Friday, July 31, 2009

An unfashionable remark

It must be fashion week at And Sometimes Tea; at least, I can't help sharing this one:

HAS Anna Wintour finally gone power crazy? That's what some fashion insiders are wondering this week after the Vogue editor in chief suggested a retail-sales strategy which some said amounted to industry price-fixing.

At a Tuesday "town hall" meeting hosted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, designers like Donna Karan and Elie Tahari lamented steep markdowns that have plagued profits since last fall, The Post's James Covert reports.

"Could someone lead a committee that would make ground rules for retailers when the discounting starts, and then all the retailers can agree to it?" Wintour asked.

When CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg pointed out, "That's illegal," Wintour said: "Is that something we can change? We have friends in the White House now."

Amazing. Anna Wintour apparently needs to learn that inserting one's Prada-covered foot into one's lipsticked mouth is simply never in style; nor is hinting at a little price-fixing among friends when the economy continues to subtract from the number of people who can afford to buy high fashion.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Putting the past on a pedestal

I'm glad for the vibrant discussion of yesterday's post about Hallie Lord and her article at Faith and Family. Though I did have to delete one abusive anonymous comment, for the most part people have been able to express their ideas charitably and with good sense.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity to clarify, not what I wrote, but why I wrote it. It seems that every time I take on one of these topics, whether it is to point out that women of the past in America wore hats, mostly, to church, not veils, or whether it is to remind those who sigh over their grandmother's organizational skills that grandmother's children spent six or seven hours a day in school away from home and were not underfoot when grandmother was attempting a deep cleaning, some people end up being offended.

I'm not sure why this is. I suppose this may be one of those times when tone doesn't translate to the written word, and when some may see my attempts in this direction as being the actions of a killjoy, an Ebenezer Scrooge who looks at the banquets, clothing, manners and deportment of the past and says, "Bah, humbug!" to it all.

Nothing could be further from my intention in writing as I do. I admire people who immerse themselves in history; I myself have a great fondness for antique stores and their treasures. The collector of vintage hats or patterns or teapots would find in me a sympathetic ear, and could pour out their passion for such things without any fear of ridicule.

But the things of the past, these collectible items, have the aura of truth about them. A much-patched and mended garment, a hat spoiled by an untimely rain whose spots are still visible on the dusty brim, a teapot whose lid bears a telltale crack down the center--all of these tell stories of real people, living real lives. These are not figments of our imagination; they were, and lived, and laughed, and loved, and died and faced judgment as we all will. And they still have existence; they still are.

We have a tendency to romanticize the past. This tendency is human, and understandable--but it's also rooted in fiction and can even be dangerous to us, to our spiritual lives and growth. I'm sure there are many ways to describe the various ways it can be dangerous to place the past on a pedestal--but two come to mind particularly.

The first is like what I alluded to above, when I spoke of the "hats vs. veils" controversy, or the belief that one's ancestors were just superior beings in their ability to raise children, do farm chores, spend two entire days washing, drying (on the clothesline) and ironing the family's laundry--and yet still manage to look as though they'd stepped out of a bandbox each evening when their husbands returned from town or from the back 40, as the case might be. At the root of this belief is the idea that our ancestors--grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.--possessed a key to living and an understanding of the world that we have lost, and that if we could only find that key again we could, magically or miraculously or both, recapture this blissful way of existence, this more natural, more authentic, more human way of being that has been taken from us by the evils of modernity.

Why is this dangerous? Because its fruit is bitterness. I have seen it happen, time and time again, that someone will become convinced of this idea, this notion that if we just return to "X" or start doing "Y" again, peace and tranquility will follow in the wake of these actions as surely as spring follows winter.

I want to be extremely clear, here: the danger lies not in doing the things our ancestors did, if we find these things interesting, enjoyable, profitable, helpful to holiness, etc. A woman who decides to raise chickens or attend the Latin Mass or hang her clothes to dry instead of using the clothes dryer because she wants to do these things for their own sake is in no danger at all. But the woman who thinks, "I will raise chickens, and suddenly the world will be a better place, and my children will understand what real chores are, and we will have the authentic goodness of our own eggs at our peaceful family breakfasts lit by the rising sun, and the gentle noise of the hens will delight my soul and..." is probably headed for some disappointment (followed by a sharp learning curve--or a race to sell the unfortunate fowl to her nearest farm neighbors). Similarly, the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass for its own goodness are going to benefit, I have no doubt. But the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass in order to escape the evils of the Novus Ordo Church and to show off their years of Latin scholarship and to "help" the priest determine the size of the buckles on his shoes and to feel superior to the poor schmucks stuck in "Marty Haugen land" may only be pausing at the Extraordinary Form Mass--on their way out of the Church altogether.

The bitterness comes from the realization that doing these things, on their own, is not going to turn the clock back to a simpler, gentler, more innocent or more moral time. It's not going to erase the last forty or fifty years or any of their effects; adopting the habits and customs of the past can only help us, inside, and only if we want that help when we adopt the habit or custom in the first place. If I move to a place where I can have chickens, and I think that having chickens may help me get out of bed in the morning so long as one of them is a rooster, well and good! But if I move to a place where I can have chickens in the hope that merely having and caring for the chickens is going to transform my local Wal-Mart into a store owned by a 1940s greengrocer who knows my name and calls me "Mrs. M" and is sure to remind me that the broccoli is really fresh today--I'm out of luck. And if I was hoping for that, then I'm quite likely going to be bitter. After all, here I am, making all of these changes and sacrifices--and the rest of the world, Those People Out There, keep on in their hedonistic and sinful and consumerist ways, spoiling everything for The Rest of Us. The nerve!

The second danger that comes from romanticizing the past is different, in that it doesn't seek to adopt--at least not entirely--any of the clothes or manners or customs of the past. This type can become immersed in a past world, though, idolizing the manners, dress, music, movies, writings and so forth of a particular age. Like I said before, if this is merely one's hobby, and is directed at some particular aspect or aspects of some particular era one admires, it is as harmless and fun as stamp collecting or birdwatching. But if it is an interest that is rooted in a belief that the world was practically perfect in 19-- (or 18--, or 17--, etc., though that is rarer to encounter) then this romantic view of a past world has its own danger.

Where the danger in the first temptation is that one will become bitter about the modern world, the danger of the second is that one will become apathetic to it. The person who believes that at some point the world was truly wonderful, and it has been all downhill since, is in some danger of slowly turning away from the world of the here-and-now, and refusing to accept that God has placed us in this world, here, and now, in order to best fulfill His plans for us and to, with His blessings and aid, secure our own eternal destinies.

Besides that danger, there is the further sad reality that to believe the world was truly wonderful at some past date is to ignore the effects of the Fall. Shakespeare's heroes--not only his villains--sometimes displayed immoral behavior; Chaucer before him wrote of lust and its accompanying sins as if they were fairly frequent occurrences--and the twelfth century was a long way from the corrupting influences of television and the Internet. Jane Austen's world is charming--but even in Miss Austen's tales we find adultery, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the like. My own much-admired Alexander Pope, writing in a world that appreciated the elegance of rational rhyme, penned a poem which was one of the ones I considered in my senior thesis: it is his "Eloisa to Abelard," which tells of a nun still struggling with her conscience years after she was sent to the convent to separate her from her illicit lover, who has become a priest.

Does this mean that there is nothing to admire about the past? Of course not. We often hear about how much safer people were, how possible it was to let children roam outdoors unsupervised knowing that everyone in town would keep an eye on them, how delightful to have one's groceries delivered to one's front door, how some of the filth that is now visible to all was kept decently hidden from public view. Decently hidden--in burlesque shows and under counters and behind dark windows; we are kidding ourselves if we think our ancestors in the simpler times had no contact with the world of sin. But it is that forgetfulness that leads to the oversimplification and the apathy: the world was once innocent and kind, we are tempted to think, and now it is immoral and cruel; better to retreat to memory and imagination, and to overlook the spots and stains on the photographs or journals, to hide from ourselves the knowledge that there has never been an age of innocence since Adam and Eve's wicked act in the Garden.

The best remedy against either of these temptations is to see the past as clearly and truthfully as we can. This clarity and verity will help us to realize that keeping chickens is a difficult sort of thing to do, and not at all productive of any magic effects beyond a quantity of eggs (good!) and an even greater quantity of chicken waste (not so good--though perhaps useful in one's garden). It will help us to realize that even in an Extraordinary Form Mass it is possible to meet the ignoble, uncharitable, immoral, or unkind, and that hanging one's clothes out to dry may save a little electricity, but may also be impractical in allergy season.

