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Pro-Lifers Should Offer Help and Hope Along with Undercover Videos

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Many Americans call themselves pro-choice, but are uncomfortable with unlimited abortion on demand, and these videos could help tip the balance in their hearts. But even as we hope and pray that the videos accomplish this conversion, let’s not forget another large population of Americans, whose hearts matter just as much: the population of women who have had abortions.

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Read the rest at the Register.

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How Mel Brooks saved my life

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Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.

Imm’s complaint is that Mel Brooks’ The Producers makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust.  As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”

It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes — especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.

Kathy Shaidle skewers Imm for his stupid protest, but then flashes her alien ID, saying:

Imm, in his own flaky fashion, is onto something. It’s not that those topics aren’t funny.

It’s that Mel Brooks isn’t funny.

This aggression will not stand, man.

I agree that Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his love and devotion for his targets (including in High Anxiety —inexcusably missing from Shaidle’s list of Brooks hits) are the heart and soul of his funniest movies. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love.

Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and his exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.

Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.

Shaidle says:

Brooks always counters anti-Producers critics (no, Imm isn’t the first) by pointing out the obvious: that he was making fun of Hitler.

But what’s brave about that? Hitler managed to look pretty stupid without much help, and when it mattered, neither The Great Dictator nor (the far superior) That Nazty Nuisance accomplished sweet eff-all.

Well, he wasn’t just “making fun of Hitler” (and I don’t believe that Brooks considered himself “brave” for making The Producers, anyway). At the risk of overanalyzing humor, which is the worst thing that anyone can do ever, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler. He subsumes him.

This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win.  People gotta do what they gotta do, and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn.

I don’t mean to crap things up by getting too analytical, but it’s hard to ignore: we’reall producers, and the worst mistake we can make is not to realize what kind of show we’re putting on.  In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what saves us from succumbing to them.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers  (they’re “world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.

The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else: The audience is full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader looks the Nazis straight in the eye, and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on her chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.

The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!

Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. Too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. Part of the reason for that is because, of all things, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie — we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband —  but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and things getting worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.

So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.

So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room. I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

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Expose your kids to art! (Or vice versa)

Expose your children to art! Or vice versa.

Portrait of a youth who stopped and looked closely at a work of fine art. This is a win.

The other week, we visited the Worcester Art Museum in MA. I heartily recommend it if you’re in the area (and it’s free all through August!). They had a world class collection with tons of variety, from pre-Columbian art to this guy; it was quite kid friendly (a docent in the armor display helped the kids try on helmets and gauntlets), the docents were genial and well-informed, and they had the exhibits arranged well to really help you see them. We saw everything in about three hours, and had time to go back and look at our favorite rooms.  Looks like they have a pleasant cafe and a bunch of programs, classes, and demonstrations, too.

About what happened in the photo above, I take full responsibility. I’ve been reading them Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad and he got kind of hung up on Helen of the Fair Cheeks.

Of the Fair Cheeks.

I’m just glad he didn’t notice what was going on on the B side of some of those Grecian urns. Whoo-ee!

Anyway, we had such a good time that I want to encourage everyone to bring your kids to an art museum this summer, even if you don’t think of yourself as one of those high culture families. If you’re in New England, don’t forget about Free Fridays (which includes art museums and lots of other fun stuff).

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, on that topic of why adults sometimes struggle with visiting art museums, and how kids can show us how to do it better. For more reading on this topic, check out “Introducing Children to Art” by an actual artist, John Herreid, who is raising three hilariously arty kids.

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Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Holy Grail is being snatched again by the bad guys?  Indy cries out in righteous indignation:  “That belongs in a museum!”  I love me some Indiana Jones, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this line was not meant ironically.  This really is the highest compliment that Americans can pay to an object of beauty and worth:  that it belongs in a museum.  I heard someone say the exact same thing in real life, when our college group first stepped out into one of the teeming, sun-drenched piazzas in Rome.  There was a magnificent fountain in the middle of the square, featuring a sculpture carved by one of the giants of Western art.  And people were sitting on it, and smoking, and drinking terrible wine, and flirting with each other, trying to sell socks out of a duffle bag, and generally acting like this timeless piece of art was theirs.  Almost tearful with outrage, the fellow cried out, “That should be in a museum!”

He meant that it ought to be protected from the elements, and also from bird droppings and graffiti and vandals.  But he also meant that it ought to be tucked away indoors, where the lighting could be controlled, where people would speak in hushed tones as they file past in reverence — where only the select few, acting in a very select way, would see it, and no one would get comfortable with it.  And there, he was disastrously wrong.

