Friday, January 29, 2016

Why don't you do it then?

Classic human problems: there's something you want to do.  You want to work out, or get more housework done, or stop losing your temper.  And yet, despite feeling strongly that you want to do it, you don't actually do it.

I've been trying to dig into this reality lately, because I've always written it off to "lack of virtue" or "just not trying hard enough" when in reality, that's kind of a non-explanation.  Sure, stuffing my face with an entire pan of brownies is not virtuous.  But what is causing that lack of virtue?  Because let me tell you, years of kicking myself and saying "I shouldn't have done that" isn't doing a thing to change the situation.

So, think of a thing you want to change.  A thing you've told yourself more than once you were going to do differently.  And ask: why don't you do it then?

You don't really want to that much.  This is probably the case with me and the brownies.  I probably shouldn't eat so many brownies, but it's not like I pig out on them that often, and I don't have the motivating factor of gaining weight.  Sometimes I get a bellyache from eating too many brownies, but it's not as unpleasant as the brownies are delicious, so I find that on some level I've pretty much made my peace with occasionally going wild on a sugary treat.  Sometimes a person has a habitual sin that they always confess, but when it comes down to it, they aren't really that sorry because in reality they don't think it's that bad.  They know they should think it's bad, but they don't feel it is, and that's why they're not putting forth any serious effort to change.

The price is too high.  You want a promotion, but it would take a lot of extra hours and extra work and in reality, you don't want that promotion enough to accept the price.  Maybe it's time to make your peace with your choices.  Instead of telling yourself over and over you want the promotion while not working any harder, say, "I'd like the promotion, but it isn't worth the extra work it would take."  You have my permission to whine about how high the price is.  Life is unfair and you don't have to like that.

You're scared.  This is why I don't go to the dentist, even though I really sincerely do want to go to the dentist.  I tell myself it's because I'm not sure I have the money in the bank this month or because I'm too busy or because I forgot to call them, but those are all smokescreens.  In reality, I'm terrified of calling them because calling strangers is scary.  And I'm also not super keen about getting my cavities drilled.  I'm going to have to reach a point where my desire to go overcomes my fear, and then I'm going to have to use a zillion coping mechanisms to make myself make the call.

You don't have a time to do it.  If you make a plan to "work out daily" but you don't have a special time in the day to do it, you're not going to do it.  If you want a thing to be part of your routine, you put it in your routine in a specific place and always do it at that time.  It may be that your whole schedule doesn't have room for the thing you want to add, or maybe you don't have any routines and live every day like a free spirit.  If you really want to acquire a habit, you're going to have to sit down and make a routine or schedule of your time.  Most of my day is unscheduled but I used to have a clear system for my mornings in which I got the essential stuff done.  Just figure out when you're going to do the thing, and stick to it slavishly.  If you skip a day, you're just making it harder for yourself.  Once you've done it every day for a couple of weeks, you can coast on the momentum.

You forget.  Some things don't fit into a daily schedule.  How will you remember to pay the bills monthly, call the dentist, whatever?  Well, if you're like me, you forget because you didn't write it down.  Make a system.  There are a zillion online apps for this.  Google Calendars is good for things that have to be on a certain day, Trello is good for to-do lists.  Or there's always a sticky note on the fridge.  Don't invent a whole new system each time you have to remember something.  Have a place where all the stuff you have to remember is, and check it often.

You have a short time preference.  That is, you care a lot more about the present than the future.  This can be a real flaw, because there are some long-term things you really are going to have to do.  But you can help yourself out by breaking a task down and rewarding yourself for completing bits of it.  If you want to lose weight, that's a long goal, whereas the brownies are a quick reward.  Some people make themselves work out extra if they go off their diet.  It doesn't have to be enough to burn off the junk food, just enough to make it not worth it to eat the junk food because you're going to have to pay for it that same day.  I sometimes promise myself something I enjoy -- a cup of tea, some time with a book -- if I get my chores done.  Just something to make the chores immediately rewarding, because I'm not that motivated by "the sense of accomplishment" or working toward a faraway goal.

