Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Plea to Supporters of Planned Parenthood

For the purposes of this blog post, let’s forget the unborn. I won’t ask you to change your views on abortion. In fact, we’ll put that issue completely aside.

The reason I’m willing to do that is because we have more common ground than might be readily apparent. Our divergent paths cross at least on one point: the sexual abuse of minors. Pro-life and pro-choice advocates can agree that it is a despicable evil for anyone to exploit underage children.

What does Planned Parenthood have to do with any of this? The answer is sobering, and I will divide it into two separate points below. In short, I want to show how Planned Parenthood is habitually guilty of aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of minors.

1. STATUTORY RAPE (NON-CONSENSUAL)

The website Child Predators has documented over 50 cases in 22 states in which an underage girl was sexually assaulted, taken to a Planned Parenthood (or PP-affiliated) center for an abortion by the perpetrator, and was not reported to authorities. If you do a little online research, you can find news articles confirming the details of these cases. Dates range from 1980 to 2012; about half took place after 2000.

Why is this such a big deal? Because it is illegal in all 50 states for an adult to engage in sexual activity with a minor. Furthermore, healthcare workers are required by law to report each incident of even alleged sexual assault.

Consider the facts of just one case from 2012. Timothy Smith took his stepdaughter, whom he had been sexually assaulting for years, to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver to get an abortion. The employees at PP learned that she was only thirteen, and noticed that, even though Timothy claimed to be her father, they both had different last names, and she referred to him as “Tim” instead of “Dad.” She received the abortion, as well as an injectable birth control shot—something to which she objected, but her stepfather overruled.

During all of this, the clinic workers at Planned Parenthood committed several acts of criminal negligence, including
  1. A failure to verify any of the information the stepfather gave them regarding the pregnancy, even though it was suspicious
  2. A failure to confirm consent from a birth parent before performing an abortion on a minor
As a result, Timothy was enabled to continue raping his stepdaughter for two more months before finally being caught by the girl’s birth mother. Later that year, he plead guilty to two counts of sexual abuse.

In all of this, keep in mind that a majority of sexual assaults are never reported. So, statistically speaking, the findings above represent just a fraction of the cases in which Planned Parenthood and its affiliates have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors.

2. STATUTORY RAPE (CONSENSUAL)

In 2002, an investigative group conducted a phone survey in which they called over 800 Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Federation centers throughout the country. In each case, the caller pretended to be a 13-year-old girl who was pregnant by her 22-year-old boyfriend. The purpose was to see how clinic representatives would respond to a presented case of statutory rape in which the girl was trying to keep her pregnancy secret. Here’s just a snippet from their findings:

[Planned Parenthood and NAF employees] were willing – and in many cases eager – to help this child hide from her parents and the authorities the fact that she was being sexually exploited. Toward that end they provide step-by-step instructions on how to circumvent state laws that were enacted specifically for the purpose of protecting children exactly like her in situations just like this. . . .

From start to finish, the attributes of the employees we talked to made it brutally obvious that this is an issue they deal with routinely. In fact, several of them volunteered that they get calls like this all the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can listen to each and every phone call (if you really want to) here.

ALL SYSTEMS KNOW

As a pro-choice reader, you may have a hard time swallowing information given to you by pro-life sources. You’re afraid of confirmation bias, right? I can understand that.

Note, however, that the statistics and articles and media I’ve referenced or linked to aren’t mere hearsay. They are verifiable incidents, backed up by news reports and court records. As such, these facts are inherently damning no matter one’s political or ideological persuasion.

The Timothy Smith case is a good example of how Planned Parenthood has failed to implement any adequate reforms. After Smith was convicted in late 2012, a civil suit against PP confirmed that the organization still has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Court documents show that current PP training materials state, “PPRM policy is to not ask partner’s age” (listed under a section entitled, “Partner Looks A Lot Older”).

Or consider this example from 2014, in which an Arizona Planned Parenthood counselor intentionally miscoded a case of sexual assault as a consensual encounter. Or consider this 2014 report by the Alabama Department of Public Health, detailing how a Planned Parenthood facility “failed to report reasonable suspected abuse or neglect for a minor,” even though the child had been brought in for two abortions in the span of several months.

It would be one thing if we were talking about a few isolated events. Instead, we’re dealing with literally hundreds of incidents all across the nation, spanning over three decades. These problems are systemic. As a whole, Planned Parenthood has repeatedly shown its willingness to circumvent the law, to the possible—if not certain—detriment of its patients.

PRO-LIFERS AND PRO-CHOICERS UNITE

Over the years, I have witnessed the exposure of certain religious leaders involved in the sexual abuse of minors. These stories have saddened and sickened those inside and outside the community of faith. And rightly so. The abuse of power on display is worthy of opposition and even prosecution.

The same goes for PP’s actions detailed above. It won’t work to argue, as many have, that “Planned Parenthood still does a lot of good.” This excuse is inadequate at best and sleight-of-hand at worst. A foster parent who has molested only one of his children is unfit to parent; a politician who has covered up a felony so as not to hurt his campaign is unfit for office; a charity that hides the misdeeds of its leadership in order to save face is not a trustworthy ministry; and an organization with a penchant for putting its clients at risk of physical and emotional harm is not fit to keep its doors open.

