Friday, October 31, 2008

Lady in Red

Here's how to become invisible to men: Turn 35 and have a baby or two. (Never mind the MILF stereotype; an actual real live baby is not generally a major attractant to random men.)

Here's how to become visible to men again: Clothe yourself in red.

Or so say scientists at the University of Rochester who've found evidence that men are more attracted to women who are either clad in or surrounded by the color red.
To quantify the red effect, the study looked at men's responses to photographs of women under a variety of color presentations. In one experiment, test subjects looked at a woman's photo framed by a border of either red or white and answered a series of questions, such as: "How pretty do you think this person is?" Other experiments contrasted red with gray, green, or blue.

When using chromatic colors like green and blue, the colors were precisely equated in saturation and brightness levels, explained [researcher Daniela] Niesta. "That way the test results could not be attributed to differences other than hue."

In the final study, the shirt of the woman in the photograph, instead of the background, was digitally colored red or blue. In this experiment, men were queried not only about their attraction to the woman, but their intentions regarding dating. One question asked: "Imagine that you are going on a date with this person and have $100 in your wallet. How much money would you be willing to spend on your date?"

Under all of the conditions, the women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colors. When wearing red, the woman was also more likely to score an invitation to the prom and to be treated to a more expensive outing.

The red effect extends only to males and only to perceptions of attractiveness. Red did not increase attractiveness ratings for females rating other females and red did not change how men rated the women in the photographs in terms of likability, intelligence or kindness.

(See the whole press release here.)
So I'll go out on a limb here and say yes, independent Kittywampus research confirms this. Of course, our scientific standards are low - one data point will do ya - as befits the walnut-sized feline brain.

When I was on my way to the Berkshire Conference last summer, I experienced something that hadn't happened to me since my kids were born. I had a middle seat on the airplane. On either side of me were attractive men in their early to mid fifties. Both seemed interested in flirting with me. Not that I was looking for it - and mind you, I was on my way to a conference with 99% female attendees, so even if I'd been single, I doubt I would have been in that mode. But it was interesting and, okay, gratifying to not be invisible.

It's funny; when you're young, unwanted male attention ranges from annoying to threatening, but when it disappears altogether, that too is a harsh insult.

So maybe it's just that I'm a veritable man magnet (ha!) and my superpowers were unleashed as soon as I didn't have my two kids in tow.

Or maybe it's that I was wearing red. This combination, to be precise, which includes some of those nice yellows that attract garden pests (and that the researchers apparently didn't test).

(Bear in mind, I wasn't doing my fake ballerina pose on the plane.)

For what it's worth, my two young sons love this red and gold combination too, so maybe the red preference starts really early, in that stage of childhood innocence where they just know they love bright colors, and they love their old mama, and the two things together are irresistible.

So I'm on board with the University of Rochester scientists' findings. But I really balked at how they were reported in the media. The report I initially read - from WTAE in Pittsburgh - said this, again echoing the press release:
"Our research demonstrates a parallel in the way that human and nonhuman male primates respond to red," they wrote. "In doing so, our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed: that men act like animals in the sexual realm. As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive."

(From the report at WTAE Pittsburgh.)
Ha! We knew it! Men are just beasts!

(Sigh. Deep, exasperated, frustrated sigh.)

Look. I'm plenty willing to believe that men are animals. I'm just not willing to believe that women are somehow higher. Put women up on a pedestal, and we're guaranteed to fall down.

I was all ready to blame the scientists for signing on to these assumptions when I decided to track down the original study, which appears in the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (full text available for a fee here; I used my library access). Their article shows that the university's public relations people and the media share the blame for catering to stereotypes, while the scientists appear to have been scrupulously evenhanded:
As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive. Women, however, may have little room for phylogenetic pride, as it is possible that they respond to male red in a manner similar to that of nonhuman female primates. In several species of primate, red is displayed most prominently in dominant males (Setchell & Dixson, 2001), and females appear to be particularly attracted to male conspecifics showing red (Darwin, 1874; Waitt et al., 2003). Interestingly, women find dominant men highly attractive (Rainville & Gallagher, 1990; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987), especially during ovulation (Gangestad, Simpson, Cousins, Garver-Apgar, & Christensen, 2004), and it may be that women perceive red on men as a dominance cue with amorous implications. We have recently begun to examine the question of women’s response to a “gentleman in red” (which, it is important to reiterate, is independent of the question of men’s response to a “lady in red”) and have acquired preliminary evidence that a display of red on a man indeed increases his attractiveness to women. Thus, at least with regard to red and sex, it seems that neither men nor women will be able to rightfully claim the evolutionary high road.

(Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta, "Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2008, Vol. 95, No. 5, 1150–1164; quotation from p. 1161)
In other words, we're all animals. I'm cool with that.

In fact, I'd love to see the researchers take a closer look at women's affinity for pink and purple. Sure, those are classic sparkle pony and Barbie colors. But in us hairless mammals at the top of the food chain, aren't pink and purple also sex colors par excellance?

Just coincidentally, my husband is wearing a red fleece jacket this evening. Yum ...

Trick or Treat for Change

Since I live in Halloween heaven (or hell?) - a college town where tens of thousands of revelers will cavort in the streets this weekend - my little town schedules trick or treating on the preceding Thursday. I guess the goal is to separate the wee ghosties from the rioters. (Never mind that the actual riots usually break out only as the bars are closing.) It took me a couple of years to get used to this, and I still think it's weird. As my sister said today: "And do you celebrate Christmas on December 23, too?"

So yesterday we went trick or treating, and I saw this cool Barack O'Lantern (not ours, I'm sorry to say):

Today I saw something even cooler. At 3:45, no fewer than thirty-five people were lined up on Court Street. I stopped my bike, brakes screeching, to see what was up, expecting maybe free drinks for the holiday. But no! They were all in line to early vote at the Board of Elections. I later heard that the line had been much longer at noon. This is a town that will probably break 80 to 90 percent for Obama.

My little town is not at all typical for the rest of southeastern Ohio. Nonetheless. I'm starting to hope that Ohio might not embarrass itself again this time around.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I've Been Biden My Time ...

... but I think I'd better get this post up before the election's over.

Joe Biden came to town two weeks ago, and I got to see him before I had to go teach. The timing was tight, so this involved a lot of high-speed bike riding to and from the local fairgrounds. Okay, my definition of "high-speed" is pretty laughable, and to be honest I rolled into class about a half minute late, but it was worth the fuss.

The speech Biden gave closely tracked the campaign's themes in recent days. Support for the middle class. Energy independence. Health care reform. Prudence abroad. If you watched the debates, you know the spiel.

Which frees me to be totally silly and superficial. (Oops, I just typed "superstitious." Talk about a Freudian slip - I am completely, foolishly superstitious about this election.)

Biden's talk was preceded by the entire Democratic food chain. First up was our wonderful local candidate for the Ohio Statehouse, Debbie Phillips. I rode in too late to get a picture of her. Then again, I know what she looks like; she's a friend, and her daughter's a year ahead of my older son in the same school. She'd in a tough race against one of the very few local Republicans who is not a complete loser. (Their gene pool is small.)

