Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Fun of Being a BAD, BAD Girl


Yay! Blogroll Amnesty Day is upon us, and its instigators - Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Jon Swift, and Blue Gal - have declared the festivities open now, even things don't get officially BAD until February 3. Well, at least Skippy is bounding over the start line (as befits a kangaroo, I suppose).

The premise, if you haven't already heard, is to link to five blogs with smaller readerships than one's own. Originally, the event was a protest against the big liberal blogs purging the smaller fish from the blogrolls (see Jon Swift's original post for the gory history). By now, it's mostly about fun and exuberance and sharing bloggy love.

Last year, people were lovely about nurturing me. I was less than a month into my blogging adventure. Kittywampus was as wet behind its ears as a newborn kitten. I was really grateful, and still am, for the encouragement I got from The Political Cat, Blue Gal, figleaf, and others.

I'll be happy to entertain blogrolling (almost) all comers, so just ask if you'd like to join the fun. I'll gladly add a followup post and put you on my blogroll. The only catch is that you need to join the BAD festivities, too - no matter how miniscule your blog may be. Oh, and I say "almost" all comers because last year a nice evangelical preacher asked to be added, and I callously said no. He would've been a mighty odd fit with the liberal, irreverent, smart feminist folks who populate my blogroll.

So here are the wonderful people I'm adding to my blogroll today. I don't know if any of their blogs are smaller than mine, but I'm pretty sure most of us move in the same universe. I may be cheating a bit, since I'd planned to add all of them weeks ago!

Sally at Jump off the Bridge tops that list: she's smart and lively and often on top of stories others don't pick up on. She's writing at The Feminist Underground these days, too, but I've been remiss in adding her own place.

Mom's Tinfoil Hat offers sharp insight into medicine and reproductive politics from an insider's view. She's often more jaded about obstetrics than I am, but since she's a med student, I'd say she's in a position to know.

Octogalore is one of the deeply intelligent commenters in the feminist blogosphere, and her blog, Astarte's Circus, is equally thoughtful, especially on issues of class, motherhood, and sexuality.

The tagline at Blue Milk pretty much sums it up: "thinking + motherhood = feminist." Yep. Not that this is the only route to feminism (I signed on a quarter century before I had my first baby) but it's definitely an express lane. Or perhaps the carpool lane.

I like Daisy's Dead Air for more than just our shared history of lovin' the Dead. She's an original thinker, sometimes downright contrarian, and she tells it like she sees it.

Professor, What If ...? will make you think, and not just about gender issues. Even her posts on TV are thought-provoking. Also, I love that her posts often run as long as my ramblings. I guess that's an occupational hazard. I also love that she doesn't apologize for it any more than I do.

Viva La Feminista focuses on feminism and parenting (and she too was nominated for Hottest Mommy Blogger - woo hoo!). She's younger than me, living in Chicago, and a proud Latina, and precisely those differences from my own life provide valuable perspectives on our shared concerns of motherhood and more.

The Apostate writes from the perspective of a young woman who grew up Muslim but is now alienated from her faith. She's been a bit less prolific lately, but I hope she'll carry on; her analysis is incisive and her perspective is - if not unique in the blogosphere - vastly underrepresented.

I know full well that Lisa Wade's Sociological Images is in a different league than me, but I've been meaning to add her too. And not just because she's got all this brilliant/dreadful material that's invaluable to my teaching.

Same goes for Plain(s)feminist. She's another fellow academic with consistently thoughtful views on feminism. Her recent posts on cancer have spoken to me (as the partner of a two-time survivor), but that's only one facet of her work. Of course, I appreciate her Great Plains viewpoint, too.

Hmmm. Somehow that's 5 + 5. I guess that's the hazard of counting on one's fingers; you can lose track of what hand you're on.

Here's wishing you a happy BAD weekend, one and all!

To the Highest Bidder

This evening my university is hosting an event that makes me deeply uncomfortable, yet there's been not a peep of protest. Probably because it's "for a good cause."

Over the past two weeks I've gotten two emails asking me to support this event - a formal dance - either by attending or by purchasing an ad in the program booklet. This already struck me as vaguely weird. Why would students solicit faculty to buy ads? What am I selling, my ideas? They may be priceless, but their value on the open market is mighty low. Plus, I don't know any faculty who are keen on attending undergraduate parties. The colleagues I hang with understand the importance of appropriate boundaries.

But what really got me is this: The sponsoring groups are going to hold a date auction. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes. I don't care how good the cause, or how pure the students' intentions. The idea of a date auction still creeps me out.

First, there's the obvious insensitivity of evoking slavery in any lighthearted manner. There was nothing funny about slavery. The ritual of auctioning a person even for temporary services - no matter how much in jest, no matter how good the cause - can't help but echo the history of real slave auctions.

To complicate matters, this particular date auction is being sponsored by a historically Black fraternity. As a white person, I don't want to impute "false consciousness" to the organizers, but I do have to wonder if anyone thought this through. Is it possible for Black people to subvert the history of slavery by parodying it? Maybe, if the parody is very evident. But I don't see that happening in this case. There was nothing ironic in the email I received, and black-tie affairs don't usually mix with mockery.

Then there's the exchange of cash for a person's potentially romantic company. Now, I'm pretty sure that at this dance, both women and men will be auctioned as dates. Yet it means something different when a woman is "for sale." We don't live in a society where women routinely purchase men's sexual favors. Even if there's gender parity on the auction block, only the "sale" of women resonates with the gender inequities built into prostitution. I'm not ignoring the existence of male prostitutes, just saying that realistically, this auction is much less likely to conjure up images of a gigolo.

My concerns aren't just theoretical. A 2005 article from The Daily Northwestern quotes dean of students Mary Desler as seeing problems with date auctions:
"I think they have the potential of putting students -- women and men -- in compromising and hurtful situations." ...

"What if no one bids money for a date with someone? Might that be hurtful? What if someone purchases a date with someone else and there is something about the purchaser that makes the student feel uncomfortable or, even unsafe? What if something happens on that date that is hurtful?" she said.

"I was involved in a situation a few years ago that was not at all positive for the student 'purchased.' I can't forget that situation," Desler continued.
The article doesn't specify exactly what happened, but in a culture awash in masculine sexual entitlement, I'd worry that women could be at somewhat higher risk of sexual assault when going on a bought-and-paid for date. Most men will be perfectly respectful, I'm sure. But when a guy has put out cold cash for the woman's companionship, aren't the odds increased that he'll expect her to put out, too? To be sure, this is a problem with dating in general - and a good reason to insist on going dutch whenever you don't want to get physical with your date. It seems to me, though, that at the very least, "buying" a woman's company at a date auction is reinforcing rape culture. That's the last thing I'd like to see colleges supporting.

I get why student organizations turn to date auctions. They can raise hundreds of dollars and - unlike raffles or auctions of products - it's all pure profit without any need to seek donations.

Maybe I'm just a killjoy. Still, I'd love to see schools and universities actively discourage date auctions. Citing concerns much like mine, the Office of Student Activities and Leadership at the University of Michigan has issued a statement opposing them. (It's not clear whether this statement came out before or after a student group at Michigan held a date auction two years ago to benefit a Peruvian women's shelter - oh, the irony!) Am I asking too much to want my own university to adopt similar guidelines?

Update 2-1-09, 9:30 p.m.: Duh! I meant to mention this in the original post: Though I wasn't there at the event, I'm pretty sure date auctions are mercilessly heterosexist, too. Can you imagine the fuss if one college-aged dude tried to buy another? Maybe it'd fly as a joke - humor is the main way that students deal with discomfort about homosexuality, 'cause they know that overt homophobia is uncool - but never, ever as a for-real date. Then again, if the girls started bidding on each other, that'd be hawt. Ugh.

