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.

OSV Book Launch Webcast – Transcript Draft

Thank you to everyone who came to the webcast today!   A link to the recording is forthcoming (whenever it’s ready to go — I don’t know how much work is involved in that, so I’m going to assume OSV’s tech people are superheros and it might not be this. exact. instant, but the event went well so it’s not headed to the circular file, we know that).  I did confirm that OSV’s software does not have an option for creating captions, so here’s the first pass at a transcript:
Jennifer Fitz Webcast Notes – Temp Draft – June 30, 2020

There are some typos in there — surprisingly few — and I am proud of myself for using the spirit of self-control to not fix them live on the air while viewers waited, so you’re welcome, but as a result I was only able to go back and fix the one that was especially terribly bad, but not the others that are harder to remember and will take more time to find again.  So a better draft will be issued at a later date.  This is still word-for-word ten gazillion times better than you get off YouTube’s auto-transcript function, though if you want I could replace every theology term with a brand of beer in order to give you that experience?  If you like?  Nah. You do it yourself.

We did have time for some open Q&A at the end, and that is not in my notes above, but I will write up better, more succinct and accurate answers to all the questions we covered in the Q&A so we have that.

***
Meanwhile, a follow-up question: Would you be interested in more webcasts in the future, and if so, what would like me to talk about?  Ideally topics that don’t involve more embarrassing stories about myself.  Thanks!  (You can weigh in at the discussion group.)

The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You by [Jennifer Fitz]

Got the word today that my book is shipping, and by that they mean my Christmas Present author copies are on their way. Woohoo!  

Fun Stuff: Intro to Evangelization & Discipleship Webinar, Live with Me! Tues. 6/30 @1pm EST

Book launches this spring have a NASA-like quality: There is a plan in place, and there are a thousand reasons the plan might or might not unroll on the intended date.

Still, the webinar whiz at Our Sunday Visitor? She isn’t dependent on symptoms and exposures and whether the printing press is able to open safely this week.  She makes a living just zoom-zooming away.  Therefore, barring an asteroid hitting my garage-library or some other very high-bar-even-for-2020 level of disruption, my Live On the Internet part of the book launch will be this coming Tuesday, June 30th, at 1pm Eastern.

I asked a few fans (translation: Facebook friends, some of whom like what I write and the rest are probably just being nice to me) what I should put into my presentation, and here’s what they said:

  • What are the top 3-5 things we should know from the book?
  • What was your first experience evangelizing?
  • How do you know when to speak and when to shut up?
  • How do you keep from centering on yourself instead of Jesus?
  • How would you bring the Good News to someone who is disgusted with the criminal actions of Catholics, especially clergy?

We’ve got about thirty minutes set aside for the event, so I’ll hit those topics in my prepared remarks, and then if there’s time left over we’ll do open Q&A.  I have no idea whether the event will be captioned (probably not, and we all know how auto-caption does anyway), but I’ll post a transcript* immediately after, look for it here.

Warning about the top 3-5 things: I have nothing new to say.  I’m going to be hitting the same top 3-5 talking points that have been the contents of Divine Revelation over the past 5,000 years.  On the one hand, that’s making you go, “blah blah blah love God, pray, fast, behave yourself, blah blah blah,” and on the other hand? I kinda need that talk, and there’s evidence other people do too.

So maybe you don’t need a shot in the arm in that direction, but maybe you know someone who does.  Maybe you just need to be reminded that doing the basic things Christians do matters and makes a difference in people’s lives.

If so, you or they can come to my talk.  It’s free.

–> Also it will be a highly entertaining event, because unlike the entire rest of the planet I have not been doing internet video communication non-stop all spring.  So that’s gonna be big.  Bonus: You can see my scrapwood bookshelf, and if the camera gets pointed wrong, you can see the garage that is still very garage-like despite my calling it “the library” now.  We are hoping the camera doesn’t get pointed at the pile of junk I pulled off the shelves to make them look less disturbing.  You might or might not see cats.  No promises on that.

So that’s gonna be awesome.  Don’t judge me for my incomplete Hardy Boys collection, just send me the ones I haven’t read yet, thanks.

Register Here

How to get the book: It appears that the Kindle Edition is already available for sale! Amazon is telling me I can buy it with 1-click, so that’s pretty nice? FYI if you get the e-book and read it this weekend, come Tuesday a couple stories I tell will be ones that are not in the book.  I’m not actually going to read from the book or anything, because you can read a preview on Amazon if you want to find out what my book-writing is like.