Next up was Richard Cordray, who does not look anything like comedian Rob Corddry, formerly of the Daily Show, although I keep mixing them up - never mind that their names are even spelled differently.

He's running to be Ohio's next attorney general, after his predecessor disgraced himself. I liked him. And I thought he was rather cute, but the prize for "much cuter in person than I expected" went to Sherrod Brown, Ohio's single Democratic Senator. (See, I warned you this was not going to be a deep analytical post.)

By contrast, our governor, Ted Strickland, is impossible to photograph except when he's making some sort of funny snoot.

I got to shake Governor Strickland's hand after the festivities. I didn't get my paws on Joe Biden, though not for lack of hanging around and looking overeager. Even though it was a fairly intimate rally with a few hundred attendees, Biden was too swamped by the throngs of people for me to get very close. As budding political celebrity whore, I guess I have to work on my skills.

My favorite part of Biden's talk was the anecdote he told early on. While a student at the University of Delaware, Biden visited Ohio University one weekend for a football game. The Athens News took better notes on this than I did:
"I made a little mistake here," Biden told the crowd. That error, the vice-presidential candidate said, was going along with a group of young women he'd met to their dormitory. After walking in that night, Biden said he was immediately accosted by an officer, a quick reminder that men often weren't allowed in the women's dorms in those days.

"But I promise you I never breached the first floor," he joked with the crowd, saying it was only a brief detention with the police. Referring to his experience at the dorm, Biden said, "That's what I remember most about Athens."
And you know, I believed him. It was a rehearsed story, sure, but also a glimpse of the young Biden, carefree and silly and not yet wed to rules of political propriety. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person at the rally who felt like we knew Biden a little better afterward - and liked him better, too.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sex, Lies, and (Heterosexual) Marriage

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

Riffing off my last post: One of the crazy thing about straight people's monopoly on marriage is how often we make a hash of it. Exhibit A: Tara Parker-Pope's interesting article on infidelity in yesterday's New York Times:
The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.

But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.

The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively.
Anyone still want to defend Prop 8 to me? Because I'm pretty sure that even Pat Robertson couldn't pin straight people's infidelity stats on gays and lesbians! (He might try, though.)

To my mind, the most puzzling finding that Parker-Pope reports is the discrepancy between men's and women's reported rates of infidelity:
It is not entirely clear if the historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more likely to lie about it.

“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?” Dr. Fisher [Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers] asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.

But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.
I vote for the theory that women have been more apt to lie about it. And here's why: All those married men have to be cheating with someone.

Who are these men's extramarital partners? Let's say that sex with prostitutes accounts for some of men's infidelity. Let's posit that some of it comes from affairs with single women. I'm skeptical that women in these two categories account for the entire 15 percentage point difference in the early nineties or the 13 point difference today. Logically, some of that difference must be due to their having married female partners who lied to the researchers.

Why would women be more likely to lie? It's not just that they're branded as promiscuous more readily than men. They've also traditionally been more economically dependent on their spouses, which means they had more to lose if word of an affair got out. This gave them a stronger incentive to cover their tracks - including on research questionnaires. Conversely, a woman who could support herself in a pinch might be more likely to reveal her secrets to a researcher. And there are more women in that position today than a generation ago.

Of course, economic power also correlates with likelihood to stray, period. Note that the anthropological data cited in the NYT suggest this, as well, since gathering is at least as crucial as hunting in susbsistence societies. For those of us here in the wealthy West, the narrowing of the gendered pay gap likely means that some of the increase in women's infidelity is real and not just a reflection of greater truth-telling.

The generational data lend further support to the hypothesis that more women than men have lied to the researchers. Young women trail young men in the infidelity sweepstakes by only five percentage points. The gap for the over-60 crowd is thirteen points. This discrepancy can be explained by women's relative chastity only if you assume that men of the older generation were much more likely than younger men to hire prostitutes or preferentially seek out affairs with single women. I can't see any reason why that would be true.

As Dr. Gregory House says: Everyone lies.

I'd add: Everyone lies about sex. Everyone lies even more about illicit sex. And "everyone" will tilt female as long as women still face greater social stigma and economic penalties than men who make similar sexual choices.

A Wedding Blessing

Blue Gal alerted me to today's blogswarm against California's Prop 8.

As you know, here in Ohio we have worries of our own. (Please oh please let us not be the state that throws the election to the Republicans again!) But I have lots of family and friends in California. For some of them, their current right to get married hangs in the balance.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago how the supporters of this proposition are making fools of themselves trying to stir up people's fears. So I won't go there again today.

Instead, I'll just say that the wedding I mentioned in that previous post - between two women who've been together thirty-five years - is going forward this weekend at my mom's church. She's working the wedding, so she'll be the person who deals with the florist and helps the brides find anything they need and cleans up afterward. (Hey, it's not all glamour.)

For years, some of her church's neighbors have demonized it - quite literally - for its support of the town's small gay community. One person dubbed it "the devil church" in the local newspaper's letters section. Hateful graffiti was aimed against it. I'm so pleased and proud that her congregation didn't cave in to intimidation. (I also totally don't get how people who claim to worship a God of love and forgiveness express it through rage and hate.)

While not everyone in her church is supportive of same-sex marriage, my mom feels tickled and honored to be playing a role as her congregation blesses a same-sex union for the first time ever. My mom is seventy-four. She wouldn't have gotten behind even the idea of this twenty years ago. Now she's thrilled for the brides. How did she evolve? Mostly just by getting to know actual gays and lesbians and becoming friends with them.

If Prop 8 passes, this will be both the first and the last same-sex wedding performed in her church. If Prop 8 goes down, it will be the most wonderful honeymoon present possible. As I said, they've been together 35 years. They don't need crystal or china. Just this: Your no vote on Prop 8 (if you live in California) or your reminder to friends who live out there (if you don't).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Song of Three Concerts

However superstitious your mood this close to Halloween: It's not just bad things that come in threes. I got to hear three concerts this weekend - a triplet, a triad, a trio, so to speak.

Saturday evening, friends took me to hear David Bromberg play with Jorma Kaukonen at Jorma's Fur Peace Ranch. The Fur Peace is a haven of latter-day hippiedom in Appalachia (we knew we'd found the turnoff when we saw the Obama/Biden sign) and a guitar camp for musicians who are already pretty darn good. Oh, and luckily for me, it's only about a 15 minute drive from my house.

The Fur Peace has a small, rustic performance hall that seats maybe a couple hundred guests. I'd heard Jorma play a Hot Tuna set out there with Jack Casady. But I'd never heard David Bromberg play before now, and boy was that an oversight. He was wonderful! He wasn't just a guitar virtuoso; he was also a rousing blues singer with a wry sense of humor. Somehow he managed to play the blues seriously and yet poke fond fun at their woman-done-me-wrong clichés. He and Jorma played for nearly three hours - all acoustic, often half-improvised - and at the end no one was ready to go home.

But don't just take my word. Listen to his sly self-deprecation on "This Month," which I heard on Saturday (this clip comes from a 2007 show in Philadelphia, with his band rather than with Jorma). The lyrics made me laugh. They also made me wince at the times when I've been as much a fool in love (or lust) as the poor fellow in the song.

