A T-Shirt for the Weeks Ahead

Whether you’ve got a favorite shortlisted justice you are rooting for, or just want to remind the world that court appointments shouldn’t require religious tests, you can still get “The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me” t-shirts. Proceeds fund the maintenance costs of the Catholic Conspiracy’s website.

FYI, I just placed an order, and can attest that a quick search for coupon codes is worth the effort.  Also, when in doubt size up.  Click around a bit if there’s a style you are looking for and can’t quite find, because sometimes the “display all” doesn’t really truly display *all*.  Um, I dunno. Could’ve been me.

Just saying: Don’t give up on your dreams too quickly, when it comes to your perfect t-shirt for telling the world “I’m Catholic and also maybe I like C-SPAN too much.”

 

The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me t-shirt

Photo of the perfect shirt if you’re one of *those* Catholics courtesy of CafePress.

Custody of the Eyes, Revisited

Today’s topic is not a newsflash, but there might be someone out there who could benefit from hearing it again, this time with a little common-sense consolation thrown in.

***

So I’ve been running experiments on myself, and can confirm: Custody of the eyes works wonders.

You may recognize the term from chastity talks. For some of you, your introduction to the term was not during a kind of chastity talk you found very edifying; others may have had the opposite experience.  Anyhow, we aren’t talking about sex today.  Not even one bit.  Deep breath.

***

If you’re new to the term, “custody of the eyes” means taking steps to avoid leading yourself into temptation.  It refers specifically to choosing not to look at things that tempt you, but the concept expands to all the senses, physical and otherwise.

What kinds of things, other than sex since we are not talking about sex, might be tempting?

  • Eating that one kind of chips in the variety pack that your kids weirdly don’t like, even though they are the best flavor, and doing that eating despite the fact that there is no medical evidence your body would benefit, for any reason whatsoever, from eating another such chip again in your life.
  • Arguing manically with your beloved internet friend who is usually awesome, but happens to be horribly, horribly wrong about something. In your opinion.
  • Buying that perfect wardrobe item that you do not need because your closet is already full of other good-enough shoes and clothes and hats, ahembut it’s a really good deal and it is so cute/practical/snazzy/fantabulous, but seriously: You don’t need it, and that money would do more good applied someplace else.

Perhaps you face other temptations as well.  They could be temptations to do something that is always sinful under all circumstances, or they could be temptations that are sinful only because of how they affect you personally (example: a calmer spirit might be able to discuss that contentious issue without getting worked up into a frenzy), or they could be temptations that aren’t objectively sinful at all (buying that hat, if it’s part of your responsibly-budgeted splurge fund, and also it’s an awesome hat), but which sabotage your other, better goals.

We aren’t, on that last point, talking today about scrupling, where you obsessively worry that some harmless action is gravely sinful.  We’re just saying: For whatever reason you’ve determined that xyz action is not the way you want to live . . . and yet you’re tempted to do it anyway.

Enter one tool to include in your spiritual toolbox: Custody of the eyes.

***

“Custody of the eyes” means you take steps to change the way you are living in order to not be as tempted as you otherwise might be.  In emergency-mode, it means that if you’re walking past the hat store, look the other way.  My, what fabulous road work the city is doing this morning!

But you don’t want to live in emergency-mode all the time.

This is what it’s like living in the land of temptation, true story:

  • You’ve determined, for good, sound, scientific reasons, that you would be happier and healthier if you did not eat the chips.  Not the lousy chips, and not the fabulous flavor of chips that your children weirdly do not eat, even though the manufacturer has so generously included them in the variety pack that is the best price at your local mass-market merchant.
  • 99% of the time, you are able to practice amazing willpower! You walk by the chips, sitting out on the kitchen shelf where your children can easily access their school lunch supplies, and you don’t even think about grabbing just one tiny bag of chips even this once.
  • Alas, given enough minutes/hours/days/months, you must run the chip-gauntlet 100 times. Your 99% success rate in avoiding temptation is not quite enough.

You don’t need to beat yourself up over this.  It’s a tiny bag of chips.  You aren’t allergic.  They aren’t actually made of poison, despite the inflammatory rhetoric you read on that one healthy-eating website.  It’s fine. But why live this way?  Why constantly add to your already busy day that mental struggle?  You want to eat fewer chips because you are certain you’ll be happier and healthier that way, and yet having to constantly look at the chips and make yourself not eat them isn’t exactly filling you with joy.

You don’t have to choose between those two fates.

You can put the chips in your teenager’s ancient minivan and instruct her to take them to school and give them to her friends — the ones who have the sense to know what the good flavors are, thanks.

***

Practicing strategic avoidance is life-changing.

When you make small changes to reduce the number of times in a day you have to battle against yourself, you free up so much energy for other efforts.

When you don’t or can’t make those changes — we aren’t in control of the whole world and all that happens around us — you are left working harder to accomplish less.

So let’s talk about a healthy philosophy of can’t.

***

You are not the supreme ruler.

In your life there are many things you can control.  Maybe you can change your route to not walk past the hat store.  Maybe you can uninstall the social media app that’s always sucking you into the outrage machine.  Maybe you can move the deep freezer with the kids’ ice cream in it out of your new library in the old garage and down the hall to the laundry room you don’t visit nearly so often (sorry kids, I am not your ice cream bank; readers, we’ll discuss my laundry backlog some other time).

But you cannot necessarily always make the change you wish you could.

You might be able to convince your colleagues not to put the snack tray out in the hallway next to your desk, but maybe you can’t.

You might be able to automate some of the social media work you do, but maybe it’s impossible to carry out your career in a communications industry without actually, go figure, communicating with people.

You might be able to drop catalogs into the recycle bin without ever looking at them, but maybe you also have to sometimes purchase necessary items, and you really can’t help that the best vendor also sells hats.

You probably face a mixed bag of struggles.  Whether you’re working through serious addictions or just trying to live a somewhat more tranquil life, there is only so much reorganizing of your life that you can do.

Do the amount of temptation-reducing that you can, of course.  Be creative. Be willing to take drastic measures if you’re struggling with a danger to your spiritual, emotional, or physical health.

After that? Give yourself credit for the battles that are still left.

***

Living your life in emergency-mode temptation-fighting is exhausting.  If your choice is, for example, paying the bills by going to that job with the perpetual snack tray always sitting out, or serenely sinking into bankruptcy due to unemployment, you have to go do the job.  You have to spend all day passing the snack tray and telling yourself no and walking quickly and trying not think about it.

That stinks.

It’s hard work.

Realistically you are not going to have as much emotional energy for other spiritual activities after you’ve put so much willpower into avoiding the snacks as best you can using the only tool available to you at this time.

Acknowledge it.

Acknowledge that at this time in your life, you are running a spiritual marathon ten hours a day.  By fighting the good fight you are getting stronger — even if one time in a hundred you pass the snack table and cave — but you are getting stronger by working out.  Just like physical exercise, the spiritual and emotional exercise of resisting temptation is tiring.

Your capacity for that work can grow, but it can’t be instantly expanded to infinity.

So if your circumstances are such that you must constantly battle temptations you can find no way to avoid, applaud yourself for the work you are doing.

***

And of course, final note for those readers who aren’t presently dealing with this kind of practical struggle . . .

If you have been blessed with a low-temptation lifestyle, avail yourselves of the three pillars of the spiritual exercise regimen: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Otherwise your soul will grow flabby for want of spiritual work.

Horses grazing in mountain pasture at Parco Naturale Tre Cime.

I was going to find a good hat picture to illustrate this post, but today’s Wikimedia Image of the Day is too beautiful to skip.  Photo of horses grazing in Parco Naturale Tre Cime by kallerna, CC 4.0.  Click through and scroll down for some related close-ups.

On Doing Evil that Good May Come of It (TLDR: Don’t)

So here’s something that happened yesterday: A guy who should have known better, a stalwart defender of virtue and reason, posted a video on Twitter of a group of tween girls dancing in an explicitly sexualized manner.