As soon as I get word paperbacks are shipping, I’ll let you know.

The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You by [Jennifer Fitz]

Cover art of The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You, courtesy of Amazon.com and Our Sunday Visitor.

*Transcript of my prepared comments will be ready to post immediately.  Yes, I’ll be sticking to them religiously, ahem, because it is so, so, so very easy to say something dumb if you ad-lib on these topics.  If there is time for Q&A, what I’ll do for a text version is take the questions that came in and make a blog post or so fleshing out my quick answers and clearing up any confusion I created.  You’ll be dependent on whatever the tech team can bring you as far as a transcript of my bumbling attempts to answer questions on the fly.

What to Expect from a Saint

Over at the blorg yesterday I wrote about how, whatever St. Junipero Serra’s sins might have been, an authentic desire to evangelize is not one of them.  Figures I’d say something like that.  Today I want to address a deeper question: What are we to think about the problematic behavior of saints and other heroes?

Let’s begin with some foundational principles.

We know that the Christian faith is unchanging, and we know that the moral law is unchanging.  Murder is wrong yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Jesus Christ is the Savior of humanity yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Thus, the first thing we should look for in a saint: The moral and spiritual ideals towards which a saint strives are unchanging ideals.

–> We expect a saint to love Jesus Christ and to practice and proclaim the Catholic faith as best he or she is able.

Saints overcome obstacles, but they aren’t omnipotent.

From our lives, from common sense, and from the historical record, we can know that there are obstacles to living out our Christian ideals.

Some obstacles are internal, such as physical or mental illness.  These roadblocks to practicing the faith don’t make us less faithful.  What they do is cause us to have to put more effort into loving God, who sees and acknowledges the heart.  While some saints may have awe-inspiring external, easily-visible accomplishments to their name, others do not.

Other obstacles are created by our society, our culture, or the people around us. In another era, a saint might have been able to care for orphaned children by simply opening the doors and welcoming those in need.  In our time, extensive regulations may prevent an individual, family, or religious association from being legally allowed to provide care.

–> When we look at a saint’s life, we have to realistically assess the resources and opportunities that were available to that person living in that era.

Culture clouds our human thinking.

While the natural law is written on the human heart, we know that human beings are fallen creatures. We are tempted to do what is comfortable and self-serving, and often we let our desire for gratification color our understanding of the Gospel.

Thus it is hard for a saint, or anyone, to overcome his or her weaknesses.

Furthermore, our culture affects our ability even to contemplate what the Gospel might be asking of us.  A type of generosity or piety or morality that was encouraged and accepted in one time or place might be rare or nonexistent in another.   When a given concept of Christian morality or devotion is simply not on the radar in our own time and place, it is very, very hard to look over the walls of our native culture and consider a better way of living.

I’m hard pressed even to provide an example, because I know that for any specific suggestion I make of an area where modern Americans struggle with recognizing and articulating the faith (and some other cultures did not), my suggestion will be dismissed as “ridiculous” or “extraneous” or “old fashioned” or “obsolete” or something else.  We cannot see what lies beyond the walls of our own cultural prison.

–> We can expect a saint to respond freely and generously to those aspects of the faith which were understood and practiced in his or her culture, and to make sincere but not always successful attempts to discern and apply Christian doctrine counter-culturally.

Culture feeds certain types of piety.

In contrast, every culture has its virtues as well.  What is often very confounding in the lives of the saints are the examples of virtues that are foreign to our time, but were considered ordinary piety in the saint’s time.  Here I will give an example.

In our time, the practice of physical penance is virtually unknown.  We allow for the merits of offering up unavoidable suffering, but even that is counter-cultural.  One of the great challenges of our time is fighting evils such as abortion and euthanasia, which are fueled by a culturally-driven placing of the avoidance of suffering as the highest good.  Even Christians have difficulty understanding why some of the suffering that life brings might, at times, have to be endured when there is no moral way to avoid it.

We do have a limited understanding of the value of physical penance.  Specific acts of self-discipline are practiced by the most-rigorous of religious associations, and minor acts of self-denial are encouraged for all Catholics during the penitential season of Lent.  However, even there, in our time we always temper any mention of corporal penance with warnings not to overdo it, not to commit self-harm, and so forth.  I am absolutely at one with my wider spiritual culture in that regard.

In contrast, in other eras, we see that the benefit of physical penance was considered of greater value than the avoidance of physical harm that might result.  Hence we have countless examples of saints and ordinary Catholics and even non-Christians carrying on astonishing displays of self-inflicted or self-allowed suffering that, to our modern mind, are contrary to faith and reason.

