Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas meditation

Last year's meditation is here.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  It is my personal opinion that he did so by natural processes knowable through science, and that he peopled the earth with creatures through natural selection -- guided at every stage, of course, by his own unseen hand.

Adam and Eve, growing up as the only humans on earth, must have realized early on how different they were from every other creature.  The physically similar beings they had descended from spoke, certainly, but not as humans do.  They had one cry for "danger," one for "look at this," but only Adam and Eve gave names to every creature they saw.  The animals had instincts to direct their actions, while Adam and Eve also had reason.  Reason and instinct together might be confusing, but Adam and Eve were blessed with the special gift of being fully aware and in control of the promptings of their instincts, and able to apply reason to what they learned.  The other animals would feel the chill in the air and without reflection begin a migration.  Our first parents, as the weather grew colder, would observe the wind and clouds and plot a course that would bring them to the safest possible place.  The other animals would see food and eat it; the humans learned what conditions were favorable to this or that plant, and seek out new food sources.

The greatest gift they had was the ability to be constantly aware of God's presence.  They didn't "pray" as we do -- they simply spoke to God and clearly heard his answers.  If ever they were in doubt about something, they could discuss it with God.

They also had one ability no other animal had: rather than being slaves to their instincts, they had the ability to freely choose whether to do right or wrong.  It was clear to them what the right thing was: at all times, God made his will apparent.  But at one point, God made a request of them they didn't want to obey.

The Bible speaks of a fruit; this may have been a symbol of something else.  It doesn't really matter what it was.  Anything would have done; any trifling detail.  God told them, "Don't do this."  Adam and Eve were intelligent and wise, but they didn't see the reason for God's command.  It seemed unfair to tell them to do something that they couldn't have figured out on their own.  Wasn't it their right, as the crown of all creation, possessing intelligence, to use their own reason to know what to do?  Why should they have to listen to a command that seemed arbitrary to them?  A fallen angel was handily around to encourage that line of thinking.  Why obey just for the sake of obeying?  If they were really wise, it should be up to them to discern good and evil, not God.

So they disobeyed God.  At that moment, the special gifts they had been enjoying vanished.  That perfect harmony between instinct and intelligence was gone.  Adam thought, "Why should I have to go pick food today?  I'm not in the mood."  Eve looked down at her belly and thought, "When did I get so fat?"  For the first time ever, they felt awkward in one another's presence.  Immediately they rushed to invent another peculiarity of the rational animal: clothing.

After the Fall, their human nature was sadly changed.  Sometimes their instincts took over when reason should be ruling, and they would overeat one kind of fruit or ignore another they knew was good for them.  Other times they ignored their instincts in favor of some misguided notion they had in their heads, and would sulk instead of embracing one another.  Eve, when she gave birth to her first child, couldn't seem to listen to the instincts that would tell her how to give birth.  Instead she fought them and experienced the anguish of tense labor pains.

Worst of all, they could no longer hear God's inner voice.  They sometimes tried to pray, but the words seemed to come echoing back, unanswered.  They weren't sure if this was their own newfound weakness, or if God really had abandoned them.  With all their might, they remembered God's last clear word to them: someday, far in the future, one of their descendents would destroy evil forever.  Without that promise, they might have died of despair; but instead they took up their tools, worked, and waited.

Generations came and went, each sorrier than the last.  Adam and Eve's oldest child killed his younger brother, and they learned for the first time what death was.  Within a short time, mankind had become utterly corrupt.  From fear and doubt, men moved on to utter disbelief, saying in their hearts, "There is no God."  They had no reason to believe differently, having never seen any sign other than the story handed down from their ancestors.  They did evil, but even this is less to be blamed, because no one had ever told them what was good to do.  All they had was their broken reason and twisted instincts.

In every age, however, God kept the news of himself alive.  He chose the best humans he could find and spoke to them, and despite their fear and doubt, they heard and obeyed him.  Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  Every time, God revealed a little more of himself.  "Here I am, the one who created you," he explained, "and I see that you are lost and confused.  Let me make it simpler for you.  Just do these ten things."

Of course the Israelites did not do those ten things, so they were given further, more specific instructions.  The Law was unable to bring any of them salvation from their devastating brokenness, but it gave them direction.  It set them apart from every nation.  Despite wars, migrations, deportations, and conquests, and against all odds, the people of Israel survived, some of the only monotheists in the world.  The rest of the world thought them very foolish, with their strict rules and strange stories, and they were considered a backward and uncivilized bunch.

