Monday, July 31, 2006

the importance of second opinions

Recently I went to see the dentist and was told I would need a root canal.
All things considered, this is not the sort of thing I love to hear. Very few people -- I should imagine the number is less than ten thousand -- go to the dentist for a six-month checkup saying to themselves, "I hope I can get a root canal. I've always wondered what they feel like." Those few that do have some serious issues when it comes to getting their pleasure and pain signals mixed up.
This root canal had its roots in a cavity that had struck my lower left rear molar, or rather, that had restruck. An earlier filling had fallen out after years of hitting the Coca-Cola bottle too many times a day had taken their toll. The cavity was back, bigger and uglier than ever, and it was right along the gumline.
Two things happened as a result of this dental pronouncement. First was that I not only kicked the Coke habit, I kicked it hard and right out the door. I have had a few bottles since then, but it's been nowhere near the levels I had reached before, where I could sometimes go through a twelve-pack in two days. (As a result of this change, the Coca Cola bottling plant near us has announced layoffs, and our savings account has been reaching new heights.) The second is that I went for a second opinion.
Back when we first moved to Nova Bastille and we were on my insurance plan, I started seeing a dentist in the downtown. It was a small practice, and parking is an issue, but the dentist we saw when I was a child had his own practice, and I just plain like the experience of establishing a rapport with the fellow who's going to be sticking sharp instruments into my mouth and poking around every six months.
About two years ago, we switched over to the insurance policy provided by my wife's employer, and at my insistence, the whole family got on the dental wagon. (A good thing too, since Evangeline somehow had managed to develop three cavities by the age of 5, although she's been clean since.)
Remember how I said I grew up seeing a dentist with his own practice and preferred that? Well, I guess each of us likes what we grew up with. Natasha grew up attending one of those large corporate dental offices where you never know whom you're going to get because the staff roster is larger than the population of some Central American nations, and she insisted that we take our business to such an establishment -- and to her credit, parking is easier, and the office doesn't close when one dentist is on vacation.
Still, I can't help it. When a dentist I've never seen before is telling me I need a root canal and offers to give me a prescription in the meantime to control the pain she assumes my tooth is causing me -- when it doesn't hurt at all -- I can't help but feel wistful for a more personal touch.
I'm kind of crazy that way. It's kind of like wanting to get a person when I call a company's customer service hot line, instead of having to wade through a soulless computer program that connects me with an illiterate bean farmer in Rhode Island when all I want to know is whether my pants make me look fat.
So I went and got a second opinion, at my old dentist. His opinion? A root canal would be nuts. Based on the X-ray the other practice sent, and what he could see by looking into the old lion's jaws, I just had a cavity that was low to the gum.
So I called the insurance company, and after being connected to three different bean farmers in Rhode Island, most of them illiterate, I finally changed my dentist back to the guy it should have been all along and made my appointment.
A little Novacaine, a little drilling, and then some filling, and whammo! No more cavity.
And no more root canal.