My Garden's Anti-Makeover

I'm a sucker for makeovers in fashion mags and for before-and-after pictures of any sort. They tap into the part of me that brims with hope, that believes in our potential for transformation. Yep, I fully realize that I'm falling prey to commodification, the beauty ideal, and pretty much every other ill of late capitalism. That still hasn't reformed me. I still experience a new haircut as a stand-in for deeper renewal.

My garden just underwent an extreme makeover. Unfortunately, these before-and-after photos go completely in the wrong direction. They're more like the fashion "don'ts" in Glamour magazine. So here's what my lavender looked like in July:

And here's how it looked on Wednesday.

I'm having a hard time believing in spring right about now. I think I need to make a leap of faith - that the air will warm, the soil will thaw, and I'll be healthy enough to dig. I think I need to pull out my seed catalogs and start planning my garden.

The Mother of All Long Weekends

My county and the neighboring one have been under a state of emergency for the past couple of days, following the ice storm. Many people in my town still don't have power; today is day four for them. Some are now out of water, too, presumably because the pumps won't run without electricity. The motels are full. The Red Cross has set up a shelter in the city's rec center.

My little family and our immediate neighbors luckily all still have power, water, heat, and plenty of food. Our only affliction is that my kids' school has now burned through every last snow day, plus all of their disposable three-day weekends. We were out of school all last week (and I'm betting the district now regrets calling off Monday for a mere smattering of flakes). If we have another snow day, they'll be going into summer.

But the kids live so fully in the present, they're unfazed. The Bear's comment: "Mama, we're having a nine-day weekend!"

Naturally, there's snow in the forecast for Monday.

Friday, January 30, 2009

My Magnetic Personality

Discombobulated kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

If I seem charmingly magnetic today, it's because I got all the atoms spun around in my brain.

I didn't come out of the MRI in as many pieces as this kitty. I did find it a tad discombobulating, compared to my experience with the breast MRI. Maybe that was because the machine made some remarkably high-pitched whirs. Maybe I could feel those atoms whirling. On balance, I still like the John Cage-like music of the machine. Some of the lower pulsing noises would've made a nice backdrop for a nap, if not for the $3000/hour price tag.

Since I kept my appointment for the MRI, you've deduced by now that it was probably more than just the Bactrim making me sick. I'm going on that assumption, since I still have lots of symptoms. I won't know much more about their possible causes until Monday, when I see my doctor again.

I'm getting checked out for most of the auto-immmune bugaboos. The one that fits my symptoms uncomfortably well is multiple sclerosis. That's not always an easy diagnosis to make, and it can be a very tough one to live with. If that's it, you can hope for a relatively benign form of it. Or you can hope that the promise of stem-cell treaments are borne out: Just today, researchers announced that they had halted and occasionally reversed disability in early-stage MS patients, using their own immune stem cells (not embryonic ones).

For now, I can just say my motor problems are marginally improved; they seem to be worst in the afternoon and when I'm cold. My brain fog is definitely better, though it's hard to keep up with conversations in a group. I have a tough time focusing on very dense prose. Your average blog post is just about at my mental level, conveniently enough. :-)

I'm trying to get enough sleep (even napped this afternoon), avoid my favorite grape-based neurotoxins, and downing fish oil and vitamins (a B-complex and D). I'm going to ask for a B12 shot. Assuming some sort of demyelination has occurred, I want to promote remyelination. Any ideas gratefully accepted!

My colleagues are being wonderfully supportive in word and deed. Everyone on the team for the big class on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality is helping in one way or another. Another colleague found money to pay one of my co-instructors to grade the midterms, which will spare me a lot of stress and gain me some sleep. In women's studies, my students are patient and accepting, while my fellow professors have offered to help in any way they can. I'm blessed, and I know it.

But I'm also scared. And so all of your good thoughts, vibes, prayers, and whisker rubs are gratefully, promiscuously appreciated.

Dick Armey: North Dakota's Worst Export

North Dakota grows a lot of durum wheat. You've surely eaten it in your noodles. North Dakota is first in the nation in exporting sunflower products. It also ships out sugar beets and other wholesome foodstuffs.

Years ago, however, we sent a rather toxic export south to Okalahoma. Having made a career as an economist, he wandered onward to Texas and thence to Washington, DC, schlepping the sludge of free-market fundamentalism, religious intolerance, and general mean-spiritedness wherever he went.

That unfortunate export was Dick Armey, who turned up this week on Chris Matthews' "Hardball" program insulting Joan Walsh, the editor-in-chief of
I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife cuz I surely wouldn't have to listen to that prattle from you every day.

(Quotation courtesy of Henry the Cat of Henry's Travels)
Joan Walsh had a great, real-time comeback: "Well, that makes two of us."

Henry - who also posted the video - tried and failed to determine whether our pal Dick actually has a wife. He consulted Wikipedia, which was so sadly worthless, you have to wonder if it was sanitized by Dick's own people.

But Henry: If you want to know something about a North Dakotan - even one in the diaspora - you ask another North Dakotan. Because we know each other. And if we don't, we know someone who knows someone. That's me: well-connected at the top levels of North Dakota society, and shamelessly willing to dish. It's all hearsay, of course. But that's what you're here for, right?

So I happened to know that Dick Armey went to Jamestown College. (This is confirmed by his online hagiography.) That's where both my parents got their degrees (my dad in music, my mom in English and bridge ... but mostly bridge). They weren't classmates - Dick is too young for that - but Mom taught school with a woman who knew him directly.

From that connection, I knew that Armey had been married - I think to a gal from North Dakota - but at some point he dropped his first wife. My mom's friend was indignant about this, but I don't know the details, and Mom's not clear on them anymore, either. I seem to recall hearing he traded Wife #1 in for a younger model, but I'm not certain.

At any rate, even if I've gotten every insinuation wrong, there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around. According to the Religious Freedom Coalition of the Southeast, Dick distinguished himself by preaching fundie "values," but prior to his political career, he allegedly sexually harassed some of the students he taught ... and traded up to a second wife who just happened to be a former student.
Dick Armey's "documented conduct along the lines of the President's" was reported in the May 4, 1995, Dallas Observer. Three women who had been students when Armey was a professor at North Texas State University went on the record to document Armey's "inappropriate" behavior. Susan Aileen White (who earned a master's in economics from the institution), Anna Weniger (who subsequently acted as an economist for the New Mexico legislature) and Anne Marie Best (a future economics professor at Lamar University) all took offense at Armey's inappropriate behavior toward female students. Weniger left the university for several months, partly because of Armey's actions.

Not all the women at North Texas State were offended by the professor's advances. Armey's current (and second) wife had been one of his students.
I can't vouch for the accuracy of their report, but the hypocrisy sure rings true, based on what my mom's friend told her.

Or, as my mom said to me on the phone last night: "Well, from what she said, he's just an asshole." Coming from my mom - who is literally a former church lady - that's salty language. And for that allegation, Dick Armey's political career provides evidence galore.

So Henry, is there a Mrs. Armey? I'm not sure if there's currently one. But if there is, I sure wouldn't blame her for kicking him to the curb.

P.S. You have no idea how much self-control it cost me not to play with - nay, diddle with! - Rep. Armey's first name in this post. I'm trying to act like a grow-mutt. I was doing pretty well until, oh, ten seconds ago.

Update, 1-31-09, 12:30 a.m.: Salon has a much better sourced account of Dick Armey's misogynist misadventures. It largely confirms my version, except that his first wife, Jeanine Gale, was the one who filed for divorce. Makes perfect sense, if she's a smart woman and he is, indeed, an asshole. The money quote from Salon:
Armey's brother Charley, who has stayed close with his first wife, says Jeanine Gale, who had a master's in education and taught school, was "a women's libber" who didn't put Armey's needs first. Armey's second wife, Susan, his brother says, is nearly the opposite.
No wonder poor Joan Walsh - and I - will never stand a chance!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The World Sparkles and Spins to a Halt

Last time I posted a picture of this vine, it bore a clematis blossom.

