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.

On the Glory of St. Blog’s Parish

This is not a nostalgic look at the good ol’ days of Catholic blogging.  I first started blogging in late 2006, and sometime after that I met Dorian Speed, who gamely agreed to pose yesterday of our combined Monday-Tuesday penitential photo.  She is as fun in real-life as she is online, and since what we have in common is Catholic blogging, yesterday over coffee she posed the question: Do I miss the old days?

Yes and no.  I’m grateful for the old days.  There are things I miss about the old days.  But also I’m happy with Catholic online life in 2020.

***

I started the century by discovering an online discussion forum that was mostly Catholic-moms, and twenty years later that group of friends is still together and still periodically meeting up in real life.  The old discussion forums were a great place for people who like debating, and I am one of that breed.

With that in mind, here’s some irony: As Facebook and Twitter have become the preferred stomping grounds for Catholic pundits of a certain age and sensibility, I find myself less interested in debating, and appreciate that those platforms are better suited to other types of conversations . . . and simultaneously I see other people make themselves miserable by immersing themselves in conflict there where they could so easily avoid it.

I say ironic because what I love about Facebook, Twitter, and other popular platforms I don’t use but which are similar in this regard, is that you can choose your conversation partners.  The old discussion forums and blog comboxes didn’t afford that luxury.  Now I can customize my discussion experience to avoid the people who make me crazy and spend comparatively more time with the people who make my life better.  I wish I had more control (I would like to see more photos of my nieces and nephews, less sloganeering), but I definitely don’t miss the days of the all-or-nothing online social experience.

It puzzles me that other people don’t just hit the “mute” or “hide” button when they tire of some acquaintance’s constant ranting. Then again, my favorite part of blogging is that no one has to read what I write.  It’s there if you want it, but I’m not imposing on anybody.

***

One of the marks of a longtime internet presence is that you end up with all these weird artifacts of your changing use of the machines.  I like to read online.  There was a time when Google offered G+, a fantastic way of gathering and sharing online reading.  When that shut down I migrated to Feedly, but Feedly doesn’t offer a free tool for sharing your favorite things.  So I started @JenFitz_Reads on Twitter, not for the purposing of twittering, but just as a convenient way of keeping track of articles that I found useful in some way.  The feed sits in the sidebar of this blog, and it’s meant to be a source of interesting links for people who are bored.

BUT, guess what, it’s a pain to switch between Twitter accounts.  So over the past couple weeks as I have been entering into conversations on Twitter (which I do not normally do, but call it spring fever or additional penance or whatever you like), it’s been easier to use my “alternate” account rather than my “official” account (on which I do almost nothing other than automatically forward posts from a couple blogs).  So, um, that’s twisted and backwards.  We’re just going to live with that for a while.

***

Now let’s talk about those good ol’ days on St. Blog’s.

One thing I miss, as I told Dorian yesterday, are the days when Catholics of good will might be comparatively more liberal or conservative, but they were not quite so bitter. Angry? Oh yeah.  Outrage is the fuel that makes the internet go ’round.  We are not gentle people.  If we were peaceful souls, we’d clean our kitchens and paint landscapes and get dinner on the table on time for a change.  By definition St. Blog’s has always been the fortress and refuge of opinionated hotheads.  Over the past several years, though, unfortunately that superpower has taken on an unfortunate flavor for some otherwise decent folk who, I believe, do mean well.

I get the frustration.

It is hard to be a person who works for change — not just by writing, but by putting in hours of work on the ground in real life, day after day, year after year — and watches decades pass with large parts of the Church still locked up in the same old cluelessnees and corruption.  Good things are afoot in the Catholic Church, but if you don’t have a front seat on that work, or if you have too many dysfunctional (or in some cases even abusive) realities shoved in your face too often, it can eventually harden into jaded cynicism at best.  “Be the change you want to see” becomes the taunt of sacred overlords to their subjects.  It is a constant battle not to become bitter in such an environment, and far too many on St. Blog’s have surrendered to the temptation.  I get it.  I completely get it.

***

There is another topic that Dorian and other friends reminded me of in the last couple days: There was a time when people blogged for sheer love of it.  My favorite bloggers still do.

I’ve been writing since I was eight years old.  Used to drive my grandmother batty with my constant scribbling in the notebooks I carried around.  On those occasions when I find myself without a computer, I resort to a spiral notebook.  If there is no spiral notebook, I write on scrap paper.  I am honestly unclear on how people survived before the ready availability of writing materials.  Did you just go insane?  Or probably got the chores done, I guess. Until you went insane.

