Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Palin's Pregnancy Says about Her Poor Judgment

We here at Kittywampus typically think it's far more fun to debunk rumors and conspiracy theories than to spread them. But I've been sick for the past few days with something flu-ish, and while sprawled on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, I've had too much time to read about Sarah Palin. And since I'm a historian of childbirth, the oddities in her pregnancy story set me wondering.

For one, no one on her staff suspected she was pregnant until she announced it at seven months. For another, Palin flew back to Alaska from Texas after her water broke; her son Trig was born a few hours after she reached the hospital. Let's say that again: Palin chose to get on an airplane and travel for at least eight hours after her water broke, risking a preterm birth while in the air.

These improbable details come from Alaskan news reports last spring; they're the closest I'll come to hard facts in this post. But as soon as I started Googling for more information, I learned they've spawned an even weirder rumor: that baby Trig is actually the son of Palin's oldest daughter, Bristol.

I'm only going to touch briefly on the rumor. I think the alleged facts as presented by Palin may actually be more damning. I also have qualms about digging into the private life of a minor child. The issue here is Palin's conduct, not her daughter's. And even Palin's behavior in this regard might be off the table - except she wants to make my uterus part of the public domain, so why should hers be private? Especially when her conduct was downright reckless by just about any standard?

Here's the main evidence for the rumor: Bristol was allegedly out of school due to mono for at least four months - a point that is unconfirmed - in order to hide her pregnancy. If the baby were Bristol's, it would explain why her mother had to hurry back from Texas to Alaska. There are pictures of Bristol that show what could be a baby bump, but might also simply be a belly, as well as photos of an incredibly svelte Sarah two months before her supposed due date. (For more details, see the diary at Daily Kos and a post at Menstrual Poetry, which lay out the most persuasive version of the case.)

The most compelling visual evidence is this photo taken when Palin claimed to be seven months pregnant:

(See the Daily Kos for more photos.)

I don't see even the shadow of a baby bump - and by seven months, you should. During my second pregnancy, my students started speculating was-I-fat-or-pregnant when I was just shy of five months, days before I told them. By seven months, strangers were predicting my baby's sex from the shape of my belly.

Granted, a few women don't show until very late in pregnancy. Most of them are fat to start with. Governor Palin is quite trim. She also had four previous pregnancies, and very few women show less with successive babies. It is possible to be petite and hide a pregnancy until the seventh month; my father's second wife did this in the early 1960s, basically by starving herself. So we'll give Palin the benefit of the doubt. Let's say she restricted her calories and has tremendous abs.

Assuming for just a moment that the rumor is true: As an advocate of abstinence-only education and a foe of abortion, Palin would've had ample reason to insist her daughter carry out the pregnancy - but in secret. This isn't just a plot line from Desperate Housewives. It's a time-honored way for highly religious parents to deal with the personal shame and public embarrassment of a pregnant, unwed teenager. Palin's public position would only have amplified the crisis. Perhaps they'd arranged for an adoption but the Down's diagnosis scuttled the deal - which might explain why Palin announced she was expecting so late in the game. (While the incidence of Down syndrome is exponentially higher in 44-year-olds than in 17-year-olds, it can occur with very young mothers, too. A routine ultrasound could have triggered suspicion if the nuchal fold - a fold in the neck - were unusually thick; so could routine blood testing.)

On the other hand, assuming the rumor is false: Perhaps Palin's fitness routine kept her unusually trim. She might well have kept mum about her pregnancy because she's the sort of high-achieving woman who thinks she has to prove she's ten times tougher than a man. We know she went back to work right after her daughter Piper was born, and we know she likes macho sports like hunting, so this would be in character for her.

But either way - whether the rumor is true or false - Palin's judgment looks pretty poor. If it's true, she's shown herself capable of lying on a grand scale. Yes, this is a family matter, but she has allowed baby Trig to become a political statement - a public symbol of her pro-life views. And do we really need another vice president with a Cheneyesque propensity for cover-ups?

But let's assume the rumor is false - as one must, for Bristol Palin's sake, until some enterprising reporter manages to locate a birth certificate and medical records. (Actually, Palin herself should release all these records and put the rumor to rest. I've found one response to the Daily Kos material with pictures purporting to debunk the rumor, but the appearance of a belly in one photo doesn't explain its absence in others.)

If Palin actually flew from Texas to Alaska after her water broke - and medically, there's no difference between a "leak" and a "break" - it was incredibly irresponsible. Alaska Airlines doesn't bar flying in late pregnancy, so it was entirely Palin's judgment call. Here's how the Anchorage Daily News reported it at the time:
Palin was in Texas last week for an energy conference of the National Governors Association when she experienced signs of early labor. She wasn't due for another month.

Early Thursday -- she thinks it was around 4 a.m. Texas time -- she consulted with her doctor, family physician Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who is based in the Valley and has delivered lots of babies, including Piper, Palin's 7-year-old.

Palin said she felt fine but had leaked amniotic fluid and also felt some contractions that seemed different from the false labor she had been having for months.

"I said I am going to stay for the day. I have a speech I was determined to give," Palin said. She gave the luncheon keynote address for the energy conference.

Palin kept in close contact with Baldwin-Johnson. The contractions slowed to one or two an hour, "which is not active labor," the doctor said.

"Things were already settling down when she talked to me," Baldwin-Johnson said. Palin did not ask for a medical OK to fly, the doctor said.

"I don't think it was unreasonable for her to continue to travel back," Baldwin-Johnson said.

So the Palins flew on Alaska Airlines from Dallas to Anchorage, stopping in Seattle and checking with the doctor along the way.

"I am not a glutton for pain and punishment. I would have never wanted to travel had I been fully engaged in labor," Palin said. After four kids, the governor said, she knew what labor felt like, and she wasn't in labor. ...

They landed in Anchorage around 10:30 p.m. Thursday and an hour later were at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Wasilla.

Baldwin-Johnson said she had to induce labor, and the baby didn't come until 6:30 a.m. Friday.

"It was smooth. It was relatively easy," Palin said. "In fact it was the easiest of all," probably because Trig was small, at 6 pounds, 2 ounces.

Palin said she wanted him born in Alaska but wouldn't have risked anyone's health to make that happen.

"You can't have a fish picker from Texas," said Todd.

(Source: Anchorage Daily News. See also the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.)
It doesn't matter if Palin was not in labor upon boarding the plane. She could very easily have gone into active labor in transit. Between the time her water broke until she arrived in the hospital, nearly 16 hours passed.

Palin's version of the story raises a host of questions:
  • Why would you deliver your speech as scheduled instead of getting checked out by a doctor?
  • Why would you then board a plane without at least being examined by an obstetrician for any signs of fetal distress?
  • Why would you simply inform your physician, rather than asking whether it was advisable to fly?
  • Given that the drop in air pressure can bring on contractions, why would you take a very significant chance on your baby being born on an airplane?
  • Why would you do this knowing he was a month early?
  • Why would you risk it knowing he had Down syndrome, which can affect the heart and other organs in ways that aren't obvious prior to birth?
  • And why would you take the extra time to drive to Wasilla's little hospital, rather than proceeding directly to a major medical center in Anchorage, equipped to handle prematurity and other complications?
You don't have to take my word that Palin was taking a massive risk. At TPM Cafe, a doctor writing under the name of Steevo calls it "incredibly poor judgment." (Steevo's whole post is very informative.)

Regular readers know that I'm not terribly quick to judge or blame mothers. But this incident is not just a parenting issue; it's a matter of basic sense and judgment. If we accept Palin's version of events, she was highly irresponsible. This was batshit crazy.

And quite apart from Palin's position on the issues - which are awful enough - this is not the kind of judgment I want to see in the White House. Eight years of recklessness have been - as Obama said in his great speech - ENOUGH.

Update, 8/31/08, 9:15 p.m.: Reader Molly pointed me to this post by Andrew Sullivan, which suggests the story is moving up the food chain. I highly recommend this excellent, very reasonable analysis by Skeptic Dad. And man, I can't believe the traffic this post is generating. Maybe I ought to cover gossip more often?!

