Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sex in the (Industrializing) City

Figleaf is asking how the heck people managed to have sex in the past in one-room abodes, and how they do it today.
So I'm starting to wonder how much of modern Western sexual progress has coincided with modern Western "bourgeoise" trends in housing.
Historically, many people just had no choice about where and when to do it. In premodern times, people's sensibilities were quite frank, and sex was not nearly as private. The whole notion of "privacy," for that matter, is quite modern. People did try to be somewhat secretive about their activities, which meant that sex would often be rather furtive and fast, but no one expected sex to be wholly hidden.

This changed with the advent of the bourgeoisie and the birth of modern notions of privacy. The more prosperous classes promoted an idea of sexual discretion, and they had enough space to conform to it. Parents and children slept in separate rooms, and the idea of shielding kids from their parents' sex lives became prevalent enough that Freud could write of a child viewing the "primal scene" as a traumatic event.

But space remained at a premium for the poor, and their housing actually grew worse as industrialization advanced and poor people flocked to the cities in hope of work. The urban working class often suffered much worse crowding than rural people did. In 1918, half of the apartments in Berlin, Germany, had just one room. The situation was worse in some other European cities. Poor women commonly rented out (part of) a bed to unrelated tenants, which meant that the family's young daughters might share a bed with a young, unmarried man. About a third of 5000 poor housewives surveyed in Berlin in the early 1930s had sublet arrangements with boarders.

I know a little about this issue from my research on the history of childbirth. As you might imagine, the lack of space and privacy also became an issue at the other end of the pipe, so to speak. A one-room apartment doesn't allow for a hygienic home birth by modern standards. Nor does it facilitate the sort of privacy that doctors and midwives increasingly saw as morally necessary in childbirth. This was a big factor driving women's choice to give birth in hospitals.

The key term here is "bourgeois," both morally and materially. In the 1920s, middle-class housing reformers pushed for better apartments for the poor - not necessarily larger but chopped into fewer rooms - partly because they saw morality endangered by the lack of privacy. This seems to have been a much bigger deal for the middle-class do-gooders than for the working classes, which continued to embrace bawdier morals. (Poor people did want better housing, just not necessarily for the same reasons that reformers saw it as desirable.)

But it's a nice little irony that the birth of privacy, which initially cast sex as something to hide from the world, actually created a space where sex could ultimately become less furtive. Sexual variety needs time and space to flourish, and those buttoned-down reformers inadvertently created just that.

The consequences of privacy for female pleasure are particularly profound, since "fast and furtive" just doesn’t cut it for most of us women, most of the time. In addition, young women had more sexual autonomy when they didn't have to fend off the advances of a tenant; the reformers were right that such tenants could pose a threat to women's bodily integrity. So even if the reformers were interested in protecting women's purity, in the end they did much more to facilitate women's sexual self-determination.

I'm still left wondering how people cope in Tokyo or Moscow, as figleaf asks. Many of them still live in conditions similar to early-twentieth-century crowding, with whole families in a single room, but they're subject to modern ideas about privacy and sexual propriety. I'd be very curious to know how they manage the resulting clash.

Breast and Prostate Cancer: Build the Pie Higher

Photo by Flickr user ILoveButter, used under a Creative Commons license.

I've previously lamented the tendency for prostate cancer and breast cancer to be pitted against each other. It's understandable - and completely appropriate - that prostate cancer sufferers would resent the miserly treatment of their disease when it comes to both research and treatment. Considering that one in five American men will get the disease and that current treatments typically leave men with an unacceptable side effect - permanent erectile dysfunction - it's disgracefully underfunded.

The solution, though, is not for the two diseases to compete for the same scarce resources. We shouldn't view this as a zero-sum game. Men afflicted by prostate cancer, and their partners who lives are also deeply affected, need to build a strong lobby. There are millions of prostate cancer survivors in the United States alone, yet the petition to increase government spending on it has not even gathered 10,000 signatures. (So go here and sign it!)

Another possible tactic is for the prostate and breast cancer lobbies to join hands. They're natural allies. While I don't want to deny the obvious differences between them, the similarities between these two cancers are also pretty striking. Both diseases were once too taboo to discuss (and to a great extent, that's still true for prostate cancer). Both are extremely common diseases. Both strike mostly older people but also a very significant number of people in midlife. And both intrude cruelly on people's sexuality, albeit in substantially different ways.

Now comes a small but significant scientific breakthrough that shows there's even an affinity on the biological level, as well:
A faulty gene closely associated with breast cancer is also responsible for a particularly dangerous form of prostate cancer, research has confirmed.

A University of Toronto team found prostate cancer patients carrying the BRCA2 gene lived on average for four years after diagnosis.

The average survival time for a man with prostate cancer is 12 years. ...

The latest study - based on 301 patients - examined two closely related faulty genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, both of which greatly increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, and are linked to ovarian cancer.

Both genes cut average survival times in men with prostate cancer who carried them - for men carrying BRCA1 the average survival time was eight years after diagnosis.

BRCA2 has already been linked to deadly prostate cancer, with an Icelandic study recording an average survival time among prostate cancer patients carrying the gene of just 2.1 years. ...

Lead researcher Dr Steven Narod said: "We know that carrying a faulty BRCA2 gene increases a man's risk of getting prostate cancer, and our study shows that it also affects how long he will survive a diagnosis of the disease."

(Source: BBC News)
I don't know why this would be so; I'm not an expert, and it seems like even the real experts don't understand the mechanisms. It's intriguing that the BRCA2 mutation is the nastier of the two in prostate cancer, while BRCA1 is worse when it comes to breast cancer.

But on the policy level, there might be some real synergies in funding further research into these mutations. One of the fascinating trends in cancer research is that we're beginning to recognize how many different flavors a "single" disease such as breast cancer can have, depending on whether it's estrogen-sensitive, HER-positive, etc. At the same time, scientists are finding cross-linkages between apparently disparate forms of cancer, as this BRCA study shows.

So instead of fighting over an ostensibly limited pie, I'd love to see the boys and girls together and lobby jointly to "build the pie higher," to quote one of the best Bushisms ever.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Wages of Sex, According to Rod Parsley

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Rod Parsley’s world-domination enterprise, aka his “church,” has established an anti-abortion counseling center in Columbus, located conveniently just across from a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Parsley's center looks like a doctor's office, though there is just one medical professional employed there, a registered nurse. Other nurses and doctors will volunteer their services there, [director Debbie] Stacy said. …

It will offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to encourage women to give birth, Stacy said. It also will make referrals for other medical services, but not for abortions.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
This is nothing new, of course. Such “crisis pregnancy centers” exist all over the United States. But the Dispatch report offered this one truly telling detail:
Inside, women will find a portable ultrasound machine and pamphlets about sexually transmitted infections, RU-486, sometimes called the "abortion pill," and how to say no to unwanted sex. The reading material all focuses on abstinence. The center does not distribute information about birth control.
(my emphasis)
And this too, is nothing new. It's just one more piece of proof that for doctrinaire opponents of reproductive justice, the point is not saving "unborn lives." It's making sure that if you do indulge in sex, you'll be penalized for it - with a baby.

I'm sure the resulting babies will be thrilled to know that they were their mom's punishment for bonking without a license.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Men in the WS Classroom, Part 2: The Guys' Views

So I’ve already explained why I welcome men taking my women’s and gender studies classes, and why I’m glad they’re no longer a teensy minority. But my more interesting contribution to the NWSA panel on men in the WS classroom came not from me, but from the guys themselves.

I’ll readily admit that this was probably the most unscientific survey ever. I asked a number of my former male students for their views on the opportunities and difficulties for men in women’s studies. I emailed a bunch of guys who did well in my classes because I wanted bright, thoughtful, informed opinions. They did well partly because they seemed to enjoy the class, and they enjoyed the class partly because they did well in it. So, in other words, I totally cherry-picked my sample.