David and Jorma also played a treat for me and all the other Deadheads in the audience: "I Know You Rider." This clip of a similar version from the mid-1980s features David with Hot Tuna:

And no, none of us looks quite the same as we did half a lifetime ago. Jorma is downright unrecognizable - except for his voice and his playing.

I don't have any cool video for the other two concerts, and they weren't quite as professional, but each was a pleasure in its own way.

Saturday afternoon was my little Bear's debut performance with the Athens Children's Chorus. They sang outdoors, which is never easy when it's gusty and the music tends to be borne away on the breeze. They did a nice job anyway. I got a little misty-eyed but am saving my serious sentimentality for when the acoustics are good.

The last concert (actually the first, chronologically) was Octubafest at the university. You haven't experienced real absurdity until you've heard both Tchaikovsky and "The Wabash Cannonball" played by a dozen tubas and six euphoniums. As my husband said afterwards, violins and other treble instruments were invented for a very good reason.

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

But tuba players do need to go wild once a year. If you always have to play the "oom" part in oom-pah music, a complex melody involving sixteenth notes is pretty sexy. I used to play French horn, and we got stuck playing "pah" to the tubas' "oom." So I can totally relate.

The great thing about hearing all this music is that even though a performance is transient and ephemeral, it sticks with me for a while afterward. It's like someone has pressed the reset button. It's as though I got a little taste of equanimity, and the memory of that is helping keep stress at bay. With the election looming a scant week away, the economy collapsing like elephantine dominoes, and my back trouble migrating southward, a whiff of equanimity is no small gift.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Vlad and Boris Romance the Bering Strait

I'm due to lighten up after the last couple of posts. On top of that, I got my eyes dilated at the ophthalmologist today, so I spent much of the day with lots of trippy visual disturbances. This is not at all the same trippy fun. I had a close encounter with a University Administrator of the most hidebound variety this afternoon, and it was very hard to take her seriously while my pupils kept trying to focus somewhere between the office window and, oh, Jupiter.

(This is probably why the most hallucinogenic thing I do these days is overdose on coffee. Hmm. Did that today, too, in a totally ill-advised effort to still my pupils.)

Anyway, since I still can't clearly focus on the screen, here's a video clip that one of my husband's grad students passed on to him. It's tasteless and funny (in a sort of PG-rated Borat vein).

Can anyone tell me where Vlad and Boris really filmed this? I don't think it was either Russia or America. Any theories?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Taking "Anti-Life" Seriously

Ever since I finished yesterday's post, which is sort of a smorgasbord of weird medical news, I've been mulling over how those three news items are related on a deeper level than their oddness and/or inexplicability.

I do think they've got a real common demoninator. The American culture, birthplace of the "pro-life" movement, is indeed anti-life in a host of ways - though not for the reasons that the anti-abortion leadership adduces. I'm not referring to their overt hypocrisy - their support of war and the death penalty, just for example - though of course that's part of it, and one that plenty of "pro-life" Catholics would condemn just as much as I do.

No, I think what's at stake here in the anti-life position is bigger yet: a kind of gendered denial of our very embodied humanity, which grossly distorts our views on sexuality, pleasure, and generativity. While I'm sure this has its roots in the medieval Christian church's condemnation of sexual pleasure, by now it has assumed distinctly modern forms. It's a stubborn insistence - even in the midst of the richest, most consumption-oriented society the world has ever known - on hating and mortifying our own flesh. This hating-on is bigger than sex and sexuality; bigger than gender and genitals; but it routinely zeroes in on our human capacity for engendering pleasure and indeed life itself.

And so (to hark back to yesterday's themes) too many women remain impervious to reassurances (from partners, the women's health movement, or even doctors) that our bodies are okay just as they are. Powdering one's otherwise healthy, moist ladyparts thus remains an imperative for some women even though it can make them sick. Even though it can kill them.

And so some men prize a rock-hard erection not primarily for the pleasure it can give two partners but because it stands as evidence of manliness, power, autonomy. Not because it lets them merge with another person but because it's a badge of virile individualism and self-sufficiency. Not because it affirms life and joy but (as Susan Bordo suggested a decade ago in her article "Pills and Power Tools") because it's an inert symbol of a drill or missile. Drill baby drill, indeed.

And so the vulnerable bodies of babies aren't worth the public dollars it would take to protect them, even though we creatively finance the Iraqi occupation and air raids on Afghan weddings.

Eros and thanatos may be forever at odds. At the moment, though, I'd say thanatos is winning.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Roundup of Oddball Medical News

I don't set out to collect this stuff, but because I track gender-related health news for my work, medical weirdness tends to come my way.

One recent headline: "Talc Use in Genital Area Linked to Increased Risk for Ovarian Cancer" (via Medscape, free registration). The latest studies are actually just confirming a whole body of prior research, but it was still news to me.
The latest findings come from an analysis of data from 2 separate study populations. Researchers obtained records for 1231 epithelial ovarian cancer cases and 1244 controls from the New England Case Control (NECC) Study, and on 210 cases and 600 controls from the prospective Nurses' Health Study (NHS). In the questionnaire about talc use, "regular" use was defined as the application of powder to the genital/perineal region at least once a week.

Genital talc use was associated with an increased risk for ovarian cancer in both study populations, although the 95% confidence intervals were wide in the NHS because of the limited sample size, the researchers comment. In the pooled analysis, the relative risk for the association with regular talc use was 1.36 for total ovarian cancer and 1.60 for the serous invasive subtype.

This is broadly similar to the findings from the meta-analysis of 16 previous studies, which reported an approximately 30% increase in the risk for total epithelial ovarian cancer with regular genital exposure to talc (Anticancer Res. 2003;23:1955-1960).

Talc use elsewhere on the body was not associated with an increase in ovarian cancer risk, the researchers point out.

"It is unclear whether talc applied to the perineum can reach the ovaries, although some studies have shown that inert particles can travel through the female genital tract to the fallopian tubes and ovaries, and others have found talc particles in ovarian tissue," the researchers write. They also note that some studies have shown that talc particles can induce an inflammatory response in vivo, whereas others have suggested an immune-mediated mechanism.
Okey dokey. So you can use cornstarch instead, the researchers suggest. Talc is probably harmless elsewhere on the body, but it's still strongly suspected of being a carcinogen.

But for the love of Georgia O'Keeffe, why is anyone powdering themselves down there in the first place? This is not a region that was intended to have a desert climate! If it's meant to have a rainforest ecosystem, why do women feel compelled to muck with it? Thirty-five years after the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, why don't women feel comfortable just leaving it alone? (And while I'm on a rant: Why are scented douches still on the market?)

Of course, it's not just women who have a fraught relationship with our genitals. The next oddity comes from a study examining the satisfaction of 1,567 men taking tadalafil (Cialis) over the course of a year. Note what mattered most to them:
Treatment expectations identified as important included: erection hardness and ability to maintain erection through intercourse completion (>92% of patients); confidence, partner satisfaction, and naturalness (>84% of patients); rapid effect and long duration of treatment (>75% of patients).
It's a cliche, but that doesn't make it less true: Men put more stock in being hard than in satisfying a partner. Now, I'm not suggesting the two things are unrelated. For many couples - for many heterosexual women - they correlate pretty darn strongly. What's fascinating, though, is that hardness is so important in its own right.

