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.

 

The Conversation You Truly Never Expect to Have with Your Child

I like to think of myself as a parent who is well-informed on the hazards that face teens and young adults.  You do what you can, hope for the best, and understand that sometimes your child’s free will is going to force an uncomfortable confrontation.  Still, I genuinely never so much as imagined, not even remotely, the conversation my husband and I had to have with our 19-year-old this morning.

He told us what he was planning to do.

We gave him our reasons for why that behavior was no longer acceptable in our home.  We observed that his decision affected the safety and well-being of not just himself but his sisters, his parents, his friends, and who knows how many others.  I suggested some readily-available, reliable, neutral, third-party, expert sources he could use for making an informed decision about his plan of action.

And then my husband summed it up: “Son, I’m sure your friends are fine people.  We respect that you are an adult, and you’re free to make your own decisions.  But if you insist on going to Bible study tonight, you’re going to have to find other living arrangements.”

Whoa.  Ha. #CoronaLife.

Never thought I’d hear those words.

I quick gave Mr. Boy a long list of alternatives that would allow him to continue hanging with his FOCUS buddies and maintain physical-distance too. I encouraged him with the hope that the US will quickly act to bring about a turning point in our present handling of the pandemic (via expanded testing, ramping up manufacture of protective equipment, etc.) such that we can become more targeted in our isolation practices.

But, at the moment, living amidst an unchecked outbreak, grateful our local hospitals are taking swift action to mitigate the situation, but also knowing that our go-to physician has not a single N-95 mask in her office? We need to be more careful than, on the face of it, one would assume the situation warrants.

That said, if we get to the point where his Bible study friends are Prepare Your Church for COVID compliant, we can talk.  Except of course we have a mild cough going around our house.  So home it is.

***

My coffee cup siting on a step ladder

Photo penance: I’ve upgraded my office-in-exile with an open step ladder squeezed between the water heater and the spare fridge to create a place to set my coffee while praying.  Yes, I am a chemically-dependent pray-er. Sorry to dash all your illusions about my piety.  Here, enjoy this charming video of a stubborn Italian man going out for coffee.

 

My Break Time Reading Program, updated for 2020

If you have children home on the loose and need to keep them occupied, here is an updated PDF version of my original Decathlon Summer Reading program:

Jen Fitz’s Break Time Reading Program (PDF – Ready to Print)

It’s called a Decathlon because I came up with it during an Olympic year, and we went with the idea of being an all-around champion by pursuing ten different subjects.  The way it works is that you earn a small prize every time you complete an activity sheet for any subject.  You can do as many sheets in a subject area as you want (the point is to keep busy, right?).  The big Decathlon prize can only be earned by completing at least one sheet in every subject area.*

Our small prizes were things like a pint of ice cream, but you could make it bonus screen time, time doing a kid-chosen game together, parent does one chore for kid, parent sings a silly song for kid — be creative, and feel free to tailor prizes to each child.  Obviously, prizes only work well if they are items which are reasonable for the parents to offer, but are also something special that will motivate the child.

In the pandemic-version update, I’ve removed reference to “summer” and also removed all the original prizes, since you may have difficulty acquiring specific items.  On each page, just fill in the agreed-upon prize for the subject area and then your big prize for kids who complete the entire Decathlon. (Our summer 2016 Decathlon award was $50. Only one of our four children was determined enough to earn it. The others, though, stayed busy completing activity sheets in order to get the small prizes.)

I specify “books” for the reading requirements because we developed this program as an alternative to our library’s summer reading program.  Given that your library may be closed right now (ours is), if you don’t have an extensive home library, consider allowing e-books (your public library probably stocks them), audio books, podcasts, or documentaries.  Part of the challenge for science labs, arts, crafts, etc., is for your child to hunt down the needed information and supplies independently.  There are many resources available online if you don’t have a stash of pertinent books at home.  There is no reason fine arts, crafts, and science activities cannot be completed using materials scavenged from your recycle bin.  If you don’t have access to the outdoors, Naturalist activities can be done by looking out the window (ID’ing different types of clouds would be an example) or by using a science website to learn what a given plant, animal, or insect looks like, then using Google Images as a collection of samples for ID-practice.