You aren't actually capable of it.  When Miriam was very small, I couldn't keep my temper.  I tried and tried.  I desperately wanted to because there's nothing worse than the guilt of having yelled at my kids.  I just wasn't able to do it, despite lots of motivation and trying different tactics.  In the end, I am almost positive it had to do with postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, and a total lack of space to decompress.  It's useless to say "I should be virtuous enough to overcome those things."  I wasn't!  So you can accept your limits and try to work within your deficiency -- that is, I would ask for a chance to nap on the weekends, try to get some time to decompress in the evenings, and so forth.  That was helpful.  Or you could try to heal the problem -- which in that case probably would have meant going to see a doctor, though I do think meditation was helpful to some degree.  Currently, the thing I'm not doing is chores.  I get the dishes and laundry done each day and I feel exhausted.  I want to do more.  I always say I'm going to do some folding or organizing or sweeping and it just doesn't happen.  And I've realized it's not a lack of motivation -- I very simply lack energy to do those things.  I know because if I were just slacking, I'd be doing fun stuff like spinning or taking the kids to the library, but I don't have energy for those things either.  And periodically I do have energy and I do a ton without any real effort.  So maybe rather than motivational tactics, I need to get my iron levels checked or something.  I'm not entirely sure what's the matter with me, but till I find out, I'm going to try not to be so hard on myself.  I've gotten the kids to pick up their toys more, and I try not to look at the cobwebs.  Things will get better and then I'll do better.  No use beating myself up for something that's not a character flaw.

What do you want to do that you never do?  Why do you think you're not doing it?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Estimated Aldi budget

I've wanted for a long time to post one of my Aldi receipts to show how much I spend shopping there, and what I spend it on.  The trouble is that every time I go, there's something unusual going on and I don't buy all my usual stuff.  This time around, I skipped buying meat because we have a freezer full of pork from my in-laws, so I found another receipt with meat prices and marked down my usual amounts.  I also left a few purchases off -- because I buy things like kiwis or little yogurt cups or fancy cheese sometimes, but not every time.

This is the amount I normally buy for two weeks, feeding a family of five.  Like I said, it's typical and not the record of any specific grocery shop, but I know I spend around $160-180 pretty regularly.  I visit my other grocery store, Martins, only in emergencies (i.e. I forgot something important at Aldi) or to get things I can't get at Aldi, like unusual vegetables or seasonings.  I also only buy diapers at Martins -- Aldi carries plastic diapers, but only certain sizes, and they're also not the world's best diapers.  So in an average month I'll end up visiting Aldi twice and Martins twice, spending $230 at Aldi and maybe $30 at Martins.  A lot more than that at Martins if I am undisciplined ... it's much easier to blow $50 and not know where it went at Martins than it is at Aldi.  I mean .... they have scones!

So, my Aldi list.  I'm embarrassed because I've gotten very extravagant in the past year or two, but I want to share the prices I'm getting because I think they're great.

First aisle: luxury items, snack food, condiments, cereal -- $28.29

Multigrain cereal x2 @ 2.29
Wine x3 @ 3.99
Natural peanut butter 1.49
Pickles 1.49
Jam 1.49
Fair trade coffee 3.99
Kettle style potato chips 1.79
Animal crackers 1.49

The cereal is a new addition because I love cereal and I'm spoiled.  It's not frugal.  Frugal breakfasts are oatmeal, eggs, toast, or homemade goodies.  But cereal is easy and I can eat it when I'm a zombie.   Two boxes is the amount I eat in the week -- the kids eat other stuff for breakfast.  The wine and coffee are for John.  I buy coffee every three or four store trips -- he only drinks coffee at home on the weekends.

Refrigerated section $43.13

Sour cream 1.29
1 qt Greek yogurt 3.69
1 lb butter x3 @2.69
Sliced turkey 3.49
Regular bologna x 2 @ .95
Cheese (half pound) x 8 @ 1.89
Eggs x3 @ 1.45
Whole milk x2 @2.61

We eat a lot of cheese, as you can see.  Bologna is awful, I know, but it's cheap and the kids love it.  I buy yogurt these days because making yogurt is just too much for me still ... it seems like it should be easy, but it's not, right now.  (See also: the more you can do yourself, the less you spend!)  We are buying eggs right now because my parakeets are on vacation with a friend while John builds me a town-code compliant home for them.  Can't remember if I told you, but they are now (with quite a few caveats and red tape) legal!  That's $4.35 I'll be happy to stop spending, when I get them back.

Produce $32.58

Bananas 2lbs @ .29/lb = .58
Apples (3lbs) x 3 @ 3.99 = 11.97
10 lb russet potatoes x 2 @ 3.99
Roma tomatoes 1 lb 1.49
Iceberg lettuce 1.49
Yellow onions 1.99
Bagged fresh spinach 1.49
1 lb. carrots 1.29
Cucumbers x3 @ .44
Cabbage 1.49
Green peppers 1.49

Sometimes they also have avocados at a good price, or I get a squash or an eggplant or something.  John loves tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce, so I really have to buy those every time.  I can't cook dinner without at least half an onion.  And of course you can see we eat a massive quantity of potatoes.

