreading it out slowly over a two-week period, I salute you; but for me to wait too long would highly increase the likelihood that the tree would be completely forgotten and we wouldn't locate the stockings until sometime in February.

These outward signs of our preparation for the Christmas celebration do matter, inasmuch as they affect our inward disposition and our ability to reflect on what it is we are celebrating, what it is we are beginning to ponder. The tree with its glittering lights, the outside decorations, the secret and generous love that prompts us to purchase some gifts for family and friends, the Nativity set with its small earthly and heavenly figures, the Jesse Tree fast filling with symbols of salvation history all prompt us to consider the incredible wonder of the Incarnation: that our God could so love us, His sinful creatures, that He would send His Son among us as a tiny and helpless infant; that that Babe of Bethlehem, the city whose name means "House of Bread," would become our heavenly food, our taste on earth of eternal glory; that this Infant appearing to humble shepherds who came to see what the unearthly joy that had illumined the night sky really meant, would suffer and die a hideous death for them, for us, for all.

It doesn't matter if the cards are sent early or late; it doesn't matter if a substitute has to be invented for a gift that can't be found; it doesn't matter if you had to put the tree up on December 1st to please your in-laws, or if you can't put it up until the 24th because your relatives insist on a tree-decorating Christmas Eve party. What matters is that the joy of Christmas, the joy of knowing this God who became Man so that we could live forever, blooms and grows in our hearts.

Soon, this Advent rhythm will swell into the grand crescendo of the Gloria we sing at Mass on Christmas: some of us in the dark cold grandeur of Midnight Mass; some keeping watch with the shepherds at the earliest Mass on Christmas Morning; some attending Mass later in the day. United in our faith, we unite in our reception of this same Jesus Who was born for us, in the beautiful Eucharistic mystery that is the center of every Mass we attend; and together we journey forward into the second Advent that awaits His Second Coming.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Marry In Haste; Repent In Rhode Island

It was a whirlwind wedding for Bobbie and Cass. They saw the opportunity to get married, and they seized the day, racing off without coffee or breakfast or even time to comb their hair.

But like so many other couples who marry so quickly, they found themselves wanting out of the situation. Bobbie was the one who filed for divorce, only two years after the romantic dash to the courthouse; Cass still doesn't really understand why.

Married in Massachusetts, the two tried to divorce in Rhode Island, where they were living. But they hit a little snag.

Rhode Island doesn't allow same-sex marriage; Rhode Island won't grant the two women a divorce from each other.

One can, of course, see the legal problem. How does Rhode Island dissolve a type of marriage it doesn't actually recognize? Though Massachusetts allows same-sex couples from Rhode Island to marry in Massachusetts because the laws of Rhode Island don't clearly prohibit gay marriage, Rhode Island doesn't wish to have its marriage laws determined by Massachusetts by default, and thus insists that its courts don't have the legal power to grant this or any other same-sex couple a divorce.

But greater, to me, than the legal problem is the moral one. Why did the state of Massachusetts allow these two women to "marry" in the first place? Under what possible understanding of marriage, from any historical or religious or moral perspective, can two women be said to be "married" to each other?

It's a cruel trick to tell people who aren't capable of entering into an actual marriage relationship that they are "married." It's shortsighted and wrong. If marriage means anything at all other than a temporary living arrangement, it can't mean same-sex couples; and if marriage is only a more expensive and legally complicated form of temporary living arrangement, why in heavens' name would any sane same-sex couple want to participate in it?

What do I mean by "an actual marriage relationship?" I mean, of course, that bond between a man and a woman which is symbolized by their physical complementarity and realized by their actions. Their ability to engage in that specific action which usually leads to reproduction is what makes them married, and every government that has ever recognized the marriage relationship has recognized this. One may obtain a civil, not religious, annulment should one marry a person who is physically incapable of the marriage act; it is fundamental to the understanding of what marriage is that this act be possible. It should be noted that it is not necessary for a couple to be thereby capable of becoming pregnant and having children; but the act itself must be possible for them, or there is no marriage.