God tried and tried to re-establish the connection with man he'd had at the beginning.  He sent judges, kings, and prophets.  But time and again, the chosen people dropped the ball.  They strayed.  They worshiped false gods.  Some became obsessed with the minutiae of the Law and forgot the God who had given it.  Time and again, God offered them another chance.  But it didn't seem to be enough.  Fallen man was powerless to break free of the ancient curse of sin.  Generation after generation died and was lost.  No one knew if there might be something after death, but no one had much hope that they could ever be reunited with God, in life or in death.

The rest of the world kept on its way, trying and trying to figure out what we were here on this earth for.  Man is the only animal that asks that question.  Every other animal knows, without having to ask, what it is supposed to be doing.  Man wonders.  Sometimes he obeys the rule of natural selection, living only to procreate.  Other times he is seized with an irrational hatred: man makes war, enslaves, executes, rapes, steals, hurts.  Sometimes he raises his eyes to the stars and asks questions.  Philosophers in Greece asked "Why are we here?" and "Where is here?" and "What is the world made of?" and that impossible question, "What should we do?"  Statesmen in Rome said, "Let us plan everything out just right, and we will make the most efficient system.  Surely then we will be happy."  Only they weren't.  Polytheism, Stoicism, Epicurianism, mystery religions, one by one each failed to satisfy and people flocked to the next new thing.

The ages already planned by God having been fulfilled, God did a truly new thing.

He sent His son.

That was the purpose of all the preparation, the promise, the hints in all the different prophecies.  What seemed aimless, cryptic, purposeless, all turned out to be leading up to something completely new.  God knew man could not save himself.  Man had tried everything and failed.  On his own, mankind knew nothing but misery.  God himself was to be the cure.  He would change the rules of the game.  No longer would we have to guess at what God might want or whether that voice we'd thought we'd heard was him.  He would take a shape we could see and feel.  And no longer would we wonder if it was impossible for man to be good.  He would take not only our shape but our nature, so that we would know exactly what a good life would look like, lived by a man like ourselves.

But even that wasn't enough.  Being told what to do, being shown how to do it, was still not good enough.  We had the curse of death on us and our sadly broken nature.  God himself would repair it.  He would take all the blame himself, taste the curse of death himself, and mend the gap between heaven and earth.  He would do all that, by accepting a punishment he didn't deserve.

On that cold night in Bethlehem, when shepherds came to peer into an old feed-box at a rather ordinary-looking newborn, they could not have guessed who the child was or what he had come to do.  And yet all the signs were there that something very important was happening, something requiring recognition by the wisest king and the poorest shepherd.  God had become man and nothing would ever be the same again.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Evidence of Harm

Today I finished Evidence of Harm.  You know how sometimes you read a book or watch a documentary, and all you can say is, "Wow.  Read/watch this, and then you'll definitely agree with me."  It's hard to try to summarize, because it's so chock-full of facts.  I mean, it's a 400-page book, and not at all a beach read.

For those who don't know, it's a book about thimerosal (mercury) in vaccines and its possible link to autism.  I hadn't actually had an opinion on this subject before.  People keep assuming this is the reason we don't vaccinate, and it actually isn't.  I'm well aware that thimerosal has mostly been phased out of vaccines.  I'm just not sure about all the other ingredients, such as squalene, aluminum, and formadehyde, and I am aware that side effects and reactions do happen.  For me it's a matter of risk management: the shot has a risk, the disease has a risk, and I try to choose the smallest based on our unique circumstances.  Also, John is adamantly anti-vaccine, and considering I make pretty much every other decision regarding the kids, it seemed fair to let his opinions have equal weight there.

Anyway, after reading this book I'm pretty much convinced that autism is triggered by mercury exposure.  The theory supported by many of the studies discussed in the book is that autistic children have a genetic inability to eliminate mercury normally, and so exposure to mercury has much more serious effects on them than it has on other children.  Mercury is known to cause brain damage, specifically in those areas of the brain that are damaged in autism.  So it's pretty credible.

The book is a saga of the parents of autistic children, trying to find a cause and a cure for what has happened to their kids.  Along the way, we find out not only their personal stories, but the story of the developing science of autism, and a lot of politics.

