Tuesday, December 31, 2002

this is me

No big surprises here, courtesy of Human Metrics:

Your Type is INTP Introverted: 89 percent; Intuitive: 67 percent; Thinking: 22 percent; Perceiving: 56 percent

"Of the four aspects of strategic analysis and definition it is the structural engineering role -- architechtonics -- that reaches the highest development in INTPs, and it is for this reason they are aptly called the 'architects.' Their major interest is in figuring out structure, build, configuration -- the spatiality of things.

"As the engineering capabilities the INTPs increase so does their desire to let others know about whatever has come of their engineering efforts. So they tend to take up an informative role in their social exchanges. On the other hand they have less and less desire, if they ever had any, to direct the activities of others. Only when forced to by circumstance do they allow themselves to take charge of activities, and they exit the role as soon as they can without injuring the enterprise.

"The INTPs' distant goal is always to rearrange the environment somehow, to shape, to construct, to devise, whether it be buildings, institutions, enterprises, or theories. They look upon the world -- natural and civil -- as little more than raw material to be reshaped according to their design, as a formless stone for their hammer and chisel. Ayn Rand, master of the Rational character, describes this characteristic in the architect Howard Roark, her protagonist in 'The Fountainhead':
"He was looking at the granite. He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature -- a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint. He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn, waiting for the shape my hands will give to them. ['The Fountainhead,' pp 15-16]
"Many regard this attitude as arrogant, and INTPs are likely, especially in their later years, after finding out that most others are faking an understanding of the laws of nature, to think of themselves as the prime movers who must pit themselves against nature and society in an endless struggle to define ends clearly and adopt whatever means that promise success. If this is arrogance, then at least it is not vanity, and without question it has driven the design engineers to take the lead in molding the structure of civilization."

Saturday, December 28, 2002

foster son update

"It is a fearful thing to see yourself as you really are."
-- Dorothy L. Sayers

I got an update Friday night on Isaac and his home situation. As some of you already know, my foster son returned to his parents back in mid-October. About a month ago, his mother realized that taking care of children is beyond her ability, and left. She moved out on her kids and her husband, and moved in with her boyfriend.

The Iowa Division of Youth and Family Services so far has left Isaac and his younger sister in his father's care. Their father is now suing in family court for full custody of the kids, and has the backing of the state, which considers the mother to be dangerously unfit for parenthood. It's likely the father is going to get that custody, and even more likely that the state is not going to be intervening in the situation in the foreseeable future.

Isaac and his sister are in regular day care so they're in a nurturing and stimulating environment, their mother is removed from the situation so she can't harm them any more, and their father -- about 30 years old -- is starting to grow up and take responsibility for his kids. From what I'm told, he is determined not to be an absent father, and is doing his best to make sure the kids are taken care of properly.

I'm also told he's developing a solid connection with his son.

This is a good thing. Kids should be with their biological parents, and the whole reason we got into the foster care situation was so that we could help Isaac overcome the neglect he had suffered so he could have a good relationship with his parents. That's now happening, so the status should be "mission accomplished."

Clearly, that's why I spent about 10 minutes Friday night crying my eyes out. We did our job.

I'm feeling a little empty by the whole thing because I gave my all to Isaac while he was here. When he arrived here last February he could barely stand, let alone walk; he couldn't eat on his own; he couldn't talk, dress himself, control himself, play, or stand or sit still for five seconds. He had no idea how to love or to be loved, and was a poster child for reactive attachment disorder. By the time he went back home nine months later, that had all changed. Craig's got a connection with his son -- because I taught Isaac how to love and how to receive somebody else's love. I poured my sweat into him, and now I've got nothing while the man who was content to ignore his son for two years is reaping the rewards.

Notice the theme here? It's all about me. After all, what else matters in the world? Not Isaac's happiness; clearly, he has to be happy with me, or he's not allowed to be happy at all.

You would think after nine months of caring for somebody else's developmentally delayed child that I would be capable of thinking about other people. Instead, I find myself going through the same thought patterns that Isaac's birth parents were going through before and just after he was removed. Gyiah. Somtimes I make myself sick.

DON'T tell me I'm being too hard on myself. I'm well aware of what I did for Isaac and that it has a lasting, eternal value, but I need to be willing to let him go. He's not my son, he never was my son, and I need to be willing to let the relationship develop into its next stage. Right now that's void -- his parents decided some time that they wanted nothing to do with us once he returned to us -- but I'm hopeful that will change. I plan to contact Isaac's father and offer our support in whatever way he needs, as well as offering babysitting and play dates so Evangeline can see him and vice versa. We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I need prayer. My attitude's been far from Christlike in this matter, and that's no good for anyone.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

damn moderates

Why does no one fret about the vast middle-of-the-road conspiracy?

Moderates are the worst of the lot, you know. They're so lukewarm they can't stand either hot or cold; lacking conviction of their own, they seek to crush anyone who feels passionate about a cause because they cannot tolerate anything they don't understand.

Sad thing is, I think there's a lot of truth to that. Some ages are very polarized and moderation is considered a danger by both sides. In a lukewarm age, where passions are cool, the constant warning is against the threat of going to one extreme or another.

And of course, in an age like ours, where no one believes anything -- or at least very strongly -- the voice of an extremist becomes a rallying call for all who feel even moderately disaffected with the blaise culture of the day. Alas, our own temperance breeds the bin Ladens of the world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002


As a nice bonus for me, now that mommy has to spend time with Rachel, Evangeline has decided that daddy is pretty cool too. We spent about an hour Sunday evening making snowmen in the front yard. (We're the only house on the block with them.) First we made Frosty, then we made Evangeline, then we made Isaac, then we made a second Frosty, and then we made Rachel twice. I haven't had so much fun in ages.

Monday, December 09, 2002

putting it to bed

Back in college, we had a printer put The Lafayette to bed for us, though the paper eventually transitioned to PageMaker after I had left the editorial staff. I'm sure it proved an immense time saver. When I was on staff, the system was to have the printers typeset everything all over again. Tremendously inefficient, and doubtless more expensive too.

The first paper I worked for professionally used a combination of Dewars pagination and paste-up. Dewars was the system we used at Forbes Newspapers in Somerville, N.J. It was a paignation system that didn't involve a mouse at all; commands were done on the keyboard with keystrokes like M (move) LA9 (left of page element A9). We used it in tandem with a version of XyWrite.

t seems a little clunky, but once you got familiar with it, it was easy to build a page rapidly. The only other place I saw it used was at The Princeton Packet, where the classifieds people were using it for their work. I'm told it was a pretty popular system for a while, although a few companies didn't buy it since the same fellow was the programmer and marketing person, suggesting it was a one-man business that would be sold once it reached the appropriate threshold -- which it was.

Since then, it's been all software -- up until now. WCN Newspapers, where I've been for six or seven months, still uses paste-up for everything. It amazes me.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

matching outfits

Natasha frequently criticizes the clothes I pick out for Evangeline to wear. She seems to feel that I have no skill at matching sets of clothes. My common defenses:
  • But they're *almost* the same shade.
  • But the dress and the shirt both have flowers on them!
  • But you complained when they were almost the same. Why is it wrong that they're completely different?
I'm afraid I just don't get it. The most complicated rule I have been able to master is "Jeans go with everything."

viewing the other side

A friend of mine has sent me a column by David Limbaugh pertaining to the interaction of Christians and the church with other worldviews and society as a whole. From the column:
I sincerely don't want to start an argument over religion, especially in these sensitive times, but I feel compelled to defend the Christian faith so that it does not become "collateral damage" in our war on terrorism.

Limbaugh takes issue with a recent editorial in the New York Times by political science professor Alan Wolfe, who draws the oh-so-popular parallel between American fundamentalism, as practiced by men like Jerry Falwell and the Islamic fundamentalism of terrorists like Osama bin Laden. And when Wolfe goes a step further and points out other issues of evangelicalism or American fundamentalism that are still current today, he sees hotbeds of regressive and uncivilized behavior lurking in American churches.

Limbaugh's piece is passable, and I do agree with him that equating Falwell and other fundamentalists and evangelicals with bin Laden's fiery style of "blow them up" fundamentalism, is just wrongheaded thinking.

Ironically, Limbaugh wraps up his article with some doozy misstatements of his own. First is the common argument in evangelical circles that the Founding Fathers were Christians. To the best of my knowledge, that is not the case; the argument usually stems from a reading of popular deist language referring to "Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ" and such.

Jefferson regarded belief in the supernatural as absurd and even published a Bible without reference to it; similarly George Washington's Book of Prayer is -- from what I have heard, I have never read the book myself -- an unoffensive and unassuming book that could be adopted without accepting the Christian faith.