Friday, July 28, 2006

idle thoughts

Two years ago, when my older daughter was in kindergarten, I hooked into her enthusiasm for Disney's Princess stories and exposed her to fairy tales from around the world.
We started out with Cinderella, one of the most ubiquitous of the classic fairy tales. Just about every culture in the world has some version of the story, and in no time at all we had read versions of the story from Cambodia, the Philippines, Appalachia, Germany, Ireland and the West Indies. In addition to learning about other cultures and building her geography skills, Evangeline started to recognize variations on certain motifs. She spotted the shoe test when it was a boot, recognized the part of the fairy godmother even when it was played by a bull or a fish, and after a while started to recognize the story even when she wasn't told.
Once she even made the connection between Danae in the myth of Perseus, and the dilemma of Rapunzel, but that's off the subject.
I actually was pretty happy to see her making these connections and enjoying the changes in the story, because that's something I've always enjoyed doing, too. I love to read different treatments of the same basic story, which is why I have versions of the King Arthur legend from Geoffrey of Monmouth and The Mabinogion, up through Mallory, Tennyson, T.H. White, John Steinbeck and beyond. No matter how many things the stories have in common, it's never really the same story. Tennyson brings the story nobility, elegance and divinity; White brings Arthur humanity; and Steinbeck, socialism. Usually Arthur is a hero; sometimes he's a villain. (One church in Europe has a frieze of Arthur riding a goat in hell.)
I love the way stories change and mutate and stay the same over time and across cultures, and not just stories, but words, languages and ideas as well. And one of the things I love about the Internet is finding the ways stories and ideas get passed around and rewritten at lightning speed.
Often the things that change are glurge, sentimental claptrap that's high on warm fuzzies but low on intelligence and sensibility. I've written my share of parodies of these things, but I've also come across some that have been rewritten and actually improved in terms of storytelling -- the drama has been heightened, the moral is driven home better, and the writing is tighter and cleaner.
But it's not just stories that get passed around. I've seen a few of my essays get reposted elsewhere -- sometimes by someone else taking credit for them -- and I'm sure some of the essays that get passed around also undergo revisions and changes. It happens to urban legends on the Internet all the time, it probably happens to more serious pieces of writing too.
I can't help it. I'm wondering what sort of game it would be to take something off someone's blog, and rewrite it -- not just edit, but rewrite it, to make the thoughts and entire entry one's own possession in concept -- and then pass it on to another writer, and then another, and another, for five or six people, like an advanced form of the telephone game.
I already recycle my own writing some times, when I need to revisit a theme, when I'm not satisfied with something I've written previously, or when reading it inspires a new line of thought.
What would it be like to do that deliberately with someone else's?

on sanctification

I'm aware of two different doctrines of sanctification. The first, found in some Pentecostal and Holiness denominations like the Nazarenes, holds that Sanctification is a moment when the Holy Spirit removes a Christian's sinful nature. From that point on you are in lockstep with God, and anything he wants is your desire also. (And with that comes the flipside: Anything you want is God's desire also, so that anyone who opposes is resisting the will of God.)

Aside from being merely dangerous, I would tag this doctrine unbiblical, considering Paul's words on the subject of sin nature: "So I find this law at work in me: WHat I want to do, I do not do; and the things that I do not want to do, I find myself doing" and "Here is a trustworthy saying: Of all sinners, I am the worst."

The other doctrine of sanctification I know is one that holds that over time we become more and more like Christ, that as we grow closer to him and serve him longer, our desires gradually become more like his, and we become more like Christ in character and holiness.

I don't really hold with this one either, for much of the same reasons as above. I can't find any evidence that we "get better" in terms of sin. The psalmists regularly lament the sinfulness of the assembly; the Apostles kept quarreling with one another long after the Ascension; and so on.

What I have found myself is that I become more aware of my own sin as time goes on, and I return to the Cross for forgiveness for the same old sins time and time again, and for other sins that had never even crossed my mind before, even though I'd been guilty of them. Generally I think we become more aware of the sin in our lives as time goes on, rather than seeing a triumph over it; with the result that we seek forgiveness more, and pray for grace increasingly just for that day, that hour, that moment.

But of course, it doesn't provide as great a sound bite to say, "I'm still gay, and every day I ask God to give me peace with being homosexual, to help me stay celibate, not to get too rough on myself when I fall, and to forgive the people who just want to lecture me" as it does to say "Jesus healed me of being gay!"

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

if you smell a chicken ...

... it's probably me.

This weekend we finally took action to plug up the holes on the underside of our roof. The holes, which measure about six inches across, have been there for about two years and this spring began providing neighborhood squirrels with access to our third-story attic.

Originally the holes served as openings for the downspouts on an ancient pair of gutters that ran along the underside of our slate roof. When we had the roof replaced in 2004, we had the gutters replaced as well, so that we would have something that works and is more or less modern in its design. The downside, of course, was those holes.

The squirrels discovered the holes one fine spring morning this year, when Natasha awoke to the sound of one frantically scurrying about in the attic as it tried to find the way back out. We hemmed and hawed on the subject, and I finally suggested stuffing the holes with steel wool and spackling over it. The spackle alone should keep the squirrels out, but the steel wool would be lethal to any squirrel trying to chew its way back in.

Days passed, then weeks, and finally even three or four months, during which time the squirrels got into a fight with a bird who, feeling in a motherly way, built its nest in one of the holes and defended its home and its eggs with vim and vigor.