Now that we've covered men and women, let's not forget about the children. And here the news is just shitty. Via Medscape again:
The U.S. ranks 29th worldwide in infant mortality, tying Slovakia and Poland but lagging behind Cuba, the CDC reports.

The CDC's latest estimates for international rankings are based on 2004 data. But as of 2005, the numbers haven't changed much since 2000.

Nearly seven U.S. babies die out of every 1,000 live births. More than 28,000 American babies die before their first birthday.

In Japan, ranked in third place behind Singapore and Hong Kong, the infant mortality rate is 2.8 per thousand live births -- less than half the U.S. rate.
This isn't just odd; it's inexplicable, and sad, and shameful, and downright pathetic. We know that prematurity is a major driver of infant mortality in the U.S. Women of color, especially African-American women, have prematurity rates far higher than their white counterparts. This in turn is due at least in part to their poorer access to prenatal control.

And I know this has been said before, but it obviously needs to be said again: Before we start conferring legal personhood on zygotes, how 'bout we pour some resources into at least catching up with Cuba on infant mortality? We all ought to be able to agree on that as a goal - apart from those folks who care about constraining women's sexuality more than saving babies.

Update 10/27/08: When I first wrote this post, I had a feeling that all three of these news items had something in common but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I've now followed up with an attempt to articulate their common denominator - an "anti-life" attitude, by which I mean something different than how a doctrinaire "pro-life" advocate would probably define it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

What to Watch When Your Sewer Backs Up

So here at Kittywampus, we seem to have a semiannual tradition of the sewer backing up and flooding the basement. Today's episode was very very minor compared to the inaugural flood of last November, Die grosse Scheisse, or its sequel in May. (In fact, it was small enough that I'm not sure we've satisfied the gods of bad sewer karma.)

Which brings me - logically enough - back to politics. Y'all know that I want Tina Fey to run for president. Here's as good a reason as any: Anyone who take transform shit into laughter just might be able to stop the perpetual sewage backups in our economy and foreign policy. And wouldn't Will Ferrell make a marvelous VP? Watch and see (if you haven't already):

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Liberals Fought against More Regulation"

Oooh. Maybe I slept through politics from the start of the Reagan era?

I'm trying to catch up on my much-neglected TV watching, and in the midst of House, this ad appeared. Its jaw-dropping line: "Congressional liberals fought for risky subprime loans. Congressional liberals fought against more regulation."

Um, yeah. You know those liberals: They're un-American because they hate big government!

Up is down; socialism is capitalism; misogyny is feminism. Oh - and Orwellian is the new Straight Talk Express.

(Now I'm going to finish watching House, where at least the lies all get exposed by the end of the episode.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Socialism with a Republican Face

Statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin, Germany, photographed by Flickr user Pete Johnston, used under a Creative Commons license.

Am I wrong, or is this "socialist" canard the Repubs are throwing at Obama a brand new tactic from the Rovian playbook? I don't remember Kerry or Gore or Dukakis being red-baited like this. And all because Obama wants to "spread the wealth around." The horror!

Anyone else notice that the "socialist" accusations have escalated just as the wealth is being spread around very generously indeed? Spread upward, that is?

Economist Dean Baker explains at TPMCafe how this works:
The public has a real interest in keeping the banking system functioning. It has zero interest in subsidized the pay checks of wealthy bank executives or enriching the bank's shareholders, which Secretary Paulson is now doing.

There is no question about what is going on here. The public is providing massive subsidies to the country's major banks. The terms of the bailout were far more generous than what the banks could get from the private market. As a result, banks that might not have survived otherwise, or at least would have been forced to make serious cutbacks, can now keep operating as they had been.

This means that their high level executives will continue to draw salaries in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. It also means that the shareholders will continue to receive dividends.

This was not inevitable. Paulson could have imposed serious pay caps on executive compensation. In Germany, the banks that are getting government money can't pay their executives more than 500,000 euros, about $680,000. The United Kingdom also limited executive compensation as part of its bailout.
(Read the rest here.)

Huh. I'm confused. If socialism with a Republican face means feathering the banker's nests, and if our European friends are refusing to spread the wealth to the bank execs, does that make them not socialists? But how can that be? Haven't we been taught that the French, especially, are socialists by definition?

Who wants to bet that by November 4, we'll hear the rumor that Obama is a French socialist?

(Apologies to Alexander Dubcek for warping his slogan unforgivably.)


I haven't had much to say the past couple of days because I'm struggling to dig out from under mountains of grading. Student essays, midterms, quizzes ... more than one person has told me I should just throw them up in the air and see which ones land on either side of an arbitrary line. My chemist friend asks if I can't boil feminist theory down to a Scantron exam: just fill in the bubbles with a number two pencil and watch as sexism melts into air. My mom, the former English teacher, tells me to stop assigning essays. My back, which has slipped out of place again, says I should give everyone an F - except when I'm adequately medicated, in which case everyone deserves an A.

Since I've mostly been vastly undermedicated (maybe I learned my lesson last summer?), I've been slowly, doggedly slogging through the work, ignoring my worse angels. (Or, um, demons.)

I wish that I could miraculously reverse my own learning process and spew my comments effortlessly onto my students' work in a process of counter-osmosis.

Oh, wait. Grey Kitty was the master of that in her day. Most people called it ... hairballs.

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Books: Name the Anti-Aphrodisiacs

Oh oh. Picking up on a post on Pandagon on the worst books to read while having sex, figleaf is turning this into a meme. Books? Sex? How could I resist? (Excuse me while I fan myself.)

Note: The question is "what are the worst books to read during sex?" If you decide to pick up on this meme, you are not allowed to say "why would anyone in their right mind read during sex?" Auguste at Pandagon already put the kibosh on that. So no cheating!

Now, figleaf put Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes on his no-fly list, and while I wouldn't personally recommend Hegel - he makes your blood drain into your brain and then freeze, never to flow southward again - I can vouch for the eroticism of reading German out loud in bed. I know that goes against the grain of every stereotype about erotic languages, but hey, my Italian stops at "una camera con doccia." (Which, come to think of it, could also lead to rather nice things.) There's something intimate and vulnerable about reading to your partner in their language, especially/even if you're not terribly adept at it. I wouldn't necessarily recommend halting the proceedings to do this, I'm just saying it can be a surprisingly good warm-up. High-quality German chick lit works rather well, believe it or not. (Oh, why do I have the feeling no one is going to believe me?!? And if you do, that you're going to think I'm much kinkier than you ever suspected?)

German history, on the other hand, is right out. I've had a copy of my doctoral advisor's book, Absolute Destruction, next to my nightstand for awhile. It's a very smart history of Germany militarism during its Imperial period. If you get off on that, you've got a paraphilia way beyond the bounds of what I personally would consider healthy.

Ditto for Ian McEwan's The Innocent, a spy story set in Cold War Berlin which culminates in scenes of such horror and gore that no other author could have kept me on board. I won't detail them here, because you might not want the spoilers. Except: Shortly before things come apart (all too literally), there's a scene where the clueless young British title character is doggedly losing his innocence with his German girlfriend. He goes down on her with such concentration and wonder that - even though I only read it silently to myself - it, um, led shortly thereafter to certain non-fictional inspirations. 'Nuff said.

