CRISPR Critters

“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.” East of Eden, John Steinbeck

We have recently taken the plunge having long ago resigned ourselves to the reality that there is no privacy anymore. Spitting into a tube and mailing it off to 23 Ancestry, our DNA sequence has been typed and available for analysis. Among the findings on me was that I have deep in my genome a tiny percentage of Italian and Portuguese ancestry. No longer can Rita lay sole claim to a Mediterranean heritage. Our DNA sequences will join millions of others cataloged in servers and can be used for everything from medical research, predicting potential health risks and tracking ethnic backgrounds to catching criminals.

DNA databases have been subpoenaed and used to close some old cold cases, including catching a 1973 serial killer, Joseph DeAngelo. Mr. DeAngelo hadn’t even been typed, but his relatives had, and when investigators interviewed the relatives, Mr. DeAngelo figuratively and literally came under the microscope. The investigative team subpoenaed a DNA sample from him in a decades old hunt for the killer. He came up 99.99 percent as the guy. More than likely, he’s breathed the last free air of his life.

A caution about our well tracked future is whether genetic markers would make their way to health insurance providers, or in some Brave New World, whether these indicators could be used to hike premiums for those with certain predispositions. Or worse, deny coverage entirely. May already be happening beneath the radar. This will be adjudicated, precedent established, and hysterical editorials will be written. Count on it.

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled.“ 

The Times They Are A-Changin,’ Bob Dylan

Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, wanted to find a cure for HIV AIDS, surely a positive pursuit. He developed a new vein to explore. Why not, instead of curing the disease, make people who cannot get it? He hypothesized the way to do that was to alter a specific gene, CCR5. Using CRSPIR[i] technology on an embryo, he cut and pasted, then implanted tiny humans in a willing (or not) uterus and grew some people. He grew two — twin girls and maybe a third later. Once the word leaked to the international press that He was altering the DNA in genes and making designer babies, the Chinese government reacted with righteous horror, as did many. The government claimed that it was not aware of the extent of his tinkering, and that no authorization was given to implant the babies, only to grow them awhile, see what happens and kill them. He must have saved up his milk money and found some other dark funding for his enterprise. There was even talk of capital punishment for He Jiankui, not an uncommon solution to an embarrassment in China. Last week credible evidence was found by other scientists looking at grant studies that there was Chinese government funding for his research from the start, all of it. Color me surprised. Once a method of customizing human beings is perfected, can Superman soldiers be far behind? Or IQs exceeding 300? Or mutant tireless and uncomplaining laborers? Or any number of permutations of designer people? How will science ethics hold fast with trillions of dollars were at stake? Aldous Huxley writ large. The commodification of human beings continues apace.

Last week another story ran that Crispr Therapeutics and its partner Vertex Pharmaceuticals[ii] had treated a rare blood genetic disease, beta thalassemia, with a one-time application of a CRISPR invader. More trials with human beings and unintended consequences be damned. The same team has started a similar study for sickle cell anemia, a genetic plague that is especially deadly in the African American community. The shares of both companies soared. A new world is upon us, and riches are there for the brave of heart. What could possibly go wrong with purposeful, profitable tweaking of the basic building blocks of human life? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

**********************************************************************************

I had a dream — a murky vision — of emerging after a long walk in a desolate wood – gnarled ancient trees without leaves – and coming upon a clearing with a dried-up spring and an abandoned house with weathered wood plank walls and a door partially ajar hanging off just the bottom hinge. With some difficulty I pushed through the door and found only a scarred pine table and a tipped over ladder-back chair. On the table were a stale crust of bitten bread, a few broken crayons, a half-burned candle fixed in wax and yellowed books with bent back pages. A story I’ll never know.

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

Come in, she said

I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.  Shelter From the Storm, Bob Dylan

[i] CRISPIR is the acronym for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is powerful and terrifying tool that mimics how a type of bacteria ‘learns’ to recognize and defend against a virus. In the bacteria, the “remembered” RNA sequence cuts the DNA of a virus it has learned to defend against into pieces, rendering it harmless. The new technology uses specific RNA sequences to cut and replace targeted sequences of DNA in a cell, including an embryo, and “fixes” or otherwise alters that embryo’s DNA, its chromosomes, its genes, what makes it, it.

[ii] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/crispr-infuses-first-human-landmark-132242277.html

 

10 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Going To The Dogs

“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” Aldous Huxley

Deluged in conflicting statistics, we have become inured to shock and confirmed in our protective cocoon of skepticism. Occasionally, however, a set of statistics stops me cold. I read the other day that there are just under ninety million dogs in the United States along with over ninety-four million cats.[i] Juxtaposed with other readily available statistics, that one gave me pause. For instance, there are around eighty-two million human beings under the age of twenty in our country.[ii] So, we have many more dogs than young people. And the ratio of dogs to young people has climbed appreciably year after year. What does that say to us?  Or about us?[iii]

Now before you tag me with the ‘dog hater’ label, I like dogs, having had dog pets both as a kid and as an adult.  I am curious though as to the implications of the statistics. Let’s look together at some other stats that may bear on our discussion.

