Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Femininity, Felines, and Frivolity

So yesterday Rebecca Traister at Salon's Broadsheet wrote a piece that basically suggested Kittywampus might throw a lot more weight around if we didn't have a frivolous name and address too much feminine stuff like parenting and cats and - well, maybe also feminism:
It is not without irony, for instance, that one of the women Jesella [NYT staffer Kara Jesella, writing on the recent BlogHer conference] interviewed about not being taken seriously online runs a blog called Lemonade Life. This isn't a blog about lemonade; it's a blog about living with diabetes, and a cursory read suggests that it's a very good, smart one. Lemonade Life's Allison Blass has written on her site that the name is in reference to making lemonade of the health lemons life has handed her. And that's terrific. It makes sense.

But we can't pretend that a title doesn't affect how a blog is read and digested. And the fact is that the people over at Netroots are calling their blogs things like the Plank and the Page and First Read and Hotline, names that scream solidity and self-importance and power. A blog about personal experience and illness certainly needn't be named with an eye to political urgency, but what about starting from a place of self-regard and personal authority and naming it after yourself, like Kos, or Drudge, or one of the women who does get taken seriously online, Arianna Huffington? Think about how much easier it would be to get the respect that some of the BlogHer women crave if they started taking themselves more seriously.

This is a tricky argument to make, since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving a blog a cute name or, for that matter, writing a blog about a feminized topic -- be it motherhood or fashion or dating -- that is destined for a niche audience. In an ideal world, of course, the experiences of parenthood and style and love wouldn't even be marked as feminine, since they are all shared.

But this is not an ideal world.
Now, I don't have any ambition to become the next Arianna Huffington. If I did, I'd have to spend a bunch of time talking to Larry King. I don't need that kind of annoyance. I'm perfectly happy having a few loyal readers.

But I do want to think about whether it's a good idea to act oh-so-serious - to join in the Drudgery, so to speak. If women do that - if we help devalue those things "marked as feminine" - aren't we condemned to second-class status forever? Aren't we then abandoning feminist causes instead of furthering them?

As Traister ought to know from Salon's own in-house blog on women's and gender issues - Broadsheet, where her analysis appeared - issues involving women and gender still tend to be trivialized and marginalized, even in left-leaning publications. Broadsheet's comment section attracts way more trolls than the rest of the site. Where Salon used to have a whole department dedicated to gender ("Mothers Who Think) and a whole 'nother section devoted to sex, neither of these have survived multiple reorganizations. More's the pity.

We see similar marginalization in the way the Democratic Party has begun to see abortion rights as optional. We see it in the way issues like equal pay or maternity/paternity leave are painted as the concerns of "special interests." We see women voters being trivialized as "soccer moms."

In other words, it's not just femininity that's marginalized and trivialized. The same thing happens to feminism, too. I'm not going to defend every aspect of conventional femininity. I think high heels are just a torture device, for instance. Still, if we devalue "the feminine" in a knee-jerk way, we shouldn't expect feminism to be taken seriously, either.

So I think some of us are needed for the skirmishes in a different register: redefining what topics matter in the first place. For me, parenting is absolutely as important as politics. In fact, parenting is political, on a micro-level, and that's one of the things I'm exploring both here and in my academic work. I could say something similar about sex, which - although men are supposed to love it way more than women - is an intensely feminized topic.

While I'm grateful that there are at least a few prominent political bloggers who also happen to be women (I adore Jane Hamsher, to name just one), I think that - perhaps unlike the conventional media - the blogging world is vast enough that we need to work on both levels. We need women writing on macro-level electoral politics and on micro-level parental politics. We need women writing on the economy and on sex. And then there's the thorny question of how these different levels intersect.

To my mind, anyone writing on any of these issues is a "political blogger."

I also think that it's really okay to not always be deadly earnest. I'd like to believe I don't blow my credibility if I pillory fat cats sometimes, while other days, when I'm sapped from the summer heat, I just want to be tickled by ... an actual fat cat. I know that most readers are more than smart enough to tell the difference. I trust that my serious writing speaks for itself. And honestly, I think that a sprinkling of silly posts keeps me from waxing too pedantic.

As for the name of my blog: I picked it because it's a great, quirky word that I associate with my North Dakota upbringing. It's a word my parents use occasionally. And of course, it gives me an excuse to feature a kitty here and again. I suppose it goes without saying that felines are regarded as both feminine and frivolous (mostly by people who don't know cats!). But I won't be renaming it anytime soon.

What do you think? Do femininity and/or feminism automatically detract from a writer's credibility? Does occasional silliness undermine a writer's more serious posts? And what's with all those girly flower pictures, anyway?

(This daylily was blooming in my garden the day I flew to Berlin. Yes, it's a flower; it's pink; it should put you in mind of sex. And the problem with all that is ... what exactly?)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Catty Corpulence

Photo from the Chicago Tribune, reproduced here with the presumption of fair use; I'll take it down if anyone objects.

This cat was found wandering (or "waddling," as all the news accounts have it) in New Jersey. She weighs 44 pounds - two less than the all-time world record. That's a couple pounds more than my son the Tiger, who's a substantial five-year-old person.


"Princess Chunk," as rescue workers have nicknamed her, is pictured here with Deborah Wright, who's acting as her foster mom.

For more images, see the slideshow here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TMI Tuesday - Language Edition

I don't do any of these weekly memes, but I do have a slight voyeuristic soft spot for this TMI Tuesday thing - and this week, it's prim enough that I can do it without giving any of my former students, well, TMI.

1. What is your language pet peeve. (example 'hot water heater', why would you heat hot water)

Other than a missing question mark where one is clearly needed? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) My biggest pet peeve would have to be "nucular," as pronounced by George W. Bush in his loathsome twang. It might make a good drinking game to watch the State of the Union address and take a swig every time Dubya mangled it - except I'm too old to think getting slobbery drunk is a good idea. One of the pleasures of seeing Obama's Berlin speech last week was that he actually talked about "nuclear" containment.

2. What is your favorite word? Both dirty and clean?

Hmm, I'm not sure how to interpret this question. If the word has to be both dirty and clean at once, then I think lick does great double duty. (And here I was trying to hard to keep this from turning naughty!)

I love words that are onomatopoetic. A lot of the "dirty" words fall into that category. Fuck is overused as an all-purpose cuss word. But when you think about it, when it's used literally and in a friendly way, it really does capture the force and friction and suction.

3. What is the one word you cannot spell?

Indispensable and irrefutable and irresistible all give me trouble. I can't remember which ones end in -able and which in -ible. By almost random chance, I got 'em right this time, but I rely pathetically on the spellchecker for them and their ilk.

4. What is the one word you always pronounce wrong?

I do pretty well in English, and I'm compulsive enough (see my initial response to #1, above!) that if I knew I was a serial mis-pronouncer, I'd fix it.

