Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Grim Thought

Okay, I know you probably don't want a grim thought. There are enough grim thoughts flying around out there. But this is a helpful grim thought, especially if you are as Single as Single can be.

My helpful grim thought is this: All romantic love leads to either heartbreak or death.

Aaaaah! There. I've said it. The great sucky reality of romantic love. Either the man (or men, let's face it) breaks your heart, or you break his heart, or he dies on you. Of course, you might die on him. But the odds are he's going to die on you 'cause that's what men do, the old so-and-sos!

Since I am married and in love with my husband, since I waited (this time) for the Perfect Man for Me, this dying-before-me thing rather gives me the pip. However, I am determined to make sure I do my bit to get B.A. into heaven, and hopefully I will get in myself eventually, and then that dying thing won't matter so much.

Still, if/when it happens, it will suck. I'm hoping we die simultaneously, martyred by religious fanatics while on a "In the Steps of Saint Paul" pilgrimage-tour in Turkey when we are 80. However, you don't get to choose these things. Oh dear!

These are not good thoughts to have when you are across a whole ocean from your husband, incidentally. Here's a fun video, one of my favourites, to cheer us all up:

Monday, 29 March 2010

Jean Vanier

It's time for a Seraphic Single of the Week, and this time it's Jean Vanier.

Roman Catholic layman Jean Vanier has never married. Instead he has dedicated his life to living with people with intellectual disabilities in France. In fact, he is one of the founders of the original L'Arche community.

Canadians are very proud of Jean Vanier, whose father Georges was, in fact, a Canadian Governor General (the Queen's representative in Commonwealth country). He belongs to the Order of Canada and he is a respected philosopher, known as much for such works as Becoming Human as his work for L'Arche. Here is my review of one of his latest works, Living Gently in a Violent World.

Jean Vanier has always been a man of service and adventure. Born in 1928, he got permission from his father to go to the British Naval academy when he was 14, while the Second War still raged. Today he is fights for the dignity of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. Maybe dignity isn't even the right word. He fights for their right to life and love.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Cummings Curry-Glazed Carrots

Being at my Singlehood home in Canada, I have hundreds of time-tested recipes to leaf through looking for yummy things for you to eat. Now, sadly, most of these feed six or seven people because I come from a big family. Experiment freely to make them smaller, or invest in some nice tupperware and eat them for dinner all week.

One of my favourite family recipes is curry-glazed carrots, which is a marvellous addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Turkey stops being bland when it is paired with yummy, yummy curry-glazed carrots. You could serve this dish as part of a Lenten meal if you replace the chicken stock with veggie stock. I don't think you can ever go wrong with leek stock (simmer two chopped leeks in water for 20-30 minutes; strain).

This recipe comes out of a metal box over the kitchen sink. My guess is that it has its origins in Canadian Living magazine.

Cummings Curry-Glazed Carrots

12 carrots (eek! 1/2 lb)
2 Tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp chopped ginger root
1 1/2 tsp curry powder
1 1/2 cups chicken (or veggie) stock
2 Tbsp honey

1. Peel carrots and cut into 1/4 inch slices.
2. In deep skillet, heat butter, garlic and ginger root over medium heat for 1 minute.
3. Add curry powder and cook 30 seconds, stirring.
4. Add carrots, stock and honey.
5. Cook until liquid evaporates and carrots are tender and glazed, 20-25 minutes.

At the bottom of the index card this recipe is written on, it says 160 cal/serving.

You know, in themselves I find carrots boring. But cook 'em, soup 'em, juice 'em, bake 'em in muffins and cakes, and a star is born. I wonder if anyone has made carrot ice-cream yet. It sounds so crazy, it just might work.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Launch Photos!

Seraphic Singles: The Book Launch

Poppets, two links for you today. The first is my account of last night's book launch, and thanks so much to those of you who attended! It was great to meet you and introduce you to other people. I hope you all got to eat an hors d'oeuvre: I was too excited!

The second is a very nice article about my book in the Toronto Catholic Register.

I will put up pictures of the Launch as soon as they are sent to me!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Seraphic Singles Book Launch Tonight!

Hello, my little Singles! Tonight I will be reading from Seraphic Singles at its Toronto book launch. The launch will be at the Duke of York pub at 39 Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto from 7 to 10 PM. There will be a cash bar and trays of complimentary hors d'oeuvres--"the classy ones", the PR woman informed me. And of course there will be lots of copies of Seraphic Singles for sale.

My mother made me a dress for the occasion. How cool is that? She's downstairs right now, putting in the zipper. Come to the launch, and you will see the New Dress in all its glory. It's from a DKNY pattern I found in the Vogue catalogue. Can you tell I am totally impressed that it is from a DKNY pattern? It's from a DKNY pattern. I don't know if DK envisioned it as dotted swiss chiffon over powder blue, but that's how it turned out.

The closest subway/metro stop is St. George Station, the Varsity Stadium exit. If you've never been to a book launch before, this is the time to go to one. We're expecting a very Catholic--and yet catholic--crowd. And it's my first book launch ever, so I am excited.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Cruel Assumptions

When I was a teenage pro-life activist, one of my fellow teen activists made a sly remark about Catholic couples with small families. One of the boys around, usually a very placid, cheerful boy, took this as an insult to his parents' commitment to orthodoxy, as it very well may have been.

"Not everybody can have children easily, you know!" he snarled.

This conversation would have bewildered a Protestant or a Catholic who grew up with liberal ideas about Humanae Vitae, but we tradition-minded Catholics all understood why the boy had risen so angrily to his parents' defence. And I have heard the question again in adult life about other couples:

"If they're such great Catholics, why don't they have any children?"

As a married woman who didn't, as did her mother, friends and sister-in-law, get pregnant within months of her wedding, I am increasingly touchy on the topic. I had let go my dream of having children as part of my Seraphic Single project, but then I met B.A. As I married before menopause, I thought we had a chance to have children. And we still might have a chance. The stories of Abraham and Sarah and of Saint Elizabeth prove that God can do whatever God wants in this department. But how angry I will be if we don't have any children, and I overhear someone ask why.

I was reminded recently of one of the great fears of chaste long-term Single men and some chaste long-term Single woman: rumours that they aren't "partnered" or married because they are gay. This is not as terrible an assumption as it was thirty years ago, before it became a social crime to think and say homosexuality was a blight. But it is none the less still painful for those who very much long to find love with the opposite sex.

It is probably still more dangerous for men to be thought of (or identified) as gay than it is for women. But unless the world has changed very much indeed, the word "lesbian" may still be being used as a weapon against women who are discouraging the attentions of Mr. Wrong. "So, what are you? A lesbian?" is a terrible thing for a man to say. But men say it. You should take it as your cue to leave the building.

"She must be a lesbian!" I heard a drunken acquaintance groan one time. "My ego refuses to let me believe that she could be straight!"

