Of gorillas, control, and swiping left

At the Cincinnati Zoo, a four-year-old boy snatched his hand away from his mother, spurted through the crowd, defeated four separate barriers, and then, horribly, plunged into a pit with a giant gorilla, a silverback. The gorilla picked the kid up and started to drag him away. The zoo knew that a tranquilizer would take too long to stop the 400-pound creature, and experts agree he was very likely to kill the child — so they shot the gorilla dead. The boy was rescued.

You know, or can guess, what the internet, foolish, bloodthirsty, and foul, had to say. There are already too many boys, anyway, and not enough gorillas. Darwin wins. Now let’s shoot the parents. And so on.

And then, from those who don’t openly despise children, but who still think the mother (not the father; he gets a trophy just for putting pants on) was clearly to blame:

The parents should never have brought the kid to a dangerous place like the zoo.
The only safe way is to have one adult caregiver for every child.
You should never take your eyes off your child for even one second during any activity for any reason.
She should have trained her kid better.
She should have known what he was going to do.

She should have tried harder.
She was clearly, outrageously neglectful. She was on her phone; she was overwhelmed by too many children; she loved photo ops more than her own baby.
She is clearly a horrible parent in every way. We demand that CPS investigate that home.

Angry mobs aren’t new. It’s an old, old story that fear leads to anger, especially when children are involved.

Understandably, we are all afraid — especially we parents. We love our kids so much, and the world is so fraught with peril. We want to believe that a horror like this could never happen to us. When we turn on the news, and we picture it happening to our own little, sweet ones, we always imagine what we would have done instead — conveniently forgetting that each of us, including sinless Mary and perfect Jesus, will eventually fall into improbable, dangerous situations with kids.

We would have held on tighter, we tell ourselves. We would have trained the kid better. We would have reacted sooner. We never would have been in what we would have recognized as an obviously dangerous situation in the first place, because we’re not like that. We’re good parents, and good parents have safe kids. So my kid will be safe as soon as I figure out how this mom was at fault.

We tell ourselves “I would have done better” because we want to assuage our own fear. It’s not noble, but it’s understandable.

But there is another, more sinister phenomenon playing out here . . . and I’m going to call it “the contraceptive mentality.”

Wait, come back! I know how that phrase is misused. It’s misused to mean “avoiding pregnancy without sobbing in anguish over the missed opportunity to create an immortal soul.” It’s used to mean “My sister claims she’s too poor to have a baby this year, and yet she has a working telephone.” It’s used to mean, “These folks in the pew behind us are technically obeying the Church, but I don’t like it, so I think they’re cheating, and I’m going to go ahead and call it a mortal sin.”

The phrase “contraceptive mentality” has lately been tortured into a combination of scrupulosity and nonsense. But John Paul II, when he coined the phrase, put his finger on a dreadful truth, first in Familiaris Consortio in 1981, and then in Evangelium Vitae in 1995.

If you read his words in context, you’ll see that he’s definitely not talking about NFP, and he’s not even talking only about contraception. He’s talking about an approach to human life in general. He says that the “negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality'” lead you to do terrible things. What kind of things?

Abortion, for one, when your contraception fails. The Guttmacher Institute (which is Planned Parenthood) says:

Fifty-one percent of abortion patients had used a contraceptive method in the month they got pregnant.

So if you’re already using contraception and a baby slipped through into existence anyway, chances are very good that you’ll just go ahead and shove it back, unmake it. Burn, scrape, chop, slice, crush, suck, whatever it takes — because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. You did everything right: you used a condom, you went on the pill or the patch or got a coil or an implant or a little copper T. You were responsible. You were “safe.” You took control, so there’s no reason you should be having a baby right now. And so  . . . you don’t. Get out, baby. I have a right not to bear you, because I was in charge, and they told me I had every right not to expect you. It’s only fair.

This is what happens when we tell ourselves it’s possible to be completely in control of life. This is what we get when we wire up our relationships like an impartial power switch: on or off, and it’s up to us which way to flick it. Swipe right if you accept the existence of another human being, swipe left if you don’t. You bought the app; you’re in control.

You’re in control.

You’re in control.

This is what the world desperately wants us to believe.

And once it becomes obvious that we’re not in control — well, there are ways of dealing with that, too. Suddenly you find yourself considering the thing that once would have seemed ugly, horrendous, beneath you. Because what else can you do? Divorce. Euthanasia. Eugenics. Slavery. Ethnic cleansing. Even date rape: you believe you’re in control, and when it turns out you’re simply meeting with another human being who has other ideas, you go ahead and take what’s yours anyway, because dammit, you were supposed to be in control. It’s only fair.

You allow yourself to do these things because you told yourself you were in control of life and death, and you behaved as if you were — and then life finds a way of showing you that you are not in control. Never were.