But oh, German! A couple of years ago, my son the Bear - then only six - said to me, "Mama, your Rs are getting better." I'm just vain enough to believe that most Americans have a more noticeable accent than mine, and I got all puffed up once when a German guy initially mistook me for Swiss for about 60 seconds. That hasn't happened since and surely never will again.

5. If you could erase one popular catchphrase from the english language, what would it be?

This isn't technically a catchphrase, but you know the newish tendency to use periods for emphasis? I. Wish. It. Would. Stop.

Bonus (as in optional): The late, and very hot Michael Hutchence (INXS) once sang, "Words are weapons, sharper than knives" . What is the most hurtful thing you have ever said to anyone? Was it deliberate or accidental? What was the most hurtful thing ever said to you? Do you think it was deliberate or accidental?

Oy, I think this does cut too close to home, so I'm only going to give a partial answer. I'm pretty sure that the most hurtful statements have passed between me and the people I love best, just because we have the most power over each other. I'd bet that's true for most people.

I'll confess to just one thing: When I say hurtful things, it's usually been with some degree of awareness and intent. I think I'm reputed to be a fairly nice human being, and that's mostly true; but I also pretty tuned in to my own motives and to the nuances of language, and so if I say something unkind, I have a hard time claiming ignorance.

This isn't quite the same thing, but as I've gotten older and often see faraway friends for only short snippets of time, I've gotten much more blunt and willing to ask potentially nosy questions. I'll usually preface them with "I don't want to pry, but ..." I've noticed that when there's only a little time to reconnect, it's easy to just skate along the surface and not actually make those connections at all. A dose of bluntness can really help get past the superficial level. But I'm sure one of these days, I really will offend someone. (If I already have, they were gracious enough not to tell me!)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beer, Bratwurst, and Bullshit

Via an email from alert reader Kevin K. (who's got a great post on LaRouche supporters posing as PUMAs), I just got wind of a rumor that free beer and bratwurst were available at Obama's Berlin speech last Thursday to entice a larger crowd to show up.

It's total bullshit.

As I reported right after Obama's appearance, there was lots of beer available. There were half-meter long bratwursts for sale, too - I recall this because even though I loathe sausage, a friend of mine was almost hungry enough to buy one. They looked too nasty, and he decided to go hungry instead.

But the point is, they were for sale. No one was offering free food or drink to lure unsuspecting Germans to the event. And let me say I have a keen nose for free comestibles, since I was usually broke in college and grad school.

People need to use their pea-brains! The sheer cost would have been ridiculous. And just assume for a moment - thinking along with the conspiracists - that a candidate wanted to use beer as a lure. You'd then expect to see posters or other advertisements getting the word out in advance. I arrived in Berlin a week earlier than Obama, I've been out and about by bike, subway, and bus, and I can testify: There was no such publicity. The German press didn't make any mention of freebies either - not before the speech, and not afterward. (And yes, I'm highly fluent in German.)

So who's pushing these rumors? The first hits on Google led me to pro-Hillary sites, including this gem from the Hillary Clinton Forum:
Now we know why Obama had such a large crowd. Free Beer, Pizzas, Bratwurst, and two favorite rock bands. All for free. Obama supposedly help share the cost.
Yes, the bands played for free (from the audience perspective). It's possible that the campaign payed for them. It's possible that they volunteered; there's enough grass-roots Obama love here in Germany that this is conceivable. While I'm sure some of the younger audience members would've known the bands, I didn't recognize their names. Everyone around me thought the music was too loud. We weren't there for the free concert.

A blog called Pagan Power is also pushing the rumor. It too seems to subscribe to Hillary revanchism and sports a big PUMA logo. (Since I left a very civil comment there, debunking the rumor, I'd like to refer anyone who followed me back from there to my comments policy at the top of the right column. Feel free to say hello - nicely.)

I'm sure that this rumor is mostly demon spawn of the wingnuts or other Republican ratfuckers. (Update 7/30/08: Two people already asked me offline about the apparent hypocrisy/hilarity of me breaking my own civility rule right after I invoked it for visitors. But ratfucking is actually a technical term. It's what Nixon's minions called their efforts to gum up the Democrats' campaign machinery. It goes back to Donald Segretti and the Young Republicans that came out of USC - including Karl Rove.)

But gosh, you'd think my fellow Democrats would have better things to do. Like rallying around the effort to defeat McCain in November. Because if he wins and we spend the next 100 years in Iraq, you can be sure none of us will be getting any freebies.

(I rarely have a chance to debunk actual breaking news/rumors, since I'm too lazy, too busy with kids and work, and too much a historian at heart anyway. So it's sort of fun to use my perch in Berlin to play journalist.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Illogical but Irresistible Book Meme

Cliché-lit cat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

I first saw this meme at Sugar Mag's but can't link her because her blog has disappeared! (Where are you, Sugar Mag?!) I bumped into it again via Brandy at Moue Magazine.

Supposedly the average American has read just six of these books. Could be; plenty of people don't read at all, which would tend to drag down the average. But I'm guessing nearly everyone I know has read a lot more than just six.

No one seems know who originally picked the books or why. The list is partly just plain nonsensical. Why list Hamlet separately and then also include the complete works of Shakespeare? Why pull a similar trick with C.S. Lewis?

It's a curious list in terms of its selections and omissions, too. Why all the Austen and Dickens? Where are the post-war big boys like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth and Saul Bellows and John Updike? Where are some of the more recent literary luminaries like Don DeLillo (I've read a fair amount of him even though I'm not a huge fan) or Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (to name two novels that totally derailed work on my dissertation at the time)? And The DaVinci Code just makes everyone go WTF.

It's fun anyway. It tickles my inner nerd. Plus, editorializing is just irresistible. Please feel free to editorialize right back at me.

And if you do the meme, I'd love it you link back to it in comments, okey dokey?