***
I like the state of the internet in 2020. Some people make themselves miserable by failing to use the mute button.  Some people make themselves miserable by obsessing over their “success” on the internet.  But none of that is necessary.  I’m very grateful for the many friends I’ve made online over the past twenty years. I’m very grateful for the many “real life” friends and family I can keep up with online who otherwise live too far away to stay in touch.  Life is good.

Me standing with Dorian Speed.

Our Photo Penance for Today: Dorian Speed and I standing together after coffee yesterday, early in the day before I devoted the next ten hours to wrestling with the beast.  It’s back in my editor’s hands this morning, Alleluia.

 

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.

 

 

 

Why Black History Month Can Make Your Life Better

Last day of February, and because it’s a leap year we get one extra day of Black History Month.  This year I’ve been enjoying @Menny_Thoughts daily posts on Black Catholic history. (He blogs here.) The bulk of the mini-biographies he shared were familiar names to me, but not over-familiar by any stretch, and there were quite a few new-to-me stories, at least one of which made me briefly jealous I hadn’t included it in my array of saints for the book.

The thing that bugs me every year, though, is the implicit question when you set aside a specia- month-for-special-people: What about the other 11/12ths of the year?  Goes for womens’ history too, and don’t get me started on that one.

It’s a question I asked myself at the start of the month, and now that I’ve had twenty-nine days to think about it, here are three reasons I think Black History Month is important.

#1 Sooner or later you discover there’s more to Black History than MLK and Harriet Tubman.

Start there by all means.  Those are need-to-know stories.  But if enough years of enough days go by, eventually you start digging into lesser-known luminaries.  This is important because of something a friend of mine said way back in high school.

The topic was a television show neither of us watched much.  I found the characters one-dimensional, the plots predictable, and the dialog stilted.  His complaint: “There’s that character who is supposed to be the spoiled rich girl from the elite family, but there’s no such thing as black people like that.”

I instinctively knew he was wrong?  But I had no evidence with which to make my case.

My friend was not alone. What we learned about African-American history in school consisted of slave, slave, slave, slave, emancipation, Jim Crow, MLK, and then somehow magically you are surrounded by all these black professionals you encounter in daily life, but actually black people are mostly poor and helpless and need social workers to save them? (Always them.)  And also there’s that guy who made the pottery.

Mmmn . . . not so much.

Thus even though it’s fantastically dumb that we need such a thing, it’s good that we eventually get so bored of the same half-dozen African-American figures getting shared around every February that we start to uncover, bit by bit, that there’s a whole lot more to know.  And it’s interesting.

#2 African-American history is American history.

Let’s talk about white people.

White people can get uncomfortable admitting to an interest in Black History.  It’s like if you’re white you are contractually obligated to either have an Official Reason to study such a thing, or else you must use the word “vibrant” to gush about those special special people who are just as good as you — honest! even better! — because of course they are so vibrant.

Me with a copy of All Blood Runs Red, a biography of Eugene Ballard by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Actually we know this is true, because look at our daily penitential photo.  That’s me posing with the cover of All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Solider, Spy. You’ll notice that Eugene Ballard looks a little skeptical on his cover photo.  He’s totally thinking: Why do I have to pose with this white lady I don’t even know?

Or maybe he’s thinking: Why yes, I am a World War I flying ace, thank you very much.

(I can’t promise you the book’s any good, but the dogfight sequence in the prologue made it well worth the trouble of grabbing it off the new books shelf at the library today. Looks promising.)

You don’t need an official reason to study this or that type of history.  If you feel like you have to explain yourself because you take an interest in the actions or language or heritage of people who aren’t part of your officially-designated special-interest group? Then you need to give yourself some desensitization therapy.

#3 You deserve to be well-educated.

By way of example: If you are a teacher in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to read Up from Slavery.

Yes indeed, it is a massive fundraising letter (missionaries take note, if you need ideas).  Yes it’s also one of those things you need to read in order to claim to be knowledgeable of African-American history (I make no such claim — I’m strictly an amateur). But if you are a teacher?  Booker T. Washington happens to have written a practical philosophy of education that is far more useful than the bulk of the pedagogical blather that gets shoved at education majors.

