Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Vote to help Sherry

An editorial in today's New York Times neatly outlines the candidates' health-care proposals and recommends Mr Obama's, but with reservations. You have time to read it. It's short --under 1500 words--and free of exaggerations, recriminations, accusations, and all the other -ations that characterize political ads nowadays.

Thanks to Mr Neff's job, I have good health insurance, though I'm not one of those "young, healthy workers" who might benefit from Mr McCain's proposals. Still, I'm a lot luckier than some of my friends, including one I talked with this weekend.

Sherry has no medical insurance. Her husband is seriously and chronically ill, and for the last decade she has spent most of her waking hours caring for him. A regular job is out of the question, and so they are trying to survive on his disability insurance. She thinks she is becoming diabetic, but she can't afford to find out--or to treat whatever condition is causing her discomfort. In another year or two, she'll qualify for Medicare, and then she hopes she'll be able to take care of her own health.

Fortunately, her husband is a veteran from way back when veterans got excellent benefits, and they live near a town with a VA hospital. His health care is excellent. But they are now coming to a crossroad, and Sherry doesn't know what to do.

His health continues to deteriorate, and he may soon need full-time custodial care. It is available, but it costs over $6000 a month. The only way they could afford the fees would be to apply for Medicaid assistance--that is, to go on welfare. But if they did that, she told me, they would lose their VA prescription benefit--an unthinkable option, since her husband is being kept alive and manageable by means of an expensive pharmacopoeia.

So this exhausted woman in her 60s, at the risk of her own health and life, will continue round-the-clock caring for the chronically ill, difficult man she loves and promised to care for in sickness and in health. She'll do this for as long as it takes. Maybe for as long as she lives.

In my first draft of this blogpost, I wrote, "Her faithfulness is inspiring. I hope it will inspire you to vote for the candidate most likely to offer her the relief she desperately needs. And I hope the relief comes before she collapses."

A reader pointed out that neither candidate's program is likely to solve Sherry's particular problem, and I agree. So here's an alternate closing paragraph:

When you go to the polls, keep Sherry in mind, along with the other 45.7 million Americans who lacked health insurance in 2007 (the number dropped from 47 million in 2006 thanks to government-funded health insurance programs, according to David Johnson, chief of the Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division). Both candidates want to increase the percentage of Americans with health insurance. Which one is more likely to do so? And which will give more relief to those who need it most--the old, the sick, and the unemployed?

Monday, October 20, 2008

THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta, THE BODY AND SOCIETY by Peter Brown, and I DON'T by Susan Squire

This review was originally published in Books and Culture online  (October 2008) as "Abstinence Now and Then."

In Tom Perrotta's more-or-less comic novel The Abstinence Teacher, published last year and now out in paperback, an odd attraction develops between Ruth, a divorced feminist sex-ed teacher who hasn't been to bed with a man for two years, and Tim, an evangelical ex-doper whose wife is studying a book her pastor's wife gave her, Hot Christian Sex.

"Considering the somewhat puritanical character of the Tabernacle, the book turned out to be surprisingly racy," Perrotta writes. "The authors, the Rev. Mark D. Finster and his wife, Barbara G. Finster, proclaimed the good news right in the Introduction: 'For a Christian married couple, sex is nothing less than a form of worship, a celebration of your love for one another and a glorification of the Heavenly Father who brought you together. So of course God wants you to have better sex! And He wants you to have more of it than you ever had before, in positions you probably didn't even know existed, with stronger orgasms than you believed were possible!' "

There are no characters even remotely like the Rev. and Mrs. Finster in Peter Brown's magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. I had been reading some of the saints and doctors of the ancient church, and I was puzzled. Why, I wondered, did early monastics think they were honoring the Creator when they shunned the company of others and gave up most food, all sex, and even clothing and shelter? Why did a great saint, Jerome, write, "I praise wedlock, I praise marriage; but it is because they produce virgins"? Why did an even greater saint, Augustine, believe he had to be "continent," that is, to give up marriage and sex, in order to follow Christ? Why are there so few married people on the list of Catholic saints, even post-Vatican II saints? Hoping for answers, I picked up Peter Brown's recently reissued classic.