By this historic and long-understood legal definition of marriage, no marriage is possible between two women (or two men). There is no specific action of physical complementarity which is foundational to their relationship, or which is at least potentially capable of leading to reproduction. Regardless of what the state of Massachusetts says, two women cannot be married to each other without a redefinition of the whole notion of marriage from its fundamental and foundational principles; further, the new definition must be so legally vague as to render the entire concept of marriage completely meaningless.

Bobbie and Cass, also known as Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, are attempting to dissolve a marriage which most legal definitions would find too absurd, from a legal standpoint, ever to have existed at all. Though it's possible to feel some sympathy for them in their current and unfathomable position, it's also important to understand that they wouldn't be in this position had the activists on the Massachusetts Supreme Court not first divorced the word "marriage" from its historic legal definition.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Food For Thought

This may seem a bit outside my usual topics of discussion, but I found this New York Times opinion piece on the possible disappearance of the entree to be--well, forgive me--food for thought.

My first thought, sadly, was that I obviously don't eat in trendy enough restaurants. My family and I generally grab a sandwich out on the weekends in the midst of errand-running if we eat out at all; bringing home a bucket of chicken or ordering a pizza pretty well rounds out our usual dining-out experiences. Once in a great while, for a birthday or other celebration, we might go eat at the kind of place where they bring you the food and clean up after you (which, let's be honest, is worth more to a mom than the actual food) but even at those places you're going to be brought a single plate on which reposes either an entree and vegetable, or a sandwich and fries. Unless, of course, we're at our favorite (very, very affordable!) non-chain Italian place, where the piping hot plate placed in front of you will be piled with pasta or exuding exuberant tendrils of Eggplant Parmesan, with clouds of oregano-scented steam rising like incense toward the picture of the late Pope John Paul II which adorns one of the walls of this homey, family-friendly place.

But even there, we don't have any of this small plate snack-style eating as described in the Times. I'm sure there are restaurants in this general geographic region which do fit the description; I'm equally sure than most of them are far beyond my budget, and would be frustratingly difficult to navigate if you're not used to having to order several small plates full of pricey nibbles.

I started wondering whether from the criteria of a person who leans just a bit "crunchy" this sort of dining development is a generally good or a generally bad thing. I'm not entirely sure, actually, because it all depends in how you look at it.

On the one hand, restaurants are notorious for wasteful approaches to food. Portions are too big, which isn't good for our health; sustainable farming efforts don't always go hand-in-hand with restaurants' demand for large amounts of protein foods; the proliferation of restaurants has made it more difficult for consumers to purchase some foods because the restaurant chains buy such huge quantities. You could make a case that this trend toward smaller, snack-sized portions is a good thing.

On the other hand, I had to wonder about this quote from a restaurant owner/chef who still cooks and serves full meals: "We still have six courses in the middle because I still have the attention span for a meal..."

Is that the real reason the entree is disappearing? Do crowds of young trendy diners go out for multiple plates of tiny bites because they don't really know what a meal is, and don't have the attention span to enjoy one?

That may seem like a silly question, but when you consider how few families ever dine together anymore, or even gather for a holiday meal such as Thanksgiving dinner, you have to wonder if the slow demise of entree-style dining isn't a reflection of our culture and its grab-and-go approach to food.

Granted, it's not necessary (or even desirable) to gather the family each evening for a giant slab of animal protein flanked by a starch and two vegetables; but it is a good thing to gather the family. Our awareness of some of the unhealthy tendencies of the past in regard to food doesn't absolve us from the duty to get together at some point of the day for some sort of meal; it doesn't have to be huge or fancy, but it should be the backdrop of some conversation, some connection, some small attempt to touch base with each other and enjoy each other's company.

I know that this may not be possible every night of the week for every family, and there are times when the demands of young children or the late working hours of the family breadwinner may make it extremely difficult to do this at all. This is no less true in the Cardigan house than it is in yours. But there's something pretty wonderful about those days when we can all eat at least one meal together, and I can't even imagine how many of the children of today are growing up in homes where the entire family gathering for a meal is something that almost never happens.

