Friday, May 30, 2008

Ordain a Woman, Go Straight to Hell

According to the AP, the Catholic hierarchy is cracking down hard on the groundswell within Catholicism that favors ordaining female priests:
The Vatican is slamming the door on attempts by women to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It has strongly reiterated in a decree that anyone involved in ordination ceremonies is automatically excommunicated.

A top Vatican official said in a statement Friday that the church acted following what it called "so-called ordinations" in various parts of the world. ...

The church has always banned the ordination of women, stating that the priesthood is reserved for males. The new decree is explicit in its reference to women.
Not that I thought Pope Ratzinger was going to deliver any surprises in this area - I remember hims well from his hard-line days as a Cardinal - but I didn't expect this re-entrenchment, either.

I'm not a Catholic and never have been, so I don't have a personal stake in this. But it's a matter of justice for Catholic women who don't want to give up their faith, yet also don't want to accept permanent second-class status. Most other Christian churches are much further along in reforming their clergy to include women.

Since the AP report didn't delve into the background, I did a little research to determine what that rather snide reference to "so-called ordinations" might mean. There's an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests that's been busy ordaining women as priests, and they're mad as - well, mad as heck - at this latest threat from the Vatican.
We hold up heroic women in the church’s tradition like Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc and St. Theodore Guerin who obeyed God, followed their consciences and withstood hierarchical oppression including interdict, excommunication and death.

In obedience to Jesus, we are disobeying an unjust law. The Catholic Church teaches that a teaching or law of the church is authoritative only if it is “received” by the sensus fidelium, the community of faith. If the community of faith does not accept the law, it has no effect on us. All people have a moral obligation to disobey an unjust law. St. Augustine taught that an unjust law is no law at all. Since 70% of U.S. Catholics favor women’s ordination and a growing majority of Catholics worldwide also favors women’s ordination, we do not "receive" or accept the Church's prohibition against the ordination of women and the church’s continued reliance on sexist metaphors, beliefs and assumptions for denying ordination to women.

Pope Benedict XVI, written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, in the commentary section of the Doctrine of Vatican II, volume V, page 134, stated: "Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority."
(Source: Womenpriests press release)
So! The Pope would be hoist on his own petard, if he cared about such things. But I'll bet he wasn't thinking about women when he wrote those highfalutin words about the primacy of conscience. Maybe women's consciences aren't quite as pure or reliable as men's?

Other internal critics within the Catholic Church eschew the Womenpriests' civil disobedience tactics but note that eight out of ten Catholic scholars worldwide support the legal ordination of women.

The preponderance of evidence does support the idea that women enjoyed roles as teachers in the early church, particularly if you consider the apocryphal texts. (No, I'm still not a theologian or historian of religion, but I'll fake it for a moment because this material was part of the class on gender, sexuality, and religion than I'm still helping teach for the next week.) The lineage of women leaders is much longer than Joan of Arc; it goes all the way back to the birth of Christianity.

For example, the Acts of Paul and Thecla tells the fantastical story of the virgin Thecla becoming a follower of St. Paul and a teacher in her own right. In the process, she had to survive burning at the stake, an attempted sexual assault, and being bound to a lioness. After the miracles that delivered her from these perils, she lived to age 90.

More significantly, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip both portray Mary Magdalene as first among the disciples. If she, too, was an early teacher of the gospel, then she was one anointed by Jesus himself.
Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.
Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.
Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.
(Gospel of Mary 5:5-7)
Of course, many orthodox Catholics will object that these are gnostic texts and thus heretical. This only begs the question of why they were deemed heretical in the first place. Might it be because the Church Fathers wanted to eliminate all evidence of the power that the Church Mothers had yielded? (If you're interested in smart, nuanced scholarship that illuminates this history, check out Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels.)

Definitely heretical: the cult of the Ceiling Cat.

Evangelicat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Going Along and Getting Along with the Nazis

Sugar Mag is telling some fascinating stories about her grandmother, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1925, came of age during the Nazi years, and had a brief, doomed engagement to a handsome, wealthy young SS officer. Her stories raise the question of how any of us might respond had we been born into a situation that called for extraordinary courage. In comments, Sugar Mag writes:
My grandmother's parents were not party members but neither did they actively oppose the Nazis, I think they were just trying to get through it.
Based on my own experiences of having married into a German family with a mixed political heritage, I think that this phenomenon – sometimes called “inner emigration” – was widespread indeed. There was a range of accommodation, from simply lying low to joining a party organization in order to fit in or get ahead.

For instance, most young people who were eligible to join the Hitler Youth or League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel, BdM) did so. My mother-in-law has lots of harsh memories of the later war years, but she did have fun with those girls in the late 1930s. The rest of her family responded ambivalently to this. On the one hand, her bourgeois parents looked down their noses at the coarseness of the Nazis, and so they weren’t thrilled about her BdM membership. On the other hand, her father joined the SA (Sturmabteilung, or brownshirts) as a doctor. He was not a true believer but recognized that joining would enhance his professional position, while staying neutral could hurt it. Apparently he thought this would be a lower-profile move than joining the SS, though his exact motives are impossible to reconstruct. He also personally profited when a colleague was forced to sell out for political reasons. He acted opportunistically rather than ethically.

Now, there’s obviously a big difference between this sort of low-level collaboration and inner emigration. Ethically, it’s the distinction between active and passive collaboration. But to be fair, professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and judges, came under greater pressure to join the Nazi Party or one of its offshoot organizations than did farmers or manual laborers. Professionals who were Jewish or unfriendly to the regime lost their jobs early on or suffered professionally in other ways. There was a host of repressive mechanisms that fell fart short of the concentration camps, and they cultivated fear among those who weren’t already among those persecuted. Thus, most professionals cut loose their Jewish colleagues (this happened already in the spring of 1933 in law and medicine) and cozied up to the regime just enough to preserve and promote their careers. A substantially small number went on to lead the Nazification of the professions and society. Very few actively resisted - unless they were already being persecuted for political and/or racial reasons.

The other side of my husband’s family illustrates the penalties for not accommodating to the regime. His paternal grandmother was fired from her teaching job because she had a long history of involvement in Catholic politics. Prior to 1933, Germany had a specifically Catholic political party, the Center Party, and she had been an active member. Like most political Catholics, she did not suffer imprisonment but was considered too politically unreliable to hold an influential job. Of course, the Nazis realized that they needed an iron grip on the education system to consolidate their power. The results of this were both political and personal: My husband’s grandmother suffered real financial hardship because she was a widow and needed the income, while her son felt like an outsider at school. In the aggregate, the teaching profession became extremely brown, to such an extent that postwar schools in West Germany often employed large numbers of former Nazis because otherwise there would have been a massive teacher shortage.

Given all the repression, peer pressure, and propaganda, it’s amazing to me that any Germans of that generation grew up with a moral compass. Sugar Mag describes how conflicted her grandmother was when she overheard a conversation that ought to have been reported to the Gestapo (according to her teachers) but would have betrayed family and friends. She made what we would now consider the obvious right choice and protected her loved ones. We can never know how she preserved that nugget of morality in the face of propaganda and massive social pressure.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote of “the banality of evil” – the ordinariness and routine that greased the cogs of the Nazi death machinery. People collaborated, laid low, and sometimes even resisted for reasons that were ordinary or even petty. Bureaucracy and efficiency obviated the need for moral judgments. People just did their duty, and the sum result was monstrous.

But these family stories suggest how the banality of Nazi evil worked on another level, too: If you happened to be born in Germany in the 1920s or 1930s to a supposedly “ethnically German” family, that was just your life. If you grew up surrounded by militarism and anti-Semitism, it was just your girlhood. It was the framework – the lifeworld – in which you played, went to school, fell in love. And when an evil system is that pervasive, normal, and taken for granted, you have to call on extraordinary moral reserves to resist it.