It will help us to recall that the past was not always rosy, too; that evil and sin were features of every human age, and that even in 1950 people were already talking about artificial contraception (for instance) and wondering when the Catholic Church would drop its silly objection to it (no joke--I have a bound collection of Harper's Magazine from 1950 which discusses this topic). The evils of the present did not suddenly spring up one day in the late 1960s or early 1970s--they have very, very long roots, going back to that same tree in the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

We forget that at our peril. When the past is put on a pedestal, it's very easy for it to become a false idol.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How it used to be

I don't usually find the time to read the Faith and Family Live website, but I kept seeing today's feature article by Hallie Lord mentioned, so I finally went over there and read it.

And now I haven't got the good sense to keep my mouth shut.

Lord, who blogs at BettyBeguiles.com, writes about our grandmothers and their wardrobes. They knew certain things we don't, Lord says--do read the whole article--and were coached by their own mothers on how to dress. They looked for three simple things when choosing clothes: selection, quality, and care. They might have only purchased a couple of good things, and then had a tailor alter the pieces to fit them exactly. They cared for their clothes--though Lord doesn't mention one very necessary step in that care, the iron, which imposed its thankless drudgery on every 1930s or 1940s housewife with relentless necessity.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. Trouble is, it doesn't go nearly far enough.

In the first place, Lord is obviously talking about a particular class of woman, the upper-middle to middle class woman, when she writes as she does about clothes. A woman below that economic status would not have been able to take all the steps Lord outlines, particularly the one involving the tailor. Such a woman already made the vast majority of her own clothes, so any alterations necessary would have been done in her own home, by herself. The number of vintage clothing patterns still available show us how common it was for a woman to buy little that she could make herself, especially in the years first following the Great Depression.

In the second place, Lord may not realize something I myself found rather shocking the first time I read it: we now live in a time when it isn't all that possible to identify, immediately and correctly, another woman's social class or economic status by how she dresses--but that time was barely beginning in the earlier parts of the 20th century. Even if a poorer woman was exceedingly skilled in the art of designing and sewing her own clothes, even if she could copy the styles created by expensive designers, the materials she could afford, especially the buttons and trimmings, would be an obvious clue to her work--and that was before anybody reached the "dead giveaways" of things like hats, stockings, gloves, shoes, and jewelry.

So the practice of buying a few items of quality rather than purchasing inferior clothes in greater numbers was as much about signifying which social class one belonged to--even in times of economic hardship--as it was about a conscious embrace of a frugal or simple lifestyle.

And in the third place, if we are talking specifically about 1940s fashions, we need to keep something in mind--rationing. During World War II rationing which included clothing items continued until 1946. It was considered patriotic to keep wearing one's older clothing instead of buying new items at every opportunity. So the careful consideration of a garment one did have to purchase was important--if it wore out too quickly, didn't flatter the purchaser, or was otherwise unsatisfactory it might be complicated or even impossible to replace it with that year's clothing allowance.

None of this is meant to say that women (and men) shouldn't dress with more care. I often think that it's time to put an end to the "sweatsuit" family of clothing options we wear in public too frequently and that many of us could do a better job of presenting ourselves to the world, at least on occasion.

But creating a rosy myth of a past where a tiny-waisted woman waltzes ecstatically in front of department store mirrors as she selects quality items no longer available to the human race isn't telling the whole story. The woman standing quietly behind her ready to hand her the next item to try on, the one in the faded black dress she bought to attend her husband's wartime funeral and then later when she applied for this job, the one whose battered hat and worn cloth coat are waiting in the employee cloakroom and prove all by themselves that she'll be hiking to the nearest bus station, not signaling a taxi, when she leaves the lights and color of the store, is a big part of the story too. And when we sigh over how "it used to be," I'd much rather we didn't leave her out of it.

Variations on a Conspiracy in B Flat

By now, unless you've been completely deprived of all sources of information for the entire week, you've heard about the "birther" controversy.

The "birthers" are a growing group of people who claim that Barack Obama is not eligible to be the President of the United States because he doesn't meet the Constitutional criteria of being a natural-born citizen. They further claim that the president's long-form birth certificate from the State of Hawaii may provide evidence of this.

In most states, of course, it's not possible to obtain a birth certificate for someone who was not actually born in the state. In Hawaii, in 1961, according to many different people, it was possible to do this. I have no idea if the people making this particular claim are even remotely correct about that, but bear in mind that Hawaii had only been a state since August 21, 1959, and that Obama was born Aug. 4, 1961. It is at least marginally reasonable to suppose that things hadn't been fully sorted out by 1961 in terms of who was eligible to apply for state citizenship, and thus United States citizenship.

However, the short form or "Certification of Live Birth" Obama has released lists his birthplace as Honolulu. Presumably the long form will show the same thing, and will add further details confirming the name of the hospital where Obama was born (both Queen's Medical and Kapiolani Hospital have been named as Obama's birthplace--first Queen's, and then later Kapiolani, which continues to be referred to as the hospital where Obama was born), along with the name of the attending physician, and some more complete information about Obama's parents.

At this point I seriously doubt that the long form birth certificate will not confirm these things, and will not show definitively that Obama was born in Hawaii. So the question is: why not just release the long form birth certificate? Why not do the one thing that would deal a death blow to this particular conspiracy, peeling away the mildly curious and possibly persuadable, leaving only the hardcore tinfoil hat wearers who still think JFK was killed by the Roswell alien?

I have heard approximately five possible theories about why President Obama might not be releasing the long form birth certificate. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. President Obama believes that the "birthers" are like the 9/11 "truthers" or the Trig Palin "truthers" in that a little thing like evidence isn't going to curb their enthusiasm for the game of conspiracy theory. Heck, last I heard one prominent blogger still apparently thinks Bristol Palin might be Trig's mother, even though Bristol's subsequent pregnancy and the dates involved make that a biological impossibility. So Obama, having released the short form a long time ago, goes this argument, has nothing to gain from releasing the long form now. He has nothing to lose, either, but that's irrelevant.

2. President Obama's long form birth certificate contains some information that might be mildly embarrassing to him. Perhaps his parent's weren't actually married when he was born, or perhaps his race on the certificate is not listed as "African" as it is on the short form COLB (which may easily be true), or perhaps there is some other minor, unimportant discrepancy which Obama would prefer not be made public. So while releasing the long form birth certificate might make the conspiracy go away, it would also bring to public attention some minor embarrassment which Obama would prefer to keep private. Thus, he has decided not to release it and to wait for the controversy to die down.

3. President Obama's long form birth certificate contains some information that might be seriously damaging to him (politically speaking), even though not as damaging as a foreign birth. There are various hypotheses as to what this information might be, ranging from speculation that someone other than Barack Obama Sr. is listed as his father to even wilder and weirder ideas. Whatever the case, goes this argument, Obama simply can't afford to release the long form. All he can do is hope it never winds up in the public record, and do everything possible to keep it secret.

4. President Obama's birth certificate is completely ordinary and proves that he was born in Hawaii. The problem, according to this scenario, is that he might have attended one or more of his colleges by applying for and receiving aid to foreign students. This makes it necessary for Obama to keep both his birth certificate and his school records a secret. So long as the short form Certification of Live Birth is the only record publicly available, no one can prove that he was never eligible for aid to foreign students--but should the detailed long form be made a part of the public record, some schools might have a few questions for the President.

5. President Obama's birth certificate is being concealed simply because it does prove that Obama wasn't born in the United States. Though his mother was, of course, American, his father was not, and his mother wasn't old enough to confer citizenship on her child--he couldn't be a natural born citizen because he was born outside of the country to a British citizen and an American who wasn't old enough to confer citizenship by the laws in place in 1961. He is hiding the birth certificate because it shows him to be ineligible to be the president, plain and simple.

Of all of these speculations, I find theory "5" the least likely. For a conspiracy of this magnitude to exist, so many people would have to be involved and know the truth that it becomes increasingly unlikely that one or more of them wouldn't have revealed it. But I've got to be honest here: I also find theory "1" somewhat unlikely, too--at least from the standpoint that if Obama really can make all--or most--of this go away with a simple phone call to the Hawaii, it's hard to understand why he wouldn't just do that.

There is a sixth theory, though, that says Obama's exploiting the situation for political gain, and plans to spring his perfectly innocuous long-form birth certificate on the public at the right time, when enough Republicans have signed on to the conspiracy theory to look extremely foolish when the (weather) balloon goes up, so to speak. I don't know. I have a hard time believing that Obama thinks the Republicans need any help in the "looking extremely foolish" department.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Proud to be an American

You may have already seen this, but what a feel-good story it is:

Born in Vietnam in 1969, Nguyen was, in his words, a "war baby," the son of a man he never knew, an American soldier, named Rodriguez.