What’s going on with that? Shouldn’t the saint have known better?

Keep in mind those cultural walls.  When your spiritual culture is telling you that xyz is the greater good . . . if your greatest desire is holiness, you will seek after that good.

–> We can expect saints to be willing to go to extremes to pursue paths of holiness encouraged in their time and place.

Saints take strange shapes.

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with saints who consistently love Jesus Christ, and everything else is a toss-up.  Saints are people who strive for holiness, but that striving is going to be shaped by his or her personal limitations, by cultural boundaries, and by the types of piety and service that are most encouraged in his or her time and place.

Saints can still surprise.  We look with special awe at those saints whose lives were wildly counter-cultural, because they stand out not only in their time but in ours.

All the same, some saints can make us uncomfortable with just how wrong they seem.  When that happens, there are three questions we should ask:

  • Is the legacy of this saint the right legacy?  Perhaps I’ve been passed a message about this saint that is honestly not what makes this saint an example of holiness.
  • Is this attribute of the saint just a plain old sin?  Every saint recognizes his or her need for the Redeemer.  Unless it’s the Blessed Mother we’re talking about, we know for a fact that some of this saint’s actions were sinful.
  • Is this attribute of the saint a virtue I need to know about?  One of the great gifts of the saints is that they allow us to peek over our cultural walls.

What we don’t need to do is be afraid.  It’s okay to have weird saints in our spiritual family tree.  We are not a religion that worships mortal men. We are a religion that worships Jesus Christ.  Allow the Lord to show when and how to learn from this or that saint, and when you need to recognize that so-and-so just isn’t the best spiritual companion for you right now.

Is this person helping you grow in love? Is this person drawing you closer to Jesus Christ?  Whether it’s a saint in heaven or someone you know here on earth, those are the qualities we look for in spiritual friendships.  It doesn’t matter whether so-and-so is so helpful to your friend or your mom or you favorite priest. Choose to surround yourself with the people who make you a better Christian.

Crystals of dried Coca-Cola: Individual rainbow-colored crystals distributed in a globe-pattern on a black background.

Photo: Crystals of dried Coca-Cola, courtesy of Wikimedia Image of the Day, CC 4.0, by Alexander Klepnev.  I was going to settle for a renaissance peoplescape of Heaven, but then there was this. So this is what you get.  Probably the best use of Coca-Cola yet.

White Privilege in a Nutshell

My daughter is, last-minute, looking seriously at a college we had no previous experience with. So Saturday night we drove over to campus.  The place was desolate — everyone’s been sent home due to coronavirus — though a police vehicle roamed the parking lots.  In the waning daylight we parked in a faculty space (no other cars in the lot) and wandered around.

We liked what we saw and grew more curious.  Brazenly we walked right up to the cafeteria window and peered inside.  We passed a dorm, and I crossed the lawn to a window with the blinds open so we could stand there on tiptoes looking into a ground-floor room.  And thus we wandered.

At no time did we fear, at all, that we would get in trouble.  It was possible we’d be approached by security and asked what we were doing and requested to please return on a weekday.  It was, and remains, unthinkable that our interaction with anyone, at any level, would escalate beyond a firm-but-courteous insistence that if we wished to walk the grounds, we park in the visitors’ lot and refrain from putting our noses up to the windows.

That’s white privilege.

***

I write this because Rod Dreher, with whom I often agree, shared a story of white poverty and black violence in “Race, Poverty, and Privilege” that misses the point.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean all white people are born into lives of affluence.  To say racism persists in American society doesn’t mean that black people never commit crimes.

I know that racism persists because I hear it from the mouths of other white people.  Am I to think they are lying to me when they make the comments that they do?  Are they only pretending to believe the derogatory generalizations they spontaneously assert?

What I am to think of stories like “A White Woman, Racism, and a Poodle”?  No matter what possible charitable explanation you can concoct to justify a woman getting repeatedly stopped by the police for a non-offense only when it appears she has a black man in her vehicle, the reality is: She only gets stopped when it appears there is a black man in her vehicle.

What else is that if not racism?

***

A study I think is needed (and may well exist) is the incidence of crime verses the incidence of getting caught, sorted by demographic factors.  Such a study would require respondents to fess up to a reality: We all know people — perhaps even our own self is one of them — who has been spared an encounter with the justice system because they didn’t get caught.