Update 9/4/08, 9:30 p.m.: This post has now eclipsed my all-time greatest hits: the Duggars' 18 kids, the health benefits of ejaculation, and the finger length-testosterone link. If you've made it this far through this post (written fuzzy-headed while I fought a mild flu), you might want to read my somewhat less rambling followups exploring the medical reasons why hopping that flight was foolhardy, and what such macho behavior suggests about Palin's flavor of feminism.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Huckabee Nostalgia

I never thought I'd feel wistful about Mike Huckabee not getting the VP nod. I didn't really think he'd have a chance. He's too extreme in his religious beliefs. He's too retrograde on women's rights.

Ha! After just a day, such troubling questions have arisen about Sarah Palin that I'm wallowing in nostalgia for Huckabee.

Let's run the comparison. First, Palin and Huckabee are both strikingly good-looking. Let's call that a wash even though Huckabee has never been profiled in Vogue. (Neither has ever been on the cover, though a convincing photoshopped fake of Palin as a cover girl made the rounds yesterday.) And yeah, I realize appearance shouldn't even be an issue, but as figleaf points out, John McCain saw Dan Quayle's looks as a great source of electoral appeal, so maybe McCain thinks Palin's beauty will draw some votes.

Now, Quayle was so dumb that he squandered any potential sex appeal as soon as he opened his trap. My first impression of Sarah Palin is that she's brighter than Quayle - although I cringed all the way down to my toenails when she said "nucular" in her first big speech yesterday. My guess is that behind the pretty facade, Palin - much like Huckabee - is reasonably smart and very politically savvy. After all, she mounted a bloodless coup within Alaska's political establishment and defeated a sitting Republican governor in the 2006 primary.

Palin was surely more palatable than Huckabee to the Grover Norquist types because she doesn't seem to share his concern for social justice - the quality that I liked best in Huckabee, along with his sideline as a rock musician. Her plan for lifting Alaskans economically seems to be further exploitation of the state's natural resources. Kinda hard to generalize that to the whole country. (On energy policy, she most closely resembles Dick Cheney - minus the evil scowl.)

When it comes to religious extremism, Palin may just top Huckabee. Especially on the grassroots level, the religious right would have been happy with Huckabee as the VP candidate. But Palin put James Dobson over the moon, according to an AP story:
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who initially said he could not vote for McCain but has since opened the door to an endorsement, called Palin "an outstanding choice that should be extremely reassuring to the conservative base" of the GOP. Dobson added that the ticket "gives us confidence he will keep his pledges to voters regarding the kinds of justices he would nominate to the Supreme Court."
Now, the AP is also reporting that while Palin's office says she does not identify herself as a Pentecostal, she has attended more than one church affliated with the Assemblies of God. Last I checked, the Assemblies of God were at the very heart of Pentecostalism. Why might Palin play this connection down in favor of saying she attends a nondenominational church? In a very even-handed assessment, Professor John Fea, a historian of religion in America at Messiah College, notes that public figures sympathetic to Pentecostalism tend to fly under the radar with the more radical elements of their faith, lest they alienate even other committed evangelicals. He expects Palin will likely do the same.

And that's where it gets scary. Maybe Palin herself does not believe that the Rapture is imminent. Maybe she doesn't believe in demonic possession or exorcism. Maybe she has never spoken in tongues. Maybe she's as skeptical as I about faith-healing. I realize there's a fair amount of variety within Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, and maybe Palin doesn't buy the whole package.

But given her church-going history, Palin needs to clarify her beliefs. While I generally think faith is a private, personal matter best kept out of the public arena, her beliefs becomes our business if she thinks demons are at work in our lives. Or if she believes the Apocalypse is nigh and that we ought to be hurrying it along. Or if she embraces dominion theology - which basically calls for theocracy - as blogger Dogemperor thinks is possible. (My understanding of Pentecostalism isn't deep enough to evaluate Dogemperor's arguments, but I'm inclined to be convinced because his/her analysis of Feminists for Life is spot on.)

Even if Palin only believes in the warmer, fuzzier elements of Pentecostalism, like faith healing, I'm still, well, skeptical. We've already had one president who was completely divorced from the reality-based community. We sure don't need another. And on the whole, Pentecostalism is more loosely tethered to reality than Huckabee's Southern Baptist church.

When it comes to reproductive rights, Palin is about as reactionary as Huckabee, who said he would sign a bill like the one in South Dakota that would have permitted abortion only to save a woman's life. During her gubernatorial campaign, a staffer said Palin would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. However, he also said she'd allow a health exception, which is a loophole that nearly every hardcore anti-abortion activisit wants closed. I have a feeling Palin will be forced to back away from the health exception. Interestingly, she told the press back in 2006 that she favors contraception - which despite being the obvious way to reduce abortions won't sit well with much of the "pro-life" establishment. I'm curious whether she'll stick to her guns.

As I mentioned yesterday, Palin has been lionized by pro-lifers for knowingly giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome. In comments, Heather rightly pointed out that I'd parroted their way of framing her decision (she chose to have the baby "anyway"), which offends many within the disability community. But that is fairly consistently how the pro-lifers view it - as a noble sacrifice:
Palin has been held up by many evangelicals as a model for her decision to give birth to her fifth child in April after learning that he has Down syndrome.

"I think that's a plus in her favor with conservatives," said the Rev. Don Argue, a past president of the National Association of Evangelicals and chancellor of Northwest University in Seattle. ...

[Dobson] called her refusal to abort her fifth child "bravery and integrity in action."

(Source: Yet another AP article.)
Of course, if - like Dobson - you believe there's only one moral response, why single Palin out for unusual bravery?

And why celebrate her "choice"? If McCain and Palin (and Huckabee) have their way, there will be no choice. Period.

Ugh. I think my Huckabee nostalgia has been cured. But I don't feel one bit better.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's Palin-eolithic VP Pick

Wow. John McCain has picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Sarah Palin? WTF??? That's pretty much what the media is saying, too. Palin is so obscure that the reporters on MSNBC admit they're reduced to consulting the Wikipedia's article on Palin, just like me. I was slightly shocked to see that Palin is a few months younger than me - talk about feeling old! - and amused to read that she's a former runner-up for Miss Alaska.

But I actually had heard of her once before this. What jogged my memory was the story of her giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome earlier this year. It was her fifth child. She knew the diagnosis in mid-pregnancy and chose to carry on anyway.

And this, I'm thinking cynically, is her main qualification. She has served as governor for just two years. We all know that lots of social conservatives dislike McCain. Palin is not just red meat for them, she's prime rib. She's a member of Feminists for Life, which mixes a little feminism with lots of "life." As a mother, she has lived her anti-abortion beliefs. (Gotta give her some grudging credit for not being hypocritical.) Oh, and she's a hunter who enjoys mooseburgers (the TV reporters are grooving on that tidbit).

I'm sure McCain is hoping Palin's XX chromosome will help him pick off some votes among centrist women - and maybe even bait a few of those near-mythical PUMAs into voting for a woman candidate. If so, they'd have to be just about delusional to think that Palin - a radical social conservative - is at all fungible with Hillary Clinton. As Debbie Wasserman Schultz just said on MSNBC: "I know Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton."

Palin may be a new, fresh face who made her name as a reformer, but her actual positions on the issues are hard to distinguish from the same old paleo-wingnuttery.

And my goodness, don't the Republicans have better-qualified women? Kay Bailey Hutchison? Christine Todd Whitman? Olympia Snowe? Debra Pryce? Even (shudder) Condi Rice? Oh, whoops! These gals have actual records that might get dragged into the election.

I would have had the same beef if Obama had picked, say, Evan Bayh. Sure, the vice presidential candidate should help corral votes, but they should also be prepared to lead should the president die or become seriously disabled - which in purely actuarial terms is not irrelevant when the president is 72 years old and counting.

The choice of Palin reminds me a little of Mondale selecting Geraldine Ferraro - mere tokenism. We all know how that turned out.

Finally, at the risk of sounding totally judgmental and anti-feminist: I do not think any parent of a four-month-old baby should sign onto a nationwide campaign, even if said baby is totally healthy. A baby that small is so damn needy. I can totally see how the temptation was irresistible; Palin won't be handed this chance again. I realize that if women are going to move up in politics, they can't wait until they're postmenopausal to launch their careers.