More surprisingly, Sungold the Lust Kitten was totally disappointed in Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills. It was billed this exhilaratingly transgressive erotic romp. I love Smiley, but darn it, this book was chock-a-block with chatter about Hollywood. Every once in a while there would be a sex scene featuring the word "cunt." I guess was the transgressive part. (Ooooh! Naughty words!) But the temperature just never rose above tepid for me, even though I was shamelessly looking for the steamy bits.

And apropos Hollywood: Just about anything I read for work is a guaranteed lust-killer, but the last thing I read tonight for tomorrow's class on psychoanalytis feminisms was Laura Mulvey's classic essay in feminist film theory, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In discussing the phallocentric structures of classic Hollywood films, Mulvey writes:
It is said that analzying pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.
Granted, this article is no doubt (as Amy Poehler said in her alter ego as Hillary Clinton) a "boner shrinker." (And not because it's a feminist manifesto, but because it assumes you understand Lacan, which - god help me - I don't.)

But. I'm not so sure Mulvey's entirely right about pleasure and analysis. Sure, there's a point of no return beyond which analysis is disruptive - and frankly and wondrously impossible. But as a form of flirtation? There's a level between analysis and appreciation where describing a partner's charms ... and how I might want to enjoy them ... can be all about pleasure.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Big Chill

We're due for our first hard frost tonight. Maybe my mini-ecosystem will be spared; sometimes it seems to be blessed by a merciful god, graced with warm soils and mild air pockets. Other times - not so much. So this afternoon, in the blinding October sunlight, I went out to the garden and gathered in everything tender.

Yes, that's an eggplant, barely larger than my cherry tomatoes. I've always had horrible luck growing eggplant. I keep trying, anyway, just for the idea of it. I suspect that reveals something about my character that really ought to stay hidden. It's not unlike the dog who's sure he'll get the better of the skunk, this time.

The butternut squash are also miniatures, and not by design. They're the sole survivors of marauding squash bugs and vine borers and spotted cucumber beetles. (The last of these have moved on to our roses, the little bastards.)

I actually love the first weeks of fall more than just about any other season. I love the advent of a new school year, the sense of possibility and beginning again. (Maybe that's why I've never really been out of school since I was five?) I love the turning leaves and the sharp edge to the morning air.

But now the season is about to twist on its axis, making the decline of Eden evident and inevitable. This is the bookend to the golds of spring, the fulfillment of the Robert Frost poem I quoted here last spring while the daffodils held sway:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
In the morning, I'll tally up my losses. Tonight, I've still got this, the summer's final bounty.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Not Just an Evergreen Problem

The Carnival against Sexual Violence 57 is up at abyss2hope. My post on the deployment of rape myths in the Marc Dann sexual harassment scandal was included - thanks to whoever picked it up!

Among the interesting posts in the carnival was a report on a student who was allegedly raped at The Evergreen State College. The incident occurred on a Saturday night; she didn't get a medical exam until the following Tuesday. Her reason for waiting? The student health center was closed over the weekend.

At Change Happens: The SAFER Blog, Ashley comments:
So this school A) had no one available to help this woman when evidence collection was most imperative and B) once contacted, allowed her to wait even longer to obtain the proper care and have evidence collected. Further, by pushing her visit to the emergency room back yet another day, they may have made it impossible for her to take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. At the very least, they’ve made it less likely that EC will work.

This is just one of the many reasons that every college should have crisis counselors and sexual assault nurse examiners on call and ready to handle cases like this 24/7. As this case shows, students are often reluctant to call local agencies, and will tend to turn to familiar, college-based programs, especially in a time of crisis.

Now, it's unusual for student health centers to be open from 9 to 5 on the weekend. My undergrad alma mater is open on both weekend days, but they have a massive endowment. My graduate institution offers some Saturday hours; the university where I currently teach is open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons.

Obviously, restrictive weekend hours are unhelpful - not least, because assaults usually aren't conveniently scheduled during normal business hours. But even if an assault occurred at high noon on a weekday, student health centers don't typically deal with the first-line response at all. My university would refer the victim directly to the emergency room of our local hospital, where a SANE nurse (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) would perform the necessary exams, treat any injuries, and offer emergency contraception. This procedure is the same, 24/7: the student health center would never be involved, only the ER.

In other words, Evergreen's approach seems to be pretty typical. Like many other colleges, too, Evergreen has an office charged with preventing sexual assault, which also offers services to survivors. Its web page provides a link to a community sexual violence prevention agency with a 24-hour hotline. This goes one step further than my university, whose website gives 24-hour phone numbers only for the hospital and the police department.

Universities can and should support programs to prevent assault and help survivors cope. But I don't think we can expect student health centers to carry the burden of 24/7 services. Realistically, a university will not pay for its own on-call nurse. This will become even less likely as already tight budgets shrink during the harsh economic times ahead. Even our local hospital has only three SANE nurses serving a five-county area.

What colleges can and must do, however, is make sure that every student knows the importance of getting an exam and EC within the first hours after an assault, that they have easy access to the relevant emergency numbers, and that RAs and other student affairs staff know how to direct victims to help. This is a matter of education. It should be a core aspect of any university's sexual assault prevention program.

Universities can also partner with community agencies. Stanford, for instance, maintains an on-campus office for the YWCA Sexual Assault Center, located in its student health center. It's associated with the off-campus YWCA Rape Crisis Center of Silicon Valley and offers a 24-hour hotline. Without knowing all the details of how that partnership works - and most crucially, who pays for what - I think this might be a promising model to pursue. It allows communities and colleges to pool resources, which ought to create mutually beneficial synergies, and it gives students a bridge from their familiar environment to resources beyond the university.

Plumbing the Depths of Bullshit

"WTF Plumbing," photo taken in Sacramento, CA, by Flickr user timballas, used under a Creative Commons license. (Hey, I know that street!)

I'm heartily sick of candidates trying to manipulate us with stories they've gleaned from Ordinary Americans they've met on the campaign trail. These Ordinary Americans are invariably salt-of-the-earth figures who live in small towns and have been dealt an Injustice.

It's not that I don't care about injustice. In fact, I believe passionately in justice (the social kind, not the sort that's just thinly-veiled revenge). That's precisely why I resent politicians using such stories to circumvent reasoned thinking.

The Democrats are as guilty of this as the Republicans, by the way. This is an equal-opportunity, non-partisan beef of mine.

Nonetheless: By basically making "Joe the Plumber" a third participant in the final presidential debate, McCain carried this conceit further than I'd ever seen. And so I wallowed in schadenfreude when I read this in yesterday's Columbus Dispatch:

Joe the Plumber is not actually a licensed plumber.

Here's the scoop:
Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, the nickname Republican John McCain bestowed on him during Wednesday's presidential debate, said he works for a small plumbing company that does residential work. Because he works for someone else, he doesn't need a license, he said.

But the county Wurzelbacher and his employer live in, Lucas County, requires plumbers to have licenses. Neither Wurzelbacher nor his employer are licensed there, said Cheryl Schimming of Lucas County Building Regulations, which handles plumber licenses in parts of the county outside Toledo. ...

