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Lenten Rookie Mistakes

[This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, in the National Catholic Registerin February of 2013.]

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PIC ashes on forehead

 

I feel like I can’t walk ten feet without bumping into an enthusiastic new convert, which is delightful, and so encouraging!  Welcome, everybody!  We papists have a little saying:  Venite intus; horribilis est! 

Heh.  Anyway, you may be looking forward to your first Lent with enthusiasm but some trepidation.  If so, you’re ahead of the game:  it should be something to get excited about.  Lent can be a wonderful source of grace.  But as such, it can be a real mine field of screw-ups, especially for rookies.  Here are some typical rookie mistakes during Lent:

Giving Up All The Things!!!  Don’t forget:  even though it’s Lent, you still have to live the rest of your life.  So it’s probably not wise to take on such a complicated set of obligations and observances that you will need to hire a monk to follow you around, reminding you that you have exactly four minutes to make supper or earn a living before you’re due for your next spiritual reading, or  to pray anther five decades of the rosary, volunteer another half hour at the soup kitchen, say a blessing before, during, and after sneezing, and put a fresh set of dried peas in your shoes, all on four hours of sleep without a pillow and after a breakfast consisting of half a prune.  Just pick one or two things that you can reasonably stick with, or you will burn out and/or drop dead.

Giving up the thing that makes you bearable  Lent is about you doing sacrifices, not making everybody else suffer while they endure your enduring your sacrifice.  If your family sits you down 48 hours into Lent and presents you with a court order demanding that you start smoking or drinking coffee again, then have mercy and listen to them.

Leaving Loopholes As I’m prone to explain shoutily to my lazy, rotten kids, “That’s not cleaning, that’s just moving the mess around!”  You’re not allowed to tidy up your bed by shoving all your junk under the bed.  In the same way, it doesn’t really benefit you much to give up Facebook if you’re suddenly going to become a champion-level Twitterer.  Or if you gave up chocolate, you get no points for diving head first into a vat of caramel.  Substituting toothpicks for cigarettes, or water for beer, is a real penance; substituting YouTube for Netflix, not so much.

Waiting until the last minute for confession  You may think you’re getting the most out of your Lenten Experience by doing one final purge during Holy Week.  This is a horrible mistake.  Unless you want to be on line forever and ever, or unless your priest shows signs that he would like some extra penance by being in that box morning, noon, and night, do try to get to confession before the last minute!  Ideally, you should get to confession more than once during Lent, anyway.  And of course, if you haven’t gotten around to it, later is better than never.  But be aware that many priests do not hear confessions on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  There’s some dispute over whether or not they’re permitted to hear confessions on those days; but for many overworked priests, there’s simply no time, with all the preparations they must make for the Triduum.

Getting cute about it  The standard observations are standard for a reason.  I know it’s fun to be creative, but it’s kind of obnoxious to give up — I don’t know, adjectives, or clothes that match, or foods with the letter “r” in them.  It might actually work out to be a difficult penance, but come on.   No need to reinvent the wheel.  If you’re a naturally creative person, consider it your penance to bow to the ordinary, and do what everyone else is doing for once.

Getting overly somber about it Yes, it’s a penitential season, when we focus, like no other time of year, on the ugliness of sin, and on the suffering and sorrows Our Lord took on for our sake.  It makes perfect sense to curtail parties and frivolities until after Lent (it’s only 40 days!), and to make our daily lives take on a penitential tone which is unmistakably different from the rest of the year.  But that doesn’t mean you need to quit smiling, or that we can’t enjoy being with friends and family, or listening to the first robin sing.  We’re not Calvinists or Jansenists or any other “ist” that makes us quit being human.

Not getting back on that horse  If you fail, that doesn’t mean you’ve picked the wrong penance, or that you’re incapable of doing penance.  It means you’re a human being.  Duh.  That’s why we need Lent.  Yes, you can back away from penances that turn out to be really disastrous; but don’t quit just because you fail.  God likes it when we try to become holier, but He loves it when we mess up, repent, and try again.  As Jen Fulwiler has pointed out, Lent really starts about halfway through, when the novelty has worn off and you still have to keep on sticking with your dumb old, boring old, purifying old penance.