If you are doing it right, once your child gets the hang of how the system works, it should involve relatively little work for you.  The goal is to get kids motivated to try new things and work independently.  If you have very young children and also an older sibling, you could create an incentive whereby the older sibling earns a prize sheet for helping a little one do their activities.  Obviously you should adjust the suggested activities based on your child’s age and ability.  I allowed some substitutions such as Lego Sculpture as an art/craft, with parent pre-approval.

If you are comfortable with spreadsheets (or would like to be) and you would like to customize the program, here is a link to a Google Sheets version of my spreadsheet:

Jen Fitz’s Break Time Reading Program Spreadsheet

The file is read-only, so just copy-and-paste or upload it into your preferred spreadsheet program in order to modify it.

Copyright information: You’re welcome to share this, as-is or in your modified version, including posting on your own website, as long as you (a) include credit for the original and (b) don’t charge anyone for access to your version.  This is meant to be shared freely.

Enjoy!

Me with purple weeds in bloom

For our photo penance today: Here’s me with posing with some of the pollen-producing plants that are causing us all to go nuts wondering whether we are coming down with the plague or it’s just that time of year.

 

*I do include an option to allow one two-for-one substitution and still earn the Decathlon prize.  This allows for a kid who just absolutely hates a subject to do extra work in other areas to buy out of the one dread subject.

PS: Yes, these PDFs look exactly like the graphic artist is an accountant.  Easiest way to cause this to be a brightly-colored, decorated version is to print it out, staple it into a booklet, and give your kids a pack of crayons and let them color it all they like.  Remember parents, goal here is to keep your kids busy, not you busy.

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began.  The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently.  By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.

Most of these deaths are elderly people.  At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement.  My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.

They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate.  (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)

It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with.  “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.

She’s 96.  We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty?  We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her.  I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!).  I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”

Suppose you’re sixty right now.  You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world.  And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty.  During which time:

  • You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
  • You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
  • You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
  • You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
  • You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
  • If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire.  Sorry.  Nice try.

People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.

I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise.  I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life.  Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.

But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.

Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause.  We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.

They are worth it.  Stay home.

File:St. Wolfgang kath. Pfarrkirche Pacher-Altar Sonntagsseite 01.jpg

Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ.  I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking.  You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

 

The Prepper Life

So it appears that the US’s response to the coronavirus thus far is, “Good luck with that.” The saga of non-testing continues, with standard procedures still continuing to assume that travel to an outbreak area is required in order to catch the virus, and no real plan in place to do serious triage and infection control before exposing other patients and staff.

A few token patients get identified and quarantined, and everyone else gets a generic “stay home if you’re sick” message that in no way takes into account the reality that American society is almost entirely built on not staying home when you are sick.  School attendance policies don’t allow for it.  Workplace attendance policies don’t allow for it.

To make the spread of the virus even more certain, many school and work attendance policies require the provision of a doctor’s note in order to excuse absences and thereby avoid truancy charges or termination — thus the booming urgent-care industry, where you can pop in during extended hours and spend five minutes with a doctor who will write you an excuse.

Barring a major public health campaign to change these factors, people who value their jobs and their good relationship with the department of social services are going to carry on as usual.  Even with a public health campaign in place, unless there are serious provisions made for assistance covering lost childcare and lost wages, people are going to make the hard decision to continue faking their way through the day, as we do now.  Which means we continue to live behind the curve. Call it Italian-style.

***

The good news is that South Korea, which is testing vigorously and thus has the most reliable statistics, is showing only a half of a percent overall mortality rate (.62% at this writing).  That’s awesome news for the general public.

Italian-style, though, does not bode well for nursing home residents, people at high risk of complications, and Walmart employees.  Thus, prepping: If you buy your extra pack of toilet paper this week while you aren’t coughing and sneezing, you won’t need to run to the store in a pinch when you do come down with the thing, and thus go around infecting the people who cannot afford to be infected.