Wurzelbacher, 34, said he doesn't have a good plan put together on how he would buy Newell Plumbing and Heating in nearby Toledo.

He said the business consists of owner Al Newell and him. Wurzelbacher said he's worked there for six years and that the two have talked about his taking it over at some point.

"There's a lot I've got to learn," he said.
To quote Sarah Palin: "Say it ain't so, Joe!"

The amount of bullshit swirling around Joe the Plumber's fifteen minutes is pretty impressive. He's not legally licensed as a plumber. So even his folksy moniker is in doubt! Wurzelbacher is in no position to be hurt by Obama's tax plan; his plumbing business is merely hypothetical and far in the future. Honestly, it sounds like Wurzelbacher will be lucky if he makes it into the $250,000-plus bracket. Since he's not there yet, he'd most likely pay lower taxes under Obama's plan.

So how 'bout if the candidates cut the crap, stop trying to manipulate us with these tales of Ordinary Americans, and focus instead on how they would start to repair our broken economy.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Some People Are Just Jealous 'Cause No Princess Will Have Them

Seriously, are Pepperdine University professors worried that no girl will be interested in them if she can get hot princess-on-princess action instead? Ewww!

I have only one nice thing to say about this hateful ad for Proposition 8 in California (the one that would ban same-sex marriage): I am so amazed, and heartened, that my mom is the person who alerted me to it. Indignantly. While informing me that she's happy to be the wedding helper at her church as it conducts its first-ever same-sex ceremony.

The two brides have been together for 35 years, and they're rushing to marry - for the second time, following a Canadian ceremony - before California voters have a chance to shut down the option. Yes, they're sort of past the princess stage. It's still the most romantic story I've heard in ages.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Impressions from the Final Debate

First: I want to hear directly from Joe the Plumber. If he's making more than $250,000 per year, I don't have any problem with him paying higher taxes. If not, then John McCain was dishing out the same stuff Joe the Plumber deals with every day.

Second: I can't believe how McCain played the victim card tonight. He whined that the campaign has swerved negative because Barack Obama wouldn't play town hall with him. Then he got in a tizzy about John Lewis’ suggestion that associating Barack Obama with terrorism and questioning his loyalty to America might be invoking the spirit of George Wallace. Um, what's worse ... inciting violence, or getting slightly overwrought in denouncing such violence? You tell me, Senator McCain. (And frankly, I'm not convinced Lewis exaggerated overmuch.)

Finally: Does McCain still know how to smile without looking like he's about to snarl or explode? Yikes. Someone obviously coached him to look straight at Obama, this time, but it obviously pained him. For next time, someone needs to tell him that a frozen, deer-in-the-headlights stare, punctuated only by manic blinks and jaw clenches, won't make him look presidential.

Oh, wait, we're done with the debates. Yay! There won't be a next time. Me? I'm still voting for "that one."

What did y'all think?


Coupla notes: I saw Joe Biden speak this morning, will blog on it tomorrow (I hope) when I've got a few minutes. And for some reason, today I got a bunch of hits on my old post on the right wing's attempt to smear Obama because no one can produce a copy of his undergraduate honors thesis. I guess Faux News or some other right-wing spin machine must have dredged up this rumor, which basically insinuated that in his senior year at Columbia, Obama wrote an anti-American thesis. But they couldn't even get the rumor straight! People were searching on "Obama's doctoral thesis." Hey, we should all get our Ph.D. so easily.

Oh, and I have a new yard sign. I'm really hoping this one won't walk away. Three's a charm?

Yes We Carve

If you're feeling parched for punkin-carving inspiration this year, here's a fun idea: Yes We Carve!

From Yes We Carve, by Matt King of Boston.

There are lots more clever pictures like this, plus handy stencils, here:

Undaunted by the serial disappearance of our yard signs, my husband is planning to carve one of these with the kids. And this in a town where drunken students have honed pumpkin smashing to an Olympic art form. I guess we'll have to think of it as ephemeral art, like dance or Christo's Wrapped Reichstag ...

Photo by Flickr user zug55, used under a Creative Commons license.

... or the Tiger's Chickety Poop song.

At any rate, it's gotta be way cuter than the Dick-Cheney-o-lantern we had a couple of years ago - the only carved pumpkin I've known to actually get better as it started to mold and sag.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More on Colorado's Zygotemania

Diana Hsieh of the Coalition for Secular Government left a lengthy comment on my post on Colorado's proposed Amendment 48, which would give a fertilized egg the full rights of legal personhood. Her analysis is so helpful that I thought I'd better rescue it from the obscurity of the Kittywampus comment corner:
You might be interested to read an issue paper published by the Coalition for Secular Government: "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person" by Ari Armstrong and myself. It's available at:

We discuss some of the serious implications of this proposed amendment, such as:

* Amendment 48 would make abortion first-degree murder, except perhaps to save the woman's life. First-degree murder is defined in Colorado law as deliberately causing the death of a "person," a crime punished by life in prison or the death penalty. So women and their doctors would be punished with the severest possible penalty under law for terminating a pregnancy -- even in cases of rape, incest, and fetal deformity.

* Amendment 48 would ban any form of birth control that might sometimes prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus -- including the birth control pill, morning-after pill, and IUD. The result would be many more unintended pregnancies and unwanted children in Colorado.

* Amendment 48 would ban in vitro fertilization because the process usually creates more fertilized eggs than can be safely implanted in the womb. So every year, hundreds of Colorado couples would be denied the joy of a child of their own.

Our paper also develops a strong defense of abortion rights -- not based on vague appeals to "choice" or "privacy" -- but on the fact that neither an embryo nor fetus qualifies as a person with a right to life.

An embryo or fetus is wholly dependent on the woman for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as an extension of her body, contained within and dependent on her for its survival. It is only a potential person, not an actual person.

That situation changes radically at birth. The newborn baby exists as a distinct organism, separate from his mother. Although still very needy, he lives his own life. He is a person, and his life must be protected as a matter of right.

So, we argue, when a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy she does not violate the rights of any person. Instead, she is properly exercising her own rights over her own body in pursuit of her own happiness. Moreover, in most cases, she is acting morally and responsibly by doing so. ...

The sad fact is that Amendment 48 is based on sectarian religious dogma, not objective science or philosophy. It is a blatant attempt to impose theocracy in America. That's definitely a scary thought.
Many thanks, Diana, for this careful and systematic analysis. I'd add that this is also an attempt to seize control over women's bodies - both our sexuality and our reproductive potential - in a rearguard action to defend patriarchy.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Personhood for Zygotes!

Photo of billboard spotted in Cleveland by Flickr user Austin Kleon, used under a Creative Commons license.

I'm betting most of you have heard that Leslee Unruh is taking another crack at effectively outlawing abortion in South Dakota. But only very recently did I hear about a ballot initiative in Colorado that's equally loony. Julie at A Little Bit Pregnant describes it thus:
Next month Coloradoans will vote on whether to amend their state Constitution "to include the pre-born from the moment of fertilization as having their 'personhood' clearly established."