Our United States fertility rate in 2017 was 1,765.5, or just over seventeen hundred babies born per thousand women over their lifetimes.[iv] To sustain our population at current levels takes 2,100. Since we are also living longer, like almost all the countries in the Western world we have an aging population. What does that forecast for social programs like Social Security and Medicare? Just after the Second World War in 1945, there were forty-one workers contributing to the funds for every retiree. Today that number is below 2.9 and projected to be 2.3 by 2030. Thus, there is much talk about correcting these programs, but so far not the political will to take the necessary and painful steps to fix them.

The fertility rates vary widely from state to state. The more left leaning states most disinclined politically to adjust the social services problem are in the Northeast and West Coast; they also trail the pack with the lowest fertility rates. Why progressives are having far fewer children than more moderate and conservative citizens is another topic worth exploring.  Not to succumb to the distractions of cowardly politicians, but as John Adams so famously stated, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

One would think that fewer children must mean we treat the children we do have much better, with greater consideration and commitment to our relationships between the parents and to the children’s well-being, right? Well, sometimes. In aggregate, though, since 1970 and the advent of the paradigm shift in our culture regarding child bearing and marriage for life, the percentage of children being raised by someone other than their biological parents in a first marriage has doubled from 27% to 54%. [v]

“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Ann Landers

Several quotes spring to mind as I think of these numbers. Bob Dylan in his megahit, “Lay, Lady, Lay” wrote this refrain: “Lay, lady, lay; lay across my big brass bed.” It echoes the beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti[vi] from the fifties: “Let’s lie down somewheres, baby.” Compare and contrast with Shakespeare’s oft quoted Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Who among us does not enjoy the sights and signs of children, signs of hope, wonder and life? Does a decline in those willing to bear children, raise children, lay down their lives for children and their spouses signify effervescing hope, wonder and life?  A final question for our consideration comes from a talk we heard from Dr. Janet Smith about twenty-five years ago. In it she spoke of marriage and families. She asked if some of the rewritten vows that were popular at the time were troubling.

Like the difference between “Lay, lady, lay” and “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” is there a difference between, “we’ll hang out and support one another as long as we are mutually fulfilled and feel content in each other’s company,” and “in sickness and health, rich or poor, good times or bad until death do us part.” Dr. Smith taught (paraphrased in my memory), that traditional vows promised openness to life and a forever commitment. They promised the difference between “lets lie down somewheres, baby” and “I want to get to know you ever more deeply, trust you more deeply, respect you more deeply, love you for your sake, not mine, grow old together with you and share all things and paths with you, come what may. I want our beautiful love when expressed in our physical intimacy empowered to co-create with God’s help another eternal human being who looks a lot like you, then love and raise that unique tiny person into maturity together.” What have we gained by mistaking license for freedom? What have we lost?

“A dog is a pitiful thing, depending wholly on companionship, and utterly lost except in packs or by the side of his master. Leave him alone, and he does not know what to do except bark and howl and trot about till sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep.” H.P. Lovecraft

[i] Insurance Information Institute – Pet statistics

[ii] U.S. Census Bureau statistics on U.S. Population by Age Group

[iii] P.D. James, celebrated author of the Adam Dalgleish mystery series wrote a terrifying dystopian novel about a future society with an infertility crisis. Children of Men was made into a well-received Clive Owen’s movie in 1992. In it desperate mothers in hope wheeled dogs around in baby carriages. I’ve seen a few of those around here.

[iv] “Fertility Rate Varies Widely Across U.S”, Brianna Abbott, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2019

[v] Pew Research Group – “Fewer than half of U.S. Kids Today live in Traditional Families

[vi] Ferlinghetti was lesser known that his fellow “beat” writers like Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac, but in my youth was widely read. I still must have his “Coney Island of the Mind” somewhere in mislaid box of books.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture views

Frogs, Hot Water and A Whip of Cords

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  Mark Twain

Having used a frog and boiling water metaphor to comment on gradual acceptance of radical change, I was disappointed when I learned that when put to the test (don’t ask), the story doesn’t hold water. If you put a frog into cold water in a pot and slowly bring it to a boil, absent a lid, the frog will hop out when it gets uncomfortable, and if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will do what lobsters do in similar circumstances, except not as tasty. But the lessons to us humans from the myth of frogs and boiling water applied to changing culture are true. We can be brought slowly to a boil and not notice.