***

I do not have good prepping advice to give.  I am not a minimalist.  My house is cluttered.  My hoarding instincts have been steadily reinforced over the years thanks to hurricanes, ice storms, dam breaks, water main breaks, almost-a-snowstorms (you want to never truly *need* groceries, lest you get stuck going to the store the day before the snow doesn’t come), guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner and “by the way I need _________ by tomorrow morning.”  So maybe I have a closet we call “Prepperville”?  Yes I do.

But these are things that I know:

#1. Bleach.  It does so, so many useful things.  Good for all kinds of emergencies.  Get the plain stuff.

#2. You know you’re a born prepper if you hate going anywhere without dish soap.  It can be used on bodies of many species, clothes, dishes, your bathtub, your car . . . whatever needs to be washed.  You actually *can* put it in a laundry- or dish-washing machine, if you manage the dosage properly.  Gets the grease out.

#3. Duct tape and contractor bags, individually or in combination, can be used to solve so many different problems I can’t imagine you don’t keep both on hand at all times.  In a crisis, it’s therapeutic to go ahead and top off.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of crisis.

#4. My son buys the wrong coffee.  Actually every member of my family buys the wrong coffee, but 4/6ths of those people are not my problem, because they can just cope.  In a crisis, nobody wants the boy and I going cold turkey on the caffeine.  He buys this stuff:

Aldi brand dark roast coffee from Columbia

Photo penance of the day: Me holding a package of Aldi brand dark roast coffee labeled “Colombia.”

This is wrong.  In the same box from Aldi you can get either “Colombia” or “Sumatra.”  Both are dark roast.  Both are fair trade.  But one of them is just not as good as the other.  I confirmed this by accident this morning.

First week of any disaster, he and I are going to have the coffee we want.*  We can slowly adapt to our circumstances as we toughen up gradually.  Everyone will be happier that way.

#5. Your three teenage daughters do not want to adapt to improvised feminine hygiene products the first week of the disaster.  Give them at least a month into the apocalypse before you lay that one on them.

#6. Yes.  I know that most people throughout history did not have toilet paper.  Many manage just fine without even to this day.  I don’t care. Quit making fun of people who binged on toilet paper this week.

#7. Other people’s ideas of good prepper-food are usually disgusting.  You have to figure this one out on your own.  I go with ingredients that already feature in our regular menu, are pretty durable in a weather event, and can be consumed either uncooked or else can be cooked over an alternate cooking source (propane stove, charcoal, wood fire, etc). You’ll be pleased to know that the best popcorn recipe ever stands up to this rule.

In conclusion: In the face of any disaster, I’m totally prepared to live on coffee and popcorn.  We’ll be fine.

 

*The ability to improvise coffee-making** under nearly any circumstance is my chief super-power.

**I did not say you would like my improvised coffee.  Indeed, I prefer that you do not.

COVID-19 Mind Games II

[Quick update: Fr. Marcin died this morning.]

I’ve had this weird on-and-off cold over the past week.  Sore throat and headache Tuesday, perfectly fine Wednesday and Thursday.  Slight cough Friday morning, then fine all day.  Fine Saturday.  Woke up today with a definite sore throat and runny nose.  So . . . any other year, it would be no big deal.  Not even on the radar.

Meanwhile, an interesting bit of science-ness via Trevor Bedford confirms what many of us have suspected, that in the absence of widespread testing (S. Korea being a counter-example), there’s a significant delay between when the virus first begins circulating in a community and when it is finally recognized in the form of serious cases that get correctly diagnosed. Which causes one to think: Is my child’s runny nose just another round of the sniffles, or are these SNIFFLES OF DEATH?

And thus a surreal moment for my youngest child, when I told her that no, I would not be allowing her to pack into the pews with all the old ladies at Mass this morning, but yes, she may still go mountain biking with her father this afternoon.  Unheard of happenings in this house.