After reading this list of don’t and more don’ts, do you feel a little taken aback — a little less confident about your powers to turn yourself into a better person?  Are you starting to think that there’s really no way you can make up for your sins on your own, and that you’re going to need ten boatloads of grace from the Holy Spirit to even get through the day, much less forty days straight?

Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere.

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Where Be Story Editor?

Roland Joffé’s new movie, There Be Dragons, is about half a good movie.  What is good is so good that it makes the bad parts doubly frustrating.

Let’s start with the good.  The best part was, happily, Charlie Cox, who plays Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva.  Knowing very little about the actual man, I had none of the mental baggage that can trouble a fan (“That’s not how I pictured Mr. Tumnus!”).  The Fr. Josemaria he portrays is a strong, happy, humorous man who is not like other men.  When he commands a room with quiet authority, you feel it.  Despite the drama that surrounds him, his actions are not hammy or melodramatic.  You care about him, and want him to succeed.  When he learns to love everyone he meets, you believe it, and you feel glad that you met him, even if only on screen through an actor.  There are several original and memorable scenes which demonstrate the humanity, holiness, and appeal of the man.

When he’s not on screen, however, the movie is kind of a mess.  The first half hour or so is so cluttered with flashbacks, flash forwards, voice overs, text explanations, and a panoply of cinematic hokeyness, it’s a struggle just to figure out what story is being told.

I know what happened here.  The director knew he had a good story on his hands:  Josemaria Escriva was an amazing guy living in amazing times.  But if you just do a biopic of a Catholic boy who becomes a priest and starts a religious movement, who’s going to watch it?  So they decided to give the story some theatrical heft by telling two stories simultaneously:  Josemaria and his onetime friend, Manolo Torres, who works as a fascist government mole in the trenches with the communist rebels.  But that’s not all:  the dual story is being uncovered by the alienated son of Manolo, who is writing a book about Josemaria, who was friends with Manolo, who is telling his son not to write the book, who is writing it because he’s mad at his father, who is mad at Josemaria because he’s  . . . if this is making any sense, I’m telling it wrong.

Any time Manolo, or his son, or Manolo’s rebel beloved, or the beloved’s lover are on screen, the movie descends into — how do you say?  – silliness.  The characters are paper thin, the dialog is contrived, the voice overs never clarify anything, and the acting stinks.  Again, I think I know what happened:  the director has seen one to many Francis Ford Coppola movies, and was desperate to do the whole “violence and sacraments” juxtaposition thing.  A rosary next to a pistol!  A shattered statue of Mary amid the rubble of war!  An angel amid the lunatics in the asylum!  Or is it a devil!  I know it’s not fair to say, “This is no Godfather,” but what can I say?  Coppola pulled it off; this guy didn’t.  The effect is just squirmfully corny.  You really can’t zoom in on someone’s eyes, and then turn the screen into a swirling, glowing snowglobe to signify that God Is Talking.  You just can’t.  I, the marginally sophisticated viewer, will not stand for it.

At the same time,  so many moments that could have been incredibly powerful cinema are just squandered.  For example: the sniper is on the hillside, squinting through his gunsight at Josemaria and his friends below as they celebrate a makeshift Mass during their perilous escape  in the middle of the Pyrenees.  That could have been a gorgeous scene.  With a little movement by the camera, it could have been the pivotal point — could have carried the weight of the whole movie.  Instead, they just kind of  . . . filmed it:  here’s the sniper, here’s the priest.  Bang!  Next scene.  So frustrating.

At a certain point in the movie, I felt as if I was watching a slide show or an especially melodramatic Powerpoint presentation which covered the plot, more than an actual story.   There was no rhythm to the way it was told, just lots of stopping and starting — which isn’t the same.  There was no deeper meaning to the double stories, just added complexity — which isn’t the same.  There were no deeper themes of fatherhood and faith and forgiveness, just lots of talking about those things — which isn’t the same.  They could have cut thirty minutes and half the characters without losing anything.