Limbaugh also makes the statement that other religions claim exclusivity. Not true. Buddhism and Hinduism both teach that life is an ever-revolving wheel on which we all will turn until we reach Nirvana. Wiccan readers can correct me if I'm wrong on this point, but pagan religions also generally argue that all gods melt into one and lead to truth. Generally the only religions with claims to exclusivity are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and most Jews don't really seem to feel that way, from what I've seen.

Limbaugh objects, and rightly so, to the bias that lumps intense or serious religious devotion in the same wagon as the hatred that masks itself as religious devotion. Yet when it comes down to it, he also is lumping unlike things together, claiming desirables like the American Founding Father's for Christianity's own, despite evidence to the contrary, and projecting his religious views onto other religions, essentially a variation on what Wolfe did.

Makes me wonder how often I do the same thing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002


Prayer is still needed. I've learned some new stuff tonight that I'm not sure I'm really at liberty to divulge, but essentially there have been some developments at the Jones household that have me more concerned than ever about the long-term stability and safety Isaac and his sister will have there.

In Isaac's case, the need is especially strong. His emotional and developmental growth is severely retarded. He's almost 3 years old and can barely speak at all because of the environment he's lived in most of his life so far.

These kids need intervention, and they need it in the worst way. In Christian's case, he needs someone who can afford to spend 24 hours a day taking care of him and motivating him to grow. Remember, for the bulk of his life he not only has lacked opportunity to grow, he essentially has been discouraged from learning and realizing his potential.

Be praying for them. 

Friday, November 22, 2002

support network

During the nine months my wife and I had our foster son, we got little in the way of support from our extended families. I don't doubt that they cared, but for the most part, our respective families weren't emotionally invested in Isaac and what happened with him.

His birthday came and went, and the only presents he got from our families were some leftover toys my mother had.

By way of contrast, the couple who had Isaac's younger sister had remarkable support from both sets of parents and other immediate family members. Her first birthday was as big a deal for them as it was for her foster parents. I would be surprised to hear that they treat their biological grandchildren any differently.

A few factors play into this, I'm sure. Isaac was already 2 years old and not very adorable because of his problems. His sister was only 6 months old and recovered from the neglect much more quickly once she was in a caring home. And there was also distance -- my family lives hundreds of miles from us and rarely saw Isaac. His sister's foster grandparents live in the same town as her foster parents, and they saw her regularly.

I don't want to be bitter, but it's hard not to. Often foster parents are dealing with children with severe emotional and developmental problems; it's that much worse when we have to deal with it alone. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2002


It's the bitter irony of the book -- I think Smeagol *was* changing, but Sam never let him. Frodo was willing to give Smeagol the chance he needed to become a new person and redeem himself, but Sam was so deeply suspicious of him that Smeagol ended up falling back on established patterns of behavior.

In the last chapter or so before the book ended, Smeagol was all set *not* to do what he did, because he was moved with compassion for Frodo. But what does Sam do? He wakes up and says, "Where have you been sneaking off to?" and immediately the light dies out in Smeagol's eyes.

It's no surprise the old fellow attacked Sam personally.

'fellowship of the ring' DVD

We got our extended version DVD of "The Fellowship of the Ring" on sale last Saturday for $25. It even includes the free movie ticket for "The Two Towers.'

Overall, I thought it vastly superior to the cinematic release. I wasn't wild about the scene where Boromir tries to take the Ring during the Council of Elrond and I think there was another scene that was kind of weak, but I can't remember what it is right now.

Absolutely worth the money, though.

urban legends about elmo

It's been an urban legend for years that Bert and Ernie are gay, and that Ernie was going to die of AIDS complications to teach children tolerance for other lifestyles.

It is an urban legend, wholly untrue. Everyone knows that Oscar and Elmo are the gay couple.

elmo from hell

Just in time for Christmas in hell, it's Chicken Dance Elmo!

Actually, it's been out for a while. I had the misfortune of seeing it at my niece's birthday party back in September. Pretty sick, isn't it?

Sunday, November 17, 2002


I finally saw SpongeBob the other day, and I have to say, I just don't get it. It seemed about as unfunny a cartoon as I can recall, although in that sense it goes right along with a number of other contemporary cartoons like "Rugrats."

And what's the deal with this ugly animation anyway? Why does everyone have to look like they were beaten with an ugly stick for a half-hour before breakfast?

worship styles

I find a large-group worship experience often leaves me standing around with my hands in pockets, wondering why everyone but me is getting something out of the service.

Instead, I prefer a small-group setting, with no more than six or seven people, while the worship leader plays the guitar. The actual songs don't matter that much -- i.e., hymns or praise choruses -- as long as they have intelligent lyrics, which I suppose is another way of saying I don't enjoy most praise choruses.

media bias

Actually, the research has been done. It depends on how you interpret it where the bias lies.

A former editor of mine did his master's thesis on how objective newspapers were when it came to businesses. His discovery was that, despite the ardent claim by all journalists that advertising dollars don't determine coverage, and despite a few newspapers that actually do appear to make a concerted effort not to connect the two, there can be no doubt that newspapers are pro-big business in terms of coverage.

I've seen it myself. At The Times of Trenton, where I worked last year, we refused to cover a major lawsuit against one of our big advertisers. (The Princeton Packet, incidentally, covered the story and lost the account, which amounted to a lot of money.) In addition, The Times gives front-page and Page Three coverage to all sorts of stupid things because they involve advertisers. A new rollercoaster at Six Flags got a bigger story than any of the local issues that day. Other businesses, when something bad was happening to them, while we might run the story, we wouldn't put their name in the headline.

Pretty despicable, really.

At WCN Newspapers, where I work now, we're not allowed to do a story on any business -- no matter how newsworthy -- unless we clear it with the higher-ups first. After all, they might owe us money or not have an account with us. So much for an independent press.

Like I said, an individual's perspective and defintions shape their understanding of media bias. "Pro-big business" is a conservative bias, and has nothing to do with how wealthy you are.

Friday, November 08, 2002

islam and politics

I read an interesting piece in The Star-Ledger some weeks ago. I wish they put their opinion section online; if they did, I would link to this column.

The writer's thesis was that Islam may very well be a great religion, but where it differs from the world's other major religions is that its theological system is inextricably linked to its political system. Muslims not only view Mohammed as a prophet, they view him as the seal of the prophets, the one who modeled for the faithful how to live life. In addition to being a prophet, Mohammed was a statesman, and a warleader as well.

The writer called a number of Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. and asked them questions about human rights in the Middle East. They went out of their way to avoid saying anything negative about countries like Saudi Arabia where Islamic law is upheld. (He asked one spokesman about the fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie and got this less-than-ringing endorsement of free speech: "It's wrong to demand someone's death for what they wrote, but don't quote me on that.") In fact, he wrote, several prominent Muslims scholars reportedly have said that if Muslims were in the majority here in the United States, it would be their duty to enforce Islamic law here as well.

I've had the privilege to know a number of Muslims, and I've taken the opportunity to learn more about Islam from a Shi'a co-worker of mine. But I do wonder if this writer didn't have a point: Islam may be a religion of peace, but at this point in its history, it's not a religion that co-exists with other faiths well, particularly when it's in the majority -- much like Christianity in the Middle Ages.

shopping carts

When I take over the world, shopping carts will be available at all retail outlets, for parents with multiple children. Already, although I lack world power, this initiative is having some measure of effect. Read the letter I sent to Home Depot a while ago:

I am writing to express my extreme dissatisfaction with an area of customer service that your company apparently has overlooked: child safety and shopping carts.

I was at the Milltown, Iowa, Home Depot earlier today, hoping to pick up a few things. Because I had two toddlers with me, I did what I always do first: I looked for a shopping cart with seats for two children.

Imagine my disappointment not to find one. I talked with a couple employees who told me the store doesn't have any, even though the matter has been brought to the attention of the store manager before.

Let me put it bluntly: A regular shopping cart is *not* safe for two children. A moment's inattention on a shopper's part -- such as to look at a prospective purchase -- will give a child enough time to stand up, fall out of the cart, and hit the concrete floor with his head, causing serious injury and even death.

Even if a child does not climb out, putting him in the main part of the cart -- the basket -- limits a customer's ability to shop. Would you put drain cleaner in the cart with a child? How about fertilizer? Sharp tools?

Shopping carts with seats for two children are common at other stores. I use them at the supermarket all the time and at some of your competitors. Having access to one at Home Depot would keep my children safe there and it would limit your liability in the event of an incident like the ones I described up above.

I urge you to take measures to rectify this situation before something does happen.

And then I got this (presumably form) respone, the next business day. I was impressed by the speed of the response, but I have to admit I haven't been back to the Home Depot since to see if there have been more substantial changes. (I filed the same complaint with Wal-Mart the same day, but since I don't like to go there either, I don't know what they've done. Not surprisingly, they never responded.)

Hello David Learn,

Thank you for your e-mail to Home depot Customer Care! [Note they don't know how to capitalize the spelling of their own store name. --Dave]

We first want to apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused you. A formal complaint was made against the Milltown Home Depot. This information will be addressed to the proper Management and will also be filed here in our Corporate office. Thank you for your time in letting us be aware of your experience.