The rules are:

1) Bold what you have read
2) Put in italics what you have started to read
3) Put an asterisk next to what you intend to read

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (I love Austin and so does this list.)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (See The Hobbit, below.)
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (Might this be the origin of my weakness for enigmatic, dark-haired men?)
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling (I'm probably the only person in America who hasn't read a single page of it - or seen the movies.)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible (When I was about in fifth grade, there was a Bible in our bathroom and I tried reading it start to finish. I got bogged down in Leviticus. Purity rules, anyone? Also around that time, I read Revelations under the covers at night by flashlight. Not recommended.)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (My high school never assigned this, so I read it on my own steam shortly thereafter - in the summer 1984, in fact. I don't know if that made it more or less chilling.)
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa May Alcott (I read this multiple times as a kid and wept harder every time when Beth died.)
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (I've read a bunch of the more famous play but nowhere near all. I started with Romeo and Juliet when I was 13 and had the chicken pox.)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien (I really tried to get into this. All my friends liked it. There were certain cute nerdy boys who were completely fixated on Tolkien. And I just couldn't get involved in the storyline. I bailed after about 150 pages.)
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (I read this for "diversion" when my husband had just survived multiple close brushes with death, and - even though I also kept accidentally picking up novels with a cancer theme around that time - this one disturbed me more than anything else. The central male character's trajectory - the time traveler edging ever closer to calamity - captures the dynamics of catastrophic illness and the ICU with terrible, perfect clarity. Even though nary a hospital appears in the story, it's a poetic and horrible depiction of what actually awaits most of us time-bound mortals. *Shudder.*)
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (Oh, this was one of my biggest bail-out moments ever. It was assigned for a class my last year of college. I got within 100 pages of the end. And then I got busy with final projects and never finished. Isn't that awful?)
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (All the cute nerdy guys liked this, too, but since I actually enjoyed it, I read the whole set.)
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck (I'd like to re-read this one, as well as East of Eden)
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
*37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (This one's in my to-read pile.)
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne (I read the whole thing out loud to my son, the Bear - who resembles Pooh not in the least)
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell (I think I was in sixth grade the first time, but I re-read it a few years later when I was old enough to grasp the political allegory)
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown (Everyone who does this meme wonders why this book is on the list. Maybe because it became part of the cultural fabric for a while?)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I read this over 20 years ago but still think of the plague of sleeplessness sometimes when I've got insomnia - oh, and during my first pregnancy, I thought of the babies born with the tail of a pig more often than was smart.)
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving (This book is forever tangled up with the end of my first, preliminary research trip to Germany during grad school. I started reading it while I was breaking up with my then-boyfriend, and I finished it on a Pakistani Air plane from Amsterdam to New York. Under other circumstances, I might have sneered at the ending as emotionally manipulative. As it was, I wept loudly for about a half hour, right in the middle of that airplane, obviously mourning a lot more than poor Owen Meany.)
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood (I love everything Atwood has written. This isn't my very favorite - I think Cat's Eye or The Robber Bride top my list - I re-read it last fall in order to teach it and was amazed at how presciently Atwood described a mix between the Taliban and the Religious Right today.)
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan (I think McEwan just keeps getting better, and he already ranks with Atwood in my literary cosmos. So, while I really enjoyed Atonement, I was totally captivated by Saturday and On Chesil Beach.)
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert (Here's another one from the cute, nerdy boy collection that I couldn't really get into.)
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon (This is such a fascinating book, funny and touching and suspenseful. I'm sure I'll read it again.)
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt (Her second book, The Little Friend, was wonderful too - another compulsive page turner. It cured me of ever wanting to try meth - ever. Not that I was planning to.)
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold (I thought this was haunting and wonderful, not overhyped in the least)
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy (But don't ask me to reproduce the plot line; by now it's pretty, um, obscure to me.)
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding (And y'know, I loved it. Sometimes silly comedy is just the best.)
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville (Uh-oh. I was supposed to read this late in my college career but hated it and just got bogged down. The shame!)
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce (But I have a friend who read it; does that count?)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (I read this when I was maybe 12, and I wish I knew why the adults around me allowed it. I was way to young for it. But I was also totally fascinated - and still am - by Plath's talent and her trainwreck life.)
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt (Another favorite author of mine - but I liked Babel Tower best.)
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker (This is de rigeuer for women's/gender studies scholars. I love it anyway.)
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (I read this for a history seminar in the college where we read oodles of nineteenth-century European novels - that's where I read Germinal and Great Expectations, too - but this was my fave of the bunch. What I most remember from the discussion: my professor discussing what Flaubert meant when he referred to cold feet in bed. I think I should re-read this now that I'm a putative adult.)
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (Um, this is in the Moby Dick category for me.)
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams (This goes back to junior high for me; I loved it at the time.)
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole (I read this with bronchitis and a high fever; light delirium meshes well with it.)
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute (I've never heard of this one and have to wonder: where is On the Beach?)
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (My older son discovered this book about a year ago, too; it's so fun to see him adore it.)
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wildlife in the City

What to do when the city starts to stink in the summer heat, as Berlin with its century-old sewers tends to do: Head for the park. What not to do: Make a beeline for the smelliest part in town.

Of course, that's just what we did today. We biked to the Jungfernheide, a big wooded park in the northwest of the city, to visit the wild pigs - Wildschweine - which are so strange and fascinating that we do this every time we're in Berlin.

The ground is bare dirt because they spend most of their time snuffling around in it or - when they want to prettify themselves - bathing in it.

They stop snuffling only when visitors offer to feed them - which, luckily for them, seems to be a pretty constant gig. This pig is showing off her talent at standing on her trotters while my husband feeds her raw spaghetti, their snack of choice.

The adults are not beauties. They have improbably adorable babies, though. We saw about a half-dozen nearly newborn piglets ("Frischlinge") but they were running so fast, my camera didn't stand a chance. (There actually shouldn't be any newborns so late in the year, but these Wildschweine seem to be quite overcrowded in their quarters. Either they're no longer closely managed due to Berlin's financial woes, or someone decided that surplus pigs could be sold to local restaurants at an easy profit.)

Here's what the Frischlinge look like when they're several months old and ready to start competing (mostly unsuccessfully) for their share of spaghetti. Their markings are so cool; I don't know of any other critters that have lengthwise stripes.

On the long bike ride home, we saw a group of five bunnies who were obviously being fed by humans, because they were about two yards from the bike path, yet they didn't flee. No, they weren't as unusual as the Wildschweine - but at least they smelled blessedly neutral.

All photos by me, Sungold. The Wildschweine don't like to hold still and the park is deeply shaded, so although I took dozens of photos, even the best are a bit blurry.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama Postgame

I had a pretty good vantage point for Obama's big Berlin speech yesterday. It wasn't - as Salon's Joan Walsh opines - "political brilliance." Nor was it - as Time claims - "a soaring address that invoked echoes of the famous speeches in this city in which John F. Kennedy made common cause with Berliners against communist oppression in 1963 and Ronald Reagan called nearly 20 years ago to tear down the Berlin Wall."

No, Obama's speech didn't make history. But after years of tensions with Europe, Obama's appearance was a lovely gesture of friendship and good will. He offered up a laundry list of mostly good-to-excellent foreign policy initiatives and approaches. But the speech wasn't wonky. He wrapped it all up in a warmly welcomed vision of America as an equal, cooperative partner, which constrastly nicely with the global policeman, cowboy, and rogue state that Germans have perceived over the past eight years. You can read the full text of his speech here or here, and you can also view the video. So instead of summarizing it, I'd rather discuss its reception - a point that the media has analyzed rather superficially, possibly because the respectable press had a comfy perch on risers rather than mingling with the sweaty audience.