I'm not sure what was more shocking to me.  First, I was astounded by how much evidence there is for a link between mercury and autism.  I thought it was just an idea people had had, but in fact there is a TON of scientific evidence supporting this claim.  It's been established that mercury is toxic to the brain, and there are lots and lots of studies to establish this.  You can look at symptoms of other instances of mercury poisoning, from mad hatters' disease to pink disease, and see that the symptoms are similar to those of autism.  It's been demonstrated that ethylmercury (the type in thimerosal) does cross into the brain and remain there.  It's also commonly known that the amount of mercury a child might receive on one day from vaccines, following the recommended vaccine schedule during the 1990's, exceeded the official "safe limit" by orders of ten or even one hundred.

The parents in the book, when they test their children for mercury, discover lots of it.  They try chelation (a treatment for heavy metals which binds to toxins and carries them out of the body) and are astounded by the quantities of mercury that pour out of their children.  Even more astonishing is the improvement immediately seen in the kids.  Some children even have their diagnosis of full-blown, severe autism reversed or replaced by a more minor diagnosis, like ADD.

Later in the book, we actually read of a researcher who managed to induce symptoms of autism in mice by injecting genetically sensitive mice with doses of thimerosal mimicking the amount in the vaccine schedule.  Statistical studies, rather than lab results, have been more mixed because of the wide array of confounding factors.  It really depends on which way you slice the data.  Some studies have supported the link and others haven't.  All studies are funded by someone, so as you might expect, the results here tended to be what the people funding them wanted them to be.  Certainly what I had heard before -- that thimerosal's safety has been established by lots and lots of scientific studies, while any evidence for a link to autism is circumstantial and unscientific -- is not true.  There are many published, peer-reviewed studies which do in fact suggest a link.

So that leads me to the second really shocking part of the book: the political part.  Needless to say, this whole affair has been a political nightmare.  No one wants to scare parents out of getting vaccines for their children.  And apparently no one in any position of power in this country wants to remove the "profit motive" for drug companies to make vaccines.  (Incidentally, vaccine manufacturers are doing very well.  VERY well.  Considering they have a monopoly and everyone is forced to buy their product, it's not surprising.)  To preserve this "profit motive," vaccine manufacturers cannot be sued.  The CDC, which is supposed to oversee all the vaccine companies, has the same problem I've noticed before in the FDA and USDA -- the same people switch back and forth from heading corporations to holding government positions.  The deeper the parents dig, the more they get shut down.  The main study used to "prove" that thimerosal isn't linked to vaccines ended up being redone five times.  The first time, which was quickly hidden away, showed a strong link.  So some individuals were thrown out of the study and the data re-analyzed some more, and the next versions showed a weak link.  By the last version of the study, it appeared that thimerosal actually must be protecting kids from autism.  Having written this study, the author left the CDC and was hired by GlaxoSmithKline.

This statistical study was based on information in a database called the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD).  The information in this database was only available to CDC researchers, and not outside researches.  Under pressure, the CDC supposedly allowed access -- but a scientist trying to obtain it would have to undergo years of waiting and so many restrictions as to make research virtually impossible.  But any time a scientist would try to publish statistical surveys that suggested a link to autism, the CDC would say, "But you don't have the VSD data, so your study isn't as good as ours."  Scientists working on thimerosal-autism studies often got quite promising results.  When they tried to publish, initially the response from medical journals would be positive.  Then suddenly the paper would be sent back with a brief note saying they'd reconsidered and after all they would not publish.  Any "well-respected" journal refused to publish any studies that didn't echo what the CDC wanted.  And any journal that did publish such things ... well, it couldn't possibly be well-respected, could it?

I felt like bashing my head against the wall, reading this stuff.  But it isn't really surprising.  We've seen similar tactics when anyone tries to prove anything suggesting that GMO's aren't safe.  When political and financial interests are on one side of a scientific question, it is almost impossible to prove the other side.  Studies that will hurt politicians and corporations don't get funded and don't get published.  It's actually rather astounding to see the large number of published, peer-reviewed studies that actually did get done here.

If you have any interest in this topic at all, I challenge you to read this book.  Like I said, thimerosal has mostly been removed from vaccines (as far as I know, it is still in the flu shot), so it shouldn't keep you from vaccinating your children if you feel this is the safest choice.  However, it seems important that the connection between thimerosal and autism should be further studied and established scientifically.  First off, this will enable parents of autistic children to receive compensation, either from the government or from vaccine manufacturers, which will help them pay for the many treatments their children need.  Second, it will allow more research to be done on treatments for autism.  If the theory is correct, autism can be ameliorated, in many cases, by removing mercury from the body with chelation.  Some doctors have also had good results with giving children B-12 injections.  I can only imagine how the parent of an autistic child might feel, hearing their child speak for the first time or finally meet their eyes.  The parents also report that their children are finally appearing happy, for the first time since the onset of their illness.