It was a long clip, to my memory (I’m not going to click on it again, so if my memory is faulty, we’re going to have to live with that) beginning with low-grade “this is not something I’d want my daughter doing.” Gradually the girls’ dancing became increasingly erotic, to the point that it definitely transitioned into “yes, this is blatantly, undeniably sexualized near-porn,” and I didn’t continue watching after that.

(The girls’ costumes, I should note, would have been fine as bathing suits, for children playing sharks-and-minnows or jumping off the diving board . . . but no amount of clothing could cause the dance this conservative Christian posted to be any other than erotic.)

Anyhow, that was my two minutes of previewing Cuties, a film I was willing to consider might not be nearly what Netflix promoted it as, and a film that I still suspect was attempting to be a serious entry in the discourse against the hypersexualization of tweens and young teens.  I even considered that the video this person-who-should-know-better posted was in fact a deepfake designed to hype up the political divide, though alas with a bit clicking around, the reports from those who viewed the film in its entirety confirm the dance sequence was genuine.  IMDB briefly posted a warning, in reference to another scene in the film, the FYI it was technically in violation of US child pornography laws.  Yikes.

So. We revisit a very old topic, and if you like, you can scoot on over to the The Junior Moral Theologian’s DIY Kit, where I lay out all the moral issues in more detail.  Here I’m just going to repeat myself a bunch of different ways:

You may not do evil that good may come of it.

Having a good intention does not make an evil action a good action.

The fact that something good resulted from an evil act does not make the evil act good.

This is the non-negotiable of any viable ethical system.  Might you find yourself in a horrible situation, in which you are forced to choose among several terrible options, and, in your desperation, choose the one with the least-bad outcome? Certainly.  It’s a fallen world and in the worst circumstances we might find ourselves doing the unthinkable.  It happens.

That does not make the evil action right.  It just makes it the thing you did at a time when you didn’t see any other way.

In the case of, say, a Christian commentator with a large following choosing to post erotica, or a secular filmmaker choosing to train and pay young girls to perform that erotica, we are not speaking of desperate persons forced into a corner and struggling to find any way out.

But, and let’s be very clear here, neither of these two is any different from the rest of us.

Both, we can charitably assume, are in fact seeking to accomplish something good.  The commentator was seeking to warn audiences that the film in question was morally objectionable. The director was seeking to warn audiences that the sexualization of young girls is a serious problem in our day — and before you scoff at that, I can attest from my viewing of the excerpt that the girls’ faces as they performed absolutely communicated a sense of being lost, of not understanding, of not liking, and yet of feeling like they had to do the thing in order to be approved.  The stated artistic goal was accomplished in the scene I saw.  The obvious (to you and me) problem, which makes the film unviewable for persons of good will who are duly forewarned, is that the director went about communicating her (valuable) message in a way that was, in fact, harmful to the girls working for her.

In the same way, the commentator who posted erotica in order to warn against erotica was exploiting the victimization of the girls, and also putting erotica in front of his readers, in the name of an otherwise good purpose.

The habit of using evil to do good is absolutely embedded in our culture.  

In theory we consider lying (that would be a direct, explicit violation of the Ten Commandments) wrong, but in reality our culture has long categories of lies that are acceptable because they are done with good purposes in mind.

If Catholics are wacko extremists on medical ethics, it’s because our society considers the killing of innocent persons to be only wrong if it’s done for unpopular reasons.

National Public Radio hosted a non-ironic, softball interview on the justification for the violent destruction and theft of the property of innocent persons.

I’d be remiss in this list not to mention the whole justifying of adultery as if the average man or woman just had “no choice” but forsake their vows? And yet people will say that, and think that, in the most banal of circumstances.

Maybe you aren’t guilty of any of these, or at least not lately.

Before you get too convinced you aren’t like those other sinners: I challenge you to try to get through a full week without doing something you know is wrong — even if it’s just a little bit wrong — with the motivation of seeking a higher good.

Sin is like this.  For most people, most of the time, sin is not fueled by a desire to do something horrible, it’s fueled by the twisted-up quest to experience something we’re convinced will be good.

“Less evil” is not good.

One of the reasons I expect it was so easy for the director of Mignonnes to justify her decision to pay young girls to perform erotica (and in one case, per IMDB’s original warning to viewers, to expose her breast on film) is that her film was about how normal these behaviors have become.

(FYI for those wondering: The acceptability of pornography is far more entrenched in respectable French society than in the United States.  That’s me reporting first hand experiences among the married-with-kids, stalwart-citizen, professional class of the late 1980’s.  Not something I read in a book.  What I have seen in real homes among people who met every definition of “respectable” in their era.)

The director of the film was not asking the girls to perform something forbidden and illegal (though Netflix should know that the reported frontal-nudity scene is in fact illegal in the US, however award-winning it may be elsewhere). She was asking them to recreate what persons like myself got accused of prudery for objecting to when it appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show this year — albeit in the wholesome USA we have adult women do this to show how “liberated” they are, while the girls from the dance companies, the very best girl-dancers, handpicked to perform on the field on the biggest TV night of the year, look up in adoration.  We reserve the actual girl-erotica for dance competitions on other weekends, thanks.  So, from the director’s point of view, she was requesting the girls repeat what they already were willing to do, and may well have done before, only this time framed in such a way that viewers would be shocked into realizing just how wrong and destructive it is.

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

And that’s a shame, because there’s every reason to believe the director was attempting to open a very important conversation on sexual exploitation — just like the commentator who posted the erotica was trying to legitimately warn viewers away from the film that fell so badly short of its mark.

Three girls dancing in a field, 1888: Paul Gauguin - Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

Artwork: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing (1888), via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Why Chadwick Boseman Earned a Statesman’s Honors in SC

I got aggravated this morning at a friend, a recent arrival in South Carolina from points north, who questioned why Governor McMaster ordered flags to fly at half-staff for Chadwick Boseman.  In her experience, such an honor is reserved for politicians and other government emissaries — would we lower the flag for xyz other locally-grown actor who is just as talented?

Rather than continue to lose my temper, I’ll take my own advice to catechists and just answer the question.

***

Before we begin, let me tell you about a spider bite.  My kid was ten and he went off to summer camp and he got some kind of nasty bite on the back of his leg — painful but which barely created a mark.  He’s a tough kid and decided to self-treat.

This was not the right move. When we picked him up in the morning at the end of the week, he could no longer hide the injury because it hurt so badly he couldn’t walk without limping.

The bite had become infected and created an abscess.  In the doctor’s office I got to lay my body across his flailing limbs so that the pediatrician could drain the wound while my son screamed in pain. It was a procedure that hurt but would in no way harm; failing to drain the wound, in contrast, could have led to sepsis and death.

Hold onto that image of a wound hidden beneath the surface, and its aftermath.

***

Two aspects of Chadwick Boseman’s life make him worthy of the governor’s attention.

The first is that that he’s from here. If he were nothing more than a small town boy who grew up to be a wildly successful, world-renown celebrity, that would be sufficient in the eyes of most state residents to count him as a local hero.  (See: James Brown). It would not, however, quite warrant lowering the flag at the statehouse.

The second reason, though, is that his life’s work touches South Carolina’s history in a profound and very personal manner.

***

You can read here a brief, informative summary of the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina. If you are a person who has the same question as my friend, please do that.  It won’t take you long.

Okay, thanks.

So.  Civil Rights in South Carolina is a big, big, big deal.  We’re gonna tell a story or two below about that.

Now observe: Chadwick Boseman’s filmography includes not just Marshall and 42, which serve to rectify the longstanding problem of whitewashed history in South Carolina schools, but also Black Panther.

Oh, that’s just a pop film about a comic book superhero who’s been around for decades? Here’s a personal essay from a fan who found the film to be far more meaningful than that.  Read it.  Try for a moment to understand how important Chadwick Boseman’s role was for many, many people, in a way that touches very keenly on South Carolina public life.

