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Archive for April, 2008

I call my sons the Bear and the Tiger on this blog mostly because I don’t want any weirdos invading their privacy. In fact, I try to write mostly about my own reflections on parenting, without a whole lot of identifying detail or anything that would embarrass them later. But those are also their nicknames in real life. They’re named after characters in German kids’ books by a guy named Janosch. (Just Janosch. That’s his whole name.)

The Little Tiger and the Little Bear live in a house on the bank of a river near the woods. The Little Bear is a would-be gourmet who mostly knows how to make bouillon. The Little Tiger is, like any good cat, a bit lazy, but he does like to watch the Bear work. Occasionally the Tiger gathers mushrooms for dinner. They have two constant companions, a tiger-duck and a little green frog called Gunther Kastenfrosch. They both believe in soft, comfy couches.

And they take care of each other, even though the Tiger can’t read yet. (He does learn eventually; you can see an online version, in German but with pictures, here.) The Bear has some rudimentary literacy, just enough to get him in trouble. When one day he finds a banana carton labeled “Panama,” he gets it in his head that Panama must smell like bananas from top to bottom. That sets them off on a quest for the land of their dreams, but when they ask for directions to Panama, they keep getting told to take the next left turn. After several lefts, they end up – you guessed it – back at their little house between the river and the woods. It’s sort of a mild-mannered version of “There’s no place like home,” minus the witches and tornadoes but with repeated black humor featuring a fox who’s “romancing” a goose.

The Bear takes care of the Tiger when he takes sick one day while picking mushrooms. He carries the Tiger home and plies him with his favorite food (well, bouillon), tea, and visitors. He bandages the Tiger from neck to foot, though the Tiger implores him to “leave my back unwrapped” because “I might have to cough.” (The picture shows how well that worked.) Finally, the Tiger is carried to the Hospital for Animals by a grand procession of motley woods-dwellers, including an elephant and a vain, flirtatious donkey named Majorca. There, an x-ray reveals the diagnosis: a slipped stripe! The Tiger has an operation (“a little blue dream”) and the same caravan of animals schleps him triumphantly home again.

None of this has a whole lot to do with my kids, really. They got the names even before they were born because their dad and I loved the Janosch books. My Bear is a pretty good reader; my Tiger is actually more apt than my Bear to help around the house, though the right verb is more often “help.” But like the Little Tiger and the Little Bear, my sons are both intense – both bent on seizing all they can from their young lives. Both are resourceful and quirky. And while they get ferociously on each other’s nerves (a topic that deserves a whole ‘nother post), like the storybook Bear and Tiger they do adore each other when the day’s done and we’re all snuggled together on the comfy couch.
All images come from posters at the Little Tiger online shop, which sadly only ships to German addresses.

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From Swingset to Marriage Bed

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

As I was reading further today in Leila Ahmed’s Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, I came across an account of the Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved wife, Aisha, which sheds a small but bright spotlight on the marrying-off of very young girls, whether among the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints or anywhere, really. I should say I’m not meaning to pick on Islam in any way here. In fact, I’m going to do something rare for me and make a sweeping generalization about the nature of people – children – in just about any place and time since the dawn of civilization. (This is part of the fun of writing a blog; I’d have to be more nuanced and careful if this were a history book.)

When our story begins, Muhammad had spent a quarter century monogamously married to Khadija, a wealthy trader who had proposed to him when she was 40 and he only 25. By the time she died, he was well established as the leader of the nascent Islamic faith and ready to branch out into polygyny. Aisha was one of two women that he married soon after his first wife’s death, when he was around age 50.

Now, by all accounts Muhammad adored Aisha best of all the many wives he eventually took, and she loved him dearly too. But the beginnings of their union are disturbing to modern Western sensibilities for reasons that (as I’ll argue in a moment) can’t be reduced to ahistorical cultural imperialism. Aisha was only six when her family betrothed her to Muhammad. They first had to break an engagement to a young boy to whom she’d already been promised, but her parents did so readily because they wanted to cement their alliance with Muhammad.

Here’s how it felt for Aisha. (Ahmed’s source on this are the hadith, or stories of the Prophet’s life, some of which are tales told by Aisha herself.)