The answers he provided were not the ones I had hoped for. Brown didn't unearth any church fathers with "healthy"—that is, 21st-century—attitudes about the human body. He found no model marriages, no godly gourmands. But instead of criticizing our forebears for supposedly unenlightened attitudes, he emphasizes the difference between the early Christians' philosophical context and our own. "I wrote this book so as to instill in its readers … 'a sense of salutary vertigo' about the Christian past," Brown explains in the introduction to the book's 20th-anniversary edition. "I wished to make them aware of a gulf between themselves and their own past that was wider than they, perhaps, expected it to be. It was a gulf that could be bridged only by showing, to that distant, Christian past, the same combination of wonder and respect that makes for fruitful travel in a foreign land."

If ancient Rome and Alexandria are foreign to most readers today, the world depicted in The Abstinence Teacher is depressingly familiar. Marriages fail. Children rebel. Coworkers fight. Most people drink too much. Almost nobody abstains from sex, which is likely to be recreational, impulsive, or adulterous (if other people are involved at all). Marital sex is either sad (Tim can't stop lusting after his first wife) or silly (see Hot Christian Sex above). If you enjoy a book whose characters are likely to live happily ever after, The Abstinence Teacher is not for you.

And yet it is a sweet book whose flawed, wistful characters look for, and occasionally find, love. Though religious people are teased, they are not ridiculed. A Jewish environmental lawyer with a "Don't Blame Me—I Voted for Kerry" sticker on his Audi says to Ruth, "You gotta give credit where credit's due. These Christians turn a lot of lives around. From what I hear, Tim was a complete wreck before he found Jesus."

Turning wrecked lives around—this is where the second century meets the 21st. Even more than Tim, who gave up drugs and alcohol and one-night stands but hung on to music and soccer and marriage, the early Christians believed that conversion to Christ meant literally passing from one mode of existence to another, moving from death to life. "Christ's victory over death had brought about a stunning reversal of the crushing flow of irreversible negative processes that made the tyranny of the demons seemingly irresistible on earth," Brown writes. "Sexuality edged itself into the center of attention, as a privileged symptom of humanity's fall into bondage. Consequently, the renunciation of sexual intercourse came to be linked on a deep symbolic level … with man's ability to undo the power of death."

While their neighbors fought death by founding families and perpetuating their names from generation to generation, some Christians believed they had already entered the immortal realms and therefore had no need to marry and produce children. For these Christians, abstinence was a sign of their new life. Others believed that it was acceptable to marry and beget children, but only in one's youth—and even then, the sexual act should be miraculously completed without any accompanying passion. "By the year 300," Brown writes, "Christian asceticism, invariably associated with some form or other of perpetual sexual renunciation, was a well-established feature of most regions of the Christian world."

No longer. Nowadays even celibate Catholic priests avoid appealing to asceticism as an explanation for their unusual lifestyle, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, … is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children." What happened to cause such an attitude shift? When did Christians decide that "God wants you to have better sex"? Peter Brown doesn't say: his interest is more historical and philosophical than practical. For the ancient theologians he quotes, the body is strangely detached from everyday concerns such as hunger or pain or sexual desire. Instead, it is made "to bear the symbolic weight of mighty aspirations."

There are no mighty aspirations in The Abstinence Teacher, nor is there much intentional abstinence. There is, however, a great deal of isolation. By contrast, abstinence was the ideal of just about everyone quoted in The Body and Society, yet the would-be abstainers were far from isolated. Most lived in families or monasteries, and even the desert hermits formed clusters of like-minded ascetics. Tom Perrotta enjoys such dichotomies, but I'm still looking for ancient Christians who valued marriage and community, sex and passion, children and animals, good food and wine, all things bright and beautiful. I may have to give up: the attitude I seek apparently developed during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, not the Roman Empire.

That, at least is Susan Squire's view in I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage. Though the delightfully sassy Squire romps through the history of sex with nary a thought of "symbolic levels," much of her raw data matches Brown's: "All [first-century Christians], as fervent believers in Jesus as Christ, are certain that in the next five minutes, hours, days, weeks (soon, anyway), earthly life will end. Urging people to conceive more of it is not going to be part of their game plan. In an apocalyptic frame of mind, the value of marriage and children would be approximately nil."