If the entree is disappearing from restaurant menus because it's an old-fashioned way of eating that involves too many calories, too much protein, and too much waste, that's probably a good thing. But if the disappearance of the entree is a side effect of the disappearance of the family meal, if people really don't have the "attention span" for a meal anymore, then it's an altogether different reality.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Potluck Wednesday, Volume Thirteen

The Potluck Wednesday post has been on hiatus for a couple of weeks, but now that we're back on a more or less normal schedule here at the Cardigan house I'd like to resume them. There's always so much out there to share!

Creative Minority Report shares the news of this new approach for keeping Catholic children safe: a coloring book designed to make them terrified of adults. It features a theologically-gender-incorrect guardian angel who in one picture allegedly wears a two-piece bathing suit. Okay, kiddies, so stay away from priests--but it's fine to ogle women in bikinis. Got that, everybody?

If guardian angels in bikinis weren't enough to make you want to gouge your eyes out, go here to vote on whether the Catholic priest or the Anglican vicar is wearing the uglier chasuble. (Hat tip: Curt Jester.) I chose the priest solely on the grounds that in our hierarchical structure it was somebody's job to stop him before that act of visual liturgical violence was inflicted on those unsuspecting kiddies.

Feeling a little "malled" by the over-commercialization of Christmas? Rod Dreher has some thoughts on our national shopping pastime.

While we're on the subject of the War on Christmas, what about the skirmish about Santa? Do you allow the jolly saint to put treats in shoes (tonight!) and/or gifts below the tree? I do; don't think I could come up with any of the Christmas spirit of generosity and selflessness without St. Nicholas whispering into my ear; I'm convinced that he's the only reason my children ever receive for Christmas such things as stuffed animals (which they have far too many of) or toys whose boxes proclaim "Over Six Hundred Pieces Inside!!"

Father Z at WDTPRS is feeling a little blue. No, not really; he's seeing red. Or seeing blue is making him see red. Hey, let's combine that red and blue for liturgically correct purple vestments!

Last, but not least, Jennifer F. has a wonderful post about getting rid of attachment to sin. Just the thing for some Advent spiritual pondering!

Happy first week of Advent!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

But Did They Look Under The Bed?

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Iran doesn't have any nukes. Not one. Couldn't find any. They're simply not there, at least not anywhere where we could see 'em.

But President Bush says nothing has changed in regards to Iran. Iran is as dangerous today as it was yesterday; we still may need to take preemptive military action at any time. Iran may not have a nuke, but they know how to make one, and we're certain they still hate us. Terror may rear its ugly head at any moment, and Iran might be standing there behind the curtain, helping the terrorists. We need to keep our options open, if we don't want another 9/11.

Which means one of four things.

A. We think Iran has a nuke, but we can't find it.

B. We know Iran doesn't have a nuke, but we have good reason to think they're an imminent danger.

C. Iran doesn't have a nuke and isn't imminently dangerous, but with Ahmadinejad in charge we can't afford to ease up on the rhetoric.

D. Iran doesn't have a nuke, isn't imminently dangerous, and we can take Ahmadinejad with one hand tied behind our back, but if the American people quit believing in the War on Terror our next president will be a Democrat.

Why do I have a sinking feeling that option "D" is the correct one?

The American people will only put up for so long with the notion that we should strike preemptively, or pre-preemptively, or even pre-pre-preemptively, those nations that might at some future distant date and time become a threat to our security. Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, tongue firmly in cheek, put it this way:

"But I still think we ought to take dramatic pre-emptive action against Iran on the off chance that it decides someday to start thinking again about reconstituting its plans to refer to America negatively (that whole business about "the Great Satan" really hurt my feelings). Also we should take out France for the same reason. And Cambridge, Mass. This list could get long."

Yes, it could. If America had the obligation to go to war with any nation that might theoretically become a threat to us, or that might presently harbor terrorists, we'd pretty much have to declare war on the whole world, including ourselves.

I'm not saying that nations like Iran shouldn't be watched carefully. But it used to be that we went to war slowly, reluctantly, only after all other options had been tried and had failed. The very notion of preemptive war has proved to be a dangerous one, just like the habit doctors have acquired recently of prescribing drugs to treat "preconditions." It's one thing to tell a patient, for instance, that his cholesterol numbers are rising toward a territory that might require treatment, and another to begin treating the patient with cholesterol-lowering drugs at the first sign of a rise; similarly, it's one thing to think that Iran requires us to remain watchful and vigilant lest they acquire the power to wreak nuclear havoc on the Middle East, but it's another thing altogether to attack them before they can become dangerous.