The guys’ comments covered three main themes: experience, marginalization, and gender. Though they addressed the classroom situation, I think their responses are valuable to anyone interested in men’s relation to feminism (and not just in academia).

Experience is a central category for women’s studies. It’s the foundation for both the academic field and feminist activism. But experience is a vexed category for my male students. They believe they can’t enter into women’s lived experience, so they may feel shut out of the discussion or alienated from the course material. Some men react to personal essays on the syllabus as being less scientific than other academic material, and thus less convincing or authoritative. Many men are less comfortable than women when it comes to “body talk,” and this has broad ramifications for their classroom situation. One student in a mid-level class on “gendered bodies” with only about 20 percent men wrote:
I just felt awkward commenting on certain issues knowing that 75% of the class were women. Sometimes I would feel embarrassed, and others I felt like I might offend someone. For example, I just didn't feel comfortable commenting on male sexual insecurity knowing that most of the people listening are of the opposite sex. However, I know there's not really much you can do about that until more guys sign up for the class.
But encountering strange experiences can have a huge upside as well. Open-minded individuals can learn a lot from new and unfamiliar perspectives (and I assume that the women in my classes learn equally from the men). Best of all, exchanging experiences can spark empathy, which - as Patricia Hill Collins and others have argued - is the necessary basis for building alliances:
I felt this was a very useful class for learning future skills for how to be a better husband and parent and just a more considerate person to others. … It just makes guys think a little about what others feel, and it helped me, in particular, understand why women sometimes act the way they do in certain situations. (Here, I'm thinking about our discussions about walking on campus at night and related topics.) is very useful, and I think that it makes guys into better people to learn how the girls feel about things.
A discussion format, my students agreed, is essential to this process. I don’t lecture more than I absolutely have to, but even so, these guys reminded me that there are times when the instructor just needs to make room for the students’ dialogue:
I do not see any problems with men being in women studies courses, instead just the opposite. This is good for both women and men in the classroom because they offer each other the opposite sex’s opinions and thoughts where they wouldn’t receive anywhere else outside the classroom to gain a better understanding of each other.
One wrinkle in this, of course, is that the desire for discussion can collide with men’s sense of marginalization. If the men feel too alienated, it can shut down discussion even if they’re not hiding behind a trenchcoat or baseball cap. Typically, men enter the classroom on the first day feeling nervous that the women will pounce on them. I suspect it’s the men of good will who fret most about this:
I think the main problem for men is just a worry that it's going to be the stereotype that people try to put on it ... that all of the women will gang up on the guys, and they will be in a hostile environment where they don't feel like they can learn. I obviously can't speak for all Women's Studies classes, but it was clearly not the case in our class. I guess I was very careful about what I said, though, because I did not want to put myself in a situation where I was saying something that would unintentionally be seen as insulting to the majority of the class.
But a sense of marginalization can also be a valuable experience if someone has rarely been in that position; it too can create empathy. It can help relatively privileged individuals get a taste of what their world would be like, were they much less privileged. This is something I think I need to spend more time addressing explicitly in class.

So dealing with marginalization as tricking. Male students see the instructor’s stance as decisive in whether they will speak freely. But when does this go too far? I get compliments on not being a feminazi. But on the flip side, I think it’s also possible to be too conciliatory, watering down the material and failing to challenge my students.

Two keys to striking a balance seem to be respect and humor. At least, these are themes the guys mentioned repeatedly. One commented:
Both of you [me and a colleague of mine] were very inviting and non-judgmental, and I felt comfortable participating in most of the discussions. Also, neither of you were afraid to crack a joke, and laughter definitely helps alleviate some of the tension that comes with many of those topics. All in all, both of you made me feel like a valued part of the class rather than someone to be criticized.
Pardon me if I’m seemingly tooting my horn by quoting this; I’m sure I also have former students who’d beg to differ. But the point is that when the classroom dynamics work well, both respect and humor have to be part of the mix.

Finally, male students appreciate a broad focus on gender and not just on women. I’m convinced this is good for everyone. You can’t hope to understand femininity as a social construct unless you devote roughly equal time to masculinity. This is something I’m already committed to, but it’s good to be reminded:
It really seems like there are three types of guys that take Women's Studies. The first type is a guy that thinks maybe he'll learn something new and understand people better after it, the second is a guy that thinks the class will be funny and controversial and wants to see if there are any crazy women to make fun of, and the third is someone who just fit it into their schedule. So ... I guess you can't do much about that second group, and the first group just needs to find a couple worthwhile things to make them think the class is worth it. The third group seems like the one that should be a focus. If somehow you can figure out a way to make them feel the class was worthwhile, then more guys will recommend it to others and it will grow. How do you do that? It's tough to tell. I feel Women's Studies is on the right path, though. For a class that was probably started by focusing on the female struggle, there really is a strong focus on men's problem, such as gender, stereotypes and parenting.
Agreed, that WS instructors and feminists in general shouldn’t just be preaching to the choir. And yet, I’m actually really interested in that first group, too: the guys that start off open-minded. I think they bring the most to the classroom, and they stand to gain the most from the course.

I have a feeling that all the men who generously responded to my informal little survey fell into that first group from day one, and I’m grateful for their feedback, advice, criticism, and appreciation. (So thanks, guys!) They are proof positive that the opportunities opened by including men in the classroom far outweigh the greater complexity in guiding classroom dynamics. For them, taking a course women’s studies is rapidly becoming a totally “normal” thing to do. And so I’ll let one of the guys have the final word (but I happen to agree with him completely):
Women[‘s] studies is just like another school subject such as history or math and broadening anyone’s knowledge in this area is a good thing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Face in the Mirror and the Origami of Time

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

I don’t think I’m an exceptionally vain person, but I’m also not immune to wanting to look younger than I actually am. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of time leaving its tracks on my face. This happened most memorably a couple years ago when I was rushing between classes and was ambushed by the view in a bathroom mirror. Looking sidelong, I thought: oh my goodness, it’s my grandma!

Now, matters could be worse. Yes, it’s true that my dad’s mother got rather jowly late in life, not quite Nixon-esque but still quite noticable, and I see the contours of that future in my own chin. Yes, her eyelids sagged by the time she was in her eighties, and instead of getting them fixed, she held them in place with tape. (Why she never pursued surgery remains a mystery.)

But Grandma also remained vibrant and attractive well into her middle years. She adored being the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota. Virtually the only woman on the scene, she basked in the admiration of all those men. Incipient jowls apparently didn’t deter them. And conversely, she appreciated an attractive man well into her nineties, pretty much up to the point when she lost her marbles.

So yes, things could be a whole lot worse. And yet, when I read this passage in a Stephen McCauley novel a few days ago, I thought, whoa, he got it exactly right:
I was barely awake when the doorbell rang at eleven the next morning. I glanced in my bureau mirror on my way to the stairs, amazed at how increasingly unkind sleep was as I got older, as if someone came in every night to practice origami on my face while I slept.
(Stephen McCauley, The Man of the House, 140.)
McCauley is recounting the very particular woes of a gay man around 40 who’s single but would prefer to be paired. But even if you’re not hunting for a mate, that morning tracery can be merciless. My one really noticeable wrinkle is a line near my jaw where I know my chin gets squished against the pillow. I suppose I could sleep on my back, but then I’d never sleep, and that wouldn’t exactly enhance my looks, either.

This isn't just vanity. It's also not merely a slavish response to the beauty ideal, as a unidimensional feminist analysis might suggest. It's partly a fear of mortality. It's also anxiety - as McCauley's anti-hero displays - that no one will want to have sex with you beyond a certain point of decrepitude.