At Mass recently, a visiting retired Columban[i] missionary priest with a hint of his Irish pedigree in the lilt of his speech said this, “If we do things over a long period that are wrong, they become right.” What is true in individuals is true in society. He was speaking of the Gospel reading from Luke relating the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple. Over many decades the selling of animals for profit to be sacrificed by pilgrims in the Temple had become accepted practice, as was the chicanery of money changers cheating foreigners in the exchange rate to swap their foreign coins for local coins to buy their sacrifices. In another version with more detail in John’s Gospel, Jesus first made a whip of cords, lashing many cords together, which took some time to do. He burst into the Temple outer court with daunting ferocity that terrified the merchants, who certainly outnumbered Him. He drove out the sheep, the cattle and the money changers, turning over their tables and scattering their coins. He shouted to the lesser merchants selling pigeons (poor pilgrims could only afford to buy a bird to sacrifice) to “Take these things away, do not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.”

On the Shroud of Turin,[ii] the mysterious photographic negative image shows a broad shouldered, strong, crucified man. Jesus was a carpenter, a construction worker, not a clerk, and looking at this image we can picture him in a righteous fury intimidating the cheats of the Temple marketplace. This deliberate act to overthrow years of accepted corruption was what set the course of the Temple authorities in their determination to destroy Him in a conspiracy with the power of the Roman Empire and judgement seat of Pontius Pilate.

What Jesus chose as his target was a symbol of the dishonored Temple culture and the self-serving blindness of its administrators. What analogies can we find today, and who is going to wield the whip of cords to such effect? And who will stand to be crucified?

“There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin,’ 1963

 

Lines have become blurred and grey is fashionable, but sometimes friends must talk in primary colors. What we lived in the sexual revolution and its aftermath started in fire and now is embers and ashes. Embers that are best left without new fuel and fresh oxygen.

As the first century Jewish culture had accepted gradually the commercialization of their worship, what grotesqueness have we accepted without a backward glance or embarrassment? Let me suggest the degradation of marriage and families over seventy years or so has led us incrementally, a few degrees at a time into a sanguine acceptance of unreality in what is natural in human beings, especially regarding all things sexual and even in the structure of our bodies. This has not been an accidental dance, but carefully choreographed and plotted step by step, well-funded in its implementation. Not only have we normalized the abnormal, we have made it inviolable; any questioning of this new orthodoxy is deemed not just ignorant, it is called hate speech. In some jurisdictions it is prosecutable, and lives can be laid waste. We insulate heresy to the new orthodoxy in parentheses and issue trigger warnings. Well, please take heed and be so warned. The adults must speak plainly, and the kids should leave the room, although they too are proselytized with great zeal every day.

The cascade of small stones and mud down the slope now has caused us to lose our footing regarding the immutable binary nature of the structure of our bodies. Rather than male and female, we are fungible with exchangeable parts. The XX and XY chromosomes in every cell in our body have failed us, and though they cannot and will not be changed, the results of their labor can be maimed if it suits our tortured desires. With mutilating surgeries and injections of hormone cocktails unknown in nature, we create permanently infertile mockeries with no hope of resolving into new life[iii]. Worse, rather than love and guide our children as their XX and XY chromosomes determine, when we hear their childish confusions and attempts to make sense of it all, we encourage the muddle and inflict these doomed experiments on them. Finally, we congratulate ourselves on our tolerance, and make that a god. To speak common sense regarding this tragedy is banned from the marketplace of ideas[iv].

Once we started down the road of separating the natural functions of human sexuality, of cleaving with a broad-ax childbearing from pleasure and intimacy, the landslide began: half of marriages failing across all demographics and geographies, rainbow coalitions, billion-dollar pornography empires (prostitution with a camera running) spilling into our entertainments, sexual assaults and harassment commonplace, domestic violence increases, renegade commitment phobic men, the normalizing of what was once considered degenerate and dehumanizing, large investment now into development of ever more “realistic” sex robots that completely disengage sex from human contact – the whole sorry, sordid panoply. Where is that whip of cords when you need one?

“I am a Roman Catholic. I believe that sex is both natural and holy. Its nature is reproductive. It is holy, because it is the act that brings into being another person made in the image of God. But our enemies believe neither of these things. They have said that the act is or can be merely recreational. They have said that the act implies no difference between the male and the female. They have said that it has nothing essentially to do with babies. They have even said that there is nothing wrong with its being impersonal: hence, not solely pornography, but also the delight of waking up the next morning to ask the name of the person with whom you have soiled the bed.” Anthony Esolen[v]

[i] Columban missionary order celebrates its hundredth anniversary.