Today we woke up to an ice storm that kept the kids home from school for the third day running. They'll be home tomorrow, too; we've blown through all of our snow days, and then some.

The university closed due to weather for only the second time in the past eight years. In Columbus, Ohio State canceled classes, too.

All this ferocious beauty. The neighbors' Japanese maple was one of the few trees that seems not to have lost any twigs or boughs. Lots of people lost power. I got lucky.

Oddly, we had a lake in our backyard in the midst of all the snow and ice. In the foreground, you can see my butterfly bush, bowed but not quite broken. It's an apt enough metaphor for all us beleaguered parents, wondering when our kids will ever return to school.

My boys have been pretty great about letting me tinker with lecture material while they play. The Bear has even shoveled snow as stoically as his North Dakotan ancestors. (It probably helped that I bribed him.) We're just all really ready to get back to a normal routine.

As for me, I've felt a bit better the past two days, though still far from normal: less tremor-ish and a lot less stupid. I'm off the Bactrim now but the improvement predates that. So the mystery thickens, and we're doing more tests. I luckily got in to see my doctor yesterday ... because today, even the clinic was shuttered due to the storm.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Time Travel to the Island of Lost Toys

From the annals of classic 1970s ads, here's a reminder of what's gone lost in the world of play since my childhood.

I'm not arguing for a pink-and-blue-tinged nostalgia. I remember how clearly trucks were considered a boy toy. My little brother adored his Tonka trucks while I stuck to my stuffed animals. I was no gender outlaw in the sandbox. He got a doctor kit for Christmas; I got a nurse kit. All we really cared about was the bottle of candy pills. Still, the message hit its mark.

But by 1972, marketers couldn't just ignore the burgeoning social ferment. In the first of these ads, check out how many dads are involved with their kids - sons and daughters alike. Note the nod toward racial inclusivity. In all honesty, toy marketing is no more racist or sexist in those ads than it is today; maybe less so.

And man, were these ads prescient for 1972! Thirty-seven years later, we're surrounded by plastic crap that breaks on contact. We're deluged by gadgetry meant to entertain rather than engage. I love the line:
You see, we've learned that when a toy doesn't need a kid, in a very short time, the kid doesn't need the toy.
But enough seriousness. If you're old enough to remember 1972, by now you're recalling the classic Tonka elephant commercial and wondering where it went. It's here in this clip, too; ain't YouTube grand? Unlike platform shoes and Richard Nixon, the Tonka elephant hasn't gone terminally uncool. (Well, okay, so Nixon was never cool.) Enjoy!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sweet Schadenfreude: Adieu, Bill Kristol

Yesterday, in response to Amanda Marcotte's post arguing that that New York Times should give Steven Pinker a column on language to distract him from bloviating on ev psych, I said:
Now that you’re found the perfect job for Pinker, can we launch a re-employment program for Bill Kristol, too?
And lo! Today comes word that the Times has ended Kristol's contract (I read the happy news at Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.) I feel a lot of empathy for people getting laid off right now. For Kristol, it's pure schadenfreude, sullied only by the news that the Washington Post has already offered him a monthly gig.

So I may be cognitively impaired at the moment. (I'm feeling much like I did a few days ago: still much afflicted with these neurological symptoms, still waiting for an answer.) But I seem to be developing powers of prognostication. Maybe even mind control! I'm gonna go try to bend some spoons now.

"Reborn" Female?

I foolishly clicked on the "don't click ..." link at this post by Auguste at Pandagon ... and slid into a world of "reborn babies." In case you want to live a little crazy, too, here's where not to click.

If you're more prudent than I, maybe it's enough to know that reborn babies are ultrarealistic dolls weighted to flop like a newborn baby. They're sold on ebay, among other venues, for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some are sold to mothers who've suffered a stillbirth. It's easy to snark at these dolls, but it's not my place to judge any comfort a bereaved mother might find. However, most are marketed to women who'd like a baby but are too old to get pregnant or just don't want an infant that poops and burps and eventually talks back (according to this MSNBC feature).

About the reborn babies themselves I'm generally in agreement with Auguste. I, too, think they are uncanny. Freaky. Replicants among us. Then again, I'm spooked by clowns. Even as a little girl, I wouldn't play with baby dolls. I adored my stuffed animals. They were cuddly and didn't look like aliens.

But here's what surprised me when I explored the photo galleries at Nearly all of the dolls were female. I saw just two boys out of roughly forty dolls! Not every dollmaker has such a skewed sex ratio, but girls seem to predominate across the board. For instance, at Destinys Reborn Babies (no, they don't believe in apostrophes), the ratio of girls to boys is about two to one.

Now, I'm not willing to argue that the purchasers of reborn babies constitute a representative cross-section of the population. But their behavior merges with what I've observed anecdotally: the historical preference for a boy may have shifted toward girl babies in the modern West.

This is a remarkable transformation. Just a century ago, the rural German women whose birth experiences I've researched hoped and prayed for boy babies. Never mind their own innate preferences. If they failed to bear sons and heirs, no matter how modest their situation, they were considered failures as women. The whole community knew they were deficient. Their husbands and in-laws treated them with contempt. Mothers-in-law were particularly harsh. Not surprisingly, those women desperately desired boys.

The roots of this preference go back to ancient times. It was sustained by the importance of brute strength in the pre-industrial age, especially on farms. But probably more decisive were rural inheritance practices that resulted in daughters carrying off part of the family property as a dowry when they married, whereas sons inherited directly and continued to provide for their parents in old age.

Here's one example from a midwife in rural Bavaria circa 1920 or 1930, who attended a farm wife who'd borne three girls in a row. When the expectant mother went the hospital (due to the threat of complications) the farmer told her not to bother phoning if the baby was another girl. Predictably enough, it was a girl. The farmer neither visited his wife in the hospital nor picked her up to bring her home. The midwife said that husbands normally didn't even bother to look at a baby girl for the first couple of months - and they blamed the midwife, too, for the baby being the wrong sex.

While I'm very glad for the shift in attitudes (not to mention the modern awareness that the father's X or Y determines sex), I'm not at all convinced that a general preference for girls would be a real improvement. For one thing, reversing sexism wouldn't end it. It would only flip the terms of the inequality. This is structurally the same as the question of whether matriarchy would be superior to patriarchy. As long as one group is lording it over another, it's not fair or just ... not that we're in any danger of living in a matriarchal society, mind you!

For another thing I suspect that all kinds of rigid assumptions about girls are wrapped around the growing preference for them. Girls are thought to be easier to manage. They're imagined to be more docile. How is this progress from the tired old stereotypes of female passivity?

Objectively speaking, there are lots more cute clothes for little girls. If you've ever taken a look at the Land's End girls section, you know what I mean. I totally get the pleasure mothers have in dressing their daughters; I've envied it, to be honest, while pawing through drab piles of camoflage T-shirts. But what does it mean that we start sending the message from birth forward that a girl's appearance matters more than a boy's? And how can we then hope girls will resist the pressure to crave "sexy" styles before they even dream of puberty?

Finally, mothers may hope for a "mini-me," much as fathers have long hoped for a Junior to carry on the family name and their personal legacy. Such hopes can only be dashed. The burden of a legacy is a heavy one for any baby, whether a boy-child or a girl-child.

I actually always pictured myself as the mother of a daughter, so I may well be part of this new wave. Instead, I got two boys. I'm just wise enough to realize that quite possibly I would've made more mistakes with a girl, projected too much of myself onto her, assumed she'd be too much like me.

My boys remind me continually of how much greater the human potential is than the old straitjacket of gender roles would suggest. They're capable of great empathy and gentleness. (Okay, every once in a while the Tiger wallops the Bear, but that's rare these days.) They're creative and funny. They're definitely boys, but they're not imprisoned by the role.