Most interestingly, it's a sense of alienation from oneself, as philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers has argued. In her book Gender in the Mirror, Meyers says when we look at our aging selves in the mirror, we no longer see our familiar, long-known selves. Our face appears as "not-self." It's no longer the image that is invested with and in our relationships. In this interpretation, the desire to look younger, be it through surgery, cosmetics, or merely the approving eyes of another, is an effort to recover what we perceive as our true selves.

Meyers presents this as a gendered phenomenon. It's true that women's social worth is still bound up with our appearance more than men's. I think Meyers may also be right that women's aging faces become a sort of proxy for everyone's horror of mortality. This was likely one strike against Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign.

But that loss of the familiar self is not necessarily gendered. The face with origami folds - and the resulting sense of unfamiliarity - can be male just as easily as female.

In some ways, recognizing myself as my grandma was a moment of pure alienation and unfamiliarity. I literally saw someone other than myself in the mirror. But if I have to morph into someone else, I could do worse. When Grandma died, she was just a few days short of 103. So if I get her jowls, I’ll hope to inherit her robustness, too. Certainly I got my ornery streak partly from her. But I promise: If my eyelids start to sag, I will get them fixed.

McCain on His Wife Cindy: Rhymes with Punt

I wasn't going to post this because I thought it's redundant. I believed everyone I know had already heard about the misogynist slur Senator McCain spewed - years ago - not against a female political opponent but against his own wife. In public. After Cindy McCain's wealth financed his budding political career.

How wrong I was. Although such blogtopic luminaries as The Political Cat have reported on this story, not a single one of my colleagues had heard about it. Nor had my mate.

And so I am going to breach the usual standard of Kittywampus decorum (low as that standard may be) and post a really rude (but searingly funny) video on what McCain thinks of his wife. Or at least how he speaks of her. (Did I mention this was in public? In front of reporters?)

First he called her a trollop for wearing too much makeup. And then he called her ... well, watch the video:

Yeah, it rhymes with "punt," Which is what McCain would've done here with his political career, if he weren't a conservative and thus above moral reproach, by definition, no matter what he actually does.

I'm all for reclaiming and defanging nasty words. Somehow, I don't think that was McCain's intent. This story needs to reach every woman who's even flirted with voting for McCain.

And y'know, it's not just the misogyny that troubles me. It's the lack of self-control. It's the inability to edit one's public ejaculations. What if the next woman he graces with a similar epithet is not Cindy McCain but, say, Angela Merkel?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Paradox of Men in Women’s Studies

Now that I’m done conferencing (though still on the road), you can expect a few posts on my mental fallout from the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting. The presentations I enjoyed at the Berks were stronger, on the whole, but the NWSA still got me thinking.

My own panel at the NWSA addressed the question of men in the classroom. I was part of this discussion because my university has relatively robust enrollments of men in our women’s and gender studies classes, thanks to a business school requirement that funnels lots of male undergrads in our direction.

Let me just say I really like having men in the classroom. I think it adds a dimension to the discussion that wouldn’t otherwise be present. I recognize that there’s a trade-off: in an all-female space, women will talk more freely about certain issues than with men present. But all it takes is one male to completely change the dynamic - without, however, much immediate gain.

So here’s the paradox: If a classroom is going to be mixed-gender, you’re much better off teaching a bunch of men, not just a token or two.

In my own student days, WS classes tended to be all-female, and any man who ventured to join us was probably on a quest to understand his own non-normative sexuality. He was likely gay or bi or questioning. By the time I taught my first WS in 2002, this was starting to change. I had two male students, both evidently heterosexual, neither quite sure why he was there. One was bright but hid behind his baseball cap, too shy to speak. The other wore a trenchcoat and expressed a certain sympathy for the Columbine shooters.

By now my colleagues and I commonly have 30 to 40 percent men in our courses. This is terrific in that men no longer feel like they’re mere tokens; they’re much more likely to speak up. It’s a great opportunity to broaden the discussion, in my view, and to widen people’s horizons. By this I don’t mean that I get to indoctrinate the guys; try that, and you’ve lost them on day one. The same is just as true for the women, by the way. But I do believe that good ideas will tend to win people over at the end of the day.

Above 35 to 40 percent, the men can actually start to dominate the conversation, so this can be a mixed blessing, as one of my fellow panelists observed. At his university, however, the WS classes are bristling with football players! I have to admit I’m grateful that I don’t get classes where a full third of the students play on the same team, sit in the same corner, and disrupt the conversation. Yikes! I’m glad I’m not dealing with big blocs of jocks. But another presenter who spoke about this sees it as an opportunity to reach the macho guys and maybe help reduce sexual violence, and so she deals with the discipline issues by working with the coaches.

So the emerging women’s studies classroom is a far cry from the all-female environments that early feminists nurtured and Mary Daly famously decreed. Myself, I’ll gladly deal with the difficulty of balancing male and female participation in exchange for change to discuss not just women but men – and thus gender as a relational system.

Not least, when men reach a certain critical mass, they challenge each other, they take the class more seriously, and they turn in better work. A few years ago, I still saw some serious slackerdom among the men; now, they're performing just as well as the gals. And that makes my job a whole lot more fun.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Flakiness Alert

My little globetrotter self is off on another trip, this time just for fun. I'll be visiting family in Northern California for the next two weeks. I'll try to post when I can; I still have lots to say about all the thoughts swirling in my head after my last conference. But if I go a day or two without posts, just know it's because my mom's house is equipped with a dialup connection of the sort we all enjoyed back in 1999.

In the meantime, enjoy my giant allium, which finished blooming a couple of weeks ago already.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More Berks: Reflections on Writing Body History

Along with learning heaps from other people at the Berks, I also had a chance to talk about my own work in a conference seminar called “What is the history of the body?” We pre-circulated the papers and then used the conference time to explore their overlapping themes, which allowed discussion to go both wider and deeper than at an ordinary conference panel. The papers ranged from Heather Munro Prescott’s research on students fighting for birth control and other health services in the 1960s to Jessica Luther’s explication of alchemists’ attempts to quite literally incarnate themselves as men with wombs: hermaphrodites who embodied both “male” creativity and “female” generativity.

My own paper, which I mentioned here when it was still a bundle of semi-formed ideas, was a theoretical piece on the relationship between discourses that shape bodies and actual lived, embodied experiences. I won’t try to rehash it all here, because it’s an adventure in scary theory; anyone who wants to know more about it should email me. Instead, I’d like to muse on the themes I addressed in my oral presentation for the seminar.

Writing my seminar paper pushed me to reflect on why I was drawn to the history of the body in the first place. And as I thought about this, I realized that even as historians or other scholars write the stories of others’ embodied experiences, our own experiences remain at an Olympic height. Yet clearly those experiences are bound to affect our ideas and interpretations. So it makes sense to turn a critical gaze back upon our own experiential motivations for studying the history of the body and ask how they may reveal some systematic biases and blind spots. My guinea pig for this was the test case I know best - myself - but with the idea that my own experiences and agendas may point to some broader themes and concerns. (And yes, this is more navel-gazing than I’ve ever done in an academic venue.)

I first got interested in the history of the body in the late 1980s when I realized that it offered fresh insights into areas that were already long-standing interests of mine: sexuality, motherhood, medicine, and power. When I embarked on researching experiences of pregnancy and childbirth for my dissertation, I was very excited about two books that had just come out: Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction and Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin. I was fascinated by the broad range of embodied experiences that their work depicted. While they both focused almost entirely on women’s bodies and experiences, they also illuminated broader themes in the human condition, which are often though not always gendered – particularly, how power relations within a society are reflected and contested in experiences that result from the interaction of culture and biology. This basically anthropological lens was exhilarating to me both intellectually and politically; it seemed to mesh well with Foucault and feminism, which were the two main avenues for my thinking about power. To this day, I think that the project of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange (to echo anthropologist Roy Grinker’s phrasing in Unstrange Minds) remains a powerful tool for historians of the body. (Jessica’s paper for the seminar did just that impressively.)

