How is Schubert like an Orgasm?

Hi! I’m back!

I used to play this Schubert Impromptu, and my old piano teacher, Jerry Phillips, used to describe the time he heard a famous pianist play it, and his hands fluttered down the keys “like snowflakes.” To me, this piece sounds like snowflakes, but it also feels like a beautiful climax. Let me explain.

Please, please take a few minutes to listen to this, and listen to the theme starting in the left hand at about 5:50. That theme has already been played a few times before, reaching upwards, but this is the farthest it goes; this time, just when you think it’s reached the height, it goes a little further, a little higher. You think it’s the height of beauty, and it modulates one step higher. That’s what Schubert sounds like to me, and that’s how an orgasm feels–so beautiful you don’t think you can stand it.

And speaking of music, and orgasms, I think they can both be a good example of kairos–sacred time. In college I learned about the two types of time: chronos, the ordinary minute-by-minute passing of life, and kairos, the sacred time of eternity, when you feel lifted out of the world and you don’t feel time pass. I’ve always thought that I’ve experienced kairos at two times–during orgasm, and during childbirth. I think I can add a third–when I’m playing music like this, and I forget everything around me. It feels like the literal meaning of ecstasy–“standing outside oneself.”

When do you experience kairos?


Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

Feminism Won in All the Wrong Ways

Betty Boop, Lady, Female, Woman, Girl, Sexy, Cartoon

Respect me! I’m wearing a Betty Boop t-shirt!

The other day I took my 4-year-old son and my 3-year-old daughter underwear shopping.  My son had all kinds of cool options: superheros!  Pixar movies!  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! sports! Paw Patrol! My daughter’s choices, on the other hand, were (a) flowers and birds (b) Minnie Mouse and (c) My Little Pony.  And I’m thinking–where’s feminism when you need it?  So maybe they figure that girls are less interested in the darker, more masculine heroes like Batman, or traditionally “boy” things like cars and sports.  But since when is Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles, unsuitable for girls?  So maybe they figure girls prefer female characters.  Since when does that rule out puppies, or cars, or fish, or cowgirls?  Seriously, feminists, do you really want your daughter idolizing Minnie Mouse?  I’m all for traditional gender roles, but gosh, clothes and toys for girls are so boring.  Girls get cute animals, cooking, shopping, make-up, and princesses.  Boys get cool animals, sports, superheroes, rescue workers, building, vehicles, engineering, science, outdoor toys, and everything else.  It’s like products for kids haven’t changed since the 50’s.

I’m mostly joking here; my daughter could actually use a little nudging toward feminine things, and she can always borrow her brother’s underwear.  But the fact that the feminists haven’t made any headway in this area just adds insult to the injury that is their complete failure to transform adult women’s culture, either.  Feminists did a wonderful job in making the objectification and stereotyping of women unacceptable; but then they turned right around and objectified and stereotyped themselves.  It’s (supposedly) no longer okay for men to view women as sex objects; but it’s perfectly okay for women to read magazines about how important it is to be SEXY ALL THE TIME. Here’s an article from Cosmopolitan Magazine about how awful it is that a producer hired an actress just for her looks; and (warning, racy pictures ahead) here’s an article from the same magazine (by a man!) that’s entirely about one model’s sexy butt.  It’s (supposedly) no longer okay for men to value women only for their sexiness; but it’s empowering for women who don’t fit the usual definitions of sexy–plus-sized women, older women, disabled women–to show how valuable they are by…looking sexy.  I’m getting mixed messages.

Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.


image via Wikimedia Commons

Venus and Mars and Tobias and Sarah in the Bedroom

File:Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel in Bildern 1860 147.png

Tobias and Sarah Awake, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

I stumbled across this picture when I was looking for some good marriage clipart, and I love it so much.  I’ve never seen this particular scene depicted before, but it’s really crying out for it–after all the suffering poor Tobias and Sarah went through, let us enjoy the happy ending a little!  I love the peaceful, secure look on Sarah’s face, and the goofy, blissful, exhausted, satisfied expression that Tobias is wearing.  I never heard of this artist before, but he obviously knows what’s he’s doing.