This description comes from Colorado for Equal Rights, the force behind proposed amendment 48, "Equal Rights" in this case being as much of a creepy buzzwordy misnomer as "pre-born." The thrust of the measure, say its supporters, is "to define a person in Colorado as a human being from the moment of fertilization."
Oy. There's so much wrong with this, and I have so little time. (I'm slowly digging through 80 essays that demand to be graded.) But just for starters:

Your average zygote will not implant, and that sorta puts a crimp in its personhood. At the Berkshire Conference last summer, I learned the following from Lara Friedenfels' presentation (and this is my paraphrase, not hers):
Of 100 meetings of egg and sperm, 57 never implant (and thus wouldn't result in a positive test). Of the 43 that do implant, 10 miscarry before a doctor would declare the woman pregnant. ... Of the 33 that continue, 4 will miscarry "clinically" and 29 will reach full term (give or take a few weeks).
What does this Colorado initiative plan to do to save those 57 persons who are shed before they ever implant?

Do the backers of this initiative care that implantation, not fertilization, is the medically recognized start of pregnancy?

Have they considered that whether fertilization has occurred is unknowable until sometime after implantation, and thus the existence of such "persons" will be completely speculative until post-implantation?

Are Colorado voters aware that if this measure passes, it won't just call legal abortion into question, it would lay the groundwork for potentially outlawing many forms of contraception, stem cell research and therapies, and infertility treatments, as Julie points out?

I have no problem granting that life begins at implantation, or even at fertilization. I'll grant, too, that it's human. After all, it's human DNA that starts to replicate, and keeps replicating - barring failure to implant, or miscarriage, or incompatible-with-life developmental anomalies, or the formation of a molar pregnancy ... As Lara's statistics show, this is a precarious process and less than a third of fertilized eggs result in an actual baby. I would never belittle the significance of pregnancy loss, but surely none of us would equate a hydatidiform mole with a person?

Isn't it possible to grant that the zygote is human and alive, without erasing its very real differences from a social or legal person?

How about if we instead take a developmental perspective and recognize that while an embryo is not nothing, it's also not a person? It's a clump of cells with amazing potential that - with some luck, if all goes well - will attain full personhood when it leaves its mother's body. No more. And no less.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Antidote to McCain's Toxic Campaign

I've always liked Donna Brazile's plainspoken, no-bullshit manner. I've known she's a smart strategist and analyst. I had no idea she could be this inspirational. These words of hers - her refusal to go to the back of the bus - moved me almost as much as Barack Obama's speech last March on race in America.

This is the perfect antidote to the hatefulness of the McCain-Palin campaign this past week:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Signs of Desperation

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

My Obama yard sign got stolen last night. This was the second one to disappear over the last ten days. I realize that the perps were probably drunken students. That doesn't excuse it. What people choose to do while drunk tends to correlate pretty closely to their values while sober.

And while I don't want to push a metaphor too hard, my pilfered yard signs also strike me as a sign of the times. This week, the presidential campaign turned nastier than I've ever seen, with John McCain and Sarah Palin portraying Barack Obama as an un-American terrorist lover. Even Karl Rove never went quite this far. It got ugly enough that a slew of conservatives are now saying the smears have gone too far.

Yesterday McCain finally tried to calm the mob his team has roused. He was booed by his own supporters for stating that Obama is a decent family man. I'm glad McCain showed us this flash of his own decency, but I worry it won't be enough.

I worry that all this public hating-on will embolden someone to take a shot at Obama. Literally.

It almost doesn't matter whether McCain and Palin are deliberately trying to incite violence, as Jeffrey Feldman suggested earlier this week. I don't suppose that Sarah Palin intended for a supporter to cry "Kill him!" after she linked Obama with former Weatherman Bill Ayers at a rally. It's just that hate speech, terrorist smears, and race-baiting have a way of spiraling out of control. This is how you prod a lynch mob into a frenzy. Even if a latter-day lynching isn't McCain and Palin's intent, violent reactions to such smears can be easily, easily anticipated by any reasonable person.

When their supporters break into open hostility and threats, McCain and Palin need to stop their stump speech and squelch them. Until yesterday, neither of them made an effort to do that. (Let's not forget that this has a longer history: Last winter, McCain didn't discourage his supporters from shouting sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, either.)

The German language has a great, largely untranslatable word for what's happening here: Hetzkampagne. The verb hetzen is used when you set the dogs on someone. It refers to agitation, baiting, hunting someone down. The term "smear campaign" doesn't quite capture Hetzkampagne, because there's no telling what will happen once the hounds of hell are turned loose.

Both McCain and Palin let those dogs smell blood last week. If the worst happened, blood would be on their hands too.

Is it a stretch from my stolen Obama signs to death threats? Sure. They're not the same. Thank goodness! Still, both are on a continuum of "dirty tricks to try when you're losing." They're both signs of the Republicans' desperation and disintegration. Once a candidate abandons civil discourse and fair play, his supporters seem to feel they've been given permission to break the rules and the law in ways large and small.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The End of the World as We Know It

I'm not a very apocalyptic kind of gal, but as the world economy crumbles, it's hard not to wonder how it's gonna end. I'm also not a huge REM fan but I've always liked this song, and when I heard it on the radio last night I thought it was an anthem for these times.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn - world serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs. Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt no, strength no. Ladder structure clatter with fear of height, down height. Wire in a fire, represent the seven games in a government for hire and a combat site. Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry with the furies breathing down your neck. Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop. Look at that low plane! Fine then. Uh oh, overflow, population, common group, but it’ll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves it's own needs, listen to your heart bleed. Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right - right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o’clock - TV hour. Don’t get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide. Mountains sit in a line. Leonard Bernstein. Leonid Breshnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? Right.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...fine...

(It’s time I had some time alone)
(Lyrics found here.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Most Unexpected Pleasures of Parenting

I should have posted this over the weekend, when this was fresh and the Tiger was in a brilliant mood - not today, when he was testily ignoring anything that any adult said to him. But maybe today's the perfect time to remind myself that I don't just love him, I actually enjoy his company when he's not so cranky.

Upon becoming a parent, you expect certain pleasures. You know you'll melt when your child says he loves you, not suspecting it'll be his favorite topic-changer whenever he's about to get in trouble. You look forward to that first "Mama," even if it comes weeks or months after he cooks up a name for Grey Kitty (aka "Mau"). You realize you'll get teary at the first day of kindergarten and school plays and really any milestone, no matter how trivial.

What you could never anticipate is this. The Tiger recorded his first song this weekend, written and performed by his silly self, at the callow age of five. I think it could be a big hit among the three-year-old set.

Here are the lyrics:
I love chickety poop
chickety poop chickety poop
I love chickety poop
all day long.
If you figure out what "chickety poop" is, let me know.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sarah Palin Swiped My Accent

Sarah Palin's positions on the issues are fair game for criticism: they're mean-spirited, environmentally dangerous, recklessly aggressive abroad, anti-woman, and objectionable in every other way. I also think it's fair to question actions that show major lapses in judgment: her foolhardy behavior after her water broke, her copying the First Dude on all her official emails, her unblinking acceptance of the VP nomination.

But picking on her accent? I'll admit that's not entirely fair. I'm going to do it anyway, because she's trampling on my territory. Bear in mind, this isn't a political argument. It's just me defending my turf as a North Dakotan.

So I took this quiz and it told me I have ...