But looking back, I can see that it wasn’t just intellectual excitement. I had other, more personal agendas in play, which I think also have a shared, generational basis. One reason the history of the body resonated with me is that it meshed with my post-hippie youth. My friends and I were ferociously hungry for all sorts of experience, much of which engaged the body. I was younger than the students Heather studied, but in the early 1980s I knew a guy who took acid every Thursday and went wandering in California’s coastal hills; he called it his tripping day. I wasn’t anywhere near that dedicated or foolhardy about pushing the limits of embodied experience, but I did go to a lot of Grateful Dead shows and some of what transpired there might be difficult to explain when I run for President someday.

Boiling it down to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” might oversimplify it, and yet that not-so-holy trinity absolutely foregrounded embodied experience. Unlike earlier generations of young people, who surely took their own risks, we thought specifically about “experience” as something that was desirable, that we hungered for. This was a motivator for the students Heather studied. It was also an influence on some of us future historians of the body. I realize not everyone who came of age from the late 1960s through the early ‘80s had equivalent experiences, yet it was part of the Zeitgeist. Whether you embraced and pursued experience for its own sake or consciously rejected it, you could hardly avoid taking a position.

So the first question that this examination of my own “experience of experience” raises is how these sorts of experiences have shaped our research agendas in ways that we haven’t necessarily examined. Namely: Have they created a presumption that the body is somehow a privileged site for the workings of liberation and repression, freedom and social control, and can this presumption be sustained? (One influence on my thinking about this - along with a slew of academic stuff - was a discussion along these lines involving figleaf, Kochanie, and others.)

My paper for the seminar argued that this is indeed the case, that the often-unexamined character of embodied experience makes such experience particularly potent. I’m generally convinced that this is true, and yet I’ll also readily admit that it’s very hard to ground this assumption. That’s why I think in the end it should be regarded as a hypothesis – one that has to be proven and re-proven empirically to fit with the available evidence, in an iterative process. (My seminar paper went into this iterative idea in more depth. Jessica’s paper actually did this, quite beautifully, and I tried to do it as well in my dissertation.) Sometimes, though, the evidence may show that in a given set of circumstances, the presumption doesn’t hold much water or obscures more than it explains.

A second area where I see my embodied experience affecting the history I write – often in ways that may remain preconscious or only dimly perceived – is through the interaction of the writing process with my own embodiment. Here, too, I don’t think I’m alone, but I’ll speak for myself and you can let me know if it makes sense. Most often, this takes form as a process of effacement of the body while writing. A relatively trivial example, one I’m sure most of you have shared, is when we try to ignore a headache or backache while in order to focus on the work. Many people deal with chronic pain and their work would come to a halt if they didn’t tune out their discomfort.

But when I do this - when I tune out my body while writing - I re-enact Cartesian dualism. Ironically, my seminar paper was in part an argument against splitting our selves into body and mind. So a second set of questions would be: How does this act of bracketing out my own body affect the kind of body history I write? Does this habit of effacement create blind spots, and if so, how do I rout them out?

But simple effacement is not the only possibility here. An example of embodied experience more specific to my own work was my changing relation to childbirth between starting and completing my dissertation. When I embarked on my project, a number of women scholars – mothers, one and all – told me I really couldn’t write about pregnancy and childbirth without having experienced them myself. Mindful of Barbara Duden’s warning against using our bodies as a bridge to the past (and just plain ornery), I was determined to prove them wrong.

As it turned out, I had my first baby while in the midst of writing chapters on hospital birth and the emotional import of pregnancy. In my panic at the thought that I might never focus properly again, I became the queen of effacing my body. Someone might be kicking up a storm in my belly, but I tried my darnedest to ignore everything below my neck. Or so I thought.

My perspective on this changed radically when I began revising the manuscript and I realized how my own childbearing experience hadn’t necessarily created a bridge to the past but it had thrown into question some of the present-day dogma that I’d absorbed about childbearing. For instance, the now-current notion that pregnancy is basically healthy and not pathological had blunted my empathy and understanding of the physical challenges women have faced in performing their jobs and housework while pregnant. I had to experience morning sickness and deep exhaustion for myself before I recognized my own blind spot.

My third and final question would thus be: How can we use our own embodiment to write better, more perceptive, more empathetic histories without falling prey to the assumption that our body can serve as a simple bridge? Quite possibly, this question can only be answered in specific contexts, looking at our own experiences and how they may overlap – or not – with the kinds of experiences we’re studying.

I’ve used my own experiences as a starting point here, because I didn’t want to be presumptuous. I can’t speak directly for other writers’ and scholars’ experiences. And yet, judging from audience reaction at the seminar, I don’t think either my experiences or their implications are limited to me.

Similarly, I’ve laid out these thoughts from a historian’s perspective, but I think they may apply to at least some aspects of blogging. Most of us who don’t write strictly political blogs deal with personal experiences in one form or another. Sometimes those experiences are our own; sometimes they belong to other people; sometimes they’re shared property, so to speak. What sorts of assumptions about experience are lurking in the background as we blog about experiential stuff?

If you’ve stuck with me through all of this, I’d love to hear if any of these thoughts resonated with you.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Oh Joy! My 'Winger State Senator Defends the Flag

Photo by Flickr user cobalt123, used under a Creative Commons license.

My, I'm glad my state senator has her priorities straight. State Senator Joy Padgett's latest newsletter reports:
Padgett fights to end sale of foreign-made American flags

Senator Padgett recently introduced Senate Bill 316, legislation that would prohibit Ohio retailers from selling Ohio and American Flags that were not manufactured in the United States.

"The American flag is known throughout the world as a symbol of freedom and democracy," said Padgett. "Unfortunately, not only are our flags being manufactured outside of the United States, but a large number of foreign-made American flags come from China. The thought that the very symbol representing freedom from oppression could be made by a child worker in a sweatshop earning pennies a day is, to me, reprehensible."

SB 316 would make the retail sale of a foreign-made American or Ohio flag a third degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

(No link available, the newsletter came to me via snailmail.)
Sure, any reasonable person would conclude that we have a balance of trade problem, and that China is a big part of it. But I think redressing it will take more than just regulating the import of flags - to Ohio.

And of course Padgett is right that child labor is an issue. But since when is it unique to the manufacture of flags? Why doesn't she include sneakers or soccer balls if this isn't just pseudo-patriotic grandstanding?

Padgett is no newcomer to hypocrisy. This is the same vile politician who in her 2004 campaign for the state senate accused her Democratic opponent, Terry Anderson, of being anti-American and cozy with terrorists. A campaign flyer depicted Anderson meeting with a leader of Hezbollah.

Anderson is the former AP journalist who was held captive in Lebanon from 1985 to 1991, longer than any of the other hostages. His captors? Hezbollah.

Padgett won that race. We're still stuck with her.

That's why Padgett's newfound compassion for exploited children rings just a tad hollow.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What I Learned at the Berks

Earlier I promised I'd post about the coolest things I learned at this year's Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, and now I'm already at my next gig, the National Women's Studies Association annual meeting in Cincinnati. My ordinary weekend travels usually don't take me any farther than my local farmer's market, so I'm a bit disoriented to be on the road so much. I feel like a character in a David Lodge novel.