If you want to learn the art of rhetoric from a master of the English language, read Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you want to learn how to be a saint during an epidemic in a city with neighborhoods under quarantine, read the life of Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Black History is human history.  You might show up for some other reason, but you stay because you found something of enduring value.

7QT: Hoppy Lent

#1 It’s Friday, so double the penance.  Over at the Blorg I’m writing about the economic fallout of quarantine and what that means for the ordinary Catholic. Includes a photo of me and my red dinosaur plush toy.  I’m really getting into the penitential mood.

#2 It turns out I was wrong yesterday.  A week and some ago I wrote “5 Ways to Stay Sane During Lent” now up the Register.  Which includes the lines the Internet is not your spiritual director. But when I quoted it yesterday, I’d forgotten I’d written it, but remembered I saw it on Twitter spoken by someone else.  So that’s interesting.  Apparently I am not the only person getting tired of the annual scolding about how everybody’s doing Lent wrong.

#3 Advance praise for the book!  From a reader who shall remain anonymous, but FYI this a person who was forced to read the book, did not choose to read the book, and who admits to being rather worn out on the whole topic of evangelization:

This left me going “Hey, that thing over there – I could maybe do that.” So, kudos. You got me to actually like a book on evangelization.

Didn’t see that coming.  Woohoo!  It really is a good book, and in very good news, I’m done with major edits, unless on my final read-through this weekend I find something I desperately want to change.  So prayers, please, that if there is something that needs to be fixed I find it?  Yes?  Because this is a very broad-audience book, and y’all know just how ornery I can be, when I’m let loose with my words and things.

#4 I’ll just get ornery right now.  Read today about an American bishop who’s mandated communion in the hand. He’d like people to maybe quit holding and shaking hands during Mass, but he’s not going to insist, so I guess its up to people in the pews to withstand the glares if they decline to shake hands right before, you know, eating with their hands. Yikes.

So anyway, here’s what happened to me this week: I popped into daily Mass Thursday, and the Mass I attended draws a fairly traditionalist crowd.  Majority in attendance receive on the tongue habitually.  Father announced that he was going to distribute the sacred host only, no chalice, on account of infection risk.  No announcement about how one may or may not receive.

When I went up to receive, sure enough, Father’s perfectly capable of giving communion on the tongue without any contact between his hand and the recipient’s body.

It’s a skill, it’s a skill that can be learned, and sadly it’s not a skill I’ve ever observed practiced among people distributing hand-to-hand.

Thus for the moment, if you have significant reasons to be concerned about catching something, your only safe bet is to only visit ministers of the Eucharist who don’t touch people’s hands or mouths (or other body parts) when they distribute communion, and who also are particular about washing their hands thoroughly before Mass and not touching germy surfaces from there on out.

I’d like to see some parishes get serious about making that happen.

I’d very like to see some dioceses get serious about putting together a plan to protect our priests from highly contagious viruses that disproportionately kill older men and especially older men with various underlying health conditions that are extremely common in the USA, while still allowing those men to carry out their God-given vocations.

#5 Back to gratitude.  Earlier this month I was one of the moderators for the Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina.  It was a ton of fun and I was thrilled to be able to do it, and considered the free lunch that came with to be all the more thanks required.  Still, the organizers not only arranged to have a Mass said in honor of each individual volunteer moderator’s intentions, they also had gift bags for us!

Mine contained this beautiful rosary, one of many prizes donated by The Catholic Company:

Blue and silver rosary with Sacred Heart medal. Blue and silver rosary with mother-and-Child medal

Which was what I’ve needed, though I didn’t realize it until I got home.

#6 The reason I need it is because ever since the death of my previous prayer partner, Rosary Dog, I’ve been struggling with getting my rosary prayed, or too often and too consistently just neglecting to pray it. So a shiny new beautiful thing half-enticed and half-guilted me into getting my act together.

It’s sorta working?

So tonight the sun was getting low in the sky and I had a chance to get out for a quick walk after supper, and grabbed that rosary and hit the road, but I woke up with a bit of a cough today and was ready to give up halfway through the Crowning with Thorns.  I know!

But then I got back to the yard and decided I’d just wander a little and maybe persevere.  I picked at a few weeds coming up in the mint, and before I knew it I’d prayed all the things and also gotten a nice fistful of greens for a rabbit I know.

Me with Miffy, a white Jersey Woolie rabbit

Photo: Me and Miffy, my new prayer-assistant.  Once you have a rabbit, your yard never looks the same again.