Nguyen doesn’t know whether his father was among the 58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

"I always pray that he has a happy life," Nguyen said. "A happy family. Proud in every way of what he does."

At 23, Nguyen applied for a visa and arrived in the United States in 1992. He moved to Fort Worth three years later. Now a U.S. citizen, he received an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. While stationed at the Army’s Fort Meade in Maryland, Nguyen attended Bowie State University in Bowie, Md., at night and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

About 1  1/2 years ago, he decided to broaden his education by undertaking this walk across the land he loves. He saved about $25,000 for expenses. On his job as a contracted meter reader, he met David Dominguez, a 25-year-old co-worker, who quit his job to make the six-month trip.

Nguyen planned to start in California. But Victor Nguyen, principal of St. Ignatius College Preparatory in Fort Worth, a small private nonprofit school, warned against the strategy. He told his friend that he couldn’t withstand the brutal Arizona heat in June and July. So he reversed the itinerary.

He began his journey wearing a pair of Crocs, which he wore as a meter reader.

A sign Nguyen wears across his back reads: "Shore To Shore. A Walk Across America To Honor Those Who Serve!"

The walker is ever-mindful to show respect for the flag he proudly bears.

"Every three weeks, I gently soak her and hand wash her and dry her," Nguyen said. "Without the flag and the support of people, I couldn’t walk. She is my protection."

Nguyen and his companion have discovered the friendliness, the goodness, the generosity and the patriotism of Americans.

In Shreveport, a man gave him tomatoes and a cantaloupe from his roadside stand. A woman bought the pair a meal at a Waffle House. In Quitman, Ga., a man insisted that they spend the night in his home.

In cities and towns, strangers dug into their pockets and made donations — from 25 cents to $100. So far, the offerings total more than $1,500.

A week into the walk, Nguyen experienced a throbbing toothache. He gulped ibuprofen and walked on.

Toenails fell off. Skin between his toes cracked and bled. He lost 20 pounds.

"I know he is hurting, but he doesn’t complain. He is strong," Dominguez said. He looked admiringly at his friend. "I feel like a more patient man, thanks to Sinh."

Nguyen flashed his 1,000-watt grin.

"I speak English with a broken accent, but an intact heart. I have very solid faith in America."

Read the whole thing. It's an amazing, incredible, uplifting story.

Sinh Tho Nguyen reminds me why I'm proud to be an American.

France and Sunday shopping

From the "Oh, to have such problems" department comes this tale of a new law allowing shopping on Sundays in France:
Conservative supporters hail the law as a reformist boost for France's recession-stalled economy. But detractors on both the left and right just as energetically decry it as a vulgar consumerist assault on tradition, families and even French democracy. "We've got better things to propose to our fellow citizens than a life of commuting, sleeping and buying," lamented André Lardeux, one of many senators from the ruling Union for a Popular Majority party who defied President Nicolas Sarkozy by voting against his pet law to liberalize Sunday commerce. [...]

Sunday shopping a threat to French civilization? If Darcos' assurances sound excessive, they only reflect the resistance his Sarkozy-mandated bill has provoked. Leftists continue to assail its move to undermine a 1907 law prohibiting Sunday trading as only the first step toward the very generalization of travail dominical that Darcos denies. They also vow to challenge the law before France's Constitutional Council on the somewhat ironic grounds that by allowing only some shops to operate Sundays, it violates the rights of employees who may want to work on Sunday but whose shops are not covered by the reform.

Dissenting conservatives, meanwhile, denounce the law as a threat to an array of social and cultural traditions rooted in the seventh day being one of rest. They warn that family gatherings, leisure activities and even church attendance will suffer greatly as people are forced to don the dominical yoke of labor. Where will the next Renoir get his inspiration for another Bal du Moulin de la Galette? What would Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte be without the Sunday bit? And how to defend the colors against the neighborhood rival if your goalkeeper and best center forward are down at the mall selling garden furniture?

France — or at least parts of it — will soon find out. And how will a society famous for being rabidly protective of its leisure time, long vacations and nominal 35-hour workweek respond? Probably with a Gallic shrug. Polls show 55% of French people oppose the law and 42% support it. Still, 40% of respondents say they'd heed a boss's call to work Sunday if it meant making more money, while another 30% say they'd welcome the chance to shop on Sundays.
I sometimes wish we had the chance to turn back the clock here in America, to return to a time when most businesses were closed on Sunday. I also imagine, wistfully, our ancestors who complained about a 9 to 5 workday--what, I wonder, would they think of the plight of so many of our salaried employees today, who are expected to work ten or twelve hours a day with no overtime at all? But the two issues, Sunday shopping and the 60-hour workweek, go hand in hand.

Because if so many Americans weren't at work between the hours of 7 a.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Friday, it wouldn't be necessary for so many businesses to remain open on Sunday. There would be plenty of time during the week to run errands and take care of legitimate needs, without filling a Saturday and spilling over into Sunday to complete these chores. Life could be much more relaxing and enjoyable, and there'd be no pressure to work 24/7, to spend most of one's waking hours at one's place of employment and then be "on call" over the weekends, as well.

People might have time to have their neighbors over for Sunday brunch, or spend a quiet Saturday puttering around in a workshop. They might spend long, lazy weekend afternoons reading a book or working on an art project. There would be time for conversation, reflection, and peace of the soul.

France is on the verge of beginning the process of becoming just like us. I hope, for their sakes, the Sunday shopping laws prove so unpopular that they can go back to a kind of normal Americans haven't seen for decades.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Divorce is bad for your health

Well, well. Who could have expected this?

MONDAY, July 27 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have long thought that marriage is good for your health, but it has been less clear how you will fare if you lose your spouse to divorce or death.

Now, a new study shows that scenario spells trouble, even if you go to the altar once again.

In fact, people who ceased being married at some point in their lives were significantly more likely to have chronic health problems than those who stayed married, researchers found.

It's not clear if the dissolution of a marriage directly affects health or if some other factor is at play. Still, "marital loss does seem to be a powerful force damaging health," said sociologist and study co-author Linda Waite. "And it seems to work about the same way for men and women, and for emotional well-being and physical health." [...]

After adjusting their statistics to account for such factors as race and gender, which could skew the results, the researchers found that those with "marital loss" -- meaning losing a spouse to death or divorce -- had 20 percent more chronic health conditions than people who stayed married.

They also had 23 percent more conditions that limited their ability to get around.

People who remarried were somewhat less likely to have these problems than those who had stayed single but still more problems than those who remained married.

I'm sure some other group of researchers will hastily produce a new study that will show that divorce is actually good for you; we can't have any reports of scientific evidence that there are any consequences whatsoever linked to the sexual revolution. This study will be buried along with the ones that show links between abortion and breast cancer, the ones that suggest more strokes in women who use the Pill, and the ones that hint at the possibility that one's risk factors for AIDS include homosexual activity.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Boy missing in Dallas UPDATE: FOUND MONDAY

UPDATE: I'm glad to report that Luke has been found, alive and safe!! He is in the process of returning to his family. There are still many questions, of course, but for now the most important thing is that Luke is going home. Thanks to all for your prayers!


I'm finished posting at Crunchy Cons for this round. But please go read this post.

15-year-old Catholic Luke Dillier went missing Friday morning in Dallas. His family are devastated and want him home.

If you've seen this boy, please call 911 with any information you might have about him.

More information can be found here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Health care post at Crunchy Cons

In case anybody's interested, I've put up something about the Catholic bishops and health care over at Crunchy Cons. Making sure the poor have access to health care is important. Forcing everybody to buy insurance, or letting the federal government control health care, may not be the best way to do that.

Later!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crunchy Con blogging

I'll be blogging at Crunchy Cons for the rest of the week--come on over!

Just put up one about health care. What do you think of Congressman Fleming's idea (if you'd rather discuss it here than there)?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abortion is so cheap

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation occurring after government-run health care becomes a reality in America.

Jim and Jane are a married Catholic couple with four children. Jim works for a small company which dropped private insurance two years ago, choosing instead to offer the government plan to its workers as a way of saving money. Jim and Jane aren't thrilled with the coverage they get, but they can't afford to buy private insurance, and new laws make it illegal to purchase private insurance if you're already on the government plan, anyway. They had to change pediatricians because their former doctor retired; he couldn't make a decent living anymore, and got tired of spending more time doing paperwork than seeing patients. Their new pediatrician is one of a huge group, and it seems that every time their children have to see a doctor they see a different member of the group. The rapport they had with their old doctor is gone, and the new pediatric group has noted the family's homeschooling under a list of "warning signs" for abuse; when the family's two-year-old bruised his knee falling off of his tricycle, the family had to speak to a child protective services worker before the incident was agreed to be an accident.