Aisha later recalled that she had realized she was married (that is, that the marriage agreement had been concluded) when her mother called her in from her games with her friends and told her she must stay indoors; and so “it fell into my heart,” she said, “that I was married.” She did not, she recalled, ask to whom (Ibn Sa’d, 8:40)
(Ahmed, 50)

The marriage was then finally consummated in her father’s own house a few years later when she was nine or ten. Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, hurried the process along by providing the “marriage portion” (payment that the groom had to make) when Muhammad couldn’t afford it. Again, we have Aisha’s recollection of what happened next:

My mother came to me and I was swinging on a swing. … She brought me down from the swing, and I had some friends there and she sent them away, and she wiped my face with a little water, and led me till we stopped by the door, and I was breathless [from being on the swing] and we waited till I regained my breath. Then she took me in, and the Prophet was sitting on a bed in our house with men and women of the Ansar [Medinians] and she set me on his lap, and said, “These are your people. God bless you in them and they in you.” And the men and women rose immediately and went out. And the Prophet consummated the marriage in our house.
(Ahmed, 52)

Ahmed further recounts that Muhammed sometimes played dolls with Aisha and showed her “tender care and patience.” (51) This would all be lovely – were he her father, and not her husband.

Again, I don’t want to single out Islam in any way. The problem here is very young age at marriage, not any particular religion (though religiously-justified polygyny does seem to promote such marriages). I also don’t want to denigrate the relationship between Aisha and Muhammad, which by all accounts grew into one marked by mutual love and interdependence, despite the passivity she initially displayed, not even showing curiosity about who her husband would be. I’m aware, too, that until just a few hundred years ago, no human society saw childhood as a distinct and special phase in life that needs and deserves protection and nurturance.

And yet – Aisha was still playing with dolls. She was flying high on a swing when she was brought to her husband, a nine- or ten-year-old virgin. I don’t care if the time is now, 1400 years ago, or ancient Babylon; I don’t care if the girl in question is six or nine or thirteen. Children do need to play. They do not need the cares and restrictions (in Aisha’s case, literal seclusion) of adulthood. All of that can wait – even in societies where people’s life expectancies are much shorter than my own – until a girl stops playing with dolls on her own accord.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the modern-day FLDS and their child brides given in “spiritual marriage” to men three times their own age.

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Testing, Testing

I’m partly just testing to make sure I can still post from my new computer – woohoo! I got a lovely MacBook Pro, which arrived just today. And then I spent a good long time trying to get the wireless to work. Which, obviously, I did – and (not so obviously) without any help other than what Google could serve up.

But what I really want to grouse about is school testing, which the Bear is going through this week. He’s in second grade. He’s utterly casual and unstressed about it. He tests easily and well. He’s lucky, I’m lucky, and I know it. That’s not my point, though. Even though I really like our elementary school, the testing system is absurd and I’m not at all sure who it’s supposed to be helping.

The older kids? All of them are obviously stressed, even if – like some of the fifth graders I know – they’re not so much uptight about the tests themselves as burned out on all the homework that led up to them.

The teachers? They’ve been like hamsters in a wheel ever since our eleven snow days torpedoed their lesson plans. The problem with snow days, coming in winter as they tend to do, is that they also tend to fall before testing week. On top of this, the Bear’s main teacher is dealing with some scary-serious health problems. She’s wonderful. She’s done an awesome job in the face of major physical challenges. Someone should please give her an A+ and call it good.

And what are the kids learning, anyway? For starters, that you learn stuff to pass the test, and afterward you get to hit auto-erase and goof off for the rest of the year. That tests come fast and furious, all in one week, and nothing else really counts. That material and ideas don’t matter unless they might appear on the tests.

Most curiously, they learn that the reward for a job well done is – sugar! Nothing against rewards or sweets – I like ‘em both – but in moderation, please. All year long, the school tries to promote healthy eating. And then, during testing week, the school bombards them with sweets after their exams – and even during. Both second-grade classes get to suck on lollipops or hard candies. According to the Bear, who’s usually a reliable reporter on such things, there are studies showing that pressure on the roof of one’s mouth helps people perform better on exams. I haven’t tried to verify it. The kids, in any event, think it’s a sweet deal.

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Photo of a geyser in Iceland by Flickr user Benzpics63, used under a Creative Commons license.

Ben Harder, science journalist at U.S. News and World Report, is calling out the major news services for recycling a five-year-old study on prostate cancer as if it were fresh news. He’s right to criticize their sloppy reporting, of course. He was wrong, however, to suggest that the study is dubious just because it’s not brand-new. Given the study’s content, I hope that the screw-up in reporting will give it more exposure than it might otherwise get. When I read about it a few months ago, my reaction was: Wow, this is news that helps men take their health into their own hands, if you’ll forgive a bad pun. So why isn’t it already common knowledge?