And that’s why I can write books on evangelization for people who hate evangelization, and I can write diatribes on shut up already and leave people alone to enjoy their Lent in peace, because I am a person whose prayer life depends largely on the presence of pets.

#7 All you holy men and women?  Pray for us.

***

Guys, I’m thrilled to be back on Seven Quick Takes, however inconsistently, because joining in reminds me to go look, and when I go look I find all kinds of good reading.  There are some super links posted this week.  Check them out.

Lenten Metaphors for Non-Gardeners

So there’s this image circulating in my diocese, which I will not publish lest I propagate weeds, that shows a seedling and a Ven. Fulton Sheen quote. It’s not a bad quote.  Here’s the latter part of it, which does not accompany the seedling:

A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

Absolutely true.  And with that conclusion attached, the beginning makes perfect sense:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.

The trouble is that if you have just the beginning portion, and also you garden, the incomplete quote is nonsense.

You have to weed.  You have to prune.  Sometimes you have to irrigate, sometimes you have to anti-irrigate. You have to mulch, and you have to rake away would-be mulch that harbors disease.  You have to select the right plants for the right micro-climate, and sometimes that means moving a plant to a better location.  Sometimes you need to thin out plants that have grown in too densely, and other times you allow a plant to fill in copiously so that it suppresses weeds.

Sometimes you want to have annuals growing in that enormous planter by the front door, but the cat keeps sleeping in the dirt and rolling on your flowers, so you have to find a little flower pot to put inside the big flower pot, so that you can have your cat and your flowers too.  Definitely a metaphor for the spiritual life, because the cats aren’t going away any time soon.

Lent means spring, and in spring we do all these things, and also we worry about cold snaps getting the plum blossoms, so . . . probably that is the only applicable Lenten metaphor that stands on its own: Quit worrying about your plums, there’s nothing you can do and anyway they always get some nasty rot in June if you do get fruit, so why do you even bother? — Attributed to St. Francis, St. Augustine, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ven. Fulton Sheen is absolutely right, the goal of weeding is so that your garden can flourish.  The goal is not to create sterile ground, free of all life.  So make sure your Lenten weeding, if that’s what your soul needs this year, is ordered towards cultivating your love of God.

The feel-good abridged version? Makes one sound like one of those ignorant types who imagines farming unskilled labor.  It is not.

Obviously you need to plant the good seed of faith or else your weeding is to no purpose.  Obviously you need to be careful in your weeding so you don’t uproot your fragile faith.

And here’s an advanced gardening tip: With enough years experience, you can start making educated decisions about what weeding to prioritize, because you understand better which weeds propagate when and how, which are most likely to cause serious problems, what times of year (or weather-week) each are easiest to root out, and which plants that seemed like weeds will actually help your garden flourish.

Thus we get to the moral of today’s rant:  If you can tell a weed of vice from the seedling of faith you are trying to cultivate, feel free to root out the vice this Lent if you so discern.

Up to you.  It’s your Lent.  To quote GK Chesterton some smart person on Catholic Twitter (not me): The Internet is not your spiritual director.

Me holding a vase with mint rooting in it.

Photo: Continuing with our photo-penance at least one more day, here’s me holding a vase with mint in it.  I was weeding the mint bed and accidentally pulled up this cutting, so I stuck it in water and let it root, and soon I’ll put it in the ground.  “Soon.”

Meanwhile, here is your deep spiritual metaphor from the garden for today: If you root mint or basil or any other easily-rooted plant on your kitchen windowsill in the summer, every few days you need to dump the glass jar, rinse it out, and thoroughly rinse the roots of the plants as well.  Otherwise you’ll have mosquitoes.*

You have to rinse even the plant roots because the mosquito larvae will stick to them.  And that is a perfect metaphor for __[fill in the blank] __.  I’m sure you can think of something. Probably related to Pentecost.  Since it’s a summer** metaphor.

 

*Unless you live someplace without mosquitoes.  If that’s you, kindly give up gloating for Lent.  We don’t want to hear about your magical land.  I bet your plums don’t rot either.  Hush.

*By “summer” we mean “when the mosquitos are.”

In Which I Offer the Reader So, So Much Penance

#1 Melanie Bettinelli’s aiming for a blog post a day during Lent, and I think I’m in.  Just as a goal, not as a penance.  I’m happier if I’m blogging.  So that’s like a good deed for my family?  Or something? We’ll see.