Jane discovers that she is expecting baby number five. She's excited, but a bit nervous--her pro-life, NFP only doctor had to quit because it's illegal for an OB/Gyn not to provide contraception or to refuse to refer for abortions now. She's only seen her new OB once, and this doctor chided her for having four children, and clearly doesn't share the family's values. But under the government plan this is the only OB Jane can see in her area.

Jane puts her OB visit off as long as possible, but finally heads in early in the second trimester. The doctor is severe: she should have come earlier. She's showing some signs of anemia. The doctor schedules an ultrasound, as it's nearly time for one of the two permitted scans--more than two ultrasounds aren't allowed.

The ultrasound shows a problem. The baby, a boy, shows signs of a fetal bladder obstruction. Prognosis is good, provided a fetal surgery can be done to correct the problem. Jane and Jim are worried, but talk to the doctor about scheduling the surgery.

That's when they find out that the surgery is considered an elective option, not covered by the government insurance plan in their circumstances. They already have four children, so extraordinary measures to prolong the life of this one aren't allowed. Termination of pregnancy, says the OB, is far less expensive than the fetal surgery. Jane has three options: she can come up with the $150,000 to pay for her hospitalization and the fetal surgery (a significantly reduced rate based on the family's income, the doctor says), she can terminate the pregnancy, or she can continue the pregnancy knowing that the failure to correct the obstructed bladder while the baby is in utero will quite likely result in fetal or neonate death. Should she choose the third option, she is still only permitted one further ultrasound to assess the baby's health and development, so she will likely not know how he is doing or whether he is in any distress. The doctor strongly recommends termination, followed by a tubal ligation; that's her "best medical recommendation," she says firmly.

Jim and Jane are devastated. There's no way they will kill their child with an abortion--but they also can't even possibly come up with the money for the surgery on their own. They have no choice but to hope their baby survives until birth, and to present his case to the hospital's board in the hopes that he will be permitted to receive the life-saving surgery at that point. There is, however, no guarantee that that will happen; it's more likely that the hospital will refuse to cover any intervention since the government insurance plan won't pay for it, and will instead offer a much more affordable "painless death" to their ill newborn.

Anyone who thinks this sort of thing won't happen under a government-run health care system hasn't been paying attention. Our government is officially anti-life. Pressures to keep the costs down will be huge. And saving the lives of critically ill unborn children is going to be very, very low on the priorities list--especially when abortion is so cheap.

Catholics and Health Care Reform

Some questions have arisen in the comments here and in other places I've been about what Catholics should believe about health care. Aren't the bishops in favor of government-run health care? Shouldn't we be, too? And what about the teaching of the Church on health care?

Let's start with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 2288:

2288 Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.

Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.

This teaching comes during the discussion of the fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Respect for the lives and dignity of our fellow men does not entitle us to remain indifferent to the suffering of others, nor to promote any sort of unjust system of health care which excludes vast numbers of people from access to a doctor or hospital.

However, it is clear that the requirement that "society help in the attainment" of good living conditions, food and clothing, housing, heath care, etc. as listed above is not a requirement that a government adopt socialist plans to enact confiscatory taxation in order to provide for "free" these basic human goods. To look at this issue in the simplest way, it is more necessary to life that people have shelter and food than health care, and welfare programs which provide these to the impoverished are an act of both justice and mercy--but requiring all people to give a significant portion of their income to the government so that the government could then purchase and distribute food and regulate housing for all would clearly be an abuse of the government's power over its citizens.

Making sure that the poor have access to medical care and treatment is a good goal. Enacting a hugely expensive program that will quite likely strain our already devastated economy to a dangerous point, end private health insurance in America, depress the wages of doctors and nurses and other highly-trained health care workers, and mandate coverage of immoral things like contraception and abortion (and, if Nutmeg is right, eventually euthanasia), and which still does not cover illegal immigrants whose use of our nation's medical system has been one factor in the rising costs of health care is not necessarily the same thing.

The United States bishops are noticing this; here's Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y:
WASHINGTON—“Genuine health care reform that protects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and a vital national obligation,” said Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., as he outlined the policy priorities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the issue of health care in a July 17 letter to Congress. The letter supported efforts to pass health care reform, but warned against inclusion of abortion.

Writing on behalf of the bishops as chairman of their Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Murphy said the bishops have advocated comprehensive health care reform for decades and recommended four criteria for fair and just health care reform: respect for human life and dignity, access for all, pluralism and equitable costs.

“Two of these criteria need special attention as Congress moves forward with health care reform,” Bishop Murphy said.

On respecting life and dignity, he said, “No health care reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion. Any such action would be morally wrong.”

After citing protections from public funding of abortion in U.S. law, Bishop Murphy added, “Health care reform cannot be a vehicle for abandoning this consensus which respects freedom of conscience and honors our best American traditions. Any legislation should reflect longstanding and widely supported current policies on abortion funding, mandates and conscience protections because they represent sound morality, wise policy and political reality.”
Bishop Murphy's entire letter is available as a .PDF document at the above link, for those interested in reading the whole thing.

The way I see it, it's one thing to notice that our current system of health insurance needs to be fixed, but quite another to insist that only by letting the federal government take over the health care industry, make decisions for all, promote an immoral, anti-life view of the human person, and drive private businesses out of existence can we fix the problems with health insurance and access to health care.

In fact, as things stand right now there's one hugely grave danger that may become a reality under a government-run health care system. The post above this one will explore that danger.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A scary parallel

Forty years ago today, men first set foot on the moon:

Forty years ago this afternoon, two Americans landed on the moon, a moment that will stand for millennia as one of humanity's most remarkable achievements.

At 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969, the Eagle lunar lander carrying Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.

"The Eagle has landed," said Armstrong as hundreds of NASA workers and journalists back at Mission Control in Houston cheered.

"You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here," exhaled Charles Duke, the capsule communicator, or "CAPCOM," who acted as the liaison between the astronauts and the rest of Mission Control. "We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"

Today, astronauts repaired a broken piece of technology aboard the International Space Station:

The 13 people aboard the crowded International Space Station can breathe a bit easier now that some astronaut plumbers have fixed a broken zero gravity toilet.

The toilet is one of two orbital commodes on the space station for the outpost's permanent six-person crew and seven visiting astronauts from the docked shuttle Endeavour.

It flooded on Sunday, forcing Mission Control to ask the shuttle and station crew to hang an "out of service" sign on the door until further notice.

Space station crewmembers repaired the Russian-built space commode by replacing a separator pump and control panel.

The fix took them much of Monday morning to perform, but in the end Mission Control declared the revived space bathroom — known as the Waste Hygiene Compartment, or WHC — fit for astronaut use.

"Copy, the WHC is go for nominal ops," Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk replied.

Is it any wonder that the Apollo astronauts aren't all that thrilled with today's NASA?

Granted, the astronauts are pointing to the lack of public support for space exploration and the disappointingly small budget that NASA gets as reasons why things aren't better. But there's a kind of "chicken and egg" moment going on--does NASA do less because the funding isn't there, or is the funding not there because NASA, a government agency apparently incapable of storing video tapes without incident, isn't trusted to spend the American people's money much of the time?

The real question is how the NASA model is going to translate into government-run health care. Sure, at first there'll still be some competition from private industry, and even some push for R&D (especially if we can chop up helpless human embryos in the process--yay! not.). But once the government's insurance is the only game in town, how much exploration, innovation, and discovery will we be seeing in our nation's health care? How many research companies will want to do their work in a nation that is going to cap their profits regardless of the risks of time and money they spend developing new cures or treatments?

Maybe in forty years, we'll be cheering every time funding goes through to fix a hospital toilet. Or maybe not.

Click, Clique

It's almost a seasonal thing, lately. A "big-name" mommy blogger will start to sigh over how much time her virtual life is taking away from her real life; another will link to the first post on her Facebook account while agreeing with it on her wall; a third will tweet about the whole thing, and link to her own blog post on the subject on her Twitter deck. A fourth will write about how she's ruthlessly paring down her list of blogs on Google reader; and a fifth will decide to start a topic about the "IRL/Virtual Life Balance" on two or three of the Catholic homeschooling mommy forums she visits daily.

From this clique of well-known, inner-circle mommy bloggers the meme spreads with virus-like (real or virtual) rapidity; other mommy bloggers whose blogs are small and whose readership is modest begin to worry. Am I stealing time from my children? frets one such blogger, thinking of the fifteen minutes she spent uploading pictures of Baby instead of playing with Baby. Am I shutting myself off from the real-life community? frets another, whose "community" is a suburban ghost town during the week. Am I wasting time that I should be spending making my home a better place? worries a third, even though her house is already clean enough for her mother-in-law to drop in at a moment's notice. We women are like that, you know; all it takes is for some highly-regarded person to question something we like doing (or reading, or watching, etc.) for us to start worrying that perhaps this hobby or pastime is unworthy of our vocation, and to resolve, with tears perhaps, to pare it down to nothing, or cut it out of our lives altogether.