Whether it’s over-dramatized trespassing charges (those noses on windows) or minor traffic violations or an officer following-up on a “hunch” and thus uncovering some more serious charge (drugs, weapons, outstanding warrants), if you are more likely to be policed, you are more likely to get caught. And thus: You are more likely to be considered a criminal — even though other people who did exactly what you did continue to hold positions of honor and power in our society.

(White person can verify: Plenty of leading bankers, physicians, politicians, etc., are guilty of assorted misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, and weapons offences that are only ever uncovered if the police decide to do some thorough searching, and therefore said persons now in power never get caught and thus go through life on the Upstanding Citizens Track while so-and-so who did get caught slides onto the Ne’er-Do-Well Track.  The difference isn’t in bad behaviors, it’s in whether you get caught.)

***

White privilege is the freedom to go through life being presumed innocent until you make a concerted effort to prove to the police otherwise.

I am well aware that there is more than just a question of race wound up in the privilege of being presumed innocent.  Being female increases your odds.  Being well-dressed and well-spoken increases your odds.  Having the social skills to fit into your milieu in a way that puts people at ease increases your odds.

Still, when everything else is equal, being white works in your favor.

***

Police brutality does affect white people.  It’s an issue that transcends race and class.

Likewise, violence against law enforcement officers is a real thing.  An epidemic of murders and suicides among our young men is a real thing.  The breakdown of the family, with its significant repercussions on all aspects of social life, is a real thing.  Lack of protection for victims of domestic violence is a real thing.  Lack of social support for vulnerable persons across the spectrum is a real thing.  There are many, many different ways that human beings hurt themselves and others terribly.

Acknowledging that racism is real does not erase any of that.

Seehof Phoenicurus ochruros female - grey bird holding green worm, perched on branch

Wikimedia Image of the Day by Reinhold Möller, CC 4.0.  The only relationship between this image of a female Phoenicurus ochruros and this blog post is that they lived on the internet on the same day.  But I’m confident skilled readers can find some way to read non-random significance into it.

Racism and Parish Closings

Allow me to connect some dots: If your diocese is currently shutting down parishes, it is possible those closings are the result of many decades of racism.

Why do I propose this idea?

I say it because I see parishes closing in communities where people still live.  Look around your local closing or struggling parish.  Is the neighborhood devoid of occupants . . . or is it that the people living in your parish now aren’t the “same type” as the ones who founded your parish or who enlivened it a generation or two earlier?

I can attest this is not the only cause of parish closings. We see parishes closing or struggling in communities around the world where no major demographic change has taken place other than a persistent secularizing of the wider culture.  There can be multiple factors at play.  Simple busyness and exhaustion are often the reason we don’t evangelize.

But.  If you live in a place where your local parish does not look like the people who live in the community surrounding your parish, ask yourself: Why?

What are the obstacles keeping us from evangelizing our own neighborhoods?

Is it possible that some kind of social bias is causing us to say, “Those people wouldn’t be interested,” or “Those people are too difficult to reach,” or “Those people wouldn’t be comfortable here.”

Even if your diocese is booming — especially if it is booming — your parish may be overlooking neighbors who have just as much a need and right to hear the Gospel and worship Jesus Christ in your parish church.  What can you do to invite them in?

 Father Joseph Harris, left, a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad and Tobago, celebrates mass with Lt. Cmdr. Paul Evers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain, click through for more details.

On How You Get People to Kill Other People

I went on a brief social media fast for a personal intention, and, magic!, finished a book.  Go figure.  The book was On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dave Grossman.

It is the first book I’ve read on the topic (and I lack any pertinent firsthand experience), so I’m not knowledgeable enough to critically assess.  I did check the reviews and there seem to be a fair number of combat veterans who found the book to be on point.

I can tell you, caveat lector, that the author spirals through his arguments and evidence as the chapters progress, though I think at least some of that repetition is an essential part of laying out his thesis.  Personally I found it helpful to have him recall for me information I read previously that was needed again as he moved on to a new topic that built on previous concepts, though I did eventually wish he’d pull out some new data to freshen up with.

I can also tell you that this is not a book to read if you, for whatever reason, don’t need to be putting unvarnished descriptions of deadly violence into your head.