But if we can't even find a cause, how can we look for a cure?

Anyway, read this book.  I can't possibly summarize all the information in it, and it's all fascinating.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Some of you know that my husband's sister is a religious novice in an order in Italy.  Since his father died, he has been "the man of the family," and it was important to Sarah to have her brother there to walk her down the aisle.  So he flew all the way to Florence, to see her take the veil.

Because John's family is turning out quite a bit like St. Therese's, another sister has been a postulant there for a year.  This time it's his older sister and Irish twin, Ivi.  She, too, wants him to be there on her special day.  Unfortunately we don't actually have the money to spare to fly him to Florence a second time.  He had the idea of raising money online.

I know many of you are just as poor as I am, and many are poorer.  In this economy, and at Christmastime, who has any money to spare?  But if you want to do John and his sister a solid, even five bucks would mean a lot.  If you don't have five bucks to spare, but you do have a blog, you could also help by sharing this link.

Thanks, all.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Yet more Markoisms

A few weeks ago, I was reading my BabyCenter email about "my preschooler this week."  (Two is NOT a preschooler, I say, but that's another story.)  It had a list of speech problems that could be a concern.  On the list was echolalia.  "Does your child call himself 'you' instead of 'me'?" the article asked.  "Does he repeat what you say?  Does he seem to be following a script for conversation instead of making up his own sentences?"  Then it advised I talk to his doctor or a speech therapist right away about any of these problems, because they could be serious.

So, like any reasonable mother, I immediately leaped onto Google and researched the heck out of echolalia.  Every site I read had a long description of kids who talk exactly like Marko does.  Then it said that this is almost always a sign of autism spectrum disorders.  I should be extremely concerned and take him to a speech therapist right away.

Then right at the very bottom there was a paragraph that would say, "Except, of course, if this is a toddler.  Echolalia is normal in toddlers and peaks at age two and a half."

Gee, thanks, BabyCenter.  You don't know much about my son, but you DO know that he's two and a half.  Why make me panic like that?

Marko's speech is improving, and I know he doesn't exclusively repeat what we say, because he makes lots of grammatical mistakes like "goed" and "drinked" and "pick the baby DOWN!"  And lots of the things he says to himself as he plays are very creative -- certainly not ideas we've given him.  And he does say I and me sometimes.  We're working on it.  Unfortunately, I think he's really internalized the meaning of pronouns and thinks we're just trying to mess him up.  He'll parrot back a sentence correctly, but if he stops and thinks about it, he corrects himself and goes back to saying it wrong.  Sigh.

Here are some examples of phrases he commonly uses that exhibit echolalia.

"They are not comfy."  -- means he peed his pants

"Could you help me please?" -- means he wants me to open the laundry room door.  For some reason he has to bend over and touch his toes when he says this.

"Show me" -- means he's hurt himself and wants me to take a look

"I am not your Mama" -- this is what he says when Daddy picks up Michael.  You see, in his mind, Daddy is his and Mama is Michael's.  So if Daddy picks up Michael, that means Mama is Marko's parent-of-choice, and he is not into that at all.  He wants Daddy.  So this isn't intended to be quite as hurtful as it sounds.

"Do you want a pretzel?"  -- whenever he wants something, he sounds like he is offering it to me, because that's what I say when I offer him something.

"You want me to say, 'Eat another bite, monster truck.'" -- He says this, and variations of this, all. day. long.  He insists that I tell him, in character as whatever he is pretending to be, to do whatever it is he's going to do anyway.  I finally realized why.  I've been spending all my time prompting him to say things correctly (i.e. I instead of you), and he's doing it right back to me.  So our conversation can go like this:

Marko: You want me to say, "Would you like some cheese, doggie?"

Me: Would you like some cheese, doggie?

Marko: You would!

Me: Say, "I would like some."

Marko: I would like some!  Say "Here is your cheese, doggie."

And so on.  Talking with Marko can be exhausting.

But I am not terribly worried about him.  He is saying more and more complex things, getting across more and more original ideas, and getting the grammar right more of the time.  We're getting there.  So I don't worry at all ... except in the middle of the night when I can't sleep ... because I'm a mother, after all.  What else am I supposed to do with my time?