Which is why I have very little tolerance, and even some anger, when the big-name bloggers wittingly or unwittingly launch a meme like this.

Because if they were really worried about spending too much time on the Internet, then they would focus on shrinking their own presence on the Internet, not on ignoring everyone else's.

Sorry if that seems harsh--but my observation of the phenomenon has shown that very rarely does an "important" blogger say, in effect, "You know, this Internet stuff is taking me away from my family too much lately. So, I'm going to put my blog on sabbatical. I'm setting my email account to give an auto-reply. I'm suspending my Facebook and/or Twitter accounts. Those of you who really need to reach me probably have my phone number or private email, but I've got to be honest--I need a break."

That I could respect, and even admire. But what is usually said really means something like this: "My virtual life is taking too much time from my real-life obligations. So, I'm going to disable comments on my blog--while I keep posting (can't let that stat count slip). I'm going to reserve the right to ignore your emails--but keep sending 'em anyway. I'm going to stop reading your blogs (unless you're a fellow click-cliquer) but you'd better keep reading mine. I'll still be your friend on Facebook and Twitter, but for heaven's sake, don't expect me to respond to any of your tweets or postings--I need thousands of followers, but let's be real, here, about how many of you I actually care enough about to pay any attention to."

(And you thought I was harsh before.)

The thing is, sometimes real people, in real life, get hurt by this. It's not all that hard to understand why, either. They've developed a kind of relationship with the bloggers they read--a virtual one, perhaps, but a relationship nonetheless. It may only be the relationship of a "fan" to a "celebrity," but in real life decent celebrities are appreciative of their fans, and will go out of their way to sign an autograph or wave and smile at the throngs of people who turn out to see them. We've all heard about the other kind of celebrity, the boorish kind who can't be bothered to be gracious to the very people who make his celebrity status possible--but we don't much like it when that happens. So why should we ignore the same situation when the "fans" are devoted readers, and the "celebrities" are bloggers who have, like it or not, become just a little famous?

I'm not in the position of having a thousand daily readers or so many emails in a week that I can't possibly respond to all of them. But if that were to happen, and if I were to start to think that the Internet was occupying far too much of my time and attention, I would put this blog on a hiatus for as long as it took me to figure out how to maintain the proper balance. I already avoid Facebook and Twitter--while I can see the draw of using one of these to keep up with real-life friends and family, I don't get at all the rush to sign up friends and followers you've never met in person, and don't understand why those accounts wouldn't be the first things to go in the life of a truly stressed blogger. The main point is that if I were to be stressed out by my time on the Internet, I would do the one thing guaranteed to lessen that stress--shrink my own Internet profile.

What I would not do is complain that all my readers and commenters and e-mailers were keeping me from my real life. I can't imagine ever being so mind-bogglingly ungrateful as that.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Heard around the house

Here are some things I've heard around the house, lately:

Hatchick: Mom, can you make Bookgirl do something at nap besides read? She said she wasn't going to read until nap, but I let her read for twenty minutes instead of playing with me.

Bookgirl: Our yard is very environmentally friendly. Everything's dead!

Kitten: Why don't you write a family-friendly post on your blog, Mom? Your readers haven't seen that side of you lately...

Sure thing, Kitten! :)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Notes from the Choir, Vol. 2

Hello, all! I've got about five minutes to post something before we leave for choir; been behind schedule all day, sadly.

I wanted to share this song, which we are doing for our Recessional Hymn this Sunday:

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
to his feet thy tribute bring;
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
evermore his praises sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise the everlasting King.

Praise him for his grace and favor
to our fathers in distress;
praise him still the same for ever,
slow to chide and swift to bless:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Glorious in his faithfulness.

Father-like, he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows;
in his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Widely yet his mercy flows.

Angels, help us to adore him;
ye behold him face to face;
sun and moon, bow down before him,
dwellers all in time and space.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise with us the God of grace.


Written by Henry Francis Lyte, this hymn focuses on several aspects of God: His kingship, His mercy, His succor of those in need, and His creation which joins the worshiper in adoring Him.

Many songs of the "Praise and Worship" variety try to praise God like these older hymns do, but few of them succeed. Focusing a little too much on the worshiper and not enough on God, these hymns manage to cloud the praise of God in a self-congratulatory tone. Consider some lyrics from this song by Petra:

Lord, I lift Your name on high
Lord, I love to sing Your praises
I'm so glad You're in my life
I'm so glad You came to save us

Though meant to be a song of praise, this song, like others in the genre (some of which are unfortunately in Catholic hymn books) has a little "I" trouble. The other song commands "my soul" to praise God, but then reiterates the command without focusing on the person singing--as it should be.

Got to run, or I'll be late for practice! :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Good news about jury duty for Texas moms

Good news for Texas homeschooling moms! From the Texas Home School Coalition website:
House Bill 319, also by Representative Raymond, will change the current statute that allows adults to be exempt from jury duty if serving on a jury would cause a child ten years of age or younger to be left alone, by extending the age to fifteen years of age. We supported this measure because home school moms have been caught between the requirement to serve on jury duty and the possibility of being investigated by CPS for leaving a child under the age of fourteen unattended. This has passed both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Perry. (Emphasis in original.)
While you don't have to be a homeschooling mom to benefit from this new law, which takes effect September 1, there's no doubt that homeschooling moms are the ones most impacted by it. Prior to this law's expansion of the age of a youngest child at home from ten to fifteen, a homeschooling mother had to arrange not only for child care but for the continuing schooling of her children while she served on a jury. I know some moms have been able to do this, and consider jury duty a civic service that they're glad to perform, but other families have found it very hard to lose as much as a week's worth of school and have to pay a sitter or make other child care arrangements when the jury duty summons arrived in the mail.

This new law is very family-friendly, in that it does not assume that all families are placing children in day care centers or schools every day, freeing both parents for such things as jury duty. Rather, it recognizes that the stay-at-home mom is already performing a civic service by being directly involved in the care and nurturing of her children, and makes it possible for her to continue to be there for her children until they reach an age where they are legally able to stay at home by themselves if necessary.

It's nice to get to share some good news!

UPDATE: the present law, as of 2017, seems to involve a child younger than 12. This is still pretty good compared to most states, and is reasonable for most homeschooling families.

Hmm. "Dipped cone" sounds right. And good...

Haven't posted one of these Blogthings quizzes for a while. So, just for fun:




You Are a Dipped Cone



You are dramatic, deep, and even demanding.

If you're going to do dessert, you're going to go all out with something super rich.



People might be surprised to know that you worry about how you're perceived.

You've got an image to keep up, and you don't ever want to appear weak.



Anybody else hot enough to play? Feel free to share your results in the comments! :)

A little learning...

I've been a bit busy, lately, and one of the things I've been doing is trying to pin down just what exactly Kitten will be doing for her first year of high school at home, beginning this fall. I'm not at all nervous about homeschooling a high schooler; I was homeschooled myself in high school, beginning about midway through my sophomore year.

But one thing that does have me frazzled is trying to decide on curricula. It's taken me the last eight years to get a good elementary school curriculum organized, and now we're starting over again! I'm almost as bewildered as I was back when I was picking out overly-ambitious kindergarten workbooks for a little girl with serious eyes and a determined chin.

The serious eyes and determined chin are still there, but this girl isn't little anymore. She wanted to know earlier this afternoon how much a secretary earned in an hour. I gave her a rough number, and she went from that to annual salary pretty darned quickly for a girl who swears she doesn't "get" math. All I know for sure is she's looking forward to typing class, hence the questions about secretarial work.

But the difficulties haven't been in deciding about things like typing or other "extras." No, the difficulties have been centered around core curriculum materials. And one of the ones that is driving me a little bit crazy right now is science.

Granted, as a former lit. major I'm a bit wary when it comes to choosing a high school science course. I did fine, grade-wise, in science, but that doesn't mean much; I need the right sort of textbook or program to help me teach Kitten these complex subjects.

And I've hit a bit of a snag.

It's not that there aren't high-school science texts out there. There are even some that are specifically written for homeschoolers, by people who know how to design programs for students learning at home with some parental guidance. But so far I'm rather frustrated by one element: these books all seem to be written by creationists.