The crowd itself was remarkably young. I was probably in the upper quintile as far as age went - and I'm younger than Obama himself. The typical audience member was somewhere in their twenties, and German, although it seemed as though every American in Berlin (except for the one dear soul babysitting my kids) had turned out for the show, along with a noticeable smattering of Italians. The Democrats in Berlin were working their butts off to register voters - a smart tactic, given that the expat community tilts liberal anyway, and I doubt many Republicans bothered with the hour-plus wait at the security checkpoints.

Photo from Obama's campaign, aka Flickr user Barack Obama (!), used under a Creative Commons license. This shot must have been taken about two hours before the speech started, or shortly before I got through security. Note the crush of humanity still behind the barricades; by the end of the evening, this whole area was packed.

Oh, and the crowd was huge. The police are estimating upward of 200,000. The Berliner Morgenpost - a paper known for lowballing crowd size - puts it at about 215,000. I was pretty far enough forward, in the middle of the actual plaza where he spoke; I'd hope to get even closer, but we arrived only two hours before the speech. Also, the crowd was much denser than at Grateful Dead shows, where you could dance your way close to the stage. At any rate, I was far enough forward that I couldn't see the long column of bodies filling the boulevard behind me. And I did get a pretty decent view of Obama, albeit one filtered through the dreadlocks of a guy in front of me. Plus, have I mentioned that Germans are really, really tall? So at just over 5'7" I was craning my neck constantly.

Photo of the view down Strasse des 17. Juni by Flickr user helter-skelter, used under a Creative Commons license. Note the big screen on the left. The trees lining the street are part of Berlin's lovely central park, the Tiergarten.

The set-up did look remarkably like the "fan mile" during the World Cup, complete with giant screens for those not lucky to get as close as I did. Oh, and there were even stands hawking beer, both inside and outside the security checkpoint. When's the last time you could buy beer at a political rally? Now, not too many people were actually drinking it. The weather was hot (mid-80s, but hotter due to all the bodies) and the portapotties so vile that I would've preferred dehydration. But the Berliner Kindl did remind me that I definitely wasn't in Ohio anymore.

Photo by me, Sungold. Berliner Kindl is not a very good beer, by German standards.

Another thing that I don't recall ever seeing at a major political rally, including Kerry/Edwards in Dayton in 2004 or Michelle Obama's stop in Athens, Ohio: There were no preliminaries. No introductions apart from his name. Once the security helicopter hovered low as his motorcade arrived, it was all Obama.

Photo by Sungold - you can see the security copter to the left of the Siegessäule.

Obama began with a reference to the Berlin Airlift (which, as I've said more than once before, is politically smart to tap into) but belabored the story much longer than necessary for his live audience. Even a young crowd of Germans is on top of the history. He also relied on clichés and oversimplifications. Do we really still believe that the Soviet tanks were ready to roll westward? I wasn't the only one who criticized this: We were hanging with an old friend who is German, Jewish, and a historian, and she would just as happily have deleted that whole section of the speech. I can only think that both the excess detail and the oversimplification were geared to his audience in the States. Or maybe his speechwriters just missed the mark.

Politically, too, the first section of the speech was somewhat misguided. Obama devoted too much attention to the old Soviet menace. Sure, Berlin's significance comes largely from its Cold War history. But as my husband said afterward, you can't demonize the Soviets at the start of the speech and then credibly ask them for greater cooperation at the end of it. Somewhere in the middle, you'd have to express some grounds for friendship - but that didn't happen.

The problem is, the farther the Cold War recedes into the past, the harder it is for a visiting politician to tap into Berlin's former drama. When Kennedy came here, the city felt besieged, and the Wall was like a fresh laceration running through the city. Without the barbed wire and gun turrets, no politician who visits here can summon up the same tension or significance. That's why Clinton's 1994 speech was not especially memorable - and why it's now virtually impossible to give a "historic speech in Berlin." In fact, despite all the pre-speech analogies between Obama and JFK, this city is probably the one place where the comparison is most doomed.

So, while Obama's repeated references to the Wall and the airlift worked fairly well as metaphors, they were also predictable and went on too long. They weren't able to catapult his speech into the realm of history. For that, he'd have to do something new and different - like he did when he addressed race in America last winter. That was a historic speech.

Photo by Flickr user azrael74, used under a Creative Commons license. Alas, I got no picture of my own because my camera's battery was dying by this point and so zooming was out of the question, never mind the dreadlocks in front of me.

When Obama turned to his vision of American in the world, the crowd warmed up. However, there was one real clunker (as the UK's Guardian notes, too): His call for greater NATO involvement in Afghanistan and in fighting Al Qaeda drew only very muted, polite applause - and quite a few skeptical remarks from the people in my vicinity. Including me. I agree that the Taliban remains a problem, and that we can't just turn our back on it. But what Afghanistan lacks is a functioning civil society and the rule of law. I'm not convinced that continuing to attack Pakistani military bases (oops!) and Afghan wedding parties (double oops!) is going to foster either of those things.

But if Obama's anti-terror rhetoric struck a Berlin crowd as leaden and misguided, that's probably because that snippet of the speech was aimed entirely at his home audience. Lo and behold, MSNBC took the bait with the headline "In Berlin, Obama urges war against terror" and the following lede:
Before the largest crowd of his campaign, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama on Thursday summoned Europeans and Americans together to "defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it" as surely as they conquered communism a generation ago.
In fact, this was a tiny part of the speech. I think Obama sincerely believes we need to act more aggressively in Afghanistan and Pakistan (he said this already during the primary). But I really wish he didn't feel compelled to play the rhetorical game of invoking 9/11 and Al-Qaeda.

The rest of his speech got a truly warm reception. As another longtime German friend of mine said afterward, "I wasn't impressed with the first half, but by the end I was satisfied." And so was I.

Here's what people loved best, judging from the clapping, whoops, and hollers:

Obama's thank-yous to his German hosts drew a big (but sympathetic) laugh when he totally mangled the pronunciation of Chancellor Angela Merkel (evidently no one told him that the E is pronounced like a long A, so it came out "Murkle") and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (which is admittedly a mouthful even if you know the language).

The longest, strongest applause came when Obama promised to bring the war to a close:
And despite past differences, this is the moment when the world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close.
Nearly equal enthusiasm met his call to negotiate with Iran, contain nuclear weapons, and rebuild the Atlantic partnership. He twice invoked the genocide in Darfur and mentioned Zimbabwe's crisis as well - two issues he needs to bring before an American audience as well. His Berlin audience appreciated it; I personally would have liked to hear him say more about our responsibility to Africa.