But caring for an infant can't be totally outsourced. I'm sure the baby will travel with Palin. They'll hire the best nannies. Even so, I think if you bring a child into the world, you need to be present for them when they're little. A child with special needs will need more than that, as Dan Conley argues eloquently at Open Salon.

For me, feminism also means caring for the weakest among us, and one corollary to that is that both parents need to be willing to reshuffle their priorities to ensure their children's needs are met. How can you do that with an infant while campaigning for the vice-presidency?

And how does that accord with anyone's "family values"?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shorter Repub Response

Even Fox News is having a hard time spinning Obama's acceptance speech against him. (I know. I watched five minutes of Faux News so you won't have to. Don't say I never did y'all a favor.)

Obama was smart, compassionate, moving - and tough. I wanted him to at least mention restoring the rule of law and eliminating torture. Yeah, I know these are downer topics. They would've bogged Obama down in the ugly morass of what to do about the war criminals who've eviscerated the Constitution. But still!

Otherwise, I thought Chris Matthews' drooling response to Obama's speech was about right (and I cannot believe I just wrote that).

So how can the Republicans counter this next week at their convention? They don't have any alchemy of their own.

Since I'm all Fauxed out, I bring you the shorter GOP response :


About Those Supposedly Anal-Retentive Germans ...

I'm back in my verdant garden, and I'm loving it. But goshdarnit, I do miss Berlin - warts, dog poop, and all.

Berlin contradicts lots of stereotypes about Germans. While there are pockets of stodginess, most of the city's younger inhabitants (and by younger, I mean under age 60!) appreciate nonconformity and human variety. Berlin has an openly gay mayor and it's just no big deal. You see punks and anarchists and eager young politicians and artists and students and little old ladies with ridiculous small dogs. You see lots of red, orange, and purple hair. (Call me sentimental, but I just dyed my hair red today; while I'm not quite Nicole Kidman, it looks pretty great.)

The city also puts to rest the idea that Germans are anal-retentively obsessive about cleanliness. Sure, in the south and in most villages, everything is shiny and well-groomed. I've seen people actually rake the gravel in front of their houses into neat, straight lines just to maintain order.

But when you arrive in Berlin, you're liable to slip and fall in a pile of dog shit within your first 48 hours. (This happened to my own dear mom once.) I can't say I love this trait of Berliners, who own some 150,000 dogs according to one estimate. According to my personal estimate, I'd say about 1 turd in 100 gets picked up.

Like any big city, Berlin also has human denizens who regard the world as their potty. Our subway station smelled particularly vile this summer. Apparently someone is trying to reassert order and sanitation on this one count (and I'm all for it), because this lovely sign was posted just outside the station:

Photo by me, Sungold. The sign says "entryway under video surveillance."

What I adore about this sign is that it's not homemade. Someone is mass producing these beauties.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attack of the Big She-Cats

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

What's with all the big-cat metaphors for women of a certain age? Unless you've been in an induced coma all this week, by now you've heard the acronym PUMA - "Party Unity My Ass" - for intransigent Hillary supporters, which as we all know, are all foaming-at-the-mouth, ferociously menopausal women.

Never mind that Katha Pollitt looked for these legendary beasts in Denver and couldn't find any. They were all circling around Chris Matthews like a pride of lions around potential meat, I suppose. Here's what Katha saw:
I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea-- like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. "What about those PUMAs?" I ask.

"There has to be some reality here," Ellie says exasperatedly. "Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now."

(The Nation has the rest of Katha's amusing PUMA hunt.)
Yeah, it's not that to-the-death Clinton loyalists don't exist. They do. They have legitimate gripes against the media's sexism during the primary; not so legitimate against Obama's campaign. Those few who are still holding out on Obama are just playing straight into the Republicans' paws. As Nora Ephron writes in today's Huffington Post, preserving Roe v. Wade ought to be argument enough to sway every remaining Clintonista into the Obama camp.

But most of these alleged PUMAs are the product of Republican machinations. Amanda Marcotte has been exposing the thinness of the PUMA narrative for nearly two months now. At least some of them are this season's version of the Roveian Swiftboaters or the Nixonian ratfuckers.

And then there are the even wackier PUMAs who've crept out of the LaRouche wilderness. Some followers Lyndon LaRouche showed up at Obama's Berlin speech, as my friend Kevin at Rumproast reported a few weeks ago. LaRouchians in Berlin? Not exactly my idea of a broadbased American movement.

The PUMA appellation comes on top of "cougars," those predatory over-the-hill gals on the hunt for tender young man-meat. And with two data points, I think we've got a budding metaphorical field - a new way of framing aggressive, powerful femininity.

I dunno. It's no secret I love cats. I'm fascinated by the big ones, too. But there's no shortage of condescension and misogyny in both of these terms. As Kate Harding acidly observes at Salon, by some definitions, a 40-year-old woman dating a 35-year-old cub already counts as a cougar. A PUMA is by definition shrill and irrational.

So there's no question that pumas and cougars are yet another expression of backlash against feminism. These cats aren't meant to evoke beauty or grace. They're an expression of fear. My gut says it's mostly male fear, but that may be unfair. Lots of women, too, fear powerful female politicians (who put their own powerless into relief or just get branded as bitches). Or they worry that overtly sexual women might steal their man.

The metaphors draw on the current of cultural ailurophobia that goes back at least to the witchhunts, and that has been wed to misogyny ever since. If a pussycat can be a witch's familiar, how much worse these big kitties! In a world where insect bites account for far more disease, death, and misery, we still hold these shared fears of the great cats as - tellingly - "man eaters."

And yet there's an optimistic way to view these big she-cats, too. By definition, backlash only occurs when there's something substantial to oppose. It's no coincidence, I think, that this frame is appearing in parallel with Clinton's candidacy and media reports of women have sex just because they want to.

And didn't Helen Reddy sing it first? "I am woman, hear me ROAR!"

So we've got two options, as I see it, which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. We can ironically appropriate these catticisms, much like feminists have taken back "bitch"; we can be tigresses and lionesses, or at least mama ocelots. Or we can mock them altogether. You've probably already seen this wonderful spoof that ran on the Daily Show last month, but if you haven't, it'll be your best-spent five minutes of the day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Eighty-Eight Years Ago Today

Let's face it: Eighty-eight is a weird number, unless you're a piano player. And so the only reason we're all hearing about today being the eighty-eighth anniversary of American women winning the vote is because the Democratic convention is shining a spotlight on it. And that's only happening because Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be a serious, serious contender for the presidency.

But precisely because eighty-eight is such an artificial number to celebrate, it's got me doing the math. I realized that my grandma - the one who fancied herself the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota - was already thirty when American women achieved suffrage. I was just shy of thirty when she died in 1993.

When you run the calculation that way, eighty-eight years sounds like nanoseconds on a geological scale. It's a lot harder to take for granted our right to vote. And yeah, non-white men got the vote earlier, but if they lived in the South, Jim Crow kept them from actually exercising their vote even when I was a little girl.

And so it's especially frustrating when CNN picks out a teary Hillary delegate from the crowd at the convention in Denver and gives her about five uninterrupted minutes to state that she won't vote for McCain, but Obama has two months to convince her that she shouldn't just stay home. This particular delegate was black, female, and about my age. I don't begrudge her tearing up; heaven knows I got all wet-eyed watching Michelle Obama's speech yesterday, and I did it again today at the thought that McCain could maybe possibly actually win.

But staying home to make a point? You might as well vote for Ralph Nader.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Devils We Don't Know

Exorcist kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Dishing out a little of the Republicans' medicine, Joe Conason notes that some of the names under consideration for John McCain's running mate have much more serious character flaws than the old plagiarism accusations against Joe Biden. To wit, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to have not just witnessed an exorcism but performed one himself. Oh, and while he was at it, Jindal cast out his friend's cancer along with the demons.