I don't know what advice to give about this. I'm just acknowledging the pain and fear some Singles have about being falsely identified and labelled. And although I know much less about this, I want also to acknowledge the pain and fear of Singles who do have same-sex attractions who are trying to live as chaste religious people in the world with dignity and respect.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Jet Lag Rides Again

My dear Singles, I am wiped. So here is a link to my other blog , and I hope you enjoy today's report.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Singles Snippets

1. I woke up at 5 AM; jet lag lingers.

2. My brother told me of a very young woman applying for a job at his firm.

"Are there any Single men in the office?" she asked.

Okay, hello. Funny, but so not professional.

3. I showed my copy of Seraphic Singles to a Single woman I met after Mass. Her male friend hovered by her elbow and said "You need that book. You're Single."

"Oooh," I said, embarrassed. "That's just the kind of comment Single women hate."

But then a thought struck.

"Hey," I said to the man. "You're Single!"

Oh, poppets. I have written an article for my paid job and I am wiped so I am going to bed. I hope you had a lovely weekend.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Economy Cake

I haven't forgotten you, my little Singles! In fact, I sat down yesterday at the computer, and it started to act funny, and as I struggled with it, jet lag set in, and thus I went to bed. So there you are.

Now that I am home in Canada, I have the run of my mother's cookbooks. The principle cookbook of my youth was (and don't laugh, pls!) Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book. My father brought it with him into his marriage. It was a gift from his mother, and his elder brother got a copy, too. After my uncle died, his pristine copy went to my brother Nulli. (Mum, I'll have you know, brought Chatelaine's Adventures in French Cooking and other sophisticated tomes.)

Dad's copy, used by all in the family except, perhaps, Dad, could be boiled to make a nourishing soup. But this leaves me with a dilemma: what recipe to choose?

I have decided to go with One-Egg Cake because it is economical, needing only one egg. Some days you have only one egg, but you want a nice cake, and so here one is:

Economy Cake

2 cups pastry flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/3 soft shortening
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg (1/4 cup)

1. Heat oven to 350 F.
2. Get out two 8" x 1 1/2" layer pans or a square pan measuring 9" x 9" x 1 3/4".
3. Blend flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
4. Add shortening, 2/3 of milk and vanilla.
5. Beat thoroughly: 2 min with the mixer or 300 "vigorous strokes by hand". (That's what it says.) Scrape bottom and sides of bowl often.
6. Add rest of milk and eggs.
7. Beat 2 more minutes, scraping bowl constantly.
8. Pour into pan or pans.
9. Bake layers about 30 minutes, square 30-35 minutes.
10. Cool.
11. "Frost with your favo[u]rite icing."

If you aren't feeling as economical as all that, I bet you could use butter instead of shortening. It's only a third of a cup, after all. Mmmm! Butter. Incidentally, I would never use anything except butter to make icing. Here's the simplest I know:

Fast Frosting

1/3 cup soft butter
3 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
3 Tbsp milk or cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
food colouring (optional)

1. Blend butter and sugar. Be careful or the super-light sugar will fly all over you.
2. Stir in cream (or milk) and vanilla until smooth.
3. Divide frosting into one big bowl and one little bowl.
4. Colour the frosting in the big bowl with a few drops. This is for covering the cake. Stir well until colour mixed in.
5. Colour the frosting in the little bowl with a few drops of a contrasting colour. Stir until colour mixed in. Stuff this icing into an cake decorating tube and write cheery messages or dab interesting designs on the cake.

I hear someone saying, "It would be even cheaper to get a mix from the supermarket." Well, I am shocked. Shocked! There is no substitute for real, homemade cake. Bake one and invite the girls around.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

500 Days of Summer

...made me cry six times on the plane. I think it's really, really good. It may have been censored for airplane viewing, so I don't know if it is totally appropriate for you young things. But if it is only PG or whatever, I recommend it.

In this movie, it's the girl, not the guy, who thinks she can behave totally inappropriately and yet be "just friends".

And my PR lady has the exact same face and hair as Zoe Deschanel. How amazing is that?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Why Do Boys Count So Much?

Girls, hello! I neglected you yesterday for the laundry and getting my eyebrows done and all the things I have to do before I go to Canada to sell my book. But I did think of you, and wondered what words of wisdom I could drag out from my 20 years of dating. Sometimes I wonder if I had to go on all those dates or whether I could have just concentrated on other stuff and then just met B.A. at 37. I don't know about you, but it makes me think.

Now, I know the boys are going to read this because it has boys in the title. I'm not sure reading this would be good for them because do they really, really need to know how much girls long for their attention? But they do, and as I struggled in high school to free myself from crushes that positively fogged my brain, I wondered why.

"I wish I had a boyfriend," the teenaged me said to my mother.

"Why?" said my mother. "What would you do with one?"

Ten years or so later my shrink said this was terrible and Freudian and alluded to sex and inappropriate and blah blah. But actually it was quite a sensible question, and I don't think my mother was asking, literally, what I would do with one. She meant what was the point of having one when you're way below marriageable age and I was stumped.

But I was stumped only because I did not know how to express to my mother the sense of being unloved and not-special and lonely and plain and I thought romantic love would clear up all that. And, I have to admit, being admired even by boys I wasn't attracted to (the vast majority of a small band of brothers), did add an frisson of excitement to my day.

This feeling began when I was ten or so, and I think I have to blame books. I was not interested in attracting the attention of the boys in my elementary school class--au contraire. The boys I loved were created by E. Nesbit and Enid Blyton. The male behaviour I admired was best illustrated by the heroes of Tolkien. The typical boyfriend, I believed, was Ned Nickerson of Nancy Drew. Reading about these boys gave me such comfort, I suppose I thought having them come to life would be even better.

(It may be significant that, when I first met B.A., I had the curious sense that I was living in a book. Indeed, I spent twelve days or so moving from book to book, with frequent returns to the happier chapters of Brideshead Revisited. Basically I've married the spiritual descendent of Evelyn Waugh. Maybe this means that if you grew up in love with heroes of Westerns, you should move out West. Just saying.)

But to get back to my original theme, other girls in class were more interested than I in attracting the affections of the boys and went at great lengths to get it. It was common, by the time I was ten, for the "popular boys" and the "popular girls" to meet behind the school and French kiss. They didn't have a lot of privacy--indeed, sometimes they all trooped back there together. At the time I (accidentally well-catechized) thought this was SHOCKING, although now it seems a trifle funny.

Less funny is the world of today where ten year old boys can download porn from the internet in the blink of an eye and the average girl is offering up her body for sex at a younger and younger age. It seems like such a stupid, stupid thing to do, but girls do it all the same. Why? Can they not see that the kind of boys interested only in sex are not the kind of boy to whom they should even be speaking?

Oh poppets, I think I must be getting Married Person Amnesia, because I cannot remember why it is that girls and women take such emotionally and socially terrible risks to attract or keep the men they admire. If any of you have light to throw on the topic, please answer in the combox.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Last Sunday, I rankled the hearts of many when I was asked by the female pal of a 19 year old man how he could rise above his undeserved heartbreaker reputation. I advised that he stop dating girls when he just wants them as friends. To do this, I suggested he stop getting girls alone and instead associate with girls in groups.