The evidence is mounting, causing increasing public concern, even among the media. That’s why pro-choice advocate Bunnie Riedel finds it “disturbing” that PP has spent so much time circling the wagons rather than addressing the legitimate criticisms leveled against it. That’s why Vox editor Sarah Kliff similarly finds it “disturbing” and “damaging” that some Planned Parenthood officials dismiss their ethics fudging as a “specious issue.” That’s why pro-choice proponent Ruben Navarrette Jr. has solemnly agreed with the assessment that “Planned Parenthood’s system-wide conspiracy to evade the law…is now undeniable.”

So would you please join me in advocating for the elimination of Planned Parenthood? Our government, and society as a whole, must not stand idly by. To ignore the plight of the vulnerable among us is irresponsible and just plain crazy. I don’t say that because I’m pro-life and you’re pro-choice. I say that because we are all human, and we can—and should—unite in protecting the dignity, innocence, and humanity of those we all inherently agree are worth protecting: our already-born children.

Friday, July 03, 2015

INSIDE OUT (2015) – Film Review

For those lamenting Pixar’s artistic decline, take heart: there is reason to celebrate. I’m even prepared to say Inside Out is Pixar’s best film yet. Granted, that’s just my opinion—but it’s true.

I’m thrilled about the movie’s opening weekend gross of $91 million—the best opening, actually, for an original story in cinema history, beating out James Cameron’s Avatar. To quote Entertainment Weekly, “Even though Inside Out ended the weekend in second place [behind Jurassic World], it’s the biggest No. 2 debut of all time, demolishing the $68.7 million record previously held by The Day After Tomorrow.” Yes, this movie is receiving the financial and critical accolades it so rightly deserves.

Oh, Pixar, how do I love thee? Let me recount the ways.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P). (CAP. Get it?)

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
A typical Pixar film avoids trite platitudes and sophomoric humor. Instead, it takes the road less traveled, delving into realms disregarded by your average children’s movie. Inside Out is no exception. The drama of this story unfolds in a way that rings much more true to human experience than any other “family film” that’s come along in quite a while.

This is Pixar at its poignant best. It doesn’t shy away from some fairly weighty subjects, but not without a strong sense of felix culpa (i.e., an error or disaster that eventually leads to pleasant consequences), as well as a discerning perspective on pain and sadness.

As far as potentially problematic content goes, my main beef is with a brief (and ostensibly positive) reference to a girl’s fascination with vampire stories. That’s pretty much it. The film’s content may be too heavy for some young viewers, but morally inappropriate it is not.

ARTISTRY (A): 10 out of 10
If you evaluated the story based only on the external events—i.e., what takes place in the “real world”—you’d notice it’s about as simple and generic a story as you can get. What makes it incredibly novel is the focused attention on the inside of a young girl’s mind, personifying her emotions as individual characters. This perspective turns the story into a gold mine of originality. Inside Out is another shining example of Pixar’s out-of-the-box storytelling, right up there with the likes of WALL•E and Up.

Pete Docter and his team of filmmakers strike all the right keys, including everything from Michael Giacchino’s score to the storytellers’ intricate world-building. The script’s ability to deal with such complexity in such an easy-to-follow way is commendable.

The cheap and easy way to play the emotions for humor would have been to make them all self-serving and antagonistic toward each other. Instead, they work together as a team. Sure, there are moments of disagreement, but the relational dynamics between the emotions makes us sympathize with each character. In fact, all the major characters, both within and outside Riley’s mind, are relatable/likeable.

The film actually has no anthropomorphic antagonist, but it still grapples with sad and somber subjects, not the least of which involves irreparable loss. If you’ve ever wondered by humans have heartstrings, it’s so that movies like this could tug at them. The art of filmmaking exists so stories like this can be told.

No film is absolutely perfect, but Inside Out is about as close as they come. In a perfect world, this movie would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.

PREFERENCE (P): 9 out of 10
One of my major concerns going into the film was that humans would be turned into mere puppets at the service of the emotions controlling them. What I found was a more nuanced portrayal: at times, the emotions do seem to be calling the shots, whereas other instances point to the humans directing the emotions. It’s a clever and balanced portrayal of the paradoxical truths of predestination and human autonomy.

I freely admit that I cry in movies—especially Pixar films. Inside Out, however, reached deeper into my soul than any other Pixar film to date—possibly deeper than any other film period. My wife thinks it’s because this story is the most universally appealing and applicable that Pixar has ever created. Finding Nemo might resonate more with parents, and Up might resonate more with married couples, but no one is left out of Inside Out’s sights. Pete Docter has tapped into the universal human experience in a way no other Pixar film has done. It left Shannon and me emotionally undone.

There were several points in the film where even Shannon (who never cries in movies—and I mean never) was reduced to a bucket of tears. And during the clever and cathartic end credits, I was literally laughing and crying at the same time. As Shannon and I discussed the story afterward, neither of us could mention certain plot points without having to stop and compose ourselves. Yes, the movie is that affecting.

