Archive for April, 2009

Measuring height and weight is easy. Marking off your child’s changing maturity is a lot trickier. The developmental leaps between fall and spring soccer seasons might be as good a yardstick as any.

Last fall, the Tiger’s first season, he was a standout on the kindergarten field. And I mean he really stood there, out on the field. If we were lucky, he was chasing butterflies, which meant he was at least in motion. But his favorite activities were: 1) Throwing himself on the ground at every opportunity, no matter what was actually happening in the game. 2) Hooking his fingers into the leg openings of his shorts and hiking them up as far as they went, giving himself a wedgie. 3) Giggling and goofing around with the other unfocused players, especially a little girl whose name was the feminine equivalent of his own.

Spring season just started this week, and my has the Tiger changed his stripes. His feminine alter ego is no longer on his team, so he doesn’t have a partner in crime. He’s abandoned the self-induced wedgies, probably because his jersey is oversized and so he’s fiddling with his shirt, instead. He’s forgotten about diving into the dirt.

So now, every once in a while, he actually makes contact with the ball. Today he got the ball, passed to a teammate, reclaimed the ball when it went loose, and passed it back. He’s had more ball contacts in his first two games than in his entire first season.

He’s got a new trick, though. He’s appointed himself the Minister of Silly Walks (and no, I haven’t been letting him watch Monty Python, he’s still only five). At one point during the game, he was doing a weird sloping, gliding step and chanting “macaroni and cheese! macaroni and cheese!” I guess my Tiger isn’t quite grown up yet.


Soccer tiger-cat photo by Flickr user Jersey JJ, used under a Creative Commons license.

Read Full Post »

There’s a long tradition of naming flu pandemics after their presumptive geographical ground zero. The Hong Kong flu. Asian flu. Fujian flu. And the dreadful Spanish flu (which almost certainly didn’t start in Spain).

So why not the Mexico flu? Because – as Renee at Womanist Musings and nojojojo at Alas amply show – you can’t invoke Mexico in this country without dragging in a truckload of racist, anti-immigration baggage.

While I like nojojo’s suggestions of “Colonialism Cough” and “Greedy Gringo Fever,” I’m sort of attached to the historical naming patterns. So, staying in that grand geographical tradition, I vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” Srsly. Evidence is mounting that this virus mutated in a literal and figurative epidemiological pigsty: the Smithfield factory farm, which Amanda Marcotte describes as “absolutely swimming in pig shit and carcasses.” And Factory Farm Flu is nicely alliterative, too!

We do need a name change, because “swine flu” is misleading in more ways than one. For instance, Russia has banned pork imports from Ohio to try to keep the disease at bay. They’d do far better to ban imports of Ohio’s live humans instead of our dead pigs, which are completely incapable of infecting consumers in Russia or anywhere.

Of course, Factory Farm Flu might not help hog futures, either, but that’s all right by me. (Daisy Deadhead has a fine post on why this ought to be putting all of us off meat.) Swine flu wouldn’t be able to mutate so easily if it weren’t endemic in certain pig populations. The crowding of factory farms promotes viral transmission. The only effect of those buckets of antibiotics fed to hogs is to halt bacterial superinfections. Meanwhile, the flu virus merrily reproduces and mutates.

And then there are the echoes of the 1976 swine flu panic.  At Salon, Patrick Di Justo has a nuanced account of the events in ’76, which I remember pretty well (I was 12 at the time). In short, a panel of world-famous virologists all agreed that President Ford had better fast-track a vaccine. By the time the vaccine was ready, public health authorities already realized that the epidemic wasn’t materializing. The government went ahead and vaccinated people anyway. Death and paralysis from Guillain-Barre were ascribed to the vaccine, though Di Justo questions that link. Even a single death due to the vaccine would have been one too many, because by then the government’s motivations were purely political.

While Di Justo’s airtight analysis sticks entirely to the events of 1976, an uncritical reader could easily infer wrong lessons for the present: Swine flu is inherently benign, and so we’re overreacting. Gawker is doing just that, sneering at the current concern – hey, all swine flu is the same, isn’t it?

No, actually it’s not. “Swine flu” just means that the viruses were hosted by pigs while they scrambled their sloppy RNA into new mutations. This particular H1N1 strain shows signs of human, bird, and swine origins. The pigs just served as big, pink, grunting petri dishes for all that RNA to mix, mingle, and mutate.

Finally, changing the name to Factory Farm Flu would force asshats like this Salon commenter to be a tad more imaginative:

This disease resulted from college students going to Mexico on spring break, who couldn’t come up with the cash for the local prostitutes. You don’t need to go to flying saucer theories to find any other way pig DNA could combine with human DNA.