If we can be of any further assistance, please feel free to contact us again.

Think we can get a movement going? Put yourself in the position of a single parent trying to get shopping done with two toddlers in tow. It's virtually impossible to push two carts in order to give both kids the coveted seat, or to push a stroller and cart at the same time.

At Wal-Mart, the store manager offered to have an employee watch my children while I shopped. (As with Home Depot, I was out with both Isaac and Evangeline by myself.) But think about it: In this day and age, how many parents are going to feel comfortable leaving their children with a complete stranger while they shop? I sure wouldn't.

Anyway, lettuce agree that it is fun to cart around our children like a tiny sack of potatoes when we're grocery shopping. Orange you glad that it's not really a problem? Natasha egg-spects me to help with shopping, and while it would would drive some people absolutely bananas, I'm very cereal when I say spending time with my kids -- even at the supermarket -- can really Cheerio me up. I get a real Kix out of it.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

feeding time

Rachel is doing well. At the moment she's trying to decide if she wants to be asleep or awake as I work on a long-overdue free-lance piece. Several times today she has latched onto my neck in her quest for milk, but fortunately for all of us succeeded in doing nothing more than giving me a wet neck.

Friday, November 01, 2002

new arrival

Born: 7:28 p.m.
Oct. 31, 2002
Weight: 8 pounds 3 ounces
Height: 20 1/8 inches

We're not quite sure when labor began. Natasha started having Braxton Hicks contractions last night, but it wasn't until this morning -- after a prenatal exam, ironically -- that they became regular. Our first official recorded contraction was at 10:24 a.m.

We named her Rachel Hermione after her two paternal great-grandmothers, both of whom died about 12 years ago. Rachel and her mommy are still at the hospital while Evangeline and I get some sleep and get ready to go in tomorrow morning.

I've explained to Evangeline that she has a baby sister now, but I'm not sure how much she gets it. She was pretty upset about being away from us all day today, probably because she's worried about going away like Issac did. We'll see tomorrow how she handles visiting the baby hospital.

She actually wasn't due until Nov. 5, but decided to come out on Halloween and get some early trick-or-treating in. (I guess she didn't realize the hospital would keep her there for two days.)
Labor went fairly smoothly, at least from where I was. The actual delivery went much faster than last time, which was unexpected since Evangeline was induced and Rachel's birth was pretty much natural.

Wouldn't you know that Rachel would have to be born the day after Evangeline's third birthday? Natasha and I are trying to figure out what's so special about late January that we've had two children at the end of October.


The account of Samuel's appearance to Saul in Endor is an excellent response to believers who say there's no such thing as ghosts. I like to throw that out all the time, along with the Transfiguration appearances of Elijah and Moses.

I'm not quite sure I buy the idea of an "incorruptible body" being sent from heaven, though. When Paul speaks of us gaining incorruptible bodies, my understanding is that he's speaking of the Last Day.

The Tanakh doesn't teach of an immediate afterlife; instead it talks of going down to Sheol, or literally "the grave." Sheol is where everyone goes when they die. In a literal sense it means the graves where people are buried, but I believe it also refers to an afterlife destination where we all await the resurrection on the Last Day, when Revelation says hell (Greek: hades, the word the Septuagint uses in place of Sheol) and the sea give up all their dead.

In other word, when you die, it's like going to sleep, but we all awake at the same time.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

blue's clues theology

My daughter was recently watching an episode of "Blues Clues" in which Blue and Steve skadoo into a blank piece of paper. It seems like a dull place to be, but Blue has brought along her "Big Bag of Words," and as Blue brings out the words, they alter the world around them.

I know it sounds silly, but while I was watching the episode with Evangeline, it triggered a series of deep thoughts about Jesus' nature as Logos and the creative force of God's word in the cosmos.

John says of Jesus "Through him, all things were made and without him nothing was made that was made." Right, we've got that concept down; Jesus as God created everything. But I started thinking about Jesus as an expression of God through words; i.e., it was when God spoke that light was pulled from darkness, and the sea and dry land were formed. Merely thinking of it didn't create it, but Logos did.

This also started me thinking and as I did, I watched one of my metaphysical constructs deflate and fall apart. I suspect like most Christians, I in my mind think of Jesus and the Father as separate beings even while I acknowledge they are one in a mysterious sense.

But think of it this way: Jesus is the expression of the Father's character and his will through words. Can you separate yourself from your own speech? Not really; it's our speech that makes us who we are. Our cultural baggage, our personality, our character, just about everything about us is conveyed through our speech. We shouldn't confuse a person with their language (although we often do by regarding people who speak differently from us as stupid), but in a very real sense the two are inseparable.

In that sense, then, it makes sense to Jesus qua Logos as the fullest expression of the Father's love, holiness and character, and as the Father-himself-but-not-quite.

I'm not expressing it well since it's past 2 a.m. and I can't sleep right now, but I think I'm onto a new way (for me, anyway) of understanding the Trinity.

not for everyone

Foster parenting is not for everyone. It's not even for everyone who realizes they're "not everyone." Like other people have said, it's demanding, it's draining, it's upsetting and a ton of other negative things.

I was a foster father for nine months. (My son left two weeks ago.) I have never cried as much or as hard as I did during those nine months because of the emotional and developmental damage I've seen him suffering from as a result of his parents' neglect -- and he was just neglected, not beaten or molested. Compared to some of the stories I've read and heard about, my son's case was pretty mild.

I say "Don't do it" because none of the people I've talked to who want to become foster parents have any idea what they're getting into. Contrary to the advertisements you hear on the radio, it's not about helping some unfortunate but adorable child for a little while until their parents can take them back. It's not about doing a nice thing for somebody. It's hell.

My wife and I were accused of neglecting our foster son because he fell so often he got scraped knees and huge welts on his forehead. (He was 2, but his mother had never let him walk, so he really didn't know how to do it when he came to live with us.) We got off lightly on that one, since the worst that happened was my wife was grilled about it on the phone for a few minutes, but it's a frightening experience because you never know what some blithering fool of a social worker will do next.

I also was told by the district supervisor that I should keep my emotional distance from our foster son. That's the worst possible advice I can imagine giving -- we're talking about a child who already was emotionally neglected. She essentially was urging me to compound the abuse. People who follow that advice -- and their numbers, it seems, are legion -- do some pretty horrific things to their foster children.

Going the route that I did -- loving the child as my own, celebrating each triumph with him, walking him through developmental stages, and pushing him constantly to improve -- involves a tremendous sacrifice emotionally, physically and spiritually. And when the child leaves, it's like burying one of your own.

If my wife is willing to do it in the future, I'd like to take in another foster child. Despite the very real heartache it's caused me, I want to do it again. But it's not something I recommend.

thanks for checking

At the last court date in September, our foster son's attorney, the state and the biological parents' attorney agreed that the biological parents could come to our house to pick their son up for unsupervised visits.

The justification was that we were listed in the case file as "friends of the family," so clearly we would have no objection. I can easily see other overworked social workers trying to ease their workload by asking the foster parents and biological parents to take on some of the burden.

In our case, I called the caseworker and told them that we categorically did not approve of the arrangement and wanted it changed, only to be told there was nothing she could do before the two visits.

The first visit was stressful, but passed without incident. On the second one, the parents never showed up, and we ended up scuttling our plans for the day because our son had to take a nap. The mother finally called us around 3 p.m. -- the visit was supposed to start at 10 a.m. -- on an unrelated subject and we discovered that she had decided to change the date of the visit, but never bothered to tell us or the caseworker.

That was around the point I lost my cool. The next day I called the caseworker and called my son's attorney and told them that they had to find a new way to do visits because the biological parents were not welcome at my house. I actually threatened to get a restraining order against them if I needed to.

If we ever take in another child, or if Isaac comes back to us, I'm going to lay down "no contact from birth parents -- ever" as one of my non-negotiable terms, no matter what else the state thinks it has in its files.

a grief observed

Our foster son left a little over two weeks ago, after about nine months in our care. I've taken it pretty hard, and I have to admit I've been very grateful to have a job that keeps me busy about 40 hours a week.

My daughter, though, has not been as fortunate. She just turned 3 yesterday, and I honestly don't believe she remembers life before Isaac. To her, it's though her brother has been suddenly taken away, even though we never used that term to describe him and began telling her weeks in advance that Isaac was going to be returning to his mommy and daddy.

After Isaac left, our daughter started having trouble sleeping at night. She asks for him on a regular basis, and it's been fairly obvious at times that she expects to be next. Obviously we're concerned, and went to see a family counselor for advice on how to help her cope, especially since we have a baby coming, likely within the next few days. (She told us we're doing the right things and that Isaac probably will morph into an imaginary playmate over the next few months.)