No nation has the right to violate another nation's sovereignty simply because we fear that someday that nation could have the power to do us harm. Our patriotic duty to our country does not permit us to act in a manner that violates this principle of sovereignty, not even if we're pretty sure that the nation we're concerned about is moving along a road of scientific exploration and discovery that may one day allow them to possess a dangerous weapon which we also believe they might choose to use against us either directly or indirectly. We can't go to war in the present to prevent a war in the future; as we've learned in Iraq, the war that we begin today doesn't permit us to destroy the enemy of tomorrow; it may, in fact, have the opposite effect, and create a more dangerous future enemy who will be harder to fight, harder even to identify.

In the unlikely event that Iran does actually have a nuclear weapon, and successfully hid it from us, we might find ourselves at some point in the future needing to address that situation: first politically, and only last, and reluctantly, with force. But unless somebody forgot to look under the bed (so to speak) Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon today--which means that we can't create out of thin air a compelling case for war against Iran today, or tomorrow, or sometime next week. To try to do so is to decide that our greatest enemy really isn't Iran, or terrorism, or even Islamic fundamentalism; to continue the strategy of declaring and fighting preemptive wars is to decide that our greatest enemy of all is fear.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The (Glass) Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword

Next year I'll celebrate one of those milestone birthdays. When a family member joked that we'd have to have a party or something, I replied with the notion that I'd rather celebrate my last year of being in this decade than my first year of being in the next.

If you get my drift.

So today this lovely sister-in-law of mine called me to tell me to open my front door. She had driven by the house earlier in the morning and left a gift on the front door, to help me celebrate my last year of being--oh, well, you know.

The gift was a beautiful handcrafted glass pen, with a bottle of scented ink to go along with it. My brother and sister-in-law had picked it out for me knowing of my appreciation for art glass and of my writing ambitions.

I'm going to have so much fun signing my Christmas cards this year!!!! You two are truly terrific and thoughtful people who have blessed my life in more ways than I can count.

Of course, I'm rather blessed in general with family, from my daughters who got up early to surprise me by putting up birthday decorations in the kitchen, to my husband who took the day off with the intention of spoiling me rotten, to extended family who call and send cards and keep me in their prayers.

Even the thought of next year's birthday isn't too bad--not when I've got such wonderful people around me who remind me every day, not just on birthdays, that I'm loved.

Of all the many ways God has made my life beautiful, my family is the most precious blessing of all. I hope every one of you knows how much you mean to me, and how I appreciate having you close by on this birthday and every day of my life.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Questions Mothers Hate

It's Friday. The would-be substantive post struggling to take shape in my foggy brain regarding the Teddy Bear Teacher situation in Khartoum and taking the angle that perhaps we should stop giving Sudan a couple billion dollars a year in U.S. aid monies considering that all that money will buy them a lot of the rope they need to...well, you see where this is going, right?...refuses to congeal.

The weather may have something to do with it, of course; it's gloomy and chilly here, and the sky is one of those dirty-gray colors that make you wish you could send your guardian angel skyward with a really big bottle of Windex. And, like I said before, it's Friday. And a conversation I was having earlier with a great friend of mine won't stop nagging me to expand on it. Sudan will have to wait.

My friend and I were talking on the phone when one of my girls came to ask me a question. Could she have orange juice with her lunch? I said yes; and one of the other girls piped up, "Can I have some, too?"

Not ten minutes later, the same thing. DD #1: "Can I have a fruit bar?"
Following her into the room came DD #3: "Can I have one, too?"

Stifling the urge to answer this question the way every mother wants to answer it, I simply said "yes." Of course, what every mother wants to say is: "When in your entire life, excepting only those circumstances involving illness and an invalid diet, have I EVER allowed only ONE of you to have a certain type of food or beverage? When have I EVER said, 'Oh, no, only your sister can have that,'??? So why do you all think that EACH of you has to ask permission for the SAME THING???"