But before I forget all I learned, I'd like to take a quick romp through the Berk highlights of the Berks. It's probably skewed and idiosyncratic since I mostly sat in on panels related to bodies, reproduction, and sexuality. And I make no claim to fully represent the presenters' arguments. This is a rundown of ideas that I thought were way cool. (Presenters' names are in parentheses.)
  • Contraception among native Canadian communities was, well, a community affair, and not just up to individuals. Unpublished notes by white Canadian anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s show that there were indeed individual actions one could take, such as bathing in the creek or nursing one's baby to prevent conception. But many of the medicine women's prescriptions triggered social surveillance. A woman might be advised to wear an otterskin bracelet dring the new moon or to paint her face red and her belly yellow. While my immediate reaction was, "Oh, interesting varieties of magical thinking," that's far from the whole story. Such visible tactics signaled that the community would be watching to see whether that woman became pregnant - and her husband was well aware of this. Unlike many modern nations where low birth rates have inspired pronatalist policies, these Plains tribes collectively wanted to regulate their family size because too many babies would restrict the group's mobility. (Kristin Burnett)
  • If you follow media reporting on evolutionary psychology, you might image that Darwinian theory and feminism have always been implacable enemies. That just ain't so. Early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton embraced the theory of evolution because it offered a chance to rewrite Genesis. If Eve is the mother of humanity and the source of all sin and suffering, and if the serpent picked on her because he knew she was inherently weaker than Adam, it's hard to make a case for women's full equality. By embracing evolution, Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others could argue that Eve wasn't simply derivative from Adam; because Eve came after Adam, she must actually be a higher life form! However, few of these early feminists advocated jettisoning religion altogether. They just argued for a more nuanced, less literalist reading of the Genesis story. (Kimberly Hamlin)
  • It wasn't news to me that early American feminists also generally embraced eugenics and saw planned mating and breeding as a progressive force. (And this, despite Francis Galton's contention that eugenics was "a particularly virile creed.") What did surprise me was how adamantly American conservatives rejected eugenics. Today, neo-eugenic ideas such as Depo-Provera shots for the poor tend to be held by conservatives and racists. In early twentieth century Europe, left-wing and feminist reformers advocated eugenic programs, but so did many on the right, albeit with much stronger racist overtones. So I was surprised to hear that American conservatives accused feminists of treating men like livestock and of simply demanding too much of men. Press coverage of early women who became single mothers by choice insinuated that some women wanted to render men unnecessary altogether - anticipating Maureen Dowd by decades, I might add. (Susan Rensing)
  • Wet nursing, a common practice in fifteenth-century Valencia, was tangled up in contradictory ideas about maternal duty and the balance of power between fathers and biological mothers. Contracts were struck between fathers and wet nurses that seemed to leave birth mothers out of the loop altogether. And yet, birth mothers exercised power in a variety of ways. In one case that landed in court, a birth mother named Lucretia - the concubine of a Dominican friar - claimed she'd been under contract to nurse her infant but gotten stiffed of her fees. Because the law held that if you fed your baby out of maternal love or piety you couldn't be paid for it, Lucretia had to argue, perversely, that she had no maternal feeling for the child whatsoever. In a second case, a widow named Isabella sued the executor of her dead husband's estate when he refused to fork over the fees for a wet nurse even though two surgeons and a midwife had certified her unable to breastfeed due to inverted nipples. She tried all manner of tricks: poultices made of chard, ointment, cupping glasses, and a technique called "opening" that I think I'd prefer not to explore further. The court ruled for Isabella, showing that mothers could hold their own in legal affairs and effectively defend the interests of their children. (Debra Blumenthal)
  • Conventional wisdom holds that since at least ancient Greece, women's bodies were historically regarded as inferior and the male body as the healthy norm. This story turns out to be more complicated, though. A set of widely circulated broadsides sixteenth-century Germany depicted the female body as the norm. These anatomical pictures featured a lift-the-flap design, though not the transparent overlays that so fascinated me in the encyclopedia when I was a little girl. The female figure showed a small baby (not a fetus) inside the uterus. It also featured ducts running from the uterus to the nipples, reflecting the theory that menstrual blood nurtured the "fruit" during pregnancy and then transformed into breastmilk once the baby was born. The text alongside the diagrams describes the male figure as lacking a womb. Male spermatic vessels are said to be like the female spermatic vessels (that is, the ovaries). And most remarkably: the penis merited no discussion whatsoever! (Kathleen Crowther)
  • In contemporary Poland, abortion rights have been progressively restricted since the early 1990s. Like other East-Bloc countries, Poland's Communists had legalized abortion. Between 1956 and 1993, first-trimester abortion was available on demand. Since 1993, women seeking an abortion have had to qualify under one of three possible indications: 1) genetic defects in the fetus, 2) rape or incest as the cause of pregnancy, or 3) health problems on the part of the pregnant woman. These indications are not so very different from the old West German framework. Yet abortion is vanishingly rare in Poland today, with only about 200 legal abortions performed annually. With a population of roughly 38 million, about 10 million of whom are fertile females, this figure is exceptionally low. Of course, it only points to the prevalence of illegal abortion. Even women with legal indications for abortion face insurmountable hurdles. Hospitals refuse to perform them. Women end up in the "abortion underground," where the same physicians who publicly declare themselves "too ethical" to do abortion willingly perform them for high fees! The driving forces behind this are the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the idea that abortion was a Communist holdover, the lack of civil society including a women's movement, and the absence of a discourse on women's rights due to the old law portraying abortion solely as a public health imperative. The result? A fourteen-year-old rape victim was recently denied an abortion. Worse yet, she was taken out of her mother's custody on the presumption that the mother must be coercing the daughter! (Wanda Nowicka)
  • Home pregnancy tests may be not only driving up the rate of recorded miscarriages. They may also be changing the meaning of miscarriage itself for American women today. Instead of waiting for confirmation of pregnancy after missing a period or two, or even waiting for quickening (fetal movements) as women did a century ago, women now use home tests even before they've missed a period. A positive line signals to many women not just that conception has occurred but that "there's a baby" in there. But this sets women up for grief and woe: Of 100 meetings of egg and sperm, 57 never implant (and thus wouldn't result in a positive test). Of the 43 that do implant, 10 miscarry before a doctor would declare the woman pregnant. These are the early pregnancies that home testing often picks up on. Of the 33 that continue, 4 will miscarry "clinically" and 29 will reach full term (give or take a few weeks). Your reporter Sungold exists only because her own mother experienced one of those 10-in-100 events a few months earlier. When she told me that she thought she'd had an "early miscarriage" just before conceiving me, I was incredulous: "What do you mean, you don't know if you were pregnant?" Today, she'd have experienced this as a certain loss, and thus possibly as a more painful one. Indeed, this presentation argued that women now face a cultural imperative to grieve these very early losses irrespective of how they actually feel. (Lara Friedenfels)
And now I'm realizing why I didn't have energy to blog the Berks right after the fact - my brain was still spinning. Now I'm back to the NWSA before I miss out on all the fun there.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I'm So High School

Hmm. All my intellectual pretensions have come to this:

blog readability test

My friend The Smirking Cat qualified as genius-level, and she writes about hockey (among other things). Go figure.

I've written about such esoterica as early medieval restrictions on sex, a critical history of patriarchy, and how women in the FLDS aren't much better off than ancient Babylonian women. I've bloviated about embodied experience and ahistoricism in the history of childbirth. I've rambled on about all manner of obscure medical and scientific ideas, from the health benefits of ejaculation to the link between testosterone and finger length (both of which get lots of Google hits, for some reason, though not quite as many as the Duggan family and their 18 children).

I've flirted with Marx, Irigaray, and Foucault, fer goodness sake. What more does a gal have to do to get dubbed pedantic?

Then again, assuming that the algorithm looks like stuff like sentence length and structure, being decidedly middlebrow might mean that my English hasn't been permanently Germanized. So perhaps I shouldn't be miffed. After all, I don't want my prose to sound like what Mark Twain lampooned in "The Awful German Language." It's bad enough when verbs get split in two in German or pile up at the end of a sentence like a train wreck (as a grad school colleague of mine loved to say). I don't want to start doing it in my mother tongue.