What a group of Australian scientists found is this: Masturbation may offer protection against prostate cancer. And actually, not just masturbation but any sexual activity resulting in ejaculation. The group, headed by Dr. Graham Giles, found that men in their twenties who ejaculated at least seven times per week reduced their risk of prostate cancer by one-third compared to those who ejaculated fewer than three times per week. That’s a remarkable figure.

The explanation Dr. Giles offered when the study was published in 2003 makes intuitive sense to me, even if it’s still somewhat speculative. Basically, to use a rather unfortunate plumbing metaphor, he suggested that the pipes stay cleaner and healthier when flushed out regularly:

Our research indicates that there is no association between prostate cancer and the number of sexual partners, which argues against infection as a cause of prostate cancer in the Australian population.

We also found no association between maximum number of ejaculations in a 24 hour period and prostate cancer. Therefore, it is not men’s ability to ejaculate that seems to be important.

While it is generally accepted that prostate cancer is a hormone dependent cancer, apart from age and family history, its causes are poorly understood.

For this reason, our explanations are fairly speculative – one possible reason for the protective effects of ejaculation may be that frequent ejaculation prevents carcinogens building up in the prostatic ducts.

If the ducts are flushed out, there may be less build up and damage to the cells that line them.

Ben Harder did find one subsequent study, published in 2004, that strikingly corroborated the Australians’ findings. That study found:

Each increment of 3 ejaculations per week across a lifetime was associated with a 19% (95% CI, 7%-30%) decrease in risk of organ-confined prostate cancer.

Its lead author, Dr. Michael Leitzmann, told Harder he’s certain no further work has been done on this topic. Why???

These studies found a free, simple, and fun way a man can protect himself against a cancer that strikes one in five men. Yet I’ll bet more adult men are aware of other habits that protect against prostate cancer, such as drinking tea and eating tomatoes. As a gal who calls herself Sungold, I’m unabashedly pro-tomato; but why should tomatoes get all the press while the benefits of ejaculation are ignored?

I can only think our deep cultural ambivalence about sex is to blame. That would explain why this news failed to make a splash five years ago. And that also accounts for the dearth of follow-up studies, which mirrors the shameful underfunding of research on prostate cancer in general. This anti-sex mindset is also deeply anti-scientific, preoccupied with ideas about purity that date all the way back to Leviticus.

Artwork by Flickr user adamrice, used under a Creative Commons license.

(In case you can’t read the quotation from Leviticus 15:16-17 in the image above: “And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even.”)

If it seems like I’m making too much of this, check out this comment, copied verbatim from Harder’s blog:

how can anyone condone masterbation? in the Bible it is widely and worldly known as a sin! you will be sending people straight to hell.

Unfortunately, it’s also “widely and worldly known” that this is the brand of thinking that brought anti-condom AIDS education to Africa, sees cervical cancer as the just wages of sin, and believes comprehensive sex education causes teenage pregnancy. In this worldview, a few million excess cases of prostate cancer might seem like a cheap sacrifice in creating a moral dystopia where the only pleasure is feeling holier-than-thou.

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

You’d think that if a man contributes half the DNA to a baby and wants to be involved in supporting and loving a child, that would make him a father? Well, not in Kentucky. Yesterday the Louisville Courier-Journal reported:

A man who fathers a child during an affair with a married woman has no legal rights to fatherhood, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled yesterday in an important decision on the legal status of marriage.

In a 4-3 vote, a deeply divided court upheld the presumption that a child born to a married woman living with her husband is a child of the marriage.

On the face of it, this decision is not terribly surprising. Determining paternity and awarding child support and custody have rarely had much to do with protecting a parent’s rights or preserving their bonds to their children. Prior to the twentieth century, American states typically regarded children as their fathers’ charges. That presumption withered away as the nurturing aspects of mother-work became more valued and visible, and mothers became the default custodians in the twentieth century. But the government’s stake was always in 1) minimizing poor relief and social welfare obligations, and 2) serving the best interests of the child. This was also true in European countries, which – particularly from the 1700s onward, with the rise of the absolutist state – fought illegitimacy because it strained public coffers, not necessarily because it stood for immorality.