As a Catholic, I have, of course, no real quarrel with evolution. Sure, I don't believe that the soul evolved, and I also believe that if God chose to use evolution as His mechanism of creation, He still directly infused the first two human souls into a man and a woman; moreover, He still infuses each individual soul into each person. Our souls are not subject to the laws of evolution because they are immortal spirits, not something that will eventually and inevitably arise anywhere that evolution has gone on long enough. If there is sentient, souled life elsewhere in the universe, then God directly created the souls of those beings, too.

But Catholics don't have to reject evolution out of hand as one possible means God might have chosen to use when He created the world. Sure, Catholics don't have to--and shouldn't--accept evolution or any other scientific theory uncritically or in the absence of compelling evidence, either, but any sort of "hiding" of inconvenient evidence because we might dislike the theory on misguided theological grounds wouldn't be right. The Catholic scientist's approach to science should always be to examine the data critically and attempt to draw sound conclusions from it, wherever those conclusions may lead him. He need not fear that science will contradict his faith, because science and faith are not in opposition to each other, and, in fact, deal in completely different spheres of learning.

Science, for instance, can't observe or describe transubstantiation, but that doesn't mean that transubstantiation doesn't exist. It is a spiritual reality which transcends science, and if science could "prove" it, then man's free will to accept or reject it--or any other revealed truth--would be irreparably damaged. On the other hand, faith can't insist that particle physics be anathema as something which might damage a believer's notions about God's world. And faith can't dismiss evolution as something dangerous; it's no more dangerous than Einstein's theory of relativity.

Now, maybe someday some scientist will debunk Einstein, and we'll learn something new about the universe. And maybe someday some scientist will debunk Darwin too, by showing some mechanism other than evolution which God might have used in His act of creation--but there will still be a mechanism to be shown, if science is involved at all; science simply can't present "Fiat lux!" as something which can be empirically measured.

There may be some creation scientists who think that they have a better way than evolution to describe the mechanism of God's creative act--but thus far, the evidence for such a way has been scanty, and seems to be impelled by the creationists' faith rather than their science, for the most part (though I realize that there are exceptions). For a high school student, the bigger problem is that evolution is the currently accepted scientific theory when it comes to describing the origins of living creatures, and teaching otherwise means a decision to put the student outside of the mainstream of educational thought.

Granted, homeschoolers have no problems doing this, when faith and morals really are under attack. I won't use a history book that claims the Pilgrims came to America for mainly employment reasons, for instance--truth is at stake, and ignoring the Pilgrims' religious motivations isn't an honest thing to do. Nor will I use a "health" curriculum that is all about contraceptive use and encouraging teens to experiment sexually, because that is immoral and damaging.

But as a Catholic, I don't see evolution as immoral or damaging, provided the student learns that whatever mechanism best describes God's acts of creation, the key points are that God is responsible for our existence, and, as I said before, that in due time He directly infused the first two immortal human souls into one man and one woman, the ones we call Adam and Eve. Exactly how He chose to do everything else may be theorized scientifically without doing faith any harm; but pretending that evolution is on the verge of being disproved is, sadly, also something dishonest and misleading to teach children.

So I still don't know just what Kitten will use for science class this year. But I do know that I wish some sound Catholic scientist would start writing a truly Catholic high school science program, which accurately reflects Church teaching not only on evolution, but anywhere else that faith and science might intersect.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blogging for Cash

You may have noticed (or maybe not) that there aren't any ads on this blog. I don't have any problem with bloggers deciding that they'd like to put ads on their blogs and make a little money on the side, though I know that a "little" money is all anyone's ever likely to make. But for me, the only paid blogging I do is when I'm blogging at Crunchy Cons as Rod Dreher's occasional substitute host--and then I'm being paid to write, as decisions about advertising sales and placement aren't made at the level of individual bloggers at Beliefnet.

There is, however, another way for a blogger to earn some cash--and that's raising some concern:

Ms. Padilla typically acknowledges in each review which products were sent to her by companies and which items she bought herself. Other items on her site include her own videos for brands like Healthy Choice, which she labels as sponsored posts. But unlike postings in most journalism outlets or independent review sites, most companies can be assured that there will not be a negative review: if she does not like a product, she simply does not post anything about it.

The proliferation of paid sponsorships online has not been without controversy. Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers’ opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.

And the Federal Trade Commission is taking a hard look at such practices and may soon require online media to comply with disclosure rules under its truth-in-advertising guidelines.

A draft of the new rules was posted for public comments this year and the staff is to make a formal recommendation to be presented to the commissioners for a vote, perhaps by early fall.

“Consumers have a right to know when they’re being pitched a product,” said Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission.
Read the whole thing; I have a feeling bloggers are going to have to be aware of issues like these in the future.

Why? Well, for one example, I'm a homeschooling mom, and I sometimes mention, by name, some curricula or textbook I'm using. I've never been paid to mention anyone's product, and I'm free to praise or to criticize anything I like. But if the FTC starts keeping a close eye on bloggers and products, I might have to start any such post with a disclaimer to the effect that I'm giving my unsolicited opinion for which I have not been compensated in any way, or some such thing, before I mention any book or program I use.

Bloggers who review books might have to clarify whether they received the book gratis and whether they are being paid for the review. Same for mommy-bloggers who rave about a toy or safety product for toddlers, or for gardening bloggers who push a brand of seeds, or anybody who ever mentions a product.

What concerns me about this isn't that bloggers like the one mentioned in the above article are receiving free goods or services and/or being paid to discuss those goods or services in a positive light only; frankly, anyone savvy enough to turn on a computer successfully isn't likely to be naive enough to buy such "reviews" without the proverbial grain of salt. What concerns me is that people who aren't being paid to review products might have to think twice before recommending a book, or a movie, or a truly leak-proof toddler cup just because they like it; depending on how rules about product mentions are crafted in our legislature, bloggers may lose a little of their freedom of speech.

And that would be a shame. I can understand why some would be annoyed that the "blogomercials" out there aren't required to say up front, "Hey, I got this product for free, and the company will probably send me more free stuff and/or a check if I tell you how much I like it and to go buy it for yourself." But if too-stringent rules make it impossible for a thoughtful person to review a book, recommend a movie, or rave about the online outlet sale at their favorite casual clothing catalog company without having to load the post with disclaimers and legalese intended to clarify that no money, goods, or services changed hands in the process of creating the post, some people may start to be more hesitant about offering such honest opinions.

All the President's Records

There have probably been conspiracy theories during every presidential administration. None have been so enduring, perhaps, as the theories which surrounded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but such theories will pop up in every time period, I think. During the Bush administration one of the most well-known was the theory that somehow the President knew about, or even orchestrated, the 9/11 attacks, for example, and in this current administration the whispers keep on circulating about the President's birth certificate:

U.S. Army Maj. Stefan Frederick Cook filed a request last week in federal court seeking a temporary restraining order and status as a conscientious objector with the intent to stall and eventually prevent an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

In the 20-page document — filed July 8 with the United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia — Cook’s California-based attorney, Orly Taitz, asks the court to consider granting his client’s request based upon Cook’s belief that President Barrack Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and is therefore ineligible to serve as commander-in-chief of U.S Armed Forces.

Cook further states he “would be acting in violation of international law by engaging in military actions outside the United States under this President’s command, and that Plaintiff would thus be simultaneously unable to perform his duties in good Rule 65(b) Application for Temporary Restraining Order 22 conscience and yet be simultaneously subjecting himself to possible prosecution as a war criminal by the faithful execution of these duties.”

I know that plenty of enterprising military members have used creative ways to try to get out of a deployment, and maybe Major Cook's lawsuit is just a new iteration of that sort of thing. Certainly only a handful of right-wing websites or blogs have continued to raise questions about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States and whether, if he was not, he is eligible to be president considering the "natural born citizen" requirement of the Constitution. Everyone else seems to consider the matter of Barack Obama's birth certificate a settled one.

And that's probably true. Except for one small detail: while plenty of people have seen Barack Obama's Certification of Live Birth, his actual birth certificate--the "long form" or "vault copy," as some call it--has not been publicly released.

Does that mean that the actual birth certificate would end up proving Major Cook's claim? Not necessarily. There are plenty of reasons why the Obama administration might not want the original birth certificate to become a matter of public record. It might, for instance, show some embarrassing fact or other about Obama's parents (such as their marital status) or some similar detail that Obama doesn't want to be in the public eye.

I can understand those sorts of considerations, even if I think the wiser tactic would be just to release the original birth certificate rather than fight lawsuit after lawsuit to keep the certificate sealed, as Obama's lawyers have done up to now. What's much odder to me is that this administration, which has promised to be an open book, has never released Obama's college records.