Dry goods $46.56

Dog food 8.49
Cat food 7.99
Beef Stew x 4 @ 1.75
Gluten-free chicken soup 1.69
Canned chicken 1.69
Wheat bread x4 @ .99
Gluten free bread 3.99
Canned salmon 2.29
4 lb sugar 1.19
5 lb flour 1.49
Refried beans .79
Flour tortillas 1.19
Dry beans 1.99
Tomato sauce x4 @ .25
Diced tomatoes x4 @ .59
Macaroni noodles 1.45
3 lbs rice 1.49

I put both dog and cat food on here because I wanted to show the price.  These are huge bags, though, so it's more of a monthly expense.  I don't buy sugar or flour every time either.  Some weeks I buy olive oil, which goes for 2.99.  Unfortunately I didn't get the price down for tuna, because I am really stocked up on it and haven't bought it in ages, but it's like fifty cents.  Tuna and sardines are staples when you're trying to squeeze your pennies.

Frozen food $38.00

Broccoli 1.09
Veg blend x3 .95
Corn/peas x3 .95
3-lb ground beef roll 6.99
3-lb bag boneless chicken thighs x3 6.49
Whole chicken 5 lbs. @.95/lb

Meat is a bit tough to measure.  I used to budget one pound per dinner for the whole family, but they're eating more these days as they grow.  And of course a pound of beef is not the same as a pound of whole chicken, because the chicken has bones.  A whole chicken is good for two dinners, plus two or three quarts of stock for soup.  Each week we tend to have five meat dinners, one fish dinner (tuna or salmon), and one night of soup. 

Total: $188.56

As I said, that's high because I tried to include every purchase that I generally make - I want this to be informative about the prices you can get at Aldi.  But the amounts are roughly what we eat in two weeks except where I've mentioned.

I hope this is helpful.  People ask me a lot how I manage to feed my family on as little as I do (though, alas, it goes up and up) and I wanted to provide as much detail as I can.  If there's interest, I can also put up a meal plan (or rather, meal record, because I don't plan) showing what we eat with these ingredients.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Public vs. private charity

Recently I joined a facebook group for my town.  I would like to know more local people, and it's a good way to keep up on what's going on around me -- free concerts, craft clubs, whatever.  It also gives me the beneficial experience that Chesterton describes of loving your neighbor precisely because he is nothing like you.

What gets me, though, is how much poverty there is.  Many of the postings are pleas for help -- someone's power is getting cut off, or they are getting evicted, or they don't have food, or whatever.  If this happened once in awhile, I'd be thankful for it, because I do want to pitch in and help my neighbors.  But it's so frequent that I couldn't possibly help them all, and I feel like scrolling by in a hurry so I don't have to see how much need there is around me.

Of course, the problem is that when a random person asks for help on Facebook, they could be anybody.  They might not really need the help.  Or they might be relying on my help to get them through a crisis without ever learning from it or turning their life around -- perpetually begging for money when what they need is a job.  And I know heroin is big in this town, what if they are just going to spend it on that?  You know.  The same reasons most of us walk by panhandlers, but without the awkwardness of avoiding eye contact.

I always thought that helping one's neighbors personally was always the best way.  When you help someone personally, you know their situation and what will most help better than a faceless bureaucracy can.  And yet I'm beginning to question whether that is really so.  A faceless bureaucracy can look at their pay stubs!

Another issue with private charity is that it is usually short term.  A person posts, "I need help with this month's rent," and people pitch in for that month's rent.  But next month, the rent needs to be paid again.  They are not getting consistent help.  And that gives them one of the worst effects of poverty -- constant anxiety, not knowing if you are going to be able to make it next month, or how.

Perhaps this is in some way one of the upsides to private charity.  People want to bail out others who are in a temporary tight spot, but they don't want to subsidize long-term poverty.  They think that if the poor are sufficiently uncomfortable and anxious, they'll eventually get a job.  I'm not sure this is true -- from what I can find out, people stay in poverty not because they are comfortable there, but because they lack avenues out of it.  Stable assistance can be helpful for getting out of poverty -- for instance, a person might rely on some form of aid while they get job training or finish a degree.  But one-time help, unless it's something big like a car, is not likely to help anyone out of long-term poverty.

It's something I've mentioned in the past regarding crisis pregnancy centers.  They are quick to offer poor expectant mothers a crib or some baby clothes.  But that mother is almost certainly not thinking "I could afford a baby if only I had a crib."  She realizes that if she's barely living on her job as it is, she can't afford daycare, but if she quits her job she's living on nothing.  Free daycare is much more than private charity can generally provide, and so is income assistance for a lost job.  In this country, maternity leave is not guaranteed or paid -- so the day that child is born, the mother starts losing money until she is able to get back to work.  This is a really, really big problem and almost certainly the cause of many abortions, but crisis pregnancy centers and private charity are not able to address it.