Furthermore, the movie’s thematic elements are complementary to a Tim Keller book Shannon and I are currently reading: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. One aspect of the Christian view of pain is that it has a “soul making” affect, giving us greater capacities to experience and demonstrate emotions and virtues that would otherwise be impossible. Inside Out beautifully mirrors this truth—not in a preachy way, but in a subtle and organic way. In fact, this movie’s illustration of the “soul making” nature of suffering has directly affected my parenting; it has helped assuage certain fears I’ve had regarding my eldest daughter. It’s not often I can say something like that about a children’s film, or any film.

With all this raving, why am I not giving the movie a 10 for my personal opinion? Well, I wasn’t absolutely captivated by the film until the third act. I was interested from the get-go, but it didn’t fully hook and amaze me until the story rushed toward its climax. (In contrast, I gave Monster’s University a perfect score because it was a constant delight for me all the way through.) And while Giacchino’s music fits the film well, it’s my least favorite score of his for a Pixar film. (Up and Ratatouille are much more memorable.) At the same time, I can’t complain too much; each successive listen to the score has left me sobbing. Obviously, it does the job well. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of Inside Out is slightly below my appreciation for it. That’s the only reason why I’m not giving the movie an overall perfect score.

CAP score: 97%

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rap Music: When Comedy Meets Poignancy

There are a couple things you may not know. First, this is Hip Hop Appreciation Week. Yes, it’s an actual thing. And second, hip hop is my second favorite genre of music. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Second only to my love of instrumental motion picture scores is my love of rap.

In fact, I’ve played around with the possibility of writing and recording some of my own rap music. If I did, you could then call me by my hip hop name: Skittles. (M&M is already taken…sort of.)

Rap songs have the unique ability to contain boatloads of information, which, depending on how the format is utilized, can lend itself well to either serious and weighty meditation or outlandish humor. I love both uses. So, in honor of Hip Hop Appreciation Week, I wanted to share some of my favorite rap songs/videos with you. I don’t necessarily think these are the cream of the crop from an aesthetic standpoint—only that I myself enjoy them immensely. I’ve divided my list into two groups: humorous rap songs and serious rap songs. We’ll start with the humorous ones first.

Top 5 Humorous Rap Songs

5. “Yo Mama Battle (of Compliments)” (Rhett & Link)

It’s hard to pick a favorite of Rhett and Link’s hip hop songs, but I like this one because of the twist on a rap battle (i.e., compliments instead of insults) and the cleverness of the lyrics. (My wife likes the “Epic Rap Battle of Manliness” better.)


4. “White and Nerdy” (Weird Al)

Weird Al’s parody skills are exceptional, and this hip hop song is…well, no exception.


3. “Tears of a Rapper” (Flight of the Conchords)

This song comes from the Fight of the Conchords TV show. The lyrics this dynamic duo comes up with are often hilarious. Unfortunately, the song cannot be imbedded, so here is the link. (Warning: song contains some language.)













2. “See You on Monday” (Roman Johnson)

Slathered with delicious lyrics, this song about a man pining for Chick-fil-A on a Sunday (when the restaurant chain is closed) is a real treat.


1. “Swagger Wagon” (Toyota)

Created by Toyota (yep, the car company), this is a clever and slick piece of marketing. As a standalone song (and music video), it’s an intense and entertaining laugh-fest.


Top 5 Serious Rap Songs

5. “Can I Live?” (Nick Cannon)

This song wears its message on its sleeve, but I still love it for two reasons: 1) it’s a message I’m passionate about, and 2) the “twist” ending gives the piece a nice rhetorical boost.



4. “Atonement Q&A” (Shai Linne)

This is a theologian’s dream: a hip hop catechism. Through a series of questions and answers, Shai Linne explains the nature, extent, and beauty of Christ’s atonement.


3. “The Interview” (Timothy Brindle)

Although this could technically fit in the humorous category, it still deals with a serious topic: finding and rooting out the sin in one’s life. Arranged in the form of an interview, and filled with clever lyrics/banter, this song expertly sets up the rest of Brindle’s Killing Sin album. (Yes, I know the album’s artwork leaves much to be desired; just focus on the words of the song.)


2. “Far Away” (Lecrae)

Written as a source of encouragement to those experiencing suffering, Lecrae dedicated all royalties to this song toward relief work in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people.


1. “Rebel” (Lecrae)

Lecrae is my favorite rapper, so it’s hard to pick my top selection from him. At long last, I decided on this one simply because I listen to it more than just about any of his other songs. (This music video is not officially from Lecrae, but I found it more visually interesting than those with just words on the screen.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Why Don’t More Christians Like “Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Let me tell you about a film that’s garnered a lot of publicity. The story revolves around a wealthy and debonair businessman with serious control issues. His sexual tastes involve perverse fantasies, but he gets what he wants because he’s rich, powerful, and handsome. In telling this story, the movie doesn’t shy away from depictions of the sex act. The audience is inundated with sex, in fact. The debauchery is enough to make a lot of people sick, either with revulsion, pleasure, or a mixture of both.

Do you think I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey? Actually, I’m referring to The Wolf of Wall Street, which came out on DVD just last year.