And that got me thinking about all of those other questions I hate to be asked. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

1. "What's for dinner, Mom?" To be fair, I don't mind this question if it is asked as I am standing in the kitchen actually cooking dinner. I don't like being asked it at 1:30 p.m. when the remains of lunch are still lurking in the kitchen, I definitely don't like being asked it immediately after breakfast, and I hate being asked it more than once by the same child on the same day when it is blatantly obvious that she's simply hoping I've repented my previous choice of menu.

2. "Do I have to do [fill in the blank; laundry, math homework, etc.]?" Kiddo, you know the answer already, don't you? Hoping I was just kidding about what I just this minute told you to go and do is not a wise game to play; yes, you have to.

3. "Why can't [insert sibling name] help you, instead?" Trust me, if I'm asking for help with a big job, I'll call everybody in. But if you're sitting less than two feet away from me enjoying a comic book and I need someone to put a new bag into the trash because I forgot earlier and now have a handful of eggshells to dispose of, this question is not going to be well received.

4. "Do we have to go shopping today?" In a couple of years when your older sister is old enough that mom and dad can occasionally do the Costco run while DD#1 remains in charge at home, the choice to accompany us or not may be yours. Until then, yes, so get those shoes on, grab a jacket, and grumble at your own risk.

5. "Can't we skip [fill in blank; anything from afternoon rest time to half the math problems on the page]?" If for some odd or unusual reason (such as the math textbook writer suddenly thinking that eighty problems are doable in a single lesson or the fact that afternoon rest time would interfere with taking advantage of a gorgeous seventy-degree day) I decide to dispense with any of our usual routines, you'll be the first to know. Trust me. So it's not necessary to ask (beg, whine, cajole, bargain, or negotiate). Unless otherwise noted it's business as usual.

6. "Awww. Do we have to go to bed?" Do you really need to ask this one? Still? After being my children (some of you, anyway) for at least a decade? C'mon, now. I let you stay up late on occasion, but even then, when I say it's bedtime, it's bedtime. Deal?

Anyone want to add to the list?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lion and the Unicorn

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown

The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.

Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;

Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.
(Nursery rhyme)

I apologize to my British readers for using this very British nursery rhyme, and the political realities which it initially symbolized, in the discussion of a couple of decidedly American politicians. But as I read this, I couldn't help but think of the rhyme, and why it seems oddly fitting for a discussion about Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, and the current situation involving the 2008 Republican presidential candidates.

Let's face it, conservatives. This has to be one of the most lackluster field of Republican presidential hopefuls we've ever had. From the earliest days of the campaign it has been hard to muster much enthusiasm or support for the men running, and as the campaign has worn on that task has become almost Herculean. This is especially true when you consider the two frontrunners: Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Whatever emotions Giuliani inspires in me, enthusiasm isn't one of them; as for Romney, his mixed record over the years on gay marriage, particularly as the governor of Massachusetts during the aftermath of the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision, doesn't inspire me with any confidence in his ability to handle the battle over gay marriage that looms on the horizon.

The two men leading the pack don't seem like leaders; they seem rather like sheep. Bleating away at each other, butting horns over relatively small discrepancies in each other's positions, running in fear from any hard questions while never missing an opportunity to repeat their scripted lines from the safety of their campaign files--they don't really cause a stir of any emotion other than a sense of ennui and a vaguely unpleasant taste in the mouth, do they?

At a buffet of relatively uninspiring foods, a simple unassuming dish of fresh fruit can catch the eye with a burst of color and a vivid liveliness that almost causes you to overlook the brown spots on the banana, or the under-ripeness of the peach. At a shoe store that has sold out of your size in three-quarters of the shoes you've looked for, a shoe from the remaining quarter may tempt you to buy, even though it's not what you had hoped to find; it's just all that's there.

Against the backdrop of Giuliani and Romney, Thompson and McCain, Huckabee seems almost like a lion, confident, humorous, artfully good-natured, taking no more notice of the constant barb-trading of the two frontrunners than the king of the jungle would take of a squabble between chimpanzees. His personal commitment to change is evident in the fact of his victory over the battle of the bulge; his thoughtful consideration of issues or positions that the other candidates have rejected as "Democratic" when they're actually the sorts of issues that could just as easily be Christian sets him apart from the flock. Whether he would garner any notice at all among candidates less predictable and dull as most of the ones against whom he is contending is debatable, of course; whether he'd actually be a candidate worth supporting is a question that many of us have yet to resolve to our own satisfactions. In point of fact, Huckabee may be more akin to a house cat that thinks it's a lion than an actual lion; but at least he's not a sheep.