Our daughter's doing better, but if there are any foster parents reading this, I need to know: How did your children handle the loss, and what did you do to help them cope? 

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The wozzlebug

It slinks about on four feet, leaving tracks that resemble a bear's whenever it passes through mud or snow.

It has a long tail sharp teeth and cruel claws, and, if that's enough, at six feet tall, it towers over its prey when it stands on its hind feet. Children, understandably, are terrified at the mere sight of it, as are a few adults.

"It" is the wozzlebug, Clark Township's once-feared but now-forgotten bogeyman that was blamed for the bloody deaths of chickens, rabbits and other small farm animals and wild game at the turn of the 20th century.

The wozzlebug scare, recounted in the writings of Emma T. King, ran from 1901 to 1907. The monster was said to frequent the area near St. Mary's Cemetery on Madison Hill Road.

The wozzlebug drew professional investigators and reportedly brought the attention of reporters from New York newspapers.

Serious-minded adults and skeptical children find it easy to scoff at the idea of a wozzlebug, but monsters like it fill an important role in our culture.

"Monsters have always been with us," said Susannah Chewning, an English professor at Union County College. "Monsters always represent what we fear most."

In that sense, the wozzlebug, despite its humble roots in a turn-of-the-century farming community, belongs to a long and proud tradition of things that go bump in the dark.

Among the wozzlebug's more noteworthy compatriots are shapeless menaces like the dreaded "black man" whom Puritans believed lived in the forests of Massachusetts and led the godly into sin and witchcraft, and Grendel, the monster defeated by the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf.

"They don't respect the things that we define as civilized," Chewning said of these monsters — hence the wozzlebug' s association with a cemetery, or Grendel's forays into Heorot to eat people as they slept.

"The whole concept of the bogeyman is that universal monster we're all afraid of," said Chewning. "What they represent is our fear of the unknown, our fear of nature, the things we can't control."

The legend spawned by the wozzlebug survived another 20 years, only to vanish amid the economic hard times of the Great Depression, when life seemed hard enough without needing a bogeyman to spice things up.

That hardly seems fair when you consider the enduring life of the New Jersey Devil. Not only does he have his own hockey team, the New Jersey Devil still has ardent believers who claim to have seen him lurking about the Pine Barrens.

"I think the ones that persist are the ones that have the least shape, because everyone's got different nightmares," said Chewning.

Chewning believes the wozzlebug might have met its end at the hands of another creeping monster: development. As more farms disappeared, the horrifying empty spaces between homes shrank to cozy quarters.

The Pine Barrens, of course, is still wilderness.

The inspiration for the wozzlebug finally came to light in 1907 when authorities discovered it was nothing more sinister than a hobo who was stealing food to take back to his "home" — a hole he had burrowed out under the O'Donnell mausoleum in the cemetery.

The self-appointed keepers of Clark's folklore and heritage introduced a new generation to the wozzlebug and other Clark legends in the 1960s, but it failed to endure.

A wozzlebug revival is not beyond the realm of possibility, said Chewning. Although the legend is not widely known, she considers it likely a few parents still trot out the monster when they share scary stories with their children.

The thought of the wozzlebug gaining new notoriety is one Municipal Historian Brian Toal finds amusing, and he plays into the idea at once.

"The children should be aware of the wozzlebug," he said. "Be aware, be warned. The historian has spoken."

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

that empty feeling

I wander the house in a daze, looking for the boy who isn't there.

I hear him running my way, making that peculiar humming sound he makes when he's excited, but when I turn my head to look, the hall is empty. There are no arms stretched out to grab me, no face bursting with a smile that stretches from ear to ear.

At times the silence is too loud, too empty. I want to hear those songs he's nearly learned from us, the ones where he doesn't know half the words and can't pronounce the other half clearly. I listen, but his music is gone.

Isaac lived with us for only a short time, no more than nine months. A foster child in our care since mid-January, he's returned to his parents and I'm left dealing with the loss of a son who was never mine to keep but who will always be a part of my life.

It's hard to believe it's only nine months since the day a worker with the state foster care system dropped him off at our house.

Even though he was 23 months old, he could barely stand for five seconds without falling down, but that didn't keep him from getting into mischief.

Less than five minutes after he arrived, Isaac had tried to chew on the dog's bone, pulled our potted aloe plant off the shelf and fell more times than I thought was possible.

Isaac was put into foster care because of neglect. His parents bathed him fastidiously and gave him food, but neglected him in nearly every other way. Other children his age are little boys; he was a big baby.

As the days slipped into weeks and the weeks became months, Pinocchio gradually became a real boy. Progress came slowly at first, but it built speed steadily.

We started with walking. I took him to walk the dog with me religiously, and by the end of the spring, he was walking like any other 2-year-old, although he still fell more often and more clumsily than other children. There is a reason his nickname is "Lumpy."

He learned within a week how to climb stairs and within two months, he learned how to climb back down.

We taught him to wait quietly for a meal instead of whining, and then we taught him to ask. He learned to eat with his fingers, and then how to do it with a fork and spoon.

The boy who could sit still only for "Sesame Street" soon learned the joys of curling up with his abba or eemah and being read to.

Longest in coming were his language skills. When he first arrived, Isaac could say "tickle-tickle-tickle" and "gootchy-gootchy-goo," but little else that was recognizable.

The day he asked for crackers by holding out his hand and saying "Some" was one of the sweetest days of my life. It meant that at some level, he finally was understanding why we use words.

But as the year stretched on, there was a shadow growing over my happiness. As much as I love him, Isaac is not my child. The state believes he belongs with the people who gave birth to him, and so to them he has returned.

It's a decision that has filled me at times with despair, with fury and with bitterness. At times, it has left me incapable of functioning even on the most basic levels at work and at home.

I'm mad. Mad at the state for putting my son back with people who don't know how to take care of a child, mad at his parents for what they've done to him, and mad at myself for not being able to keep the promise I made to Isaac to keep him safe.

Friends tell me to have faith, that God sees what is happening and will take care of Isaac. Cold comfort there, since my faith is in a God who did nothing but sit on his hands as his own son was tortured to death.

I cry at the injustice of it all, and I long for a day when this world will make sense. It's fundamentally wrong for a child to suffer as Isaac has suffered, and it's wrong the way my daughter has suffered.

I see it in her eyes when she asks about Isaac, the way she calmly announces what he wants to watch on TV or what toys he wants to play with. She misses him.

Not quite 3 years old, Evangeline has learned a lesson I would have preferred not come until she is old enough to understand it better: Loving someone is an invitation to pain.

In time, I am told, the pain will lessen. The ache in my heart will dull and there may even come days when I don't think of the son I have lost.

But for now, none of that matters. He's gone.

Copyright © 2002 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

a 'christian' christmas carol?

A friend of mine writes:
My daughter is in 4th grade this year, which makes her old enough to join our church's puppet troupe. Overall, I think this is a good thing, as they are a creative group which allows kids to use their talents to express their faith in a positive manner. However, I am a little annoyed at the blurb about their annual Christmas Dinner Theater in the latest church newsletter:

"This year the troupe will be performing an "original" musical entitled "A Christian Christmas Carol." The story takes place in Iowa where Scrooge finds out the REAL meaning of Christmas."

Excuse me, but isn't that already the point of Dickens' novel?
I have to admit, just the idea of a "'Christian' Christmas Carol" makes me want to barf. Dickens was writing against the exploitation the rich often had of the impoverished in industrial England, a situation too often seen elsewhere in history and the world. You could view it as a works gospel, if that's how you choose to see it, but it also stresses the importance of community and our obligation to other people, an aspect of the gospel often ignored by the evangelical community today despite its prevalence in the teachings of Jesus, James and others.

Chances are the bulk of the people seeing the play already know What Christmas Is Really About™ and are just going to feel warm and fuzzy seeing the same basic message hammered home again. There's more meat in the original story as Dickens tells it than that, but I suppose it doesn't make us feel as comfortable as the other way.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

when god is evil

About six weeks ago, I told a friend of mine that if what is happening to Christian is all part of some plan of God's, as far as I was concerned, God could shove his ineffable purposes up his ass. I have no great desire to deal with a God who lets these things -- and much worse -- happen to little children.

About six weeks ago, I told a friend of mine that if what is happening to Christian is all part of some plan of God's, as far as I was concerned, God could shove his ineffable purposes up his ass. I have no great desire to deal with a God who lets these things -- abd much worse -- happen to little children.

David asked, "Then what?"

My response: "Where else can I go?" There's no one else available. God may very well be evil in the sense that we typically understand it, or he may just be indifferent. But there's nowhere else to go.