Eeeew. At first I thought this referred to Mexican girls, but I guess not. Just one more reason to vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” And one less reason to hang out with the aging frat boys in Salon’s comment section. (Why do I ever go there?)

pigdiceRolling the pig dice – image by Flickr user Kaptain Kobold, used under a Creative Commons license.

Read Full Post »

… or other long-term relationship (inertia is an equal-opportunity affliction, after all).

Some weeks ago, the New York Times ran a short piece by Tara Parker-Pope, “Reinventing Date Night,” that made the following point:

Rather than visiting the same familiar haunts and dining with the same old friends, couples need to tailor their date nights around new and different activities that they both enjoy, says Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The goal is to find ways to keep injecting novelty into the relationship. The activity can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or something a little more unusual or thrilling — like taking an art class or going to an amusement park.

The theory is based on brain science. New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

(More here.)

Well, my sweetheart and I gave this idea a whirl today, but with a twist. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to inflict TMI on you.) We went to our local big-box store … and shopped for emergency supplies in case pandemic flu comes to our corner of Ohio. I don’t think this is quite what Parker-Pope had in mind but it had all the elements she mentions: novelty (we don’t do this every day), a new location (definitely my first date at Wal-Mart), and of course a frisson of fear (y’all know I’m nervous about the swine flu).

By the end of our “date” we were both feeling really warm toward each other. Maybe it was due to the freezer we ordered from the other big box (having finally decided I’m a grow-mutt and should have one). But I’ve never quite bought into the idea that new appliances are a big turn-on for women. At any rate, I had to scoot off to a doctor’s appointment, so all else is speculation.

On a more sober note, we tried to pick up face masks at both Wal-Mart and CVS. Both stores were sold out. Imagine the shortages if there’s even a mild pandemic! But we now have enough food that my family could subsist on cereal alone for weeks on end, if need be.


Read Full Post »

Update 4/30/09, 2 p.m.: This post is getting a lot of hits; I’d like to suggest that your next stop be Effect Measure at Science Blogs, which I’ve found to have the most valuable current analysis of the public health ramifications of the swine flu threat. Also, in the post below I criticize WHO for not moving up to phase 5 quickly enough; they’ve since rectified this.


Don’t panic, says the White House. Don’t panic, says the CDC. Don’t panic, says the WHO.

I don’t want them to panic either, but the people at those agencies had better be worried sick about the emerging swine flu. While the unknowns still overshadow the knowns, there’s one very troubling development that suggests why our government and public health authorities should be treating the swine flu as a far, far greater threat than 9/11 ever was.

Buried deep in a New York Times report is this nugget of information:

In each year’s flu season, most deaths are in infants and the aged, but none of the first ones in Mexico were in people over 60 or under 3 years old, a W.H.O. spokeswoman said. When a new virus emerges, deaths may occur in healthy adults who mount the strongest immune reactions. Their own defenses — inflammation and leaking fluid in lung cells — can essentially drown them from inside. [My emphasis.]

I don’t hold a degree in public health or epidemiology, but as a historian of medicine who’s familiar with the 1918 flu, I know that this is very, very alarming news. (And since I’m not a public health expert whose job entails keeping people calm, I feel free to speak bluntly about it.)

In 1918/19, the mortality pattern was exactly as the WHO describes. Historian John M. Barry describes this pattern in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History, as does Gina Kolata in her well-researched New York Times piece from 2006:

It was the worst infectious disease epidemic ever, killing more Americans in just a few months than died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam Wars combined. Unlike most flu strains, which kill predominantly the very old and the very young, this one — a bird flu, as it turns out — struck young adults in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, leaving children orphaned and families without wage earners.

(More here.)

To the best of my understanding, the reason less-novel flu viruses don’t provoke such deadly immune responses is that by adulthood, most of us have encountered enough flu viruses that we have some partial immunity to the average new mutations. There’s no need for our immune system to go into overdrive. When a radically new mutation pops up, however, our immune system resorts to the nuclear option. An otherwise healthy young person’s lungs can be destroyed in the course of the resulting inflammatory process – a cytokine storm, if you want the technical term. (Here’s an accessible description of how this works in bird flu; if the swine flu deaths are indeed due to cytokine storm, as seems likely, the mechanism would be similar.) Ironically, healthy young adults are the most vulnerable, because their immune systems are the most robust.

So this mortality pattern plus the other data available so far suggest several conclusions:

  1. We really are seeing a novel virus.
  2. It’s at least moderately deadly. However, its virulence could be variable, since the U.S. has seen milder cases than Mexico, and the less extreme cases in Mexico may be flying under the radar. Remember, though, that a virus can mutate to become more or less virulent during the course of an oubreak.
  3. It is transmitted from human-to-human. It appears much more contagious than SARS or the bird flus that epidemiologists have tracked in recent years.
  4. It has shown up in far-flung parts of North America and Europe. Today, we learned that the swine flu has turned up in Lorain County, Ohio – not quite my neck of the woods, but way too close for comfort. (The infected boy is recovering well, but his school is closed in hopes of containing the outbreak.)