Like most of us, I’d love to think I would have found that moral core in myself, but I’m not sure. Unless we're tested, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. And I hope never to be tested in that way.

By the way, I included the Wikipedia references because they're concise and quite well done, and because they're convenient, but they would not have been allowed on my reading list for my Ph.D. comps. :-)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Down by the Riverside

This is mostly a PSA for the benefit of my local readers, though the rest of you might check it out if you'd like to see what a pretty little town I'm lucky to call home.

A pseudonymous but obviously very, very bright fellow resident of Athens has started a blog called The Attention-Getting Device devoted to discussing local issues. It's thoughtful, smart, and worth visiting if you live here, too.

So far its author, the Watchdog, is dissecting the retirement community planned to be built at the end of my street along the banks of the Hocking River. The original development was to be a continuing care facility, which the community actually needs, albeit in a less stupid location. But the original plans have been scaled back because the state won't approve more nursing care beds. Now the plans foresee a relatively upscale project that will gobble up the last open green space in our neighborhood, continue the trend of paving over the river's banks, and create a traffic hazard along routes that kids use to walk to the elementary school. It will also constitute a major evacuation problem the next time Athens experiences major flooding, which will be sooner rather than later if we keep destroying the floodway.

But the Watchdog says this all way better than me, so check out his/her blog.

I will just say that when we had relatively minor flooding last March, this was the view from the site of the proposed development. That concrete strip leading into the river is part of the bike path. The project would be built next to that path, slightly behind where I was standing as I snapped this shot. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the Uses of Confessional Lit

Superior kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

A comment from Jenny Block on my blogging and narcissism post raises an obvious but important question: Well, why do we read this stuff anyway? Why do we provide the sort of bloated audience that makes it worthwhile for magazines to put Emily Gould's or Philip Weiss's navel-gazing on their covers? Jenny further asks where we draw the line between good, affecting memoir and self-indulgent TMI.

Hmm. I can think of three reasons why I read confessions and memoirs. And let's be clear: I'm a huge sucker for the confessional genre, including its excesses.

1) Well-written confessional lit makes me feel less alone with hard experiences and sometimes-taboo feelings. Here, I'm thinking mostly of the burgeoning literature on motherhood. Susan Maushart's wonderful The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It is both analytical and experiential; it made me realize I wasn't just nuts when I had a hard time staying home with my highly demanding first-born. Andrea Buchanan's Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It made me laugh and reassured me that it was okay to just chill out once in a while. The writers at Literary Mama beautifully explore some of the less-well-mapped terrain of maternal experiences, usually from a first-person perspective. I could spend the rest of the day extending this list and making similar ones for sexuality, marriage, health, and so on.

While there's usually an element of confession in these sorts of memoirs, they don't feel like a guilty pleasure. They feel like a way to stay a little saner, kinder, and happier than I might otherwise be. They can also be politically powerful in much the way feminist consciousness groups used to be. They can push us to consider how our supposedly personal little problems might actually be systematic and if not completely socially constructed, at least socially exacerbated. Such is surely the case with motherhood as a largely privatized enterprise.

2) Confessional lit gives me an almost anthropological pleasure in seeing how other people live differently from me. Okay, that's mostly a fancy way of admitting I'm nosy. I'm fascinated by the glimpses I get of my students' lives in my women's studies classes. Though I obviously keep a professional lid on my nosiness and respect their privacy, I still get to learn a lot about them. Much of this fascination comes from their inhabiting the next generation from my own. They give me a peek into the future. They show me different ways of thinking.

Jenny's own writing on her open marriage definitely falls into this category for me. Her domestic arrangement is pretty different from my own, which is outwardly pretty conventional: a husband, two kids, monogamous heterosexual marriage, and a charming (if messy) house in the kind of friendly, front-porch neighborhood that supposedly went extinct by 1970. But then there's my inner life, which is politically quite radical and emotionally turbulent, full of unruly desires and ideas. If I look calm on the outside, it's only deep cover for my restless soul. Reading about how people live out very different choices satisfies my own curiosity, sure. But maybe it also helps me reconcile my own duties and desires by vicariously experiencing other people's less constrained lives.

3) On a base and prurient level, confessional lit lets us feel superior. I react that way even to the grand-daddy of all confessors, St. Augustine: Didn't he realize what a tortured hypocrite he was, trying to dissuade everyone else from sexual pleasure after he'd got his own? People got so riled up about James Frey fictionalizing half his memoirs partly because that sense of smug superiority relied on his exploits having been real. As I read about Emily Gould's exploits and Philip Weiss's inchoate desires, I was looking firmly down my nose at them - more so with Weiss, because he comes across as the sort of sexist pig that ought to be a feminist strawman but sadly isn't. I'm not particularly proud of any of this, but I'm guessing it's a common response.

I think an element of condescension often enters into our response to memoir, even if we're reading mainly in one of the first two modes. To use Jenny's work as an example again: It provokes a lot of judgmental comments. I'll admit that when I read her piece linked above, I too wondered whether her husband was really on board with opening their marriage, or if he went along because he saw no other choice. In the end, I realized that only they can judge that. But plenty of commenters felt they knew enough to condemn her on that score and many others.

Similarly, lots of writing on motherhood provokes judgmental, patronizing reactions. I'm not totally immune to them, either, even though I think I have immense reservoirs of sympathy as an imperfect mother myself. Mothers are just soft targets, I'm afraid.

In the end, I'm not arguing that the confessional genre is illegitimate just because it's possible to read most memoir while straddling a judgmental high horse. But I'm realizing that we'd do well, as readers, to be aware of when we're starting to wallow in our own superiority. As a writer, I suspect that we need less writing of the sort that is an outright invitation to read in this third, judgmental mode. And maybe this suggests one tentative response to Jenny's second question: As long as memoir can be read in the first two modes - as long as it advances our self-knowledge or our understanding of others - it probably has enough redeeming features to survive those readers who will insist on using it to build up their own egos.

I'd love to hear what others think about this, so please add your ideas in comments!

Monday, May 26, 2008

In Memoriam: 4081

That's the number of reported deaths of American soldiers in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003.**

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why we're there and how we're going to extricate ourselves. Even my man Barack Obama, who I think will steer a much wiser course in future foreign policy, doesn't have a truly persuasive plan for getting out. No one does.

That figure of 4081 deaths doesn't count other Allied deaths, nor non-fatal (but often devastating) injuries, nor the orders-of-magnitude higher toll among Iraqis. You can find much of that information at iCasualties: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

For Iraqis, the Lancet put "excess deaths" at 655,000 in its October 2006 study. The Iraq Body Count project estimates roughly 90,000 as of May 2008. (Wikipedia gives a decent overview of the controversies over Iraqi casualty figures for both the Lancet and the IBC.)

I tend to believe the Lancet numbers are closer to the truth because they use statistical and epidemiological approaches to compensate for the difficulty of obtaining an accurate actual count. But even the lower IBC number is scandalous.

Whatever the exact numbers, they raise the question: What are we commemorating this Memorial Day? Yes, there's been a lot of bravery among both Allied forces and ordinary Iraqis, among soldiers and civilians alike. But to what purpose?

What will redeem the losses that so many of them have suffered - whether a dear comrade or family member, a limb, their mental health, or their very life?

** Figures were current as of the start of Memorial Day 2008.

Poppies from a neighbor's garden.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

If Narcissus Had a Blog

Narcissicats from I Can Has Cheezburger?