[ii] See earlier blog post, Shrouded

[iii] Petition from pediatricians to uphold scientific definition of sex

[iv] Teacher fired for not calling a “transgendered” student by the prescribed pronoun

[v] Crisis Magazine, “Contemporary Culture is Not Just Unreal – It is Irreal” Oct 18, 2018

3 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Ride That Photon

At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time. Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?” 

I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]

The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective.  The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]

If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.

Please dont make fun when I tell you something true.  Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]

The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of difficulty, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.  Dr. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture English translation, Random House, 1963

For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.

The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.

Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time.  Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.

Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine.  Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”

Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long? John Archibald Wheeler in his famous it for bit talk.

[i] I introduced readers of this blog to Bob Cormack six years ago. Acrophobia: Tale of Two Bobs.

[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.

[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.

[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375

[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.

2 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Nice!

“We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors.” Anthony Esolen[i]

We have managed to place as the pinnacle of human morality something ill-defined we call “nice.” As in “She’s a nice person.” or the universal anodyne conversation concluding, “Have a nice day.” What does that mean? Why not, “Have a day full of wonder and joy and meaning.” Or “Have a day without stress or turmoil or pain or panic.” Or if you have truly caused me pain or disillusionment or great inconvenience, “Have a terrifying day when someone drops a piano on you from a great height.” Wouldn’t a little honesty at least be an improvement?

Nice has ousted virtue, and it’s a whitewashed, formless, artificial sweetener substitute like Coffee Mate or pickleball or synthesized Bob Dylan tunes on hold. Now before you are outraged and respond with, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with nice?”, let me clarify. Nice is fine, so are crisp, hot, salted McDonald’s French fries when we are achingly hungry, but is it the best we can do? Nice is an improvement over nasty just as civility would be an improvement in our public discourse, especially political speech and social media posts. Nice is better than irritable, rude, mean, bullying or drivers in Boston[ii]. But it is not heroic, is not very challenging, is not more than a superficial communal construct or even much better than not spitting in the soup. “Nice” is a lukewarm, whimpering standard with “standard” as either a measure by which to gauge our conduct or a flag under which we can march into battle.

To be nice is to expect nice: a social contract quid pro quo. Please don’t hurt me, and I’ll try very hard not to hurt or embarrass or challenge you. I’ll leave you alone to whatever vices you want to pursue so long as I don’t have to see them, or they don’t directly affect me in my living room or bedroom, and you leave me to follow my predilections. To seek to live virtuously is different than aspiring to be nice. Virtue has no immediate expectation of reward; it is lived for its own sake. The classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle or medieval geniuses like Thomas Aquinas would tell us that to be virtuous, to know, seek and live the objective right is the beginning of the path to human happiness. Nice doesn’t make you happy, nice merely allows you to be less memorable when gossip circulates at the coffee shop. Virtue is sometimes visible and memorable, but not always. Sometimes it is most vital when no one sees it at all or ever will.

Too often our civility, our niceness, is merely imitative so that we will be liked. Nothing wrong with being liked, and strangers will speak well of us, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Serial killers can be nice, until they are not.[iii]

“The doctrine of virtue… has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to– by being prudent, just, temperate, and brave.  The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” Dr. Josef Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1954

Dr. Pieper wrote brilliantly of the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence in judgement and behavior, temperance in demeanor and our daily interactions, just and fair in our assessments and courageous, not fearless, but in the face of our fears.  Many other virtues can lend understanding to the cardinals [iv], standards by which we can not only pattern our actions and our speech, but our thoughts and our will, our habits and our consciences. Over our lifetimes habits become our character and our destiny, so developing those habits of virtue forms us, either accidentally as circumstances channel us or deliberately, as we choose and battle to attain.

None of us, especially your faithful blogger, is faultless in this pursuit, but we can aspire to an ideal instead of a deadening, tepid nonentity like niceness. As the marksmen will tell us, “Aim small, miss small.”  To be most fully human in the image of our Creator is a heroic challenge and worthy of a precious lifetime: a quest without equal and uniquely ours with our individual quirks, weaknesses and flaws. Nice is irrelevant when one is on a great journey and mission. Our journey, our mission, our one life is an arduous and imperfect quest that, if achieved, will leave us spent, scarred, battered and fulfilled.

When Bilbo and Frodo confronted evil in the epic quests of their lives in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they were imperfect and sometimes irresolute heroes, but in the end heroes nonetheless. As we can be. Our victory is not in fearlessly charging into the fray heedless of the risks, but in persisting through the hundred decisions we make daily to do or not do, to say or not say, yes, even to think or not think – or at least to linger in those thoughts. Nice is not an idea large enough to forge our armor and our weapons for the epic, unique quest that is our one life. Virtue is.