***

Here’s a personal story my mom, a white lady, told me a few years before she died.

Her father was from a small town in South Carolina not unlike Boseman’s hometown.  He was career Navy, so my mother grew up all over the United States. She attended authentically integrated schools in California (I have her yearbooks, the photos of staff and student life are unequivocal), and witnessed the first round of integration at her high school alma mater in Virginia.

In college, though, there was a particular class that made the civil rights movement deeply personal for her — not because of the stated subject matter of the class, but because of the way it was graded. The professor announced that everyone’s grade would hinge on their final paper or project, and he advised: “Do a project.  I have never given a passing grade on a paper.”

My mom, who was the epitome of conscientious her entire life, and for whom the prospect of failing a class was an absolute nightmare, found herself having to face an ugly reality: She stunk at projects.  She never, ever, succeeded at projects.  She knew (I don’t know why she was so convinced of this, but she was) that there was no way she could create an adequate project.  She could, on the other hand, write an excellent paper.

So she decided she would just write the paper, fail the class, and accept her doom.

The paper she wrote was about visiting the family farm in rural South Carolina.

***

My grandfather’s family was skin-in-the-game heroic.  His mother christened an aircraft carrier during the war, an honor she earned because six of her seven sons had all enlisted and were actively serving in the armed forces.  (The eldest stayed home to run the farm, necessary because their father had been killed, shot in the back down in town in front of everybody, back when his mother was pregnant with two youngest.)

They were also brutally prejudiced, and did not treat the Black laborers who worked the farm with the respect and dignity my mother (or you or I today) would consider the bare minimum of humane consideration.

My mom’s paper was about that.

It was about witnessing, as a young adult, just how intensely heartless was the deep-seated racism that punctuated daily life at her own family’s farm.

I don’t have my mother here to fact-check me, so rather than risk mistelling, here’s an example of an article about the kind of things that happened across the South:

Employers and white employees went out of their way to engage in what can only be termed the ritual humiliation of blacks. It was not enough to have separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; the “black” bathrooms were often located far from specific workplaces, forcing employees to spend a good deal of their break getting there and coming back. It was not enough to have separate water fountains for blacks and whites; the “black” fountains were never cleaned, and the water was always warm. Federal Compress (where bales of cotton were readied for textile mills) resisted installing electric fans, though black workers were sweltering in concrete buildings that approached 100 degrees. The owner of a Memphis dry-cleaner fired women employees rather than let them talk to one another on the job.

Google around, you can find plenty of stories.  Or just ask one of the many people still alive if they are willing to dredge up the worst of what went down in those times.

***

My mom’s professor read the paper, and called her into his office, and informed her that she had dared to do the one thing no on else had ever done in his long career as an educator: She earned an A on a paper.

Also: Her father read the paper and nearly disowned her.

He was livid.

He accused her of lying.

But he loved her and somehow they got over it.

***

Governor Henry McMaster is about the same age as my mom.

For him and for countless South Carolinians alive today, all the cruelty of segregation and Jim Crow is not some ancient mystic legend, it’s their formative years.  His political career, his party . . . that’s the party of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, who locked up the state’s Senate seats so tight that even I am old enough to remember the years when there was only one candidate on the ballot because no one else bothered to run.

McMaster can remember the Confederate Flag going up at the state house.  Understand that I of the next generation am old enough to have been fully an adult when it finally came down again.  My children are old enough to remember when it was finally moved off the statehouse grounds altogether.

***

I don’t travel in the same circles as Governor McMaster, though we certainly have some acquaintances in common.  If you live in South Carolina, and you are white, and you are paying attention, at all, you will amass plenty of evidence that racism remains a serious problem.  You can tell not because of demographic statistics but because of the words that come out of people’s mouths.  Are they lying? Are they just pretending to be racist when they get a chance to express themselves privately in what they think is “safe” company?

But also, in a nation where African-American senators are thin on the ground, Hollings and Thurmond are both dead, and Tim Scott is the new face of the Republican establishment.

***

When I look at Kenosha or Minneapolis, what I see is my son’s spider bite.

Here in the South, we have entrenched racism. It is no secret. Everybody knows it, including a whole lot of outsiders who look down on us as backwards and stupid.

But here’s what Minneapolis and Kenosha are: They are places that also have entrenched racism.  If racism in South Carolina is a gaping wound, up north it turns out to have been an abscess festering beneath the surface. Pretending everything’s fine leads to crippling pain. Like my son screaming on the examining table in the doctor’s office, we’re discovering that ignoring the rot among the “progressive”  states only pushes off the day of reckoning and makes the inevitable confrontation far, far worse.

***

That’s not me saying Kenosha can’t happen in South Carolina.

Sure it can.

Lord willing, it won’t.

Chadwick Boseman is an ambassador of that hope.

***

What I think a lot of people don’t understand is that the legacy of racism is everyone’s history.

You can’t, like my grandfather wanted to do, pretend it’s not there.  That way leads to destruction.

***

So how does the work of Chadwick Boseman fit into state politics?  It’s a reasonable question.  Historically, one lowers the statehouse flag for persons with clear ties to the state: Deceased politicians; soldiers, firefighters, and police killed in the line of duty; victims of terrorist attacks and acts of war.  How does an actor fit into all that?

The actor fits in because his artistic legacy is in culturally ground-breaking work on the issue that has defined the history, economy, and politics of his home state since its founding.

***

Is it exciting and inspiring that a small-town boy could grow up to be a famous celebrity? Sure. The governor could be excused for making a nod to the masses in a contentious election year.

I don’t know Governor McMaster’s heart.  It’s entirely possible he’s just doing the politically expedient thing.  If so, God bless democracy: We have a politician who will do something right for no other reason than he wants to be re-elected.

But consider the possibility that McMaster fully comprehends Chadwick Boseman’s legacy for this state.  This is our guy.  He’s us.  He comes from here and he knew exactly how crucial it is that we deal with our state’s history — so much so that even though he was literally dying he pushed through to step out on the shoulders of giants and take us another step forward in the renewing and transforming of our culture.

Boseman’s work has been a work of healing for exactly the wounds that have torn apart his home state for generations.

So sure.  Statesman’s honors.  Well earned.

Charleston, SC George Floyd Protest : Backs of protesters on Calhoun Street, with a Black Lives Matter sign

Photo: Charleston, SC, May 2020,  courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Quick update for the same friend, who was questioning the legality of the governor’s decision:

SC 10-1-161 (E): “Upon the occurrence of an extraordinary event resulting in death or upon the death of a person of extraordinary stature, the Governor may order that the flags atop the State Capitol Building be lowered to half-staff at a designated time or for a designated period of time.”

A quick compendium of all SC laws relating to flying flags at half-staff is here.

On Handling Bad Situations Badly

Abusive behavior runs on a spectrum. On the far end are the cases so obvious and egregious that the hardest heart would have to admit abuse took place.  On the near end is the shift from ordinary bad behavior into what can reasonably be categorized as abuse.

The confusion arises when the behavior itself is comparatively mild — certain forms of violence or sexual acting out are always abuse. Over on the milder end of the spectrum, in contrast, we have to use discernment.  Some of the distinguishing characteristics of someone who is behaving poorly but not being abusive include:

  • Admitting to the bad behavior.
  • Apologizing in a sincere manner.
  • Accepting responsibility.
  • Making amends or reparations.
  • Showing a clear change to avoid the behavior in the future.

It’s important here to reiterate: No amount of resorting to an apology cycle can cause rape, molestation, beating, starvation, etc. to be non-abusive. But I want to talk about an aspect of life on the other end of the spectrum, where it is very, very easy for abusive behavior to be tolerated, excused, and even justified.

***

Several years ago my family was party to what ended up being low-level abusive behavior.  Ironically, the incident that sparked the subsequent abusive response was, as best I can tell, a case of someone making a poor judgment call under distressing circumstances, but with no intention of harm.