This was not a general attack on male-female platonic friendships (especially between people who've been friends since infancy) although, in solidarity with Modest Millie, I doubt that men and women should try to be friends in exactly the way women and women are friends. I believe that there must be a certain added modesty and reserve on both sides. Sleepovers, for example, should be right out. So should changing clothes in front of one other, if there is an alternative. (In amateur theatricals, I noticed, there is not always an alternative.) And no 35 year old Single woman on earth should have to be woken up by yet another phone call by yet another cute male friend who just needs mothering.

So for the record, I believe that men and women can and should be friends, but I counsel them to be aware that not even platonic friendships are androgynous. Men are men, and woman are women, and both groups must take care. Women are begged to respect men's sexual weakness and dress prudently before them--very well. We shall, but let men themselves take care to respect women's emotional weakness and behave prudently before us.

That being settled, let me move to today's topic, which is the quest for romance and marriage for their own sake. I think this quest is stupid.

Marriage is fraught with temptations, difficulties and distractions. St. Paul saw this and wished all his flock could be like him--blessed with the gift of celibacy. The early Christians saw this, and they abstained from marriage in droves. Both St. Paul and St. Augustine had to argue for the goodness of marriage. But they both believed that the celibate life, a life of virginity and dedication to heavenly things, was the better. This is, in fact, the tradition of the Christian Church.

Today, however, Catholics are happy to throw away celibacy with both hands, ASAP. The times are such that we feel grateful and edified when our fellows do this by getting married, not by getting blind drunk on frosh week. Seeking honourable marriage is, to say the least, a cut above such abysmal behaviour. However, I suggest that going out into the world simply looking for someone to marry is putting the cart before the horse.

If you get married, you get married to an individual person. You don't get married to just anybody, cross your fingers, and hope it all turns out. Well, people do, of course, as I saw on Traveller Weddings. Getting married to a man you hardly know because you've saved all your life for your wedding and now you're old by your community's standards (e.g. 22) is a bad idea. However, there are non-Traveller women who go into a crowded room of strangers with just the same idea: I'm old, I've saved for my wedding, I'll marry the first good guy who comes along.

This goal-oriented approach to social life can blind men and women to the actutal personalities they encounter. If you go to a social event with a checklist of what you want in a man, you won't actually get to know any man in himself: you'll just reject him if he doesn't fit your list. In the process, you might miss out on a good future friend, a mentor, a teacher, an inspiration or a potential work contact. The goal of any social event, I think, is to meet people and learn about them, just because it is a wonderful world and humanity is fascinating.

Being rooted in reality is key. If you think all the time about falling in love and getting married, you might start wilfully blinding yourself to the flaws of any man you find attractive who finds you attractive. You might start blaming yourself for disloyalty whenever it becomes blindingly obvious that The Boyfriend is rude, boring, abusive, childish, arrogant, on the make or not as attractive as you first thought. And being a woman, you are more likely to wail "What's wrong with me?" instead of admitting that there's something wrong with him.

You might also wilfully blind yourself to your most obvious incompatibilities. For example, I knew from the age of 18 that I should really marry a Catholic; interdenominational marriage is, in fact, frowned on by the Baltimore Catechism. And yet again and again I dated non-Catholics. This gave me a reputation for openmindedness, but it also gave me a reputation for being fickle since none of these relationships lasted. Maybe you know that, given your values, you should marry only someone of your ethnic background. That's fine! Only you can say what your absolute values are. But meanwhile, get out there and meet all kinds of people, and see them for who they really are, even if they are highly eligible bachelors from your ethnic group.

I understand what it is like to be 35, unmarried and lonely. Your parents are growing old and even your youngest buddies are sending you invitations to their weddings. But what I don't understand is why some Catholic 20 year olds are more interested in marriage than in meeting lots and lots of people, studying at the feet of a master, or travelling the world. The only really valid excuse I can think of, unless they have indeed found Mr. Right very early, is that their hormones are raging and they want to remain chaste.

Well, there are ways of dealing with hormones which I won't get into, as chastity education (as important as it is) isn't my bag, baby. But I am sure that seeing people as potential friends and acquaintances instead of Husband Material/Not Husband Material has something to do with chastity. Perhaps we could call it Social Chastity.

How, then, do you know when a friend or acquaintance is husband material? Well, in my case, I went to Scotland to make acquaintances into friends, and I ended up falling in love. Being reasonably seraphic in my Singleness, I was not in love with love. I just fell in love with a unique human being with a unique history. I felt an enormous sense that I was called, not to marriage per se, but to marriage to this unique human being, and not to any other.

This sense, although driven by feelings, was nevertheless very rational. It was absoluted rooted in religious faith, and although I knew I would have to make some very serious sacrifices (like leaving my country) I knew there would be no painful compromises. Marrying B.A. was exactly what I was supposed to do. If you have that kind of conviction about a man, baby, you don't need my advice.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Chummy Cheese Omlette for One

Nancy Mitford, one of my favourite writers, wrote about trying to boil an egg for her invalid father. Unfortunately, she ruined quite a few eggs, and eggs were rationed at the time. What the divine Miss M did not know was that you cannot boil an egg by putting it into boiling water. You have to put the unbroken egg into a pan of cold water and then bring the water to a boil.

It is wrong, I think, to assume that everyone, even a talented novelist, knows the absolute basics of cookery. And that is why I am, without guilt, going to post my cheese omelette recipe. This recipe, another gem from Susan Mendelson's Let Me in the Kitchen, is so simple, it could be made by the 60-something husband of a stay-at-home mother of five. I think. Normally if left to his own devices, Daddy makes a jelly omlette.*

The secret to the perfect omlette, I believe, is a pan of the right size (small) and temperature (medium hot). Toast some bread while the eggs are cooking.

Chummy Cheese Omlette for One

2 eggs
3 dashes of salt
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp water
1/4 cup grated cheese

1. Make sure the cheese is grated already.

2. Break the eggs into a small bowl. Add salt and water. Whisk until well mixed. (If you don't have a whisk, use a fork.)

3. Put a small frying pan on medium heat. Wait a bit, add the butter and let it melt. When it starts to bubble, pour in the eggs.

4. The eggs will start getting hard along the edges first. Take a spatula and gently run it along the edges, tipping the pan a bit to let the uncooked egg run under the cooked egg at the side. Keep doing this until the centre is no longer runny. Be gentle, or you won't have an omlette but scrambled eggs.

5. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top of the egg.

6. With the spatula, lift half the omlette and fold it onto the other half. Turn heat down and wait for the cheese to melt.

7. Flip the half-moon shaped omlette to warm up the other side a bit.

8. Tilt the pan and slide the omlette onto a hot plate. Serve to self with toast and eat at once.

*If you want to make a jelly omlette, eliminate the salt and cheese and spread jelly on top of the eggs before flipping. I have no idea why you would want to do this, but Dad likes it. My grandmother used to eat scrambled eggs with tomato ketchup. I've put a dollop of salsa along with the grated cheese and enjoyed the result very much.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Waiting for an Invitation?

Hot off the press!

The Great Men We Know Already

"Men," I like to say, "are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life."

I go at some lengths about this topic in My Book. As annoyed as women get at Men in General, and as criminial as are Some Men in Particular, life would be a lot more boring without some men in it. Women who go into cloister are making a very real sacrifice. I know I could never join a religious order, for I would disgrace it by flirting with the UPS man at every opportunity.