One thing my boys don't do? Play dolls. But like the little-girl version of me, they cuddle and love their stuffed animals. That seems just about right.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What the Hooman Vets Told Me

Reluctant patient kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

So Thursday night I got sprung from the hospital, once the ER doctor called my regular doctor and got him to promise to see me the next day. Feeling much like this LOLcat, I dragged myself to the hooman vet. He examined me pretty thoroughly. All my reflexes appear normal. Nothing seems to be bulging in my eyeballs. My grip strength is just fine.

Both doctors seem to agree that I've got some weird neurological thing going on, but it's subtle and almost definitely not due to a stroke. In fact, I seem to be perfectly healthy except for an unexplained tremor, a sense of heaviness, wobbliness, and clumsiness in my limbs, brain fog, overall fatigue, and - for lack of a better term - a trippiness in my view of the world. Regrettably, it's not a good trip.

My family practitioner seems to think my crackpot theory is probably the leading one: that I'm having a freaky drug reaction. No, I haven't been promiscuously digging into unmarked vials of pills again. The day before I started feeling bad, I was prescribed Bactrim for an infection. Among its side effects are some neurological ones, including peripheral neuritis, ataxia, dizziness, and more. These are pretty rare, but they've been reported. The timing in my case is highly suggestive.

So we're going to wait and see what happens and not spend thousands of dollars on testing just yet. The next test would be an MRI, and we decided to hold off on that unless I get worse. Yesterday, I actually felt better. Ditto this morning. Then I took a Bactrim and within an hour I felt worse. Just now, I began to feel a little better again. I'm thinking this weighs in favor of Bactrim being the culprit. Unfortunately I have to take it for a few more days because the infection is better but not gone.

Now, in the bad old days, I might've been diagnosed with hysteria! At least I'd have a name for it ... But I'm grateful that some seriously scary stuff has been pretty well ruled out (stroke, brain tumor, any kind of bleeding in my head). If I don't feel better once I'm off the Bactrim, then I'll have to get checked out for MS and possibly other conditions that whack the myelin of the peripheral nerves. I'm trying to stay calm about all those possibilities, because logically I really do think it's a drug reaction.

Anyway, thanks to all of you who've sent well wishes. I'll let you know how this turns out. In the meantime, between my clumsy brain and fingers, my blogging may range from sporadic to stupid. (Then again, that can happen anyday!)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Slightly Scary Hospital Drama with a Happy Ending, So Far

Even though I adore the TV show House, it’s not only the medical facts that it often fudges. It’s mostly wrong about how people behave in hospitals, too, and what a good thing that is.

Just about every time I’ve set foot in a hospital, I’ve been amazed at the kindness I’ve witnessed. Nurses who bring an extra warm blanket. Daughters who teasingly cajole their aged fathers to “be nice to them nurses.” Spouses who manage to appear calm and comforting even when their partner may be in grave danger. Parents who reassure their frightened child. Many of them ought to be wailing and weeping and invoking the story of Job. Instead, they evince quiet courage – for themselves, for their loved ones.

I’m noticing these human details right now because I’m in the ER, on my own since my husband is home caring for our kids. Conversations overheard through the thin drapes separating the beds are a welcome distraction, now that I’ve worked my way through the novel I was reading and caught up on reading other people’s blogs. (Even my small community hospital has wireless!)

Distraction is good. For the past few days, I’ve had some very mild weakness in my left arm and leg, along with a slight tremor in my left hand. I can type but it’s as though my left fingers would rather be jitterbugging across the keyboard. I’m pretty sure I haven’t had a stroke but of course that’s what the ER doctors first have to check. So I just got back from a CT scan, which I think is a very cool thing if it weren’t for 1) the mounting evidence showing that the radiation from a CT scan is more dangerous than originally supposed, especially in kids, and 2) fear.

It’s funny. I wasn’t really scared, just uneasy, until I called my osteopath and my family physician this afternoon and was told I needed to get this checked out. It’s odd how walking into the hospital congeals those previously diffuse fears into something cold and solid in the pit of your belly.


But because I don’t want you to start sharing that frigid fear: The doctor just informed me my CT looks great. So did my blood work. There’s no sign of a stroke.

(Lucky for me the technology’s still not refined enough to detect half-baked ideas, ‘cause they’d find an awful lot of those floating around in my brain.)

I still don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve got to come back tomorrow for more tests. But I’m grateful that the ugliest possibility has been largely ruled out. I’m grateful for the nurse who gave me just about the least-painful IV ever. I’m grateful that the doctor appeared smart and competent. (Yes, Dr. House would have found a diagnosis by now, but only after first insulting me and then recklessly endangering my life.)

And again I’m grateful for the supportive murmurs of the couple on the other side of the curtain. I don’t know them. They’re not my people. And yet, they are.

My Pro-Life Reflections on the 36th Anniversary of Roe

Today is Blog for Choice Day, marking the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The official topic is what action we'd most like to see the Obama Administration take on reproductive justice. My official response is brief because I think the first steps are pretty straightforward:
  • Repeal the Mexico City policy aka the Global Gag Rule.
  • Reverse the HHS "conscience clause" that allows health care providers to capriciously deny any service, including birth control (see the recent case of a nurse who removed an IUD against the patient's will although the new rule is not yet even in effect!).
  • Require age-appropriate comprehensive sex education in every school in America.
How's that for a start?

But I'm not in an especially policy-wonky mood today, and to be honest, I'm not much worried about Obama dropping the ball on women's health. He's more likely to be too timid on the economy or Iraq.

Instead, I'd like to tell a story. It's a morality tale with a somewhat unlikely lesson: that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can be profoundly pro-life. While I promise it'll loop back to reproductive rights, the story begins with one man's health crisis.

In August 2004, a family of four was vacationing in Berlin, Germany. One evening, the man complained of severe pain in his limbs. The pain rapidly grew worse. Within a few hours, the agony was so overwhelming that he could hardly speak, hardly walk. The woman woke the downstairs neighbor, asked him to guard the children, and rushed to the ER, where her husband was admitted.

Several days passed, and the husband was losing his ability to walk. His left hand was paralyzed and most of his right arm. He was in excruciating pain, 11 on a 10-point scale, no matter how much morphine he got. The doctors had no explanation, no name for what was happening. An Austrian neurologist was sanguine that he'd recover fully, but he gave no diagnosis and the paralysis continued to progress. Besides, the doctors' attention was monopolized by a suspicious "Raumfordering," whatever that was. (The doctors did rounds at 7 a.m. and wouldn't answer phone inquiries, while the husband was too drugged to be a very reliable reporter, so the wife felt very much in the dark.)

The wife spent her nights googling various symptoms, wondering if it was Guillain-Barre (it wasn't) or any number of other nerve disorders. (A few years later, a neurologist in Columbus gave the most plausible explanation: MADSAM, a disorder in which the the myelin of peripheral nerves is attacked and destroyed.) All that googling revealed just one thing: a Raumforderung is a mass. Her husband had a chest mass. A day or two later, the cancer diagnosis was confirmed.

About a week into this adventure, she realized her period was several days late.

She knew that if she were pregnant, she couldn't go through with it. Her husband was lying in the hospital with cancer and paralysis. The hospital called her daily demanding an immediate cash payment of 10,000 euros (roughly $12,000) because they had no contracts with the family's American insurer. She had two very young children, aged four and 14 months. Her mother was in California, an ocean and a continent away. Her best girlfriend in Berlin was helping with the kids but had to return to work again. She was drowning already; how could she stay afloat with the heavy fatigue and the 24/7 nausea that she vividly recalled from her two pregnancies?

Any abortion under those circumstances would have been a pro-life abortion. It would have been to protect the lives of her family - including her own - in a situation where time, energy, and money were already unbearably strained. (In fact, she had to appeal to her dad for money, and bless him, he wired what was needed.)


As you've probably surmised, that woman was me. As it turned out, I wasn't pregnant. I hadn't eaten, I hadn't slept, and I'd lost close to ten pounds in just over a week. Anyone in a calm state of mind probably would've done the math and realized that the stress had made me late. I wasn't calm, I was overwrought, and so nothing computed.