To give it an analogy, think about the near-drowning incident at our community pool. Obviously the lifeguard-on-duty in that story wasn’t doing his job as well as one would hope. We don’t know the reasons for that, but there is no evidence he was being willfully negligent or choosing to put a child in harm’s way — even if it turns out he just really stunk as a lifeguard.  That would be a bit like the triggering incident in the situation my family dealt with.

Where the abusive behavior came in was after.  Imagine if (and this did not happen at the pool in real life) the other witnesses of the near-drowning closed ranks and tried to pretend no rescue had been necessary.  Imagine if the manager of the pool had attempted to deny there was a problem.  Imagine if, faced with a fear of a lawsuit [we in no way considered such an action in the real event], the owners of the pool resorted to a variety of legal maneuvers to declaim all responsibility, and some of those moves involved blatant lies.

[Again, reiterating here: The pool example is an analogy. Nothing of the sort happened at the pool.  We’re doing a thought exercise to help you create a fictional scenario for the purposes of the message that follows.  I will observe that in both the real story and our fictionalized pool story that stands in for a real-life situation involving innocent people who deserve to have their privacy protected, no children ended up harmed.]

When we think of “abuse” we don’t think of these kinds of actions right away — we think of the battered spouse cowering in the corner with a bloody nose, or the child locked in the basement for days on end.  But abuse runs on a scale, and on the milder end of the spectrum, it often involves behaviors which, in a different circumstance, would not be abusive.

***

So.  On the milder end of the abuse spectrum, it is much easier for those engaging in the abusive behavior to pretend everything is fine. And, now I am getting to the message of this post, one of the ways those people will do it is to shift blame.

If you are going through a nasty divorce from an abusive spouse, you can expect the spouse to blame all your faults, and pick apart every tiny lapse in your managing the divorce in a less-than-saintly manner.  If you are dealing with an abusive professor, you can expect the professor to blame all your weaknesses as a student.  If you are dealing with a sexual abuser, you can expect that person to blame your clothing, your choice of friends, or your dubious morals. Blame-shifting is the language of abuse.

It is important to remind yourself that your failure to handle the situation absolutely perfectly in no way excuses the abuse.

***

By definition if you are dealing with a horrible situation, you are under duress.  It could be a horrible situation like the real pool incident, where no one in particular was to blame and yet still something bad (only nearly, in the real-life case, thank God) happened.  It could be a horrible situation where someone makes a terrible decision but does it without meaning harm.  It could be a horrible situation in which someone under pressure chooses the “easy way out” and throws someone else under the bus in the process. It could be a horrible situation where someone’s addictive behavior or mental illness causes them to harm others.  It could be a horrible situation in which a cold-blooded predator seeks to steal, kill, or destroy.

Regardless: It’s a horrible situation.

People in horrible situations don’t always handle themselves with impeccable poise.

If you cuss out the pool manager just ’cause, that’s on you.  If you cuss out the pool manager in a situation where the pool is evading responsibility for gross negligence that put a swimmer in danger?  Well, maybe you shouldn’t be cussing, but that doesn’t change the fact of the pool’s responsibility for its own operations.

[FYI: Proud to report I don’t think I cussed very much in the real pool incident.  I probably would have cussed if the pool had evaded responsibility, which they did not.  Also my kid turned out to be fine, so it was easy to move on.]

So that’s my message for the day: If you’re in a horrible situation, and other people want to blame their abusive behavior on your failure to respond in exactly the perfect manner, don’t let them.

***

People who respond poorly because you are angry, disorganized, or otherwise handling the situation badly?  If those people are not abusive, they will seek to work things out.  They will recognize their own part in the problem, they will make allowances for extenuating circumstances, and all they will ask is mutual forgiveness as the two of your move forward in solving the problem a better way.  That’s not abuse, that’s just human frailty.

Abusive people, in contrast, will find fault no matter how well or poorly you handle things from your end, they will persist in claiming their own innocence and blaming others, and they’ll do this as cover or justification for their abusive actions.

In our fictionalized pool incident, imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager cussed me out back.  That’s just mutual bad behavior.  If we are both otherwise innocent, we could move on from that. We calm down, each apologize for our outbursts, and begin discussing what went wrong at the pool and how to rectify it.

Now imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager stayed cool, calm, and collected, but also carefully put into place a set of legal evasions to avoid the pool’s real responsibility (whatever that was) for what had happened (however we imagine that in our fictional scenario).  The manager might say nothing about my bad behavior, or might blame me: “Obviously the pool is innocent! You can see by Mrs. Fitz’s temper tantrums this is a mentally unstable person!”

That’s how predators act to cover their tracks.

Don’t accept it.

Don’t second guess yourself.

Review the cold hard facts of the case: Did the predator engage in objectively dangerous actions?  Is the predator behaving in a deceitful manner to justify those actions?

If yes, that’s not on you.  Don’t let the predator blame-shift.

René Crevel. Affiche bal masqué: Art Deco style poster showing attendees at a masked ball.

Artwork: Poster for masked ball circa 1924, via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

More Background Info on “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) at Netflix

UPDATE: Having seen a snippet of one of the more salient portions of the film, I can categorically recommend that you not view the film.  (Assuming what I saw, an excerpt shared on Twitter by someone who should have known better than to post such a thing, was in fact taken from the film and not a deepfake. )

Whatever the artistic merits of the film may be overall, based on what I viewed the film violates the fundamental rule decency: If the only way you can film the shot is for the actors to do on camera (which means doing in front of the crew) what they ought not be doing in front any audience, ever, then you are not a director who cares about the well-being of your actors.

–> Find a different way to shoot the scene.

I will update again if I learn that the pertinent excerpt circulating is not from the film, but at first glance it appears genuine.

2nd Update: A little more research confirms that what I saw (excerpted on Twitter) is what multiple reviewers saw when watching the original film.  The film also includes, per a warning at IMDB now taken down, a scene which meets, unequivocally, the definition of child pornography per US law.  Not sure why Netflix isn’t being charged.  No shortages of witnesses.

Interesting side note: My Twitter account is set to hide “sensitive content” which results in all kinds of innocent media being hidden from my view unless I choose to click through — most memorably the time Twitter felt that the view of a priest praying at Mass was, it seems, too risky for tender eyes.  (Um.  It was just some priest.  At Mass.  Doing normal priest things.)  In contrast, I did not have to choose to click on the excerpt of the young girls dancing lasciviously, Twitter did not find that to be “sensitive content” at all. Hmmn.

***

The French film Mignonnes is (rightfully) causing a stir after Netflix ran a provocative publicity campaign and then failed to care very much that decent people don’t approve of sexualizing eleven-year-olds.

If you are looking for more information on the film, pull out Google Translate and get ready for a set of unsatisfying-but-enlightening answers:

Because none of the reviews include spoilers, I can’t give a final verdict (without having seen the film) on exactly where the director takes this.  But here, I think, are the key pieces of info for readers of this blog:

#1 It is in no way a film for children. Don’t let the promotional materials fool you.

#2 Maïmouna Doucouré is telling her own story, and (more below on this) the story of many girls growing up in France (and the US — all over the world, I suspect) today.  For her, the reality is one of coming from a strict, traditionalist, polygamous Muslim family where women were treated as sexual objects and forced into relationships that did not respect their dignity as human beings.  So when Netflix sets up a lazy conflict between “religious family” and the hypersexualized dance world into which Amy, the young protagonist, is pulled, it is important for Catholics and other parents of good will to understand that Amy, like Ms. Doucouré, is not coming from a sane, healthy, dignifying religious background.

–> A major early plot point is that Amy’s mother is charged with organizing the wedding of her still-husband to his second wife, and Amy’s grandmother is aggressively insisting that Mom do her duty and shut up and put up, this is how things are. For the purposes of this film (not the purposes of its promoters or the wider non-immigrant culture receiving it), tween conflict over family-of-origin’s “religion” is not a case of garden-variety boredom with the parent’s conventional, anodyne religious practices as familiar to readers growing up in most of western society.