Put it another way, since my life is going to be screwed up anyway, I'd rather have God screw it up for me then do it myself.asked, "Then what?"
My response: "Where else cean I go?" There's no one else available. God may very well be evil in the sense that we typically understand it, or he may just be indifferent. But there's nowhere else to go.
Put it another way, since my life is going to be screwed up anyway, I'd rather have God screw it up for me then do it myself.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

elmo's new and improved song

Two weeks ago I taught Isaac some important song lyrics:

La la la la la la la
Elmo stinks.
La la la la la la la
Elmo stinks. (etc.)

We hate his music,
we hate his words.
We hate Elmo.

He sings it very well. I hope he takes it home with him Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

the bell tolls

Update: After telling us on Friday the kids would be headed back to their parents at the end of the month, and then telling us on Monday they would be returning by Oct. 23-ish, the state told us Tuesday morning that the children will be returning next week, on Oct. 15.

Nice of them to give us a chance to get our bearings.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

marking time

Isaac will be leaving our home and our lives by Oct. 28, quite possibly earlier. We appreciate your prayers for him, for his parents and for our daughter.

And, as Forrest Gump says, "That's all I have to say about that."

Sunday, October 06, 2002

crop failure

I thought everyone would find it amusing to know that although I planted close to 10 pounds of seed potatoes this spring, I harvested only about two pounds of potatoes this fall. Yes, it's true -- in the world of gardening, where you supposed to reap more than you sow, I managed to suffer a loss.


Maybe next year ...

There's no question the soil is deficient in nutrients. I was piling compost on to keep the stalks growing, which should provide the nutrients and a proper pH balance, but the consensus seems to be that I planted them about six weeks late and didn't add enough compost.

There's a trick with tires I intend to try next year. You keep filling them with compost (or straw, if that's your preference) and piling a new tire on top until the end of the growing season.
My brother, knowing my commitment to organic gardening, enjoyed commenting that I didn't use enough Miracle Gro.

big trouble at big idea

Big Idea Productions has jumped the shark. That's the essential conclusion of Christianity Today, which interviewed former employees of the animation studio who believe it's going to go belly up after its new "Jonah" movie flops.

The article makes a compelling case that the company overextended itself making this movie, forcing themselves to lay off staff and make across-the-board paycuts. They apparently even couldn't afford the wide distribution they've been touting for weeks on their web site. I was annoyed after all the hype about how Jonah was opening at theaters everywhere on Oct. 4, to find that it isn't opening here in Iowa for another two weeks.

Anyway, an interesting article. I'm afraid I find each of the scenarios presented rather plausible. I did find the one comment about a policy shift away from high quality video to "make money quickly through inferior merchandise" to echo my own thoughts rather eerily. The most recent "Larry Boy" cartoon we have stinks.

We have three Larry Boy tapes -- "Fib from Outer Space," "Rumor Weed" and "Angry Eyebrows." The concept started on a high note and went downhill fast. As tremendous as "Fib" was -- I consider it one of the high-water marks of the entire Veggie Tales series -- "Rumor Weed" was a disappointment, and "Angry Eyebrows" was just awful.

The animation quality was substandard, and in writing the story, they tossed out what until then had been a defining characteristic of Big Idea products: that you can have children's videos with Christian themes that don't hit you on the head with their message. I have two nephews in the "Angry Eyebrows"-targeted age group, and they both thought it was pathetic, even though they've loved just about every Veggie Tales tape they've seen.

Friday, October 04, 2002

foster parenting faq

A couple weeks ago you posted about the great struggle you and your foster kid were going through. You were as upset as I've ever seen you -- to the point that you couldn't go to sleep at night.

You ain't seen nothing yet, I'm sure.

So -- how has the story turned out?

That is something I doubt I will ever know until the Last Day when everything is made plain, and even then I'm still going to have a hard time understanding it.

Did he go back?

Not yet. The next court date is scheduled for Nov. 7, but we heard from his caseworker that apparently his law guardian (the attorney) has decided that he should be returned to his parents before the court date, some time this month. I didn't know that was possible, let alone legal, but that's what we're looking at.

Some time ago his parents were given paperwork to complete so Isaac and his sister could be enrolled in full-day day care while he is in their care. Two months have passed, but that paperwork has not been completed. Apparently once it is and he can be put into daycare -- a two-week process, I'm told -- he'll be leaving us.

We had hoped to take him and Evangeline to see "Jonah" this weekend as a special family outing, but the idiots at Big Idea misrepresented when the movie would be premiering, so that's not going to happen for another two weeks if he's still here.

I had hoped to have a family portrait taken of the five of us after the baby is born, but that's not likely to happen since Coyoge isn't due until Nov. 5.

We had been hoping Isaac would be here to celebrate Evangeline's third birthday with her, but it looks like that's not going to happen either unless we have a mongo early party for her.

He's been going on 48-hour visits for the past three weeks. I can't even begin to describe to you how those have been affecting him. He comes back grumpy, overtired, and regressed in nearly every form of behavior he has. He tried to bite Evangeline last week, and this week he started falling over more than he has in months, and has the bumps on his forehead to show for it.

Was there a last-minute intervention?

I have had several offers from well-intentioned people in my coverage area with political connections to intervene in the situation with a phone call or two. I so far have declined, and do not anticipate calling in such a favor.

Essentially I don't feel comfortable with the idea of trying to take control of the situation. That's not in my nature, and I don't think it's appropriate. As Christians we're not supposed to be in the business of controlling things to make them work out the way we think is best.

Secondly, there's the ethics of a journalist being indebted to a political figure in his coverage area. Being beholden to any political figure for something as personal as this is a bad idea.

Thirdly, if you think I've shared the entire situation on a public forum -- especially when the start page advises other people to exercise restraint in providing details of their cases -- you're nuts.

Fourthly, I'm not so big an idiot to think that I'm being objective about this. Just because I can't think of anything nice to say about a situation doesn't mean it's not there.

Do you have further contact with him?

At this point he is still living with us five days of the week. Once he returns to his biological parents, I do not expect ever to see him again. I will not be closing this forum, however.

Will he be coming back to your house?

Anything is possible. His caseworker has indicated that she does not believe his parents will retain custody of their children for very long, and that the state will need once again to remove the kids from their custody. (I still get a headache trying to make sense of that.)

I do not expect that he will be placed with us, however. Through some stupid actions of my own, and from some stupid attitudes on their part, relations between my family and my son's birth parents are fairly frigid. They asked at one point a few weeks ago to have Isaac placed in another home. (His caseworker essentially told them to go to hell, fortunately. I've loved Katherine ever since.)

Nor, I think, is the state going to be overly inclined to place him with us on their own since (as noted previously) we not licensed foster parents and were accepted only because we were willing, the parents wanted us to be his caretakers, and because we cleared a State Police background check.

Are you still willing to act as a foster parent in the future?
I think you can guess what I mean when I say this has been an especially difficult time, what Douglas Adams referred to as "the long, dark tea-time of the soul." I've experienced heartache on a level I never imagined possible, and every time I say I've given all I can and cried all the tears I have, that Cosmic Sadist manages to wring more from me and makes me cry all over again.

If I had the chance, knowing what I've learned, would I choose to do it over? Yes, I would. I've taught Isaac how to walk, how to eat with his fingers and how to use silverware. I've taught him how to dress himself and undress himself (although he still needs a little help with the sleeves), and I've taught him how to play.

He's developed a love of books, he's learned to play with other children. He's discovered how to climb a ladder and how to go down (and up!) a slide. He can use a shape sorter correctly, and he's even started playing with Legos.

He knows how to laugh now.

He can smile.

He's learned to sing, "La la la, la la la, Elmo stinks!"

He's learned how to understand simple and two-step commands, and he's learned how to express himself through two-words phrases and even requests like "Let me go."

Best of all, he's learned to love. Now that he's learned that, he can transfer it to other people, and -- I trust -- he'll remember that no matter how bad it might be, it gets better. He'll have faith that there's Love out there, and that it's seeking him out.

Isaac has done a lot for me too. I've had to learn patience, and I've had to grow more restraint dealing with and speaking about people I find contemptible. He's also given the faceless children of foster care a name and a face. From now on, for me, they'll all be Isaac.

But -- it's taken a bitter toll on all of us. It's left its mark on my marriage as well. And not just on my marriage, but on my daughter as well. Evangeline has been hurt terribly by this situation, and in all honesty I'd rather she were a little older before she had to learn the painful lesson that to love somebody else is to invite pain into your heart.

She is absolutely devastated when he leaves for a visit, and I can see it in her face and her reaction when we talk that she's afraid she's going to be leaving too.

I have to stay involved; that's not going to change. But I have to protect my family too. My wife says she doesn't want to do this again, and I need to respect that. So, no, I don't see it happening again in the foreseeable future.

Ask me again in 15 or 20 years.

What are you going through at this moment?

A number of things. Anger. Bitterness. Resentment. Resignation. Joy. Pride. Acceptance.