“Tolkien’s work illuminates how moral weakness is the real problem of the human condition, not moral dilemmas and uncertainty. The latter are rare, the former is ubiquitous. I rarely do wrong because I do not know what is right; I often do wrong because it is fun, easy, or otherwise attractive.”  Nathanael Blake[v]

 

[i] Genuine Faith Requires More Than Niceness, Anthony Esolen, Crisis Magazine, September 11, 2018

[ii] Last fall I was confused at a rotary in the Back Bay of Boston. The layout had changed since the last time I had circumnavigated this roundabout; I slowed for a few seconds and had to make a decision. And we had Rhode Island plates. A couple of guys in a black BMW careened around us; fists with one finger prominently extended instantly shot out of both the driver’s and passenger’s window, and the driver screamed angrily that I was a “f’ing moron.” Not just a garden variety moron, so I took some consolation in that. Rita and I both burst out laughing, which probably confirmed their assessment.

[iii] Adolf Hitler was reputedly very nice to dogs especially, but animals in general, and they liked him.  See linked picture.

[iv] The Virtues Project

[v] Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin, Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, November 1, 2018

8 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Scarborough Marsh

“The total size is approximately 3,000 acres making it Maine’s largest contiguous saltmarsh. It is fed by three major tributaries: the Scarborough, Nonesuch, and Libby Rivers.” Audubon Society website[i]

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Maine Tales

American Elm

“The elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about…” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently we were walking in the historic section of Newport. In front of the Judicial Center near the Old State House or Old Colony House[i] on the east end of Washington Square we chanced upon a mature eighty-foot American Elm. Once common along so many New England town commons and main thoroughfares, they are now a rarity, especially one as large and old: a true wonder and gift to behold. The spread of the nearly vertical clean main leaders and branches draws the eye upward like few other species do. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, they lift the heart and spirit.

When I was first learning tree pruning crafts, elms were among the more challenging for neophyte nervous climbers. High unprotected foot-locking while gripping together two strands of climbing line to reach the lowest branches followed by some long, shin chafing, sweaty palmed scurrying up steep, sometimes slippery leaders made getting into one of these tall beauties uniquely difficult. But once tied into the sinewy, supple limbs in a secure upper central crotch, then balancing to reach outer limbs and swinging from limb to limb were exhilarating, unencumbered and fun.

The scourge of Dutch Elm Disease in the sixties and seventies all but wiped them out. American elms form natural root grafts, so once one magnificent individual was infected, the fungus could infect the arteries (xylem in this case) of every elm with overlapping root systems and lay waste to a whole street. Unlike many other species, elm trees are particularly vulnerable because they transport their water and nutrients only in one outermost annual ring. Once those fragile single layer vessels are clogged with fungi, the elm was usually doomed. As I matured in my tree climbing experience, so did the disease spread, and I spent many more days taking down and destroying these beautiful dead creatures than pruning live ones. A chainsaw is a poor instrument for fine pruning.  The elm bark beetle overwinters in dead elm trees under the bark and fungus spores are spread stuck to their bodies when the hatched mature beetles fly to bore into healthy trees in the spring to lay their eggs. A perfect symbiosis: the fungus needs live xylem; the beetle needs dead bark to protect its burrows and nests over the winter. The shared unlucky host is the dying elm tree. Cleaning up and getting rid of dead elm wood is one of the more effective preventatives in the losing battle against the disease, so we muscled them to the ground. To spot the yellow telltale flagging of wilting leaves on a tiny limb was a portent, dispiriting, like the long, meaningful, silent gaze of an oncologist when the biopsy results come back, preparing to deliver the bad news.

Segue: The English word “truth” derives from the Old English “triewth or treowth” meaning trustworthiness, constancy or faithfulness. Ultimately it is believed to have descended from the ancient Indo-European word for wood or tree, “the semantic link being the firmness or steadfastness of oaks and such trees.”[ii] As the elm tree is perfect, true, consistent and faithful to its purpose, so, too is objective truth. As the elm tree dies of its own vulnerability and a tiny spore, so too in post modern times does the concept and common value of “treowth.” Truth has devolved to whatever is necessary to achieve the ends of the definers.

“In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” one turns to “long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The George Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reportage (New York: Harcourt, 1984) originally published in 1948, 363

In 1948 to brilliant minds like Orwell’s, the future degradation of language was clear. No longer do news media, politicians or bureaucrats write the truth or even the facts as they understand them. Language is persuasive; symbolic acts are persuasive; film, music, political discourse, fiction and non-fiction are persuasive and always in service of the chosen narrative, the agenda. Whatsoever advances persuading others to strengthen the agenda is right. Right, objective right, what we ought to do to be true to the facts is secondary even accidental. Such adherence to fairness and objectivity is considered foolish, or worse, a betrayal. It does not even matter really if we convince others to change their minds, but we must stay safely in our concurring herd. To suffer rejection and mockery because we speak in criticism of the current accepted normality, no matter how abnormal, is our deepest fear. We speak and write and post bullet point posters to gain “Likes” from the likeminded.