I'm not talking about the commonly cited problem of there just not being enough private charity.  The argument here is that if only we didn't have to pay taxes, we'd have more to spare for private charity and would give more.  That's surely true, and one would hope people would be willing to give as much if they had a choice, but my issue is more one of coordination.  I don't know the poor single mothers in my town, if I do know them, I don't know if I can trust them, and if I know and trust them, I'm still only one person and I'm not able to provide all they need.  And, of course, there are more poor people than rich people in my town -- much of the money in the state is in other parts of it, so that "relying on your neighbors" means that the more you need help, the less help there is near you.  Then there's the reliability issue.  If you're three months pregnant, you need to know there will be help six months from now.  Individuals are rather flaky and you can't take the chance of being left hanging.

Now, of course, many of these problems can be solved by charitable organizations -- neither individuals nor government.  Like government, a charity can investigate to find out if applicants are in real need, and it can provide more long-term help.  Unfortunately most of the ones I can find around me don't.  For instance, there's a soup kitchen that provides a free dinner on Wednesday nights.  What are people supposed to eat the other six nights?  There's a men's homeless shelter, but nothing for women.  It's just very spotty.  And again, it varies based on area -- our town has resources funded by the modest incomes of the people who live in it.  Considering that poverty is very high in large swathes of the country, it's not always enough to have assistance funded by your neighbors.

I think private charity will always have a place.  But a real safety net is going to have to be coordinated, capable of checking up on people, spread out across the country, and most of all, not riddled with holes.  The government is going to do a better job of this than private charity.  Even it isn't doing a stellar job, partly for political reasons and partly because bureaucracy is awful.  I think minimum income would waste less money while leaving fewer holes.

The other argument against public charity has been quoted at me all my life: you don't get any credit for helping the poor with other people's money.  People say it like it's a conversation-ending sucker punch, but it doesn't mean anything to me.  I don't want credit.  I want poor people to be helped.  They will be helped just as much with my money or with someone else's.  And of course, some of that money is mine (we are now so wealthy we pay taxes!  hooray!) and considering that I have to pay it anyway, I'd rather see it go to the poor than elsewhere.  If a person really is opposed to all taxation, it is at least a principled position, but if you believe that the government has a right to tax at all, ruling out welfare is inconsistent.  Why should that money not  be spent on what is most needed?

(This is how you know that I am only a practical libertarian.  I'm not against government when it works well.  I just know that it rarely does, and that there are many things it tries to do that it can't succeed at.  I don't have a problem with taxation on principle because I don't think the right to property is absolute.)

Meanwhile I think there's always going to room for private charity.  There are very specific helpful things, from ESL classes to job training, that nonprofit organizations can provide efficiently.  And for occasional needs, person-to-person assistance is great.  You can donate to a GoFundMe to help someone start a business or purchase a vehicle to get to work.  Every little bit helps.

So long as you don't do what I am so often tempted to do -- feel compassion, want to help, then talk yourself out of doing anything because you're not sure it will help.  Better to give something sometimes to somebody than nothing, no matter how you work it out.  Surely it will make a difference to the person who receives it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Pro tip for adults

I wish there were a class on adulting that you could take so you know all the things you'll need as an adult.  I mean, I took a course in life skills where I learned to make pizza, read a map, and change a tire, but somehow they never mentioned that you're supposed to keep track of the phone number of everyone you've ever worked for so that you can give it to other people you might want to work for in the future.  Or that you can seriously ruin your heater if you don't change the filter monthly -- something I didn't find out till I'd left it undone for four years.

Today's pro tip is about keeping records.  Start doing it today, because the awful thing about keeping records is that the only way you find out you needed to know something is by needing to know it and not having it.

What I should have done years ago, and am going to start doing now, is keeping a records notebook, apart from my journal (because who wants to flip through pages of angst to get to the date of your last dentist appointment?) where I write literally everything I might want to know about later.  Here are a few things you should be keeping track of:

*Dentist and doctor appointments: The date, what it was for, and everything you learned.  Do it for the kids, too, and record their stats (height, weight) and everything else you learn.  I thought I would remember Miriam's blood type, but apparently I overestimated how well my brain was working postpartum.  Write that stuff down.  Of course you should be keeping a vaccine record and a record of any major illnesses.  You don't want to be scratching your head years later trying to remember which of your kids have and haven't had the chicken pox.

*Major life changes: Keep a record of every place you have worked and every place you have lived.  You'll need that information in case of a background check.  Make sure you have addresses and phone numbers.

*Home maintenance: Write down when you purchased oil, if you have oil heat, so you know when to buy more and how much you usually use.  Write down any service your heater and other appliances get and when they are due for more.  Write when you change your air filters and water filters, if you have them.A  It's good to keep the forwarding address for the previous owner of your home, in case you get important mail for them or collections calls. 