Where Conason goes wrong is in assuming Jindal's demonic history is a liability. Not so fast! As I mentioned a few months ago, a Baylor Religion Survey found that 43.6% of respondents believe demons definitely exist, while another 22.6% said they probably do. A miniscule 12.4% ruled them out.

So if roughly two-thirds of Americans believe in demons, and those believers trend Republican anyway, McCain should pick Jindal - why the hell not? He might also try speaking in tongues at the Republican convention next week. That'll get him more votes than promising us another 100 years in Iraq.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reaping What I Sowed

Back in June, about a month later than optimal, I planted something like 30 tomato starts in my garden. I'd grown them from seed - mostly heirloom varieties, with a couple of hybrid cherries - but neglected to plant them on time because I got too busy. (I'm a passionate gardener, but my ambition always outstrips my organization.) They were spindly and purple-yellowed by the time I put them in the ground; if they'd been Christmas trees, Charlie Brown would have taken them home. Before we started our summer travels, I put down newspapers as a weed barrier, my husband caged them, and we mulched them with straw.

Here's those runty little plants, ten weeks later:

The bed in the next photo has traditionally been a lost cause because its inhabitants compete with the silver maple's thirsty roots. But these maters aren't just holding their own, they seem to think they're performing a solanaceous version of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Unsurprisingly, given how late I was in planting them out, my cherry tomatoes are doing the best. They're so rampant that they'll probably be one big mass of disease before long, but for now, they're a jungle of delights.

And here's my namesake, the Sungold cherries. As you might expect, they're juicy and delicious.

I've also got oodles of Snow White, Galinas, Black Cherry, and Sweet Million cherries. Even the Sweet Millions, which are little red guys similar to what you can buy in the stores, have an uncommonly sweet and complex flavor this year. We've picked about three-quarters of a gallon in the past 24 hours - and eaten them all. The big guys are mostly still ripening, but I did carve up a Cherokee Purple for lunch.

Never mind manna. To heck with ambrosia. Tomatoes - juicy, tangy-sweet, and warm from the sun - are the favored foods of the gods.

Threat Level: Tiger Orange

I'm back in Ohio after an almost uneventful trip. Almost, because we had a minor adventure in Tegel Airport, before we ever left Berlin.

Tegel is set up as a 12-sided shape,(a dodecagon, my mathematician friend tells me). Each gate has its own waiting area. This is only feasible because Tegel is a quaint little airport with just over 20 gates in total. (Berlin has two other airports.)

Each gate has its own security checkpoint because that's what the geometry dictates. Centralization is a national pastime in Germany. Tegel is decentralized only because everything else is a mathematical impossibility.

So we're unloading all of our carry-ons onto the belt, and noticing that the security crew seems half-trained and uncertain, and trying to keep an eye out so neither kids nor laptops disappear - when suddenly the belt stops, and stays stopped, with our last two bags trapped inside the x-ray machine.

At first we assume the computer system has frozen up. I figure someone would try rebooting it, but no, the guards have called for outside help. And so we wait.

After maybe ten minutes, there's no sign of any tech geek. Instead, three burly, uniformed police officers appear. This is the first sign that maybe it's not a technical glitch after all.

On the x-ray equipment's screen, it's evident that the offending baggage is the Tiger's Bob the Builder carry-on. Inside it, you can clearly see the outline of the his LeapPad: a couple of batteries, some circuitry, and an irregular loop that connects the stylus to the rest of the toy. Here's how it looks in action, with the stylus cord clearly visible:

Unfortunately, I can't replicate the x-ray view. Just imagine it looks sort of like this, only way more threatening with its innards exposed:

And so we ask: What's the holdup?

"Wir warten auf den Hund." We're waiting for the dog.

Oh dear. They've called in the bomb squad - on account of my son, the Tiger.

As my sister later commented: "We know he can be a terror. But a terrorist?"

The dog eventually appears, frolicking around the equipment with his tongue lolling about. He seems completely unimpressed with the Tiger's foray into international terror. Then again, as any parent knows who's spent hours with a noise-making toy, maybe the LeapPad is the most dangerous item on board. So we unpack it, make it go doodle-doodle-doot, and repack Bob the Builder just as boarding begins.

It's not all that surprising that German airport security is just as paranoid as the American version. They've had over thirty years practice, ever since the Red Army Faction provoked panic in the late 1970s.

The rest of the trip was easy, including re-entry into the U.S., which always makes me nervous. No one confiscated our laptops at the U.S. border; we didn't end up stranded in O'Hare even though oodles of connecting flights were delayed. In Columbus, we managed to fit all ten of our bags into our old Saturn sedan without even having to strap one of the kids to the top. (I did have one carry-on under my feet, though.) To stay awake on the drive home, I ate not one but two Krispy Kreme donuts on the way home - one glazed, one maple frosted. They were divine.

It's great to be back.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In Transition, Again

I probably won't get a chance to post anything substantive for the next couple of days; I'm flying back to Ohio, leaving Berlin behind.

Here's what I'll see when the plane takes off, assuming the fine weather holds. This is the view from the Siegessäule (the reward for climbing up those 285 steps, and then - painfully - back down them). It's also more or less the vista that Barack Obama saw from the ground when he spoke here; he stood at the base of the Siegessäule. The spire is the TV tower that the East German government built to show how high-tech they were. At the end of the street, you can see the Brandenburg Gate.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Binging on Prohibition

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

A legal drinking age of 21 prevents high-risk drinking among college students, right?

Umm ... not so fast. Over 100 college presidents have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, a petition calling for a national conversation on rethinking the drinking age.

Already there's a predictable counterreaction, as the Columbus Dispatch reports:
... Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes and urges parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD's national president.

Joining with MADD is Nationwide, which released a survey last week indicating 72 percent of adults think lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to minors, and nearly half think it would increase binge drinking among teens.
But here's the thing: Unlike the general public, college presidents have a close-up view of underage drinking. A lot of them apparently realize that neo-prohibition has failed miserably on their campuses. Students engage in binge drinking partly because they have to do it on the sly. So they front-load their evenings, drinking heavily behind closed doors, before they mosey out to the bars or parties where they might not be served.

I have an even closer view of the issue because my students have talked to me frankly about it. A year ago, I took an informal in-class poll of who had gotten in trouble for alcohol violations. At least a third of my students in two different sections of 40 raised their hands. That makes roughly 25 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, whose college careers were threatened with derailment. Those who raised their hands are only the ones who got caught and were willing to admit to it in public; the true number is probably somewhat higher. Even those who'd never been caught - including most of the teetotalers - saw the system as capricious and unfair.

The result? Diligent, responsible students are threatened with suspension if they get caught twice with alcohol in their dorm rooms. They don't need to be drinking themselves, they merely need to be in the same room as friends who are imbibing. I've written letters imploring student judiciaries to go easy on students who've been swept up in this trap. Alcohol infractions clog the judiciary system, crowding out plagiarism cases and diverting attention from much more serious violations of policy.

Not least, as long as drinking is criminalized, students are much less likely to report sexual assault. Alcohol is almost always in the mix when college students experience unwanted sexual contact. The Kyle Payne case is only an especially infamous and egregious instance of this. Every sexual assault case that I know about first-hand involved alcohol. But the current approach - "just don't drink and you'll be safe" - is a failure.

I'm not naive enough to think that irresponsible drinking will disappear if alcohol becomes legal on campus. I was an RA for two years in college. I was also a student, fer goodness sake. I did enough stupid things to have a permanent aversion to tequila.

But because I was an RA in the dark ages (1984-86), I also know that things can be different. We RAs bought the alcohol for dorm parties. (Okay, I know that won't fly anymore! You'd get your butt sued.) With social life centered in the residences, we could easily keep tabs on our charges. Sure, people still regularly overindulged. But we knew who was overdoing it, and we made sure they were cared for.

As far as I know, no one was ever sexually assaulted on my watch. It might have happened without my knowing; that's in the nature of acquaintance rape. Certainly in the mid-1980s, "date rape" - as it was then called - was such a new concept, few women would have applied it to nonconsensual sex.

Still, we had a safety net, composed not just of RAs but of friends and dorm-mates and resident faculty. I'm positive that this averted lots of potentially ugly situations. Often, I was part of that net. On more than one occasion, I was the person it protected.