As sure as I felt about the decision I would have made, I also knew that ending a pregnancy would've been wrenchingly hard. Having already carried two babies, I knew how your heart expands along with your belly. However. From experience, too, I knew that time, energy and money aren't so stretchy. They're finite. And I was already beyond my limits.

Every woman who has a pregnancy scare has her own story to tell. I got lucky. My decision stayed in the realm of the hypothetical. For others, the scare will reveal an actual pregnancy, and they'll have to choose. For some, the decision will be easy and obvious; for others, it will be agonizing. Most who choose abortion will see it as the lesser evil.

Women's reasons for deciding to bear a child - or not - may not be evident to an outsider. Most of them won't have a mate in the throes of a life-and-death health crisis. But many will have young children and feel utterly unable to cope with more. Many will have serious money worries. Some will have good reason to fear a parent or spouse. Each story is different.

And unless we know every constraint on a woman and every wish and fear in her heart, we pass judgment at her - and our - peril. Because sometimes, the most pro-life decision she can make will be to end an unplanned pregnancy and nurture those lives that already depend on her. Including her own.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Bear, A Tiger, and an Awesome Inauguration

I watched the inaugural festivities in the university's grand (i.e., scandalously expensive) new student center, surrounded by dozens of friends and colleagues and happy strangers. (Oh, and my husband, too.) We shared high-fives when Biden supplanted Darth Cheney. We cheered when the clock struck noon and made Barack Hussein Obama our 44th president. And I wasn't the only one who spent most of the hour teary-eyed. I am, as the Germans say, "built close to the water," but yesterday seemed to a high-water day for an awful lot of people.

My kids had a different take on it. The Bear thought the ceremony was "very cool," but his class had to do math worksheets while the TV droned in the background. Aaargh! History in the making, and the kids are cramming for those damn standardized tests! I have sympathy for the third-grade teachers, who are evidently feeling the crunch from all the snow closures; we've had five days with two-hour delays, plus three actual snow days. But still!

The Tiger watched the inauguration in the cafeteria at lunchtime. His take? "It was not awesome." (The Tiger currently divides his whole world into two categories: awesome and not awesome.) And why not? "There were only grow-mutts." Only adults. He was only slightly mollified when I told him about Sasha being close to his age - and apparently about as bored as he was.

Aside from those few miniature dissenters, it was an awesomely awesome day. We kept the kids up way too late at a party, where it was also awesome to see a bunch of fellow campaign volunteers for the first time since November 4. Catching up on things today ... well, that's been not awesome. But oh, so very worth it.

With all due respect to my dear little Tiger, I loved Obama's sober tone. I loved his call to collective responsibility. I loved his reference to "putting away childish things." I happen to think it's awesome that there's a grow-mutt in charge of the White House again.

This, by the way, is the poster I won in the end-of-campaign raffle for all the local canvassers and phone bankers. Look closely and you'll see where
Biden signed it during his stopover in Athens. (My winning it was undeserved; lots of people put in way more hours than I.) The pic below gives you a better view of Biden's scrawl.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Queering Masculinity, '70s Style

A few days ago, while I was having coffee with a colleague and friend of mine, we somehow got onto the subject of "Match Game." I spent hundreds of hours watching that show during those long, lazy summers when I was in late grade school and junior high, circa 1975. The fact that everyone's parents disapproved of the show's sexual innuendo, which was as wall-to-wall as our shag carpets, only added to the allure.

My friend said, "Well, there's a theory that Charles Nelson Reilly queered the game show!" Not her original thesis - I think it may come from Elana Levine's Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television- but looking back, I knew immediately what she meant. Back then, however, I had no clue that Charles Nelson Reilly was gay; I just thought he was funny. (Judging from this comment thread on Pam Spaulding's obit for him from 1997, I wasn't the only kid who didn't get it.)

Not that anyone used the term queer back then in the mid-1970s. It was still an insult, years away from being reappropriated. At least in North Dakota, all things homosexual were still very hush-hush, which helps explain my cluelessness.

But there was so much change in the media around that time. While people weren't yet regularly labeled as "gay," depictions of non-straight people were beginning to proliferate, even if Ellen DeGeneres was still unimaginable in my corner of the Upper Midwest. I grew up listening to Elton John and David Bowie. I just didn't have a handy label for what made them different from, say, Billy Joel.

In some ways, though, the more remarkable thing was the portrayals of "straight" masculinity that really don't look quite so straight nowadays. I mean, the hero of Saturday Night Fever was a dancer. The soundtrack was provided by the oh-so-fey Bee Gees. Luke Skywalker looks downright girly by today's standards. So do all the teen heartthrobs of the time: David Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Parker Stevenson. (Of course, that layered-look, blow-dried haircut can't help but be anti-macho. You have to wonder if they all had the same stylist as Farrah Fawcett.)

And then there was this commercial, which I hadn't thought about for thirty years until I stumbled upon it a few hours after my game-show nostalgia session: "I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper ..." Imagine, if you can, a soda commercial today featuring a man singing and dancing like a leprechaun. (The head Pepper was, as it turns out, David Naughton, he of "American Werewolf in London.")

I'm not saying that those singing and dancing Peppers were gay. But man oh man, did they queer masculinity!

The End of Our Long National Hairball

Hairball kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Poor Grey Kitty suffered horribly from hairballs. (No, that's not her in the pic above; she was much prettier, even while yakking.) She'd groom herself neurotically and then try to hack up a ball of hair the size of a small kitten. No sooner had she eliminated one hairball than the next one would be queued up, ready to go. She'd sprint furious circles around the house, growling and yowling, until finally she'd cough one up. Preferably at 4 a.m. Preferably on the carpet. Groom, rinse, and repeat.

The past eight years haven't been all that different. It's been just one hairball after another. We've had the Enron debacle, 9/11 and "My Pet Goat," Katrina, "Misssion Accomplished" in Iraq and Afghanistan, collapse of the rule of law, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. (I'm sure I've missed a few, so check out Jeff Fecke's depressingly dead-to-rights countdown of the ten worst Bush moments, starting here.)

We too have spent the past eight years running in circles, making no headway on climate change, oil dependency, and our crumbling health-care system. The Bush regime has been utterly indigestible. It's made us sick - at least at heart - and too often, literally. Unlike the feline version, which only rarely prove fatal, the Bush hairballs have been lethal.

We'll be cleaning up the mess on the carpet for years to come.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cornel West, Love, Justice ... and Me

Well, okay. I didn't actually even shake his hand, much less get to talk with him one-on-one. But I got to hear Cornel West speak at my university today, and I was both moved and impressed.

Impressed: because he's got such an stirring delivery. If I tried to riff on the whole scale of emotion and power that he uses, I'd come across as a screeching, bombastic pedant. (Heck, I'm still trying to get comfy with wielding a microphone when I lecture!) But he's got the voice and presence to pull off the sort of oratory that's otherwise reserved for legendary preachers.

Moved: because he's not just way smarter than me, and he's not just a brilliant showman. He calls us to tend to our own spiritual maturity while committing ourselves to rooting out oppression. He takes Socrates' injunction that "the unexamined life is not worth living," mixes it with the blues, and inspires you to recommit to a better self and a better world. Actually, the better self is the bridge to that better world.

I'm not going to try to summarize all that West said. (He was giving the keynote at a conference on a founder of progressive Islam, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a Sudanese visionary executed by his government for his beliefs, whom West grouped with Gandhi, King, and Mandela.) Instead, I'll just share a few of the lines that I found most inspiring, yet pithy enough that I got them on paper - no small thing, because the ideas were flowing so furiously.
Indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep. It's the very essence of inhumanity.

Optimism deodorizes the catastrophic. Hope allows us to confront the catastrophic.
These weren't just eloquent yet empty phrases. While celebrating Obama's upcoming inauguration, West called on "Brother Barack" to serve hope, not optimism. To speak out against the carnage in Gaza. To explain why he chose Rick Warren in apparent contempt of his LGBT supporters.