People also clapped long and hard for Obama's pledge to finally take responsibility for America's emissions:
As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya. ... This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations – including my own – will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one.
Statements like this one - which expressed a healthy humility - aren't necessarily going to win over voters in Colorado or North Dakota or Ohio. And that's why I think Obama wasn't entirely blowing smoke when he started his speech by saying, "Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world." Sure, there was a bit of pandering on terrorism, but the speech was much more geared to rebuilding European-American relations.

Apart from his promise to end the war, this line brought possibly the longest, warmest applause at all:
The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.
Sucker that I am, I got a little teary - not just at the sentiment, but at the stark contrast between this rhetoric and Bush's cowboy posturing. I was almost embarrassed - until I saw the tall, blonde, German woman next to me surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes, too. (Then my husband said, "What about the agnostics?" and the spell dissolved into laughter.)

At the end of the speech, that same woman turned to me and said, "If he can manage to half of these things, you Americans ought to bring back the monarchy." We laughed, and she then said, "Seriously, it does such good to hear these things from an American again."

And then we all trudged homeward. The crowd was so thick that getting out took nearly as long as getting in. But there was impromptu entertainment along the way ...

Photo by Sungold.

... until suddenly the crowd thinned and fresh air flooded in and my German historian friend totally upstaged Obama by spilling the news that - at age 42 and after giving up on it - she's pregnant. And after I'd finished jumping up and down and hollering in celebration, my husband and I hopped on our bikes and rode the breeze home under a fuchsia sunset along the banks of the Spree River.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Feminist Porn: Where Are the Men?

Heh. Did you think I'd provide a picture? You'll have to keep searching, long and hard.

At Feministe, KaeLyn has a well reasoned defense of sexual pleasure (including "politically incorrect" forms). The ensuing discussion is one of the most civil ones I've seen on the Web, which otherwise just seems to re-ignite the feminist sex wars again and again.

But I have to admit, I hurried through her argument in order to get to the promised not-safe-for-work links. (Follow the link above to KaeLyn's post if you're curious, too.) KaeLyn presents a bunch of sites that I'd never even heard of. It was fascinating to see that the Internet is big enough even for feminist-inspired menstruation porn. (Yeah, really. And they're not just doing it to gross you out.)

It didn't take long, though, before I could see that among the eight sites she listed, only a couple of the (No Fauxxx and VegPorn) showed any men at all. Absolutely nothing I saw got me even slightly heated.

I'm sure some heterosexual women get off looking at other women - we've all been trained to view the female body as eroticized and the male body as just outside the frame. As commenter "Shy" wrote on Feministe:
As a mostly heterosexual woman, I feel that I have internalized the male gaze to the extent that now I am supposed to be (and sometimes am) turned on by naked women and expressions of female sexuality. What about men expressing their desire to sexually please others? What about men reveling in their own beautiful, natural bodies for the enjoyment of others? If porn and sex work were really about the full range of sexual expression and not about rape, domination, and the continuation of patriarchal norms, then there would be just as many men featured on feminist sites as women.
I get that some women do respond to other women's sexualization. But female flesh totally doesn't work for me. And Shy is right on when it comes to the dynamics of social/sexual domination.

And there's more. When I say that Fauxxx and VegPorn feature a few men, I'm using the term "men" very loosely. The guys featured on both those sites were really young. Like, they could be my students. They could be my offspring. They could credibly pose for "barely legal" sites. Too many of them share the skinny boy-model aesthetic that I criticized a few months ago. Not sexy, in my book.

No Fauxxx is specifically soliciting male models, but they're calling for "boys." While this might cater to a very small subset of hetero women, to me it looks more like they're following certain conventions in gay porn.

So where, please, is the porn featuring attractive men? Where are the grown-ups? Where are strong but not musclebound, ordinarily be-haired, men between 25 and, oh, maybe 60, who aren't overly prettified? Where are the men who can credibly project experience and maturity, as well as plain old naked beauty? And dang it, I'm not talking about Ron Jeremy; he's got experience and maturity, and he's certainly not pretty - but having seen him speak at my university last winter, I know that he turns me on about as much as menstruation porn.

I don't think we can speak of real feminist porn until there's serious turnabout, with women authorized to enjoy the visual pleasures of adult male bodies on our own terms - to look, as well as be looked at. Once objectification becomes a two-way street, I'm not sure it continues to be objectification after all. And that, to me, would be a necessary prereq to any truly "feminist" porn.

Obama Pregame

Photo by Flickr user brianc, used under a Creative Commons license. This is from the pregame of Stanford versus TCU last October, and theoretically I could be in this picture since the old fart (aka alumni) band was along for the ride. Ironically, the pregame show didn't actually happen because stadium security spent about 20 minutes frisking us old degenerates.

A few thoughts prior to Obama's arrival in Berlin today: People here really do adore him, and I'm trying to figure out why. A poll conducted for the Telegraph (UK) found that among five European countries surveyed, only Italy loves him more. In Germany, 67 percent would vote for Obama, versus a measly six percent for McCain. Obama would take 65% of the vote in France and a whopping 70% in Italy.

Where is all this adulation coming from? I think the main thing is that Germans - and Western Europeans in general - want to believe in America's better angels. Despite all the evidence to the contrary over the past eight years. Most Germans are appalled at everything the Bush Administration has done domestically and abroad. They see how the rule of law is being dismantled. They are dismayed at our barbaric use of the death penalty. They want nothing to do with our use of torture. They rightly resent our unwillingness to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They foresaw what a disaster Iraq would be back in 2002, and they aren't inclined to bail us out now.

And yet - I think most Germans want to see the United States live up to our ostensible ideals. Obama's candidacy seems to be inspiring many of them to set aside their cynicism and believe in America's potential - maybe to a degree that most actual Americans have abandoned. This summer, Berlin is marking 60 years since the airlift. That hasn't been forgotten, nor has the Marshall Plan, nor has Kennedy's solidarity with the city after the Wall was built. People remember the Pershing missile controversy too; Germans don't suffer from historical amnesia like Americans so often seem to do. They remember the good and the bad alike. But at the moment, they seem willing to believe the good can be resurrected.

Part of Obama's appeal is that he's seen as a healing force - someone who might help repair some of the rifts that Bush and his cronies have created. On the one hand, almost any Democrat would do in that role - even an uninspiring, standard-issue candidate in the mold of John Kerry or Michael Dudkakis. On the other hand, Obama is not a cookie-cutter Democrat. People love his youth and charisma; it's at least as appealing here as in the U.S., and maybe more so, since neither his opponents' mudslinging nor his recent craven pandering to the center-right have gotten much media attention in Europe.

And then there's the matter of race. It's possible that the very oldest people might still count blackness as, well, a black mark against him. But my strong sense is that all the post-war generations think it's a positive asset. An AP analysis from earlier this week concurs:
It's difficult to gauge how race is playing out in European attitudes toward Obama, but there is no denying that color is a big ingredient of the Obama magic here. One German newspaper has anointed the candidate "Der Schwarze JFK" - the black JFK.