President Bush, after all, took a lot of grief from late-night comics and the media elite over his not-so-inspiring college grades. Other presidents have pointed to their academic records with pride, or at least with self-deprecation. But Barack Obama's college records are sealed. We don't know how well he did at Occidental College or Columbia University, let alone what his law school days at Harvard were like. We do know he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, though, so clearly Obama's not hiding bad grades there, though he wouldn't be the first person to coast through undergrad work and then buckle down and get serious post-grad, if that turned out to be the case.

Why the secrecy? Why not inspire young men and women--particularly young African-American men, who absorb all sorts of negative cultural messages about college and hard work--by showing how he managed to get through school and get a law degree? Why cover up something that really should be open to the public?

I really can't think of any reason why a sitting president would continue to demand that his college records be kept sealed. I'm certain this level of secrecy would never be tolerated in a Republican administration--the news media would demand access to these records, and hint darkly on evening newscasts that the president must be hiding something damaging enough to avoid the traditional step of making his college records public. But the media has been inclined to avoid asking Barack Obama how his college grades were--or why he's never revealed them to the public. And in an administraton that promised "change," this change toward secrecy and a cover-up of something that's routinely revealed during most candidacies seems more than strange.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cats

I should begin this with a disclaimer. Or two, actually. First, this post isn't about our desire to add a cat to our family; sorry. Second, I don't really think, at this point, Sarah Palin ought to run for high office. If she gains some experience and figures out how to thwart the media's narrative that she's incurious, unthoughtful, unserious, and so on, it might be different; but until then, she's probably going to do more harm than good, and her family will bear the brunt of the media's dislike for her.

That said, though, I find myself shaking my head over recent columns by Peggy Noonan and Maureen Dowd. (Dowd's most recent attempt, a fake "diary" entry supposed to be written by Sarah, is so embarassingly juvenile, so journalistically inept, so revealing of Dowd's own inner emptiness that I'll do her the favor of not bothering to link to it.) First, here's Peggy:
In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. She was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions, and sometimes in knowing them. She couldn't say what she read because she didn't read anything. She was utterly unconcerned by all this and seemed in fact rather proud of it: It was evidence of her authenticity. She experienced criticism as both partisan and cruel because she could see no truth in any of it. She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough. Her presentation up to the end has been scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence. "I'm not wired that way," "I'm not a quitter," "I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm.
Has Noonan bothered counting the appearance of the personal prounoun in Obama's speeches? He, too, has a little "I" trouble. It's indicative of our age--but it's not restricted to Republicans, nor even to those Republicans who haven't amassed the right credentials to appeal to the party elites.

But Noonan's gentle clawing isn't even on a par with Dowd's vicious hissing:

Sarah Palin showed on Friday that in one respect at least, she is qualified to be president.

Caribou Barbie is one nutty puppy.

Usually we don’t find that exquisite battiness in our leaders until they’ve been battered by sordid scandals like Watergate (Nixon), gnawing problems like Vietnam (L.B.J.), or scary threats like biological terrorism (Cheney).

When Lyndon Johnson was president, some of his staff began to think of him as “a sick man,” as Bill Moyers told Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Moyers and his fellow Johnson aide Dick Goodwin even began reading up on mental illness — Bill on manic depression and Dick on paranoia.

And so it was, Todd Purdum learned, as he traveled Alaska reporting on Palin for Vanity Fair, that the governor’s erratic and egoistic behavior has been a source of concern for people there.

“Several told me, independently of one another,” Purdum writes, “that they had consulted the definition of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — ‘a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy’ — and thought it fit her perfectly.”
Gee, Maureen. I wonder how many people have said the same exact thing about you--with one difference. A New York Times columnist may be a legend in her own mind, but I doubt you've ever drawn the kind of screaming crowds Palin does--not even twenty years ago, when your hair was still a somewhat-natural color. Why do I get the feeling Palin would rather be "Caribou Barbie," complete with Caribou Ken and a group of smiling children, than "Times Columnist Barbie" who comes with a little laptop and an aura which banishes all thoughts of commitment from her gentlemen callers?

There's one aspect of Palin's appeal that the cats on the right and left will never get. I think it might just be the way Palin manages to deal with her opponents without ever showing her claws. This trait will serve her well in the private sector, where I think she'll soon be giving these columnists a run for their money. Maybe literally.

We have a really cool Pope

This is awesome:

The pope gave Obama, who last March lifted restrictions of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, a copy of a recent Vatican document on bio-ethics in which the Holy See explains its opposition to such practices.

"Dignitas Personae" (dignity of a person) condemns artificial fertilization and other techniques used by many couples and also says human cloning, "designer babies" and embryonic stem-cell research are immoral.

The document defends life from conception to natural death and a Vatican statement issued after the meeting said the topics discussed included "the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one's conscience."

The pope's private secretary told reporters after the meeting: "This reading can help the president better understand the Church's position on these issues."

"We know that this (abortion) is a crucial theme for the pope. There is no need to hide it. It (giving him the booklet) was an attempt to be clear, it was not polemical," Lombardi said.

Who knows? Maybe all those prayers for Obama's conversion of heart on the abortion issue will pay off one of these days...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Notes from the Choir, Vol. 1

I've decided to do a "theme post" on Thursdays, since Thursday is our choir practice day.

Ever since I became a choir member a couple of years ago, I've discovered a lot about how a choir operates. So much depends on whether the priest is musically inclined (and, if so, whether his musical taste is more traditional or more modern), on the congregation, on the choir director's knowledge and experience, and on the choir's abilities, that when people assume a choir director is single-handedly or unilaterally scheduling the less-desirable songs, they are often assuming incorrectly.

Our choir director is a friend; she also grew up in the Byzantine Rite, and became Roman Rite when she married. So her understanding of what is "traditional" has partly been formed by what has been in hymn-books since her adulthood--and yet, possibly because of the beauty of music in the Eastern tradition, she usually prefers the more reverent, more traditional, more solemn music, and we sing quite a bit of that.

If her preferences alone were all that was consulted, I think we'd rarely sing the worst of the modern stuff (though not all modern music is bad, of course). Yet one of those annoying pieces is scheduled for this week. Were I in the congregation, I'd consider this song one sour note among some lovely pieces, but I happen to know the "behind the scenes" story, which is: parishioners have requested this piece. They used to sing it all the time back when the music ministry was made up of well-meaning volunteers with little musical background, and it is missed.

I wonder how often that happens--how many times a choir director is in the position of doing a sort of "balancing act" between the desire for music to be solemn, majestic, appropriate, and the push from parishioners--or even a pastor--to sing things that are more current, familiar, upbeat, and the like. I suspect it happens more than we know, and that choir directors often take an unfair share of the blame for endless rounds of "Be Not Afraid" or "Eagle's Wings," let alone the much less palatable modern hymns, some of which are theologically deficient as well as musically lacking.

It really helps to have a pastor who understands sacred music. A former pastor of ours really did (and we miss him!). This week, we're singing one of his favorites:
Since it's public domain, I've attached a copy; click it to see it better.

And now, off to choir practice!

Holy Charity in Truth, Batman!

No, this is not a post about Caritas in Veritate, per se. The document is about 55 pages long (if you print it out). I learned speed-reading techniques in the seventh grade, so I have skimmed the encyclical in its entirety, and have made mental notes around some of the more interesting passages. But I have not read Caritas in Veritate to the degree of depth and contemplation for which it would be minimally necessary in order to make the slightest bit of intelligent commentary about any of it, and I won't do my readers the grave disservice of pretending that I have.

But I will talk about the reaction to the encyclical, because as so often happens the reaction on all sides to this papal gift is creating most of the news about it. In a soundbite-driven world, that is, perhaps, inevitable.

On the right, you have assorted chuckleheads who insist that we ought to ignore those parts of the encyclical that deal with the United Nations, the environment, and matters of social justice generally.

On the left, you have assorted soberheads (because they never chuckle, and how dare you insult them by thinking so!) who find the social justice parts praiseworthy but wish the Pope would't insist on tying life issues into questions about how we treat each other (because surely how we treat embryos or the aged doesn't matter, so long as we respect the planet, right?).

In the middle are those who say, wait a minute! The Pope is writing about Truth, and isn't it just barely possible that Truth is bigger than the left-right construct of American politics?

That might seem like the sort of notion which ought to be just about self-evident to Catholics. After all, didn't the people of Jesus' day make rather similar mistakes about Him? Didn't they want Him to be a political leader, an entertainer, a provider of free food, a prop to the Sanhedrin, an enemy of Caesar--or even Caesar's friend? Didn't they argue among themselves as to Who He really was, based largely on their preconceived notions of Who He ought to be?