Most heretical of all, I'm trying to forgive God. As with John, I find myself asking, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another?" It's hard, when the Almighty has turned his back on you, to remember what you once saw and to believe that there is a point to this all.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

dumbledore actor ill

I understand that the actor who played Dumbledore in the first movie is not doing particularly well and was replaced in parts of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" with the actor who was doing stand-in pieces already. That casting change is expected to be permanent for the next two movies as well, if they are ever made. (I still want "Order of the Phoenix" more than another movie, personally ...)

I had heard it was the stunt double who would replace him, on the grounds they not only look alike but they sound alike. Similar I suppose to the decision to have Anthony Hopkins dub the dialogue for a scene in the video release of "Spartacus" since Laurence Olivier had died and the soundtrack had deteriorated too much to be saved.

Christopher Lee would be an interesting choice for the role. I don't doubt he could do it -- and he certainly has name recognition because of Saruman and Count Dookou -- but he generally plays villains, not genteel professors at British boarding schools.

I suppose it's sadly ironic that the actor died the year bfore Dumbledore probably is going to buy it in the books. Somehow I suspect Voldemort is going to be the culprit, rather than Hodgkins Disease, but one never knows.

"Harry Potter and the Chamberpot of Secrets" comes out Friday, right? (Yes, I'm awaiting it eagerly. Almost as eagerly as I'm awaiting the special-release DVD of "Fellowship of the Ring" and the cinematic release of "The Two Towers." It's hard to believe I'm 32 and this excited about a series of books for "young readers" ...)

Saturday, September 21, 2002

When it comes to a liberal profession of faith, I have no shame

I have it on good authority that I am going to hell when I die.

Amazingly, this isn't because I watched "The Last Temptation of Christ" back when I was in college. It's not because I drive too slowly in the fast lane, and it's not even because I think a foot-long ponytail looks good on a 34-year-old man. No, I'm going to hell because I have the audacity to call myself a Christian and a liberal at the same time. I'm a member of the Religious Left.

Despite the seeming oxymoron in a term such as Religious Left, the truth is that religion and liberalism actually have a long, shared history in this country, beginning with abolitionism.

Socially liberal religious groups such as the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, formed the backbone of the Underground Railroad, risking arrest, fines and harassment-by rescuing blacks from slavery in the South and smuggling them north to freedom in Canada.

In the years since, the Religious Left has been at the forefront of issues such as women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. While the establishment has pounded the drums for war, religious liberals have manned humanitarian efforts in the middle of battle zones to make sure that the wounded innocents are cared for.

In Dallas, the Trinity Foundation has challenged churches and synagogues to meet the needs of the homeless head on, by providing them with a place to stay and helping them find jobs. The Trinity Foundation also keeps tabs on hucksters who use religion as means to make themselves wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable.

In Chicago, the Jesus People, a religious commune on the wrong side of the tracks, has fought to1 protect the people who depend on low-income housing by fighting efforts to gentrify neighborhoods behind the guise of redevelopment.

And while President Bush four years ago was incredulous when an interviewer asked him about hunger in Texas, former President Carter — like Bush, a professed born-again Christian — is a major figure in Habitat for Humanity, an organization that has made tremendous strides in providing affordable housing to the poor.

Equal rights for women, civil rights for minorities, support of hate-crime legislation, affordable housing, food and clothing for the homeless, civil unions for same-sex couples, education for those in prison, an end to capital punishment — these are all liberal causes, and they're all causes I support as a Christian.

During the last 20-odd years, the Religious Right has been the dominant voice from Christian groups, as it has claimed a monopoly on truth, and its interpretation and application. Depending on whom you listen to, any deviation from the party line — which increasingly has meant the Republican Party line — is unpardonable.

Contrary to what many on the Right, both religious and not, would have us believe, liberalism isn't a cancer eating away at the core of an otherwise healthy society. It isn't about undermining traditional family values, about eroding the foundations of our nation, hating America, or giving people a free ride at the expense of the public.

Liberalism is the simple belief that everybody deserves the same basic opportunities and respect as everybody else, regardless of the social, economic, religious or racial position they were born with. That's it.

If it means some people will take advantage of the system, so be it. In the long run, I'd rather be taken advantage of than to throw a family out on the street because they couldn't pay the mortgage in a sour economy. I'd rather have less money in my own pocket than leave employees struggling to get the health care they need. I'd rather face disappointed shareholders than reward years of company loyalty with job outsourcing.

"Whatever you do to the least of these," Jesus says, "you do to me."

I'm religious, and I'm a liberal. Let my heart bleed.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Addicted to the kind of Coke that you can't snort

My name is David Learn, and I'm addicted to Coke.

This addiction is now entering its 10th year, and it shows no signs of getting weaker. It's taken a toll on my bank account, my health and my relationship with my wife. I thought I could quit any time I wanted, but I can't. I want my life back.

As with other people, I first started cultivating my addiction in earnest during the young and heady days of college. Between discussions regarding whether free will is a meaningful construct or purely illusory, and whether Isabella was right to refuse Lord Angelo's lewd proposition to save her brother Claudio's life in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," college was an invitation to a lifestyle of addiction, excess and wanton self-indulgence.

I was no better than my friends. While they were discovering the joys of alcohol poisoning and waking up in the hospital with no memory of how they had broken a hip, I was experimenting with Coke.

It started innocently. Other students noticed I was having a hard time maintaining the energy I needed for the college lifestyle. I could have gone to sleep earlier, but that would have required changing my lifestyle. It was easier to start using Coke.

I started small, with a little bit at lunch, to give me the energy I would need to get through my afternoon classes. Then I started getting a little more, at dinner, to get me through the evening.

By the middle of my sophomore year, I was a full-fledged addict. I would go to parties and — unwilling to drink beer because of my experiences with a grandfather who was an alcoholic — I turned to Coke. Soon I was consuming as much as 32 ounces of it at one sitting, and wondering why I couldn't sleep.

I would find it hard to focus in class, and get crushing headaches. A housemate noticed that my addiction was affecting my weight, and not in a good way. He tried to say something, and I nearly bit his head off. I regretted it, and apologized, but there was no denying it. Coke had a hold on my life.
There were days Coke was the only thing I had for a meal, aside from the occasional glass of milk to calm my upset stomach.

Twice now I've managed to go cold turkey, despite the tremendous migraines and exhaustion that come on me as my body clears itself of the toxins I've polluted it with.

The first time I was clean for two glorious years — although "clean" probably is pushing things. I was living in Haiti at the time as a missionary. I could still find Coke if I wanted it, but it cost 80 cents for 16 ounces, compared to the 20 ounces of Pepsi I could get for the same amount of money. I simply changed the subject of my addiction for a couple years, although I did drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration.

My second time, I actually did go completely cold turkey when I realized how much money my habit was costing me. It didn't last.

After two weeks, I discovered that I couldn't stay up late on the job as easily as I had, and as I bottomed out, I remembered how much energy I once had had. It was too easy to fall back on old habits, even though I had told my wife I had stopped for good.

So now I'm back in the habit, drinking as many as three 20-ounce bottles of Coke a day, and paying as much as $1.36 for a fix at the Quick Chek down the street from my office.

My addiction has led to at least six cavities that I know of, it has brought me to the point that I am about 40 pounds overweight, with an attendant increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems. If that's not enough, it also aggravates the insomnia and the migraines I've suffered since I was a teenager.

I know all this, but as I write this column, I'm doing it with a bottle of Coke at my side. Unlike that other form of coke addiction, this one keeps the people caught in its clutches on a brisk slide for years before it lets them bottom out, usually far too late to make a decent recovery.

My name is David Learn. I'm an addict, and I want my life back. 

Thursday, September 12, 2002


Well, I've finally seen a few episodes of "Enterprise," and I have to say that I'm not impressed. Maybe it's just me, but it does seem like Scott Bakula is just coasting as Jonathan Archer. I saw much stronger performances from him as Samuel Beckett (and I don't mean the archbishop of Canterbury, either) and on the one episode of "Murphy Brown" I actually watched.

I'm not quite sure what it is about the show that's not doing it for me, but it lacks some essential spark to make it grab my attention and keep it. Maybe it's the lack of real conflict among the crew, or any sense that they're actually blazing new trails in science fiction or even in Star Trek. It just seems like more of the same stuff, with a little window dressing.

Maybe it's just Star Trek fatigue, at this point. More weird shit episodes, all happily resolved at the end of the episode with no lasting complications.

I do think it's interesting the way the Vulcans are being cast in a negative light, suspicious of other races and determined to control the paths of other, less advanced peoples like Terrans and Andorians. (Speaking of which, I tremendously enjoyed the appearance of the Andorians. It was a good bit of continuity with Classic Trek, and it nicely showed the unpleasant side of Vulcan behavior toward "lesser" species.)

I also enjoyed the Halloween episode, where a hallucinogen in the air was causing everyone to see and hear things and suspect the Vulcan science officer of some sort of treachery. It was a much more effective Halloween episode than "Catseye," the Classic Trek episode where the aliens turned out to be extradimensional pipecleaners.