*Car maintenance: Record all service on your vehicle and put future service due on your calendar.

*Receipts: Keep them as long as it takes for you to be sure you aren't going to be returning anything.  Seems every time I want to return something, I've lost the receipt.  I'm going to start keeping them in my wallet and clean out old ones every few weeks.  But it's nice to keep a grocery receipt every once in awhile so you can keep track of how your spending changes over time.  Is it going up because you're buying more luxuries, or is it just that prices are rising?  That sort of thing.

*Addresses: My mom had everyone's contact information in a Rolodex.  I don't have a Rolodex because theoretically I have all that information elsewhere -- phone numbers in my phone, addresses somewhere in my gmail archives, except for some that I don't seem to have at all.  I once sent my phone through the washing machine and permanently lost touch with a friend, because her number was the only contact info I had.  You wouldn't think that would happen in the Facebook age, but it does.  And of course, if you want to send someone a surprise gift, you don't want to first email them for their address!  I'm going to be looking around for a good way to keep and organize contact information online.  If I can't find one ... I think I'll have to time-travel back to the 90's and buy myself a Rolodex.

*Gardening: I have been told all good gardeners keep records.  I always mean to, and then I don't.  I don't remember what I planted where even just last year.  Oops.  You should record what you planted, when, and where, as well as what pests you experienced and what your yield was like.

*Recipes: I used to copy and paste any online recipe that worked well for me into a Word document.  This was really handy when my favorite carrot muffin recipe disappeared off the internet.  Sadly, it was lost forever when my hard drive got fried.

Which brings me to the last point: back up your files!  I use Dropbox for documents, Picasa for pictures, and Google Play for music.  If there is any digital information you'd hate to lose, keep it in more than one place.  And for some of these records, like children's health records, it might be best to keep them on paper in the same file as birth certificates and such.  That way you'll know you'll always have them.

Friday, January 8, 2016


A recent comment by Enbrethiliel brings up a question that I get asked a lot: How can you not believe, given all those miracles?

I get it -- when you're Catholic, you hear about miracles all the time, and many of them seem very convincing.  Even the less convincing ones (spontaneous remission of cancer, for instance, which could just be a coincidence) seem to build up the case -- like many pieces of circumstantial evidence build up a legal case, even when no one piece of evidence proves the suspect committed the crime.

And this seems like the best avenue for belief for a person like me, who would like to see the evidence.  If God exists and he is interested in our believing in him, one would expect miracles to occur.  I would readily believe on the basis of miracles, provided they are really convincing.  So that would require one or more absolutely inexplicable miracles -- things that could not happen in any natural way -- or else a large number of miracles which appear highly likely to be inexplicable by the laws of nature.

However, in order to use a miracle as even circumstantial evidence, it should still be somewhat inexplicable.  You can't build a circumstantial case out of a bunch of complete coincidences.  Let's use the Catholic Church's standard for miracles: it should be inexplicable by natural means, and it should be directly connected to a spiritual cause.  So spontaneous remissions of diseases in people who didn't pray for healing would not qualify, in the Church's terms.  I also think that we can safely rule out anything that also happens to people who weren't praying or prayed for.  For instance, Fulton Sheen's beatification miracle was a baby who was born not breathing and much later started breathing.  I would have found it much more amazing if I hadn't, the year before, read of a similar case in a non-religious family, which had the doctors puzzled and speculating that babies can survive a lot longer without breathing than we had thought.  We always have to acknowledge the possibility that "unexplained by natural means" might only mean "not yet explained."  If something happens in a number of cases, some of which are spiritually connected in some way and some of which are not, we can postulate that there is a natural mechanism at work that we didn't know about before.

So, let me address the individual miracles which I have researched so far.

The first one was Fatima.  I mean, sun dancing in front of a crowd of viewers, pretty convincing, right?  On the other hand, I didn't want to believe it, because the children say they saw souls falling into hell like snowflakes, and of course no one wants to think that many people go there.  The miracle of the sun is pretty well-attested by eyewitness accounts, but there are no photographs.  It was also a localized phenomenon -- only people in Fatima saw it, and there is no evidence that the earth's rotation was disturbed at the time.  But that's reasonable -- it would be horribly damaging to the earth if the sun or earth actually danced, so it would be some sort of vision given to people who were present at the time.

My first issue with it is that the eyewitness accounts do not agree.  Some people say it lasted a few seconds, for instance, and others say several minutes.  Some people saw the sun advance and recede, others say it spun and changed color.  Some people say a shower of white petals came from the sky, and others didn't see the petals. 