Happily for me, the whole time I was Single, I had some great men in my life. And it was through contemplating these great men--and comparing them to not-so-great men I knew--that I became Seraphic Single. I was washing dishes at the time, and I stood over the sink and said, "Okay, God, if you want me to be Single, that's fine."

These great men included my father, my brothers, my oldest nephew, an uncle (fondly remembered), my grandfather (dimly remembered), two heroic great-grandfathers (known through stories), some professors, some priests, two mentors, and a male religious buddy. Mostly, though, I was entranced by the glorious mental spectacle of my menfolk. And I thought, "We have great men in our family! Why mess that up?"

You see, it had occured to me that I might not ever meet a man who was up to the dad-and-brothers standard. Unless I was very strict with myself, I might bring a complete dud into the family. My poor family would have to be nice to the dud every Christmas, pretend he was not a dud, and look under his dud exterior for whatever gleam of divine light there might be within.

Or even if I managed to find a nice man who was on the same level of greatness as dad-and-brothers, we might have a dud son. We might have six dud sons. We might give birth to a gang, the kind of gang who gets extra harsh sentences because they come from a good family and therefore have no excuse.

"So far," I mused, "I am proud of all the menfolk. So why mess that up?"

And I felt a great sense of peace over Singleness that I wanted to tell all the world about.

Since then, as you know, I got married to a non-dud, basing my decision on an overwhelming sense that my family would love this guy, that he was "so us" and that he had quite a lot in common with the oldest of my brothers. He is even on the dad-and-brothers level and so quite worth the 38 year wait.

We might still give birth to a gang, although it seems unlikely. And poor B.A. might get squished by a bus, leaving me Single again. But after I got over the horror of the squishing, I would still have the memory of B.A. in my list of Great Family Men. I would mind being widowed, but I would not mind being Single, if you see the difference.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A Conversation

I was charmed to see, on an internet chat room I had to sign up for, one of my Single female readers (yay!) trying to get a discussion going about whether men and women can be friends. She said that from now on she was going to spend more time with female friends.

Now this was a site for the homeschooled, so I was surprised to see that the avatar for the principal male conversationalist (age 22) seemed to be himself in Matrix bug-eyed sunglasses pointing a pistol at the reader. As I stared down the barrel of the gun, I thought, "Way to go, homeschooling!"

But what I found fascinating about the conversation were the different ways in which female Sarah and male Izod communicated:

Sarah (avatar of Mad Hatter--interesting as women often say/think they are crazy): Introduces topic. Undercuts its importance by saying "Just a discussion topic... fell free to take it where you want."

Izod (avatar of self with gun): Aggressively writes "Namely?" (Is he cool or what?)

Sarah: Stalls for time. "Namely what?"

Izod: Asks for clarification. (Better, good boy.)

Sarah: Explains. (Good girl.)

Izod: Asks another question; one Sarah basically answered in her first post. (Not so good.)

David (a new male interlocutor, age 17, avatar of sports game): Pretends to have realized Sarah is in love with him. (Typical male humour.)

Sarah: Chastizes David, but ends with a conciliatory :-) emoticon.

Izod: Launches into a pseudo-philosophical tone ("false assumption"), talks of quite a few close friends who are girls, and he knows they aren't interested in more than friendship with him because they said so. (Ha! And if not, why not? How does "their type" differ from him?)

Sarah: Points out Izod has had to have that discussion, though. (Good girl, Sarah! You're on track to what you're trying to say.)

Izod: Basically agrees with what Sarah said in the first place, but strangely sounds like he is arguing with someone.

Andy (third guy, avatar of Frodo): Says he would say something (is he in on a secret?) but Sarah would kill him.

Sarah: Flirts.

Andy: Flirts back. (I am liking Andy. Andy sounds like a funny guy.) Ends with 'smiling devil' emoticon. (Interesting!)

Izod: Argues some more. Cites a chaste visit with a now-married woman he was raised with to knock down a straw argument.

Sarah: Expresses self-doubt. (No! Don't do that! Too many women do that, this saying "Oh dear, this breakdown in communication must be MY fault.") Links to ME. (Women like the support of other women, none of this Lone Cowboy stuff for us, and I'm happy to help.)

Izod: Reproduces a few of my quotes and reads a lot into what I wrote. (More straw-man arguing. I was not, for example, talking about "boyfriend-girlfriend" arrangements. That's a whole other topic.) Asks Sarah (rather nastily) if she can think for herself.

End of conversation (so far). Sarah was the only woman to take part.

This conversation was the most Mars versus Venus thing I have seen in a month of Sundays, right down to Sarah's make-you-feel-better emoticons and the mouth of Izod's gun. (If I had to choose between chatting with Gun-Man, Sports-Boy and Frodo-Guy, I'd go with Frodo-Guy, personally.)

People love to talk. In general, women use conversation to exchange practical information, work out ideas and create bonds. In general, men use language, not to bond, but to compete. Interestingly, in her conversational adventure, Sarah encountered two typical male responses to women: flirtation and you're-wrong.

What I don't get is why Sarah introduced the topic in what seems to be a male-dominated forum in the first place. The only reason to bother to say "I'm gonna hang out with girls more and guys less" to men is to see if they say, "No, don't go, we'll eat you up, we love you so" like the monsters to Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Some of my male dinner guests seem mildly affronted (and sometimes envious) when I take off with all the women at the coming of the port.

I don't really have a problem with men and women being friends. I have a problem with men and women being Bestest Buddies in a way that prevents women from meeting and being courted by men who might want to marry them (e.g. falling right smack into "Older Sister" mode so often they forget how to present themselves as eligible, marriagable women).

Izod's female friend example was a now-married woman he was raised with. Well, duh. Of course there is no problem with that. What is a problem is when you (a Searching Single) wake up at 35 and realize that you have have had ten Best Male Friends, eight of whom have dropped you because now they're married, and two who keep crying to you about the girls they love.

I remember, after listening for weeks to an ex-boyfriend obsess about the girl he eventually would marry, telling him that I was unhappy that so far I still hadn't found the right man.

"Maybe you should try women," he quipped.

Stunned, I burst into tears just as he said "Oh, uh, sorry, I shouldn't have said that."

No, he shouldn't have. It seared my soul. But that is the kind of dumb thing young guys do say because, in general, they just don't have the emotional-verbal skills. But girls do, which is why they make better friends. And no doubt why men want girls as friends.

The question is, why do women want men as friends, and is what men friends provide actually enough for a Single woman? What if she's the one doing all the hand-holding, and they're the ones saying, "Why not try women, hyuk hyuk?" I have friends who had rude awakenings about friendships with needy seminarians or male religious who, the minute the girls needed a shoulder to cry on, were suddenly cautious of their "vocation" and "inner freedom".

Here's another story about men, women and words: As an undergrad, I organized all-women poetry parties. They were great fun. At the first one, twenty or so women crammed into my room, drank red wine, ate ceviche, and read our favourite poems or poems we had written ourselves. We got tipsy--but we were safe. We were all girls, and it didn't matter what we looked like and how we sounded. We could let our hair down, we could risk reading our private thoughts. It was a hoot.