Many prominent Christian critics loved WoWS, as I pointed out earlier. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, has been either ignored or condemned. And yet there are some glaring similarities in how both movies handle sex.

They both employ stylistic techniques that were labeled as hardcore porn just a few decades ago. These techniques involve the filming of partially and/or fully nude actors who are engaged in sexual behavior with one another.

Both films dehumanize the actors who star in them. For WoWS, this is especially true for actor Margot Robbie, who is treated like a piece of meat. For Fifty Shades, the objectification of Dakota Johnson took a toll on both of the main actors, as evidenced by several cast interviews. Consider the following snippet from Glamour:

JAMIE: There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman.

DAKOTA: It’s stressful enough to be tied to a bed naked in a scene. But then they call cut, and you’re still tied to the bed, naked. Jamie would be the first one to throw a blanket over me.

JAMIE: I felt very protective and aware that it probably wasn’t easy for her to be put in those situations, and exposed. . . .

DAKOTA: Sometimes
I did walk off the set feeling a bit shell-shocked. The drive home from work always helped me snap out of it. And a big glass of wine.

Or consider this excerpt from Johnson in TIME:

It was emotionally taxing. At first I was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever,” and then I was like, “All right, let’s get on with it.”

Johnson’s psychological distress is a milder version of the sexual trauma actors experience in the world of porn.

Am I going out on a limb by comparing these films to pornography? Not in the least. Reviewers of The Wolf of Wall Street—including those who loved the film—refer to it as being sexually explicit in the extreme (something we’ve examined in detail before). When a movie is “replete with…acts of sexual depravity” and “borderline NC-17,” how can its pornographic overtones be denied?

Similarly, audiences and critics alike have associated Fifty Shades with porn. Mike McGranaghan writes, “At its core, this is a rape fantasy. . . . If you think rape is a turn-on, this is the film for you.” Movie reviewer Gary Wolcott says, “Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a beautifully filmed, expensive piece of soft core pornography. It gives you the most explicit sex, bondage and spanking you’ll see this side of an Internet porn site.”

But that’s not all. There are ways in which The Wolf of Wall Street is actually more problematic than Fifty Shades. For example, the former has more sexually explicit content than the latter. WoWS has somewhere close to 22 sex scenes, whereas Fifty Shades involves the main characters having sex less than ten times.

And what about the use of the male gaze (which influences most mainstream sex scenes)? The visual objectification of the female form plays a prominent role in WoWS. While still succumbing to the male gaze in many respects, Fifty Shades reveals several aesthetic choices that speak more to a female audience.

With these considerations, how can Christians call WoWS a “great and possibly terrific movie while rejecting Fifty Shades out of hand because “frankly, life is too short”?

There are several answers to this question, I’m sure, but the one I’ve heard most often goes something like this: the message of Fifty Shades is bad, but the message of WoWS is good. WoWS shows how carnal and corrupt the main character really is, while Fifty Shades puts a positive spin on sexual abuse and manipulation.

In response, it could be argued that the overall trajectory of the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually a story about true love. After all, the narrative acknowledges the detrimental nature of Christian Grey’s sexual excursions. His abusive ways are rooted in the abuse he himself received. His character arc involves going from a hardened cynic into a true romantic—all because of the transforming power of love.

Even if you think that explanation is hogwash, there is an even deeper problem with the Christian’s argument that WoWS is commendable and Fifty Shades is condemnable. It’s found, among other places, in a Christianity Today article on Fifty Shades. The film, it says, “has no real cogent moral or cultural point buried within.” The implicit idea here is that if we could discern a moral point (even without changing the pornographic elements of the film), the story would become worthy of our patronage.

That line of reasoning, however, is not credible. Since when does a code of Christian sexual ethics submit to the principle that the ends justify the means? We would never blatantly say all storytelling methods are fair game so long as the message of a story is a moral one.

And yet it seems as if we’re trying to smuggle a deadly principle into our Christianity—the idea that the right thing pursued through the wrong means actually isn’t that bad after all. In effect, we are saying that a filmmaker can borrow techniques from the world of porn and somehow not subvert a film’s moral message. We’d be shocked and ashamed to see religious retail stores market “Christian porn,” but we’re quick to patronize pornographic content—so long as it is labeled as mainstream and comes with a worthwhile moral/cultural point.

So, I’ll end this piece right back where it began: Why don’t more Christians like Fifty Shades of Grey?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blog’s Not Dead

We’re more than a week into March, the month in which I planned on resuming normal blogging. Alas, such a course of action was not meant to be. My working schedule is slowly morphing into a different animal, and all my free time has been snatched away like a piece of food dropped next to a group of ravenous seagulls.

I wish I could pinpoint when I will be able to resume my weekly blogging, but that is currently impossible. Which leads to the following question: Is this blog dying? Is it already dead? Or is it only mostly dead?

Or, to borrow from another movie script, I’d like to say this blog is not extinct—just dormant. As in sleeping. And sleeping things wake up.

My hope is that this will be more of a cat nap than a coma. Whatever the case, I may be able to post from time to time in the weeks to come. And if the Lord allows, I plan to resume normal operating hours within the next two or three months, or thereabouts.