That said, here’s a short version of Lt. Col. Grossman’s thesis:

  • Studies that have looked at evidence from battle outcomes and from anecdotal experience demonstrate that consistently, across centuries and cultures, humans are reluctant to kill their own species.  (As can be said of other species.)  He makes a careful distinction between aggressive posturing, which soldiers do willingly, and the decision to personally kill another human, which soldiers do much more reluctantly.
  • There are various circumstances that make people more willing to kill, as well as managerial decisions that increase the likelihood someone will obey an order to kill regardless of their personal willingness.
  • Furthermore, in order to increase the willingness of soldiers to kill, and thus increase the firing (etc.) rate in battle, there are types of training the military can use to cause soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.

He concludes his book with a final section on civilian violence, which is a sobering bit of opinion-piece worthy of consideration, but not the primary point of my posting this review.

More pressing today: If you are puzzling over police violence, the information throughout the book pretty much answers your questions about what types of training and circumstances increase the likelihood of police brutality, and what types of training and circumstances would increase the likelihood of minimal use of force and increased use of deescalating techniques.

It seems to me that our present problem with police gratuitously killing civilians does not come from nowhere.  Possibly there are even handy infographics throughout the book to assist in reminding you how to cut down on all the bloodshed?

***
Dave Grossman is not a moral theologian, so plan to bring your own critical thinking skills to the book. But if you wish to understand how one might hope to curb police brutality, the info is there.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by [Dave Grossman]

My Vocation-Affirming Experience of Covidtide

I have not read the entirety of it, but Darwin’s posting a series on the pandemic that promises to be his usual clear-headed, data-oriented analysis.  What follows is not that at all.  I’m here to talk about my mid-life crisis, thanks.

***

So for us the pandemic has been . . . okay.  SuperHusband’s employer was ahead of the curve on shutting down travel and protecting employees.  South Carolina, meanwhile, has been blessed with a pretty good experience so far, all things considered — made even more so by the unseasonably pleasant weather.  In terms of cases that touch us personally, a longtime colleague (age 42) died after a long struggle with COVID-19, and another colleague who has a side business lost one of his employees (age 35) quite rapidly.  Otherwise we’ve been fortunate that our friends and family have fared quite well, and we firmly hope that continues.

In terms of practicalities, here’s how coronacation found us: Last year, I was teaching full time.  I opted not to renew for this year, even though the job was fun, meaningful, and kept me surrounded by awesome people, because the hours were significantly more than I wanted to take away from family life.  Summer, fall, and winter found me discombobulated in six different ways, which I’ll forbear from cataloging, but suffice to say that when the unexpected descended this spring, I did not come into the season feeling like my life was, at all, pulled together.

So here are some of the changes that the big shutdown entailed:

  • We have six people home full time — four teens doing school, one adult working full-time, one adult (me) working part-time freelancing.
  • Homemaking skills are suddenly at a premium as we’ve dealt with the minor shortages, the need to be very careful about outings, and the far more intensive usage of our home.
  • Because all activities are canceled — church, kids’ sports, school programs, substitute teaching, concerts, every. single. thing — we are home, and home, and home.

For my husband and I, this has been mostly-heavenly.  The time he’d spend commuting in the morning instead we drink our coffee together and converse.  We have lunch together, usually sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather.  We have family dinner every single night.  My husband calls it his “working vacation” and even though he is working as much as ever, plus putting in a second shift on construction work finishing out the addition we started last fall, for him this is the perfect life.

We have, of course, had to work through assorted issues that were always there but never dealt with, all related to concerns I had long harbored about what life would be like after he retired, because for an introvert to never, ever, be alone at home can be rough.  I think — helped by construction reaching a critical threshold that has caused me to mostly have my own office now — we’ve worked through much of that.  Praise God.

Meanwhile, both my own experience and what I’m seeing all around me has been very illuminating, in terms of understanding my own vocation.  Here are a few of the things I’ve been getting my head around.

Affirmed: My kids are awesome.  I have no opinion whatsoever on the employment decisions of other mothers.  I’ve done the range, from full-time homeschool mom to full-time working mom, and lately I’ve been working part-time with all kids in school.  Having the kids back home full time?  It’s really nice.  I like these people.  I enjoy being with these people.  We are very close to the time when we expect our nest to rapidly empty, and getting these few months of all kids at home has been an affirmation that, for me, who had the privilege of being able to make such a choice, the decision to prioritize quantity-time with my kids over other pursuits has been the right path.  A risky choice, no doubt.  But a good one.

Affirmed: Relationships consume time.  I can remember many nights when my mom, who had to be up for work at four in the morning, would talk to me past midnight because there was something on my mind, or because we had suddenly hit our stride and to her the lost sleep was worth the gained connection with a willful teenager.  Talking to your kids take time.  Loads of time.