The confession is an old, old literary genre, going back at least to Augustine and his Confessions (which he wrote after he'd committed enough fun sins to be worth confessing, of course). Narcissism is probably even older. At least, it was a big enough deal for the ancient Greeks that they gave it a name and its very own myth.

But the Internet has taken these ancient impulses and not just modernized but amplified them. Most blogs - apart from the big political blogs - have a confessional element. Even the large feminist blogs (Feministing, Pandagon, Shakesville) give us glimpses of the writers' lives, whether it's their pets or relationships or just non-blogging activities.

In moderation, these dollops of the personal make blogging way more fun than conventional journalism for readers and writers alike. And sharing some well-chosen personal details is only rarely narcissistic. Even outright navel-gazing isn't necessarily narcissistic. But blogging crosses that line when the writer exposes other people's personal lives.

Lately, narcissistic confessionalism seems to be mounting a takeover of print journalism, too. This is troubling insofar as it represents further degradation of journalistic standards. It's also compelling in ways much like a full pint of Ben and Jerry's. You can't help opening it; you can't stop yourself from taking just one more spoonful. And when you hit the bottom of the carton, you realize you're feeling just mildly queasy.

Case in point #1: Emily Gould's piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, in which she confesses to previous sins of "oversharing" through an 8000-word exercise in, well, oversharing. Gould used to work for Gawker, which I've never really followed since it's such a New York insider thing, but that hardly matters; oversharing has a universal fascination. And this is oversharing on a grand, epic scale.

Within the first dozen paragraphs, we already know why Gould's ex-boyfriend Henry will have to break up with her:
As Henry and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up.
That's Gould "reflecting" now on how she disrespected Henry's privacy on her personal blog. But see, even as Gould pillories her own past behavior - even as she seems to be confessing to her own prior lack of judgment and discretion - she doesn't acknowledge that she's dragging poor, private Henry into the public arena once again, this time not in a small-potatoes personal blog but in The New York Times Magazine! Even though Gould does seem to be assuming most of the blame for their break-up, millions of people now know that Henry would "sulk" about her blogging. That line between personal oversharing and encroachment on others' privacy? Guess what - you just crossed it again.

We learn, too, about Henry's successor, Josh Stein, and the courtship he and Gould conducted mostly via IM while sitting next to each other at the office. We hear about how they finally became a couple while on a weekend retreat:
Josh and I sat together on the couch, and I put my head on his shoulder in a completely friendly, professional way. The next day, I let him apply sunscreen to the spot in the middle of my back that I couldn’t reach. As a joke, we walked down the wood-plank paths that crisscross the island holding hands. I also remember joking, via I.M. as we worked, about us wanting to cross the hallway that separated our bedrooms and crawl into bed with each other at night when we couldn’t sleep. On our last day, I congratulated myself on having made it through the trip without letting these jokes turn into real betrayal. And then, 20 minutes outside the city on the Long Island Railroad on the way home, Josh kissed me.
We hear about how Gould chronicled their relationship on her blog, Heartbreak Soup, and how when things unraveled between the lovebirds, Gould blogged about those details as well:
A few weeks later, I arrived home in the early morning hours after abruptly extricating myself from Josh’s bed — he had suddenly revealed plans for a European vacation with another girl — and immediately sat down at my computer to write a post about what had happened. On Heartbreak Soup, I wrote a long rant about the day’s events, including a recipe for the chicken soup I made the previous afternoon and the sex that I’d been somehow suckered into even after finding out about how serious things were with the other girl.
Gould lets one of her best girlfriends pronounce the verdict on Stein after he cools it with her: "Emily, he’s so evil." Of course, this is as good a way as any to let all of us, too, know that he's evil, without Gould taking any ownership of the word.

But maybe she's right. Stein actually launched the first volley in their mass-media post-breakup oversharing contest, publishing a long piece of his own called "The Dangers of Blogger Love" in Page Six magazine. (You can read it here, along with Alex Carnevale's sarcastic take-down of it.) Stein tells us that he learned from Gould's blog that she was in love with him; that she used her blog to slam his former girlfriend's taste in magazines; that she routinely read his email.

Eew. If you have any Ben and Jerry's in the freezer, you should haul it out now, at the very latest, if you're clicking on any of these links.

Reading both Stein's and Gould's pieces - and heaven help me, I read every word - it's hard not to wonder if maybe they're both a little bit evil. Or at least deeply amoral, creepy, and, well, narcissistic.

Case in point #2: Narcissism just oozes from Philip Weiss's essay in last week's New York Magazine. Entitled - and I mean entitled! - "The Affairs of Men," Weiss's piece purports to examine the reasons men cheat on their wives. Mostly, though, he gives us an embarrassing yet irresistible glimpse into his own wretched psyche. Picture Philip Roth - minus much of the literary talent and masturbation - but plus TMI on his own marriage.

Weiss lets us know why he's so frantically tempted to sleep with women who aren't his wife. And it's not just that they're younger, tattooed waitresses whom he imagines - delusionally! - might be interested in his man-meat. No, he makes abundantly clear how he views his own wife: as a sexless middle-aged secretary-cum-organizer who mocks him and refuses to grant him the freedom that any French wife would give her husband.
I ... suggested [to my friend] that we could change sexual norms to, say, encourage New York waitresses to look on being mistresses as a cool option. “That’s fringe,” my friend said dismissively. Wives weren’t going to allow it, and we men grant them a lot of power; they’re all as dominant as Yoko Ono. “Look, we’re the weaker animal,” he said. “They commandeer the situation.” He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.
Yeah. Look, Mr. Weiss, if your wife is all that keeps you from reverting to the bottom of the food chain, your marriage has got bigger issues, starting with your own insecurity and incompetence and ending with your inability to view your wife as a sexual being. Feel free to expose your own pathetic douchebaggery. But none of this gives you the right to portray her - and all your friends' wives, too - as castrating scolds, especially when you seem to believe that what's sauce for the gander isn't sauce for the goose. When Weiss proclaims the beauty of non-monogamy to his wife, she gets "agitated," then says:
"Okay. Let’s have an open marriage. And I have to be out Wednesday night."

I said, No thanks.
So why should those of us lucky enough not to be Mrs. Weiss give a rat's ass about any of this foolishness? I mean, I didn't have to read past their first few lines of these essays, which give ample warning of the wreckage ahead.

Responding to Gould's essay, Jonathan V. at Galley Slaves observes:
... there is a difference between expression and exhibitionism. To the extent that blogs encourage the latter--even in thoughtful, professional writers--they are a pernicious force in the culture.
But as Gould's and Weiss's essays show, narcissism isn't just for blogs anymore. Print publications dangle pieces like theirs in front of the blogosphere, knowing they'll drive up traffic to their online incarnations. As we watch bloggy narcissism and exhibitionism bleed into the supposedly respectable press, we're going to see more "articles" like these. If this becomes a larger trend, it will become a race to the bottom. (And yep, I realize that I just did my part to encourage this by first reading this tripe and then linking to it.)

These essays also raise questions for the rest of us who might not want to emulate their oversharing. How much personal information is too much? I've been fairly frank in my own blog about a couple of recent medical experiences - my "deep throat" exam and my UTI-related caffeine deprivation - and at least one long-ago lousy sexual encounter. I've got academic/personal interests in medicine, sexuality, and embodied experience, and so - since these really were my stories to tell, as long as I preserved the anonymity of my partner in bad sex - I didn't see any reason to protect my own privacy. Even though all of these episodes could be construed as oversharing, I wanted to explore those larger issues through them.