This, however, is the thought I've promised myself to repeat every day until it becomes part of my blood and bones:
Justice is what love looks like in public.
Imagine what the world might look like if that became everyone's mantra. Imagine how different our history would be. How radiant our future.

Of course this is way out of season, but I swear it's posted in a spirit of hope, not optimism. (The flower is a Climbing Peace Rose from early September 2008.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ignorance Is Not Bliss: The Sad State of Sexual Medicine

Not long ago, I discussed the discomfort physicians too often feel while discussing sexual issues with their patients. This discomfort is rooted in broader anti-sex attitudes in America - and no, the ubiquity of sex in the media does not mean that America celebrates sex, only that we commodify it. The result is that patients often don't get even very basic medical advice that could help them ameliorate sexual dysfunction.

But I totally overlooked a second problem: plain old ignorance! I just read an insider's perspective from Dr. John P. Mulhall, MD, director of the Male Sexual and Reproductive Medicine Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and author of Saving Your Sex Life: A Guide for Men with Prostate Cancer (Hilton Publishing Company, Chicago, 2008). In an interview published last week in Renal and Urology News, Dr. Mulhall said:
There's a famous slide I often use during talks—it shows a patient on a bed beside the doctor and both have “thought bubbles” that say, “I hope he brings up the topic of erection problems.” So it's usually on people's minds but rarely discussed. In addition, we only get one or two hours of sex medicine information in medical school. There's more time spent on tropical medicine.
So I was half right in blaming doctor's comfort level - or lack thereof. But only half.

I'm shocked, honestly, that doctors get only an hour or two of formal training in sexual medicine. Then again ... if they know more about malaria than about sexual dysfunction, it explains a whole lot.
  • No wonder people are often prescribed anti-depressants without sufficient information on their sexual side effects.
  • No wonder prostatectomies are frequently performed without full discussion of what the patient should expect (some men are not informed that they won't ejaculate afterward, for instance!) and without followup aimed at restoring sexual function.
  • No wonder doctors often don't screen women for sexual problems after childbirth and menopause, waiting instead for women to bring mention them.
Shame and ignorance make a perfect couple, don't they? Each reinforces the other. It's as if medicine were cousin to the abstinence-only movement, where shame and ignorance are wedded for life in one of those really lousy marriages that makes everyone miserable.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

God O Thunder Falls to Earth

Lego version of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder; image by Flickr user Dunechaser, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yesterday, Columbus police arrested a guy who'd been an active member of an Internet discussion board for johns, where he reviewed prostitutes and issued advice on not getting busted. The Columbus Dispatch reports he posted under such charming screen names as "God O Thunder." Among the allegations is that he promoted online the prostitution services of a 17-year-old.

The real name of this Thor wannabe: Robert Eric McFadden.

Previous government position: director of Ohio's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Before that, he was field director for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

Current employer: Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

So (assuming the charges are true), he's managed to come pretty close to maxing out the hypocrisy angle, and he's making good headway on the irony angle, too. Does his current job mean he might be able to oversee his own prison sentence?

It gets even more sordid (again from The Dispatch):
Police said they have seized a computer and two vehicles. One was his wife's car, which detectives said was the setting for photos of the 17-year-old girl that McFadden then posted online.
Eeeew. This man sounds like he's got some serious boundary issues. Not that I think it'd be perfectly kosher if he'd used his own car. Still, using his wife's vehicle speaks to a level of hubris and/or passive aggressiveness that too-neatly matches his pseudo-Norse-god alias.

There's also a nice irony in his being busted through one of these john forums. I'm pretty grossed out even at the idea of such forums. The little I've seen of them looks to me like they're more about reviewing a product than a service. They confirm my sense that too many johns view women's bodies as commodities. They underscore my suspicion that for too many of them, paying for sex is both an exercise in and confirmation of masculine sexual entitlement.

Professional escort Peridot Ash, who obviously knows a heck of a lot more about sex work than I do, seems to concur. She recently had a smart post on the demeaning terms johns use in these "reviews." She concludes that their disparagement of prostitutes' bodies is just an extension of contempt in which they hold all women's "saggy, fat, and ugly" bodies. She writes:
This list says to me: women are THINGS. And we only like certain kinds of these things. And the consumer has a right to prefer these things. Because in business, the market decides. Female bodies are consumable and the market has decided that fat, black, old, or flat-chested ones are not as economically valuable as nubile, white, young, big-boobied ones. BUYER BEWARE.

(Read the whole thing.)
And that's why - even though I'm sorry for McFadden's wife and others who'll have to deal with the fallout, and even though I'm convinced that criminalizing prostitution only multiplies its ills - I can't feel sorry that this particular God O Thunder is apparently hoist on his own lightning bolt.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Depression Hits Home

Recession kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

No, I didn't lose my job. But my sister's husband did. He just got laid off after a decade-plus as a sales rep for a major tool maker.

My sis and her husband will be okay financially. They're in no danger of losing their home. My sister is still employed. Their situation is not comparable to that of people whose trailer homes are being repossessed. I'm grateful for that.

But still, it's a blow. Finding a new job in this depression will be tough. I worry that he'll get discouraged - depressed, even - and who would blame him?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Catty Comment on the Weather

So this is how people react to winter where I grew up (and yes, I'm from North Dakota, but the mindset is identical - so laconic that you'd think tempers had frozen solid):
[S]ome Minnesotans took it as just another winter day, even in the state's extreme northwest corner where thermometers bottomed out at 38 degrees below zero at the town of Hallock and the National Weather Service said the wind chill was a shocking 58 below.

"It's really not so bad," Robert Cameron, 75, said as he and several friends gathered for morning coffee at the Cenex service station in Hallock. "We've got clothing that goes with the weather. ... We're ready and rolling, no matter what."

(Source: AP via Columbus Dispatch)
And this is what happens here in Southeastern Ohio: Monday morning, with a scant 3/8 inch of snow on the ground, school is delayed two hours, with my husband - and our one and only car - out of town for the day.

Another 3/8 inch fell this evening, again on bare ground, and I'm already wondering what'll happen tomorrow. Not to mention Friday, when we'll get subzero temps, which also typically crash the school system. Adding to my antsiness, the radio station that posts closings is super-slow to update and the school's website has been down for over a month.

I realize that the root of these hassles is poverty. Well, okay, also an absurdly nervous superintendent. But if the region weren't so poor, roads might get cleared. The school district's website might get fixed. And there'd be less worry about kids being underdressed for the conditions. Those same kids don't get subsidized meals when school is off, nor do their parents typically get paid if they can't make it to work.

Failing that, I'd love at least an improved weather prediction service. Like this one (via Lynn Gazis-Sax at Noli Irritare Leones).

(Translation: Temperatures have been pretty darn brisk in Germany, too - at least for those not snuggling their own personal furry heat source.)

Frustrated as I am with the capriciousness of my school district's snow day policy, I'm not blind to my blessings. A friend of mine, a transplant from Indiana, loaned me her car Monday so I could haul my kids to my office, meet with students, and then schlepp the kids to school by eleven. When I thanked her that evening, she said:
None of us have family here.
And so all of us have family here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

From the Department of Too-Perfect Names ...

... comes this:
Warner Chilcott Limited today [1-7-2009] announced that it has signed an agreement with Dong-A PharmTech Co. Ltd., based in Korea, to develop and market their orally-administered udenafil product, a phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED) in the United States. Dong-A has successfully completed Phase 2 studies of the product in the United States.
Got that? Vi*agra is about to get a new competitor, developed by a company named Dong-A.

I can only assume it means something different in Korean.

Mind you, I'm not mocking the product at all. It's reportedly effective but may have fewer side effects than
Vi*agra. That could be a real boon to the substantial number of men who give up PDE5 inhibitors because they get spooky vision changes, severe headaches, or other untoward symptoms.