2nd Update: In this video interview, near the end when asked what she’s viewed lately that made the most impression on her, Ms. Doucouré says with obvious enthusiasm the Swedish television drama Kalifat.  I think it’s a particularly good insight into her own worldview as a director — what she finds resonates with her in other productions out there right now.

#3 The problem of young girls being pressured into hypersexualized dance movement and attire is widespread. How widespread?  Longtime readers may remember my answering this question. Let me emphasize the setting of that question: We are talking about upper middle class (you have to be affluent to afford dance team), religiously-affiliated suburban professional families in one of the most religiously-conservative cities of the Bible Belt, and the question was posed by a guy who knows the family through church.  I cannot emphasize how many times I’ve been party to discussion among nice Catholic moms wondering what to do about the slutty dance routine problem.  Parents rearing daughters in the most religiously conservative corners of the western world have to work hard to find a dance school for their daughters that doesn’t consider sexually suggestive clothing and dance moves to be a normal part of the repertoire.

#4 So, after reading what the director has to say about her film, here’s where she was trying to take it: She grew up in an immigrant household where religion was used as cover, among people her in native culture, to justify the objectifying, subjugation, and sexual exploitation of women.  As a teen she was torn between that world and a permissive hedonism in teen culture that any reader coming of age after 1965 would recognize.  And yet, as a grown woman attending a community event in her home neighborhood in Paris, she was absolutely shocked to see tween girls performing, with no one batting an eye, in a manner that you see in the trailer for the film.

–> The director’s statement of purpose for the film is that she wanted to show how girls growing up in her culture are pressured into choosing among two different kinds of sexually exploitive cultures.

(More below on that.)

#5 One thing Ms. Doucouré says in one of the interviews is that, in fact, she had to use quite a lot of restraint and under-tell just how sordid is the world that real middle school girls are living in today.  In her words: Parents aren’t ready to see this.  In my words: It would be illegal.

Is it morally problematic for Ms. Doucouré to be filming girls doing the dance moves, in the costumes, as she is? Absolutely.  I do not approve.  I do not say to you, “Go watch this film!” I do not say to you, “Subscribe to Netflix!” But understand that, from the director’s point of view, she is literally only having girls perform exactly what they are already doing in real life.  She is having girls perform on film exactly what parents of competitive dancers in affluent, even nominally religious families, already pay buckets of money to have their girls do.

Her stated purpose in doing this (and I cannot confirm how well she pulls it off) is to show the harm that comes from this.  Dance moms? Ms. Doucouré is after you.

#6 Let’s talk about that directorial restraint.

Ms. Doucouré’s research confirmed what I’ve known ever since I first sent an undercover agent into the world of affluent, mainstream suburban middle schoolers here in the Bible Belt: Girls these days expect to have to perform sexual favors for their peers.

Not just girls from poor immigrant families living in tough neighborhoods.  We are talking girls at private schools, girls in club sports (read: thousands of dollars on her sports hobby), girls growing up in McMansions.

How normal is the promiscuity among tweens and teens?  It is so widespread, and so self-sabotaging, that my kid’s class got abstinence talks from the atheist public-school biology teacher — a person with no moral reason to object to consensual sex, no reservations about contraception or abortion, but who could not help but see how teens were destroying themselves with the sheer quantity of premarital sex that had become the norm among the students.

If you are shocked by what you see in Cuties trailer, God bless you.  Yes.  Yes.  It is two inches from child porn.

Why those two inches? Because it is a film about girls who are entering the now-normal world of actual child porn that is your teenager’s daily reality.

#7 Your middle schooler’s porn problem doesn’t come from nowhere.

I have no expectation that Mignonnes (Cuties) resolves in a manner that would win a Theology of the Body award.  Mainstream, traditional French culture is not a culture of chastity.  I love France.  I love many things about French culture.  But this is also a place where adultery is normal and accepted.  What has changed in recent years, in terms of sexual morals as explored in this film, is not a change of kind but of degree. Traditional French culture at the highest, most respectable levels demanded discretion.  Americans who disparage the French president’s having a mistress commit the fault of being uncouth.  From the traditional French point of view, it would be like complaining the president uses the toilet — everyone does, but that doesn’t mean we have to chat about it.

Americans have our own, differently-flavored unchastity problems.  (We, too, have adulterous presidents. For example.)  Keep in mind that the parents and grandparents now approving of their daughter’s participation in Little Ho-House Dance Team grew up believing that Risky Business, Top Gun, and Officer and a Gentleman were all great films.  Classics!  I can remember watching what was supposed to be clean-cut classic Western — and one featuring boys and teens is co-stars in a youth-can-do-it themed film — and turning it off when we hit the Happy Prostitute trope.  The US is the place where sweet old ladies at the antique mall try to convince your kids that porn is just fine.

So no, I don’t expect Mignonnes resolves a story about an eleven-year-old torn between two bad choices by finding the third way that is chastity.  If nothing else, it’s an award-winning French film, and let me tell you, it is hard to find a French film that doesn’t glorify unchastity.  It’s hard to find a French film that didn’t require someone to strip naked on the set in the making-of, and here I’m using the very, very low bar of “if it could have been filmed in a way that kept the naughty bits covered, it might can get a pass, but if there was simply no way to film this scene without the actor or actress actually being required to work nude in front of the camera, then we’re done, movie over.”

So. In conclusion:

  • Per her own words, the director of Mignonnes (Cuties) was attempting to show that the sexualization of tweens is a serious problem;
  • I agree;
  • I have no reason to believe that the film resolves in favor of chastity, though I’m certainly open to being surprised, if anyone who’s already seen the film wants to cough up spoilers.

The Cobbler (mountainous land feature), photo by Ben Arthur, Arrochar Alps, Scotland

Here, have a palate cleanser, courtesy of Wikimedia’s Image of the Day (CC 4.0).  Look here for a detailed description.

How’s it Going, Jen? Mid-August 2020 News & Links

A few quick updates as I hopefully get back into the swing of things?  Maybe? Here’s all that’s been going on since I last fell off the internet:

(1) I took a leave of absence from social media because I had started losing my temper at people who were wrong.  The break was surprisingly beneficial — I say surprising because my primary mode self-correction consisted of watching Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. Best I can tell, it’s what happens if you cross C.S. Lewis with Tom Clancy with Hollywood Sci-Fi with an Evangelical Presbyterian. Season 3 is when it gets blatant.

Didn’t see that coming, though, tip: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. is a straight-up pro-life morality tale, except seedy and brilliant — if you happen to like campy sci-fi comedy-adventure infused with a potty-mouthed and hilarious Theology of the Body theme.  (Parental supervision strongly recommended.  None of this is for little kids.)

(2) Had to take a healthy, athletic teenager to the ER for extreme shortness of breath on exertion associated with a respiratory virus of unknown nature.  She’s fine now. Also, our ER experience provides a few theories on why certain minority communities might be experiencing a higher rate of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.  –> All is not well in public health, guys.

(3) I’ve got two more here at the castle who’ve succumbed to a respiratory ailment of unknown nature, possibly the same one as the teen, possibly something else. In the effort to keep those three distanced from the remaining residents, I was doing an awful lot of zig-zagging around providing food service and so forth.  That’ll keep you busy.  I finally gave two men a kitchen in the camper in the yard so they could do some of their own cooking.  Mr. Boy was appreciative, SuperHusband is not amused. Heh.

(4) Oh oh! and during all that?  Our 18 y.o. came back from college for the one week we get to see her until Thanskgiving, we think, and it was absolutely vital, if she wished to return to school, which she does, that she not catch any kind of respiratory ailment.  Huge thanks to the friends who housed her, fed her, and did airport shuttle so that she could limit her time with us to sitting outdoors and far away.  Fun times.  People prayed for us, though, and it was fine.