The second issue is that the same thing has happened at other places and times, for instance, in Medjugorje.  Medjugorje acts as a great control sample for miracles -- the local authorities have concluded it is not of supernatural origin, and yet many of the same miracles have happened there as at other "real" apparitions.  Here is Fr. Dwight Longenecker's account of seeing the miracle of the sun at Medjugorje.  There have also been more tests done on this phenomenon at other apparation sites -- video was taken which showed no change in the sun while people claimed to see it dance, for instance.  Also, there have been reports of people permanently damaging their eyes while watching the sun dance, which was not supposed to be possible in the original miracle claim.

There are two natural theories as to how it could have appeared that the sun was dancing.  First, when the sun is partially hidden by cloud (as it was in this case) it can sometimes appear to be moving.  I've seen this phenomenon myself, when I was in college.  John and I were stargazing (he was taking astronomy that semester) and had located the planet Jupiter through a haze of cloud.  After awhile of watching it, we both noticed it seemed to be moving.  It moved in small circles, to the right and left, and closer and further away.  It also seemed to be shifting in color from red to green and back.  We talked for a bit about whether it was a UFO or a helicopter, but eventually the cloud blew away and the light returned to standing completely still, though we watched it for quite awhile longer.  In retrospect, I think the cloud was refracting the light coming from Jupiter and confusing our eyes by its movement relative to the planet.  Presumably this could also happen with the sun.

The second theory, which is more credible to me considering the dramatic changes and divergent stories from different witnesses, is that it is a visual effect caused by looking directly at the sun.  When you try to look at the sun (don't do this), your eyes, to protect you, will shift away from it automatically, which can make it look like the sun is moving.  As your cone cells (color-detecting cells in the retina) become exhausted and damaged, you will see shifting colors both on and near the sun.  It is possible that, on Lucia's suggestion to look at the sun, they looked and saw the phenomenon I observed with Jupiter: the sun brightening and dimming (looking like it was moving closer and further away) and dimmed down enough to seem like they could look at it.  But as they continued looking, their eyes started to produce the effects of damage -- shifting colors and further movement.  You can read more about the various issues with Fatima here

(To fact-check any miracle, google the name of the miracle plus the word "skeptic."  You should be able to find naturalistic theories of how the miracle happened -- though whether the natural or supernatural theory seems more credible is a matter for your own judgment.  But reading a positive view of the miracle without ever reading the opinions of those who doubt it is like researching Trump by going to his website.  You want a variety of sources from different points of view.)

Next was the Shroud of Turin.  I'd seen a documentary on it years ago, which had convinced me it was authentic and could not have been created by natural means.  But further research dug up so many problems.  First off, the carbon-dating issue: it dated to the 1300's, despite very rigorous, controlled testing.  Second, it lacks provenance -- that is, there is no record of its existence until the 1300's, at which point our first record of it is an inquiry into its veracity.  The Pope at the time wrote that it was a forgery and the painter had confessed.  Third, it has qualities of a painting of the time period -- the figure is somewhat elongated and stylized.  Jesus' hands are folded over his groin, which is actually impossible to do while lying flat on the ground.  Try it.  If your shoulders touch the ground, you can't cover your crotch.  The front and back images are not the same height.  The bloodstains look painted, whereas real blood soaking into linen would spread out and puddle.  Jesus' hair hangs down as if he were standing, instead of back as if he were lying down.  The fourth issue is that the bloodstains don't check out as blood -- while they contain iron like blood does, they also contain paint ingredients.  The fifth issue is the usual burial method in Jesus' day was to wrap the body in linen strips, with a separate cloth for the head, rather than a single shroud.  And sure enough, the Gospel accounts refer to a separate face cloth.  Why is there no sign of a face cloth on the Shroud?

The best theory I've heard so far is that it is not a painting, but a rubbing.  A relief figure was made and the pigment rubbed on, to create the "3D" effects.  But it seems clear to me that whatever it is, it isn't Jesus' shroud.  Here is the best of the dozens of articles I have read on both sides.

Next up is Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I have always loved both the image and story, so I had high hopes for it.  Unfortunately, there isn't much information about it either way.  Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the image hasn't been subjected to much scientific study.  Worse, the story of where the image came from was written 200 years after the image first appeared -- so it could very well be that the legend was written to explain the image, long after the real story of where the image came from was forgotten.  What information there is, is conflicting.  Some people say it looks like it can't possibly have been painted.  Others say they've seen paint flaking off it.  It certainly doesn't look like a photograph -- it's stylized in a way appropriate to the time period.  Some people say they see images reflected in Mary's eyes; others say it's just irregularities in the weave of the fabric which don't really look that much like people.  I can't nail it down.  I'm not going to say it's not a miracle, but there isn't enough evidence available for it to really build a case for me.