North Central

What people call the "Minnesota accent." Sounds almost Canadian. You may have even been asked if you were from Canada before.

Personality Test Results

Click Here to Take This Quiz
This is not exactly a news flash. I've been getting cheerfully teased about this for nearly three decades, ever since I left North Dakota. I discovered everyone in California said "cow" differently than I did (as if they knew more about cows!). I still sometimes get recognized by flight attendants on Northwest Airlines as a fellow Minnesotan/Dakotan. On the upside, those south-central North Dakotan vowels (think: Lawrence Welk) came in pretty handy when I started learning German.

Lately, people have been asking me how come Sarah Palin and I sound a bit alike. No, I don't think I ever used the phrase "Joe Six-Pack" until last week. I will never say nukular. I don't wink very often, either.

Here's my beef: Sarah Palin seems to have swiped my extra-long, North Dakotan O. Listen:

Last weekend, Steven Pinker explained in the New York Times just how the heist happened:
[Palin's] dialect is certainly for real. Listeners who hear the Minnewegian sounds of the characters from “Fargo” when they listen to Ms. Palin are on to something: the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in Alaska, where she grew up, was settled by farmers from Minnesota during the Depression.
But the story turns out to be slighly more complicated. As The Biblio Files point out on Open Salon, Palin doesn't exactly have a Minnesotan accent. (They mean North Dakotan, of course. But thanks to them anyway for linking to the quiz I took.) Once her ancestors moved to the Mat-Su Valley, their accent started to morph, as language is wont to do. That's why Palin says "fill" when she means "feel" - and I don't.

Now, I have been known to use phrases like "doggone" and "darn it" and "yah, youbetcha." And I resent Sarah Palin horning in on them! I'm not saying you ought to vote against McCain-Palin just so I can reclaim that territory. But if she doesn't disappear after November 4, there's a word for what my verbal style will be:

Kittywampus. (And yep, that's a good North Dakotanism, too. Yah, youbetcha.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mortgage That, John McCain!

This is my house. I am very happy to hear that John McCain is planning to get the federal government into the mortgage business. Since I'm not entirely sure what will happen with my employment next year, I think it would make good economic sense for the government to buy up my mortgage, too, and refinance it at an affordable zero percent interest.

Geez louise! Did anyone besides me wonder what it would cost for the feds to buy up all the iffy mortgages? And did anyone else weigh that against the cost of simply allowing judges to locally renegotiate or rewrite the terms of predatory loans?

McCain is obviously getting desperate. This isn't policy; it's populist pandering. And it's almost as erratic and bizarre as his reference to Obama as "that one."

(Video clip via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish)

What did you all think of the debate?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Greenlighting the Best Sex Ever

Ampelmännchen photographed in Berlin by Flickr user lsphotos, used under a Creative Commons license.

I've got a big backlog of things I'd like to say about about politics, but I'm coming down with yet another cold and the global economy is crumbling. So I'm reduced to my reptilian brain, and all it wants to write about is sex. Via Biscuit and figleaf, I've been mulling over a deceptively simple thought experiment at Manic Monday:
Which would you prefer and why? To have every stoplight turn green upon your arrival for the rest of your life or to have one week of the best sex any person ever had?
Now, for me the initial answer is screamingly obvious: I live in a small town. I spend most of my time on my bike, not in the car. Anyway, I tend to interpret traffic lights rather liberally while on my bike. Maybe if I still lived in California I'd go for the green lights and reclaim years of my life.

But I live in Ohio, so I'll take the sex.

The questions figleaf and Biscuit raise in their responses are actually more interesting than the original. Biscuit worries that every sexual experience would pale after such a peak. That's a reasonable concern.

When I think back to other sorts of pinnacles, though, I can't say that's been at all true for me. Take dancing, for instance. Back in college, I once very briefly dated a guy who'd danced on American Bandstand. I didn't know that until we were at a party and he picked me up and twirled me around 360 degrees. Without warning. Vertically. It lasted two seconds at most. By many orders of magnitude, it was the most intense experience I've ever had dancing.

Did that take the luster off of subsequent dances for me? Nah. It happened once. It was perfect. It inhabits its own space in my imagination and memory. It didn't impinge on late nights in Berlin clubs, or endless sunny California afternoons at Grateful Dead shows, or the ballroom lessons I took (clumsily but happily) with my husband back when we were planning our wedding.

Or take music. I typically hit a few sour notes (or a lot). Somestimes the phrasing doesn't come out as I imagined. And yet, I have memories of performances that - while still imperfect - far outshone my actual abilities. Fiddler on the Roof, opening night, me on French horn, and I just nailed all the high notes in the wedding dance. A high school friend who was such a phenomenal marimba player, he made my humble piano accompaniment sound brilliant. A ridiculously simple piano duet with me and my eight-year-old Baerchen ridiculously well attuned to each other. A vocal trio with my mom and sister in church that was virtually one voice singing three parts.

Sex is different than that? Well, yeah. I haven't often played music naked. (Though maybe I should try it?) I've never had sex in church. But if these other memories still make me want to dance or toot my horn, why would a memory of near-perfect sex be any less inspiring?

Which brings us 'round to the set of issues figleaf raised for me: What the heck do we mean by "mind-blowing sex," anyway? After saying he'd pick the green lights (figleaf???!!!) he wrote:
Regular sex is already pretty nice, and in my experience "mind blowing" sex, while also nice, is sort of overrated. I mean who in his or her right mind says "oh darn it, that last orgasm sucked because it wasn't the best ever" and/or "my partner's last orgasm sucked because it wasn't her/his best ever?"
For one thing, it's precisely because "regular" sex is lovely that I don't think I'd lose anything by experiencing "the best sex ever." I totally agree with him that we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But that doesn't mean I'd turn down a one-time experience of "perfection," or some reasonable fascimile thereof.

For another, my idea of "mind blowing" would be pretty multidimensional. I wouldn't sneeze at an orgasm that went longer and took me deeper than ever before, but (as figleaf might well say himself, if he weren't still zipping through those green lights) there's way more to marvelous sex than just shuddering orgasms. There's imagination. There's anticipation. There's the give-and-take, following and leading, of dancing horizontally with a partner. There's the duet of shifting tempos and crescendoes, whether in sweet harmony or giddy dissonance. There's the lure of trying something new, for the first time, and gently pushing each other's boundaries. There's playfulness and a readiness to laugh when something doesn't work quite perfectly after all.

And then there's the shivery thrill of imagining a week spent having sex. A whole week! Speaking as a fuddy-duddy old mother of two, even the prospect of a week devoted to mediocre sex leaves me giddy. (But really: if I had a whole week, it would not be mediocre.)

On a more philosophical level, if I'm given a choice between efficiency or a new and intense experience, I'll never view it as a choice at all. My bias is always to assume that experience is how we grow. So that week might just be deeply pleasurable. It might be transformative. Either way, "mind blowing" is a pretty clichéd term - but even if that single week of perfect sex were never repeated (and the original question didn't say it would be your last great sex, ever) I can't imagine regretting it. The aftershocks would echo, whether with my partner or alone. Because of that, I'd never be precisely the same.

And I'd have a plethora of ways to occupy my imagination while I sat idling at all those red lights.