#2 I’m stalking my spot at the Register waiting for my rant about Lenten penances to show up.  Sooner or later it’s supposed to get there.  Meanwhile, here’s bonus content: There’s a nasty bit of contagion going around today about how the USCCB’s guidance for fasting isn’t really fasting, get it together you wimps.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the shocking world of people who can’t gain weight.  It’s a thing.  It’s an annoying thing, if you happen to be a person who is perfectly capable of storing away all kinds of emergency fuel reserves, and you must grocery shop and cook for the people whose bodies don’t do that.

I don’t have any particular difficulty fasting.  I dislike it.  I’d rather be eating.  But sure enough, unless I’m sick or pregnant or something, my body does a great job of saving up fat for future usage, and carefully doling out a ration of that stored energy if I happen to be not eating.

Not everyone’s body does that.  I live with people who have to plan, for serious, in order to get through a day doing the two little meals and the one normal meal, and yes they totally depend on the part about being able to have a glass of milk in between times.  It’s not about diet.  It’s about having a body that is wonderfully adapted to our world of abundance (unlike mine, which keeps insisting there could be a famine any minute, better stock up!), and very poorly adapted to fluctuations in food supply.

And get this: We have a priest shortage.  Thus the Church in her wisdom, rather than setting a bar ideal for the robust among us and directing those who need to do so to bother Father about a dispensation, has instead made it acheivable to do the minimum.

If you are able to do more than the minimum, I sure hope that’s what you’re doing today.  I also hope you’ve contrived to make sure it’s not so obvious what you’re up to.

#3 I used to be bothered by today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and prayers a secret, and then there we go getting ashes on our heads two minutes after. I’m over that now.

Jen Fitz, Self Portrait with Ashes on Forehead

Photo: Me with a sample of Fr. Gonzo’s latest artwork.

There’s two reasons why. The first is that the warning is about prayer and fasting, and listen guys, just because my body is in Mass doesn’t mean I’m praying, so that’s a big fat secret, and anyway how do you know I’m not spending the day having two ice cream bars and a giant plate of lasagna?  You don’t.  So I’m good.

Meanwhile . . . the thing about the ashes is that they aren’t a sign of holiness.  I’m sorry if someone got you all confused about that.  The annual application of ashes is like putting on a blanket apology to the world.  Yeah, I suck.  I know it.  Probably don’t know it enough, but I’m at least making a nod that direction?

So FYI, anyone at all can go get ashes.  If you’re wretched and you know it, Catholic Church has you covered.

#4 I’m thinking maybe I should post a selfie a day for Lent.  As penance for us all?

Ha.  Can’t decide if I’m kidding or not.

#5 Since I am no St. Therese, allow me to complain about church music for a bit.  There are two tunes that I have grown possessive about, in a case of sacredness-by-association.  Picardy, the setting for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” is the first.  Once you’ve created a link between a catchy, soulful tune and a description of the absolutely most intimate moment between creature and Creator this side of Heaven, I just can’t bear to hear the tune co-opted for other, not-so-exalted topics.  Even if the lyrics in question are otherwise unobjectionable (and sometimes they are not, but there are limits to how much I’m willing to make you suffer today), that’s a no.

The other one, and this is where we get all Lenten, is Passion Chorale.  Please.  People.  I know that it’s not Good Friday yet.  I know that you have composed many lovely meditations on Lenten spirituality that have the same meter.  I get that you are trying to make a mental connection on this path to the cross or something.  You are wrong.  Wrong! Stop it!  Give me “Oh Sacred Head Surrounded” or give me silence.  Or a different tune, same meter, that’ll be fine.  There’s nothing wrong with your little Lenty-chit-chat dog ear poetry. But hands off Passion Chorale.  It’s taken.

#6 My husband wishes I would show up at church this evening to hear a rendition of this absolutely awesome music:

But here is the truth about me. This other little chant, which the cantor sung at Mass earlier today, was like getting a late Valentine:

One of my favorite songs.  I only know the chorus, and every year I mean to fix that, and maybe one day I will.  But it sure was easy to keep my Lenten smiley face up, just like Jesus says, with that for our ash-walk music.

Life is good.

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.

File:Lego Color Bricks.jpg

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.

File:Bataille Waterloo 1815 reconstitution 2011 cuirassier.jpg

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.