Normally, the government’s role has been to extract support payments from reluctant putative fathers, whether it meant enlisting eighteenth-century midwives to interrogate unwed women in labor who had refused to give up the name of their lovers, or forcing twenty-first century men to undergo court-ordered DNA testing.

This case is different. Here, a baby has two fathers. There’s the husband (Jonathan Ricketts) of the child’s mother (Julia Ricketts), who by all accounts had nothing to do with his conception but wants to raise him as his own. And then there’s the mother’s ex-lover (James Rhoades), who is the baby’s biological father and who also wants a role in his son’s upbringing.

In days of old, the law tried to guarantee the child a stable home and financial security by presuming that the mother’s husband is also the father. But now, genetic testing can sweep away this presumption, at least on the scientific level. In 2004, a Maryland court refused to even order a DNA test in a similar case where a putative father wanted to claim paternity of a child he allegedly sired with his married ex-lover, citing the best-interests-of-the-child standard. Legally, this area seems to be a bit of a mess:

According to one of the dissenting opinions, 33 states allow a man to challenge the presumption that a child born to a married couple is the husband’s.
(Source: Louisville Courier-Journal)

But apparently this won’t work in Kentucky case, even though DNA testing showed Rhoades to be the baby’s biological father. The court rejected his suit mainly on the basis of a formality, saying it lacked standing to judge on the matter. But only two of the seven judges signed off on that opinion; in all, the fractured court produced five (!) different opinions. The one that’s getting the media attention is this:

“While the legal status of marriage in this early 21st century appears to be on life support, it is not dead,” Justice Bill Cunningham wrote in a concurring opinion. He wrote that married couples have a right “to be left alone” from the claims of “interloper adulterers.”
(Source: Louisville Courier-Journal)

Cunningham is oddly putting neither the state’s financial interest nor the child’s well-being front and center. Instead, he’s invested in protecting “marriage.” Whatever happened to the best interests of the child? Isn’t it up to the Ricketts to rebuild their marriage, if they can, and not for the judge to protect either their specific union or some abstraction called “marriage”?

And what’s up with this “interloper” language? Cunningham makes it sound as though Rhoades carried Julia Ricketts off against her will on a galloping stallion. In fact, no one involved seems to be claiming anything of the sort. From all appearances, Julia and James had a consensual relationship that ended bitterly. Why should we assume she had no part in the decision to stray from her marriage?

If you call the man an interloper, it saps the woman of all moral agency. In this situation, Julia actually had immeasurably greater responsibility to her marriage than James did; she’s the one who made the vows to Jonathan. What business does a judge have absolving her of that? Isn’t the question of her culpability (or any mitigating factors, since we don’t know what went on inside that marriage) a matter for the couple to figure out for themselves?

Cunningham might be working from the assumption that a wife couldn’t possibly have wanted sex of any sort, much less the illicit kind; that she must have been seduced or coerced, because only men are horny. He might also be viewing the marriage – and the wife – as the husband’s domain or even property, which the “interloper” interfered with. If he’s going to hark back to early modern principles, Cunningham might at least reaffirm the traditional concern for the child, rather than the husband’s rights as head-of-household.

What would it take to put the “best interest of the child” back at the forefront? Multiple commentators have noted that the Uniform Parentage Act of 2002 would address this quandary, bringing the law closer to science, human decency, and common sense. Only a handful of states have adopted versions of it thus far. The relevant portion states:

The presumption [that the mother’s husband is also the child’s father] is rebutted by a court decree establishing paternity of the child by another man.

This would obviously open the door to Rhoades claiming paternity.

I don’t think there’s any easy resolution to this case; everyone involved is going to feel pain over it for the rest of their lives. You can see this immediately in James Rhoades’ blog; even though he’s writing mostly about his own pain, through it you glimpse entire parallel universes of hurt. It’s evident that no one will come out unscathed, least of all the beautiful toddler at the center of the storm. But this decision – which at once grants mothers power to behave irresponsibly (see blogger Stephanie’s take on this) and degrades wives and children to a husband’s property – clearly does not do justice to either Rhoades or the child.

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This week in the religion, gender, and sexuality class I’m helping teach, we read an account of the Buddhist creation myth. One of the fun things about teaching is having a chance to learn about stuff that is completely new to me. At least in the humanities and social sciences, I think this is virtually always true, even if you’re teaching in your own research field. But it’s even truer when half the course is really outside your area of expertise. So this Buddhist origin story, the Agganna Sutta, was all new to me.