My logic? The trees will be fine, whereas we do not need the backbone of the American church getting infected with who-knows-what.  Think about this: If you unwittingly kill off scores of old church ladies . . . Who’s gonna do the funeral meals?  Who’s gonna get those altar linens CLEAN? Who’s gonna torment Father while the rest of us are distracted with pre-retirement busyness and can only whine and scold on evenings and weekends?

***

Even in a “young” parish, a disproportionate share of the load, lay and priestly, falls on older shoulders.  When we received the news this morning concerning Fr. Marcin Zahuta (our son attends his parish), SuperHusband asked, stunned, “But isn’t he young?”  Weeellll, dear . . . I don’t know his age exactly, but he’s at least as old as us.  Turns out if you have adult children, then you might not be so young anymore.  Fr. Marcin was already well-established as “that young priest” who wasn’t so so young way back when the boy was attending Catholic summer camp in elementary school and Father was the chaplain.

Thus my thesis: If you love the Church at all, do what you can to slow the inevitable so you don’t overwhelm your local hospital.  We have an incredible amount of medical technology at our disposal to deal with pulmonary diseases, we have skilled healthcare workers who excel at helping marginal lungs hold it together, but we don’t have magic.  We can’t snap our fingers and quadruple our capacity for treating highly infectious patients with extreme respiratory distress.

Hence the mind game.  Am I being ridiculously paranoid, or am I just doing my civic duty?  I don’t know.  We’re muddling through, refraining from blatant acts of infectiousness like sneezing on elderly people but not going into complete isolation over the sniffles either.  Maybe we’re not being careful enough.  You don’t know.

***

Meanwhile, my brother called the other day to ask about bringing his family to visit over spring break.  (Yes!  Please!) They’d be flying, which is a germy proposition regardless of hot new respiratory viruses, but I don’t think for healthy, low-risk travelers the threat of infection is the chief concern.  The big question mark is whether you’ll accidentally end up quarantined.

Worse things could happen than getting home from a trip only to be told you’re now on forced-staycation because you traveled through a freshly-declared epidemic zone, and of course you’ve got no milk in the fridge because you were just out of town for a week.  The more serious question he needs to answer is . . . what if my town is that place, and he’s here when the airlines quit servicing our nearby airports, and neighboring states shut their overland borders, and he gets stuck with us for a month?

He’s a brave a guy, but how brave?

If this thing goes pandemic the just the right way, we could end up with some genius help finishing our construction project.

Me with my laptop on a folding table in our unfinished garage / office.

Our Daily Photo Penance: Evidence my office needs drywall, plumbing, HVAC, and oh, and um, lots to be done outside with dirt and pavers.  Family reunion time for sure. 

Related: Darwin Catholic has a superb reflection, “Life in Uncertain Times.” Worth your minutes.

 

 

 

The Corona Virus Mind Game

So here’s a fun way to spend Mardi Gras: Be home with a cold, and have a kid home with a cold, and another one still coughing from what is likely the source of this present round of family plague . . . and then check in with The Guardian’s updates on the ripple out of northern Italy sending folk all over Europe into self-isolation.

I’m on about my third cold-type illness for 2020, and no it’s not just me, my kids bring these things home from school.  No one’s been seriously ill (though I did not love that fever I had the other week while doing edits on the book).  I can’t keep kids home from school until they are asymptomatic or they’d virtually never attend.  Last year teaching, I ran out of sub days (and the school’s not stingy) just taking off when actually feverish or coughing badly enough you could hear the wheeze across the room (and no, I didn’t get sick any more often than my own children or the other students).  Most of the time as a teacher if I was feeling under the weather I’d just arrange the desks so the kids could keep their distance and then remind the crew to wash wash wash those hands.

And thus, assuming the entire rest of the world also catches colds and also has to keep on moving through life regardless, there can be very little in the way of good data on what COVID-19 is doing.  Even countries that can be counted on to publish reliable statistics are limited by local variations in (1) the effectiveness of their diagnostics and (2) the proportion of sickish of people who actually go in to the clinic to get diagnosed.

So we don’t know, and we won’t be able to know for a while.