The real danger of amoral narcissism lies in violating other people's privacy. I write a little bit about my family here, but when I talk about my kids, it's mostly either very innocuous (like yesterday's post about making more persons) or focused on my own experiences of parenting. I don't want them to be mortified by me later - at least, not above and beyond the normal baseline of adolescent embarrassment. You also won't learn much about my husband and my marriage. If I ever take part in, say, TMI Tuesday (which is often pretty amusing on other people's blogs), you can be sure I'll keep it focused on me.

I'm not condemning people who put a lot more of their lives online than I ever will. I do think, though, that if what they write impinges substantially on other people's private lives, they're ethically obligated to write pseudonymously. And they'd better be careful not to blow their cover.

Augustine famously wrote, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Were Augustine reborn today as a confessional journalist, he'd have to rephrase it: "Grant me discretion and empathy, but not yet." At least not until he'd bagged a major article deal in a national magazine.

Bidding for Babies

Ohio is contemplating a law that would let adoptive parents pay a birth mother up to $3000 for her living expenses, according to a report in today's Columbus Dispatch. (Current law allows reimbursement for medical and legal expenses, but not for more general expenses such as rent and groceries.)

I know that pregnancy often puts women in a financial crunch, especially when it's unplanned. I want mothers and their (developing) babies to be well nourished, securely housed, well rested, and just plain nurtured. So why do I feel uneasy about this pending bill?

It's not really true that this law would create a bidding war among prospective parents, which was my initial concern. It would cap the amount of aid at $3000. It's likely that some adoptive parents do already help birth mothers with living expenses in violation of Ohio law, although I have no idea how common this is. If so, this cap would actually level the playing field by bringing a covert practice into the light and regulating it.

So far, so good.

Yet I feel slightly queasy at one rationale that proponents of the bill are giving:
"It is a birth-mom and a baby drain, and it means Ohio couples are losing babies," said Thomas Taneff, a Columbus adoption lawyer. ...

"Why is this important? It's simple," Taneff said. "Probably 25 or 30 percent of our birth moms are adopting out-of-state. This bill will help keep Ohio babies here for Ohio couples."
(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
Am I the only one who thinks that babies start sounding like commodities when they're discussed like goods in an import-export business?

Am I alone in feeling troubled when birth moms are discussed like a natural resource?

If the problem is a bidding war for babies among states - not among would-be adoptive parents - then a patchwork of state laws is not going to solve the problem. It's only going to formalize the competition at the interstate level.

Several policy goals are at stake here, and I think they're all things that decent humans ought to agree on: Selling babies is bad. Keeping babies and mothers healthy is ethically right and fiscally smart. Adoption is a beautiful thing when a woman feels able to go through with it. Birth mothers seeking an open adoption should always have the possibility of a local placement, because obviously if your baby moves to a different state you won't have any chance at a real relationship. And finally, no one should feel compelled to have an abortion or give up a baby for financial reasons alone.

If we care about all of these things, then I think two things need to happen, legislatively. We need a federal law regulating payments from adoptive parents to birth mothers, so that states don't get into stupid competitions over "their" babies. And we need much more generous public assistance for expectant and new mothers. I don't know that bringing back old-style welfare is exactly the answer. But if some pregnant women are in such crisis that the prospect of $3000 or $4000 entices them to send their babies to a family out of state, then the system is broken.

And that's exactly what's happening, according to the Dispatch story. It describes an Ohio couple, recently married, who gave their baby to a Missouri couple. They were facing some relationship struggles over religion (she is Mormon, he is Jewish) and she regarded abortion as completely unacceptable. But the reason they gave up their baby? They were faced with losing their home. She used the $4000 the adoptive couple gave her for living expenses to cover the mortgage, as well as for groceries and utilities. You have to wonder: If they'd had health insurance and enough money for their basic needs, would they have relinquished that baby at all?

Simply allowing Ohio couples to play the same game won't fix the real travesty: the fact that such games are necessary in the first place.

Dutch iris from my garden.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Making Persons

Lately the Tiger keeps asking me: "Mama, how do persons make persons?" This tends to come up first thing in the morning, before I've had any coffee. I've given a basic and (I hope) age-appropriate explanation, but the question keeps popping up.

Maybe he's caught a clue. Today he drew this on the sidewalk ...

... and I'd like to know what that is if not a supersized cartoon sperm with a misshapen, club-footed tail, looking over his nonexistent shoulder to see if the other sperm are about to pass him up.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Infinite Loops

Recursive blanket flower by Flickr user gadl, whose work totally rocks. (I used another gadl image in an earlier post.) Used under a Creative Commons license.

Warning to actual computer experts: The following is a mix of muddled memories that both oversimplify and distort the way programming works just so I can make a silly metaphorical point about my children at the end. Don't say you weren't warned.

So, back in the early to mid-1980s, when I was going to college in the Silicon Valley, pretty much everyone took a class in computer programming no matter how talented or clueless we were about computers. It was just what you did. The language we learned was Pascal, and though I've hardly ever heard about it since then, it's still considered a good starter language for picking up the basics of programming (or so says Wikipedia).

Being exceptionally clueless about my future, I took not one but two programming classes. About all that stuck is an ability to create nifty "if" statements in Excel spreadsheets that automatically convert a numerical grade into a letter grade and vice versa.

Conceptually, two ideas are still with me: recursion and infinite loops. They somehow got hard-wired through marathon late-night programming sessions, which were inescapable because time on the mainframe was strictly limited except between 2 and 6 a.m. (The mainframe! It took up a room the size of my house.)

Recursion is just a mindblowingly crazy weird idea: stuff nested inside of other stuff, like a programming version of Russian matryoshka dolls. There are more formal - and no doubt better - definitions of recursion, but the cat below will give you the basic idea. (Unless, of course, you're an actual computer person, in which case you're probably scoffing at me, as you should. But hey, you were warned back in the first paragraph.)

Recursive cat by Flickr user raincrystal, used under a Creative Commons license.

Recursion is one of those things that makes a lot more sense right after a Grateful Dead show. As it happens, when my recursive program was due in the winter of 1985, I spent the evening at a show in Oakland (it must have been part of the Chinese New Year festivities) and then came home and started the program around midnight. It was done before the sun came up and worked perfectly on the first try.

The other concept that's endured for me is the infinite loop. Programs use loops to perform an action repeatedly. They normally stop obediently when the specified task is finished or a desired condition is achieved. For instance, if you search Google for Kittywampus, it searches until it's got the results and no longer. (I have no clue what sort of algorithm Google uses or if you can even call it a loop, but the point is, the search is finite.)

An infinite loop is one run amok. It doesn't stop tidily but keeps on going, usually because the programmer screwed up somehow. It doesn't know when it's time to stop. (One way it differs from recursion is that a recursive program or function knows when enough is enough.) I created at least one of these, too, although that was (obviously!) not part of any assignment.

These days, I have one big infinite loop in my life, and I'm mostly at a loss about how to stop it. That loop is a never-ending squabble function.

My two boys - who can be so sweet, smart, and empathetic - spent the winter squabbling ferociously. It starts predictably in the morning with the Tiger deliberately making annoying noises at the breakfast table (aka the "breskit table") and the Bear using his bossiest voice to order him to stop. It ends only after they've argued over whose turn it is for a piggyback ride from their dad up the stairs at bedtime.

The quarreling escalates massively whenever they have friends over, particularly when the Bear has a playdate and the Tiger wants to join in. The Bear wants to play big kid stuff; the Tiger wants to be part of it, even if it's only by crashing the party and trying to plant sloppy kisses on all the other kids. I understand that they both have legitimate desires and needs, but so far compromise only leaves both pissed off.

I'm actually not beating myself up about this too much. I think both his dad and I try to be fair; we try not to intervene constantly, but we also try to teach them that compromise is the only alternative to misery. (Of course, I'm grateful for any words of wisdom from anyone who's handled this more successfully!)