I'd love to bring back that net. Although Gordon Gee of Ohio State has signed the Amethyst petition, the president of my university has not, and I'm sure he won't. My university has a reputation as a party school. Signing the petition could create a short-term PR problem. But in the long run, bringing alcohol use out of the shadows is the first step toward fostering a more responsible drinking culture.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Chinese Century

I know that other feminist bloggers are bemoaning the sexism of Olympic uniforms or the sexist neurosis of gymnastics. And I agree with them pretty well across the board - even though I still adore watching the gymnasts.

It's just that I think there's an even bigger issue encapsulated in these Olympics, and it too has feminist ramifications:

Future historians are likely to look back and see the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the start of the Chinese century.

That conclusion comes not from the careful historian in me who included thousands of footnotes in her dissertation, but the ready-for-prime-time bloviator who pronounced the American century dead a few months ago. Okay, I can't see the future any more than you can, dear reader, but my goodness, the future is here.

Demographically, China is the world's largest nation.

Economically, China is arguably the world's most dynamic nation. Oh, and it owns so much of America's debt, it could squish us like an insect any time it chose. It won't choose to do that just yet, because if it were to destroy the dollar and our economy, China would be left holding lots of worthless debt.

Politically, China is about as authoritarian as it's ever been.

Athletically, it's kicking the rest of the world's ass. Now, I don't get passionate about the Olympics, and I haven't even seen much of the gymnastics (I've been buried in work), but even I know that China's haul of gold medals is making history. When I checked just now, China had 39 gold medals to the United States' 22. If you click that link, their total will no doubt have edged higher.

Why should this matter even to those of us who are tuned out to the Olympics?

Well, the ability to mount a first-class team of Olympic athletes isn't magical. It's not genetic. It's not even a matter of national character or optimism. Apart from those sports (like running) where little equipment is required, Olympic success depends crucially on a country's wealth and - failing that - its ability to marshal resources.

China's gold medals show just how well it's able to extract and mobilize resources, even under conditions of fairly modest wealth. This is why future historians are likely to look back and say: The 2008 Olympics proved that China had arrived - that this century, the twenty-first, would belong to China.

Why is this a feminist issue? Well, as China becomes the dominant world power, other nations will come under tremendous pressure to play the game on its terms. Much as American military and economic prowess pushed other countries to adopt democracy in the twentieth century, China's growing might will create similar pressures to pursue its model of authoritarian capitalism in the twenty-first.

And if I'm right about this, we'll not just be importing Chinese surveillance technologies, as Naomi Klein argues in Alternet this week. We'll be flirting with a more authoritarian form of government that will be far more comprehensive than the cameras and biometric ID cards Klein describes. The mounting energy and environmental crises are going to severely test the American capitalist model, as well as our commitment to democracy and human rights, flawed as they've been. China's ascent will make its model look increasingly attractive if the American economy collapses and the rule of law begins to break down.

But feminism, and indeed all movements to increase equality and freedom, depend on democracy. Feminism can't thrive under an authoritarian regime.

And this is why the Chinese century - like peak oil, like global warming - needs to be viewed as a feminist issue. All of these things are already upon us. All of them threaten American freedoms far more than al-Qaeda will ever do.

The question is merely, how will we respond?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lion King

The Tiger got a new stuffed animal this weekend. He's called Harry, in honor of his mane:

Obviously I'm still damaged from the 1980s, but I had to wonder:

Separated at birth?

Photo of Don King from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Harry Lion by me, Sungold.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cautionary Tales from My Medicine Cabinet

"Pill Jar," photo by Flickr user deepwarren, used under a Creative Commons license.

I mentioned that I've had a miserable week with back pain. It's much improved since I posted on Tuesday, which was the last day I knowingly took half of a Vicodin. After that, I was getting by on ibuprofen (aka Advil or Motrin) but was bemused at how dizzy I still felt.

So I finally took a closer look at the little bottle that my pills were in - which I'd clumsily labeled "ibu" with a ballpoint pen - and scrutinized the pills themselves. They had a string of letters imprinted on each one that I didn't remember seeing on ibuprofen in the past. I googled the letters together with "pill."

And guess what? I'd been popping a Darvocet every six hours. No wonder I thought my back was getting better. No wonder I felt wobbly.

Lessons learned:
  1. If you repackage pills for traveling (the original container for the Darvocet was ginormous), at least label them!
  2. If you don't know what you're taking, google it! The intertubes will know.
  3. If your back is acting wonky, don't climb 285 steps up and 285 steps down (as I did Monday at the Siegessäule, aka the site of Obama's Berlin speech) just because your kids want to do it. I was proud not to be huffing and puffing like a lot of the other climbers - I guess my heart and lungs are in better shape than I thought - but I don't think it improved my back.
I really am feeling much better - just very sheepish at my own dipshittery. I've been repotting my pills for years (I think it must be a congenital trait, my brother does it too) but I've never mixed them up. Until now.

Usually I reserve the label "stupidity" for posts about other people's foolishness, but I think I earned it this week.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Electoral Snow Job

Abominable snow kitten from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Regular readers of Kittywampus know that I spend a disproportionate amount of time ranting about my school district's silly approach to snow days. (One of its great features is that no snow is required, just weather too cold for flip-flops.) If you thought you were safe from this for a few more months, brace yourself for an unseasonable snow day rant ...

... because the a number of central Ohio schools have already declared November 4, Election Day, a fucking snow day! As the Columbus Dispatch reports:
At least six central Ohio suburban districts -- Bexley, Dublin, Groveport, Reynoldsburg, Westerville and Worthington -- have called off school on Election Day.
Today, says the Dispatch, the Franklin County Board of Elections was scheduled to consider asking Columbus city schools to do the same. The problem, apparently, is that the schools become overcrowded and voters have trouble finding a parking spot. Security issues also apparently play a role, although I'm not sure who's endangering whom. My district isn't on the list ... yet.

I'm not willing to say this is just Ohio's problem. Ohio seems to be a bellwether for electoral snafus as well as for who will win the presidency. We are the canary in America's pseudo-democratic coal mine.

Hey folks, I know it's too late for this election cycle, but if we've reached the point where Ohio's electoral woes are forcing us to cancel school - thus depriving children of crucial educational experiences, or at least creating massive childcare problems for their parents - then isn't it time to start thinking outside the box?

What about if we followed the example of most European countries? My German friends are bewildered at our "first Tuesday after the first Monday in November" scheduling. Not because that's such a mouthful, but because it strikes them as utterly stoopid not to hold elections on Sundays, when fewer people have work conflicts. I realize Congress would have to pass a law, but if it has time to pass resolutions against MoveOn's Petraeus/Betray Us ad, seems like it could squeeze Sunday elections onto the agenda.

The only downside I see to this is that the nice older ladies (my mom and her friends) who volunteer at the polls would have to play hooky from church. Call me a heathen, but I think that's a lesser evil than calling off school. And wouldn't it be lovely if our paragon of democracy didn't have one of the world's worst voter-turnout records?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Musings on the Edwards Affair

The night before last, in a fit of curiosity, I cross-posted my essay Surviving Cancer, Surviving Affairs on Salon's new blogging/social-networking platform, Open Salon. I've been a long-time Salon reader, so I was curious to test-drive this new feature. My post somehow caught the eye of Salon's editor-in-chief, Joan Walsh, who quoted a lengthy excerpt in her column.

All of which was kind of cool, but since the excerpt didn't include the part where I said "that doesn't mean it was right" for John Edwards to cheat on his wife, a lot of letter-writers who responded to Joan Walsh's column felt that she and I were making excuses for him.

So I'll just say it one more time, with feeling: He done her wrong. John did not have Elizabeth's blessing to go outside the marriage. Her statements make clear that she was deeply, deeply hurt.

At the same time, I'm still frustrated by the dominant but simplistic trope of "what kind of a monster cheats on a sick spouse?" For those who've never experienced cancer or other serious illness, it may be hard to imagine how illness and its aftermath can mess with people's heads and hearts. Otherwise decent people can make hurtful decisions when they're not thinking or feeling straight. This goes for patients and caretakers alike.