So please don’t give up on me. I have a sneaking suspicion that Miracle Max is finishing up his special pill as we speak. Or, to put it another way, the volcano might just be preparing to wake up and shower the world with its explosive power. (I mean that in a good way, not a violent way.)

No, this blog’s not dead. It still needs to have fun storming the castle. Of course, I’ll need to acquire a gate key first…

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fickle February

Due to various and sundry reasons (mostly involving a combination of scheduling, family expansion, and sicknesses), I won’t be able to update the blog regularly during the month of February—if I’m able to update it at all. Whatever the case, my plan is to get back to a regular posting schedule, or close to it, by the beginning of March. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Five Myths About How Parenting Ruins Your Life

Last week, I (Shannon, Cap’s wife) wrote to my past self, the self from two years ago who wanted to have children but also really didn’t. Too many articles, Facebook posts, and moms with screaming kids at Target had convinced me that parenting would drastically disrupt the life I enjoyed so much. I hope that last week’s post was encouraging as I addressed the faulty logic that played into my fears. This week, I’d like to “myth-bust” a few negative ideas I had about parenting and, in doing so, show a few tangible ways that parenthood has actually made my life better.

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that I did not immediately “take to” parenting. When Elanor was born, I didn’t experience that magical heart-change so many ladies predicted I would have. In fact, I suffered from low-grade postpartum depression for three months after she arrived. I didn’t find newborn care to be intellectually stimulating or rewarding. And even though Elanor nursed, and I cried when she was done, I still think the concept of breastfeeding is weird. I am not an ooey-gooey mom, but I can still rationally tell you that my life has improved.

Myth 1: You lose your mind.

I did not lose my mind. In fact, a book called The Mommy Brain debunks this idea. Though we may joke about preggo brain (and I have had my moments), what’s actually going on is that our brains are rearranging themselves to work better at things moms need to be good at: multitasking, heightened senses (my mommy-sense is tingling!), stress reduction. God is merciful and creative to have designed such a process.

I myself still enjoy creative writing. I still love to teach—but not grade. And my reading, if anything, has expanded in scope: since I first got pregnant, I’ve been more interested in nonfiction (though I am currently devouring du Maurier’s Rebecca with gusto).

Myth 2: You lose your adult standard of living.

Kids do not have to take over your entire life. The main thing I’ve learned so far as a parent is that I set the standard for my own house. If your friend loves getting projects for her kids off Pinterest to keep them occupied every day, she does it because she wants to, not because someone is making her. If, on the other hand, your friend is me, then her toddler has learned to entertain herself. (In December, I wrapped all my Christmas presents while my baby happily played by herself for two hours, taking breaks to hug my legs and inspect fallen wrapping paper scraps.)

Do you not like the noise of children’s programming? Guess what? You don’t have to show your kid ANY TV. I don’t (because I hate how I end up watching the shows too. Curse you, Doc McStuffins!).

Do you hate the idea of your kids tearing around the house on a crazy sugar rush and then completely losing their rational abilities in the meltdown that inevitably follows? Guess what? No one will ever force you to give your kid sweet tea. It is totally up to you. My mother-in-law trained Cap and his brother to like seaweed (yes seaweed) so much that if they were in trouble, she would take it away. You set the standard.

Myth 3: They require so much sacrifice.

Well, this one isn’t exactly a myth. But the “sacrifices” don’t feel like sacrifices once you’re there. My mom told me something once that has stuck with me: “When you give things up for your kids, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. You do it because you want something else more.” Or as my pastor’s wife once said, “Every no is a greater yes.” It’s true! I used to have actual breakdowns about the idea that once I had kids, I wouldn’t be able to sleep in on Saturday mornings. Now, when I wake up on Saturdays, I cannot wait to see that little face. The only reason I even remembered this “sacrifice” is that the other day I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I was worried about that! I don’t feel like I’m missing out at all.”

Myth 4: I will no longer be myself; my “mommyhood” will take over what I’ve been up until now.

I am still myself. In fact, I like myself better. I am more productive. I am more punctual. I was lazy and selfish before I had kids. (This is not to say that all people who don’t have kids are lazy and selfish. This is to say that I was lazy and selfish.) Before I had kids, I would have maybe one or two tasks a day, and I would wait until about 3:30 to get started on them, pushing back dinner preparations while doing so. Now, I do tasks as they come to me—partially out of necessity, partially because I realize I like my house better this way. I get at least three times more done than I did before, and I do it all while wrangling a 15 month old who wants to tackle our cat, who is too stupid to run away. And even if I have a day where the only thing I did was wrangle the toddler, I still got a lot accomplished. Hey! I kept another human alive today! I can feel good about that!

Myth 5: My marriage will suffer.

My marriage is better, not worse. In fact, when I think about my newlywed life, I would never, ever go back to that stage. Our marriage took some adjustments when Elanor was born as we both learned that we both had to do a lot more work. But we enjoy each other more, not less. We are an awesome team. We are more intentional with our time together. Our date nights feel more special.

We also argue less. I think this is possibly because I don’t have as much time to sit around thinking about “my needs.” I am too busy meeting other people’s needs. And biblically, that’s freedom, folks.