The proof that this is an infinite loop came a couple months ago when I told the Bear to pick up some underwear he'd left lying on the floor. He balked. The Tiger said, "I want to pick up the underwayer!" The Bear said, "No, I will!" and a tug-of-war ensued - over underwear and who would get to pick it up!

For an infinite loop, the only thing I know to do is reboot. But with kids, it's not at all clear where the on/off switch is located. I'd RTFM, if only I had one.

What's working right now: spring! Now that the kids can be outdoors without suffering frostbite, I'm mercilessly kicking them out into the yard. Yep, the Tiger tried launching a kissing attack outdoors, too, but on the whole they've been a lot kinder to each other. And that makes me even happier than the flowers bursting out.

Recursive stained glass by Flickr user gadl, just because I love it. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I have an interview tomorrow for the job I mentioned a few weeks ago. Yes, I should have told y'all that I got an interview, but I'm afraid of jinxing myself. And no, I still don't believe in demons, but my oh my, can I be superstitious. I'll be okay, whatever happens, but still I'm nervous. The last real, formal job interview I had was in 1987, I think.

In case I've tempted the gods - or satan's own hosts! - here's a propitiatory offering in two parts. The iris is the sexiest thing I've captured yet in my garden (click for the full-sized version). The poem is by Robert Hass from Praise, my favorite book of poetry, ever.

Like Three Fair Branches
From One Root Deriv’d

I am outside a door and inside
the words do not fumble
as I fumble saying this.
It is the same in the dream
where I touch you. Notice
in this poem the thinning out
of particulars. The gate
with the three snakes is burning,
symbolically, which doesn’t mean
the flames can’t hurt you.
Now it is the pubic arch instead
and smells of oils and driftwood,
of our bodies working very hard
at pleasure but they are not
thinking about us. Bless them,
it is not a small thing to be
happily occupied, go by them
on tiptoe. Now the gate is marble
and the snakes are graces.
You are the figure in the center.
On the left you are going away
from yourself. On the right
you are coming back. Meanwhile
we are passing through the gate
with everything we love. We go
as fire, as flesh, as marble.
Sometimes it is good and sometimes
it is dangerous like the ignorance
of particulars, but our words are clear
and our movements give off light.

-- Robert Hass, Praise (1982)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Day the Music Burned

I realize there are worse tragedies happening in the world. No one got killed in this one. I'm still really sad about it.

Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters; I swiped it and hope no one will mind.

Today the Berlin Philharmonic hall suffered a severe fire, which apparently started while welding work was being performed. The International Herald Tribune reported:
Musicians described a frantic evacuation. Sarah Willis, the 2nd horn player, said she had been in the warm-up room when she "smelled something like lunch was burning."

"A few minutes later, someone burst in and said we have to get out now," she said, speaking on her cellphone as she watched smoke billowing from the building. "Double basses were on stage and many valuable violins and cellos were in lockers. The stagehands were allowed to take them out." ...

"It's really sad," she said. "It's the best acoustic in the world. We just don't know what it's going to look like."
She's not exaggerating. I was lucky enough to hear probably a few dozen concerts in this hall when I lived in Berlin. The acoustics are astonishing. Even the "standing room" seats behind the orchestra are fantastic.

For me, this is also personal. The Philharmonie has been almost a character in my life. I met my husband at the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin in 1991, when the Berlin Philharmonic had to relocate during asbestos removal from the Philharmonie. A concert at the Philharmonie was our favorite thing to do on a date, and we almost always scored inexpensive last-minute tickets. I went there with dear friends and relatives when they made the trek from California to visit me in Berlin. I heard Mahler's 7th at the Philharmonie while I was hugely pregnant with the Bear and thought I was going into labor early. Apparently he was signaling enthusiasm or exasperation at all the Sturm und Drang. (He likes Mahler now, for what it's worth.)

I hope the roof can be repaired in a way that preserves the acoustics. I hope it can happen even though the city of Berlin is in the direst of financial straits. And I hope that, while the repairs are being made and the orchestra is again displaced, some other young couple will find each other while waiting for the music to begin.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Small Bears Can Get Poison Ivy

Photo of poison ivy by Flickr user cpurrin1, used under a Creative Commons license. Deceptively purty, isn't it?

My little Bear has poison ivy on his face, which almost got into his eyes, and I was too much of a dumbcluck to recognize it.

He turned up middle of last week with a small scratch on the bridge of his nose, next to his left eye, which he oddly claimed was a mosquito bite. That should've tripped my suspicions. Instead, I took him at his word while the skin around his right eye, too, began to turn purplish and reddish. He had a tummy ache, and at first I thought he was just getting a variation of the swollen bruised raccoon look that usually announces he's coming down with some bug.

A day later, my husband finally suggested it could be poison ivy. This reflects especially pathetically on me because he grew up in a land where stinging nettles were the harshest plant around. I spent my most formative years (from 16 to 25) living in California in places rife with poison oak.

For what it's worth, I've never had poison ivy or poison oak, probably because I'm too timid about leaving the path when I venture into any sort of wilderness. (This includes my own backyard.) Also I never once saw it in North Dakota, my childhood abode, where the harsh winters "keep out the riff-raff" - and while as a child I thought that meant lazy people and hoboes, and as an adult I put a less charitable spin on it, now I realize it maybe just meant all leaves-of-three plants.

So I'm honestly ignorant. Again, for what it's worth, which is pretty much jack shit when it comes to your kid's eyes.

I do realize that identification of poison ivy is not rocket science. But first you need to know at least generally where its victim picked it up. I'm fretting it might be lurking along the treeline at the back of our yard.

We've been applying cortisone and the swelling has gone down. The Bear's eyes are fine. I'm still shaky when I think about how he complained about itchy eyes on Friday and I chalked it all up to his playing on the computer for too long.

The one good thing that came from this was a small bearish epiphany. Saturday, when he was truly miserable, he said: "Mama! Someone ought to invent a vaccine for poison ivy. That way it would only hurt once and you wouldn't be able to get it for ten years." This from a kid who hates needles more than anything! Okay, that probably just shows how miserable he was. And yet, it's cool to see my eight-year-old beginning to think in long-term, lesser-evil terms.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dann's Trifecta

I'd vowed not to say anything more about Marc Dann because it's really a waste of my time, and yours. Since he resigned a few days ago his screw-ups will be fading from public view anyway - at least until the Republicans mine them for gold before next fall's elections.

But in response to a story in yesterday's Columbus Dispatch, I'm gonna take the bait. Dann's paramour, Jessica Utovich, resigned in the middle of this whole mess, nearly two weeks before Dann finally stepped down himself. Turns out that her resignation was the result of yet another screw-up that Dann had a hand in creating:
When she learned that then-Attorney General Marc Dann was going to tell the world the next day that he had an affair with a female staff member, Jessica Utovich hurriedly decided to quit her job with the office.

She submitted her resignation late in the afternoon on May 1.

But that evening, Utovich talked to Dann, with whom she had been romantically involved for several months last year. She says he convinced her to rescind her resignation. She agreed.

Thus, Utovich was stunned the next day when she says she learned, while watching back-to-back televised news conferences by Dann and top assistant Thomas R. Winters, that she no longer had a job.

Later that day, while speaking to The Dispatch editorial board, Dann professed ignorance of the whole situation: "I don't know why she resigned."

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
Now, I realize Utovich is a grown-up. Adultery is not right. She didn't have to get involved with Dann. She's not excusing herself for any of that.

And yet: Utovich is 28 to his 46. He's got a generation's worth of experience and (one would hope) wisdom on her. He was a powerful man and his attention was surely flattering. More to the point, he was her boss. He had an obligation to uphold professional propriety.