But the "feel-good" factor that many pundits have identified among educated white Americans in their support for Obama may at least in part be behind Europeans' eagerness to embrace a black U.S. presidential candidate. All three countries on Obama's European tour have experienced ethnic flare-ups in recent years. And despite large minority populations across the continent, there are only a sprinkling of nonwhite legislators in European parliaments - let alone candidates to be a national leader.

Given Europe's troubled history with its own minorities, Obamamania may be an expedient way for some Europeans to convince themselves they are racially tolerant while brushing aside ethnic tensions at home.

(Source: Matt Moore and Melissa Eddy, writing for the AP)
I'm sure this cynical view is true in some instances. And I don't claim to know a representative cross-section of population here; my friends tilt pretty far to the left. Still, I think this is mostly a benign and healthy development - and possibly for some people, a way to warm up to greater ethnic diversity in their own power structures.

Berlin has its share of ethnic tensions: many Turkish immigrants are not very assimilated, and this translates into problems in the schools, for instance. But most Berliners are either quite open-minded, or at least they're trying hard. Several years ago, they elected an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit. While running for office, Wowereit announced: "Ich bin schwul - und das ist auch gut so." "I'm gay - and that's a good thing, too."

This week, the cover of Zitty, a local magazine, features a photo of Obama in a pensive pose with the caption: "Ich bin schwarz - und das ist auch gut so." "I'm black - and that's a good thing, too." While I don't want to overgeneralize from the media coverage, my feeling is that most Berliners share that sentiment.

There are holdouts to Obamamania, though, and not just on the right-wing fringe. Last night at a potluck, I met a man - a neighbor of friends, perhaps in his early fifties - who told me point-blank that he'd heard Obama speak and was appalled. He thought Obama didn't offer any substance, and worse, that he could be a demagogue. (National Review writer Lisa Schiffren agrees - h/t to Salon, which has the link to the NRO if you really wanna go there - showing once again, I'm afraid, that left and right can converge at their extremes.) He also contended that there were no real differences between Obama and McCain.

I think it's fine to warn against demagoguery. Germany, of all places, knows its dangers. I don't think it's a fair charge against Obama, but the past eight years have shown that even a much less gifted orator can play the demagogue.

As for the charge that Obama and McCain are indistinguishable? As pissed off as I still am about the FISA sell-out, I still had to remind tell my new friend that the same was said of Gore and Bush in 2000. And we all know where that got us.

Update, 7/24/08: In comments, Molly asks where the demagogue accusation comes from. I think it stems from the ancient idea that if you have a silver tongue, you must have some nefarious agenda. And I should repeat that I don't think that's true for Obama.

Also: At lunch today, over a plate full of the health-food-store version of Nutella, one of my Bear's friends, a nine-year-old girl, said to us about Obama: "Alle finden ihn toll!" That is, "Everyone thinks he's great!" Of course, her political opinions are about as independent as my sons' - but I think she's a pretty accurate reflection of public opinion.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Itinerant Anatomy

Heart Nebula, photo by Flickr user DJMcCrady, used under a Creative Commons license.

A particularly creative header popped up in my spam box today:
Touch her heart with your new babymaker
I'm trying to visualize this, particularly how said babymaker is supposed to get past my cervix, fundus, and diaphragm in order to make its way into my chest cavity. And how I'm supposed to breathe once it's there. I'm sort of picturing it like an anti-IUD, implanted like a pacemaker, but in the shape of a penis.


I suppose it could be a newfangled version of the old wandering womb myth, with the heart now being the mobile organ? Honestly, that sounds preferable to having a disembodied dick making the rounds, internally.

The body of the email rather anticlimactically promises:
We have everything to cure your masculinity.
I hate to imagine where that masculinity might end up transplanted - maybe onto the recipient's forehead?

I'll stop now before we discover what lies on the far side of the NC-17 rating.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Young, Pregnant, Desperate? Pick Your Judge Carefully

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

Parental notification laws for young women and girls seeking abortions are a crappy idea. Most states have them by now, but that still doesn't make them smart.

As a mother, I know that if I want my kids to come to me with serious problems someday, I have to build a foundation of trust. If either of my boys ever got a girl pregnant, they'd need to know that they could come to me for advice and counsel. They'd need to feel enough love and respect that they could trust me to support them. And so my job of establishing that trust starts now, while they're still little kids.

Because you can't legislate love, trust, and respect. You've gotta earn it.

Realistically, though, some families are just dysfunctional. Sometimes a pregnancy is a result of incest. Sometimes a girl fears being thrown out of the house, or beaten, or belittled. In those cases, parental notification laws don't repair anything; they just make a pregnant girl's life much more difficult. And if we're stuck with those laws, then judicial overrides are indispensable.

In Ohio, pregnant teenagers under 18 do have the option of taking their case to a judge - but as yesterday's Columbus Dispatch reports, it matters crucially which judge hears your case:
The bypass hearing is "not something a lot of people know about, I admit," Judge Dana Suzanne Preisse said.

"The average age is 16 or 17, and some are weeks from their 18th birthday. They have to prove to the court they are emotionally mature and intelligent enough to make this decision on their own."

After 18, parental consent is not needed for an abortion.

Judge Kim Browne said she spends 20 minutes with each teen and her attorney.

"I don't think I'm playing God at all," said Browne, who has never denied a request. "That is their choice. That's the decision they are going to have to live with. ...

Judges don't ask for the teens' names or schools, or who the father is. Sometimes, a clean driving record and good grades are enough to convince a judge of "sufficient maturity," the key phrase in the Ohio Revised Code. ...

Some former judges, including Carole Squire and the late George W. Twyford, usually denied the requests on moral grounds, court officials said.

"I don't think it's appropriate for a family court judge to flagrantly disregard the parents' authority," Squire, a Domestic Relations judge from 2000 to 2006, said last week.

"I don't believe (judges) are applying the law correctly. Good grades in school is not dispositive of being sufficiently mature."

As her conservative stance became known, fewer bypass hearings came her way, she said. ...

Preisse has denied only one request, she said.

"I feel I'm elected by the people to follow the statute," even if it goes against her own moral standards.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
I don't know where "playing God" enters into this. Why is that even part of the discussion? Why does a judge - even a liberal judge - feel compelled to defend herself against this potential charge? This is a human decision, affecting human lives.

Why does a judge feel she needs to make clear that she herself is more moral than the girls over whose fate she presides? Even though she has only turned down one case, why does she presume that her personal anti-abortion stance is more moral than the decisions these girls have made?

It's also misleading to couch this decision in terms of parental authority. If no action is taken, these girls will become parents themselves! How can a judge deem a girl too immature to make the abortion decision - but then lock her into a parental role, which will demand far more maturity from her?