But I do have one question: What's the Vulcan logic in that skin-tight bodysuit? I understand the ratings logic, but not the Vulcan logic.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

not (quite) on our own

I haven't been overly thrilled with the state Division of Youth and Family Services, which handles foster care arrangements in our state.

The two caseworkers we've had have been wonderful. They listen to what we say, they check up on the kids, and they've been generally responsive to our concerns. I can't say a bad thing about them.

The state bureaucracy is another matter, though. While we were between caseworkers, our case was handled by the district manager. She returned our calls (eventually), but was generally pretty rude about things and gave us the impression that we had no rights in the situation. We were told to cancel plans in order to accomodate a make-up visit they set up without telling anyone; she changed the regular visitation schedule without checking with us to see if the new times would be good for us; and she never listened to a word we said about what was happening to the kids or what would be good for them. It started a phrase between us and friends of ours who have our foster son's sister: "Well, what would we know, after all? We're just the foster parents."

We were stuck with Anne for about three months, by the end of which I was practically pulling my hair out in frustration. The drivers who came to pick up the kids didn't have the appropriate child safety seats -- he once actually tried to use a regular seat belt on a 2-year-old! -- and were rude as could be to us. They didn't come to the door to collect Isaac; they stayed in the street and honked the horn. My wife was grilled because Isaac fell and skinned his knees once, and we were told we had to buy him new sandals and clean his ears better. (I had just cleaned his ears the night before and flat-out refused to spend money on sandals he didn't need.)

The worst was when the system decided it was all right for the birth parents to come to our house to pick their son up for visits, all without consulting us first. I had to raise cain and threaten to get a restraining order before they backed down.

All this is a long and circumlocutious way of answering your question. Do I feel abandoned as a foster parent? Not entirely. But I don't feel like the system really cares about me, or about my foster son.

Monday, September 09, 2002

staring into my child's grave

So here I am, wide awake at 12:16 a.m. Sept. 9. I should be asleep upstairs so I can be awake in nine hours when I go to work. After all, I have a ton of Sept. 11 news coverage to prepare and do, and regular work at the newspaper besides, but I can't help it. Sleep is about as far from me as the Super Bowl is from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

My foster son is going to his parents for a visit this morning, one that will last 24 hours or so. My daughter is going to be asking for him nonstop, and I'm going to be looking for him all day too. He's not going to be there when I get home from work, and he's not going to scream for joy to see me. I'm not going to get a hug from him, I won't get to hear him build his language skills, and I'm not going to be able to tuck him into bed tonight.

Instead, he's going to be with the people who left him in the abominable developmental mess he's been struggling out of for the last 10 months. He'll be in an apartment so filthy that cockroaches climb on the bedroom wall, under the tender ministrations of people who got his sister to bleed from the head while they were changing her diaper during last week's visit.

His caseworker acknowledges they're a mess and the situation, far from improving, probably has worsened since the children were removed last December.

And yet it looks like he's going back there in just two short months.

If God is just
If there is intelligence in the courts
If this universe makes any sense
... something's going to happen to stop that from happening.

In the meantime, I'm faced with the inevitability of the unthinkable. I feel like I'm watching a child die in front of me, and I'm unable to give him the treatment he needs to live.

I can't begin to tell you how angry -- and how very, very heartbroken -- I am right now.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

bracing for departure

As our foster son has begun longer, all-day visits with his parents in preparation for his dreaded day of return to their custody, our daughter has been noticing his absences and commenting on them frequently.

The other day, after being told for the fifth or sixth time that he was away for the day with his mommy and dady, Evangeline decided Isaac must be "outside," so she started to put toys outside for him to play with. Kind of sweet and thoughtful, in a toddler sort of way.

Of course, I'm kind of concerned that she's going to get the idea that people leave after a while, and will start worrying that mommy and daddy will send her away next, or will send the baby somewhere else.

The state workers told us that she wouldn't be hurt by his departure, and people keep telling us how resilient children are, but I'm not stupid. I've seen my foster son's emotional scars, and I wonder how deep they'll be on my daughter.


I spoke with the caseworker for Isaac and his sister a fair amount this week and it seems like she is starting to understand our concerns about the children returning to their parents under the current circumstances.

I have no idea what this means in the long term. Although at this point I still have to assume that the kids will return to their parents, it's looking a little better for them in the sense that DYFS is starting to raise all sorts of new flags over the potential for neglect and abuse.

My prayer isn't that Isaac stays here, or that his sister stays with her foster parents: I simply don't want them to be in any situation, in any home, where we are concerned that they are being neglected and not being challenged to develop properly emotionally and mentally.

Beyond that, I don't want to say. I just ask that you keep both children heavily in your prayers. They need it. 

cgc: what went wrong

What follows is my own take on the last year-and-a-half. This should be viewed as the self-absorbed ponderings of one man, and nothing more.

Abner started at the church back around Easter 2001. I don't remember how much earlier than that we voted for him, but it wasn't much earlier. To a large extent I voted for him because he was recommended by people whose opinions I value highly. And to tell the truth, if we were in the same situation now and they recommended somebody, I would still value their opinion quite a lot, though I might ask a few more questions.

For me, the trouble started soon after Abner came on, though to call it "trouble" probably isn't fair. I started developing reservations about what he was preaching. There are different views of what a sermon is for, some good and some bad. One is teaching, which is I've encountered primarily at mainline denominations. This is long on doctrine and biblical exegesis, but short on application. Another is the fire-and-brimstome approach, with its variants "You're all going to hell unless you repent *NOW*" and "Society's going to hell, but we're okay." And so on. I guess that's a little off the subject.

Abner's teaching struck me fairly early on as prosperity-oriented, or aimed at the self; i.e., how can I get more out of God? He's had a number of sermons along those lines -- How can I avoid financial ruin?, How can I experience the fullness of God's plan for my life? and what else. It's the sort of teaching reflected in popular books like "The Prayer of Jabez" and has the heart-warming message that God loves us, wants us to be happy and successful, and there's nothing wrong with asking God to give us health, wealth and happiness.

I don't quite see the gospel that way. As I understand him, Jesus calls us to self-denial and to service of others, and he promises pain, suffering and heartache in this life. Self-actualization doesn't seem to rank very high on the list of things he promises followers; in fact, his exact words are "Unless you take up your cross daily and follow me, you cannot be my disciple." To the rich young ruler, he said, "One thing you lack: Go and sell all your possessions and give everything you have to the poor" and remarks "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven."

So I had problems nearly from the start with the content of Abner's sermons. I talked with a few other people, but they preferred more of a wait-and-see attitude, arguing that he was using those things as a hook to draw people in. And so, as Gandalf says in "The Fellowship of the Ring," my doubts slept, but uneasily.

As time went on, I found I pretty much ignored what Abner said during his sermons because I found them dull and uninteresting. I either was in the nursery with my daughter, in the hallway with a friend, or busy writing something unconnected with the sermon while he preached. The sermons I did list to struck me as wrong in a number of ways. Often they were what one friend of mine calls a "vending-machine faith": If you X, then God will do Y. Anyone who's followed Christ for a while knows it's not that simple; worse, this presentation of things can be a brutal stick for young Christians to beat themselves up with. "I'm not experiencing this, so God must not love me because I haven't ...."

After a while people we knew started to leave or at least to talk about leaving. Everyone listed the preaching as a problem, but many of them also were complaining about broken confidences, insensitivity and broken promises. I didn't have any of those experiences because I never felt close enough to Abner to confide my private demons to him.

What I did see in Abner was a lot of pride. Last December, we were chosen to be the recipients of the church's Christmas gifts for the needy among us. This bothered us for two reasons: We learned from Jenny McGrath that the homeless shelter CGC had been working with for years had been cut off with no warning (which Abner denied), and secondly, people who had bought gifts for the giving tree had done so with the understanding they were helping needy people who wouldn't have had much of a Christmas otherwise. I was unemployed, but we were well in the black and had bought Evangeline plenty of presents.

When I called one of our elders, he agreed that maybe the church had erred and would need to rethink its mechanism for distributing gifts. Abner wouldn't hear of it. It took me something like five minutes to get him to listen to me and understand that I wasn't attacking anyone, and was sharing an honest concern about resources being misallocated. (For the record, the gifts we set aside what we were given to donate to a homeless shelter to make needy children happy at Christmas.)

That was his response toward any criticism, I found: Pride and an inability to recognize the validity of a viewpoint other than his own. As people started to leave in droves, he started to use the pulpit to criticize people who were leaving and he often said that people could get on board with what God was doing at Crosspointe, or leave.

In the end, I decided that what God appeared to be doing at Crosspointe was getting people out. So that's what we did.

cgc: in memoriam

I miss a number of things, not excluding the neighbor's house when I pull out of the driveway.