If you run your blog through this little analyzer, let me know in comments if you came out as more or less dumbed-down than Kittywampus!

Jon Stewart on Baracknophobia

Via the Huffington Post, Jon Stewart does a funny takedown of the media's rumor mill and its love affair with "the audacity of fear":

The "lady parts October surprise" would deserve a post of its own, but I've got no time for it. I'm in a hotel room at the National Women's Studies Association meeting and I need to get to my session.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

And Walking Isn't a Medical Necessity, Either

According to Nate Jenkins at the AP, the state of Nebraska has decided that there's no need to help men who are struggling with erectile dysfunction. It already stopped Medicaid payments for Viagra and related drugs when the federal government did the same in 2006. Now it's excluding penile implants from Medicaid coverage as well.

I realize that the very term "penile implant" may have put you into a cringe. But before you close this window on your browser, consider that many men who suffer from erectile dysfunction after treatment for prostate cancer (including radiation as well as surgery) may not get much help from the drugs for erectile dysfunction. The Austin Powers vacuum pump works only for a minority. Their most effective remaining options are to try injections (yes, the needle goes where you think it does) or to undergo penile implant surgery.

These days, implants are inflatable. They're no longer a rigid rod that produces a permanent adolescent erection. The only outwardly visible sign of the implant is a fluid reservoir that apparently resembles a third testicle from close up.

From patient accounts that I've read, the erection resulting from the implant feels natural and pleasurable to both partners. Most of the men who have an implant wonder why they didn't get the surgery sooner. And while I'm not suggesting this should be anything other than a last resort, these guys sometimes brag just a little about how long they can go. Given what they've been through, I'd say they've earned bragging rights.

But apart from the cringe factor, this is what they're up against:
State Medicaid director Vivianne Chaumont said the change is consistent with a federal rule, approved in 2006, that barred the federal government from spending Medicaid dollars on erectile dysfunction drugs including Viagra. Nebraska followed suit a few months later and changed its rules to keep state Medicaid money from being spent on the drugs.

The federal government will still help pay for penile implants in states that choose to continue covering the procedure under their Medicaid plans.

“The decision was made not to cover the drugs, so it’s ... a good idea to have particular procedures for prosthesis not covered as well,” Chaumont said.

Medicaid is meant to pay for the medical necessities of needy people and “sex is not medically necessary,” she said.

(Associated Press via the Lincoln Journal-Star)
Do I even need to enumerate what's wrong with this? For one thing, it'll save small change. Jenkins reports that since 2003, a whopping three Nebraskans on Medicaid have had the surgery and the state's share for all three totaled $11,705.

The ruling is also blatantly sexist. The state Medicaid program covers breast reconstruction, as most private insurers are required to do in accordance with federal law. Where's the difference? Again, from the AP:
Chaumont, who moved to Nebraska about a year ago to take her current position, said she didn’t know why the decision was made to cover breast reconstruction under Nebraska Medicaid but added that it didn’t strike her as unreasonable.

“I don’t think breast cancer has anything to do with sexual dysfunction or sexual impotence,” she said.

Asked why it is important to cover breast reconstruction, she said that doing so “is in line with other insurers.”
I'm always uncomfortable when breast cancer and prostate cancer get pitted against each other. Both deserve adequate - no, generous - funding. It should never be a zero-sum game. And in this case, there's no conceivable reason to cover one but not the other. Breast cancer has effective advocates. Prostate cancer remains largely in the shadows. That's the only real difference.

Note also Chaumont's wholly bureaucratic justification. She has no idea why breast reconstruction is reimbursed! Maybe she implicitly sees breast reconstruction in terms of the politics of appearance and normative femininity. If you're missing a boob, you can't be a real woman. What's worse, if people have to look at your asymmetry, they might be reminded of the artificiality of the beauty ideal, the toll disease can take, and our shared mortality. Not that Chaumont is reflective enough to say any of this.

Of course, men with ED often say they no longer feel like real men. But their losses can be kept safely hidden from the public eye. Everyone else gets to pretend there's nothing wrong.

At bottom, Chaumont is enforcing the idea that sex is optional and probably downright icky or evil. That sex is not for people who are aging or ill (even if an increasing number of prostate cancer patients are in their 40s and 50s). That sex is not a part of mental health. She doesn't give a shit that their partners suffer nearly as much from the loss of marital "delight." But what gave her the right to impose her own anti-sex views on Nebraskans who've had the double bad luck to be both poor and seriously ill?

What's next? Will the state of Nebraska refuse to subsidize walkers or canes on the theory that walking is not a medical necessity? You can stay alive without walking, chewing, seeing, or fucking. And you can survive for decades without using your higher brain functions, including logic and empathy, as Chaumont's decision proves. It seems that even thinking is not a medical necessity.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tuesday Recipe, Part II: The Tiger's Bunny Birthday Cake

This doesn't really count as a recipe, but it was just as yummy as it was silly - the Tiger's cake to celebrate his fifth birthday.

It's Max the bunny from the "Max and Ruby" books by Rosemary Wells. The cake is chocolate from a mix; the frosting is homemade buttercream with a dash of almond extract. I carved Max out of a 9 x 13 rectangle, basically by cutting away everything that wasn't bunny. The Tiger's daddy did most of the face with a little help from me.

The Tiger likes Max. The Tiger also is Max. That stinker-ish glint in the eye is one we know a little too well.

His actual birthday is still two days from now but we had to celebrate early because I'll be out of town (sniffle). I don't really expect he'll grow out of his mischief between now and then. But I do know that a lot happens in the sixth year of life, and by a year from now, he'll be a whole lot more civilized. I'd better stop now before I get all maudlin about how my baby is about to leave his early childhood behind.

Tuesday Recipe: Bright Lights Chard with Raisins and Pine Nuts

This is an adapted recipe that comes from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. The original used spinach. The pictures below are all mine.

First, sometime in April, you plant Bright Lights chard seeds about a half-inch deep in a bed tilled with lots of compost and manure. Chard is easy to grow - except for last season, when I thought rabbits were eating it but was puzzled at why bunnies would systematically eat only the large leaves and leave a smooth edge where the stem began. It turned out a homeless person was living in a nearby empty house. That's why the "bunny" was so clever.

Anyway, a couple of weeks after germination, you thin it to about a six-inch spacing in every direction because chard is a beet relative and sprouts more than one plant per seed. You feed it organically, which here just meant leaving it alone because the bed was rich. You keep it watered until its tap roots are well established. It probably doesn't hurt to just generally love on it and tell it that it's beautiful.

And then, about six weeks after planting, it looks like this:

You'll notice the jungle features lots of volunteer clover, left to flourish while I do battle with the crab grass at the back of the bed. It'll grow larger and last until the very end of the season. Unlike spinach, chard won't bolt or turn bitter in the heat. I've had it survive until nearly Christmas. Since it's biennial, it will come back in the spring if we get even a slightly merciful winter.

Up close, you can see some of the color variations. For some reasons, red is predominating in my patch, though I do have some yellow, white, and pink.

When you're ready to start cooking, you cut off just the big outer leaves with a sharp paring knife so you can harvest more later. You wash them, enjoying the absence of aphids, leafminers, or other pests - so far I've been lucky this year.

Here's the chard displaying its finery before cooking fades it:

And here's what all you'll need to finish the job:

About 2 pounds of chard (you can sometimes buy Bright Lights at the grocery store, but any chard will do)
3 T. raisins (I use a bit more)
3 T. pine nuts (I use a lot more)
3 garlic cloves, sliced thinly (I usually quarter them first)
1/4 cup olive oil (I use less)

I put the pine nuts in the oven at 400 degrees to roast for about 5 minutes; you could also sauté them with the garlic in some olive oil in a non-stick pan (I use a wok). Either way, you want both to be golden. While doing this, I let the stems of the chard boil or steam for a few minutes until tender and let the raisins plump up in hot water. Once the garlic is light gold, the chard leaves can be added. Stir them on medium-high until they're wilted to your satisfaction. Add everything else, including salt and pepper to taste, and give it a few more stirs. Add more olive oil if desired (I didn't).