In the meantime, I bet some enterprising pharma company is working its way up toward Willie-Z.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Saturday Silliness: Manamana

For about the past month, my kids have been utterly obsessed with the Muppet Show. They are turning into miniature YouTube addicts. (In contrast to the rest of us, who are full-blown addicts by now.) This is the clip that started it all - their gateway drug, you might say. I have to admit it is very funny, especially the cows' mouths, even though I've now heard it, oh, a hundred times or so.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Cushy Life of the Historian?

Photo of the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Berlin by Flickr user NathanBushDesigns, part of his very cool Staatsbibliothek set, used under a Creative Commons license. I spent many hours there, happily engrossed in the writings of dead German feminists and gynecologists.

Who knew I was so lucky? I have the seventh-best job in America! Okay, women's studies instructors were excluded from the survey of the "best" and "worst" jobs that the Wall Street Journal reported on earlier this week. But historians showed up as #7, and that's the field where I received most of my formal training, including my Ph.D.

Topping the list were mathematicians. And man, that just gave me the giggles. What I know about our local math department is that it's full of, um, personalities. I haven't had direct contact with them, but indirectly I got to know the quirks of one of 'em a little too well. Last winter, I taught in a room in the math building with a pull-down screen. One morning, I arrived there only to find that the screen was up - and its cord was gone. I pushed a table against the wall, and one of my tallest students volunteered to leap up and grab it.

Later, I talked to one of my friends who's well acquainted with the department. From him I learned that one of the mathematicians has a vendetta against anyone who leaves the screen down. (That wouldn't have been me, but many instructors use that room.) And so he periodically snips off the cord - with wire cutters.

I'm not saying all mathematicians are looney-tunes (I know a couple of exceptions, and even I know enough to realize that my sample size is far too small). But universities in general are brimming with eccentrics. While I like eccentrics, some of them are flat-out difficult. My own colleagues are wonderful, but I recognize that lots of departments are profoundly dysfunctional, and I don't mean just the mathematicians. David Lodge's novels may be fiction. They're also deadly accurate as anthropology.

Much more importantly, most jobs in academia come with a lot of pressure. Scientists have to get the grants. Everyone has to publish. People on the tenure track face intense stress until they make tenure - and even greater stress if they don't get it. Those of us not on the tenure track are harried, too: Do we have any shot at a long-term position? Will we even be hired for the next term? How high a price will we pay to keep our careers alive? Should we think about abandoning academia altogether?

And so I'm skeptical about this survey (which you can find here). Eight of the top twenty careers are in fields where universities are the prime employers (math, biology, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, physics, astronomy). The criteria were: Stress, Work Environment, Physical Demands, Income and Outlook.

Clearly, academic positions offer a clean physical environment with few physical demands. If you make full professor, you've got a pretty decent income. But stress and a toxic collegial environment are all too common. The survey says historians work an average of 45 hours a week. I'd love to meet one who does. Possibly some practitioners of public history (working for the state, cities, etc.) might actually leave their job behind in the evenings.

Income? My husband's response: "Yeah, you're making $200,000 - over a decade!" Assuming I stay employed, that'll be just about my average from 2002 onward. If the average income for historians is about $61,000, as this survey claims, they're surely not counting all the unemployed and underemployed.

The outlook for academic jobs has never been great; this year, it's dismal. The decline in new openings is estimated at 15% compared to last year, according to Inside Higher Ed. But that surely understates the scope of the problem, because searches are being cancelled left and right, sometimes so late in the game that they wreak havoc with people's lives. A friend of mine in another field had received and accepted a firm offer. It was withdrawn just as she was about to make a campus visit to sign the contract and start the process of relocating. I'm sure this isn't specific to academia, but the latest crunch comes on top of a market where the number of applicants has always greatly exceeded the openings.

I do treasure a lot of things about my work. I have a fair amount of flexibility apart from classtime, which is completely inflexible. I get to pursue my interests, and I can get blissfully lost in libraries and archives - like the Staatsbibliothek, pictured above and below. I know that the ideas I study and teach about matter. I enjoy going to conferences, though it's almost always on my own dime. Most important for my daily routine, I love working with students, and most of them feel the same about me. Since September, I even get paid a living wage for all this.

I wouldn't suggest people flood into any of those "top-rated" academic jobs, though. Academia is fraught with stress, anxiety, and snipped-off pull-cords. It's only worth it if you really, really love the work - enough to do it as a hobby, if necessary. As I've said before, it's a little like blogging that way.

The Berlin Staatsbibliothek's windows, again from Flickr user NathanBushDesigns in his Staatsbibliothek set, used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Consent, Sexual Assault, and How We Buy Cars

At Abyss 2 Hope, Marcella has come down pretty hard on my recent post on seduction and consent. I think she distorts it pretty dramatically. Disagreement is fine; misrepresentation, not so much.

Marcella basically accuses me of promoting a rape culture. Here's the paragraph of mine that she seems to find most objectionable:

I'm not arguing that force or violence is present in every rape. Not at all. I'm just saying that to call an act rape, there has to be a clear absence of consent, whether because one person has said or signaled no, or because they're incapable of consenting due to drunkenness or unconsciousness.

Here's the core of Marcella's response:
This is a very dangerous position which I see most often from those claiming most of those who disclose having been raped are liars. This view sets up people (mostly boys and men) to commit rape which if it is rightfully reported will be claimed to have been a false report.

For sex to be consensual and legal there needs to be a clear presence of freely and legally given consent. This is a far different standard than Kittywampus has defined for "real" rape.

If you go to a car dealership and test drive a car, say wonderful things about that car, you have not consented to buy that car simply because you didn't say, "No, I'm not buying this car." It would be absurd to demand that all car shoppers' absence of consent must be clear.

Nobody who goes to a car dealership needs to be empowered to always say no in order to avoid unwanted car ownership or car ownership which comes at too high of a price.
I'm positive that Marcella and I agree that in a good society, not just consent but enthusiastic consent ought to be the precondition to any sexual contact. I'm pretty sure, too, that she'd agree with my statements in that post condemning coercion as unethical and arguing that far too much sex falls short of the gold standard of enthusiastic consent. Here's what I wrote:
I think it's absolutely true that there's a continuum of coercion when it comes to sex. In fact, a dismaying amount of sex takes place between the polar extremes of rape and enthusiastic consent.
I'm flummoxed at Marcella's decision to ignore that statement. I respect the work she's done, and my impression of her is that she's both bright and fair-minded. I'm not sure why she picked a couple of statements out of context and then proceeded as though I don't insist on the importance of consent (and not reluctant consent!), and as though I don't condemn sexual coercion as ethically wrong.

The tone of her post implies I'm a cheerleader for date rape and rape culture. I don't think either this particular post, or the rest of my work, supports that implication. (A while back, she linked to a post of mine in which I condemned the sexual harassment and assault that occurred in Ohio's ex-AG Marc Dann's office.) In my recent post, I also didn't distort the law on rape in my state, Ohio, which specifies that a woman need not physically resist, but clearly expects that she make her lack of consent known (unless she's impaired in any of the ways that make consent impossible). I don't think it's fair to attack me or my argument because my state's law does not call for affirmative expressions of consent.

Perhaps this all has something to do with Marcella thinking I attacked Maggie Hays personally (as she mentions in comments on her post). I was pretty outraged by Ms. Hays' initial statement that politeness = seduction = coercion = rape, enough so that I wrote a more polemical post than is my norm. It wasn't meant as a personal attack on Ms. Hays, and I apologize if she felt it was. I do stand by my position that when we erase important distinctions and paint all men as the enemy, we do feminism a grave disservice. I also didn't misrepresent her argument, though Ms. Hays herself has gone back and edited that original post to remove the equation that leads from politeness to rape. I commend her for rethinking it, though given the amount of argument her formulation inspired, it would've been better to revise the post without erasing that key passage. Otherwise, it looks as though Natalia and I were misrepresenting her argument.