So that’s been most of it.  In writing news:

NCRegister: “On the Limits of Identity Politics” If you missed it, it’s up and some people liked it.  There should be another piece running soon on a Catholic approach to the problem of gender dysphoria, but I don’t see it yet?  Next in my queue is an essay I’ve been failing at pulling together for an embarrassingly long time, but which introduces Cathy Lins, who specializes in parish mental health ministry, and who has a brand new forum here: Trauma-Informed Parishes. Go say hello to Cathy and soak up everything, because she knows what she’s about.

FYI the rumor that I “started a new job” at the Register is a product of Facebook’s determination to turn everything, at all, ever, into click-bait hype for your friends.  What happened is that I realized I had put my blogging status at Patheos and here at the Conspiracy in my “about” details, but that the Register was missing.  Crazy me went to rectify that oversight and next thing we know everyone’s congratulating me on my new promotion.

Um.  I’ve been promoted to someone whose author bio is slightly more accurate? Kinda?

Books I finished reading, highly recommend, and plan to review in the days ahead:

Blorging: Ads aren’t functioning as well as usual (possible cause: widespread power outages?) so it’s a great time to wade through my latest entries at the mosh pit of religious plurality, if you haven’t taken the plunge lately:

  • “Speaking of Clerical Corruption” 

    We the laity are capable, if we work together, of investigating allegations like the ones above, and we are capable of creating landing places for discarded priests, seminarians, and religious to build new lives for themselves after they are persecuted for whistle-blowing.  It’s too big a job to be done by one person, and too important a job to be left solely to one faction or another among the increasingly fragmented faithful.

  • “Education vs. Childcare vs. Public Goods”

    Because of these harsh economic realities, there is tremendous pressure for schools to open back up, full-time as-per-usual. Parents need the low-tuition* childcare that schools provide, and to not provide that care is to leave parents in a serious bind.

    Catholic social teaching has a different answer, and yes I know when I say it most people will swear it’s preposterous, but here me out below. There’s another way, and its worth considering.

  • “Breathtaking Beauty in Church Controversies over Kinda-Boring Stuff”

    If you are like me, you never for a moment even considered the possibility that the I in “I baptize you . . .” was a make-or-break part of the baptismal formula. (I also never contemplated varying from it.) It was simply there, and it seemed logical, and what else was there to know? Now we have something to ponder. What’s going on with this one little pronoun the CDF is so worked up about? Turns out the answer is more interesting than I had guessed.

And today, prompted by this morning’s readings, and weirdly taking a twist into presidential politics (I didn’t see that coming even if you did): “How to Treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors”.

–> If you don’t care to think about the voting question, scroll directly down to the bottom to see the photo that inspired me to wrap up my meditation on what to do about terrible Catholics with a link to the Epic Vacation series here at the Conspiracy, because, top of page 2 of the E.V. category, I was reminded of my “What it Takes Not to Be a Nazi” photo tour and reflection on visiting a WWII cemetery, many memorials, and a concentration camp in eastern France.

Book reviews!  Spoiler alert: I answer the question of what to do about terrible Catholics in those 300 fun-filled pages of The Beast. So far there’s one review up at Amazon, which I dared read because the reviewer kindly gave the book five stars. I quote the review in full:

Jen Fitz’s clear, sensible advice for the modern evangelist is a must-read. She has years of experience with dealing with many situations a lay Catholic may experience in explaining their faith. The book is well-organized and helpful for anyone who wishes to learn more about how to spread the Gospel.

Thank you, anonymous reader!

FYI – if you’ve read the book and would like to say something good about it, I’d be most grateful if you’d say so over at Amazon, where book publicity ekes out its living these days.  Even more? I’d like you to loan your copy to someone who could use the inspiration or affirmation.

Thanks!

Ella the Snow Dog - adorable cream-colored puppy looking up at the camera in a field of snow

Today we illustrate our post with this photo of Ella the Snow Dog (CC 2.0) because:

  • Presently the 9th grader’s multi-year campaign to get a dog is gaining momentum but also hit a snag in the road called “Parents are doing their best to make sane, responsible decisions,” and
  • It’s mid-August in the Deep South, so even though it is unseasonably cool (low 90’s!?!!), “snow” is a very popular theme around here.

FYI because I love you, I scrolled through many pages of search results for “cute dog photo” in Wikimedia to bring you the very best.  You’re welcome.

PSA: About the Time I Had to Rescue My Kid from Drowning

It came to my attention after my previous PSA that I’ve never told, here on the blog, the full story of the time my four-year-old nearly drowned.  (She’s fine.) I write about this because it’s water season (in the northern hemisphere, anyhow), and for US children ages 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death.  Of all the things you worry about in your little kids, this one is, statistically speaking, one that *needs to be worried about*. I’m going to tell our story, and then you will know what you need to do in order to keep your young children safe while they are at the pool.

Spoiler: You, personally, watch them every single second.

As you’ll see, that is not me being dramatic and overbearing. That is just *how it is* with young children at the pool. Here’s the story.

Quiet Pool, Lifeguard on Duty

I had four kids in back-to-back swimming lessons at the local YMCA, and so while the youngest had her lesson the older kids would play in the pool, and then they’d switch.  We were at an indoor pool and I wasn’t myself swimming.  I was dressed business-casual (this gets relevant later) — my good real-leather loafers, slacks, tailored t-shirt, probably even make-up and jewelry. The pool was about four feet deep at the shallow end, and my kids aren’t that short.  The four-year-old was just inches shy of being able to hold her head above water — so she didn’t play there.

Where she played was on the broad, shallow concrete steps leading down into the pool, about an 8′ x 10′ area with handrails on both sides and the middle. I had her play on the first three steps, which were shallow enough for her to sit or kneel on, but she could stand with her head fully out of water on the fourth step.  The way the pool was constructed, if you stepped off that last step, at all times you were in immediate reach of either the last step, a bar, the wall of the pool, or all three.  She knew how to paddle to the wall from water over her head, and how to hold onto the wall to stay above water.

Still, she was in the habit of playing only on the shallowest area of those broad, flat steps with the non-slip surface.

That day, though, she asked me if she could play down on the bottom step.  “Are you sure?” I asked.  She was sure.  “Okay. Be careful.”

And down she went to play in slightly-deeper water.

Drowning is Silent

During this time, I was seated nearby on an Adirondack chair watching her.  Not reading.  Not checking my phone.  Not chatting with other parents. Just watching the kid.  Still, you glance around.  There are the other kids having their lessons (yes, I kept an eye on them, too), there might be people setting up for water aerobics, maybe a lifeguard on break passing by.  It was a quiet weekday morning off-season, and my attention was directed towards watching the four-year-old, but of course you sometimes aren’t focusing 100%.

What happened to my daughter is that she slipped off that last step.

I became aware that she was bobbing up and down in the 4′-foot area just slightly too deep for her.  She looked like a kid practicing a bobbing-excercise, except she wasn’t. As her face would almost surface, she was not getting air, and she was very clearly not doing this for fun.  But to someone who didn’t know her, you might have thought she was just splashing around, and splashing very quietly at that.  You did not hear a word of struggle.

Pro Technique: Pull Kid Out of Water

Fortunately, a pool is a relatively easy place to see someone drowning, and it’s a relatively easy place to effect a rescue.  –> If you’re at a pond, lake, river, or ocean, in all but the shallowest water you really do need life jackets, because it is much, much more difficult (often impossible) to find a drowning body, and it’s much more difficult to pull someone out, in open water.

The pool, though, is pretty straightforward: I stood up, marched down the steps, and picked up my child in my arms.

She breathed.

Good.

I carried her up to the deck of the pool and listened to her breath a bit more.

If you see your child starting to drown and can go grab your child immediately? You’re in great shape.

That only works if you are personally watching your child the entire time.

Does it need to be you? What about the lifeguard?

I’ll tell you about the lifeguard.