And here's what you've got. Yum! I used to make this a lot during the 1990s, before kids, while I was still living in Berlin and white chard (Mangold) was ubiquitous. Last night, even the Bear enjoyed it, and I wondered why I ever stopped making it regularly.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Pass the Bear Test as a Mama

Well, here's the consolation for being a disaster as a 1930s housewife: I got the Bear's highest rating when I arrived home last night. Still sleepy from the ride to the airport, he informed me, "Mama, you get an A plus plus. And Daddy gets an A plus plus."

That's an A++. My students should be so lucky to get a grade like that from me - ever!

Okay, I'd just increased my market value by going out of town for a few days, but even so: I marvel at how forgiving my children are. I marvel at how they are thriving with their imperfect but (apparently) good-enough mother. I have so many moments where I'm impatient or distracted or just worn thin by their squabbling. And yet, at the core, they know how much I love them, and I know how much they love me.

Yet another of my mate's roses.

Feminist Blogrolling Bonanza

At the Berkshire Conference this weekend (which was outstanding; more on it later) I got to catch up with one of my grad school compatriots, Heather Munro Prescott, who blogs at Knitting Clio. By happy coincidence, we were even on same panel. I also had the pleasure of meeting Historiann, whose blog I've also been reading since I discovered it a couple months ago. Seeing them both was the kick in the butt I needed to add them both to my blogroll.

And while I was at it, I also added:
  • Sally at Jump off the Bridge, who's got a new-ish blog with a clever mix of feminism and other stuff that tickles her curiosity - not so different from the Kittywampus concept, some to think of it.
  • Lynn Alexander, whose eclectic writing I've enjoyed since she stopped by here a few weeks ago.
  • And Natalia Antonova, who combines entertaining and original insights with the occasional link to "beautiful men" - such as her highlights from the 2008 European soccer championship. (And no, that link won't take you to the handsomest goals.)
Go say hi - and enjoy!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sungold, the 1930s Housewife? Oh-oh!

I found this quiz via Sally at Jump off the Bridge (who scored even lower than I - should I be ashamed of myself?). I can't vouch for its authenticity but the gist of it definitely hits the right tone. (Guys, you don't get off scot-free. There's a version for husbands, too.)


As a 1930s wife, I am

Take the test!

Here are a few of my many failings as a 1930s Hausfrau:
  • Doesn't want to get up to prepare breakfast. (But does it anyway, churlishly, which I think docked me another point, too, along with not being properly dressed for the occasion.)
  • Eats onions, radishes, or garlic before a date or going to bed. (C'mon! Onion and garlic are two basic food groups.)
  • Fails to sew on buttons or darn socks regularly. (I do the occasional button. But - darn it! - that's all.)
  • Gives husband shampoo or manicure. (No, but come to think of it, the shampoo idea could be fun ...)
  • Neat housekeeper--tidy and clean. (I do just enough to keep the health department at bay.)
  • Puts her cold feet on husband at night to warm them. (Who else am I supposed to warm them on?)
  • Saves punishment of children for father at night. (I'm not quite sure what the right answer is here ... but I think the 1930s housewife was supposed to defer to the father's authority. My kids would've long forgotten their offense by then.)
  • Squeezes tooth paste at the top. (And wouldn't want to marry anyone anal enough to call that a dealbreaker.)
  • Tells risque or vulgar stories. (Worse yet, occasionally posts them on the Internet.)
  • Wears red nail polish. (On my toenails, which must count as doubly improper.)
I'm pretty sure I got good wifey points for these:
  • Can play a musical instrument, as piano, violin, etc. (I love my piano.)
  • Good seamstress--can make her own clothes or the children's clothes. (Not that I have, lately, but in theory I could. I also have been working on curtains for the kids' rooms for about the past two year and plan to finish them just in time for the kids to hit puberty.)
  • Reacts with pleasure and delight to marital congress. (Delight is a nice word for it. But! I suspect that too much delight might collide with the "feminine" and "dainty" standard.)
  • Seams in hose often crooked. (I don't wear hose, ergo I couldn't fall down on this score.)
Mostly, the bar is set pretty low for the gentlemen (though apparently onion and garlic are equal-opportunity failings):
  • A chronic ailer or patent medicine addict.
  • Angry if newspaper is disarranged.
  • Belches without apology or blows nose at table.
  • Leaves car for wife on days she may need it.
And then there are a few lovely holdovers from the 1920s invention of mutual marital pleasure:
  • Ardent lover--sees that wife has orgasm in marital congress.
  • Gives wife real movie kisses not dutiful "peck" on the cheek.
  • Has date with wife at least once per week.
If you take the quiz, do share your score in comments (or link back to your blog)!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Last night, as I was finally putting my pepper plants into the ground (a coupla weeks late, as usual for my garden), I got to thinking again how odd it is that we use the word "transplant" both for that and for putting a new organ in a human body.

I've had some reason to ponder this because we've known for a while that the Bear's teacher would be receiving a kidney transplant as soon as the school year ended. She entered the hospital this afternoon and will receive her new kidney tomorrow. Ever since she survived a childhood kidney cancer, she's been running on half a kidney, and now that half-kidney has just worn out.

She was able to schedule the surgery so precisely because her donor is a close friend. It's an extraordinary story. After she went through a hard divorce (not that any are easy!), she became friends with her ex-husband's first wife. Apparently they found they had a lot more in common than just their overlapping marital history and the co-parenting of their children.

And so it's her ex's ex who is going to save her life. She volunteered and turned out to be a perfect match - one more thing they've found in common. Both of them feel it's a miracle. I'd say it's an amazing act of generosity and friendship, too, and a reflection of the Bear's teacher's own goodness and kindness. (If you want to read the rest of the story, it was reported last month by Nick Claussen in our local independent biweekly, the Athens News; I've been careful here not to include any details beyond what's already public.)

Her students don't quite grasp the gravity of the situation, though she's talked directly about it in an age-appropriate way. She's young and strong and courageous, as is her dear friend and donor, and I think it's going to be okay. Still, we'll all feel better once we know that the surgery gone well and they've gotten through the first few weeks.

I don't believe in the healing power of remote prayer, but I know she does, and I know she would appreciate the prayers of anyone who's so moved. Superstitious or not, I can't help but send up a little prayer, myself, even if it's addressed "to whom it may concern," that both of them will find strength and healing. And I'm sending out my warmest hopes that this new kidney will take root just as strongly as my tomatoes and peppers do in my garden.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The School Year that Wouldn't End

I'm going to miss my son the Bear's last day of school because the school year just got extended by a day. We're already deep into makeup days due to the oodles of snow days we had this year.

Night before last, I was talking with a friend of mine whose daughter is one of the Bear's good friends. We were speculating on whether yesterday's pool party for the elementary school would be canceled due to the forecast thunderstorms.

I said - flippantly - "Oh, I don't much care, as long as we don't have another snow day."

And thus jinxed us.

The whole town woke up around 4 a.m. yesterday to a spectacular light show. By the time it ended, the lights had gone off - not in most of the city, not in our house, but in the elementary school a hundred feet from our front door. By the time they went on again, school had been canceled, along with the pool party, and a makeup day declared for tomorrow.

As my friend said to me: "It's all your fault!!!"