I miss the genuine and regular sense of interacting with a church community. I've been a Christian for 14 years and I've been involved with a number of churches, but CGC is the first place I felt I "belonged." I was frowned upon for being an individual, for raising questions or for even disagreeing with pastor.

Nicest of all I suppose was the way no one ever got hung up on stupid side issues. I've been in Christian groups were you were out if you weren't a strict Calvinist (I'm not), if you didn't speak in tongues (I never have) or if you "walked the walk without talking the talk" (I try to do the former but can't stand "spiritual" talk).

CGC was a place where we could be natural and be ourselves, and if people minded, it was because you had different personalities, not because you weren't one of "us."

What I really loved about CGC was its approach to fulfilling the Great Commission. While many churches and many Christians live in retreat from society and seek "safe" alternatives to what the evil, ungodly and wicked society presents us, I didn't get that sense from CGC much. The intent there wasn't to live in retreat from society but to present a dynamic interaction that follows the model Christ gave us and that really changes lives.

It's a shame it couldn't last, but frost always comes to Eden in the end. The question we have to answer is what we do now. 

I think the team is still here, and I think the team is still capable of accomplishing tremendous good. I think we need to regroup and restrategize perhaps, but I can't believe that the CGC community -- what was valuable about our church -- has been destroyed by a little thing like the dissolution of an organization. 

What happens when newspaper layout goes wrong

"A policy on wedgies and engagements?" I thought to myself. "That can't be right."

Wondering if I somehow had been reduced to a character in Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" series, I did a quick double-take and found the questionable headline. Sure enough, it wasn't right. The headline, hanging on one of the desks at the newspaper's composition office, didn't refer to wedgies at all. The offending word was "weddings."

With song lyrics, this sort of goof is called a mondegreen, as in "They killed the Duke of Earl and Lady Mondegreen." Well-known mondegreens include the faux Jimi Hendrix lyrics '"Scuse me while I kiss this guy" and Credence Clearwater Revival's classic warning that "There is a bathroom on (he right."

I'm generally good with song lyrics, so I never made those particular mistakes, nor thought that Johnny Rivers really was singing about a "Secret Asian Man."

That aside, I do seem to have a problem processing what I read with my peripheral vision. As a result, I'm constantly misreading things when I'm in a hurry.

One of those moments came in 1992 when I was living in Haiti, during the military government of Gen. Raoul Cedras. Glancing at a 10-gourde note, I could have sworn the bill said "Banana Republique de Haiti."

It's nice when a government can recognize its own shortcomings, but isn't it going a little far to admit it on the nation's money?

Newspapers can have “visual mondegreens,” often created by the blind spots we work ourselves into because of the presuppositions that guide the placement of articles, ads and photos.  In this business, we have all sorts of layout tricks to group page elements together and reduce confusion of what piece goes with what. One of the most common of these is the box, which we often use to mark stand-alone photographs that don't run with news stories.

Approximately four years ago, I was a reporter in Montgomery Township when Joanne Stransky, the longtime municipal clerk, retired. When Assistant Clerk Donna Kukla assumed her former supervisor's post, I wrote a short story introducing her to the community. The story was published with the headline "New clerk has familiar face."

Unfortunately, the editor also placed the story under a stand-alone picture of a chocolate Lab being spotlighted by the local animal shelter. The picture and caption were boxed, but that didn't make a difference.

I'm told that to this day, some Montgomery officials still call Donna "Pepper."

Ad placement also can be a tricky matter. In an advertising section such as automotive or real estate, publishing an ad next to a competitor's press release is a major no-no.

Even so, every now and then the advertising gurus foozle an ad placement so badly it baffles the rest of the civilized world.

Approximately six years ago, The Times of Trenton published a political advertisement on the obituary page. If that alone doesn't suggest some commentary on a politician's chances for election, consider the wording of the ad: "Bring back Caprio."

There are many people I would like to see brought back, even if it means reassembling them from spare parts. Not many politicians are on the list.

The all-time winner, though, has to go to an ad that I am told ran in the Bound Brook Chronicle a few years before I started to work at the chain the paper belonged to.

A trash-removal service came to the newspaper with a last-minute ad that absolutely had to be published that week. Unfortunately, the ad dummies already had been completed, and only one page had the space left to fit the ad.

And so it was that when longtime readers turned to the obituary page, they were greeted by the image of a large trash truck with the text "Have You Considered An Alternate Means of Disposal?"

Sometimes, I think, a policy on wedgies and engagements isn't such a bad thing, by comparison.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

identity crisis

I discovered today that I'm not really Evangeline's father.

We were sitting in the car while Natasha went into the Blockbuster, and to pass the time I started asking Evangeline where Evangeline Learn and Isaac Jones were. (This is to remind her that Isaac is not a permanent part of our family, since he is likely to return to his birth parents soon.) When I asked her where Daddy Learn is, she responded indignantly, "No, you're not a Learn! *I* am."

So not only am I not her father, I don't even know who my parents are.

blue must die

Fun things your child can do with her stuffed Blue toy:
  • Make you buckle Blue in with a seat belt
  • Put Blue in time out
  • Let Blue wear some of her hats
  • Make you put a pair of shoes on Blue's feet so Blue can go outside
  • Sing about getting a letter
  • Leave clues everywhere
  • Make daddy use his "Blue" voice until he wants to shoot Steve, Joe and everyone else connected with the show

Saturday, August 31, 2002

developing grammar

Evangeline has been having a few problems keeping her personal pronouns straight, and she needs a little work on word order. Lately, when I go to take her out of the car after a trip, she says, "No! Mommy wants to pick you up."

Of course, Natasha weights about 70 pounds less than me and is also six months pregnant ...

in search of

While Isaac was out for his daylong visit with his birth parents, Evangeline kept asking where he was. Finally, she realized he was "outside" and decided to put some of his toys out there on the front step for him to play with.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

evil and god's justice

I realize as fully as anyone else here that kids are not innocent in the sense of being sinless. I remember what it was like to be a kid. I remember the taunts of other children all the way through high school. I remember how appealing suicide looked through the long and lonely years of middle school, and I recall all too vividly that I was no better than the other kids, because of the way I often bullied Matt Alsop when we were in elementary school. You want me to acknowledge that children are fallen creatures? I acknowledge it; hell, I'd be an idiot not to. My daughter's only 3 years old and she's already got a lot of the makings of a bully when it comes to her foster brother.

But nothing -- NOTHING -- justifies what I've seen some kids suffer. What sense does it make for a 5-year-old girl to be ripped out of her front yard by a complete stranger and raped and killed? What sin did she commit that brought her such a hideous fate? What did the Yates children do to deserve being drowned in the bathtub by their own mother? These are senseless crimes, they serve no purpose and they all altogether evil.

I don't make any argument against my own suffering. Like Dostoevsky says through the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, I've sinned. I'm an adult. I've had 32 years now to pile sin upon sin, and when those sins come home to roost with all their corruption, I have no right to complain. Nor do I have a right to complain about the suffering that comes from doing the right thing -- that's a choice I made, and in experiencing the pain and heartache that comes with following Christ, I'm able to share in his sufferings and he in mine.

But tell me this: What choice did Samantha make? What decision has Isaac made that Child Protection Services -- fully acknowledging that his parents have not improved in the least and still are going to neglect him in the same manner that has left him woefully behind developmentally -- is going to be thrown back to the wolves in less than three months? What great and ineffable purpose of God is served by the suffering of a single child for the sins his parents have committed?

I can't think of any. What is going on to kids like Isaac is evil, plain and simple. His parents are too self-absorbed to care for their children in anything beyond giving them food and baths, the state acknowledges that, and yet the kids are headed back. The destruction of a child is EVIL. When that destruction occurs at the hands of the people who are charged with the child's care and well-being, it is so foul I don't know the words to describe it.

The entire situation is perverted, from the way his mother sacrifices her children for her own fantasy life and pride, to the way their father knows what a good parent is but refuses to act like one, to the way the state is going to stand blithely by and let it happen again. For God's sake, they took the kids away last year because they were being neglected, and now they're going to toss them back into that same exact situation.

This is wrong, plain and simple, and if I'm sinful and can see that and would do something to stop it if I could, then why the hell can't God see it and do something about it? How does Isaac and his sister's abandonment to a home where they are valued only because of what their existence says about their mother rather than because of their instrinsic worth, glorify him?

Maybe, as Ivan Karamazov says, on the Last Day, it'll all be made clear and we'll see there was some purpose to it. As far as I'm concerned right now, I agree with his other contention, that that's bullshit. I can't rise up and cry "Just and true are your ways" when Isaac has to suffer so much right now with no remedy. Justice delayed until we all have ice cream on gold plates is no justice at all.

If God needs to build his glory on the suffering of children in this manner, then I honestly don't think I know him anywhere near as well as I thought I did. And if you don't see a problem with this situation, then I don't know you either.