Let me return to the paragraph Marcella found objectionable - the one where I say a woman has a responsibility to convey a clear no (verbally or otherwise) if she's on the receiving end of unwanted sexual overtures. Obviously, any situation where two people are strangers and one person touches the other sexually constitutes sexual assault. The same goes for any sexual contact between two people that's not preceded by a date or flirtation. Sexual touching out of the blue is also a form of sexual assault, even if two people know each other. And in any situation where a person's ability to consent is impaired, any sexual contact is a form of assault.

The paragraph in question, however, follows one in which I briefly sketched out dating scenarios of the sort where coercion might be in play. That's the particular case I'll deal with below - the situation where date rape can occur.

In an ideal world, when two people go on a date or begin flirting, both partners would continually check in with each other. Maybe you remember the Antioch Sexual Assault Policy, which attempted to ensure that partners did just that, explicitly, repeatedly, and verbally. It got roundly mocked at the time for being infeasible (and I still think it's unworkable, for reasons I'll explain in a moment), but its intent was good. Its most controversial provision was that the initiating partner had to verbally ask for consent at every escalation of intimacy, and the partner had to verbally provide it. It further specified:
Body movements and non-verbal responses such as moans are not consent.
Now, in world where people weren't so repressed about sex, we might be more capable of verbalizing our desires and responses. We might be better able to say, "mmm, I'd really like to ..." and our partner could respond with an equally happy yes. Even then - in a utopia absent repression - not everyone could state their desires out loud without breaking their mood. Some people just go nonverbal once they get really turned on.

Also, very few of us - women and men alike - would want sex to entail the kinds of bureaucratic checklist that the Antioch policy would mandate.

What most of us do, instead, is to use precisely those body movements and moans to check in continually with our partners. Here, too, people vary greatly; some individuals have much more sensitive communicative barometers than others. That's true for women as well, but a clueless woman is obviously less problematic, given the relative infrequency of woman-on-man rape.

How is this different from buying a car? Well, most people aren't afraid that a car salesman (or the car?!) will reject them. Our egos aren't invested in car buying. We don't buy cars in a cultural climate that makes meaningful discussion of them taboo; car ads don't distort our view on driving anywhere near as much as advertising in general warps our ideas about sex! Vulnerability and emotions aren't much in play when we buy a car (except perhaps for the sort of folks who buy Porsches?). Thus, the communicative situation is much more clear-cut.

Consider a first kiss. It's not a business transaction. It's a fragile moment where the initiator makes himself (or herself!) vulnerable. Now, if non-verbal communication is working reasonably well, a potential initiator will refrain from doing anything if the other person doesn't appear interested. He or she will stop, or ask if everything is okay, if they don't get an enthusiastic response.

Some people, however, are knuckleheads. The clods who don't get that there's a problem when you stop responding enthusiastically? They are going to need to hear a clear verbal no or an unambiguous non-verbal signal (such as a push). If they don't stop at that point, they've committed sexual assault.

But I'm not willing to criminalize failure to read relatively subtle signals (those moans and movements, again) in a situation where it's reasonable to assume sexual interest and where hormones are in flux. For instance, even a sensitive person might interpret a partner's sudden lack of moans not as withdrawal of consent but as a signal to try a different sort of touch.

To repeat: Outside a dating/flirting scenario, no sexual touching should take place. Period. Within it, possibilities for honest miscommunication abound. Both parties have a responsibility to make it clear if they don't want sexual contact to begin or escalate.

Going back to that first kiss: Say a guy kisses me while on a date. If I pull away immediately, that's a clear no. He hasn't gotten my verbal permission first (who does?) and he just misread the signals. That might make him an oaf, but calling it an assault strains credulity.

Taking this a step further, lets say I respond to his kiss, and things escalate. I respond enthusiastically until we're about to have intercourse. At that moment I decide I don't want to go quite that far. I pull away, which constitutes a clear signal that he'd better put on the brakes. (Remember, my definition didn't require a verbal no, but rather, when "one person has said or signaled no.") That's the point where - if he continues anyway - he becomes a rapist.

I'm trying to see where that differs substantially from Minnesota's legal definition of rape, which Marcella quotes in the comments on her post:
"Consent" means words or overt actions by a person indicating a freely given present agreement to perform a particular sexual act with the actor. Consent does not mean the existence of a prior or current social relationship between the actor and the complainant or that the complainant failed to resist a particular sexual act.
I am in no way contradicting that. I'm not requiring a woman to physically resist. As I mentioned before, in my state, Ohio, the law is more restrictive and does not require affirmative consent, as Minnesota does, so it's disingenous of Marcella to say that my original definition was at odds with the law.

I'm only saying that in situations such as the one I just described - where the initiator can reasonably think the other person might be attracted, where the intensity is escalating, and where there's room for misunderstanding - both parties have a responsibility to clarify their boundaries. The law requires that, as does good sense. And I stand by my point that it's not infantilizing to expect women to communicate their boundaries to partners and potential partners.

If you accept a date with someone, that doesn't entitle them to kiss you, but it does give them reason to think you might be interested. If they try it and you don't want it, they've initially committed a blunder, not a criminal transgression. If they persist after you make your lack of interest clear - verbally or nonverbally - then that's sexual imposition, a form of sexual assault. The law in Ohio is very clear on the definition of sexual imposition: unless the perpetrator is a mental health practitioner or the recipient of the touch is a minor, the potential perp has to be aware that the touch was unwanted, or that its recipient could not meaningfully consent (see the text of the law for details).

In other words, the law does not expect the initiator of the conduct to be a mind reader.

Unless we want to criminalize all clumsiness within a sexual encounter, the same has to hold true as sexual contact escalates. As soon as one party says no, it has to be respected, and lack of respect for that no has to be subject to criminal penalty. But unless we want to write the Antioch code into criminal law, we have to account for the fact that where one party can reasonably understand the other party's conduct as consent, the second party needs to make it clear (verbally or not) if they withdraw their consent.

Instead, Marcella writes:
This view is what allows rapists to justify raping a girl after she agrees to kiss him or agrees to sexual touching. She didn't say no (because she wasn't asked since that would give her a chance to say no) so her lack of consent wasn't clear. Therefore, he can't be a "real" rapist.
Women have to wait to be asked before saying no? I know a lot of people who've been raped, mostly students of mine, all by acquaintances, friends, or dates. I've hugged them and cried with them and listened to their stories. None of them were asked if they wanted to proceed. In all but one case, they did convey a clear no. The guy went ahead anyway. (The one exception? The woman was drugged. That too is clearly rape, and I would never say otherwise.)

The examples I gave in my previous post were situations where coercion might be present in a dating/flirting scenario - where, for instance, a man might pressure a woman for sex because he paid for her meal. If she feels obligated to sleep with him because he treated, and goes along with his advances without ever making her lack of interest clear - kissing him politely, touching him back, but doing it all out of a sense of obligation - that's seriously messed up. It reveals all kinds of ugliness in gender socialization for both men and women. And it shows a real problem with consent. She didn't give it freely and enthusiastically, but how could the man have known that?

I don't think we can criminalize this sort of flawed consent. Instead, we need to continue educating women and men about the importance of enthusiastic consent; without it, too much bad sex will occur on that continuum where emotional manipulation damages people's ability to consent freely. Women need to be in touch with their desires. They need to realize they can express them - and say no, or yes - and that their desires must be respected. Men need to realize that a "no" isn't a signal to apply more leverage.

On that, I don't think Marcella and I are really all that far apart after all - except on the question of whether I've got a career ahead of me as the next Katie Roiphe.

A LOLbeaver? Or The Patriarchy at Work?

I'm not gonna comment on where I stand on this until after I use it in my Women's and Gender Studies class today, but I'm curious what others think of this ad. I'll update with my stduents' thoughts and mine after class. In the meantime, leave a comment! (Via Samhita at Feministing.)