And if Huckabee is the lion of the nursery rhyme, there's no question that Paul is the unicorn: mythical, unbelievable, hard to grasp, capturing the imagination more than the mind, but oddly appealing none the less. When I realize, for instance, that this former O.B. doctor has led the fight to let Americans continue to use vitamins and other health supplements without fearing burdensome government restrictions and has supported legislation guaranteeing the right of Americans to use alternative medicine, I want to stand up and cheer; and when I further read these words of the candidate: "
As an OB/GYN doctor, I’ve delivered over 4,000 babies. That experience has made me an unshakable foe of abortion..." I have to wonder why the National Right to Life Committee decided to give their endorsement to Fred Thompson, instead. The obvious answer is because no one thinks that Ron Paul can win, but it's hard to remember that, just as it's hard to remember when you do encounter a unicorn that they aren't, in fact, real.

It's all too likely that one of the sheep will end up with the nomination, and feel triumphant about it in that quintessentially Republican sheepish kind of way. But lions and unicorns sometimes influence things just by their presence, and if a sheep should roar about something, or start believing on occasion that perhaps some problem in Washington can actually be solved, Huckabee and Paul will have done better for the Republican party than any of the sheep.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cultural Decay On Parade

There are many reasons why I no longer subscribe to a newspaper. Online accessibility of major newspapers, the fact that internet news doesn't pile up and moulder in the recycling bin at a rate that boggles the mind, and the fact that you don't get newsprint all over your hands while reading the online version of the New York Times are among the major reasons why we gave up buying a subscription to our local paper.

But a week or so ago, my husband picked up a copy of the Sunday paper, and as I sorted through it to throw away the sections we didn't want I came across another reason why I won't subscribe to a newspaper anymore.

The Parade Magazine insert in the Sunday paper has always been a waste of perfectly good ink and paper, of course. But it has gotten so much worse over the years that its decline almost seems like a cultural indicator. I can remember a time when, as a teenager, I could flip through the Parade section, reading about a celebrity or enjoying a cartoon. The edition that wound up in my house the other day, though, wouldn't be an appropriate section to give a teenager, at least not a Christian one; the celebrity gossip, articles, and general content betray the magazine's absorption of our sex-saturated culture and its display of consumerism as if it were a virtue.

That, in itself, isn't so surprising, of course. We encounter such examples of fetid cultural rot every day; getting through the checkout line at the grocery store without having early readers pick up disgusting words or zero in on salacious imagery is a Sisyphean labor, and as our children age the opportunities to encounter the inane, immodest, and inappropriate world of celebrity-inspired culture only grows. But the inclusion of a token of that world into something once as relatively innocuous as the Sunday paper represents an intrusion into the home itself, a sort of "all or nothing" proposition wherein one either accepts the filth along with the front page news, sports section, and stock reports, or bypasses the whole thing altogether.

It may be argued that curious children might see too much inappropriate material in the rest of the paper, not excluding the front page section itself; but the newspaper is unwieldy and difficult to handle for a small child, who often must spread even the section somewhat aimed at him, the comics, out on the floor or fold it into smaller squares to read it. The absence of very many pictures and the dry tone of the front page section are, in some ways, a built-in protection against the curiosity of the young, who are unlikely to wade far enough in to an account of a murder, for instance, to read the violent or seamy details.

That can't be said for the Parade Magazine, of course. Its small size, abundant illustration, and small blocks of text, not to mention the comics page included within it, are all going to seem more interesting to a young reader than the rest of the newspaper. Add to that the fact that some of the celebrities pictured may even be familiar to the children and you have the very real likelihood that children may pick this section up and read it, cover to cover.

And what would they have learned from the example that ended up in my house recently?