File:Venus and Mars National Gallery.jpg

Venus and Mars, by Sandro Botticelli

This one isn’t quite so edifying, but I think he also gets the expressions spot-on.  I really enjoy the way Mars is sprawled out, fast asleep, but Venus wouldn’t be caught dead in such an indecorous position, even right after sex.  She’s perfectly dressed and coiffed, and she’s peacefully ruminating on what just happened.  Botticelli and von Carolsfeld seem to have the perfect experience for this sort of painting, if you know what I mean.


We just saw a high school performance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, and I was surprised at how much darker it was than I remembered.  Aside from the cynical humor of the Ado Annie subplot, the story of the brooding, uncouth Jud is really disturbing.  He’s scorned for hiding away in his lonely smokehouse with his dirty pictures, but it’s really unclear how much of this is his fault; do people really treat him like dirt, because he’s the lowly hired hand, or is he just imagining it?  My husband pointed out that he’s not the only one to enjoy dirty pictures or lust after women–Will shows all the cowboys his special picture tube, and even Aunt Eller joins in–but for some reason everyone except Jud is excused because they’re funny, or they’re just boys being boys.

“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City! / They’ve gone about as fer as they could go…”

And when Ali Hakim offers him new pictures to assuage his loneliness, basically telling him “marriage is boring–stick with your porn”–Jud refuses and sings the hearbreaking song “Lonely Room.”

I set by myself
Like a cobweb on a shelf,
By myself in a lonely room.

…a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head.
And all the things that I wish fer
Turn out like I want them to be,
And I’m better than that smart aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me!

And the girl I want
Ain’t afraid of my arms
And her own soft arms keep me warm.

He ends by rejecting the temptation of the pornography and resolving to turn his longing into action and get a real woman of his own.  I guess they cut this song out of the movie version, so I had never heard it before.  To my mind, it makes him a lot more sympathetic.

“Goin’ outside, / Git myself a bride…”

Later on, when he tries to kill Curly with the hidden knife in the picture tube, I was struck by the fact that the pornographic pictures are used as a symbol of evil and death.  I usually try to not over-analyze movies and books and see symbolism where there isn’t any, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that there is a lot of symbolic undertext in Oklahoma.  During Laurey’s dream sequence, there’s a jarring moment when the theme “Kansas City” unexpectedly shows up, introducing a cynical note into Laurey’s idealistic ideas of romance.  And then!  “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” begins playing when Laurey suddenly finds herself dancing with Jud.  I think they were trying to show that Laurie has more in common with Ado Annie than she would like to admit.  Annie’s a victim of her own desires and weakness, as well as of the men who take advantage of her, but Laurey coldly takes advantage of Jud, using him as a pawn in her game to get Curly–even though she knows Jud is in love with her.  Because of this she’s partially responsible for everything that happens afterwards, I think.

What’s disappointing is that this theme is introduced but not really followed through.  Laurey continues to be self-absorbed, teasing and humiliating Curley till the very end, and even complaining that Jud’s death is ruining her honeymoon; but she gets her happy ending all the same.  Similarly, Will Parker, even though he’s presented in an unpleasant light with his story of the burlesque in Kansas City, succeeds in demanding Ado Annie’s completely fidelity.  She complains that he is asking for a double standard–fidelity from her, but completely freedom for him–but he never reassures her that his roaming days are over too.  Instead he calms her down by kissing her, which seems to be the moral of the whole show: sex solves everything.  It reminds me of something my mother told me about growing up in the 50’s, when everything was outwardly wholesome and decent, but in reality anything was allowed as long as you maintained the appearance of chastity.  As long as you technically stayed a virgin, you were allowed to “go about as fer as you could could go.”

“You ever had an ‘Oklahoma Hello?'”

I still can’t decide whether Rogers and Hammerstein meant to introduce these themes, but didn’t follow through on them in order to preserve the happy ending, or whether they really didn’t see how degenerate all their wholesome characters were.  It’s still an enjoyable show all around, but I had a much harder time laughing at the jokes this time.