I'll be out of town starting tomorrow morning for a three-day meeting in Minneapolis, the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. And so I'll miss the Bear's last day as a second-grader. I won't be home to give him his first kiss as a rising third-grader. I won't be among the first to hear who his teacher will be next year. I'm pretty sure I'm more bummed about this than him, since his dad will be home to do all those things. Plus he's got a shiny new bike.

I'll put a post or two up over the weekend, thanks to Blogger's new scheduling feature. If I have connectivity at the conference I might try to report in from Minneapolis. No promises, though.

This clematis got nailed during the storm; when it's not backlit, it's nearly black.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Philip Weiss Sets a New Low in Humorless Douchebaggery

Remember Philip Weiss's absurd New York Magazine article from a few weeks back, "The Affairs of Men," where he argued that men are wired to be non-monogamous? Oh, and maybe women are kind of that way too, but really, it's the men who need and deserve a twentysomething waitress on the side? He got eviscerated in feminist blogs for his knuckleheaded use of evolutionary psychology, his presentation of his stray lusts as entitlement, his ignorance of privilege, his contempt for strong women, his implication that women don't harbor equivalent desires. And then there's the fact that he says nothing new - and says it badly.

I have to admit, though, that as I wrote my own takedown of him, I wondered whether some snippets of his piece might have been ironic or tongue-in-cheek. Well, Weiss was on Stephen Colbert last night, and he put all such doubts to rest. The man is deaf to irony. He may have a sense of humor but if so it's as vestigial as the human appendix. Watch:

Just for instance, look how Weiss's mouth doesn't even twitch when Colbert says: "For women, sex is just part of the nesting instinct. There's nothing really sexual about it. They respond to our pheromones and they wish to breed."

Note to Mr. Weiss: Twentysomething waitresses like a sense of humor. So do fortysomething college instructors.

Weiss sort of concedes that women, too, might have unruly desires, but it's always an afterthought. I guess he's right - when it comes to self-important fiftysomething journalists, we're not much tempted.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Female Desire Week - Klinsi Edition

Since it's been declared female desire week, I'm going to post a few pictures of one of my favorite all-time lust objects. This is not a theoretical post. Nor is it a fitting response to the original question from Laura at the F-Word, who was asking why there are so few images of sexy men on sex-positive sites or porn for women sites. Kittywampus is neither of those things (well, I guess we're sort of ambivalently sex-positive) but we do like us our men. That's not to ignore those like belledame who were asking - rightly - what about lesbian and bi and queer desires. It's just that I'm an unreconstructed hetero gal and so I'm going to post what makes my pulse quicken.

And I might feel goofier about this if purtek hadn't already covered the hockey beat, or if Lynn Gazis-Sax hadn't declared her earlier penchant for Björn Borg, but here's the thing: for sheer perfection of the male form, soccer players leave me weak in the knees. They don't have the overdeveloped upper physique that football or baseball players tend to cultivate; they're not inconveniently tall like many basketball stars. Some do have an unfortunate tendency toward mullets, but that can be easily remedied with some sharp scissors.

I do love the game, too. That's one of the main things I gained from my time in Germany. I love the excitement of it, the aesthetics. I even kind of love how - to paraphrase Clausewitz - soccer is the continuation of war by other means, because it usually gets no uglier than Zinadine Zidane's famous head-butting incident in the final game of the 2006 World Cup. It's a pretty civilized way to carry out national rivalries (apart from the occasional hools). I love how it can bring a million thrilled fans onto the streets. I love how it's okay not to have a winner at the end of the game.

But: I also really, really love those legs. Tremendously powerful, muscled, well-defined legs.

And they are devilishly hard to find on the Internet. Believe me, I spent a chunk of this afternoon searching for photos that show my all-time favorite soccer player, Jürgen Klinsmann (aka Klinsi), from head to foot. I didn't find many but I sure had fun trying.

Mostly I found some lovely head shots, maybe because he's a coach these days (for the German national team in the 2006 World Cup and now for Bayern München, Germany's strongest league team). I guess once you're a coach, you've landed on the mind side of mind/body dualism? I'm pretty sure he still has spectacular legs, but I can't muster actual recent evidence.

So note the forearms in the next shot, which are pretty hot in their own right. And then scroll down for some video that gives you a fuller picture from his days as an active player.


I've provided photo credits where the original source included them, but many were uncredited at their source. Clicking on the photos will take you to where I found them. Usually I try to be overscrupulous about copyright, but in the service of lust this time I picked up the nicest pictures. If anyone objects, I'll take 'em down.

And finally, for a glimpse of legs and motion and the unrestrained joy that I think makes him not just handsome but sexy (hit mute if you don't think the Europop adds to the atmosphere):

The Nanny Diaries' Classy Critique of Class

Here's my latest installment in my series, "Reviewing movies that everyone else has already seen." (The first one was "Juno.")

I watched "The Nanny Diaries" this weekend (on DVD, how else?) and thought it did a surprisingly nice job of reflecting critically yet unobtrusively on how social class functions in the United States. If you've seen it, you know that its portrayal of Upper East Side matrons is merciless. They're self-absorbed, petty, bored, materialistic, and completely unavailable to their kids. They scheme to get their children into the right preschools. They mandate hours of French instruction every week for their preschoolers. They spy on their employees with nannycams hidden in teddy bears. They're a more selfish but equally obsessive version of the mothers that Judith Warner profiles in Perfect Madness: Motherhead in the Age of Anxiety. It's easy to take potshots at them, which the movie plays for both laughs and tears.

While that's probably the most obvious level where the film deflates class privilege, it's not the most interesting one. There are more subtle - and sober - messages about the nannies themselves. And I thought that was cool, and unexpected, for a Hollywood movie.

The first of these is how class and race intersect in toxic ways. The central character, Annie, is a white gal from New Jersey, fresh out of college. When word spreads among the rapacious matrons, they fall all over each other trying to hire her because, as one of them says bluntly, "she's white." And she's not an immigrant.

Since the movie's a comedy, it's not going to give us a blistering critique of how nannies are often women who've been forced to emigrate in order to feed their children in a faraway country. But it doesn't ignore that reality either. There's a painfully funny scene where the matrons drag the nannies en route to a seminar on "conflict resolution" and the matrons sit on gilded chairs while the nannies are pressed up against a wall as if in a police lineup. While the nannies are being interrogated about their grievances (which of course will be punished, not resolved!), one of them, a black woman from Africa, says that she's had to leave her children in order to raise a rich family's kids. That moment is not played for laughs. There's no way you could. You see the discomfort of the matrons as they struggle to repress this knowledge, to sink back into their comfortable denial. And you're reminded of how easy it is for any of us with relative privilege to repress and deny the reality that poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with wealth - that the enjoyment of class privilege depends on that juxtaposition of the rich and poor.

The movie's most subtle insights on class privilege deal with Annie (played by Scarlett Johannson) and her post-college employment dilemmas. Her mother, a nurse who's struggled as a single parent, fiercely wants Annie to enter the financial world and enjoy the security she lacked. But Annie is burnt out after working her butt off in college and has neither the drive nor the desire to become a high-powered businesswoman. Becoming a nanny is her little rebellion against lower-middle-class ambition. It's a gentle but revealing commentary on how class privilege hurts even those who are above the poverty line but still feel constrained from taking chances. In the end, Annie does take a real chance, enrolling in an anthropology graduate program. (Well, humanities grad school is not just chancy; it's a pretty sure ticket to being perennially underpaid. But that would be another post.)

Sure, you could fault the movie for being mostly about a pretty young white girl whose problems are nowhere near as severe as those of the women of color tending their charges in Central Park. There's certainly a need for exposés of the exploitation - and even trafficking - that nannies and other domestic servants too often suffer. But given that it's a romantic comedy and not a crusading documentary, "The Nanny Diaries" went much further than I'd expected in untangling the fraught rat's nest that is social class in America.

Image from Flickr user Roger528, used under a Creative Commons license.