That celebrities often have "partners" instead of husbands or wives, that women who can't have babies and end up using surrogates may become best friends online, and that a nationally known comedian not only loves technology and encourages everyone to have as much of it as they can buy, but compares his iPhone experience to being like having [insert reproductive word here] for the first time. And that's just for starters.

Newspaper publishers of America, if you want people to subscribe to your product, quit including this trashy sewer rag in the Sunday paper. The cultural decay our families have to fight against is draining enough; we really don't need you to put it on parade.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You Get What You Pay For?

Years ago, I recall hearing about a conversation between two people on the subject of children's sandals. One person had been lamenting the fact that the shoes she had purchased for a child had come apart relatively quickly. The other, learning that she'd bought the shoes at a discount store, replied, "You get what you pay for."

When the conversation was repeated to me I found it terribly strange. As someone who had tried unsuccessfully to find children's sandals that were not made in China, I knew that the high-end brands and the department store displays all contained sandals made in China, quite possibly manufactured in the same factory where the supposedly "inferior" discount store brand was made. So what made the expensive ones any better? Did the workers get an additional five cents an hour tacked on to their tiny wages when they made the department store shoes? Did that create the incentive for them to sew more diligently? Highly doubtful, in my view--I thought then that the only difference was likely to be the label sewn into the pricey toddler sandal, and I still think so.

Apparently, quite a lot of Americans agree with me.

Though the post-Thanksgiving sales figures have seemed strong, there's no denying that discount stores are doing better than high-end retailers. While I'm sure there are lots of reasons for this, at least one of them has to be that there's no longer any gift-giving stigma associated with giving someone a gift from Wal-Mart or Target, especially if it's an electronic item that retails for more elsewhere. The gift recipient is no longer all that likely to feel slighted if you present her with a toaster from a discount store instead of purchasing the exact same toaster for far more money at a pricey snobby department store. When everything is made in a third-world country, all of it cheaply, and all of it by people who are making less than a dollar or two an hour for their work, it's really no longer the case that you get what you pay for.

Consider the iPod, for instance. After stories broke last year about slave labor conditions inside an iPod factory in China, Apple investigated, promised to crack down on the abuses, and make sure that "only" sixty hours of work a week would be permitted to its employees, many of whom are girls ages sixteen and up. The sixty-hour work week can be set aside during the Christmas rush, of course; and whether the usual approximate wage of sixty dollars a month would be augmented during the overtime periods is anybody's guess. Since the iPods range in price from the $79 Shuffle to the $299 model, it would take more than one month of sixty hour work weeks for an iPod factory employee to earn enough money to purchase even the cheapest model of music player they are building.

Do we get what we pay for? Is the iPod worth the price?

That's just one example, of course. There are factories in Malaysia and Mexico, in India and Indonesia, operating on much the same principle: long hours, low pay. Their workers make high-end retail clothing brands, expensive shoes, jewelry that sells for more than the employees make in a year; they make this year's hot Christmas toy and next year's hot fashion trend. They rarely have a day off; some aren't allowed visitors from outside the factory "compound," and some are charged room and board from their slim wages, just to live on the company premises, a "convenience" that works more to the advantage of the company than the advantage of the worker.

We don't talk about this a lot, in America. We don't really know what to say. We've come to rely on this state of things, and even those of us who are committed to reducing our reliance on these consumer goods are uneasily aware of how many of them we own and use on a daily basis.

In many senses, the situation of high-cost goods being produced at the cheapest possible labor cost is the price of globalism.

And in globalism, as in all else, eventually, you do get what you pay for.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Liturgical Tradition and Candles

As you can see from the top left corner of this blog, the kind and gracious hostess at Divine Mercy has awarded me her Candle Award for December. I so much appreciate the faithful witness, bright spirit, and generous good nature Marilena displays on a daily basis!

I was actually thinking about candles in context with something else, and this award gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss it.

I recently participated in a discussion on another blog where the topic of conversation involved the TLM and the Novus Ordo Mass. Although regular readers of this blog will know that I generally prefer the Novus Ordo, I would love to be able to attend the N.O. in Latin on a regular basis; at the very least the vernacular liturgy should strive toward the same dignity and reverence that is visible in the TLM, in my opinion.