Is parenting a lot of work? Yes. Most things worth doing are a lot of work: education, marriage, writing a book… Work, but good work.

It is also way more fun. You know how you feel when you watch The Princess Bride or The Usual Suspects with someone who hasn’t seen them? You enjoy watching that film by yourself, but watching someone experience it for the first time adds all the freshness and fun that you felt for the first time, too. That’s how parenting is. Cap and I talk at least once a week about how we can’t wait for Elanor to experience Dollywood or Lord of the Rings. I have never looked forward to Christmas more than I have this year. The magic is back.

Do I still have emotional breakdowns after stressful, horrible days? Yes, yes I do. But I had emotional breakdowns and stressful, horrible days before I was a parent, too. This time, though, they come with chubby cheeks, and if Elanor is awake when I start my breakdown, she will crawl up and pat me on the head. I still say it’s an improvement.

Does parenting come naturally? Well, no. Parenting doesn’t automatically make life better. Probably the best thing it’s done for me is shake me out of my spiritual complacency and send me running to God. Realizing I’m not sufficient to nurture and teach a human life in this world of danger is my first fearful step to enjoying Elanor every morning. God gives me a true, eternal rock to cling to in a world bombarding me with guilt and fear about parenting. God helps me see that it’s okay that I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities because He didn’t create me to be all-sufficient—that’s His job. God can give supernatural energy and desire to do what I need to do when I ask Him.

He’s the one who’s busted all those myths I listed above. Without Him, parenting (like everything else) would be a meaningless scramble with no ultimate hope, a life of noisy desperation. With Him… what can I say? I obviously like it so much that even with postpartum depression and more work, I immediately wanted to do it all over again. We were pregnant when Elanor was four months old!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Letter to My Former Self (Who Was Afraid to Become a Parent)

By Shannon Stewart.

It was the fifth Facebook status like it I had seen that day. It read something like, “Naptime. All four kids awake. Poop in my hair.”

To me, happy in my third year of marriage, it made me feel sick inside. I wanted babies—but I didn’t want to “lose my mind,” as many Facebook statuses seemed to suggest I would. I have a Master’s degree in English Literature. I like my mind just the way it is, thank you very much.

So I was scared. And it wasn’t just because of Facebook statuses. I loved my life, my marriage, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? I didn’t see how adding another human to our household could make my wonderful life anything but worse.

I know there are others like me who struggle with the same fears. There is little out there to encourage us. There are mommy blogs that talk about how hard it is, mommy blogs that practically have little hearts floating out of the screens as they revel in how much they adore parenthood (barf), mommy blogs whose sole purpose it is to scare you out of vaccines or co-sleeping… But there was nothing helpful for me, tentatively wanting to be a parent but discouraged at how all these mommy blogs made parenting seem either all-consuming or stressful—or both.

So now that I have a 15 month old and another due this year, I wanted to write a post to my past self (and anyone else like her). Not to tell me how blind I was, not to play the parenting expert, not to coo about how parenting is awesome (though it actually is)—I wanted to write the post I wish my past self had been able to read. In this post, I’d like to address the rhetoric that encourages those fears. Next week (or soon thereafter), I’d like to share how my life has actually improved because I had a kid.

Without further ado, here’s my response to the ideas circulating that, intentional or not, make people like me afraid to parent.

1. Reach for the Stars

The first problem with parenting rhetoric is High Standards. Don’t do this, don’t watch this, only eat organic, use Pinterest to make every day an adventure—or YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE RUINED. My first advice regarding this is to stop reading parenting magazines; most I’ve read run on a mixture of guilt, fear, and consumerism. My second advice is to read this article, this article, and “A Cruel Kindergarchy” in Kevin DeYoung’s fantastic book Crazy Busy.

Essentially, my summary of these authors’ thoughts is this: American parenting today holds itself to too high a standard. Other cultures, and even American culture a century ago, didn’t have all these requirements. There are simply other ways to parent than the ways you see and fear (have you read that second article yet? Go! Go read it!). Think about your own childhood. Did your parent spend every day of your toddler years making your life magical? No. My mom didn’t have the Internet to research, second-guess, and publicly champion every parenting decision she made. And I’m not ruined (at least, I don’t think I am). So parenting doesn’t have to be quite as consuming as the Internet makes it out to be.

2. Woe is We

The second major problem with parenting rhetoric is Complainy Moms. My theory about complainy moms is that they are the kind of people who complain about whatever is going on in their lives. They were the ones who complained about homework during college, about work when they were out of college. Now their favorite subject happens to be their kids. Just hide them from your newsfeed and ignore them like you did in school.

3. False Causes

The third problem with parenting rhetoric isn’t actually the rhetoric; it’s how I chose to interpret what I saw. For example: a harried, upset mom yelling at her three crying kids in Walmart. I looked at that and thought, “I don’t want that in my life. I don’t want to be a parent.” To use fancy terminology, this is the logical fallacy called false cause. This lady was having a bad day. I immediately assumed it was because of her crying kids. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. When I see a childless lady in a business suit in Walmart and she’s acting like a jerk to the clerk, I don’t assume it’s because she’s a businesswoman that she’s acting that way. Sometimes businesswomen have bad days. Sometimes moms and kids have bad days. It’s not necessarily because of their jobs that bad days happen.