Parents find different ways to do it — time in the car, time spent doing chores together, late nights, weekends — whenever and however you’ve got it to give.  But there is no getting around the reality that kids want to spend time with their parents, and that time cannot be assigned to other mental work.

This is valuable for them and precious for me.  The only time I have with my kids is this time, right now. So my husband and I — but especially me because without a regimented work day my time is much easier for the kids to claim — find ourselves wondering why we can never get done half the things we thing should get done.  It’s because we’re talking to our kids.

Affirmed: Good meals take time to prepare.  We’ve eaten better, even during the weeks when groceries were hard to come by, than we have in . . . ever.  Prior to coronatide, in twenty years of parenting my husband and I had never succeeded at sitting down to family dinner every night.  Over many months prior to the shutdown when I was neither working outside the home nor homeschooling anyone, dinner was still a rushed and hit-or-miss affair.  I thought, for years, this failure was due to some inherent defect on my part.

Nope.  It turns out that if you spend the hours of 3pm to 5:45 shuttling children around to various events, you can’t also be cooking during that time.  It turns out that if every single night of the week your schedule is different, with different family members rushing off in different directions (every single one of them a worthwhile pursuit), you can’t get into a dinner routine.  And furthermore, it turns out that giving yourself a full sixty minutes to prepare dinner allows for way more options, and much better quality food, than trying to quick throw something together in twenty.

So now we’re eating really well.  People like my cooking better.  Our food is more nutritious.  I honestly have no desire to go out to eat.  Complication: Even though my husband and I both strongly prefer this way of living, we have no idea how to achieve it when the world opens back up again.

Affirmed: Homemaking is its own full-time job. I’ve been watching, remotely, all these really accomplished professionals struggle to keep on with their careers, only now from home and with kids around.  Doesn’t work.  Last year teaching, I got all kinds of thing done.  It worked because I was not present to my family. Getting the beast  written and re-written?  For lack of an office I found myself ordering three dollars worth of food and coffee from McDonald’s and then sitting in the backseat of my car with my laptop, using the free WiFi from my improvised remote office.

Being present to your family is work.  It’s good work. Pleasurable work. Energizing work.  But providing that presence — even if the kids are older and self-starters and half of them are legally adults — and attending to the needs of the family takes time and energy.  It’s time and energy that you can’t be doing other things.  We can prove it is work by the simple fact that if you the parent don’t do it, if you want it done you’ll have to pay someone else to do it.  People will line up for rides at Disney.  They don’t line up to conduct your home life for you.

My point in observing all this is not to conclude that there is a specific way any particular family should organize its hours and distribute its labor.  My point is to share a very reassuring discovery: All these years I felt inadequate because our society sells this illusion that somehow parents can both be full-time homemakers and be full-time professionals. But it’s not so, and the experience of the many, many parents now struggling to work from home is the affirmation of this reality.

Affirmed: Twice as many meals, twice as many dishes.  I’m not doing them, the kids are.  Interestingly, now that the kids can choose whatever they want to eat for lunch, the school snacks are languishing untouched and the leftovers get eaten.  Pretty nifty.

***

I don’t have a big point to all this self-discovery other than that now more than ever I want to punch all the people who saddle parents with “if you loved your kids/neighbor/America/Jesus you would _______.”  If  the parents are working full time outside the home? They definitely do not have time to do your ‘one little thing’ in addition to their other very real responsibilities at work and home.

***

Beyond that, I have no particular resolutions or vision for our future.  SuperHusband and I know that we like the slower pace of life; we also know that the faster pace of life was there for a reason.  I can’t think of a single thing we were doing all these years that was not a worthwhile use of our time.

We’ll have to see.  Meanwhile, here’s a story for you by way of conclusion: Last spring as the school year wrapped up, at one of our all-faculty teacher meetings, the head of school had those of us not planning to return in the fall share what our next plans were.  Most people had the usual — moving for the spouse’s job, expecting a baby, retiring after many years of service.

My answer? “I’ve learned not to make plans.”

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know how I’ve come by that habit.

Coronatide stamped a big fat Affirmed on that one, too.

Celebración de Todos los Santos, cementerio de la Santa Cruz, Gniezno, Polonia, 2017-11-01

Photo: Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.  

Life Coaching Tip, since after all that rambling you surely deserve at least one, right?  Here it is: If you aren’t already a Diego Delso fan, you need to change that.