The only reason this swine flu is not being labeled a pandemic is because it’s not widespread enough. Not yet. Give it a week.

Here’s one example of where exhorting people to stay calm seems to be trumping the actual science. Technically we ought to be at phase 5 of pandemic preparedness – one notch short of a full-blown pandemic – if you look at this WHO graph.  Officially, we’re at phase 4, but that doesn’t square with the WHO definition:

Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

The only reason not to panic is because losing it would make our response even less effectual. I’ve always admired Obama’s calm; his unflappability is one of his most attractive and reassuring traits. But I hope our decision-makers are at least a little scared, because so far, complacency has not concentrated anyone’s mind. Nor has it funneled adequate dollars to the fight against flu. Republicans actually fought to keep flu funding out of the stimulus – gee, thanks! (h/t Pudentilla at Skippy the Bush Kangaroo) Perhaps more damningly, eight years of GOP veto power have left us only marginally more prepared than were were when the anthrax attacks redefined public health as a national security issue!

It’s already a few years too late for the kind of preparation we would have needed: enough doses of antivirals to rein in a true pandemic, and a rapid-response system for developing, producing, and distributing a vaccine. But we need to recognize that the swine flu is poised to create a global emergency. We need to find the resources to fast-track a vaccine. How is it that we can find a trillion bucks to prop up the banks, yet we only have two labs in North America capable of identifying this vaccine – one in Atlanta, the other in Winnipeg? (This is being rectified, but it too will take time.)

Another lesson from 1918: The virus mutated some months into the pandemic and became radically more virulent in the fall of 1918, just when the world was hoping for a respite. In the end it killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people. Every week of further delay in creating a vaccine for this new flu could cost thousands or even millions of lives.

mexicocityswinefluA train in Mexico City, ground zero of the epidemic; photo by Flickr user Eneas, used under a Creative Commons license.

Read Full Post »

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece by Mark Taylor, chair of Columbia’s religion department, that attempts to offer a blueprint for reforming universities. Some of his ideas are decent, but they’re not necessarily new. Some of them are – well, less bright that I’d have expected from a guy who’s obviously climbed far higher in the academic treehouse than I’ll ever manage.

His core fallacy is that universities can be compared to businesses:

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps …

Who will do this regulating? Do we want the government dictating programs and policies at universities? How about the trustees? At my university, the trustees are frankly the weakest link, rivaled only by our president. Throughout the country, trustees typically know oodles about business but precious little about education.

Traditionally, the faculty played a major role in governing (not managing!) universities, and by golly, it worked pretty well. The massive cost increases at my institution – and at many others, I’m sure – have gone hand-in-hand with moving toward a business management model and hollowing out faculty self-governance. But Taylor doesn’t trust the kids to maintain order in their own sandbox. Instead, he sees faculty as blocking much-needed change:

The other obstacle to change [in addition to exploitative overreliance on graduate students and adjuncts for instruction, a point that we at Kittywampus fully endorse] is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

What kind of change does Taylor hope to see? Here are his six steps.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural. …

Take away the sexy web/network metaphor (which frankly is a little too 1995 to still be sexy), and you’re left with, um, the kind of work I do. We already have women’s studies , Southeast Asian studies, African-American studies, environmental studies, and many other integrative, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural programs. And that’s just here at my university in southeast Ohio, where we’re not known for living on the edge.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. …

The idea of a problem-focused program is pretty cool. But the sunset clause? Conventional departments and programs already waste spend vast amounts of time justifying their existence; evaluating curricula, programs, and individuals; and scrambling for ever-scarcer resources. The sunset clause is a fabulous idea if you want to halt teaching and research altogether. You could turn the university into a magical administration-only Rube Goldberg device! While this may match the vision of a few high-level administrators, I’m not sure outsiders such as the trustees would notice, unless you also eliminated the football team.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

Tech-based collaborations are nifty. They’re also time- and resource-intensive. I’m spending far more time on my online Feminist Theory class than I did when I taught it the first time in a traditional classroom. It’s not, technically, a new prep for me, so you’d think I’d be saving time. Hah! The online environment requires a lot more babysitting of the technology. Communication of all sorts requires far more time because every single word has to be typed. Most crucially, while I’m enjoying the class and am determined to make it a success, I’m positive that my students learned more in the bricks-and-mortar classroom. It’s so much easier to redirect an unfocused discussion, for example, when you’re all in the same room at the same time and you can look students in the eye. It’s far easier, too, to sense when they’re not understanding a concept, argument, or entire text.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

I could see modifying dissertations. In fact, some science and engineering disciplines have already done so, allowing candidates to submit a collection of articles rather than a single monograph. The reason this suggestion won’t catch fire is the same as why publication in a print journal is still far more prestigious than an online journal: Hiring and promotion committees prefer the tangible product – no matter how intangible the subject matter. Thus, any rational dissertator who wants a job will shun radically new forms. And: video games??? (Hmm. I’m thinking of my dissertation on historical experiences of childbearing. The possibilities are endless. Just imagine the animations!)