The Lifeguard Has a Whole Pool to Watch

I stood there on the deck, dripping wet, leather loafers soaked, business-casual clothing soaked, holding my kid and deciding what to do next.  Something you should know is that your child can seem fine but still be at risk due to water in the lungs.  So when the lifeguard on duty hopped down from his chair to come speak to me as I stood there having just rescued my kid, he looking visibly unsettled as he approached, I assumed it was to tell me he was going to have someone to listen to lung sounds.

Instead what he said was, “Um. I’m sorry, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to wear street clothes in the pool.”

I was speechless.

He had not seen anything of what had just happened.

I had literally identified a drowning swimmer and rescued her, and the lifeguard had not seen it.  He had no idea that someone had nearly drowned in his pool, on his watch.

How could that happen?!

Remember that drowning is silent.  My rescue was silent, too. I didn’t spend time shouting or flagging down help, I went and grabbed the kid.  Maybe the lifeguard really was a horrible lifeguard.  More likely: You can only focus on one place at a time.  As he scanned the pool, he happened to miss what was happening in one corner while he was looking elsewhere.

If you want to make sure your kid gets rescued in time, you have to be watching.

Parenting Young Kids is Hard

I will tell you right now that having four young children back-to-back did not make it easy to take the kids to the pool.  SuperHusband’s not really a pool guy (he’s a river guy, hence the name of this blog), and so we weren’t one of these families where both parents go hang out at the pool all summer long.  Watching four children in the pool by yourself is mentally exhausting, because if you don’t want to miss one going down, you literally have to count heads one-two-three-four, focusing from kid to kid in a non-stop cycle the entire time your children are at the pool.

–> Not just while they are in the water, but any time they are near the pool.

I didn’t love this.  I do not miss the years of being so, so tired of counting heads while other people were relaxing and having fun at the pool.  But if I weren’t absolutely obsessive about this, I could easily have had a drowned kid.  Instead I had a child who was very scared, but who got a clean bill of health from the pediatrician when we stopped in for a lung-check immediately after.

There is No Such Thing as 100% Failsafe Parenting

From the time your child is conceived, your child is in danger of death.  The death rate for human beings is 100%.  No matter how safety-obsessed you are, eventually you have to let your child out into the world.  As I write, my rescued four-year-old is now a teenager at the pool with her older sister, and they drove there together themselves.  Bit by bit as a parent you have to let go.  You have to let your children take risks. You cannot protect your child from every possible danger.

Still, you can improve your odds by putting your efforts into making risky activities as safe as possible, and being especially careful with the most-dangerous situations.

Cars are insanely dangerous, by the way. For US children ages 5-19, a motor vehicle accident is the most likely cause of accidental death.  And yet: Your 1-4 year old child is more likely to die by accidental drowning than in a car accident.

Anyone can get into a freak accident.  As parents we have a duty to do all we reasonably can to equip our kids with good skills and good decision-making support (including waiting on freedom-privileges if our child isn’t ready), and then one day we have to hold our breath and let our kids go out and do their thing. As parents we have to weigh costs and benefits, recognize our own limitations, and acknowledge that, at any moment, despite all our most diligent efforts, we could find ourselves in the horrifying situation of having just lost, out of the blue, a child more precious to us than anything else this world has to offer.

Let me emphasize here: You aren’t a bad parent if your child dies.  You aren’t a terrible person if your child dies of something that might have been preventable, but for some reason or another you just didn’t know or weren’t able to prevent the thing.  You cannot save your child from every possible danger.  You cannot.

Life is hard.

Watch Your Child Near Water

But still: Your young child is not able to make good decisions about water safety.  Your young child also lacks the emotional wherewithal to stay calm, cool, and collected in a terrifying situation.

When my daughter almost drowned? She was literally an inch from perfect safety.  All she had to do was take *one* step.  There is absolutely no reason she couldn’t have saved herself — except that she couldn’t.  She was four-years-old, and scared, and forgot everything she knew.

Fortunately someone was watching her, and so in the end she was fine.

Summer and Swimming Pool, children playing in the pool.

Photo of kids at a pool courtesy of Wikimedia CC 4.0.

PSA: Anaphylaxis for First-Timers

Thought I’d share a little mild excitement we had around our house yesterday (everyone’s fine), because if you don’t live in the world severely-allergic people, and you don’t have first-aid training on the topic, a sudden introduction to the world of severe allergic reactions (that’s what “anaphylaxis” is) can leave you responsible for making life-and-death decisions, and maybe not even knowing it.  Hence today’s PSA, while it’s on my mind.

#1 Anyone can develop a severe allergy at any time.

Let me tell you a funny family story, and then I’ll tell you about yesterday.

My maternal grandfather never in his life showed any sensitivity to poison ivy.  He grew up on a farm, he had plenty of exposure through out all his childhood and young adulthood, he was just a lucky guy that way. So the family — this was when my mom was a kid — was traveling cross-country from one Navy post to the next, and they stopped at various parks along the way.  They were out hiking and came across some poison ivy.  Someone, probably my grandmother, urged everyone to be very careful to avoid it.  And my grandfather, who could be like this, I suppose, was like, “Nah! I never get poison ivy! I’m not allergic!” and he made a point of proving it by intentionally rubbing the stuff on his skin.

Reminder: He’d done this before.  Whether as a boast or not, I don’t know, but it would not be inconceivable that as one of seven brothers he’d maybe pulled this party trick a time or two in the past.  Certainly, many times he’d known he’d been in contact and had no reaction.

Much in accord with my mother’s sense of poetic justice, that day was his day, and the bragging was rewarded with the worst case of poison ivy rash anyone in the family had ever encountered.

Morals of the story:

  • Pride goes before the fall, but also . . .
  • You can have a reaction to something that, until now, has never been a problem for you whatsoever.

Curiously, to my knowledge I’ve never had a poison ivy rash either, though I’ve never knowingly put that to the test. I’m hoping that humility and lucky genetics are quietly protecting me when I accidentally end up exposed (because: having never had the rash, I didn’t go through the phase the all other Scouts go through where they suddenly take a keen interest in that one plant-identification skill — though I think I’m caught up now).

***
My story, both from earlier this spring and then yesterday, topic now transitioning to bee/wasp stings:

I’ve never had any difficulty with insect stings.  I don’t seek out trouble, but also stinging insects don’t worry me much, because they’re an annoyance not a danger.  We do of course take action to eliminate potentially dangerous hives and nests as we identify them, for both comfort and safety reasons.  But also I delight in having bumblebees visit my garden.  Stinging things? No problem.

So. This spring while gardening I accidentally uncovered an underground yellow jacket nest in the flower garden.  I didn’t realize what was happening until after the first sting hit, and by the time I’d come to my senses and calmly exited, I had three or four stings on my wrist.

Not a problem.  Go clean up, apply miscellaneous home remedies for comfort (as if), take a Benadryl just to be careful, since it was multiple stings.  Affected area was painful and slightly swollen, and then it got better, and until then I wore my watch on the other wrist. Eliminated nest, since it was in a heavily-trafficked area and posed a potentially serious hazard if someone disturbed it. Done.  Not a big deal.

So.  Yesterday. Mowing the lawn.  I was just wrapping up the morning’s mowing, and finally dealing with an unsightly spot by the street that needed a few goings-over, because it can get a little Wild Kingdom around here.  At no time was I aware of any bees or wasps where I was mowing, because duh, I’m not going to mow over a yellow-jacket nest, we know how that goes.  (Tip: Kill the nest, live with long grass until times.  Mowing over an underground nest is courting death, that is not an exaggeration that is a fact.)

But, I did get stung by something.  Didn’t know what — possibly fire ants since it was on my lower leg, who knows — wait, no, that’s something for serious because the stinging continued.  I did that amusing-to-watch thing one does where you attempt to both exit the area and simultaneously find this moving creature or creatures, hidden, unidentified, who has turned your clothing into a guerilla outpost from which to wage war.