So here you are, out of control, and suddenly your choice dwindles to only one reasonable thing: kill. Get rid of it, whatever it is, whatever you never signed up for. You choose extinction. Extermination. Do not want. Abort. Unvow. Unplug. Unmake a human being. Swipe left.

Life means risk. Life means danger. Life means hard work, and life means that you still won’t be able to anticipate everything that might happen. Weird things happen. Terrible things happen. Astonishing things happen. We fail. We betray each other, we are eaten up with disease, we fall apart. We let our little children plunge into the pit. This is what life is like. It’s not fair!

This is why it was called original sin: because the snake told us, long ago, that we could be in control, but the snake knew that we could not be in control. The snake knew that, once we realize what we have done, we will always choose to blame someone else, always choose death for someone else. It’s an inverse, a parody of the Incarnation: given the chance, having eaten the fruit, we will always refuse to carry our cross, so that others may have death eternal.

Life says, “Be it done to me.” Control says, “Do it to Julia.”

You never will be completely in control, and if you don’t make yourself accept this fact, then you are perfectly primed to snatch control anyway by unmaking another human being. And when you do it, you will not be stronger. You will not be in charge. You will just become fodder for that insatiable mouth who first told you that damnable lie — the lie that you can be in control.

“Adam and Eve Swipe Left” image by Natalie Coombs


We honor the dead with hope for the future

When’s the last time you read the Gettysburg Address? It’s the best reading I’ve found to answer the complex emotions of Memorial Day.

In this compact speech, Lincoln looks back at the country’s founding, and then he looks around at the rubble and the blood-soaked ground of his present. He is there to honor those who have died, and to honor the families still alive, mourning.

And then, after he looks back at the past and acknowledges the present, he does something extraordinary: he looks forward. He says,

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That’s where we are now. We’re standing on a battlefield. This election has revealed that we’re engaged in the most dreadful thing a country can do: fighting itself. In the literal Civil War, it was obvious that that’s what we were doing. Now we are being told that liberty means the freedom to choose between would-be tyrants. If my child were interested in joining the military, what would I say? Could we trust any candidate to value their lives even a little bit? Is there any grounds for hope for our country?

When we look to the past, and when we survey the present, it’s hard to do anything but grieve — for the unthinkably many lives lost, and for the honor and majesty slipping away from our nation.

But we can hear the Gettysburg Address and take courage. We can see the struggle and grief of our country, wrestling with itself as it now is, and we can look forward. We must look forward. If our ancestors could recover from the fearful, shameful bloodshed of the Civil War, then we can recover from the strife and division we’re enduring now. Those of us who still love the Constitution are the living whom Lincoln is exhorting. We’re the ones who understand that our country is faltering, it’s struggling, it’s wounded — but it’s not over yet. It is still, as Lincoln said, “unfinished work.” And when a project is still unfinished, then there is still hope.

This country is unfinished work. The battle isn’t over yet. If we are here to honor the dead, then we must look forward. We pray for the souls of the dead. We humbly thank their families. And we honor them by redoubling our faith and hope for the future of this country that we all love.



Image: Sunrise over Shiloh National Cemetery by Shiloh National Military Parks by (license)
This essay is a modified excerpt of a post that ran at the National Catholic Register in 2013.

What’s for supper? Vol. 37: Rasputin Chicken and Sappho and a Half-o

[img attachment=”98244″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”whats for supper aleteia” /]

Before we launch into this week’s menu, I have a question: What do you do with a microwave? I finally bought one the other week, mainly so my husband and daughter can heat up dinner when they get home late. But other than that, we are definitely not fully exploiting it. The kids are trying really hard, kind of like this:

They are, like, putting a piece of bread in until it is hot, and then they take it out and butter it. I bought some microwave popcorn because I wanted to be loved, and it worked. But what else? Main courses, side dishes, snacks, desserts, science projects?

Here’s what we ate this week:

French dip roast beef sandwiches, baked potatoes

Deli roast beef is 40 million dollars a pound, but big cuts of beef were on sale. My husband seasoned and cooked it up in some way and sliced it thin, while I fried up a bunch of mushrooms and onions. When the meat was done, I put the drippings in a pot and added a few cups of beef broth and a few glugs of Worcestershire sauce, then ground in some fresh pepper, and let it simmer for about half an hour.

We piled the meat and onions and mushrooms on onion rolls with some bottled horseradish sauce and slices of provolone, and put them under the broiler until the cheese melted, then served the sandwiches with dill pickles and the jus (which was also wonderful on the baked potatoes) on the side.

[img attachment=”104475″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”roast beef sandwich” /]

A very fine meal! And the baby now says “provolone.”


Filipino Pork Shish Kebab, grilled sweet peppers, fried plantains, papaya

The theme of this meal was “Down South America Way.”