On the flip side, I also fearfully observed the Mom Who Won’t Shut Up About Her Kids Syndrome. It seemed like whenever I got around my friends who had babies, all they would talk about was the babies, leaving me out of the loop. It also seemed like every third mom I knew would post a picture EVERY 30 MINUTES of her child on Facebook. So I thought, “Motherhood must make you unable to think of anything but children. I would much rather think about book ideas or philosophize about the ultimate futility of Livia’s attempts to control power in Ancient Rome.”

This was silly for two reasons. First: almost no other woman ever wanted to talk with me about Livia before they were moms, either. So again, false cause: it was unfair to believe that they weren’t “on my level” just because they had kids. Maybe I am just a weirdo.

Second: When I enjoy something a lot, I talk about it a lot. That’s why my classes now groan every time I mention The Legend of Zelda. The possible need for self-restraint aside, maybe these moms post about their kids so much because they like having kids!

I will say, now that I have a child, that I don’t only talk about Elanor. My students still come up to me after class to discuss the latest Christopher Nolan movie; Cap and I discuss quiet times and book ideas on dates. I still light up when Legend of Zelda is mentioned (oh my goodness that new gameplay footage of the 2015 game…).

But I do enjoy talking about Elanor. I appreciate having an “in” with other moms, from the grannies at the grocery store to the girls at church with whom I have nothing else in common. Kids are a great conversation starter, and more often than not I’ll leave with some great new idea or encouragement for parenting. Not a bad deal.

So, past self (and all selves like her), there’s my handy guide for dealing with the stuff out there that encourages parenting fear. Next week I’ll talk about how my life has actually improved because I had kids.

photo credit: Wondermonkey2k via photopin cc

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Trillia Newbell and the Church’s Answer to Racism

With memories of racially-tinged police brutalities still lingering in our minds from last year, and the release of Selma last weekend, the topic of racism is alive and well, which is both good and bad. It’s good that we’re talking about it, rather than ignoring it. It’s bad because…well, because it’s still an issue. We’ve come a long way as a country, but we still have a long way to go.

In an article for The Atlantic, Robert P. Jones proposed that “the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.” Voluntary segregation is a problem, for many more of us than those who care to admit it.

What is the solution? My friend Trillia Newbell talks about it in her book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity. Through her own personal experiences, she shares how the gospel empowers interracial harmony.

Considering that the book is titled United, it should come as no surprise that one thing which stuck out to me was just how united all Christians are, regardless of race. The similarities we share in Christ far outweigh any and all differences. Finding our identity in Christ has radical implications for how we view those who are unlike us. It’s a simple truth, but it’s easy to wave off with bored disinterest.

When we don’t fully understand and embrace those implications, we tend to stay within our cliques—even in church:

Self-sufficiency says we don’t need anyone, but humility shouts for help from those God has placed in our lives. . . . [W]e might think that we just don’t need others who are unlike us. Sometimes logistical barriers keep us from being able to expose ourselves to one another, but that is quite different from resisting diversity because, in our pride, we think we are okay relating only to those we already know who are like us.

Our self-sufficiency and pride can often lead to apathy in our relational pursuits:

[W]e must be careful not to use our differences in language and culture as a crutch or an excuse. We also must not allow our differences to be excuses for apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about anyone outside of those immediately associated with us. It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions and be willing to change.

Lest I give the impression otherwise, Trillia talks more about the solution than she does the problem. Hers is a decidedly hopeful book. Though she has seen and experienced racism in her life, her outlook is based on viewing the future through a gospel-saturated lens:

My dream and hope is that my black-and-white children (the sweet gift of biracial blood) will be holding hands with black, Latino, Chinese, European, and African children in church one day, worshiping together. Stop and think about. Isn’t it a beautiful picture?

I don’t often stop and think when an author tells me to do so (I just want to keep reading), but when I read those words, I did stop, and I did think about it. And it was indeed a beautiful picture.

It will be beautiful to experience that myself in Heaven. In fact, as Trillia points out, if that’s what we’re headed for on the other side of eternity, why not have a little taste of such a culturally and spiritually rich experience in the present? Why wait for Heaven to start enjoying Heavenly gifts now?

I’ve read that Trillia needlessly narrows her audience to those in the Reformed world. I don’t see this as a weakness for two reasons. First, since her book is largely autobiographical, she is simply sharing her experience in the Reformed community. Her testimony doesn’t need to be something it isn’t. Second, my own experience in the Reformed community leads me to believe that people like myself need to hear more perspectives on racial reconciliation. A book catered specifically to us is much needed.

If I had anything negative to say, it would actually be about the editor and not Trillia herself. I caught a small handful of redundancies here and there (just little turns of phrase) that should have been caught and reworded. Nothing major, but I found it to be a distraction. There’s also one instance where a couple sentences on one page are repeated verbatim on another. I hope the editor of Trillia’s next book, whoever he or she may be, will show more attention to detail.