The Kavanaugh circus is the latest episode. Someone’s lying, and it doesn’t matter so long as the agenda is promoted. That Senator Feinstein and her gang of bushwhackers held on to the letter from Dr. Ford with the uncorroborated accusations of sexual assault for over six weeks was part of the ambush. Grossly unfair to Justice Kavanaugh with the eleventh-hour sandbag job, and grossly unfair to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, while it riled up the likeminded in the media, filling all with self-righteous indignation, the surprise attack time frame left few prospects for proper investigation and vetting. Dr. Ford was left naked in the public square by her allies and the circling hyenas surrounding Kavanaugh, who were only interested in embarrassing the judge, undermining fair due process and stopping the nomination at any cost. Including awful cost to Dr. Ford: whether she is believed or not, her life is irretrievably changed. The truth, the true facts had nothing to do with the cauldron or the agenda.

 Then we had the box of coat hangers delivered to Senator Susan Collin’s office. So many lies in that box, it’s hard to sort them out, but the nearly unbearable pressure was clear. Vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh and soon will follow thousands of butchered and maimed women abandoned on bloody kitchen tables. That Kavanaugh would be one vote of an impossible to predict nine was not a consideration. Forty-five year’s weight of stare decisis since Roe v Wade was not a consideration. Should the extremely remote possibility of a reversal or a curtailment of the most liberal abortion ruling in the world occur, the law would revert for the states to establish in their various jurisdictions, and the great majority of the states allow abortion in almost all circumstances. Voters could vote. None of the facts mattered, only the emotional bludgeon.

Senator Collins stood strong against it all. A pro-choice Republican with the full onslaught of the abortion lobby storming her office, she stood strong. And she will be forever vilified for it, attacked politically in every way because she held that the facts did not support rejecting the nomination of a man with a thirty plus year history of brilliant jurisprudence and the support of every woman that he had mentored and advanced during his long career. Here is what she said: “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”

Fair minded? Principled? Thoughtful? What we say we want in our leaders, but rarely support in practice? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Senator Collins supported both liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. She voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act. She voted for the largest government stimulus in our history submitted by President Obama. But when she held to principles, fairness and thoughtfulness with Judge Kavanaugh, that is the unforgiveable sin to the pack that wants to run her down and tear her to pieces. Such is the fate of treowth tellers.

“And this is why the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said that the truth will not only set you free, it will make you odd.” Charles J. Chaput (New York, Henry Holt, 2017, 110)

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Colony_House

[ii] John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade, 2011), 543

4 Comments

Filed under Culture views, Tree Stories

Safe Sex

“Time Magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of Popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.”  ‘Adam and Eve after the Pill, Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,’ Mary Eberstadt, 2012

Quite a few years ago, because of our work with youth and engaged couples, we were asked to give a talk on sex to a group of high school age students. At one point during the talk, while Rita was starting to talk about HIV and the thirty or more sexually transmitted diseases ripping like a prairie fire through young and old alike, I was quietly off in the front corner of the classroom getting dressed.

 I put on surgical room booties, surgical scrubs, mask, goggles, cap, and I double gloved with latex. By the time I was fully garbed, of course, even though I hadn’t spoken a word, I had their full attention. I held up my other prop, a sad, deflated condom[i]. In their health classes in public high schools, much had been made of “safe sex:” condoms being stretched over bananas and other directives of socially acceptable orthodoxy regarding such things for teenagers. I said, “What I have on is what medical practitioners do to protect themselves from AIDS and HIV infections (along with hepatitis, gonorrhea, syphilis herpes and all the rest). Holding up the shriveled latex penis cover, I said, “And this is what they tell you is going to protect you.”   Let’s look at that a bit.

Theatrical, perhaps, but they weren’t hearing this anyplace else, so we may as well have made it memorable. I pulled out my other props: a basketball hoop with the net tied at the bottom with twine, a basketball, a two-gallon metal bucket and a package of BBs. We asked them what the failure rate was for adults within a given year for condoms to prevent pregnancy. The manufacturers will tell you 98%. The statisticians clarify. Yes, 98% if used perfectly every time, but in real life with real people, condoms, if used as the sole means of contraception, fail at a 15% rate within a year.  Do you think young people in the heat of the back seat or couch or beach blanket are going to be able to attain perfection?  More often or less often than 85%?