The marinade for the shish kebab, I made the night before, using this Filipino recipe. I forget which ingredient did it, but at some point, a nice inert bowl of marinade (garlic, soy sauce, lime juice, ketchup, ginger ale, brown sugar, sea salt, and pepper) turns into a third grade science fair foaming volcano. Whoopee! So use a bigger bowl than you think you need.

We were too exhausted to drag the tarp of the grill, so I put the shish kebabs under the broiler indoors. The flavor was nice, but the meat was dry. Boo. Yes, I soaked the skewers in water beforehand.

I guess the friend plantain recipe I used is Puerto Rican style. Boy, that does not . . . sound right. I mean, I know you can say that, but what do I call it?

I had green plantains, so I sliced them into thick sections, fried them in a few inches of medium-hot oil, fished them out, squashed them flat, and then fried them some more until they were crisp. I was delighted to see that the hot oil transformed them from a dull greenish gray to a crazy bright, almost neon yellow.

[img attachment=”104476″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”fried plantains frying” /]

I sprinkled them with sea salt, and the kids dipped them in ketchup. They were quite starchy, like a cross between potato and butternut squash, but they were tasty. Not sure if I will make them again, but at least now I know what they taste like.

I also had this giant papaya, which turned out to be not quite ripe. Gorgeous, though.

[img attachment=”104477″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”papaya split” /]

Geesh, look at that. Georgia O’Keefe, call your office! I call this one “Sappho and a Half-o.”

[img attachment=”104479″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”papaya seedless” /]

The whole meal was a little weird, but very bright and pretty.

[img attachment=”104482″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”pork shishkebab fried plantains” /]


French toast casserole, sausages

All the sammiches we’ve been having lately means there’s tons of old bread, so out comes the french toast casserole recipe again. Somehow I still made way too much egg mixture, which gave it a kind of baked custard taste. No complaints from me.


Hamburgers, chips, sautéed asparagus

This is the first time I’ve sautéed asparagus, rather than steaming it. I just used olive oil, nothing else. Excellent! Definitely using this method from now on.


Chicken Not-So Nachos, guacamole

Wednesday really hammered home how important it is to do at least a little bit of meal prep early in the day. Wednesday was here to tell me, “Do not start cooking dinner at 5:30, and do not take a long break in between to harangue the kids about what kind of person it makes you to just throw boxes in the corner, rather than breaking them down and putting them in the basket. This room is my work space, do you understand? I know you don’t think twice about it when I put a hot meal in front of you every day, but at least your own self-interest should dictate that you’d get your food faster if I didn’t have to be wading through garbage in my work space! and so on.”

You’re thinking, “She’s lost track of her quotation marks, there,” but I haven’t.

And finally, Wednesday gave me  . . . Rasputin Chicken.

Let me back up. I had this idea of poaching chicken thighs, shredding them in the standing mixer, and making some nice nacho trays. Instead, I discovered that Wednesday was only 11 minutes along, and as soon as I finished putting on deodorant, it was time to make dinner. I somehow thought it would be faster to roll the chicken in seasoning and fry them. After a good 25 minutes of frying some not-very-large thighs, I realized that I had  . . . Rasputin Chicken, which is chicken that will.not.cook. You fry it, you bake it, you broil it, you crank up the heat and bake it some more, you drown it, you shoot it, you douse it with water and stir it with a stick, and look at that! The joints are still all bloody.

Finally, after wading through garbage and pausing to harangue the kids, you drag the evil chicken out onto a tray, throw some cold, bagged cheese at your hangdog family, and everyone sits around gnawing at the bones and nervously making puns about not-so-nachos.

And I made some terrible, salty guacamole.

Hey, screw you, Wednesday.



I’m actually writing this on Thursday, and haven’t made the pizzas yet. Like Mr. Incredible, I’ve still got time! I just need to learn to be a little more . . . flexible.




It occurs to me that someone is surely going to say, “Why didn’t you just put the silly chicken that wouldn’t cook into the microwave?” There is a good reason for that. The reason is that it did not occur to me until this very moment. Dammit.