It's a downhill slide from St. Paul, who thinks it is better to marry than to burn; to Tertullian, who suggests that it is even better to do neither; to St. Augustine, who connects lust with original sin; to Innocent III, who writes that men and beasts, being made of slime, are the vilest of God's creations, and that this "vileness is reproduced 'from the filthiest sperm … in the stench of lust.'" The flesh will out, of course—medieval kings and queens, for example, seem not to listen much to theologians, and troubadours sing of loves that the church does not sanction—but only a theological tsunami will change the tone of official ecclesial pronouncements.

The tsunami comes in the form of Martin Luther, "a 40-year-old virgin wearing a monk's cowl" who blasts celibacy's theological proponents, starts a matchmaking service for priests and nuns, and eventually marries and fathers six children. In his wake, love becomes not the sin but "the expectation. Romantic, compassionate, erotic, intellectual, emotional, physical—hopefully, and delusionally, all at once and all the time. No surprise that divorce is common, or that hope continues to triumph over experience. The cure for lust is now the cure for loneliness, that cure being love."

Tim and Ruth, the protagonists of The Abstinence Teacher, take the love cure for granted, yet they remain lonely and isolated. One believes in abstinence, at least under certain circumstances, but can't live up to his beliefs. The other thinks abstinence is an aberration, but can't find the love she craves. Offering neither self-help nor salvation, Perrotta accepts them as they are: "standing side by side, not quite touching, but close enough that she could breathe in the sleepy smell of his body and feel a gentle current moving between them. They kept staring straight ahead for a long time, almost as if they were afraid of looking at each other, the silence gathering around them, thickening, until the world outside the window disappeared—the sky, the houses, the trees, the airborne leaves, even the man on the car [Tim's pastor]—and they were alone."

Friday, October 17, 2008

How to be a saint, though married

Want to be a saint? Your best bet is to become a priest or a nun. It also helps if somebody kills you violently. If you're married, however, you might as well forget about sainthood, though you raise your chances if (1) you give up sex and/or (2) all your children are celibate.

This weekend the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux will be beatified. (Beatification is the church's recognition that you are in heaven; canonization, which requires an additional miracle, recognizes you as a saint. You have to be beatified in order to be canonized.) Thérèse's parents, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, had hoped to be monastics. After their wedding, says James Martin, SJ, in "His Wife's a Saint, So Is Her Husband" (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2008), they "refrained from sex for 10 months.... Eventually, a frustrated Zélie escorted her husband to a local priest, who assured them that raising children was a sacred activity."

During the remaining 18 years of their marriage, Zélie gave birth to nine children. Four died; the other five all became nuns. Even the fiercely ascetic St. Jerome would have approved. He's the tortured translator who wrote this in a long letter to a female friend:
I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.

Jerome would also have approved of the first married couple in history to be beatified together--Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, who were beatified only seven years ago. According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter, the Quattrocchis had four children. Three joined religious orders, and the fourth never married. As for Luigi and Maria, for over half of their 46 years of marriage they lived sexlessly as brother and sister.

These beatifications happened several years after former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth L.Woodward published Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why. In a fascinating chapter called "Sanctity and Sexuality," he tells about the 1987 World Synod of Bishops, convened "to discuss the role of the laity in the church and in the world" (340). At the synod, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints presented a list of lay possibilities for sainthood. Woodward summarizes what happened:

The congregation, I observed, had nearly three years to come up with appropriate candidates to beatify or canonize during a synod devoted exclusively to the laity. And in the end, the congregation delivered two virginal rape victims, another young martyr who never got the chance to marry, a lifelong bachelor, and a man who left his wife and children behind to go to the missions.

"The message couldn't be more obvious," I said [to a consultant to the congregation]. "When it comes to sanctity, sex is still something to be avoided and celibacy is preferable to marriage. What good is all the talk about the sanctity of marriage if the congregation cannot come up with even one example of a holy and happily married saint?" (343)

Well, now we have our examples. The Quattrocchis and the Martins aren't saints yet, but they're on the way. And someday even you might be a married saint. Just give up sex, and be sure your children do too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A false sense of well-being?