And then he fucking feigns ignorance of a conversation that apparently cost her her job?! What a douche.

Marc Dann has wreaked havoc on three different categories of women: the two (or more) women who suffered hostile environment harassment; his wife, who has been embarrassed at the bare minimum and more likely emotionally bruised; and now his ex-girlfriend, who involuntarily lost her job as well as her lover. It's a perfect trifecta.

So just for a minute, I want to spare some sympathy for Jessica Utovich, who definitely got far more than she bargained for - and a pretty lousy bargain it was. I'm glad she's seeking legal counsel, and I hope she gets some satisfaction.

Waking Dreams of the Perfect Breast Cancer Prevention Drug

Photo of a lilac-breasted roller by Flickr users Arno & Louise, used under a Creative Commons license. If you came here for a lovely photo of black-and-white breasts set off by orange Sungold tomatoes, too bad; I got annoyed at too many late-night hits from visitors seeking boobie pictures, which is not what Kittywampus is about, and so I took down the original breast photo. However, this fella's lilac breast is quite gorgeous in its own right.

So the other night I woke up in the wee hours and started thinking about breast cancer and how to prevent it. Now, the obvious rational approach is right living, on the individual side, and a much cleaner environment, when it comes to collective strategies. On the first score, I eat my veggies and I'm no lush (though also not the teetotaler that the latest study suggests all women should be). As for tidying up the environment? Unlikely in my lifetime, especially when it comes to those persistent estrogen-like plastic and pesticide compounds that are a likely driver of rising breast cancer rates.

But the great thing about half-delirious insomniac thoughts at 4 a.m. is that you don't have to be rational. And so I started fantasizing about an ideal drug to prevent breast cancer. Clearly, Tamoxifen and its cousins that induce menopause-from-hell symptoms don't come close to fitting the bill; they're harsh enough that they're only used in women at high risk. But if you only intervene after cancer is diagnosed, the current slash/burn/poison approach leaves women maimed, debilitated, and in constant fear of recurrence.

My vision was a substance that every woman could take, at least once she was pretty sure she was done with childbearing and thus wouldn't be using her breasts to feed anyone. It goes without saying that the ideal drug would be free of side effects. (I know, I know, but it was 4 a.m., so humor me.)

You'd want a drug that would stop mutations in their tracks before the rogue cells had a chance to replicate. And you'd need to deliver it to the location where those mutations are most likely to arise: the milk factory. Since virtually all breast cancers start either in the milk-transporting ducts or the milk-producing lobules, that's where you'd want to intervene. (I'm not discounting a third variant, inflammatory breast cancer, but that seems like a biologically different beast.)

You'd want a substance that would penetrate through the first layers of cells and selectively knock out any abnormal ones. Maybe it would induce apotosis; maybe it would stop such cells from reproducing; maybe it would just smother the bad guys. Whatever its mechanism, the key thing is that it would travel straight to the ducts and lobules and then act locally rather than systemically.

As anyone who's nursed a child knows, the milk factory has an amazing capacity to ramp up and, well, expand. And this is where such a drug could satisfy the prerogatives of vanity as well as health: If it acts locally by permeating the ducts and lobules, why couldn't it simultaneously cause them to inflate prettily? I'm not talking about mimicking the porn-star silicon look. I'm just suggesting that this ideal drug could cause a little bit of non-milk fluid to be retained. You'd get a little of the size and perkiness that pregnancy produces - but now without a belly eclipsing the boobs.

The great thing about this two-in-one function is that the drug would sell itself. Its developers would be reap wealth and good karma. Women would stick religiously to the dosage schedule.

The only downside? Plastic surgeons would be hanging around soup kitchens.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Demonic Logic

Demonic kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

So with my Bear home sick with a bellyache, and with a heap of work looming over me, I did what any good slacker parent would do and hauled out my old iBook, thinking he could spend some time playing games while I chipped away at my translating job. Only I hadn't fired up my old computer since I replaced it with the new one a couple weeks ago, and apparently it took umbrage, because even though I plugged it in, it wouldn't start. First it did nothing at all. Then it made some promising clickety clickety noises, followed by a most alarming tooooooot!

Yes, my computer tooted at me. Like a machine possessed.

It did this three more times, with me getting more perplexed and the Bear growing more disappointed. Finally, in a lame attempt at cheering him up, I said, "That sounds about like an A or a B-flat" and went over to the piano to plunk out the notes. Sure enough, it was a quarter tone right between the two pitches.

At which point, my old iBook fired the fuck up.

The Bear dissolved into giggles. And because I've been reading and thinking too much about charismatic forms of religion lately, I thought: oooh! cool supernatural stuff!

Well, I didn't really. But according to the truly spooky findings of a survey conducted in 2005, an impressive majority of my fellow Americans might not rule out my computer being possessed. The Baylor Religion Survey asked if demons exist. A full 43.6% of respondents answered "absolutely yes" and another 22.6% said "probably." Only 12.4% said "absolutely not."

The breakdown of the data is fascinating and disturbing, too. Women and younger people were more credulous than men and older people. Those who never attended church were (probably obviously) far more skeptical than regular attendees, as were those with higher household incomes and more education. But shockingly, 31% of respondents with graduate degrees said they "absolutely" believed in demons. (Maybe they're looking for someone to blame for how long they/we spent writing our theses?)

Perhaps the most interesting difference runs along political lines. Based on the 2004 presidential election, 56.6% of Bush voters but just 27.6% of Kerry's responded "absolutely yes," demons do exist. Leaving aside the still disturbingly high number of Kerry voters (maybe they were thinking of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?), this result shines a bright light on how the all-too-this-worldly demons work their black magic.

If well over half of Bush's supporters definitely believe in demons, then how can we be surprised that at one point, 70% of all Americans also believed that Saddam and Al-Quaeda were in cahoots? Why should we flinch when evangelical leaders blame Katrina on feminists and gays? Why should we expect any sort of rationality in our public life if most America believe the world is overrun by dark, supernatural forces?

As The Political Cat reasoned a few days ago:
As we remarked over lunch today, if there is a god, it is a very stupid one indeed, and guilty of bad aim. It could have taken out the entire military junta of Burma in one fell swoop. Instead, it landed a cyclone on the heads of the weak, the bereft, the poor, the already suffering.
Yeah. There's no way that a god can be both merciful and omnipotent at the same time. Still, I don't think religious people are all deluded, nor do I believe religion is always a force for evil, even though it's too often used that way. The world's religions offer wisdom for those who seek it and are willing to use reason to reject the prejudices that humans have injected into every religion.

But the sort of credulous belief that sees supernatural forces playing games with the universe? That's just not compatible with democracy. Or with compassion.

As for my iBook? It's humming along to the annoying, but healthy, sounds of innocuous online games. Apparently that spooky toot was just its complaint that the battery had run down low enough to reset its internal clock, and it needed to recharge before it could reboot.

Marriage, Equal Protection, and the Limits of "Tolerance"

The purpose of this post is mostly to do what my students did yesterday in class: to give a loud cheer for the California Supreme Court's ruling that same-sex unions can't be treated as legally second class. Yay!!

I was just about as heartened by the students' reaction as by the ruling itself. Through discussions with them, I know that a good 80% of them don't have a problem with gay marriage. When opposition drops that low - in Ohio, for goodness sake, no bastion of liberalism - it's a hopeful sign for the future. They will outlive the older generations who still think the sun ought to revolve around the earth.

The rest of my students still have issues with homosexuality, ranging between aesthetic disgust and religious qualms - but they're aware enough of their minority status that they're slow to voice their feelings, and I notice a change in this even over the past five years. That 10 to 20% probably felt alienated by the cheering. They'll have to get used to it. Homophobia is moribund. It's already a social embarrassment in their generation, much like overt racism is in mine. And they know it.