Sunday, December 2, 2012


I am not a particularly virtuous person.  Sure, I have some natural virtues due to my temperament: I am very empathetic, so I would never willingly harm another person.  That's not exactly to my credit, though; I was born that way.  There are many other virtues I'd like to develop -- self-discipline, industriousness, punctuality, and so forth.  The trouble is that the root of these virtues is willpower, and I have very little willpower.  All the ways you can build willpower -- giving up certain foods, working out, getting up early every morning, cold showers -- are things that require willpower to do in the first place.  With a good reason, I can do all those things, but if it's just to build willpower, I talk myself out of them.

That's why I use what I call "crutches."  These are things that make me virtuous without my having to constantly force myself.  That sounds bad.  I mean, is it really virtue if you didn't do it yourself?  Let me explain.

The first time I consciously did this was in college.  I was looking for a summer job.  I had two possibilities for nannying -- one was easier, fewer hours, and fewer kids.  The other was harder, more hours, but roughly the same pay.  The second also seemed more important to me -- it was a single mom who really needed the help, and wanted someone who would go outside the job description and pitch in wherever needed.

I wanted to take the easier job, make the same money without working so hard.  But I thought, "I want to be a better person.  I want to have kids someday, and I want to know what I'm doing.  Taking the second job will probably train me in all the things a mother has to know, and really push me outside my comfort zone."  So that's what I did.  The job was grueling sometimes, but I didn't have a choice to back out.  I needed the money and my boss was relying on me.  I discovered what being a mom of older kids would really be like.  Some days I spent seven hours in the car!  I learned to cook dinner out of random odds and ends inside the pantry.  I feel a little sorry for my boss because she was landed with someone who knew pretty much nothing starting out.  But I knew a lot by the end of the summer.

It was the same when I took my first teaching job, and my second.  Both of these jobs, I realized would stretch me in ways I wasn't really comfortable with.  They would teach me a lot.  And they did, oh, they sure did.  I learned about patience, organization, diplomacy (those parents can be killer), discipline, and understanding.  Each year I grew a lot.

I have terrible willpower when it comes to food.  I think part of it is that I have a fast metabolism, which has gotten me used to always being hungry.  If there's food there, I will eat it.  Twice as much, if it has sugar in it.  I'm embarrassed to tell you how fast I have polished off packages of Oreos.  My solution here is I don't buy it.  My first year out of college, my rule was zero junk food on my own dime.  I would eat it at school, when offered (which is shockingly often), but it did not enter my apartment.  That worked well.  Subsequently, I've relaxed the rule a bit (because I don't get free cookies at work anymore) to zero junk food I haven't cooked.  I buy a bag of sugar every once in awhile, use it sparingly, and when it's gone, I have to live without junk food for awhile.  (My exception is ice cream.  I do eat ice cream I haven't made.  But it's too cold to really eat a ton of in a sitting.)  I feel that some homemade cookies, made with half the sugar, aren't on the same wavelength as Oreos, and anyway they're enough work to cook that I'm not really tempted to do this daily.  A nice result of making good habits this way is that I am not used to eating a ton of junk, and when it is available, I start to get disgusted if I've eaten too much.  It's easier to say when.  And "food" like soda or candy doesn't even appeal to me at all anymore.

I'd say I married my husband for this reason, but really it was more of an excuse.  I was in love with him anyway.  But I do remember thinking, "Well, he is very different from me.  Maybe I will pick up some of his virtues, like his tidiness, punctuality, and clear thinking."  And I have.  Not enough to quite satisfy him, because a neat freak like him will always be a bit annoyed by a slob like me.  But I've gotten to a point that mess really bothers me and I work hard to fix it.  If I don't feel like fixing it, I think of how he will feel if he gets home from a stressful day and sees a mess.

That's the key, I think: I'm working with the one virtue I naturally have.  I naturally have empathy and concern for other people.  I put myself in situations where my empathy will drive me to show up on time, keep my kitchen clean, plan ahead, keep my temper, and learn to wait.

Parenting is the ultimate teacher of virtue.  I can't think of another motivation that would be enough to get me to wake up at six a.m., clean up other people's stuff all day, cook four healthy meals a day, get outside daily, go to bed at a decent hour, keep my language clean, and keep my temper in the most provoking circumstances.  Just this week I have begun meal planning -- not just dinners but three meals and a snack, every day.  That is very not me.  But I realized it's the only way to make sure we all are eating healthy food when we need it.

There are so many things I couldn't possibly do "to build willpower" that I can easily do for others.  Sometimes I feel guilty, like it's "fake" virtue because I'm not really that good at this stuff, just using crutches to force myself to do it.  But on the other hand, I'm doing what I need to do, and if I manage to do that, does it really matter so much how?
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