After some reciprocal parties, I got the idea of asking a male poet to join us. He was a nice guy, and the hostess was tolerant of my crush on him. So he was invited. The women smiled upon him, although a few didn't want to read their poems anymore. Then he read his poems, and they were BRUTAL, offensive and positively drenched in testosterone. After that, no woman would read her poems. They were all too intimidated. And when I asked the man why he had read those poems, he said it was his way of coping with being the only guy there.

Being married, I enjoy hanging out with my husband and his friends, who are becoming my friends, too, I hope. They are interesting, clever and funny. But if I really, really needed emotional support for something, and just talking to my husband wasn't enough, I know exactly what I'd do. I'd either see if a female friend was on Facebook live-chat, or I'd hit the Skype button and call my mum.

(As a mental experiment, I've just imagined turning up, weeping, at the doors of three of my husband's bachelor friends:

Bach 1: Ay, right. Ahm. Ahh... Ahm. Wouldje--I doan know--like a drink or somethin'?

Bach 2: (Look of abject horror.)

Bach 3: (Look of abject horror.)

But B.A. does have a divorced friend in his sixties, and I think he would know just what to say, which would be, "Come in and have a cup of tea, dear. Let's sort this out.")

Update: In fairness, some men try to step up to the plate when you need a shoulder to cry on. For example, my housemate Jon did his best when... Well, you'll find it in The Book.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Meditations on a Facebook Murder

"Where was her father?" I wondered as I read the terribly sad story of Ashleigh Hall.

Ashleigh, age 17, was sexually assaulted and killed by a stranger she met over Facebook. Her mother is my age. Her father is... Hmm, no mention of a father.

Ashleigh had three infant sisters, but no mention is made of their father, either. I know it is incredibly retro to wonder, when a girl goes off to spend the night with a complete stranger, what kind of relationship she had with her father. But I have an old-fashioned, married-to-my-mother father, so I wonder all the same.

According to the British papers, Ashleigh befriended (over Facebook) a man she thought was a muscular teenage English boy, a labourer. The "boy's" Facebook page offered several pictures of "his" ripped "self" in his undershorts, taken by "himself" in a mirror. And the "boy" expressed a sexual interest in Ashleigh, which pleased her very much. Ashleigh had the baby face of a fat ten year old, only with eyeliner smeared around her eyes. Growing up in a thin-is-in society, one nevertheless fuelled on chips, must have been hell.

Well, Ashleigh told her mother one night that she was going out on a sleepover, and she never came home. Apparently the killer, when he came for her with his car, posed as his Facebook persona's father, the only father in the whole story. It's all so horrible and sad.

The Daily Mail (of course) writes in great detail of the contrast between the scrawny, bald, smelly, 33 year old killer and his handsome, ripped, young Facebook persona. But I think it would still have been horrid if Ashleigh really had been putting her life in the hands of a 19 year old labourer she had never met. Would she have done so if she had been thinner and prettier?

Maybe. Thin and pretty is no guarantee of dignity and self-worth, as I see every time I watch Marry, Snog, Avoid, a comedy/reality/science fiction show in which spray-tanned girls in sequins are made to wipe off their make-up and put on modest clothing. Their outrageous outfits and antics are, of course, their ploy for male attention. The camera captures these girls at clubs and on beaches, downing shooters and giving young men whiplash. So far I don't remember any interviews with their fathers.

Boys, you know I am fond of you, and if you are reading my blog, you must be the right sort. All this talk about fathers should emphasize how important I think you will be in the lives of your daughters, if you have any. If you monitor your teenage daughters' access to Facebook and forbid them from going to sleepovers, and if you occasionally shout, "No daughter of mine is going out dressed like that!", you could save their very lives.* And if you pay them even just that much attention, they might not be so obsessed with getting attention from other men.

For why are girls so obsessed with getting attention from other men? It makes me weep, it really does. In my teenage days, long before I was marriageable, I layered on the eyeshadow and wore the short skirts of the 80s in the hopes that My Ideal would see me across a crowded subway train and, noticing my huge, purple-shadowed eyes and long, white lace stockinged legs, fall madly in love with the Whole Me. But, other than asking boys from the parish or my brother's school on dates, that's as far as I went to get male attention.

At the time it never occurred to me that that this counted, but in fact I got plently of male attention. My father came home to dinner every single night. He asked about homework and when I had last gone to confession. He drove me to ballet class, and he drove the family to church on Sundays. He more-or-less left discipline and doctors' appointments up to my mother, but he was there, a benevolent absolute monarch with a crabby, hardworking prime minister.

If my father went away on trips, he brought back modest gifts, and my father's gifts tended to direct my interests. My lifelong respect for Latin springs from my father's gift of The Eagle of the Ninth. And my father's treats, like taking me to see Doctor Faustus on one occasion and the Canadian novellist W.D. Valgardson on another, likewise rippled throughout my life. Sadly, chemistry didn't really take, although I still appreciate the hours my dad spend with my brother and me over the chemistry set. My father is a practising Catholic, and it is the joy of my life that my husband is a practising Catholic, too.

"Fathers aren't really important," said a friend of mine, one day. She was a single mother with a two year old son, and she had battles royale with her ex-boyfriend.

"Yes, they are," I thought, but I didn't say it out loud. Her divorced father, an Italian war vet, had severe mental problems, and her son's father may have had control issues. It seemed kinder to say nothing. But it isn't in the long run.

Thomas Aquinas argued that premarital sex was a sin in part because of the damage done to illegitimate children. (Sophia Loren, for example, could not go to school because her father refused to acknowledge her.) Today we do not visit the sins of the parents on their innocent children, and shame over bastardy has been mostly wiped out. But children without fathers are punished all the same, and are left terribly vulnerable. Even if they manage not to be killed before birth, they are left to negotiate life with only their distracted mother and without a father's presence** to protect them from evil strangers.

*I believe 100% in parents backing each other up. So if your husband doesn't like your daughter's outfit, you officially don't either. And vice versa. Of course, neither you nor your husband has the right to strangle her to death over her clothes, or to get her brothers to do it for you. Just thought I'd add that in memory of Asqa Parvez of Missassauga, Ontario. Golden mean, people. Golden mean.

**Ashleigh's body was identified by her grandfather. Okay, there was a real father in the case: her mother's 69 year old father. But now I am really wondering where the father of the one-year-old half sister is. Why wasn't he the one to identify the...? Ah, never mind.

Monday, 8 March 2010


I saw the nicest girls of my generation
destroyed by daring, weeping hysterical naked
hearts exposed to men who shrugged and shrank
into their cool guy collars, wishing to be elsewhere,

mother hearted lassies with acne-scarred faces surrendering
virginities to cripples out of love but
accused from wheelchairs of betrayals and whoredoms,

who trusted in talk, traded caresses for carapaces
of leather with letters of FOOTBALL, RUGBY, TRACK
title deeds of love that shifted from locker to locker,

who leaned on gentle, musical men,
misread their temperence, stocked hope chests as barren as
their boyfriends' intentions, found the notes, the empty
bottles, called the ambulances, will always be friends,

who took calls in the morning from moaning men whose mothers

who shared readings and reflections with right-on religious,
were seduced by seminarians (not suited to celibacy) with
sympathetic psychiatrists ("and at least it was girls"),

who were good sports, big sis, great pals, just friends, their rocks, second mothers, right hands, girl Fridays, you knew where you were with them, they were

completely to be relied upon, there was

no nonsense about them, they were the

salt of the earth.