And how does a scared sixteen-year-old figure out in advance which judge will give her a fair hearing, and which one will dismiss her case out of hand?

Lots of questions, no good answers - all spawned by legislation that's basically misguided from the get-go.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Swedish Kitties in the Lap of History

Yesterday we went to see a children's play featuring two beloved German characters, a curmudgeonly Swedish recluse named Petterson and his cheeky cat, Findus. Here's the plush version of Findus, which my little Tiger persuaded his dad to buy for him:

Though Petterson and Findus are originally Swedish characters, I suspect they're at least as big here in Germany as in their home country. Like Janosch's Little Bear and Little Tiger, they haven't yet found a translator who could capture the quirky humor of the original in English. And so the only video clips I could find online are in German (like this one) or Swedish (which I'll spare you).

In the film clip, Petterson's well-meaning neighbor, Frau Anderson, is trying to convince him he's getting too eccentric and lonely, and needs to adopt a kitten. Findus arrives in a box of "Findus" brand green peas. Whereupon Petterson offers him a cup of coffee.

The "only in Berlin" part of our experience at the Petterson and Findus stage play was the venue: an outdoor theater right next to the Spandau Citadel. No, that's not Spandau Prison where Rudolf Hess was imprisoned for 40 years after World War II as a Nazi war criminal, and which was then demolished so it wouldn't attract neo-Nazi pilgrims. The Spandau Citadel is a historic building in its own right, though - a well-preserved fortress dating back to the Renaissance, now a museum.

It's set in a lush park and surrounded by a moat. Which even has a drawbridge. As you might imagine, the kids loved that - almost as much as the play.

Photos of the Spandau Zitadelle and its drawbridge by Flickr user Gertrud B., used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo of Findus by me, Sungold.

I'm Racier Than I Thought

I try so hard to keep things clean and virtuous around Kittywampus, and here's my reward:

OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

Supposedly I got the NC-17 "based on the presence of the following words":

* sex (7x)
* death (4x)
* shit (2x)
* abortion (1x)

Is it violent death? Unh-uh. Is it sexy sex? Sadly, no! I haven't even dropped an F-bomb in a while, much less used any of George Carlin's seven words you can't say on the air. A little mild poop talk shouldn't rate worse than a PG-13.

And since when is "schmabortion" taboo?

Dagnabit, I'd like to know what rating I'd get if I actually set out to write a naughty blog. Is there still an X rating beyond the pale of the NC-17?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hallucinogenic Jet-Lagged Dreams

Jet lag does freaky stuff to your brain. Last night, I dreamed that the Tiger was in first grade (he's really about to start kindergarten) and he had my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Heinle. Everyone in the dream thought this was quite astonishing. And everyone was quite amazed that she'd moved from North Dakota to California just so she could be the Tiger's teacher (never mind that I moved away from California, myself, 20 years ago).

The one thing no one deemed remarkable? That Mrs. Heinle was - a hen. Who looked a lot like this:

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

Justice, Ohio Style

The Political Cat calls our attention to an absurd miscarriage of justice:
Police in Ohio apparently went to the home of a legally blind diabetic cancer patient in her fifties, looking for her son, a felon. The woman, Denise Harris, was suspicious, for legitimate reasons WHIO TV says they will air tonight in an interview with her.

Police are claiming they knocked on her door and she "became combative" and didn't want to talk to them. So they tased her.

Excuse me? They fucking WHAT? Is somebody putting mind-altering drugs in the water in Ohio?
Um, close to my neck of the woods Dupont has been spiking the water with large doses of C8 (aka perfluorooctanoic acid), which is a suspected but unproven carcinogen. But nobody's yet suggested that either C8 or any of the other abundant pollutants in the state is warping our minds. By golly - that might explain a lot. Like why we in Ohio are acting like a bunch of spineless sheep as the rule of law dissolves before our eyes.

Come to think of it, whatever chemical is inducing docility in Ohio seems to be affecting most of the country. Let's hope we find the antidote before November.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Obama Meets the World Cup

So it's been decided: Barack Obama will give his big Berlin speech not in front of the Brandenburg Gate, nor in front of the Schöneberg City Hall (where JFK spoke, and where I wanted to see Obama). Instead, he'll appear next to the Siegessäule. That's "Victory Column," in English, but no one here - including the resident English-speakers - ever uses the English name.

Photo of the Siegessäule by Flickr user dionc, used under a Creative Commons license.

Originally, the Siegessäule was build as a memorial commemorating Germany's victories in its wars of unifications in the late 1860s through 1871. The cannon on it are reputedly real ones, seized from the French and then gold plated.

Detail of the Siegessäule cannon by Flickr user azrael74, used under a Creative Commons license.

You might know the Siegessäule as the pedestal for the iconic golden angel in the Wim Wenders movie, Wings of Desire.

Photo of the Siegessäule by Flickr user tin.G, used under a Creative Commons license.

But if you live in Berlin, the Siegessäule has more immediate associations. It was the focal point of the Love Parade, a sort of mobile rave, back when the parade was still held in Berlin. Yes, some people still listen to techno here. You can even find some classic, 1970s-style punks if you now where to look.

More importantly, the Siegessäule's obvious phallic symbolism - not just the monument itself, but all those big golden guns affixed to it - made it an obvious mascot for Berlin's gay community. There's even a mazagine for gay men that uses it as its namesake. (Bizarrely, the monuments Wikipedia pages don't mention this - neither in German nor in English!)

I'm not sure if the Obama campaign is wise to the gay connection. I'd like to think they are. But the campaign has sometimes been tone-deaf on issues related to sexual orientation (though I think Obama's heart is basically in the right place). Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is openly gay, so this city - with its large and vibrant gay community - would actually be a great place to take a gutsier stand on issues such as marriage equality.

The street between the Siegessäule and the Brandenberg Gate (Strasse des 17. Juni) was most recently used as the "fan mile" when the World Cup was held here in 2006. And that's how the press here is billing Obama's stage - as a new "fan mile." There were reportedly about a million people in that space during the last day of the World Cup, when my beloved Jürgen Klinsmann and his upstart team came to enjoy their accolades. I was there too, even though I had scarlet fever (unbeknownst to me at the time). This is how it looked then (with the Brandenburg Gate done up as a stage, viewed from halfway between the Siegessäule and the Gate):

I have a feeling we won't see quite so many American flags on the coming Thursday, although who knows - the Berliners might be less inhibited about that than the (generally very progressive) expat Americans who live here.

And I'm pretty sure we won't see any of these signs because Klinsi is only married to an American, which doesn't quite make him eligible. More's the pity!

Anyway, the World Cup comparison is yet another sign of how Germans view Obama as a star. And while I don't think he'll attract a million fans, I think he could well draw a larger audience here than he's ever pulled in the United States. I guess I'd better plan to get there early - and find a babysitter for the Tiger, who repeatedly tried to get lost in the crowd during the World Cup.