Not a whole lot you can do.  But pro-tip: If you were going to buy some child you live with a toy or game or book for an upcoming holiday or birthday or milestone event . . . you might go ahead and acquire the item and stash it in a hiding place.  Then if you end up in quarantine before-times, you’ll have a surprise to pull out some desperate afternoon when you really, really need it.

If not? Give it on the intended day.

When life gives you mind games, go with the no-downsides precautions.  Win-win.

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Photo of Lego bricks, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 2.0.  Another pro-tip: Certain toys are easier to disinfect than others.  Ask yourself, “Can this be run through the hot wash and dryer? Can it be dropped in a bucket of bleach?” If yes, that’s a plague-friendly activity.

5 Things That Won’t Hurt You to Prep for Corona Virus, and #6 Will Shock You

Whether or not COVID-19 will become a problem in the Americas remains to be seen. So far so good?  But look, it’s almost Lent, and anyhow there is almost nothing you can personally do to prevent a pandemic or cause it to be more or less dangerous to yourself.  But almost-nothing isn’t nothing-nothing.  Here’s a short list of cheap, simple things that might make your life less bad in the face of a mortal threat, and will probably make your life better regardless.

# 1 Get Your Affairs in Order

It’s tax time anyway, right?  It won’t hurt you to organize your papers, see if your will needs to be updated, hunt down your logins and stick the updated list in the fire safe, etc etc.  Possibly throw out that stack of old catalogs and the wadded up paper towels you shoved in your purse just-in-case.  In the event you get in a car crash next week and your kids need to transfer money to their bank account to pay for groceries while you are laying in the hospital arguing with the cell phone company over your phone that got smashed to bits in the accident, everyone will be glad.

#2 Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

And lay off the soda.  With the flu, colds, stomach viruses, and presidential primaries going around, you want to be as healthy as possible.  In season in the northern hemisphere at the moment: Root vegetables, winter squashes, cabbages . . . maybe not your favorites, but they are comparatively affordable, nutritious, and the internet is available to help you learn how to cook them into something not-disgusting.

If you are gearing up for Orthodox Great Lent (as I am not, who are we kidding, but some of my friends will be), check out “How to Eat Well During Orthodox Lent” by Chris Masterjohn.  Just because certain Girl Scout cookies are Great-Lent-Compliant doesn’t mean you should build your diet around them.  As I might.  This is why we lazy-Latins are so grateful for the other lung of the Church where the fasting and praying gets done for serious.  Thank you.

#3 Taper Off the Drinking

Your liver thanks you.

#4 Get Your Blood Sugar Down

Hey, look, fasting! Coming Soon to a Church Near You!  If you have Type 2 Diabetes, or a predisposition to it, fasting with appropriate medical supervision can get your metabolic health in order long before any significant weight loss occurs.  Which in turn improves your ability to fight off all kinds of illnesses and generally makes your blood vessels much, much happier.  You can give yourself the gift of healthier blood vessels any time of year, you don’t need to wait for a pandemic to come around.

#5 Exercise

Exercise will not solve all your problems.  The amount you can do is limited by the reality of your life.  But doing the amount that you can, in the way that you can, makes your life better.  Ignore the haters.  You can be fat, sick, exhausted, depressed, disorganized, unfashionable . . . and still benefit from exercising the amount that your life allows.  Do that amount. If it’s too much, back off and try again.

And since you might end up in quarantine, and that might make you go absolutely bonkers, go ahead and figure out now what you can do for exercise and leisure in the confines of your home to maintain your mental health and your friendships with your housemates.  Not a lot of things we can control about the spread of new viruses, but this we can prep just in case.

And finally but foremost, brought to you by a person who needs to hear this . . .

Go to confession!  For goodness sake you shouldn’t need a deadly threat to clean up that crusty ol’ soul of yours.  But some of us are regrettably slack in this area, and if we won’t listen to reason, then we’ll just have to panic our way into holiness.  You could do worse.

 

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Photo: Open confessional, by Jean-Paul Corlin, via Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

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Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.