Well, now I feel like a jerk.  This was a very sincere movie, and believe it or not, I still recommend it.   It made me interested in Josemaria Escriva — I just wish they had stuck with him more, and skipped all the tacked-on extras of the other plot. I think high school students and younger would probably be pretty impressed by this movie, and it would make a great introduction to the saint for a confirmation class.    I can see someone leaving the theater inspired and encouraged by what happened on the screen.  As I said, the good parts (which occur mostly in the middle third of this two-hour film) are quite good.  The bad parts aren’t unwatchable so much as frustrating:  you keep thinking how much better it could have been.

I guess I’m just not willing to go whole hog and rave about it, just because it presents Catholics in a good light and had a budget of more than $750.  I’m awfully, awfully tired of Catholics being the boogeyman in popular culture, but I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.  So, this movie was okay.  I liked it.  But it wasn’t an especially good movie.

It was extremely refreshing to see the Catholic faith represented as something that inspires generosity, courage, manliness, and heroism.  I just wish that someone had been inspired to edit this movie, and heavily.

You can see the official trailer here.

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Gung-ho

image source

Most serious Catholics have had this experience:  all on fire for some bracing, difficult truth that seems central to our lives, we march forward in a fine, fervent frenzy, and rip a new asshole for everyone in the room — in service of the truth.  Because, as it says in scripture, “The Lord thy God wants you to rip everyone a new asshole.”

The problem with this approach is twofold:

(1)  People are generally not much swayed by the, “Listen up, jerkwad, and I’ll teach you something” approach.

(2) The truth takes a while to sink in.  Not into them, but into you:  just because you think you know something, that doesn’t mean you really know it.  Or, it doesn’t mean you know what to DO with the truth.

And so, for instance, gung-ho and ablaze with the information that we should be open to life, an obnoxious twentysomething brandishing her NFP manual in its original wrapper may think she has something to say to a crowd of grizzled old matrons.  She may think she’s stirring up a righteous flame in some old, moldering cinders by proclaiming the truth about what it means to be truly generous, truly compliant to the will of God.  She may think she’s doing some good (and looking pretty swell in the process!).  But more likely than not, she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Either she’s flat-out wrong, and just hasn’t got the habit of fact-checking yet; or else it turns out that life is a little more complicated than it seems when you’re an obnoxious twentysomething.

Just so you don’t think I’m lecturing you (and I had the idea for this post long before the “Why doesn’t the Church just make a list” discussion), I’ll share one of my most cringe-worthy example of some misguided gung-hoery.  This happened about ten years ago:

At Christmas every year, the local newspaper would print sob stories about needy families, to solicit donations so that unlucky folks could have a nice holiday for a change.  You know:  little Johnny is waiting for a liver transplant, and is hoping to collect 100 teddy bears; elderly Mrs. Smith is raising her grandchildren and would love to give the little tykes a pair of rollerblades and a new Xbox.

One year, they printed a little blurb about a young couple — a man and his perpetual “fiancee” –expecting their second child.  There were some problems, I forget what:  unemployment, disability, threatened eviction.  They weren’t asking much — just wanted to have a nice Christmas for their son, and maybe find a few baby items for the little one on the way.

So I got a brilliant idea.  I wrote to the editor and, in the boldest and most stirring terms imaginable, exhorted this wretched couple to offer the finest gift a mother and dad ever could to their offspring:  to get married.  I plugged in a few handy statistics about the relative happiness, educational and vocational chances, and dental health of the child of married parents.  I urged them to do what I knew was really in their hearts:  to take the leap, tie the knot, make it real.  I offered to pay for their marriage license, “and,” I concluded grandly, “I will even throw in a bottle of champagne.”

So, they took me up on it.  They came to our apartment.  They did want to get married, it turned out — they had just never had the chance, or something.  But, well, hmm.  As it turned out, the boyfriend had been married before.  In the Church.  Might he get an annulment?  Well, technically he was actually still married.  He was planning to get a divorce, but the mother wanted custody of the son, and there was also some complication about a warrant for his arrest  . . .