In the end, Christians like me need people like Trillia to help us move past our comfort zones and embrace the “unity through diversity” found through gospel-empowered relationships. I’m thankful for voices like hers. May more of us have ears to hear.

children photo credit: Lennart Tange via photopin cc

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Two Things You May Not Know About Whooping Cough

Around this time last year, our infant daughter was in the hospital with pertussis (i.e., whooping cough). My wife wanted to write a blog post about this dangerous disease, which some countries call “The 100 Day Cough” (and they aren’t kidding, folks). I’ll let Shannon share our experience, and how it might help protect you and those you love.

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We were just getting over the flu (I had picked it up at Desolation of Smaug, which makes that film doubly worthless to me). My sweet two-month old Elanor had a few days off from coughing before she started again. Nothing too serious, really—just like a cold. But it never went away. I took her to the pediatrician, and he said it wasn’t bad enough to be pertussis; I should go home and lay my fears to rest. Two nights later we were in the hospital after Elanor temporarily stopped breathing during a coughing fit and gasped out several “whoops” just afterwards.

We had a mild case of pertussis, it turns out. Even better, when I tearfully asked the doctor at the hospital if Elanor’s life was in danger, she stopped just short of rolling her eyes (a gesture which, at the time, I found very comforting). “It’s very rare to die of whooping cough if you’re here,” she said. “Mostly the kids who die are the ones who are too little to get over it by themselves, and their parents try waiting it out too long.”

So Elanor’s life was not in danger. Nonetheless, we were in the hospital for a week. Here is a synopsis of that week: I started whooping just one day after Elanor. Cap got food poisoning. We missed my grandmother’s funeral. Three or four times the staff of the entire floor rushed into our room because Elanor was turning blue. I sprained a rib coughing. (Then a guy with the spiritual gift of healing prayed for me and boom, it was healed! But that’s another story, probably entitled, “I grew up Baptist. I don’t believe in miraculous gifts… wait one of them just worked on me.”) We received food and coffee from loving friends, excellent and compassionate medical care,…aaaaand the kind of bill you’d expect to rack up by staying a week in the hospital.

Once you get whooping cough (and you like to do your research, like me) you learn a few things. Two things, actually, that I’d like everyone to know:

1. The vaccination prevents you from getting the disease. It does not necessarily prevent you from transmitting the disease.

Let me be straight with you: I am not an anti-vaxxer. I am not trying to start a vaccination debate. I learned this from my pediatrician, who always errs on the side of caution, and my reading has confirmed it: people who have the vaccination can still carry and transmit pertussis. The vaccine’s “severity” has been decreased so that it no longer gives herd immunity (but it also no longer gives as many seizures! Yay!). In fact, if you do the incubation-period math (every mom’s favorite math), we believe the person we caught pertussis from had the vaccine.

2. Whooping cough acts like a normal cough for the first two weeks.

You heard me right! For the first two weeks you have pertussis, you will think it is a common cold (albeit a worsening one) or bronchitis. Only after the first two weeks will you start whooping or coughing so hard you vomit.

For those two weeks, you are still contagious. Every time you cough in the grocery store, thinking you have a cold, you are spreading the pertussis bacteria. My apologies to those of you whom I may have infected while grocery shopping during my two weeks.

What are the implications of these two facts? Here’s what they are for me.

If you or your child is coughing, please keep yourselves away from other children.

I know that really stinks. I know it means no Sunday School, no much-needed play dates, no fun ever, period. I also know it’s impossible to do entirely: you have to buy food, after all. But as much as it is possible, it would be a courtesy to the mom of the two-month old who hasn’t yet had her vaccination to safeguard her family as much as possible. It shows real care. I LOVE it when my friend texts me and tells me her kid is sick so I can’t come over. She is protecting us.

And this one is most important: DON’T TOUCH MY BABY.

I will not tell you this to your face, because there really is no nice way to do so. But when you reach for my baby in the grocery store or at church, I am tempted to slap your hand away. I don’t slap your hand because if I did, you would probably think, “What a paranoid jerk.” Yes—I am a paranoid jerk whose daughter caught whooping cough from someone touching her face.

Here’s how you can be polite to a new mom during flu season: don’t touch her babies. Just don’t. She will love you. She will love your understanding of, and avoidance of, the awkward situation most people place her in every time she takes that baby out of the house. She will love you when you pull out your hand sanitizer and douse your hands with it right then and there before you ask to squeeze that baby’s cheeks.

Here are things that people say to put me at ease when they touch my baby:

1.     “I just washed my hands.”
My mental response: Define “just.” Does it mean five minutes ago? Does it mean thirty minutes ago? How many door handles have you touched since then?
My real response: Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

2.     “My cough is only allergies.”
My mental response: Oh really. What are your symptoms? I want a full list. Are you assuming based on your anecdotal knowledge, or have you gone to a doctor and received the literal diagnosis, “It’s just allergies?”
My physical response: “Oh well as long as it’s just allergies.” Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

Please, please, friends—don’t put moms in this incredibly awkward situation. True, not all of them are as paranoid as I am. But not all of them have had whooping cough, either.