Next, I asked how many days a month can a girl achieve a pregnancy? The answer is two or less as her egg travels down the fallopian tube. Fertilized, the egg morphs almost instantly into a tiny, tiny human being with all the unique DNA information necessary for maturity. Next, the new minute human implants in the uterine lining, utterly transforms the young woman’s body into a perfect baby nurturing environment and begins the growth with which each one of us started. Basic embryology. Unfertilized, it is flushed out of her body in the normal cycle of menstruation. The male sperm lives for between twelve hours and at the outside seven days. Usually, it lasts less than five days. To be safe, let’s use the outside range of egg and sperm for a total of nine days. I then asked them how many days a month can a sexually transmitted disease transmit?  “All of them,” our bright students correctly answered. If imperfectly used condoms normally fail at a 15% rate to block a pregnancy, how will they hold up against STDs? Not an inconsequential question.

What happened to the basketball and the BBs? The last piece for them. I popped the basketball into the tied net, and we all watched it hang up, trapped. Finally, I put the tin bucket under the net and poured in the BBs. Clamorous metal noise commenced. I asked what is the ratio in size of a human sperm to a Human Immunodeficiency Virus? Are you ahead of me? Basketball to a BB is the answer.  How was that 15% looking now?  Is Russian Roulette with only one bullet in the cylinder safer than two?  We ended the science conversation by telling them that their best protection against pregnancies for which they were nowhere near ready to be responsible or against sexually transmitted disease, sometimes incurable, was not between their legs, but between their ears.

“She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage. My heart which had held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.” ‘Confessions, Book Six, Chapter Fifteen’ St. Augustine

After the science lesson, we discussed with them that sex had been both made too much of and trivialized in what they saw and heard everywhere in our oversexualized culture. Undoubtedly, sex is important to human closeness in men and woman relationships, but it is not the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about intimacy. In most of what they read and watch, sex is distorted, limited to a binary viewpoint- either fantasy graphic or fantasy romantic, utilitarian porn or Cinderella. What is the true end, the whole, the nature of, the ‘final cause,’ the purpose of sex? To strengthen the union between men and women in the most personal of ways? Yes.   Also, to develop new human life, form families, continue our species? Just so. A two-fold purpose deep in our nature, inextricably entwined.  Unitive and procreative. Who tells the young of this? What terrible responsibility do we shirk in not doing so?

The union of the sexual act is both profoundly real and profoundly symbolic.[ii] But it is only one aspect of the intimacy of man and woman. Total vulnerability and openness. Total gift of one to the other. Total trust and sharing of our dreams, hopes, fears and fragility. Total openness to new life, both within us and separate from us. Centered hopefully on vows of permanence one to the other necessary for family and optimum child rearing. Not quick hook ups: pneumatic encounters with quick fix orgasms to assuage our powerful drives or to prop up our drooping egos.  Each urgent event possibly short circuiting other less urgently compelling communication so necessary to our long term mental, psychological and spiritual health. Each casual or frenetic sexual encounter with underwear quickly discarded on the floor requires protection, but not condoms: soul protection, cauterizing nerves, connections, sealing off part of our self that will diminish our capacity to truly share ourselves with another person. Each ephemeral encounter first exposing, then hardening by necessity those aspects of our uniqueness and personality that are best healed and nurtured by vulnerability and by love. Love of the other for the other, not a selfish yearning for reciprocity out of bottomless need, but sacrificial and total. Love as deeply desiring the good of the other, for the other, not ourselves. In the light, not the darkness. Therein lies the power and the presence. Sexual intimacy rooted in this love is all in. Nothing held back. No barriers.

In the end ‘sex’ and ‘safe’ are alien to one another. Sex is not safe. It is not supposed to be.

“In the ‘Republic,’ the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly what was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with it a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.’” C.S Lewis quoting Plato in his “Abolition of Man” in the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

 

 

 

[i] Too many words needed to address the disconnectedness of condoms. They are a barrier method of contraception with all that implies. As cuddly, close and intimate as spooning with your beloved while wrapped in aluminum foil.

[ii] See Ephesians 5:31-33. Far beyond the scope or abilities of this blog post or blogger to investigate marriage as sign and symbol of God’s intimacy and love for His people.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture views

Mist

“What was full was not my creel, but my memory. Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning……”  Sand County Almanac, Trout fishing in June, Aldo Leopold, 1948

When I served on the Mount Vernon Conservation Commission in Maine, we had been charged by the Planning Board to recommend either authorizing or proscribing development along the boundaries of the dozen or so lakes and ponds that shared all or some of their shoreline in our town. The State of Maine legislature determined that the only way to change the ways of recalcitrant landowners, sometimes four generations into their titles on the land, was to force the issue by mandating that absent local zoning rulings by the Planning Board, all lakeshore was to be “resource protected,” which meant no development, no digging, no brush or tree cutting, no dredged sand to make it easier on swimmer’s feet, no septic systems, no camps, no anything. This served to give the local authorities some cover dealing with that contingent of land owners which held fiercely to the rule of ownership. Zoning was akin to usurpation, and land use regulations were the stuff of the politburo.