Well, I ended up buying the girlfriend some maternity shirts, and a couple of toys for the little kid.  I think they had to take a taxi to our house, too, but I was too embarrassed to offer to pay their fare.  The conversation was . . . a little awkward.  And now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure I bought her the wrong size shirt.  So, all in all, I believe the general message that this lucky couple got from Super Catholic me was:  “Merry Christmas, and here [rrrrrip] is your new asshole.  Now get out of my holy, marital house, jerkwads.”

So you see, the moral of this story is:  don’t be fancy.  Don’t be smart.  Do things the regular way, like by praying, being nice, and donating money to charities that know what they are doing.   If the Holy Spirit wants you to do something really spectacular, He’ll probably make it almost impossible for you to avoid it.  Remember Jonah?  Gulp.

So, good people?  How about you?  When’s the last time you shot your mouth off in the service of Truth, Justice, and the Magesterial Way, and got showed up for the know-nothing numb-nut you really are?

Or is it just me?

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So tell me: Marriage Prep

All this talk about young married couples has sent me on a trip down memory lane, back to the old days when my husband was naught but a boyish husband-to-be, and I was a blushing maiden of 22.  And by “maiden,” I mean I was 22.  Ah, yoot!

We did go to marriage preparation classes.  They were held by another couple in their comfortable home.  It was a little too comfortable, as I recall:  they installed me next to the fire in a rocking chair, and I damn near fell asleep every night as they droned on and on and on.  Maybe I missed the good parts while I was dreaming, but I don’t think so.  My husband reports pretty much the same thing as I remember.

There are, we learned, two components to a stable, successful, loving, happy, and holy marriage.  Are you ready?  Here they are:

1.  Keep the lines of communication open.

2.  Invest in gold.

Well, there you have it.  Boy, were we prepared for marriage then, let me tell you!

So, that was, let’s see, 1997.  To be honest, I’m a little amazed at how many people mentioned that NFP even came up in their marriage prep — last I heard, most Catholics aren’t even aware there is such a thing.  I would be very interested to hear what your marriage preparation was (or is) like, and what year it was  – and also what your parents’ or older siblings’ was like, if you know.  Did you hear anything useful?  Anything nutty?  Does it seem like things getting better, overall?  Or worse?  Or what?

And why don’t we have more gold around here?  I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t say anything about NFP — I clearly wasn’t paying attention anyway.

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Time for married priests?

Why doesn’t the Latin Rite Church just start ordaining married men again? If men can’t or won’t stay celibate, then why force the issue?  Well, I peeked into the future, when married priests are commonplace, and this is what I heard in the pews:

“Well!  I see the pastor’s wife is pregnant again!  What is she trying to prove?  Must be nice to pop ‘em out year after year, while the parish has to support all those brats.”

or:

 

“Well!  I see another year has gone by and the pastor’s wife still isn’t pregnant.  A fine example they’re setting!  I won’t have them teaching my children CCD, since his own wife is clearly on the Pill.”

and:

 

“I went to the rectory the other day to talk to Father about my divorce, and those damn kids of his wouldn’t shut up for a minute.  Sounded like a herd of elephants running around up there — I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight.  How can he give me advice about my family when he can’t even control his own?”

or:

 

“I have to talk to someone about my kids, but I would never go to Father — his kids are so well-behaved, he could never understand what I’m going through.  I swear, his wife must drug them or something — something ain’t right there.”

and:

 

“I see the pastor’s kids are taking tennis lessons!  I guess they’re doing pretty well– no need for me to leave anything in the basket this week, when we’re barely getting by.”

or:

 

“I see the pastor’s kids are wearing such ratty shoes.  What a terrible example he sets!  No one’s going to want to join a church that encourages you to have more kids than you can care for.”

and:

 

“I wanted to meet with Father to talk about the new brochures for the pro-life committee, and his secretary said he was busy — but on the drive home, I saw him at the McDonald’s playground, just fooling around with his kids!  I guess I know where I stand in this parish!  Harumph.”

or:

 

“Everyone thinks it’s so great that Father started all these holy hours and processions and prayer groups, but I saw two of his little ones sitting all alone, just looking so sad and neglected.  It’s a shame that any children should grow up that way, without proper attention from their parents.  Harumph.”