You would think that the notion of reverence and dignity in the liturgy would not cause any contention among Catholics, but you'd be wrong. There's nothing like expressing an opinion, however mildly, that there really is a "right" and a "wrong" approach to liturgy to bring out the hostility among a segment of Catholics who seem to think that any such idea is not only in direct opposition to the spirit of Vatican II, but who find it characteristic of a snobby approach to worship, a presumptuous attitude that claims to know what God really wants of us, and an altogether uncharitable view that doesn't really care if Latin hymns and incense drive out not only the prevailing populist liturgical culture, but also all of those Catholics who would feel hurt and excluded by a too-strong return to liturgical tradition.

All of that old art, architecture, music, etc., was fine for its time, some of them are wont to say, but modern times demand modern innovations. We don't want the Church to stagnate, or to create the false impression that it takes Catholics five hundred years to decide if new things are good and worthy of being included in our sacred liturgies. To place such restrictions on modernity is indicative of a suspicious prejudice against what is new, a prejudice that does the Church no favors, and makes it much harder for people, especially young people, to connect with faith and worship.

I've discovered that trying to argue this issue on the basis of the importance of what liturgy is, what worship is, how we need to be connected with the Church's rich history and traditions, and so on, doesn't seem to do all that much. And that's when I started thinking about candles.

We use candles at Mass to represent Christ, our Light. Despite the fact that the modern age permits us to use a safer, easier, and much more effective means of illumination, we still use candles. No one ever suggests that the electric lights in the Church are an adequate replacement for the candles; no one (at least not that I know of) has ever seriously suggested replacing the Easter candle with a good quality flashlight, or an electric light post. At infant baptisms the parents and godparents are still handed a candle as part of the ritual, though there's plenty of light overhead and the candle is wholly useless from a practical standpoint; we light candles in churches (unless local fire codes prohibit this) when we pray for the poor souls or ask for help in some area of our life, even though the notion that the candle somehow affects the prayer is not at all what we believe. At the Easter Vigil Mass candles take over the whole job of lighting for a brief time, though the electric lights still function properly; there are rules governing the use and lighting of candles at Mass, and no properly educated Catholic priest allows a "unity candle" to be used at a wedding ceremony, because the symbolism of the candle doesn't permit such a usage.

Are candles really relevant to our modern lives? Aren't they, really, just a stubborn clinging to an ancient and meaningless tradition, considering all of the talk about seeing Christ in the assembly, in each other? Don't candles really hearken back to old dead ritual, considering that there's no use for them at all in the modern world? Shouldn't we replace the candles with a more relevant and up-to-date source of lighting? In fact, haven't we? After all, no one even buys candles any more, do they?

Oh, but they do.

Why do modern people, even outside of the Mass, still use these antiquated and outmoded things? Why do so many people purchase them annually, either for themselves or to give as gifts? Haven't we moved past all of our tendencies to cling to tradition? What possible reason could a modern person in a modern home have to buy or use a candle?

There are lots of reasons, of course, ranging from aromatherapy and home decoration to keeping emergency supplies on hand, with every degree of romance and practicality in between. But merely to state such things is to beg the question, or at least the deeper question: why do we associate candles with things like nice homes, romantic interludes, and even emergency preparedness, when candles are no longer strictly necessary for any of those things?

I have a feeling it's because at least at some level we still associate fire and light. The incandescent bulb, or the fluorescent one, good in themselves, have not been around long enough for us to associate with them such things as safety, warmth, passion, coziness, cheer or welcome. We may not consciously think of these things when we light a candle to set a mood or create a pleasant atmosphere, but the reason we choose to do that in itself shows how deeply we connect the "ritual" act of lighting a candle with these desired results.

At Mass, the profane "ritual" of lighting a candle for mundane or earthly use becomes the sacred ritual of lighting candles in anticipation of Christ's Real Presence on the altar; the earthly associations we draw around the use of a candle are transcended and given a sacramental quality, as something ancient and lasting becomes inextricably bound up with something eternal.

And if this is true for something as simple as a candle, how much more is it true for the cadence of ancient words, the soft rhythm of ancient music, the soaring majesty of ancient and venerable cathedrals, the glittering gems of ancient stained glass, and the whole rich patrimony of our ancient liturgical heritage?