Moose Pond, Taylor Pond, Minnehonk Lake, Hopkins Pond, Doloff Pond, Parker Pond, Flying Pond, Inghan Pond, Long Pond, Echo Lake, Torsey Lake. Each had some or all its shoreline in Mount Vernon, and each had to be assessed.  Each one recalls pleasant memories. The Planning Board was elected; the Conservation Commission was not, so the heat could fall on us without repercussions at the polling place. The Planning Board would submit the zoning plan to the state, but the Conservation Commission would provide the maps. In a small town, it was a true town meeting democracy, and all who served on their boards and commissions were paid the same. Less than nothing because we all incurred some costs as well as donated sometimes significant hours of our time. So, if it got nasty, and we got fired, we were ahead financially.

Few enterprises are as dedicated as unpaid volunteer labor, and we rose early on many weekends to study and map the soil types, vegetation and slopes of the land surrounding each of our clean water responsibilities.  Eastern White Pine, Canoe Birch or Alder; Swamp Maple or Burr Oak. Each could tell a tale of its favored soil and how it may absorb or run off, how it would, in the parlance of the septic system builders, “perc.”  Willows, River Birch or Silver Maple might indicate too much clay in the soil, so effluence would run off too quickly, would not “perc,” and a septic system might leach into the lake. Too steep a slope would do the same thing. We pored over topographical maps to locate shoreline of special concern.

 Too much organic matter from run off, be it from human or farm waste, could prompt algae blooms or promote growth of invasive plants, choking off the healing sun, defeating aerobic natural cleansing, lowering oxygen levels and degrading the balance of the many species which dwelt in and around the lakes and ponds. If bad enough, it could kill the pond, turning it into a foul-smelling hazard. What was precious to life and beautiful to the spirit could be lost.

Getting it right was important. Too many restrictions would be unfair to land owners and buyers of dreams with their waterfront year-round or vacation homes. Too few or missed frontage could mean ruin for the source of those dreams.

We would unstrap our canoes from pickup truck or car roof and put them in early in the morning Saturday. The town provided us with good geodetic survey topographical maps that we would rely on for slope calculations. After our on-site inspections and map study, we would color code lakes with our invented zoning mark ups to present to the board. We’d crumple the soil in our hands, write notes on trouble signs like pipes running into the water from camps, notate streams, marshes and runoff to identify vulnerabilities to the complex ecosystems. While not professional ecologists, we had training in biology and forestry and did our best to accurately map them out in a good faith effort.

“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass…. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon……. A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place.” “Sketches Here and There, Wisconsin, Marshland Elegy” Aldo Leopold

While no money changed hands, there was more valuable compensation for the work. When intermittent rain puddled in low places and small dry streambeds bubbled to life, mist sometimes clung to the low hills – gossamer gray with persistent tendrils that unlike fast wind driven clouds remained as unchanging as a watercolor. Mothers and baby wood ducks ignored us if we were still, as did pairs of loons with their plaintive cries. The ducks and loons feed early among the reeds in shallow waters, as they, like serene, entitled nobility have ignored those that present no threats or promise no meals for millennia on these ponds and lakes. Occasionally a moose with similar disregard for human trespassers would wade into the water plants to graze, or perhaps swim a half mile across the pond without seeming effort to seek more promising forage. The flat still surface of the lake was broken only by a bullfrog jumping from its stone perch or a lake trout (called togue in Maine) or land locked salmon rising to surprise an unlucky water bug or dragonfly larvae. Although they prefer the abundant smelt, they are voracious eaters and, in the spring, when the water is still cold, these species will feed opportunistically near the surface. When a duck or a Great Blue Heron took wing to pursue some necessary purpose, the energetic beating was clearly heard as only profound quiet will disclose, yet the silence remained undisturbed.

 “Joe Leaphorn still remembered not just the words but the old man’s face when he said then: ‘I think from where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.’”  Coyote Waits, Tony Hillerman 1990

 

1 Comment

Filed under Maine Tales

Transitions

Guest blog post – Rita Parquette

In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time.  It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy

One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.  One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.

Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV.  Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor.  We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified.  I was there for the mother and her baby.  I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.

Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene.  We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them.   This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth.  He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl.  Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.

Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat.  The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.

Epilogue reflections:

When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach.  I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there.  After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held.  The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.

A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night.  I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.

A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”

 “I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues.  Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy

4 Comments

Filed under Culture views, Personal and family life