And since I’m so not an expert on it, I mostly just want to offer a modest appreciation of its beauty.

There comes a time . . . when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance, usually come to life as humans. And they become made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and remain thus for a long, long period of time.
(This is from the version I read for class. Here’s the whole Agganna Sutta but in a slightly less beautiful translation.)

Such gorgeous language. Feeding on rapture! Self-luminous! Imagine such an existence.


The catch is that if you’ve got self-luminance, you don’t get to have a body. Later on, as the earth solidifies from liquid to a sweet milky substance to plants (a nifty evolution story), the formerly radiant beings grow more solid. As they solidify, they come to know cravings. And so, although there’s no Eve to take the fall for the Fall in this story, sex becomes a polluting force. (Buddhism has its own issues with women and the flesh, as it turns out.)

But even so. I would like to be self-luminous and traverse the air for just an hour, as long as I didn’t have to stay in the World of Radiance. The funny thing is, I feel like I have my share of radiance in my own little earth-bound life with all its cravings, desires, and beauty.


The petite red tulips come from the Bear’s elementary school; the others, from my garden. All photos by me.

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German condom/anti-HIV ad: “For young vegetables, too.” I’ve seen this and others in the series posted publicly at bus and subway stops all over Berlin. Photo by flickr user compujeramey, used under a Creative Commons license.

I heard an extraordinary story this evening while I was serving on a panel on reproductive rights at my college. One of the other panelists was a young, smart, committed Americorps worker who’s been dealing with foster kids. When she first started her job, a 14-year-old asked her if she could procure condoms for her. The girl had very little money and was afraid of getting busted for stealing them.

So my co-panelist said sure, I’ll work on getting you some. But when she approached her supervisor, she was told, “What? you’ve got to be kidding. This girl has already had chlamydia. She can’t be trusted with condoms. We’ll put her on Depo-Provera.”

When this boomeranged back at the girl, she protested that she didn’t need birth control after all.

I don’t know if the girl ever did get put on Depo-Provera, aka “the shot”; my co-panelist didn’t ever find out. (And of course all of this is second-hand, but my co-panelist seemed pretty reliable, and a colleague of hers confirmed some of the details later in the evening.)

But boy, can I understand why she wouldn’t want it. Just in case you’ve forgotten, Depo-Provera was highly controversial in the 1970s and 1980s because it was tested on poor women, partly in developing countries, partly among American minorities, where free and informed consent was a virtual impossibility. The FDA kept it off the market for many years and provoked strong public opposition with its approval in 1992. How it morphed into a respectable form of birth control, I don’t know; I was out of the country for most of the 1990s (though I did somehow get in on the Starr Report).

Depo-Provera has a much nastier risk profile than its hormonal cousin, the birth control pill. This starts with nuisances like nausea. If the pill makes you queasy, you can get off it and return to normal within a few days. If the shot makes you sick, you’re stuck with it for three months, as my co-panelist pointed out. The emotional side effects are also harsh. The only person I knew who was on it suffered from serious mood swings – and no, I don’t know why she stuck with it.

More seriously, a few years ago the FDA required a “black box” warning for Depo-Provera because it induces bone loss, which may be irreversible. What a perfect drug for a 14-year-old girl who might still be growing!

This is such a lousy idea that it’s tempting to just rant at the social worker and call her evil idiot. And yet, I think if I do that, I overlook how overburdened that worker must be, with a swollen caseload and never enough resources. This region is quite poor and for reasons both budgetary and human, the temptation must be tremendous to do anything, everything, to stop yet another child from being born into the foster care system. Compliance is obviously another big selling point: a girl living in unstable circumstances might forget to take the pill, which is a non-issue with Depo-Provera.

And yet … the idea that her history of chlamydia meant that condoms would be inappropriate? That is just Orwellian logic. What will she catch next time – maybe HIV? Adding to the sick absurdity, her infection didn’t actually come from consensual sex; she got it from being raped.

What I don’t know – and am trying to figure out – is how much power the state has to force or coerce girls in foster care to get the shot. Whatever power it has would presumably come from its parental role. Which raises a related question: Can a parent legally force his or her underage daughter to get Depo-Provera? If I find any answers (in comments here, or through my thus far fruitless googling), I’ll let you know.

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