This past weekend I borrowed a forty-foot extension ladder so we could settle the squirrels' and birds' fight once and for all.

So why am I a chicken? Because I get dizzy at the mall when I get too close to those cut-away sections of the second floor, where all that stops you from plunging to your death thirty feet below is a glass partition. Because I take the first two or three steps of a ladder very quickly and then my speed decreases along a logarithmic decay curve.

Because I can't stand heights, and I defintely can't stand the idea of standing atop a ladder twenty-five feet in the air and letting go with one hand so I can stuff steel wool into a hole and then spackle over it.

I sent Natasha, and therefore I am a chicken.


Monday, July 24, 2006

redemption: the journey

I do not have to feel "whole" or "complete" or "healed" to be where God wants me, or to experience him and reveal him to others.

Isn't this what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians? To keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassingly great visions he had, he was given over to an angel of Satan, a thorn in the flesh, and when he asked to be delivered from it, Jesus told him, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness." If God heals us, we no longer need to depend on him for our daily bread and no longer need to lean on him for strength. But when we have a lifelong and unhealable wound like the Fisher King's, communion with him is essential.

I have spent so much of my life expecting to experience some sort of wholeness or easing of my pain as I got "closer" to God. And isn't that what the church often promises? That although the road is long and hard sometimes, God eventually fills in the chinks and you have a wondrous peace and joy for the rest of your life?

And isn't that a bunch of crap?

It's drilled into you in the testimonies you hear and are encouraged to share as a new believer. You talk about how messed up you were and now how everything's sunshine and roses. It would be unthinkable to share in church that you have a lot of anger and unforgiveness in you heart, that you still feel lonely, that you enjoy S&M or wearing women's clothing,* that doubt runs deep, or even that you face depression on a daily basis.

Following Christ does keep us out of a lot of life-ruining stuff that we would otherwise get ourselves into -- sexual immorality, drugs, a life of crime -- but the decision to follow doesn't suddenly make us suddenly Christlike in anything except our standing before God. And while I've known a lot of people who have found peace, learned humility, and become tireless advocates for the poor and the needy, even the best of them will admit that they have miles to go.

Redemption is not a decision as much as it is a journey, and the healing of our world-wounded selves is never-ending on this side of heaven.

And perhaps not even there.

* Well, OK. Those might be bad examples. And I'm sure a woman could share in church without risking judgment or rejection that she enjoys wearing women's clothing, although it surely would puzzle a few people why it was worth mentioning and why she "enjoys" it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

showing my age

Behold, I shew you a mystery:
Okay, that's three mysteries. But what the heck do they mean? What are the etymologies? Sometimes, you know, I feel really old.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

my absent child

Got an update on Isaac and his situation Monday night, courtesy of our friends who adopted his younger sister.

Although he legally remains in the custody of his father — his mother having moved to Florida with a boyfriend and having brought at least one other child into the world — Isaac has been living with his paternal grandmother, his aunt and her two children for the past two years. His father, I am told, does not live there and has virtually nothing to do with him.

Isaac also officially has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and was removed from his kindergarten last year because of his behavior problems. He is now attending a special school in Old Bridge, where he can get specialized care for learning and behavioral difficulties.

From what I'm told, he talks fairly well — when he came to stay with us, he was at least a year behind developmentally — and is more or less happy.

So that's good, I suppose.

The ADHD diagnosis doesn't come as a surprise to me. Whether because he lacked any sort of active parenting or mental stimulation his first two years, Isaac was prone to wandering from one activity to another if someone wasn't there to anchor him to it. It was especially bad in rooms where there were lots of toys on the floor, as is often the case when young children have lots of toys to choose from.

I thought he was making progress while he was with us — though I confess I don't have the professional credentials to say that authoritatively — but there was no denying the thing he sat for the most willingly and eagerly was the TV set.

Still, I remember the discipline and focus that we did see as time went on, and I can't help but wonder if he would have made more progress if he hadn't returned to his parents so soon. The visits became especially disruptive to his behavior, particularly toward the end. Still, what's done is done and the water passed under that bridge years ago and long since has wandered out to sea.