Lourdes is up next.  It's difficult, because it's not just one miracle claim, but thousands.  Many of these, the Church has refused to recognize.  Periodically the standards are raised for recognition -- for instance, adding a requirement that the person healed must have been examined by a doctor before the healing -- and every time the standards are raised, the number of "real" healings drops.  Since 1978, there have been only five healings.... which, considering the millions who travel to Lourdes every year, is not very impressive.  Couldn't even these be coincidental remissions of disease?

Next, consider incorruptibles.  Certainly for a holy person to be dug up and found perfectly preserved would be quite convincing.  (Provided, of course, that this never happens with random, non-holy people.)  But, well ... have you seen in incorrupt corpse?  I mean the real kind, not helped along with embalming fluid or coated in wax ... because many saints are purposefully preserved that way; you have to ask.

Here is the supposedly incorrupt head of Saint Catherine of Siena.  I've seen it in person and assumed at first that it was not incorrupt, only dried out, but they tell me she is particularly well-preserved for an incorrupt.

And here is a bog person, naturally preserved by a high level of tannic acid in the ground:

Not so obvious, really, which is the miracle and which is natural.  Isn't it possible that some saints just happened to be buried in marshy ground?  Especially given that some "incorrupt saints" weren't even considered for sainthood till they were dug up and found fresher than expected.

Okay, what about Eucharistic miracles?  Bleeding host stories are plentiful enough that I couldn't research every one of them, but there is a common explanation that could apply to many of them.  So-called "red mold," which is actually a kind of bacteria, grows on bread in damp conditions (in fact, it grew on my sourdough starter one time) and in the right conditions it can give the appearance of blood.  This Protestant source explains some of the history and biology of the bacterium, Serratia marescens.

I have read the atheist claim that God never heals amputees.  If he were really out there, they claim, he could regrow limbs as easily as heal lesions or cancer, and yet he never has.  That's not entirely true.  There is one miracle claim, the Miracle of Calanda, of a person having regained a lost limb.  However, it disappointed me.  In the account, a beggar is well-known by everyone to have only one leg.  One morning, his parents came in while he was still sleeping and saw both of his feet sticking out from under the covers.  They woke him up and told him,  whereupon he announced that it was a miracle.  The counter-argument is obvious: perhaps he had been binding up his leg to further his begging career, and the claim of a miracle was his only way to avoid getting shown up as a liar.  I am not sure about this one.  There's a surprising amount of documentary evidence, though it was before the era of medical records.  And yet, people do lie at times.  And there is a disagreement in my sources as to whether the doctors who performed the amputation were interviewed or not.

What it comes down to is your prior belief in miracles.  When you see a magician perform tricks, you attend to assume there is a natural explanation.  Either you guess what it might be, or you have no idea, but you still don't jump to the conclusion that it's magic because you don't believe in it.  But a person from the Harry Potter universe might say, "Why do you automatically discount magic as a cause?  It's the simplest explanation."  So when thinking of how incredulous people are about miracles, you should consider their prior beliefs.  What sort of proof would be necessary to convince you of the existence of magic, having previously disbelieved in it?  You would need much stronger evidence than a believer in magic would need to believe that a certain trick was magical.

The second global issue with miracles is that they also occur in other religions.  There are Protestant faith healers, New Age faith healers, yogis able to perform marvels, claims of Buddhist gurus who could teleport, and classical stories about Greek and Roman wonder-workers who could heal and raise people form the dead.  And, of course, Medjugorje.  Of course, the answer to this is usually, "God is not confined to only performing miracles for Catholics."  But think about it.  The way the actions of a conscious being can be distinguished from the actions of a scientific law or random chance is that a person's actions have a teleology -- they are performed toward a certain end.  So, just as in the post about theodicy a few days ago, we have to ask, What does God want?  Does he just want to heal people because he loves them?  No, or he would heal everyone, because he loves everyone.  The other possibility is that he does miracles so that people will believe in him -- in which case it would be absolutely counterproductive for him to do miracles for non-Catholics.  The obvious effect would be to cause people to believe in falsehood.  Of course you can claim these supernatural or paranormal events did not happen, but the same issues with them (insufficient documentary evidence, alternate natural explanations) may apply equally well to Catholic miracles.

So, that's why I haven't been convinced by miracles.  I have no objection to them on principle, but I haven't found any that was really inexplicable by natural means, nor do I find the evidence for the ones we do have to be great enough to generate belief in God in someone who didn't already possess it.  Still, it's certainly possible that there could be such a miracle that would convince me.  Feel free to comment with your favorite miracles -- I'll look into them.