By the time I’d gotten to the bathroom to hose off whatever-it-was (the easiest way to get a swarm of fire ants off your body fast is via deluge), it turned out to be a yellow jacket now somehow safely dead in my shirt and having bitten my leg four times.

Okay.  Great.  Thank you yellow jacket, because three of those stings were under my shorts, and that is not a real pleasant place to have a week of misery.

Still, no reason to worry.  Took a quick shower (because just finished mowing lawn, however abruptly), took a Benadryl just to be careful, and then moved on to making lunch, since it was that time.

Remember: I am not allergic to insect stings, right?  I’ve got forty-some years of practice being stung by all-comers, not that often but often enough to know that this is not a problem for me.  I’m the person you send to deal with the stinging insect so the allergic person can stay far away.

We had a nice lunch on the screen porch, spouse and I made a mental note to locate the nest (we still haven’t found it, by the way — it’s good and hidden), and things were —

Whoa.  I happened to glance down at my legs and discovered I was completely covered in red spots.  Legs, arms, parts of my face and neck.

Now I had noticed my face felt a little hot earlier? But remember I was just out mowing the lawn in a bazillion-degree weather — being a little flushed for a while is par for the course.  Didn’t occur to me to check for hives or a rash or anything, because I have *No History* of allergic reactions to insect stings. None.

So what is our lesson #1 for today: Someone who has no history of an allergy to a thing can, at any time and without notice, suddenly develop a severe allergic reaction.

#2 So then what?

Anaphylaxis is the name for that massive, severe, allergic reaction that can happen to anyone at anytime, with no prior notice whatsoever.

A localized rash where you physically contact the thing you are allergic to is just a mild reaction.  When you suddenly get a rash all over your body, or in places far from the affected area, that’s when you’re seeing one of the (less dangerous) signs of anaphylaxis.  It’s a concern because less-dangerous signs can be the precursor to more-dangerous signs, and the more-dangerous signs are deadly.

So what do you do?

Here’s an infographic from FARE that lays it out: Recognize and Respond to Anaphylaxis Poster

Notice that they put skin reactions in the category of symptoms that call for administering epinephrine and calling 911.  That’s a little different from the protocol out of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia, which considers skin and digestive reactions to be part of the mild-to-moderate category, but, and here’s the money question: These milder symptoms (such as my rash) can be the lead-in to deadly anaphylaxis.

Note here: Because I have no history of severe allergy, we don’t have an Epipen sitting around the house.  There’s always a first time.

Note also: If you need to use an Epipen, you need to be transported. Even if you have one on hand and you use it and it works.  You still need to go to the ER.

So what did we do? We went Australian Rules.  (Here I am just telling you my story, not giving you advice.  See that story above about the guy who died in ten minutes even with paramedics giving epinephrine.)  I had my adult son drive me to the very-nearby urgent care affiliated with our hospital system, where as soon the nurses milling around caught a whiff of the word “Anaphylaxis” while I stood there calmly registering at the front desk, they pulled me back for evaluation and confirmed my airway was in good shape (it was, or I would have been at the ER getting my airway opened, thanks).

So, Noting Again: If you might need an Epipen, you need to get medical attention.

Since my reaction did not involve my airway, the physician overseeing all this went with a period of observation to make sure I didn’t segue into delayed-onset of breathing difficulties, and in the in meantime began a course of treatment for the symptoms I was having; after everyone agreed I was good to go, I was discharged with instructions and a follow-up plan.

This is where I copy and paste authoritative instructions . . .

These are the emergency guidelines from from Australia Allergy & Anaphylaxis:

If you believe someone is experiencing anaphylaxis you MUST GIVE the adrenaline (epinephrine) autoinjector (e.g. EpiPen®) according to instruction on the ASCIA Action Plan.

If you DO NOT have an adrenaline autoinjector:

Lay person flat – do NOT allow them to stand or walk

If unconscious, place in recovery position

If breathing is difficult allow them to sit.

CALL AN AMBULANCE

ADRENALINE IS LIFE SAVING medication for someone experiencing a severe allergic reaction/anaphylaxis.

Antihistamines DO NOT stop the progression of an anaphylaxis. Antihistamines only help to decrease itching and reduce mild/moderate swelling of the face, lips and eyes.

DO NOT SHOWER as this may contribute to a drop in blood pressure which can escalate the severity of an allergic reaction.

ALWAYS give adrenaline autoinjector FIRST, and then asthma reliever puffer if someone with known asthma and allergy to food, insects or medication has SUDDEN BREATHING DIFFICULTY (including wheeze, persistent cough or hoarse voice) even if there are no skin symptoms.

[FYI I removed the phone number for CALL AN AMBULANCE since that varies by country.  But if you were curious, in Australia its 000. Travel tip: Learn the local emergency number in places you are visiting abroad.  You could tape it to your cell phone, for example, since otherwise you’ll probably forget it.]

And now a few practical suggestions from my own brain . . .

If you’re not an “allergy person” the first time you experience a severe allergic reaction is gonna be a shocker.  The whole page from which I excerpted above has yet more suggestions on how to manage terrible situations.

A couple points I’d like to emphasize:

  • Don’t be alone.  If you are experiencing milder symptoms, you have no way of knowing what and then is going to be like.  Maybe nothing, but maybe something that requires someone helping you right away.
  • One of the realities of a milder allergy-emergency is that you could have a panic attack that mimics airway symptoms, especially if you are alone and worried.  Getting yourself not-alone and then into a place where you can get epinephrine if you need it is a good way to cause the panic attack to subside.
  • If you present at the ER with milder symptoms and probably you just need to be observed and plan a course of treatment and follow-up for your nasty rash, LET THE THE STAFF KNOW IMMEDIATELY ON ARRIVAL that at any time you might start with airway symptoms, because that’s how anaphylaxis rolls sometimes, and they need to know that so that if you are all the sudden frantically banging on the glass begging for help, that is what is going down, don’t mistake me for SuperKaren, get me to an airway.
  • You don’t have to shout.  Tell them nice and calmy and firmly and make them repeat it back so they definitely understand. Also write the word “Anaphylaxis” on your intake card, first thing before you even write down your name, so the nurses wake up and do their thing.  Don’t just write “weird rash.”  You’re not there because you’re worried your skin isn’t pretty.  You’re there because your milder-symptoms could turn into deadly symptoms in the next few hours, and these are the people who can keep you alive if that should happen.
  • Of course be calm and polite if your breathing is fine and the staff are doing what they need to.  But put that word ANAPHYLAXIS in front of their face so that they know to do all the things.
  • Don’t worry that you are bothering anyone by “overreacting” if your symptoms are confusing and you aren’t sure if your allergic reaction is serious or not.  This is what your local emergency-care providers are there for, and also they get paid, so it’s not like you’re interrupting tea time or something.

Okay, that’s today’s PSA.  Share it around if there’s someone you know who needs to see this.

Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 1.0. Here’s a link that gives you the text and more info re: Signs and Symptoms of Anaphylaxis.

 

This is my Brain on Skunks

My friend shared this photo of two skunks visiting her parish:

Two skunks sneaking into parish, reported on St. Paul the Apostle, Seneca, SC, Facebook page
Skunks always appear far closer than photographer desires.

My brain immediately started composing this addition to Marty Haugen’s contemporary classic:

Gather us in, the striped and the sneaky,

We’re coming in, so try to relax;

Be not afraid that we’ll make you stinky,

Avoid sudden movements and give us your snacks.

In fairness, my brain will also circle around and make some kind of connection to the readings, and evangelization, and how Jesus loves even troublemakers like you and me —  all that jazz.  But yes, for the rest of my life, this is the verse I’m going to hear in my head when Gather Us In starts up.

Thank you, skunks; thank you, brain; thank you, Mom and Dad for years of family camping trips so yes, I know just what the skunks want and no, reader, you shouldn’t have put that in your tent.  Tom Zampino, your spot as the Conspiracy’s top poet remains secure.