And so on, and so on.  I’m sure you can think of more.   Imagine if his wife had a job?  Or imagine if she didn’t have a job?  Imagine if his wife wore jeans?  Imagine if she wore a veil? Imagine if he got an annulment, and then started a new family?  Would the parishioners pay for alimony or child support?  Imagine if the priest could get married, but was still single?  Is he gay, or impotent?  Is he hitting on me?  Is he hitting on my daughter? [As Abby pointed out, no rite has ever allowed already-ordained priests to marry, so this wouldn’t be an issue!]

I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a pathetic prayer uttered by the semi-fictionalDon Camillo:  “Please, merciful Lord, if I have to blow my nose while I’m up at the altar, let me do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”

And it wouldn’t just be a matter of doing the right thing and shrugging off unjust gossip — it would be so hard to know what is the right thing to do.  I see how my husband struggles to work hard at his job,  make enough money, and strategize for the future, because we’re all depending on him — and then comes home and puts it all aside to become the sympathetic and appreciative husband and the strong but playful dad.  And he only has one family.

It’s hard enough for men to balance family and career — what if, as priests, they had to balance their biological family with a spiritual family of parishioners?  Whose needs come first?

And did I mention?  The average American Catholic diocesan priest makes between$15-30,000 a year.

Look, I know there are some families that could  hack it.   There are some that do, and I’m sure there are some that do very well, especially if the parish is close-knit and conservative, with a long, comfortable tradition of married priests.  And I know we’re likely to see more married priests soon, since our beloved (and thrilling!) Benedict XVI has so warmly welcomed the Anglicans in.

How’s it going to go?  I don’t know.  I’m not saying it’s a bad idea; I’m just saying it’s not the no-brainer heal-all for anemic numbers in the seminaries. All the hypothetical nasty comments above are things that people say about decent, hard-working, LAY Catholic couples with private lives.  Other people have no business judging them — and yet they do, all the time.  How much worse would this gossip (and the attendant protest via empty collections basket and empty pews) be if the couple in question had much less claim to a private life?  Parishioners tend to feel like they “own” their pastors.  This can take the form of befriending and loving him, making him meals, and praying for him — but it can also take some uglier forms.  I cannot imagine enduring such scrutiny as a pastor’s wife or child, especially without the graces of Holy Orders that help a priest survive his daily ordeal.

And oh dear –  I was about to ask Priest’s Wife to weigh in, and now I see that she wrote about this last week!  Check it out, and also her fascinating follow-up post on celibacy and selfishness.  She was originally responding to a post by Fr. Z, which frankly I cannot make myself read.  The commentors he attracts always make me want to hide in the catacombs, to get away from those awful Catholics.  Brrr.

Well, next time, we’ll discuss why – sigh – women priests are such a bad idea.

 

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More hope for religious art

Elizabeth Scalia posted a link (on Facebook, not on her blog — but she always has tons of good stuff, so check it out!) to this sculpture of the Annunciation, by John Collier:

(photo source:  The Deacon’s Bench)

I know it’s just about impossible to make a judgment based on a photo, but what do you think?  My first thought was that it made reference to the statue of Apollo and Daphne by Bernini:

(photo source)

The artist seems to be stressing the significance of the fig tree.  Intstresting, no?  I prefer the one true God’s means of preserving his faithful daughter’s virginity!  I also thought the face of Mary in the first sculpture hearkened to the  Ecstasy of St. Theresa, also by Bernini.

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Bless the Lord, O my sole

Guess what?  I’m fat.  About seven permanent pounds for each kid.  I usually manage to lose some between pregnancies, but after baby #8 was born, I just kept gaining.

My husband thinks I’m beautiful, but I don’t.  I hate wearing special sizes with labels like “Curvy Coordinates!”  “Luscious Lady Plus!”  “Gee, Your Ass Looks Enormous!”  Being fat feels bad, but knowing I’m still gaining feels horrible. The real misery is in feeling like I had no control.