A friend just e-mailed: "But you don't have any happy songs for yesterday (and, hopefully, today)!" Mea culpa. I was thinking of some possibilities, though. Anyone want to offer some lyrics to one of these--or to others of your choice?

Up, Up and Away
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Here Comes the Sun
I Feel Fine
We Can Work It Out
Good Day Sunshine
Dancing in the Street
The Beat Goes On

Of course, you may not feel as upbeat as my friend. Perhaps you are of the David Brooks (aka Eeyore or Puddleglum) persuasion. Check out his column "Big Government Ahead," which begins with this warning:

[M]ost economists say there is a broader economic crisis still to come. The unemployment rate will shoot upward. Companies will go bankrupt. Commercial real estate values will decline. Credit card defaults will rise. The nonprofit sector will be hammered.

If Brooks is right, I'll still have plenty of opportunity to use songs like the ones I worked on over the weekend while walking my dogs, a moderately glum version of "Mrs Robinson":

Here’s to you, Henry Paulsen...
Jesus left your office long ago.
Woe, woe, woe.

and a slightly more upbeat "The Day the Market Died":

Bye, bye to the pie in the sky
Found a Chevy at the levee but the gas tank was dry
Bernanke and Greenspan drinkin’ whiskey and rye
But hey, this could be a good time to buy
This could be a good time to buy...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bonds, Stocks & Tears

What goes up
must come down
Wall Street, Main Street
got to go round
Jesus drives a Prius,
GM suffers for its sin
Take another aspirin
See the candidates spin ...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

When I'm Old and Poor

When I get older, hair turning gray,
A couple of years from now,
Will there still be money for a bottle of wine,
Or will I be standing in the food pantry line?

I'm clutching my food stamps, I'm down on my knees,
Please unlock that door.
Will anyone heed me, will they still feed me
When I’m old and poor?

You’ll be poorer too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you....

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wall Street Park

Someone let my money down the drain...

I don't think that I can take it
Cuz it took so long to make it
And I'll never have retirement plans again

Oh nooooooooooooo ...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Droopy Tuesday

Good-bye, droopy Tuesday
Now the Dow is black and blue
My funds shrink with every new day
Dollars, gonna miss you...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another Black Monday for the Grandmas and Grandpas

Monday, Monday, so bad to me
Monday, Monday, it was all I feared it would be
Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn’t guarantee
That Monday evening I'd still have funds in my 403-b.

Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day,
Monday Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way
Oh Monday morning you gave me no warning of what was to be
Oh Monday, Monday, how could you leave me in bankruptcy?

Every other day, every other day,
Every other day of the week is fine, yeah
But whenever Monday comes, but whenever Monday comes
You can find me cryin' all of the time.

Monday, Monday ...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Life imitating soap opera: The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

Imagine, if you can, a world leader with little previous experience, troubled children, a husband with a compromised past, a funny Northern accent--but boundless confidence that with honesty and common sense, she can clean up the mess in the national government.

No, not that one. I'm talking about Ros Pritchard, the eponymous fictional heroine of a TV series that aired on BBC One in 2006 and on Masterpiece Theatre last fall.

The concept was too far-fetched for the Brits, apparently. The Amazing Mrs Pritchard "fared poorly in the ratings," says a Wikipedia article. Americans liked it somewhat better. Ginia Bellafante, writing in the New York Times, called the five-part series "a guilty pleasure," and Matthew Gilbert's review in the Boston Globe pronounced it "likable."

Mr Neff and I watched Mrs Pritchard on DVD long before we had any reason to think life might imitate public entertainment. The premise is intriguing--who among us has never thought he or she could do better than our elected officials?--yet the tone is light. This is soap opera, not French film. Jane Horrocks plays Ros with a just-right combination of wackiness and high purpose, and Janet McTeer as Catherine Walker is a formidable foe and foil.

Mrs Pritchard is safe to watch in a mixed group of Republicans and Democrats, and it's likely to be more fun than the next two debates. You can order it from Netflix or Blockbuster (or pick it up at the Wheaton Public Library).

For more information about Mrs Pritchard's fictional political party, the Purple Alliance--halfway between red and blue!--check out their website.