Monday, January 4, 2016

I've got a word

I didn't mean to spend New Year's Eve staying up all night, counting down till midnight and reflecting on my goals for the coming year ... but Miriam's teeth kept her and me awake, and so that is exactly what I did.  In my exhausted and half-asleep reflections, one word kept coming back to me:


It's not an active word, which is good, because I don't know how active I will be able to be this year.  But it's not a passive word either -- if it turns out that I pull out of the tired phase and am able to accomplish stuff, there are things I can do to seek truth.

The other day I was talking to a friend about truth, beauty, and goodness, and I admitted I have often succumbed to the temptation to choose beauty that isn't good or isn't truthful.  There are beautiful things that aren't good -- for instance, I love novels with premarital sex in them, and they often portray beautiful relationships, but most of my readers would probably say that's not good.  Even goodness itself can be the wrong goal, because if you don't have the facts, you can find yourself adamantly pursuing goodness that isn't the real deal.  That's exactly what I did in Regnum Christi -- I felt the important thing was to Do the Right Thing, but I spent no time really discerning what the right thing was.  As a result, I did more harm than good.

I learned this year that you can't be good if you don't know the truth, and so truth ought to be the first thing I pursue, even before beauty and goodness, even though I prefer both of those.  Pursuing the truth is difficult and requires humility (to admit you may have been wrong in the past) and persistence (to refuse to settle for the obvious answer).  You have to learn to stop taking easy answers, blindly following feelings and hunches, or just tagging along with what your heroes think.  I don't mean to say that your heroes or your hunches are necessarily wrong, but that you don't know they're right until you've looked into them.

Our ability, as humans, to know the truth is limited.  For awhile I saw that as a reason to give up, to just admit I don't know anything so I could just do whatever seemed like a good idea.  But obviously you can know more or less of the truth.  Some ideas have more or less justification for them.  And given the choice between blindly guessing (and having a high chance of being wrong) and using all the available tools to get my best grasp on the truth to lower my risk of being wrong, I know which the smart and moral option is.  I mean, if you were sick, would you rather go to a shaman who said he had no idea what would cure you but he may as well try leeches, or a doctor who said the available treatment was not completely tested, but had been promising in initial trials?  There are never any guarantees in this life, but there are better and worse choices.

Beyond that philosophical side of the word, there's also a very practical issue I have with truthfulness.  I hate lying and try hard to avoid it, but I tend to omit a lot.  If a conversation will be emotionally-charged, I move heaven and earth to avoid having it.  If I think a friend might reject me -- if there's even an off-chance they might -- I hold back as much as possible of myself so that they won't.  Heck, even the way I dress is a bit untruthful.  I don't wear the clothes I like, because I'm afraid others won't like them and they'll reject me.  But isn't that hiding a truth about myself -- my actual personality and taste -- so that I can be a bland generic person that no one will reject, but no one will actually like either?

I suppose I'll have to ease into this.  Too much honesty can be a bad thing, and no one has the right to know everything about me.  But maybe it's time to buy a few pieces of clothing I actually like.  To put the colored streak in my hair I've wanted for years.  Admit to my friends that I disagree with their opinions once in awhile.  Tell my husband what I really want instead of saying "oh, I'm fine, I want nothing" -- an answer that's frustrated him for years, which I struggle very hard to stop giving.

And yeah, maybe start admitting to a larger circle of people that I don't believe.  I thought coming out on this blog would be the hard part, and everything after that would come naturally.  Instead, the only real-life friends who know are the ones who also read this blog, because I can't find it in me to bring it up.

I was afraid to choose this word because I am NOT ready for a big Facebook reveal and the reactions I know some people will have.  But I don't have to start there.  I could tell a few of my best friends and see how it goes.  No one has a right to know.  But on the other hand, I think I'm letting my fear keep me in a prison of others' expectations, and that I'll feel a lot better when I master that fear.  I also feel morally conflicted by the inherent dishonesty of letting people assume I'm on their team when I'm not.  I have coped with that all this year by continuing to go to church and saying, "Well, I still count as Catholic even though I believe none of it, because I practice."  But that's not entirely true anymore either, and so there's really no sense in which admitting to being Catholic is honest.

A couple of weeks ago we had a Catholic friend over.  We had a conversation about the Faith and I just went along with it, saying the sort of things that fit in with that conversation, even though I don't believe those things.  It felt safer than the alternative, at the time, but afterward I felt terrible.  I deceived my friend because I didn't trust his friendship far enough to admit the reality about myself.  How would I feel if someone did that to me?  Pretty crummy.  I have to do better, even if I'm still trying to figure out how.

So -- 2016 is the Year of Truth.  We'll see how I do.  At any rate, this blog has given me lots of practice -- I am honest here in a way I rarely am elsewhere.  (Though don't kid yourself -- I keep some stuff back.  I mean, it's the internet.)  Wish me luck.

Do you pick a word for the year?  What's yours?
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