I have to admit that I feel a little empty when I consider the situation our friends have with Isaac's sister. They got to adopt her. Every morning they get to wake her up and spend the day with her, and every night they get to put her to bed. She has a little sister and a baby brother who are growing up with her as a natural part of their family. Meanwhile, I have pictures hanging on the wall and lying in shoeboxes, I have a heartache that remains as raw today as it was three years and seven months ago, and I have a 6½-year-old who misses him just as much as I do.

Part of me keeps whispering "It could have worked out differently," and damn it, that voice is nearly right. It almost could have worked out so that we’d be in the same situation with Isaac as our friends are with his sister.

The courts returned Isaac to his parents in October 2002. Within three months, his mother had left him and moved in with her new boyfriend. After a lot of deliberation and talking with Natasha, I called Isaac's father in January 2003 and said that if he needed any help with things, we'd be available.

And we did help out. I don't remember many weekends we did it, but we watched Isaac for his father, in our own homes, because of his father's work schedule. We didn't ask him to pay us for the food Isaac ate, we didn't ask him to pay for the diapers he used, and we didn't ask him to pay us for our trouble. We had two children of own at that point, and we could have used the money, but we never even asked him to pay Isaac's way when we went some place during the weekend.

At one point Isaac's dad was going to tell his daycare center that we were authorized to pick him up and drop him off. If we had kept taking him on weekends, in time we probably would have reached the same point that our friends did, with Isaac living virtually all the time with us, calling us mommy and daddy, being in our legal custody, and finally being our legally adopted son.

I'd be whole right now instead of crying fresh tears while I write this.

So what happened?

It's like this. We were trying to help Isaac's dad in a tough situation, and ended up enabling him. The last weekend Isaac stayed with us, it was going to be for Friday night only. His father had adjusted his work schedule so he could pick Isaac up Saturday afternoon and spend the rest of the weekend with him. At the last minute, he decided he'd rather have Isaac stay with us until Sunday afternoon so he could celebrate his birthday with friends. It looked to us like Isaac's father was trying to pass his responsibilities as a father off onto us, and we couldn't be party to that.

It’s like this. We wanted to help Isaac, but we had different expectations for his behavior from what his father had. We expected him to stay at the table during meals, to sleep when it was bedtime, to listen to directions and to do things for himself when he could. Whatever he was expected to do at home didn't match what we expected, and it was making him frustrated and us.

It's like this. I already had had my heart ripped out of me that October morning when he left, and so did Evangeline. At first it seemed like the weekend visits were a godsend; instead, they were becoming increasingly stressful, difficult and painful for us as we said goodbye each time, and as the challenges of his behavior were compounded with the needs of Rachel, who was only a few months old.

And it's like this. As bad as it was for me, it was far worse for my wife. God gave me a tremendous measure of grace for dealing with Isaac and his problems, but for whatever reason, it was too stressful for her to deal with, especially added to the stress of dealing with difficult child welfare workers, Isaac's parents, and the pain of seeing what all this was doing to me and to Evangeline. The last few months that Isaac was with us were an iron cage around her spirit. She was trapped in the dark and the cold, and felt utterly alone.

What kind of a husband would I be if I asked her to put herself through that again, with no idea of when or if it would end? She already had done more than anyone had the right to ask or expect of her. So our relationship with Isaac's father ended quietly and unceremoniously, and for the past three years I've had to comfort myself and Evangeline with tears, memories and the hope of a happy reunion some day, years from now.

I don't know what I should say at this point. I suppose I could say that life is unfair, and it is. If life were just, either Isaac would be with us and we would be happy. Better yet, his parents would have been the parents he needed from the start so that he never would have needed to live with us in the first place.

I suppose I should say that God is good, because he is. The pain I have had these past few years is real and it runs deep. Nothing else has ever cut me as deeply. Through it all I see the hand of a Father whose tears are deeper and more bitter than mine, and I see the wounds of a Lord who knows this grief and has borne it more fully than I could ever bear, not just for my sake but for Isaac's as well.

But let me also say this: In our hearts, Isaac is my son, and he is Evangeline's brother. There was never a chance that he would live with us, but we will never forget him. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.