The bitches got rich or married young.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Auntie Seraphic and Older "Sis"

Dear Auntie Seraphic:

I have a dear male friend who is five years my junior, whom I affectionately think of as my little brother. He's a good man, and, being only 19, is rather mature and 'together' for a young man who's only a college freshman. We had breakfast the other day and he confided that he has gotten a reputation around the Catholic student center as a heartbreaker.

I inquired how this could be so, knowing he probably wouldn't hurt anyone on purpose, and he posed a question. "If you want to get to know a girl, just as friends, how do you do it? If we go for coffee or a meal or something, she thinks it's a date. If we spend too much time alone, people think we're together. How do I get to know girls better without actually dating them?"

Part of the unfortunate problem, I think, is that woman aren't often used to true gentlemen treating them as ladies. So when a man, such as my friend, holds doors open for them, lets them go first, offers to help carry things, and other signs of courtesy, they immediately interpret his intentions as romantic rather than polite, because few men have ever acted this way before.

I suggested that, unless he really does intend to date a girl, that he only see her as part of group outings, so no one can make assumptions. He seemed rather disappointed in this advice, and I can't say I blame him; you can't really get to know someone when you're with six other people at a bowling alley or a movie theater. So, dear Seraphic, I pass his quandary on to you. :-)

Older Sis

Dear Older "Sis",

Ah ha ha ha ha ha! That's what I say. I say it roughly and with cynicism. What your little "brother" needs is a deep and prayerful read of my reply to Modest Millie. And if he's cute, so do you. Why have you put this nice, mature, 'together' Catholic man in the "little brother" slot? Five years your junior, indeed! Breakfast, forsooth! What's the story, Morning Glory?

In Grown-up Land, asking a single woman out for a coffee is making a date. Asking a single woman out for a meal is making a date. Asking a single woman out to the movies is a making a date. Asking a single woman to the dance on Friday night is making a date. Date. Date, date, date, date. It's not a marriage proposal. But it's a date.

I assume your little, ahem, "brother" is a hottie, otherwise his date requests would have been swiftly answered with "OMG, just friends, right?" And he is nineteen years old. The happy, halcyon days of the playground are over. No longer can he splash naked in the girl-next-door's paddling pool. No longer can he send innocent valentines to every girl in the class. No longer can he kiss girls at parties with impunity. Childhood is over. It is time for him to grow up and drink the coffee.

Yes, it is nice to be made much of by girls, and pour one's manly hopes and dreams into an appreciative female ear, but that is what really-truly sisters are for, to say nothing of mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Most other girls like to know that there is something in it for them, e.g. courtship. Not all Catholic girls are interested in wasting their leisure time on cute men who just want to be friends. I am most definitely on the side of all the girls in this scenario, including you.

When and where was this magical mystical time and place in which young men were allowed unfettered access to young female friendship, anyway? 19th century Britain? No. 19th century America? No. 21th century India? Definitely not. The West in the 1960s? Yes. And see where that got us.

If your 19 year old hottie wants to get to know nice girls better as friends, he can do it in company like every other generation of respectable men before 1960. He can throw parties in which he invites lots of girls and, being a good host, spends just as much time on each one of them, to make sure each is having a good time. He could start asking two or three girls at a time to dinner or to coffee or even to the dance on Friday night, making it very clear he has asked the other(s) also. He could volunteer for committees heavily dominated by women. He could even squish maidenly egos left and right by ending every single social invitation with the phrase "just as friends, I mean?"

Or he can keep on asking girls out for dates, not ask them out again, and develop his bad heartbreaker reputation, about which he will complain to you at breakfast while being mistaken by other men, handsome men in their twenties, for your boyfriend.

Incidentally, I see that not only are you on this man's side against your fellow women, you assume that our heads are turned by door-openers because most other men behave like baboons. Alas.

But I will go easy on you this time because you have wisely turned to me, young padawan. You show knowledge, insight and auntie-potential. To deepen your wisdom, I recommend a girls-only slumber party, complete with pedicures and group viewing of Moonstruck.

Update (March 8): It just occured to me that a man's having a heartbreaker reputation (if undeserved) in Catholic circles is not necessarily a bad thing. I was warned (by a Discerner) that B.A. was a heartbreaker at whom women threw themselves, and of course my curiosity was aroused. I wanted to see this heartbreaker for myself. And if he thought I was going to throw myself at him, he had a another think coming! Humph, humph! The rest is history.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Deliciously Dark Chocolate Pudding

The principal cookbook of my Single Life was Moosewood Restaurant's Low-Fat Favourites.

Until I began my studies in the USA, I was most tremendously fit and slim. As long as I had a good-paying job, I had a gym membership. And as long as I was studying in Canada, I had access to the the university athletic centre. But in the USA, I discovered I couldn't really afford a gym and would have had to pay a heavy fee to use the school's athletic centre, so I worked out my frustrations with Messrs. Ben & Jerry instead. Alas. I got out of the fitness habit and can even be seen eating what my husband calls potato crisps which, believe me, never happened between 1996 and 2005.

During the turn of the century, when I was definitely Single but not yet Seraphic despite being most tremendously slim (which was not, it turned out, the secret to happiness), I worked out almost every day and ate very little fat indeed. And my principal dessert was Moosewood's Dark Chocolate Pudding.

The recipe says it serves 4, but actually I ate it in two big helpings of 218 calories each. I would pour half from the pot into a bowl and put the bowl in the fridge to cool. And I would pour the rest into another bowl and eat it hot. Yummy, yum, yum.

I can just see my skinny self sitting alone in my scrupulously tidy bedsit, crosslegged on my folded up futon eating that pudding. Gosh, I was tidy then too. Slim and tidy yet sad. Dear me. I did not have my big Seraphic Single Revelation until 2006, you see.

Well, anyway, here is one of the joys of my pre-Seraphic Single Life:

Deliciously Dark Chocolate Pudding

3 Tbsp cornstarch
3 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups skim milk*
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1. Combine cornstarch, sugar and cocoa in a saucepan.

2. Add the milk and stir until smooth.

3. Cook on medium heat, stirring CONSTANTLY (this is the boring part) until the pudding comes to a boil.

4. Lower the heat and gently simmer, stirring continuously, for 3 or 4 minutes.

5. Stir in the vanilla.

6. Pour the vanilla into bowls and either put the bowls into the fridge for 2 hours to chill and set, or eat the pudding hot. Garnish with raspberries, if you like them.