Art museums are necessary because they are the most convenient way to preserve and share works of art which would otherwise be tucked away in the private homes of the very wealthy.  But there is always the danger of museumishness taking over the work of art — making us forget why the artist made the piece in the first place.  It’s a relatively new idea that art is here to “challenge” us, to jar us out of whatever cultural sin is currently considered intolerable.  Instead, the great artists of every century have all said one thing:  “I see something!  You come and see it, too!  Do you see?”

Well, that’s a pretty big topic.  But in this little post, I can say that the problem with putting something in a museum is that it tends to give the impression that the question, “Do you see it, too?” is already answered.  We feel like we have to stroke our chins gravely and say, “Yes, yes, of course I see,” whether we do or not, because there it is, in a museum.  It must be Real Art. No wonder so many people have an aversion to art.  They think they’re expected to respond like highly educated robots when the encounter it.

What’s the cure for a case of Stifling Museumishness?  Take your kids to the museum with you . . . and do what they do.

Oh, listen, if your kids are awful, please don’t take them to a museum.  If they can’t be controlled, don’t take them.  If they can’t tell the difference between indoors and outdoors, and if they don’t obey you, and if otherwise kind people groan audibly when they see your family coming, then by all means, stay home.

But many parents underestimate how responsive their kids will be to good art.  Kids in art museums will often behave in a way that is not only tolerable, but which the adult patrons should imitate.

Kids do not talk in whispers, as if they are at the bedside of a dying tyrant.  Why do we whisper in front of art?  We shouldn’t speak loudly, to distract other patrons; but a normal, conversational tone of voice is completely appropriate.  Talking about what you’re seeing isn’t rude!  It’s a natural thing to do, and makes the experience so much more rewarding, when you hear other people’s takes on what you’re seeing. I also like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations — so sue me.

Kids do not pretend to like things they don’t like.  It’s one thing to have an open mind; it’s quite another to be a sucker. Many museums have extensive collections in the ever-popular genre of Egregious Crapola, and sometimes it really is only kids who are willing to point this out.  Many adults have been duped into giving up on beauty; most kids have not.  (But really, each kid is allowed to say, “I could have done that in ten minutes with a gallon of housepaint and a stick!” one time, and then they’re done.  This comment may or may not be true, but it gets old fast.)

Kids are also remarkably open to admitting that there is more than meets the eye.  They may shrug or grimace in front of a wonderful piece, but they are usually ready to listen if you point out, “No, look at how the light shines through that leaf!” or “See how realistic her hand looks — but get closer, and it’s just a bunch of paint” or “But why do you think this guy on the side has that look on his face?” or “Holy mackerel, what is this?!?”

Kids laugh at paintings – not only ones that look ridiculous, but ones which are meant to be funny.  There is nothing sillier than a bunch of adults gravely appreciating the finer points of a work of art which is supposed to be hilarious.

Kids do not suffer from appreciation anxiety.  Some adults who feel insecure in their grasp of art may spend their entire museum time wondering how obvious their lack of expertise is.  Well, that’s no way get to be more of an expert!  Kids don’t think about how they appear to others; they just look at the art.

Kids do not waste their time looking at exhibits that don’t interest them, out of a sense of duty or thrift.  They will keep circling back to take another look at that one room or one piece they really like, and that is a much more natural response than trying to “do” the whole museum just because it’s there.

Okay, yes, and some kids will go berserk and behave like little demons, while their fond parents look on and do nothing. Or if you have a generally decent child who is temporarily going through a highly unreasonably, ridiculously loud stage, then this is probably not the best time to work on enhancing their cultural education. But really, if your kids are generally the non-demonic, non-berserker types, consider taking them to a small museum next time you have a chance.  Wear comfortable clothes, discuss expectations ahead of time, plan a small treat for afterwards, and just relax.  You will probably have a lovely time!
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A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2013.

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On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses)