The last two pictures were taken by my husband.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dickens Meets the Drug Industry

Guinea pig photo by Flickr user Johan Larsson, used under a Creative Commons license.

In keeping with my policy of never scooping any real journalists, I want to say a few words about a commentary that appeared several weeks ago in the New England Journal of Medicine. Carl Elliott and Roberto Abadie reported in the NEJM that participants in Phase I clinical trials – the earliest tests of drugs in human subjects – amount to an exploited research underclass.

Over roughly the past decade, Elliott and Abadie write, pharmaceutical companies have begun routinely outsourcing these riskiest of trials. Private entities pay subjects to take part in trials, outside of the traditional university setting where oversight was less likely to be tainted by conflicts of interests:
Payment to subjects has escalated, creating "shadow economies" in cities throughout North America and elsewhere. In 2005, Bloomberg Markets reported that SFBC International, a contract research organization, was paying immigrants to participate in drug trials under ethically questionable conditions in a dilapidated Miami motel. A few months later, nine apparently previously healthy subjects at an SFBC subsidiary in Montreal contracted latent tuberculosis during a trial of an immunosuppressant. In 2006, six healthy subjects required intensive care in a phase 1 trial of a monoclonal antibody at a London facility run by the contract research organization Parexel.

(Source: NEJM)
Elliott and Abadie ask whether it’s ever ethical to pay research subjects to assume incalculable but potentially life-threatening risks. They argues it’s not, because the subjects will be drawn disproportionately from the very poor, who can earn more as perpetual guinea pigs. And this has three ramifications that make such payment unethical, in their accounting, which I think is spot on:
First, poor people are less likely than wealthier ones to get access to the drugs in question, if and when they are approved. Volunteers are unlikely to have full-time employment or, therefore, to have health insurance. ...

Second, the U.S. oversight system is not well equipped to monitor a highly competitive, market-based, multinational research industry. The Office for Human Research Protections has no jurisdiction over privately sponsored studies, and the Food and Drug Administration inspects only about 1% of clinical trials. ...

Third, even though the purpose of phase 1 trials is to test whether new drugs are safe, most sponsors apparently do not provide free care or treatment for subjects who are injured in these trials. In fact, no agency is even tracking injuries in phase 1 trials, much less the long-term health of people who volunteer for many trials over a period of years. A recent study commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that only 16% of academic health centers provide injured subjects with free care. None compensate injured subjects for pain and suffering or lost wages. Although no comparable data are available for private research sponsors, there is little reason to believe that private sponsors are much more generous; indeed, many include disclaimers in their consent forms indicating that subjects retain responsibility for their own medical care. ...

Sponsors call subjects' payments "compensation" to suggest that they are merely reimbursing participants for expenses and inconvenience, even as they fill studies with unemployed people who depend on trial income to make ends meet. They refer to paid subjects as "volunteers," implying that participation is a freely chosen act of altruism, whereas most subjects indicate that they take part in trials for the money. Regulators allow sponsors to use money to attract subjects but do not require them to provide the kinds of benefits that subjects would demand if they had more power. The result is what one Philadelphia trial subject describes as "a mild torture economy." "You are not being paid to do something," he explains. "You are being paid to endure."

(Source: NEJM)
I’m not especially shocked that this happens, only that it continues today and appears to be getting worse, not better. My own research on women’s experiences of childbirth is largely a story of poor women trading their most basic freedoms to get the most basic care.

An unmarried woman pregnant woman typically lost her job and often her lodgings as well. Her only option, before the advent of maternity homes, was often to seek shelter in a hospital. As obstetrics became more scientific and professionalized, guess who was used as research and teaching subjects?

These were the women who first tested new forms of anesthesia for labor. They were exposed to an auditorium full of male med students while in labor. They had to suffer multiple repeat pelvic exams conducted by the same bumbling students – an experience that must have been akin to rape, for they had signed away their right to say no upon admission.

The full story of these women is too long to tell here. Still, the similarities to today’s research “volunteers” are striking. These women had a choice, too. They could have given birth on a street corner or homeless shelter, and a few did. They could have maintained their independence as prostitutes, and some did. They could have tried to abort the pregnancy, and countless millions did.

So yes, there’s always a “choice.” It’s just that if you’re poor, all your choices may be horrible. And as the economy continues to sour, we can expect the number of “volunteers” to swell. More people will see no better alternative to “being paid to endure.”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Sniffly Penalty for Parenting "Right"

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

So you had a baby. You breastfed for a year (well, ten months, because he was losing interest and you were ready to get your body back). And you waited until he's six months to introduce solid food (well, five months, because he was watching your spoon move with such lust!). And you did all of this "right" - well, by the book, anyway - because your baby's dad has wretched allergies and you wanted to spare him the same fate.

And now? It turns out you did it all wrong:
Delayed introduction of cow's milk and other food products is associated with a higher rather than lower risk for atopic manifestations in the first 2 years of life, epidemiologists in the Netherlands report in the July issue of Pediatrics.

They note that one of the most widely recommended allergy prevention strategies is delaying the introduction of milk and solid foods into the infant's diet. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this advice.

To investigate, Dr. Bianca E. P. Snijders, at Maastricht University, and her colleagues analyzed data from a prospective birth cohort of 2558 infants. Mothers completed questionnaires at 34 weeks of gestation and at 3, 7, 12, and 24 months postpartum regarding food exposures, allergy manifestations, and confounders. Blood samples were collected from the infants at 2 years of age for determination of sensitization.

After adjustment for duration of breastfeeding, sex, exposure to tobacco smoke, maternal characteristics, and family history of allergy, delay in the introduction of cow's milk products beyond 9 months significantly increased the risk of eczema (adjusted odds ratio 2.29).

(Source: Reuters Health via Medscape, free registration required; article also available at without registration; the study is published in Pediatrics 2008;122:e115-e122.)
Translating back from science-ese: Wait too long to diversify your kid's diet and you could more than double his or her chances of living with allergies.

Of course breastfeeding is still a good thing. But women have been made to feel guilty for introducing solid foods "too soon" and for not "exclusively" breastfeeding for "long enough." All of those are spongy terms that seem to shift with the winds of changing medical fashion.

That baby of mine - the one who watched my spoon like a tennis match - was the Bear. He's had the sniffles this week. I've wondered if he might be showing some mild allergies, since he didn't otherwise seem sick. I still don't know. But at least now I'll stop wondering if his sniffles has any relation to those carrots that he wore so cutely all over his face as a plump and happy five-month-old. Of course, he wanted them earlier. Maybe he was right?

It's funny how I wrote nearly a hundred pages in my dissertation on what a crock "expert" advice can be - and yet I'm one of the biggest suckers for it.