Moreover, sexual infidelity is only one possible form that failure and betrayal can take. I have not slept with anyone other than my husband since I married him, 14 years ago to this day. I believe he can truthfully say the same. And yet, we've both failed each other in a variety of ways, as long-term partners inevitably will. Most of these failures occurred in the aftermath of illness. By now, we're back in a pretty good place, but it took work. It took us recommitting to each other again and again.

In that light, John Edwards' behavior looks wrong but not incomprehensible. It's harder to see him as Evil, though we may still see him as weak. He's not inhuman. He's just human.

And if we acknowledge that, then we have to inject a little humility into the three-ring-circus of judgmentalism. We have to let his family and his higher power judge his private misdeeds.

As for his public misdeeds, I purposely didn't address them in my original post. I chose to "write what I know" because I thought I could shed a different light than most of the commentary I'd read, and because I wanted to engage a conversation on relationships and serious illness. That doesn't mean I believe the political questions are trivial. On the contrary! I just thought others were covering the political side much more thoroughly.

As more facts and questions have come to light, though, I'm becoming increasingly concerned that l'affair Edwards might dog the Democratic Party through the rest of this election cycle. So, for the record, here is how I think it genuinely affects the public interest.

First, there's the question of whether the affair began before Rielle Hunter was hired. Some sources suggest this was the case. If so, then Edwards can fairly be accused of misappropriating campaign funds in hiring her.

Second, we know that Hunter has received millions of dollars, ostensibly to help rebuild her life after harassment by the tabloids. To me, this goes a tad beyond the call of kindness. (We should all have such generous friends in our lives!) Again, if any of this money came from political contributions, whoever is responsible needs to be held accountable.

Third, it was unquestionably reckless for Edwards to run for president with a major skeleton in his closet. In an ideal world, voters could distinguish between private behavior and public competence. But in America, they don't. And so the philandering politician lies. And then he gets caught. And then half of America is shocked at his sexual activities, while the other, purportedly more liberal half, cries: "It's not the sex! It's the lying!" - never mind that the lies were about entirely private (albeit foolish) behavior. Yeah, it's politically immature of us. But that's how things work in America, and Edwards knows this; he's too savvy a politician to claim naivete. He knew full well that if his affair became public, his chances at the presidency would be toast. And so he not only wronged Elizabeth, he also deceived his supporters and put the future of his party at risk. Imagine if he were the presumptive candidate right now!

Fourth, I'm suspicious about why Rielle Hunter is refusing to allow a paternity test to be conducted. Could it be that she's being paid off on the condition that she continues to refuse testing? This would allow John Edwards to act innocent - he's agreed to be tested - without putting him at any risk.

All of these unanswered questions are at least a distraction from Obama's campaign efforts. At worst, they may become a drag on the Democratic party, including the down-ticket races. I assume Edwards went public now in hopes of averting a big blow-up closer to November 4, but if he has failed to come clean - or worse, appears to be harboring more secrets - his grand confession will have been for naught.

And then there's one other thing that's bugging me, which is in a totally different register. Why does so much of the commentary revolve around the question of "why men cheat"? Sure, very, very few female politicians have been caught out in sex scandals. But garden variety affairs normally require two partners, and very often both are married. The statistics on infidelity are not terribly reliable, but on average they seem to show about a ten percentage-point gap between married men and married women. So why do we cling to this narrative of faithless men getting it on with desperate/victimized/conniving single gals?

I guess that loops back to my original frustration with the simplistic stories we Americans want to tell ourselves about that complex and mysterious thing, marriage.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Uncomfortably Numb

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

My back has gone, well, kittywampus on me. I've got an old lower-back injury that dates back nearly twenty years, to the time I got stuck in O'Hare Airport overnight with Grey Kitty and no money for a hotel room.

Technically, the pain in my back is actually located in my backside, which means, as the Bear pointed out, I actually have a pain in the butt. I said that's better than being a pain in the butt. He wisely refrained from further comment.

So I'm stewing in muscle relaxants and opioids, all legally obtained. (Yes, I'm talking to you, DEA, if you're listening in.) The furniture is still in one place, maybe because some of it is bolted to the walls. But I'm not really capable of stringing together a coherent thought.

I'd make a terrible junkie; the buzz is fun for a few hours, but then I want my brain back. More substantive posting will resume once the drugs have worn off.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Visible and the Invisible

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

No, this isn't a post about the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, though I ripped off his title. It's about some really cool science news: Researchers now have the tools to make you invisible. Not just hide you from radar (in case you were worrying about that; I know I was) but really, truly, sci-fi-fantastically invisible.

The AP reports (via the Columbus Dispatch):
Researchers have demonstrated for the first time they were able to cloak three-dimensional objects using artificially engineered materials that redirect light around the objects. Previously, they only have been able to cloak very thin two-dimensional objects.

The findings, by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, led by Xiang Zhang, are to be released later this week in the journals Nature and Science.

The new work moves scientists a step closer to hiding people and objects from visible light, which could have broad applications, including military ones.

People can see objects because they scatter the light that strikes them, reflecting some of it back to the eye. Cloaking uses materials, known as metamaterials, to deflect radar, light or other waves around an object, like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream.

Metamaterials are mixtures of metal and circuit board materials such as ceramic, Teflon or fiber composite. They are designed to bend visible light in a way that ordinary materials don't. Scientists are trying to use them to bend light around objects so they don't create reflections or shadows.

(Source: Associated Press)
If these cloaks actually became widespread beyond the military sphere, they would radically change our perception of space and embodiment. If you saw someone before you, you could be pretty sure they were for real. But empty space might be empty ... or might conceal another person. Our ideas of privacy would be radically transformed. So would the opportunities for outdoor sex.

So here's my question. If you had an invisibility cloak, what would you do with it?

I made the mistake of telling my kids about this story, in a vain effort to stave off pre-bedtime meltdowns, and now they naturally want an invisibility cloak for Christmas. The Bear says he'd use it to play hide and seek. The Tiger said, "If you was a little kid, you could walk around alone." I asked him if he really meant that - I still have waking nightmares of him running away in crowds, which really only ended this summer - and he said yep, he would like to get around without having to hold onto any grow-mutt (aka grown-up).

I'd like to have an invisibility cloak so I could listen in on the goofy things the kids say and believe when they don't think the grow-mutts can hear. Like the time the Bear and a couple of his friends were talking about what would happen if your brain was too big and your head exploded.

If you had an invisibility cloak, what would you choose to do with it?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Praise of Political Correctness

"Agonised Clowns" - photo by Flickr user tallkev, used under a Creative Commons license.

I don't usually have much use for political correctness. I'd much rather have a free-wheeling discussion. When I teach women's studies, I make that clear on day one, though it usually takes a couple of weeks until the great majority of my new students trust that I mean it. The result is that even Republican supporters of pregnancy crisis centers feel free to speak their minds - and I've developed nice relationships with people whose views are the polar opposite of my own.

But darn it, I hit my limit last night.

I was out at a beer garden with my family, having dinner before my mother-in-law took the night train home. This is something I love about Germany. A beer garden can be a perfectly nice environment for kids. This one, the Johannesgarten, has a slightly ramshackle, dusty playground.

I'm equally delighted by the fact that the Johannesgarten is run by the Johanniskirche - St. John's (Lutheran) Church - in the verdant space next to its sanctuary. Imagine even the United Church of Christ or the Unitarians doing something like this in the U.S.! The idea is to reach people where they live, and so this congregation also hosts puppet shows for kids and other neighborhood activities.

Last night, the Johannesgarten hosted a free variety show, and as always the intent was good. Right away it was clear that the emcee wasn't very funny. That alone would've been fine. I know lots of funny Germans - I don't last long with humorless people - and there's also a growing number of hilarious, talented people in the German comedy scene. Even so, lots of the mainstream, mass-media humor tends to be pretty hokey.

The show took an ugly turn, though, when his sidekick appeared onstage. The emcee introduced him as Blondie. The sidekick was a black man. And his schtick was the most unreconstructed Steppin Fetchit act I'd ever seen.