The heron

There is a pond by the highway.
In the fall, the water goes dark and glassy as the sediment sinks. The turtles burrow into their mud, and the trees that ring the water ignite in adamant orange, purple, red, and yellow before they are stripped by the coming cold. Then the frost takes charge, and the pond grows more and more opaque as it accepts load after load of ice and snow. Trees slowly topple off the bluff and are frozen in the act. Tracks appear, but only at night when no one can see who makes them.
Months pass, and then the first thaw shows itself in neuron-shaped blotches on ice. Once, I saw the tracks of a rabbit who dashed straight to a thin spot, straight to his death.
The water moves, and then the ice gives in and the rocks are engulfed in the exuberant gush of melting snow. When the flood runs out, the reeds come up, and then the lilies. They flourish. The fish and frogs disturb the surface of the water, keeping it rippling as they feed; and then the heron returns.
He’s a foolish bird, who looks like every other heron that ever existed. His face is blank and stylized, just barely avoiding idiocy by good design. His nobility is all exterior, like the nobility of good architecture. It’s all about balance and proportion. Its immobility is essential.
I drove past, once, in the pouring rain, and the stupid creature stood there still on his rock, blank and thoughtless, accepting his fate. Why should he come in out of the rain? In a shelter, he’d still just be a heron, and why does a heron need to be dry? What difference does it make? He knew that it would pass.
We are not so well designed as the heron in his unthinking immobility, his unthinkable nobility. Every season that comes, every painful gush and ebb, every punishing frost and every deadly thaw, we run to shield ourselves from the downpour.  We leave terrified tracks, like the rabbit. We burn and wither like the maples. And we return in the spring, rising back to life, returning to health, rippling the water, raising our heads up above the flood. We flourish.
I know it will pass.

Parents of teens: You need to see this

Behold: phonetic descriptions of annoying sounds teenagers make. Deadpan, dead on, drop dead hilarious.

Here’s the accompanying written analysis by James Harbeck, the fellow in this video from 2013.

To my parents and high school teachers: I’m very, very sorry.

To my kids: I love you, and YES, I’m laughing at you. Go ahead and give me that glottal stop with reduced mid central unrounded vowel followed by long glottal fricative. I can take it. I have four teenagers. I am made of steel.


The Woman Who Took Everything Personally: Garden Edition

Here’s how you do it. First, you decide to live in a place where the soil is 78% soccer ball-sized rocks with paltry little swaths of dirt in between. Then you crank the climate way down to supidsville, so it may be Memorial Day, but you’re still squinting wrathfully at the sky and thinking, “Yep, that’s definitely a snow cloud.” You consider burning the dog for fuel. Nothing personal; it just really, really hurts to pay for heating oil in May.

This in itself should make gardening miserable enough. But if you really want to reap sorrow and lamentations as you bring forth flowers into the world, then I cannot recommend highly enough the following technique.

Take it personally. All of it!

Above is a little diagram of one of my little flower beds, which also doubles neatly as a functional map of my psyche. Every single thing that grows tells you something about me, and all of it is stupid.

That lilac tree is a sehnsucht-laden bearer of my youthful memories of this other lilac tree we used to have, alas. I wait in agony for the blossoms to open so I can smell them, thinking all the time about how quickly they will fade, alas alas.

The day lilies come up on their own, and spread like crazy, and I have to rip them out to make way for other flowers, because life is like that. Not even flowers will be allowed to flourish where they will. Death will always have his portion, and I will be his agent. Sheesh, Death.

The purple bushy stuff and the white bushy stuff, I bought on clearance, where the heartless Home Depot generation stopped bothering to water it just because it had already bloomed for the season. Can you believe that? A nice, decent flower, with so much growth left in it, just shoved aside before it’s even fully passed. Just because a flower is forty-one years old and maybe has a double chin and big arms and can’t stay awake through movies, they stop watering it, and nobody even cards it at the liquor store anymore, but this is not right! It’s not right! It’s . . . it’s just not right.

[img attachment=”104044″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”purple thing” /]

The poppies, I bought out of rage. The only thing that would have made me happier is if they had cost five times as much, because that would be just like them. Freaking poppies. I have been trying to grow poppies all my life, because they are so lovely, and I’ve never gotten so much as a single glossy petal or even an inch or two of hairy, snakelike stem. So here I go, freaking buying freaking poppies, and I HOPE THEY ALL DIE. Freaking poppies. *sob*

The daisies, I dug up from another part of the yard and chunked into my garden because the cruel mower was headed for their sweet heads. If that isn’t just like a man, humph. You stick with me, daisies. We’ll start a book club together, you and me, and you can chip in for the rent once your candle business gets off the ground. I understand.

The roses, I picked up last year at Aldi because they were on sale. I don’t even like roses, but what could I do? They were on sale. And wouldn’t you know it, they survived the winter and they’re doing fine. Thanks a lot, Aldi. By the way, your three bean salad stinks. I rate it two beans at best.

The various plants marked “??” are things that I don’t dare to weed because I can never remember if they are anything or not, because I’m an idiot.

And then there’s this beauty:

[img attachment=”104043″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”orange thing” /]

Oh, yeah, this is going to be great, I can tell already. Huge masses of fragrant, glowing blossoms will definitely ignite the senses in the fall, kindling hope anew in hearts that were beginning to falter. Totally. Yeah, I have super high hopes that we’ll see a real turnaround with this particular item.

And one more thing: did you notice that none of this was grown from seed? That’s because I stink! I stink! I didn’t even smell the lilacs today, because I stink!

In conclusion: at least Google knows what I’m talking about.

[img attachment=”104046″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 11.29.56 AM” /]