*If you are not madly calorie counting, you can use 1% or 2% or even whole milk.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Best Cure

The best cure for a broken heart that I know of is international travel. There is something purifying about the nerve-wracking rituals of getting on an airplane and flying across an ocean. Unfortunately, this is a cure available only to the rich, or at least to the employed, the employed who get 2 or 3 weeks of vacation time.

My heart has been broken several times, and although it has been fully refurished and restored, if you look under the brilliant new paint and clever plasterwork there is still a scar or two. However, I was able to heal up some wounds very quickly by simply going on vacation.

My first international trip by myself was to Italy, a place for which I had longed since I was six years old and had first seen pictures of Florence. But my interest in that country really blazed up when I took Italian classes in secondary school. So when, at last, in my twenties. I had enough money to go, and an achy-breaky heart to heal, to Italy I went. I booked a tour with a youth travel company.

There are those who can travel the world with a backback, sleep anywhere, and make friends wherever they go. I have never been among them. So I was grateful to have the company arrange not only the carrying of my luggage and my bedrooms, but my company.

The one difficulty was that my company was intensely conformist. The average person on this tour was American of Italian descent, who spoke no Italian and was terrified of the South. The girls on the bus, apparently warned by grandparents of goodness knows what horrors, almost shook as we approached Sorrento and rushed from the bus straight into the hotel. They would only leave it in twos and threes.

The star of the group was a stockbroker from Manhattan: the attempts of the American girls to charm this matrimonial prize were comical. I wonder how far they went? (One American girl and one Australian boy embarked on a very noisy affair, so we all knew how far they went.) The ticket to the "in" crowd, for the tour group was so intensely high-schoolish as to have an "in" crowd, was to join in the courtship dance around Mr. Manhattan. I refrained.

The Canadians angered the Americans by making rude remarks that absolutely floored the latter. I think it must have been their very first introduction to the anti-Americanism widespread outside the USA. Keeping out of such unneighbourly battles, I nevertheless managed to anger the American girls on the tour by brazenly chatting (in Italian) with Italian men who haunted tourist bars, even in the dangerous South. Strangely, although just as guilty in this as I, a very pleasant Italian-speaking Australian girl did not suffer the same censure from the others. I think, however, that she was more companionable and less likely to run away down quattrocento alleys on her own.

I had a goodly number of adventures in what could not have been more than 10 or 12 days. It would take a very long blog post indeed to do any one of them justice. The juiciest ones occured in the dangerous South, where the Australian girl and I had many Italian conversations, including with two intensely handsome plainclothes police officers in a bar. (One was a dead ringer for Marcus on Babylon 5.) We asked them to prove they were police, and they showed us their firearms. Then I got hopelessly lost on the island of Capri, sought rescue at an auto repair shop, and was driven to civilisation by a handsome, bespectacled, mechanic on the back of his motorcycle as a dozen mechanics, milling about like children, cheered. It was the first and last time I have ever ridden a motorcycle.

When the trip was over, I left Italy determined to go back in some long-term capacity: perhaps to graduate school. This I never did, although after another romantic disappointment, I rushed off to Florence for a week. And, after that trip, I did not go again to Europe, until five or six years later when I got funding to study for six weeks in Germany. And that trip was also balm to the heart, only this time to a heart battered by disappointments of a philosophical, not romantic, nature.

Lately, I am combatting stress over the release of my lovely book by taking bus rides all over Edinburgh. For only 3 pounds, anyone can climb to the top of any city bus and explore the town thoroughly from a great height in perfect comfort. Truly, travel is a great medicine and takes you right out of yourselves towards the sublime.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Shackin' Up

You probably know this already, but it doesn't hurt to read it again, and it's that living together is not the same thing as marriage.

The American Centres for Disease Control have done a study of who gets to their 10th wedding anniversary, and people who lived together before marriage were at a slight disadvantage. And fewer than 30% of bidie-in relationships last 5 years. However, this is in part because 51% of bidie-ins make honest men and women of each other within three years. I suppose the rest simply break up and move on.

I was excited to see that 76% of marriages between people over 26 last ten years, although I am perturbed to see that the standard is now ten years, not, you know, twenty-five years, or "until death." And I was vastly amused to see that people who have babies "at least eight months after" their wedding stay together for ten years. Of all my Catholic friends, I know only one couple who had their first baby fewer than nine months after the wedding, and I'm not even hinting who that was. (When I was dumb enough to blurt, "What, already?", the beaming grandmother said, "We work fast in our family!")

Anyway, weddings and marriage and babies are a messy jury-rigged business, but at least they are real. What do not strike me as real are common law arrangements or living together, except among out-and-out communists. By communists I mean people who have deep-seated, tightly held, agonized ideological DOUBTS about matrimony as a legal institution. I recognize that this is not the correct use of the word communist. The biggest communist in Edinburgh has been married for at least 60 years. But you know who I mean. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins types, only now Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins have broken up, which made me sad, actually.

My friend Fishie, who isn't married, once said, "If a man loves a woman, he marries her." I think this is sound, but I would stress the word "man" to show we are talking about a grown-up here. And I'd have to throw in "of certain traditional beliefs". If a man of certain traditional beliefs loves a woman, he marries her. (A boy might love but dither until it's too late.) At best, the man marries the beloved woman before she (or he) moves in. At least, he marries her eventually. But I feel a bit weird about that. The pressure to marry the girl you're living with must be intense, especially if your family really likes her and thinks it's time for you to have children. If you moved in with a girl just because it saved on rent and it's nice to share a bed, marriage is an entirely different ball of wax. Heaven help the woman whose boyfriend likes living with her, but harbours secret dreams of the Perfect Woman.

Fortunately, I know perfectly happy married people who lived together before they got married. Even years and years together cannot wreck the love between some bidie-ins. But for reasons obvious to devoutly religious folk, I still don't think it a good idea. And what I think a perfect destestable idea is settling for living with a man when really you are madly in love with him and want to marry him instead.

Of course, there are women who will settle for much less than this. It makes me very sad, what little women will settle for, and how much they will give to get it. I think it is much better to sleep alone and with dignity than to put up with anything from a man other than 100% fidelity and commitment. And this, of course, is what he promises in marriage.

Update: Here is a memory of bidie-ins that haunts me to this day. I was visiting an unmarried couple in England some years ago. A census-taker or someone like that came to the door and asked for my host. The woman of the house said she was his wife. And then came his voice from the sitting-room, "I'm not married to you, Paula!" It sounded again, slightly louder. "I'm not married to you, Paula!" Blah. It makes me shudder with embarrassment, imagining that ever happening to me.

Update 2: Have you considered joining the Seraphic Singles Fan Page? It was founded by two loyal Single readers. There may be discussions and things... And it will update any Seraphic Singles the Book events as they are arranged!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Criticism and Rejection

I don't know if I want to read my reviews or not.

Apparently there will be reviews. And I have seen enough films in which actors crowd around the morning papers after a wild cast party to know that reviews are eagerly expected things. But the very first review of my column I ever read--a letter to the editor--was so acid that I almost quit right then and there. It insinuated that I could be an anti-Semite, and it touched upon the dark days of 1930s Germany. Needless to say, the writers of this letter seemed to have entirely missed the point of my article, which was about a conversation I had with a sweet teenage Jehovah's Witness girl with whom I sat on a seven hour bus trip.