A couple thousand years later, we still haven't learned the lesson. The Pope writes an elegantly thoughtful encyclical which reminds us to seek the truth and gives us examples of how we might do so, and we immediately begin to squabble about whether the Pope is on "our side" or not. Never mind that one uncomfortable truth we avoid, as Catholics in political life, is that neither of the two major American political parties is really on "our side." On the right we have the "strip-mine it all!" approach to the environment, the apologies for torture, the eagerness to get involved in foreign wars which this Pope and our last one have already condemned, the knee-jerk defense of consumerism which flirts with the heresy of seeing material prosperity as a sign of God's blessing, and similar matters; on the left, of course, we have the bloodsucking eagerness to kill human embryos for fun and profit, to promote an ugly sluttification of human relationships with government-provided condoms and other moral idiocies, and to re-cast the Statue of Liberty to show her hand extended toward Washington, symbolizing our national addiction to the government dole.

The truth we don't want to face (with charity or otherwise) is that politics is a very flawed human operation that frequently falls short of anything even approaching the eternal verities. If anything, the Pope's encyclical should serve as a reminder that it is these truths, not political gain, partisanship, or side-taking which should inform our political minds, such that we are always uncomfortably aware of the vast gulf between ourselves and the leaders of these parties, whose eyes are almost never elevated beyond the immediate worldly goals of the party to see the unchanging otherworldly demands of the Truth Whom we worship.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A weapon of Mass. destruction

Whenever people in the gay marriage debate insist that they don't want to interfere with my marriage, I just smile. Wryly. Painfully. Because it's blatantly untrue.

This article helps to illustrate why:

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage, sued the U.S. government Wednesday over a federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act interferes with the right of Massachusetts to define and regulate marriage as it sees fit, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said. The 1996 law denies federal recognition of gay marriage and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston, argues the act "constitutes an overreaching and discriminatory federal law." It says the approximately 16,000 same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts since the state began performing gay marriages in 2004 are being unfairly denied federal benefits given to heterosexual couples.

"They are entitled to equal treatment under the laws regardless of whether they are gay or straight," Coakley said at a news conference to discuss the lawsuit. [...]

The Massachusetts lawsuit challenges the section of the federal law that creates a federal definition of marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

Gay marriage advocates, you see, aren't content with getting a few states who really don't care much about marriage and are perfectly willing to subsidize immorality, cohabitation, serial marriage, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and a host of other social deviations from the marriage norm to call their unions a sort of "marriage." They want to force all of us to do so--and in doing so, they want to interfere with my marriage--and yours. How?

By redefining what marriage is.

It's true that marriage has, over the centuries of human existence, had a few major variations. Those variations ended up resolving into two competing definitions: marriage was one man and one woman, or marriage was one man and more than one woman. There really haven't been, in the past few thousand years, any major variations other than these, and since the dawn of the Christian world polygamy slowly began to die out. Certainly by the time our Constitution was written it was taken for granted that the word "marriage" implied a contract, religious, legal, or both, between one man and one woman.

Why have such a contractual relationship? Most relationships are either relationships of blood or relationships of chosen association. A cousin may be a friend, but a friend doesn't have to be a cousin; blood ties and chosen ones may sometimes overlap, but the two belong to different categories of relationship.

If marriage is, as gay marriage advocates insist that it is, a relationship of chosen association, then why have any sort of contract around it? One doesn't enter into a legal relationship every time one forms a new friendship, or joins a social club (most of them, anyway) or otherwise ventures into a voluntary chosen association with members of his community. Why should a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman demand a contractual bond around their relationship when the relationship itself is nothing more than a kind of friendship, one which frequently, but not necessarily, involves some sort of sexual activity? Plenty of people engage in that activity with other friends, or even causal strangers, to whom they aren't married and have no desire to marry. So what makes this thing we call "marriage" different enough, or special enough, or important enough to require a contract?

The reality is that marriage is the one type of relationship which is designed to be both a relationship of chosen association and a relationship of blood. While it is true, as the gay marriage apologists insist on every opportunity, that not every marriage between a man and a woman will produce children, the nature of the relationship is such that the possibility that each marriage may produce children must be considered, especially in the contracts dealing with such relationships. A tiny handful (relatively speaking) of heterosexual marriages will fail to produce children, either because of infertility or advanced age; but the presence of these few infertile heterosexual marriages does not change the biological reality that the vast majority of heterosexual marriages will produce children--that is, that the relationship, which begins as a relationship of chosen association, will become a relationship of blood.

In fact, the traditional understanding of marriage considered the "blood relationship" part of the marriage relationship to begin, not with the birth of the first child, but with the marriage act itself. Once a couple had consummated the marriage a divorce or annulment used to be much harder to get (in the civil law sense, of course; Catholic annulments are a different matter, as the validity of the marriage, not its consummation, was and is the vital point). The fact that the couple had entered into marriage and then consummated the marriage with the act necessary to reproduction meant that theirs was no longer a mere relationship of chosen association--they were understood to be "one flesh," and were, in many ways, treated by the law as one person. Whether or not they were then, in due time, parents of children who truly were related to them both, equally, by blood was a secondary (though still important) consideration.

If we look at this understanding of civil marriage and compare it to the reality of gay relationships, we can see that there is a fundamental difference between gay relationships and heterosexual marriage. A marriage, once consummated, creates a relationship of both chosen association and of blood between the man and the woman who have entered it; the blood relationship may merely be in anticipation of their potential parenthood, but it is still a reality. A gay relationship cannot honestly be said ever to be "consummated" in the sense in which that word is ordinarily used; the specific type of physical encounter which has always been an important element of a valid marriage is not even possible for two men or two women, to state, as delicately as possible, the blindingly obvious. Moreover, there is no possibility for any gay couple of potential parenthood as a couple. While they can manufacture children using IVF or other immoral means, raise children from previous heterosexual encounters, or adopt children, they can never create as a couple the relationship of blood--not just a few gay couples because of accidental or age-related infertility, but all gay couples; no gay couple can ever become parents of their own biological children as a couple.

So by insisting that the word marriage must be redefined in such a way that two men or two women can "have one" so to speak, gay marriage advocates are interfering with your marriage and mine. Their view of marriage is that it is only a relationship of chosen association, like friendship, club membership, or other (usually temporary) voluntary associations. A gay marriage can never be a blood relationship, because a gay couple can't even potentially become the parents of their own biological children as a couple. The assumptions which go along with blood relationships completely fail when gay relationships take place: the mother of a son, for example, doesn't expect an additional son to be added to the family by marriage, but a daughter; grandparents don't expect to have to "share" their granddaughter with her two dads, her biological mom, and the biological mom's parents, in addition to the second "dad's" parents who have no biological connection whatsoever with the child their son is raising, but whom the child is taught to call "Grandma" and "Grandpa," giving her a total set of three such grandparents.

So gay marriage doesn't just redefine marriage--it redefines family, blood relationships, and these ties for generations at a time. Gay marriage doesn't just interfere with marriage; ultimately, it will impact all of civilization. And I think it will quite likely destroy it.

Paging Dr. Frankenstein

I shamelessly stole the title of this blog post from my friend Ed Shuman, who emailed the links to this story to me:

Scientists in Newcastle claim to have created human sperm in the laboratory in what they say is a world first.

The researchers believe the work could eventually help men with fertility problems to father a child. [...]

They began with stem cell lines derived from human embryos donated following IVF treatment.

The stem cells had been removed when the embryo was a few days old and were stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen.

The stem cells were brought to body temperature and put in a chemical mixture to encourage them to grow. They were "tagged" with a genetic marker which enabled the scientists to identify and separate so-called "germline" stem cells from which eggs and sperm are developed.

The male, XY stem cells underwent the crucial process of "meiosis" - halving the number of chromosomes. The process over creating and developing the sperm took four to six weeks.

Just how evil do you have to be to kill children in order to create sperm cells that could theoretically be used to make more children--children whose father was literally murdered before he could be born? Or worse--children whose "father" was a female embryo altered and processed to produce male gametes?

I recently read Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World, and was surprised that I'd never gotten around to reading it before. Less surprising, sadly, is how close we already are to the consumerist, anti-family "paradise" envisioned in the novel, where children are manufactured in a laboratory and raised in institutions, and where the mantra "everybody belongs to everyone else" signals the hideous shallowness, infantilism, and emptiness of the lives lead by all. Scientific "progress" of the type described above just brings us closer to the sort of world where words like "mother" and "father" stand for obsolete social constructs, and mean nothing more than some temporarily significant adult figure in a child's life--if the child is lucky enough to have such a figure, called, most probably, a "parenting partner" to remove any heterocentric notions about who that person ought to be.

We're rapidly on our way toward creating a world where Dr. Frankenstein would feel right at home. Of course, it's entirely possible that the terrible evil of destroying living humans as the mad scientists in the article do for fun would be too much for good Dr. Frankenstein, who had the decency to conduct his experiments on the dead.