I don't know what I found more disturbing: That the show's sponsors at the church thought this was okay. Or that at least half of the audience convulsed in giggles at the name Blondie. Or that some unemployed black actor felt compelled to take on this humiliating role.

I wouldn't argue that German society is more racist than American. It's certainly more overtly racist, simply because "political correctness" hasn't pressured people to examine their stereotypes about race (apart from anti-Semitism, which is discussed at length in the schools). People of my mother-in-law's generation (over 70) have loads of unreconstructed racist notions. But then again, a lot of stand-up comedy in the U.S. plays with stereotypes - including racial ones. It's virtually never funny in the U.S. either. A lot of the laughter stems from embarrassment. I'd like to think that was true for part of the Johannisgarten audience as well.

At any rate, for a few moments I found myself yearning for a bracing dose of political correctness. Not just because I was offended and embarrassed - though that was my main beef - but also because there's just no way to be entertained after you've seen the Jim Crow era come alive onstage. Even the quite good Parisian juggler couldn't tickle me. I was just deeply relieved when it was time to get my mother-in-law to her train.

It turns out that it's not so-called political correctness but racism that's the mortal enemy of humor.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Surviving Cancer, Surviving Affairs

So I wasn't entirely shocked at John Edwards' admission that he'd had an affair in 2006. Mostly, I was relieved that Elizabeth Edwards wasn't standing by his side. Maybe everyone learned from the sad spectacle of Silda Spitzer that the straying mate only looks worse when the spouse appears beside him while he makes his confession.

While most of the non-tabloid media attention has focused on how Edwards' disclosure might affect the presidential race, I've been obsessing instead on the connections between cancer, survivorship, sexuality, and relationships.

Now, I don't know anything about the Edwards' marriage. I believe that all marriages are deep mysteries - often enough to the partners themselves, and certainly to the outside world. I do know something about surviving cancer, however, and the still-taboo topic of how it can affect a marriage or other committed relationship.

The facts, as we know them, are that John Edwards had an affair in 2006 with a video producer for his campaign, Rielle Hunter. He has specifically said it occurred at a time when Elizabeth's cancer was in remission. It ended well before she was diagnosed with a recurrence in March of 2007. Indeed, he confessed to her back in 2006 and asked her for her forgiveness. She decided to stay in the marriage.

What follows is informed speculation. It's based on a mixture of my own experiences as a spouse of a two-time cancer survivor (a term my husband and I both dislike, because it falsely implies the experience is finite) and those of other couples who've dealt with cancer. In the interest of everyone's privacy, I've blurred some of my experiences with those of others.

For most couples going through cancer, the diagnosis and immediate treatment are a time of solidarity. The healthy partner supports and cares for his or her partner during chemo or radiation or recovery from surgery - or some combination of the above. The sick partner rallies to the extent physically possible and is grateful for support from every quarter, but especially from the caretaking spouse. You each marvel at the others' strength, and you're grateful that you have each other. (I realize a few spouses totally freak out, but I'm pretty confident that most react by drawing on their better angels.)

Then, abruptly, treatment ends. And you have to figure out how to rebuild your lives, and how to be a "normal" couple again. Nobody warns you about this. There's no roadmap. You might not even realize you're still on a major journey until you're already lost deep in the woods. No wonder lots of people's relationships founder.

Here are some of the ways the survivor can react. He or she can pretend everything is okay, which is right in line with the cultural script, but is bound to fail. He or she might fall into deep depression. Or act positively manic. Or be paralyzed with anxiety. Or try to make up for lost time by acting like a teenager. Or dwell obsessively on every bodily twinge. Or go on a fitness kick. Or any combination of the above, plus a whole kaleidescope of other possible reactions.

Through all of this, the overwhelming cultural message is very simple: You should be deeply grateful to be alive.

The post-treatment process of coping and rebuilding and grieving is more complicated, of course, if treatment has affected the person's sexuality. That's perhaps obvious for breast or uterine or prostate cancers. But chemotherapy often has medium-to-long-term effects on hormone levels and libido. Surgery and scars can lead to feelings of unattractiveness. I've heard anecdotally of prostate cancer survivors who became so depressed about their sexual losses that they took their own lives. So much for survivorship.

What's more, any form of cancer can result in profound alienation from one's own body. If your cells have risen up against you, how can you trust your own flesh? How can you revel in it again? And if you do find a way back to pleasure, will you still include your partner in it?

(That last question goes back to a woman I knew who'd had surgery for breast cancer, then got reconstructive surgery several years later. She was thrilled with her new shape. Soon thereafter she divorced her husband of 20 years. I don't know exactly what happened between them - they'd also spent years living in a trailer while building a house with their own hands - but clearly her "new" body played some role as a catalyst.)

The "healthy" partner, too, has to readjust, though he or she may not even realize this. Speaking for myself, I was so invested in the idea that I couldn't burden my husband with mundane frustrations that I bottled up a lot of resentments, and I had to learn again that he was strong enough to be an equal partner - that I didn't have to "protect" him constantly. I'm pretty sure there are lots of variations on these themes, too.

Both partners may be just sick to death of sickness. And that's the first thing my husband said when I mentioned John Edwards' confession. He said, maybe Edwards had an affair because he just wanted things to be normal again. Maybe he was tired of cancer and treatment.

My first thought was that maybe one or both of them just couldn't see a way to reconnect erotically after breast cancer. Speaking only for myself again, when I had a scare with an unclear mammogram - one that took months to clear up - I felt profoundly alienated from my body as a source of pleasure. And I didn't even have cancer, just a bad case of paranoia!

Maybe having an affair when your spouse has just faced down mortality is a way of affirming your own survival. Maybe it's a form of denial about your partner's mortality, and your own. This might be just an extension of the stereotypical mid-life crisis - but cranked up to eleven.

And maybe, with the pressures of raising two young kids and running for president (which I'd bet are only one notch tougher than raising two young kids and teaching at a university!) the Edwards just hadn't yet figured out how to be a couple together again.

In the end, why John Edwards strayed will remain a mystery to everyone outside his family, and that's only right. They deserve their privacy. A marriage should remain a mystery to everyone outside it.

And yet, while he publicly said he had an affair because he'd grown selfish while campaigning, I think his motivations must be more complex. No one comes through cancer treatment unscathed. Not the patient, and not his or her partner.

With this in mind, I don't think you have to approve of his actions to acknowledge that both he and Elizabeth were under tremendous pressure, and that his affair might be at least partly a reaction to their cancer crisis. That doesn't mean it was right. It's even possible he's just a horndog on the Bill Clinton model - though my gut feeling is that he's not.

I just think there's way more room here for compassion than for judgment.

Finally, I think this news may illuminate why Elizabeth Edwards decided to stay on the campaign trail after her recurrence was diagnosed, and why she seemed to arrive at her decision so quickly. As the AP reports:
In a statement last night, Elizabeth Edwards said that after a "long and painful process" she decided to stand by her husband. Mrs. Edwards called the affair a "terrible mistake" but said the healing process was "oddly made somewhat easier" after her diagnosis of a reoccurrence of breast cancer in March 2007.
First, it sounds to me very much as though the new diagnosis put the Edwards back into the "let's fight this beast together" mode. And secondly, Elizabeth had already decided to stick with John after he'd disappointed her. Cancer, at least, is impersonal in its cruelty. Having forgiven her husband for his deliberate actions, Elizabeth had already cast her lot with him. I can totally understand why she wouldn't let cruel but impersonal fate affect her loyalty.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Inlaw Visitation

In-law kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

No, my mother-in-law isn't a meddler. But she's here for a visit, and so posting may be thin for the next day or two.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Babies, Biology, and Ideology

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

For feminists and women's health advocates, it's not exactly news that the life sciences aren't quite the beacons of objectivity that they purport to be. Even so, a study released today on the risks of pregnancy over age 40 is startling in how its conclusions are totally warped by ideology.

Published in the Journal of Women's Health, the study - "Pregnancy Late in Life - A Hospital-Based Study of Birth Outcomes," by Ali Delpisheh et al. - concludes that fetal risks rise sharply after about age 40.
Background: Pregnancy in older women is of great relevance, particularly in developed countries where many women experience pregnancy late in the childbearing age.