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Want to complain about NFP? Far be it from me to stop you! You could even go ahead and write a whole book about how hard NFP can be, and see where that gets you. (Psst, it’s still on sale! $5 paperback, $2.99 eb0ok)
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Couples who are struggling are very grateful to hear that they’re not the only ones who hate NFP. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, not only are you having a miserable time, but you’re the only ones who aren’t lovin’ every minute of it.
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Happily, the conversation about NFP has been slowly, steadily becoming more realistic, and fewer NFP promoters are resorting to sunshine-’n’-buttercups tactics as they sell NFP. Instead, we’re seeing more frank and honest discussions of the what NFP can (but won’t necessarily automatically) do for your marriage. (See a great reading list at the end of this post.) Honesty may  not be the most immediately attractive approach, but in the long run, it’s more helpful.
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However! There’s such a thing as too much honesty — or, rather, there’s such a thing as misleading honesty, honesty that is one-sided, incomplete, or even dishonest.
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Here are a few of the things I try to achieve when I talk about NFP, along with just being honest:
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1. NO CROSS-COMPARING.
I try not to make it seem like only couples who struggle are couples who are doing it right. I used to do this, and I’m sorry about that!  It’s kind of like the “real women have curves” sloganeering. Well, I’m a real woman, and I have curves; but I have skinny friends, and they are real women, too. Let’s not overcompensate and end up insulting people who simply have a different cross from our own.
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If those of us who really struggle with NFP are going to plead for or demand more sympathy and understanding from people who find it a light cross at worst, we should extend the same courtesy to people who are bearing up well under the cross of NFP. We shouldn’t imply, even jokingly, that couples who like NFP are probably just some kind of low-drive tea bags in the bedroom. Comparing crosses, and taking jabs at people with other crosses than your own, is a shitty game. Talk about missing the point.
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2. NO FALSE HOPES
I try to make it clear that, while Catholics can certainly improve the way they deliverthe Church’s teaching about sexuality, the Church is not going to change her teaching about sexualityIt’s one thing to say, “I feel comforted when someone in the Church recognizes that this is a hard teaching.” It’s quite another to say, “I feel comforted to think that the Church is getting closer to fixing this unreasonable demand she makes on us.” Certain things are simply not in flux.
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If we’d like an acknowledgement from the bishops or from the local marriage prep teacher that NFP is sometimes nothing but a cross for couples, then I agree with you. NFP is “challenging” in the same way that unmedicated childbirth gives you “discomfort.”  But let’s not encourage people to hope for some kind of change in the Church’s teaching. I know that as long as I was hoping for that, I was unable to look suffering in the face. Which is a bad thing.
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Which brings me to my third point:
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3. NO INSISTING ON HUMAN STANDARDS 
When we are avoiding or postponing pregnancy, we don’t use NFP primarily because of its magical marriage-building properties! We use NFP because it allows us to have sex sometimes instead of never. We’d be smart to pursue any benefits that we can, but they are not why we reject contraception. We reject contraception primarily because it is immoral, and we can thank the Holy Spirit if rejecting contraception also brings us various goods, like better physical health or better relationships with our spouses and with God.
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NFP is not necessarily going to “hurt so good,” with measurable payoffs for the ordeal. It might just plain hurt, without any discernible benefits or rewards, because of original sin. When we preach solely about the rewards of NFP — even hard-to-achieve spiritual rewards — and never talk about our duty to reject sin, we imply that suffering is only worthwhile when it has some immediate and obvious purpose, goal, or benefit, such as “marriage building,” or making couples happy or fulfilled, or giving life, or making our spiritual life more fulfilling. Is this what suffering is really like, though?
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Not that I’ve noticed. When Jesus was on the cross, I’m pretty sure that everyone around Him experienced His sacrifice as nothing but a cruel, senseless, loss. He had only been in public ministry for a few years, and now it was ending already, and they were all losing a teacher, a savior, a friend, a son — not to mention that they were seeing Him in pain and disgrace, and were all in danger of being arrested just for knowing Him. Plenty of people saw what was happening and ran away and lost their faith. There was nothing happy or fulfilling life-giving in sight with that sacrifice. I am quite sure it seemed senseless and intolerable — probably, if we listen to His words, even to Christ Himself.
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Oh my gosh, what a downer, right? But really, it’s a trap to use human standards (“Is this making me happy? Is this making life better? Does everyone around me agree that this makes sense? Does it seem like I’m making progress?”) to make judgments about what kind of suffering is tolerable. When we do this, then really serious suffering, the kind that doesn’t make sense, will seem like a sign that something is wrong — that something has to change, that we deserve a pass of some kind (see point #2).
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If we look at a crucifix, suffering may or may not make sense, but at least we can’t claim that God couldn’t possibly expect us to choose that path just because of religion.  Look to Him. Look at Him. See Him hanging there, abandoned. Sometimes there is no answer — not for you, not right now. That’s not a good reason to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in redemptive suffering. It’s just that I no longer expect it to feel redemptive.
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For further reading, do yourself a favor and check out the invaluable Jen Fitz’s series:
What Is the Point of Pointless Suffering?
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I want to be Jen Fitz when I grow up!
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And also don’t miss Greg Popcak’s helpful advice specifically about NFP in his series from this year:
and a good reminder to those of us with big families that hyperfertility is a cross, but it’s not the only cross, so watch your words.
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What can American parents learn from a doll?

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In wealthy, progressive Seattle, polio vaccination rates are lower than in Rwanda. Parents in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen are doing more to protect their children from this crippling and often deadly disease than some American parents.

This dangerous trend is due, in part, to historical amnesia. There are fewer and fewer people around who remember the devastation of the polio epidemics of the late 1940′s and early 50′s.  Between 19445 and 1949, something like 20,000 American contracted polio. In 1952, there were 58,000 cases. Ten of thousands of American were paralyzed; many died. The nation was terrified, and rightly so.

Read the rest at the Register.

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