But if you push hard, you still discover limits to "tolerance" even in the ostensibly pro-inclusion supermajority. For instance, some students still say that they don't understand why gay people (and here they really mean gay men) "have to flaunt it." As if a once-a-year gay pride event with men in nothing but lederhosen weren't totally offset by the heterosexual spectacle on the streets and in the bars of this college town every weekend - and remember, the weekend starts on Thursday night, and on Wednesday in fine weather. The women's clothes barely keep them from getting arrested - and the displays of heterosexuality are, well, blatant! Shocking! You see boys and girls together and golly, they flaunt it!

Another gripe a few of my straight students expressed was "why do 'they' have to be so angry at heterosexuals - aren't they doing the same thing as the anti-gay people?" Well, sure, it's exactly the same - if the gay haters feel they can't hold hands in public or be open about their sexuality at work or adopt children or walk down the street without fear. Even otherwise well-meaning young people may still have a hard time seeing how oppression creates asymmetries that make anger mean something totally different among oppressed people.

Despite the limits of "tolerance," I still think the California ruling shows how far this sea change has come and how irresistible it will be in the future. It's of course wonderful news for the couples who will now have a real choice about how to organize their lives. It's also a delicious irony in that six of the seven judges on the court are Republican appointees. More power to them for embracing the law and fairness rather than caving to political pressure.

While I'm no legal expert, two things popped out at me from Glenn Greenwald's analysis that portend well for the future. First, the court specifically left open the possibility that California could comply with its state constitution by essentially establishing civil unions for all couples, gay and straight, and leaving "marriage" to the churches. This is a solution that I've favored for years, having seen how successful it's been in European countries. First, the distinction draws a clear, bright line between church and state, which benefits both in the end. Second, with that distinction already in place, European governments have had a fairly easy time implementing same-sex unions. Of course, they don't have organized wingnut opposition - groups like the Concerned Women of America strike them as almost a joke - though some of them, like Spain, did face the Catholic Church. But keeping church marriage distinct allows religions to have their own sphere of influence without dictating public policy.

Second, while the court emphasized that its ruling was based on the state constitution and not on the federal one, its rationale - equal protection under the law - illumniates the path that I think this country will ultimately have to take, whether we keep marriage under state control or redefine it as civil unions for all. The Fourteenth Amendment can and should be interpreted to protect everyone, no matter who they love. Obviously, our current SCOTUS tilts too far right to even consider this; it's no longer the same crew who gave us Lawrence v. Texas. But "equal protection" ought to mean exactly that, and this ought to be glaringly obvious to all of us, legal experts or not.

Dr. Rüppel clematis from my garden.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Twin within a Twin

Here's a news item with no redeeming political significance - just something that irresistibly drew my amazed, not-quite-horrified attention. (I do have a pretty thick skin about such things, having spent hundreds of hours of my life with old German gynecology books, which loved the lurid and weird, especially with illustrations to match.)

First off, the little girl involved is going to be fine, otherwise I wouldn't be rubbernecking. Here's what the AP reported (via the Columbus Dispatch):
A 9-year-old girl who went to hospital in central Greece suffering from stomach pains was found to be carrying her embryonic twin, doctors said Thursday.

Doctors at Larissa General Hospital examined the girl and surgically removed a growth they later discovered was an embryo more than two inches long. ...

Andreas Markou, head of the hospital's pediatric department, said the embryo was a formed fetus with a head, hair and eyes, but no brain or umbilical cord.

Markou said cases where one of a set of twins absorbs the other in the womb occurs in one of 500,000 live births.
The sheer weirdness of this is right up there with chimeras. Except that chimeras aren't exactly unusual; in recent years, evidence has emerged that "microchimerism" - where a mother and fetus exchange a few cells via the placenta - is quite common. And that - much more than this two-in-a-million event - poses a challenge to our notion that we are all completely distinct, separate, autonomous individuals, genetically and otherwise.

It also makes me glad that the tummy bug that's been making the rounds here this week - and hit my Bear tonight - is really just a bug and not, say, a whole 'nother human causing the bellyache.

Gratuitous garden porn: Because sometimes that brutal wench, Mother Nature, is unaccountably kind. These tulips in front of my house finished blooming a week or so ago.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Pregnant Gaps in "Juno"

I'm probably one of the last people in the United States to see Juno. I clearly need to get out more. Last night I finally rented the DVD - under pain of embarrassment since tomorrow's class will discuss abortion. I enjoyed the snappy dialogue and the wiseass humor, especially from Juno's parents. And I really didn't read it as glorifying teenage pregnancy or demonizing abortion, as did many commentators who actually go see movies while they're still in the theater.

But two things bugged me about it enough to require venting - two holes in plot/motivation big enough that you could drive a truck through them (or at least walk through them sideways while nine months pregnant).

(If you're one of the remaining five people who haven't seen the movie, you might stop here, because the rest of this post is full of spoilers. Sorry.)

First, I didn't buy Juno's motivations for walking out of the abortion clinic with her pregnancy intact. I'm not suggesting she should've had the abortion. That would be a doctrinaire and anti-choice position. I just wasn't convinced that anyone changes their mind just because the clinic's receptionist is a goth version of a twit with boundary issues, or because the other people in the waiting room appear to be basket cases.

What if it'd been clearer that Juno chose as she did in order to buck the pressure to be a conformist high schooler - to hide the pregnancy and pretend it never happened? That would be in character for her since later in the movie, she reacts to the stares at school with a "fuck 'em if they can't take a big belly" attitude. As it is, her decision seems capricious, which doesn't fit with Juno's smarts and savvy.

Juno's decision also just doesn't make emotional sense more generally. I don't believe that abortion is always a hard and fraught decision. Even when a woman is sad about deciding to abort and grieves her loss afterward, the decision itself might be clear to her and not a struggle at all. The same can be true for deciding to carry on with the pregnancy. I don't think, though, that it often hinges on completely random factors, as Juno's choice apparently does.

The second thing that left me feeling perplexed and unconvinced is how easily Juno gives up her baby at the end. Given how important it was for her to get to know the potential adoptive parents, can we really believe that she just puts the whole experience behind her as soon as she's "squeezed the baby out of her vag," as she would say? She could easily have decided in favor of an open adoption, which would ring more emotionally true with her behavior while pregnant.

Again, I'm not saying that she should have appeared tormented about relinquishing her baby. Having carried two of them to term, though, I know that it would be really hard not to form some sort of bond with the developing fetus. Juno doesn't use the term "fetus," anyway; to her, it's a baby from early on. When she goes for an ultrasound, you see her eyes shine with the wonder of it. She's not immune to that natural bonding that occurs gradually as you live with this strange, bony, watery creature inside you and feel its movements. So it would be much more convincing if she'd not just shrug it all off in the end but instead show a flash of wistful what-ifs.

Lacking that, I got wistful on her behalf, imagining how hard - how impossible - I would find it to grow a baby, give birth, give it away, and then forget about it. Interestingly, this isn't just the reaction of a sentimental old mama. One of my young male students reacted the same way about the ending. I think a lot of pro-life people want to believe in that pat ending, though, and that's why they advocate adoption as a one-size-fits-all solution. If only it were that easy.

LOLkitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ohio's Hospitals Failing Rape Victims

NARAL Ohio wrote me an email today (yeah, me personally, because I'm special) announcing something that damn well ought to be a no-brainer - that actually ought to already exist:
On Wednesday, State Representative Dan Stewart will formally introduce a bill that would ensure that sexual assault victims have access to emergency contraception and preventative treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STI) in Ohio emergency rooms. This bill (Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergencies) is critical for the treatment of sexual assault survivors in our state.
(No link on this, since it's not yet up on NARAL's state-by-state legislation tracker.)
And you'd think that such legislation wouldn't be necessary in the first place because the number of hospitals denying comprehensive care should approach zero, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong.
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio's survey of hospital emergency rooms last year showed that 17% of hospitals who participated in the survey do not guarantee access to emergency contraception (also known as the “morning-after” pill) to all sexual assault victims.
That's one in six hospitals refusing to provide legal care that meets the basic standards of modern medicine. Though NARAL doesn't specify, the odds are great that they're virtually all Catholic institutions. But by golly, if I were raped, the first thing out of my mouth wouldn't be "Please take me to a non-Catholic hospital." A victim of assault should be given everything she needs, not forced to advocate for herself while she's profoundly traumatized.

Yesterday I just read the full text of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 Papal Encyclical that reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church's intransigent rejection of abortion and contraception. I came away from it impressed with the otherworldly idealism of it. I still disagree as deeply as ever with its conclusions, but I do appreciate its warnings against using other humans as a mere means to an end.

And yet, nowhere does Humanae Vitae address the problem of rape and violence and coercion. If the Catholic hierarchy** wants to maintain that sexuality can only be expressed in marriage, in acts that do not run contrary to "nature" (and boy, is that a spongy category), then how does it account for acts of sexual violence? Why should contraception be anathema after an act that violates the spirit of Humanae Vitae on so many levels - the lack of meaningful consent, the clear use of one person as a mere means, the violation of the Church's notion of the natural?

And why - even according to Catholic theology - should a victim of violence be denied emergency contraception? Remember, we're talking about blocking conception, not performing an abortion. This is, in fact, the chance to prevent an abortion, considering that most rape victims will not carry a resulting pregnancy to term.

Yes, I know that Catholicism maintains that fetal life is innocent life, and that the fetus did not choose to be conceived through an act of violence. But nowhere does Humanae Vitae assert this point. Instead, it grounds opposition to "artificial" birth control in the sanctity of married sexuality as always simultaneously serving two ends, unity of the couple and the propagation of humanity. I'm no expert in theology, nor was I raised Catholic. I'm sure other Catholic teachings do address the Church's reasons for opposing EC even in cases of rape. I'm also aware that EC wasn't on the religious/political agenda in 1968 when Humanae Vitae was issued, although doctors were certainly aware of it.

But if the primary Catholic position statement on "life" doesn't provide a rationale for denying EC to rape victims, I see no reason why secular authorities can't impose their own requirements. I do know that the Church affirms the dignity of every human being, and if it takes government intervention to extend that to rape victims, so be it.

** I'm fully aware that most American Catholics will disagree with the Church on this, so I'm taking care to refer to the hierarchy and to official doctrine insofar as I understand it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

How to Win at Cat-opoly

This evening the Bear and the Tiger were playing Cat-opoly. It's like Monopoly, except that instead of buying properties, you invest in cats. And instead of going to jail, you fall into the water.
Investing in cats is of course a dubious premise, even for a cat lover like me. Grey Kitty was strictly a source of outward cash flow. If anyone figures out how to make money by renting out cats - as mousers? - I'd love to know what I was missing.

Well, I suppose since the cats in the game are all fancy breeds, there might be stud fees. Hard to explain that one to a preschooler, though.

The Bear bankrupted the Tiger after convincing him to trade precisely the cat cards that the Bear needed for a monopoly. I thought about admonishing him for taking advantage of his four-year-old brother.

And then I thought: No, better couch this as an early lesson in economics. Because y'know, that's just about how real monopolists, war profiteers, Enrons, and Halliburtons become mega-rich. Add in a few price fixers, lobbyists, Abramoffs, and Cheneys, and you're good to go.

Now we just need to figure out how to get all of them - not just Abramoff - to fall into the water.

Image from Amazon.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Another Reason I Love My Little Bear

This is what the Bear, age eight, gave me for Mother's Day:

(Click to enlarge.)

In case you can't read the fine print, it says
Dear Mom,
I am thankfull for you for 3 reasons: 1 because if you weren't alive I wouldn't be alive, 2 because you are nice and 3 because you make food for me.
Can't argue with #1, which is just typical, ineluctable Bear logic. As for #2, it's wonderful that he chooses to see the nice me and not the crabby one. And the quality of #3 fluctuates, too; some days, it's a good thing he likes veggie burgers.

I love the pop-up flowers. And I know he made them purple because he knew I'd like it. The only thing that makes me even happier than his artwork is this, his budding gift of empathy.

Happy Mother's Day

I love the idea of mothers being recognized for what they do. I hate the sentimentalization of it - never mind that this post starts and ends with flowers. (But as I've said before, flowers are sexy. They're not sentimental.)

Anyway, what I'm reflecting on this Mother's Day is how being a mother has made me appreciate my own mother more. She had the usual portion of burdens - though if you ask her, she'll say she had far more than her share of joys. Only now, having lived through sleepless nights with sick kids and breastfeeding babies, endured the tantrums of toddlerhood, and navigated some of the drama of a grade-schooler's social life - only now do I have a visceral appreciation of how my mom did all of that - and did it with unflagging cheer and love. No wonder I'm still sometimes surprised at how hard it can be; she made it look easy.

But my mother had a few extra troubles, as well.

When I was in college but my sister was only 11, my parents' marriage ended and my father wasn't much involved with us kids for several years. To his credit, he did keep up with his financial obligations - and my mom is still quick to point that out. To her credit, she was always willing to include him (though not his girlfriend) in family events. She did what millions of other single parents have done, but that didn't make it any easier. And she did it with an abundance of grace and love.

Earlier yet, when my parents were still married, my father nearly died of complications of a chronic disease. He was in the VA hospital in Minneapolis, and we were living in North Dakota, six hours away. Over a nearly two-month period, she somehow managed to hold everything together, making the drive through blizzards and keeping us kids cared for, whether by neighbors or older relatives. My sister was only three at the time. And she didn't have the family support that would've been ideal. Her own mother was not terribly strong anymore. Her mother-in-law was more robust and could help with us kids as long as another adult was present. During one of her hospital trips, my dad's mother and sister had one of their epic fights while supposedly holding down the fort. My aunt let loose a string of swear words - my delicate ears had never heard such a barrage! - and stomped out, leaving my 81-year-old grandma in sole charge, with my mother still six hours away. It must have been a relief on so many levels when my father finally came home. (He's still doing well today.)

I got an inkling of what she must have gone through when my husband was being treated for life-threatening pneumonia and spent a month in the hospital with a couple of weeks in the ICU. (He's okay these days, too.) Our kids were one and four, and we were in Germany, where we hadn't planned to stay beyond a few weeks' vacation. In the weeks leading up to the ICU, when he spent some time hospitalized with related problems, I came to understand what a terrible conflict my mom had faced - knowing your young kids need your care, knowing your spouse needs your support and advocacy. Really, you'd need to be at the hospital 24/7, but you can't do that when you've got sole responsibility for little ones.

But the difference? When my spouse was admitted to the ICU, my mom dropped everything, flew from California to Berlin, and slept on a mattress on the floor in order to stay with my kids. I finally got to be where I was most needed. I remember the tremendous relief I felt, even in the midst of awful fear, at no longer being torn between two conflicting obligations. What the Bear remembers from that time is celebrating his fifth birthday with a cake in the hospital - and his grandma playing a "grammasaurus" at a dino-themed party once his dad finally came home.

And for all of that - as for so many other things - I will always be grateful to my mom.