Many and many a time I’ve tried to just snap out of my face-stuffing ways, and go back to the habits that have worked in the past:  counting calories, swearing off sugar, working out four times a week, etc.  These things always worked before.  But this time, I couldn’t even stick to them for a day.  I knew I was in trouble, I knew I was making myself unhappy, I knew what I wanted, and I knew it was achievable.  But for some reason, I failed and failed and failed like there wasn’t any such thing as not failing.

(Actually, I know the reason. It was so I would learn sympathy with other people who struggle.  Okay, Lord, I get it!  Now lay off.  And stay with me, reader:  I’m not just sobbing in public — there is a point to this post.)

Anyway, last week I decided to try something new:  I wasn’t going to have a goal. I was just going to make the teeniest, tiniest improvement I could manage, the slightest motion away from my emotional squalor, and try and do that for one day.  I was just going to try and get control for one stinking day.

Step one was just to take notice every time I ate something.  Just:  “Yep, I just put that piece of ham in my mouth.  That was me doing that.  Idiot.”

Step two was to admit that I was eating partially (sigh) to punish myself for being fat and weak.  (Yeah, that makes sense.)

Step three (a big one) was to realize that God doesn’t want me to treat anyone that way.  Mothers are so used to dealing out justice and compassion and punishment and rewards, we sometimes forget that we are somebody’s child, too.   I wouldn’t consciously treat someone I love with contempt and injustice.  I don’t love myself, but I know God does, so I’ll work with that.

Step four was to only eat things that I actually want to eat, either because I’m  hungry or because I think they’d taste good — and to try to enjoy them, because they taste good.

Step five was to decide, at least sometimes, only to eat something good if I’m also hungry.

And step six is to decide not to eat things even if I’m hungry, because I’m trying to lose weight, and I want that more than I want to feel full.  That’s the step I’m on right now.   Eventually, I’ll work my way up to a weight loss goal, and regular exercise, and meal plans — all the things that have worked before.  It’s humiliating to go so easy on myself.  It’s distressing to realize I need such gentle treatment.  But none of the drastic steps were helping, so what else can I do?

And why am I bringing this up?  Because, in all the comments that people have made in response to the Pope’s remarks about condoms, one phrase stuck in my head: conversion is incremental.  That’s how it is, whether it’s for me getting back into normal-sized pants, or for more dire lessons of the soul.  For the hypothetical male prostitute, the goal would be to renounce fornication and seek healing for his disordered sexual appetites.  But can he do that in a day?  Of course not.  You can’t just strip away every aspect of your old life in a single motion, and expect to live that way from now on.

But he does need a new life.  So how can he do it?   With tiny, pathetic steps in the right direction — by, for instance, at least desiring to protect his sexual partner from disease.  It’s not enough.  But it’s a small step that probably can’t be skipped.

Sometimes we get knocked off our horses, or experience a miraculous infusion of knowledge of the faith, or the angel has to come and break our bones for us.  Okay, then we’re converted.  But for most of us, we don’t go from sin to virtue, just like that.  It takes lots of time.  Some decent folks are outraged by what seems like mediocrity and dawdling:  All or nothing! they holler.  If a sinner isn’t willing to renounce his sin, then nothing of value is going on!  True conversion of the heart is a radical thing!  No man can serve two masters!  The Lord will vomit the lukewarm out of his mouth!  And so on.

But we’re not talking about being lukewarm here.  We’re not talking about beingsatisfied with halfway measures.  But we’re acknowledging that — well, at some point, you do have to be halfway.   That’s how you get places:  you have to spend some time in between before you arrive.   Not to say that there is no truth in a fiery conversion.   It’s just that, unless you’re on your deathbed, the fire is not sustainable.  It’s not even desirable, because stewing in your own weakness teaches you compassion.

As long as we’re talking about food:  you know how you get a nice, juicy roast?  First you sear it on the outside.  High temps for a short time seals the juices in.  But thenyou turn the temperature way, way down and let it stew for the rest of the day.  That’s how God makes us so tender and delicious by the Second Coming:  first He applies the heat, and then He turns it down and lets us stew.

Let’s be patient with ourselves, and with each other, and try not to lift the lid too often.  We’re not done yet.