Methods: A hospital-based data analysis of 9506 delivery records from 1998 to 2003 at the Liverpool Women's Hospital was undertaken to assess pregnancy outcomes in older women of reproductive age.

Results: Overall, 2.4 % of mothers were >40 years of age (advanced), 5.6% were <20 style="font-style: italic;">followed a U-shaped curve with nadirs in the middle age classes. ... [my emphasis]

Conclusions: Pregnancy in older women is associated with adverse birth outcomes, particularly in primigravidas. Increased health promotion is required to highlight the risk of adverse birth outcomes in women who become pregnant for the first time in the late childbearing years.
So, okay. We already knew that pregnancy becomes riskier for both mother and child as the mother grows older. But first, note that the data follow a curve. Women don't suddenly drop off a cliff after age 40. If you go to the full-length study (available for free in .pdf format) you'll see that it really is a U-shaped curve.

Second, and more importantly: The data in the full text of the study clearly show that by all three measures (low birthweight, preterm birth, and small for gestational age), the babies of young mothers - defined here as less than 20 years old - fare just as poorly.

Yet the intro and conclusion of this abstract fail to even hint that extreme youth could be just as problematic as advancing age. Indeed, given that adolescents outnumbered the older gals by a ratio of 5 to 2 in this study, their babies' health problems represent a greater public health problem and an even larger contribution to human suffering.

Moreover, this study was conducted in Great Britain, a nation with universal health insurance. In the United States, the rate of complications among very young mothers is likely to be higher yet because they are less likely to be insured than the older crowd. In the United States, furthermore, complications of prematurity among uninsured adolescent mothers mean that 1) taxpayers will foot much of the bill for the NICU, and 2) those adolescent mothers will suffer financial worries along with the emotional rollercoaster of caring for a baby born too soon. Having watched friends deal with significant prematurity, I know I'd struggle even at my "advanced age." How much harder would that be if you, the mother, were only 16 or 18!

Now why would careful scientists fail to highlight the second half of their findings? Could it be that the cultural anxieties about women deferring marriage and childbearing have spilled into the hospital and lab, too? Because I honestly see no other reason why the abstract (which is all many doctors and journalists will read) should omit the sufferings of adolescents. The way the problem is currently framed, it plugs right into a discourse of blaming women for first establishing a career before starting a family, while ignoring the real physical risks of very early motherhood.

Parenting between the Cliffs of Risk and the Rocks of Pragmatism

Cliffs and rocks at Big Sur, California, photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in comments on my feminist homeschooling post and at her own blog, Marcy of Marcy's Musings suggested that my arguments against long-term withdrawal from the paid labor market were driven by a politics of fear. She pushed me to keep thinking about this, since they way I mix my feminism with my parenting is definitely not driven by fear. It’s a balance between risk-taking and pragmatism, which recognizes that "choice" is illusory unless you've got a clear picture of the trade-offs.

Honestly, a lot of people (feminists or not) might say I take a few too many risks. Too many years in grad school? Check. In an "impractical" field? Check. Married a foreigner whose training is in philosophy? Check. Rode home the other night on my bike after midnight - alone - through the big city of Berlin? Check. In other areas, though, I'm boringly risk-averse: I won't talk on a cell phone while driving, and I'm very careful with my kids' safety.

We all take risks - some smart, some stupid - and the trick is to figure out which risks are worthwhile. Marcy recognizes, for instance, that her decision to stay home with her kids through their school years entails a financial risk. She doesn't deny it, though she reduces it mostly to the risk of divorce, while I see the issue as broader: a spouse can also die or become disabled while kids are still young. My husband narrowly escaped death twice, and he went through a prolonged period of disability.

My story is far from unique. The Sungold family tree indicates why it's important for women not to become too dependent financially over the long term. One grandma was divorced from an alcoholic husband in her early twenties. (Circa 1912! Imagine the scandal!) She raised her two daughters alone until she met my grandpa nearly two decades later and then gave birth to my dad. One of my dad's half-sisters was divorced while her daughter was still tiny. His other half-sister was widowed in her early fifties. My maternal grandma was widowed while still in her early forties, with four children to support, the youngest (my mom) only six years old. Both my mom and her sister were divorced while they still had young children at home. Their two brothers remained married to the same women into old age.

So, in those two generations, only two of eight women enjoyed a husband's support throughout their childrearing years. (And those two were farm wives who worked from dawn to dusk and beyond.) It's not that the women in my family are unusually flaky, either; those who divorced did so only under considerable duress. While none of the women in my family chose single motherhood, they still had to find ways to cope, financially and emotionally. For instance, both my grandmas were teachers, and that's how they held their families together.

My family tree suggests why it's neither pro- nor anti-feminist to say that women run greater risks the longer they're completely financially dependent on a mate. The risks are simply a pragmatic reality.

Now, Marcy interprets my argument as saying
women shouldn't have the freedom to do what we find fulfillment in, if it means we might be dependent on the men in our lives, because if those men should fail, we will be in serious trouble. We should follow the current cultural pattern and go to work so we will have a "safety net" in case our husbands should walk out on us.
(Read the rest here.)
No, what I'm saying is something different. I'm suggesting that we need to balance a quest for fulfillment with awareness of the risks of long-term dependence, which grow over time. Only if we're realistically aware of the risks can we make informed and conscious choices.

I'm not at all arguing that mothers should take six weeks' maternity leave and then plunge back into work full-time. I'm not inveighing against stay-at-home parenting. My own choices have tilted in that direction since my first baby was born. I chose to take the financial risk of parenting first - and working for pay only secondarily - during my kids' preschool years. I believe kids need intense attention while they're very young. As infants, my boys got that almost entirely from their dad and me. Starting from around their second birthday, they went to daycare half-days with six other kids and a wonderful caretaker; they loved it, and I could work part time. Only now, with both kids in school, am I returning to work full time. I'm lucky I'll still be able to pick up the kids after school, since I can grade and prep classes at home. My work responsibilities have allowed me to spend lots of time with my kids, and to enjoy the sort of self-fulfillment that Marcy describes. I was lucky that my husband supported (and quite literally subsidized) this arrangement. Other people make other choices, and that's okay too, as long as their choices are conscious and well informed.

Indeed, failure to recognize the importance of active, involved parenting - and its rewards for children, mothers, and fathers - poses very significant risks of its own. The truth is, most jobs are a hell of a lot less interesting than mine, and it's very common for parenting to be far more fulfilling than paid work. That goes for most of men's jobs, too, although lots of fathers still find their fulfillment through the breadwinner role - sometimes too narrowly, at the expense of closer relationships with their children.

Where I differ from Marcy is mainly in the length of time we're spending outside of the paid labor force. The risk here is that re-entry into the labor force becomes increasingly difficult, the longer you've been out. For women, this has historically translated into a substantial risk of poverty in old age or upon their marriage ending. (One of my aunts is in precisely this position now, at age 76.) If the kids are still at home, they're hurt by poverty, too.

In other words, I'm arguing that we need to consider the long-term perspective in our decisions. For me, it made sense to roll back my career to spend lots of time with my little ones. That was a risk and a trade-off. It struck me as worthwhile - and it was. But I see how its costs continue to rise over time. The choice to homeschool, if it means two decades or more outside of the labor force, carries risks and sacrifices that would be too costly in my life. Above all, my children would depend on me completely if my mate's health failed again.

Other folks are free to take that risk, and for some parents whose circumstances are different than mine, it may make sense. However, it would be misleading to portray these significant risks as minimal or to argue that homeschooling may be a more feminist choice than relying on the public schools. The only feminist choice, I'd say, is one that's thoroughly informed.

Finally, I really haven't addressed the elephant in the room: socioeconomic class. It should be clear, though, that the capacity for real choice depends on a certain level of prosperity. In many families, both parents must work in order to avoid eviction and keep the utilities on. That's when choice - even to take a brief maternity leave - can become an unattainable luxury. And that's why poverty has to be a central issue for feminists. That would be a whole 'nother post.