What is a “Good Birth”?

My husband and I often talk about how much we plan to shelter our children.  We both know families whose kids have been completely sucked into the worst of pop culture; but we seem to know even more families whose attempts at sheltering their kids backfired badly.  When the kids finally encountered the real world, they often rebelled or succumbed to the worst, because they had not had the benefit of knowledge or exposure to build up their defenses.  (I’m being vague here, because I don’t mean to criticize any of the parents I knew, who were certainly doing their best!  But I have experience with all the examples in this post.)  I have seen parents be so scared of inappropriate sex education that they barely gave their children any at all.  The kids had to learn it on their own, either through experience, or through less reputable sources than their parents or teachers.  There is also the danger of sex being seen as something “dirty” that you don’t talk about, which leads to a really unhealthy attitude toward sex.

What I’ve realized lately is that this is not just a problem for children, but for adults as well.  In my last post, I talked about the dangers of sheltering women from the realistic expectations of pregnancy.  I see something very similar happening with childbirth.  Women are assured that, with the proper “birth plan,” they can achieve the perfect “birth experience.”  Now, I know that I have been very lucky: my midwives and nurses were respectful and considerate, and I was never pushed into something I was not comfortable with.  However, I have also heard of so many women who were led to believe that they could have a low-intervention, peaceful, joyful natural birth, only to be crushed when necessity dictated otherwise.  Once again, we’re setting women up for shame and guilt. No matter how much we understand rationally that a C-section, or an induction, or an epidural may be necessary, that nagging little voice inside our head will say “you’re taking the easy way out” or “you’re not letting your body do what it’s made to do” or “you’re giving in;” but if we’ve let our expectations become completely unrealistic, we are feeding that irrational guilt.

The friend I quoted in my last post made the same connection between pregnancy and childbirth expectations; after commenting on the importance of your “attitude” and “focusing on the positive,” she noted that “the people who helped me have a good birth were the ones who kept telling me a good birth was actually possible.”  Now: how do you define a “good birth?”  A birth that goes as planned?  A birth that is peaceful and expected?  Or a birth that results in a healthy baby?  If you only tell a pregnant woman stories of ideal births, how will she feel when her labor fails to progress, and her baby is in distress?  Google “birth disappointment.”  I have seen so many sad stories of women who felt horribly disappointed in themselves because they “gave in” and got the epidural, or because they had to have a C-section.  Instead of fully enjoying the baby, they feel a sense of loss and grieving. They may feel, like this poor lady, that “this was my fault” because their bodies are “broken.” 

[A side note: yes, your body is broken!  But it’s because of Original Sin.  This is why it doesn’t make sense to me to expect childbirth, or sex, or breastfeeding, to go perfectly just because it’s natural and it’s “what our bodies were made to do.”  Our bodies, like everything else in the world, sometimes don’t do what they were made to do.  If we put all our faith in “nature,” we are going to be let down because our nature is broken.]

Again, I am not recommending that we flood pregnant women with horror stories!  But imagine that we tell them something like this instead: “My first was born naturally, and it was wonderful!  My second had to be induced, and I was hooked up to 3 IVs, and that was pretty awful.  But you know what?  I didn’t even care, because then I got to hold my beautiful baby.”  Or this: “I was really loopy after the pain meds, so I don’t really remember the birth well, but we had nice quiet cuddling time afterwards.”  Or this: “The epidural worked great for my first, and failed for my second.  But either way, I got through it.”  Let’s give them realistic expectations, so they’ll be prepared; but let’s always remember to finish up with the most important part: the baby.  A good pregnancy is a pregnancy that ends in a good childbirth, and a good childbirth is one where the baby gets born.  Period.  Natural birth, water birth, home birth, epidural, induction, C-section, forceps, IV, hypnosis, episiotomy, whatever–I wish you a peaceful and pleasant birth, but please remember that no matter what your “birth experience,” the main thing is getting that baby safely into your arms!