Happily, the editor cut out the worst bit of this letter before he ran it. And, even better, there followed two or three letters defending the article and my writing in general. I was sincerely grateful, for the first letter really hurt, and I had an enormous row with my editor over it. He simply could not understand what the problem was, and at last we realized that decades in the newspaper biz had given him an skin like rhinoceros hide and I was still a baby, um, rhinoceros, small and tender.

This morning my friend sent me this cartoon, and I wondered why criticism always outweighs compliments in our minds. I also wondered why we hate and fear criticism so much, when some criticism is helpful.

Take, for example, my fuzzy red hair. I have more hair on my head than most people. Possibly twice as much. And as a child, there were two camps: adults, who loved my hair and said they wished they had it, and children, who mocked my hair and said
I was ugly. My poor mother tried to convince me, day after day, that there was nothing wrong with my hair and that I was not ugly. So why, I wonder, did I side with the children against the adults? Even today I sidle into hair salons feeling deeply apologetic.

Then, in contrast, take a certain high school newspaper writer. He was by far the most attentive of all the students who came to hear me talk one day. He presented me with his work afterwards, and after reading it, I said "Hmm...lots of clichés".

The boy's face fell, and I could have kicked myself. For teenage writing it was probably very good. From the way his teachers hovered, I guessed that he was probably one of the lights of their lives, and that he was unused to criticism. So I told him what was good about his article, too, and I hope he is still writing. How awful if I have been the frost that killed a flowering talent. He, too, was still a baby rhinoceros.

But, you know, the boy did use a lot of clichés, and I would have been remiss not to point out that fact. There is a huge difference between honest criticism and personal rejection, even if we tend to blur these things in our hurting minds. Letters to the editor, and maybe book reviews, can fall into either camp.

What I wish I could do, and what I think is a useful goal for anyone who has not yet mastered it, is to be able to shake off rejection and embrace good criticism. A rather "progressive" theology prof of mine once praised the humility of a rather "progressive" theologian, who, when asked about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith statement about his dodgy writing, said that he had learned a lot from it. That, I think, is the right spirit to take letters from the CDF, and if I ever have the stature and the dodginess to ring alarm bells at the CDF, I hope I will learn from them too.

One problem is that our wellwishers are not always brilliant communicators and so their criticism can come across as rejection rather than as useful. So I guess it would be helpful, in moments of doubt, to ask for further clarification.

Critic: Hey fuzzhead! Didja stick your finger in a light socket?

Seraphic: I'm not sure what you mean here. Are you concerned for my health?

Critic: Freak! Did you know your publishing house once published a book by Hans Küng?

Seraphic: I still don't think I get you. Are you concerned that I have written untruths about the faith?

Critic: Lefty! Fuzzhead! Pinko commie traddie fuzzhead freak!

Oh, my darlingses. It is a jungle out there, and we're all just baby rhinoceri, trying to flourish. May we all grow in skin thickness and judgment.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


The easiest way to make yourself feel bad, short of a hammer, is to compare yourself to others.

I'm not suggesting you not have any heroes. Christians have a lot of heroes, right from when we're kids: there's Our Lord, His Blessed Mother, and all the Saints. The saints are to be admired and, as much as we're able or called, emulated. (Nobody seems to be called to sit on a pole anymore. What must St. Simon Stylites be thinking? "Kids today...") I wish I had known, as a cast-off wearing kid, that Dorothy Day wore nothing but cast-off clothes for most of her adult life. Kids in particular need heroes, models and guides.

What I am suggesting is that you not see how you measure up to other people your age and younger in day to day life. You can drive yourself nuts doing that. And not only that, if you have a problem with self-absorption already, as Single people often do (alas), you lose sight of the person to whom you're comparing yourself. You can't see them; you just see what they have, which you want, and you don't got and why don't you, etc., etc.

As you probably know, I'm 39. I don't repeat this over and over again because our society rewards a woman for being 39. No. I repeat this over and over again because most of you are much younger than I am and worried because you haven't yet been called to marriage or religious life or permanent Single Life, including (but not limited to) the priesthood. Well, I wasn't called until I was 38. And I don't have any kids yet despite being 39. And nevertheless the sun is shining in through the window, and I am enjoying a nice cup of tea, and I am pondering what I shall have for lunch, and life is very good. So I keep telling you that I'm 39 so you will feel better about being 27 or whatever you are.

But if I decided to compare myself to a younger woman, a younger woman with children, one who makes tons and tons of money through her writing, I would go simply bonkers. So I don't. And the one time I did complain that I wanted to publish my first book at 14, not 39, a kind friend said Tolkien published his first book at 63. I mean, Tolkien. 63. Wow! It makes you think.

Recently a young Single friend of mine was wigging out about her situation in life. She was definitely wigging. (I wig enough to know wigging when I see it.) She burst into a furious monologue about another woman she knew. It went something like this: "She's only two years older than me, and she's got a charming husband, and she was wearing three massive diamond rings, and she's got a baby. My life is utterly hopeless, hopeless, hopeless."

Now, I just did not know what to say. I mean, I was a meelyon years older than both these girls, and whereas I do have a charming husband, I cannot call Ringzilla massive, and I most definitely do not have a baby. But I decided that this was one of those times I should keep my mouth shut, and the very next day this young Single friend got a fantastic, fantabulous career boost.

We are often encouraged to compare ourselves favourably to those poorer than we so that we will count our lucky stars. I disagree with this technique too. It seems so freaking patronizing. (I'd sure like to know whose brilliant idea it was to ship crates and crates of condoms to Haiti, crates of condoms that slowed down the distribution of food aid.) When charity tourists come back from their Liberation Theology trips to El Salvador or wherever, they usually say something like, "They're so poor, but they're so happy." Well, then.

I suspect I may have been pitied by a bondslave. There I was in a nail salon in Brighton, Massachusetts, one staffed by Vietnamese girls working under the steely eye of their older Vietnamese bosses. These girls didn't speak much English, and as Brighton's aerobicized and sun-bedded bottle-blondes chatted to each other, the Vietnamese girls crouched at their feet, polishing away and exchanging remarks in Vietnamese. The youngest of these girls used to test her pidgin English on me, and one day, as she dug away at my cuticles, I discovered that what she liked best about America was watching the cars go up and down the street outside the salon. Apparently that was all she had seen of America since her husband had brought her from her tiny village. I hid my horror under a smile.

"Are you married?" asked the possible bondslave.

"No," I said. "Not yet?"

"Ooooooooooh," said the girl. But then she reflected, "Plenty time. How old are you?"

"Thirty-six," I said.

The girl looked up swiftly. And there, in her widened eyes, was definite, sincere, and absolute pity.

So, anyway, that is my message today. Don't compare yourself to others, and don't compare what you have to what other people have. This is not exactly an original thought, and when our Lord had it, he told us to compare ourselves to birds and flowers instead.

Update: Speaking of comparisons, Seraphic Singles' ranking yesterday was 128,958. This morning it is 59,692. I have no idea what this actually means, but it feels good. Thank you for buying my book!