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

Sure. This is a fine idea. Historians, among others, have been discussing the need for broader-based career preparation since the mid-1980s, when I first began to consider graduate studies. Universities can and should do much better in this realm. The devil’s in the details, though. If broader preparation were easy, it would already be happening.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t have tenure and is not in line for it, I still think this is a lousy idea, even if it’ll play well on Fox News. I know very few faculty who could be described as deadwood. Even after tenure, they virtually all continue to research and serve their students. If the pace drops off somewhat, that’s because many institutions now have such high tenure expectations as to be incompatible with human life. No one can maintain that pace forever. Taylor’s proposal would result in many university’s swapping experienced professors for cheaper recent grads who are existentially scared and thus highly productive.

What does change after tenure? Faculty feel much, much freer to speak out. For every Ward Churchill, there’s probably a hundred professors who use their megaphone responsibly. They’ve been the ones protesting cuts to the core academic budgets while the athletic department swells up like a pufferfish and administrators build grandiose monuments to their fundraising skills.

I’m all in favor of increasing interdisciplinarity and collaboration. I teach in an inherently interdisciplinary program. The course I taught last quarter on religion, gender, and sexuality was cross-listed between religious studies and women’s and gender studies. I’m already walking most of Taylor’s talk – including living without hope of tenure! And so I can attest to the fact that it’s possible to do innovative work under conditions of insecurity. But if my colleagues and I are succeeding, it’s despite that insecurity – not because of it.

Read Full Post »

My Friend Henry Is Famous

Just when I was about to close down my computer for the night, I saw that my friend Henry of Henry’s Travels has just gained her 15 minutes of fame! Well, for kittehs it might be more like 15 seconds. There’s that attention span thing, you know. Anyway, Henry has made the front page of I Can Has Cheezburger? – looking very dashing indeed.

So go here to award her the five cheezburgers she deserves. I’m sure it would please her, even if she’d prefer the non-virtual kind.

I hope Henry won’t mind if we celebrate Caturday a day late at Kittywampus by reposting her fetching photo here.

henrysuperheroHenry! at I Can Has Cheezburger?

Read Full Post »

Every year my little town holds an event that my kids eagerly await, and I just as avidly dread: Kidfest. It’s all very well meant. Various community groups take over the university’s basketball arena, offering informational materials for the grow-mutts and cheap craft projects and cheaper trinkets for the kids. The groups are mostly in the social service sector; they range from the battered women’s shelter and the sexual assault educators to the local fake pregnancy clinic (aka the anti-abortion storefront) and a few fundie churches. This year, a rather terrifying oversized Dora the Explorer was wandering the exhibits. Outside, there were fire trucks, a wildlife display, and several snakes, including two constrictors that frankly alarmed us less than Dora.

So what’s the problem? Kidfest is crowded and noisy and induces utter claustrophobia. It makes me wish I would accidentally get in the way of a tranquilizer dart. It’s not just me, though I have a very low tolerance for this kind of shuddering, echoing noise. This morning, when I told two of my friends I was taking my boys to Kidfest, they both said, “You’re a very nice parent,” in tones reserved for when a beloved pet dies.

But this year, Kidfest was a little different. The outdoor activity area was dominated by Army recruiters. Representatives from the ROTC, the Reserves, and the Air Force were present. A portable climbing wall, roughly 30 feet tall, loomed above all the other activities. Recruiters were challenging kids to do as many pushups as their age in years. Those who succeeded won a plastic water bottle with an Army logo on it. They’d even set up a bounce house, which (mercifully) was decorated in primary colors, not a trace of camouflage.

I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First, it’s an obvious sign that the armed services are having to branch out broader and deeper in order to find new recruits. Of course they weren’t angling for the five-year-olds (yet!), but lots of the parents are poor. Lots are unemployed. This region offers ripe recruiting grounds. Appearing at an event like Kidfest that draws hundreds of poor, young adults is a pretty clever way to draw recruits with warm and fuzzy P.R.

Less obviously, the recruiters’ presence signals the militarization of everyday life, as Cynthia Enloe has described. She cites such phenomena as military officers judging the Miss American pageant and junior ROTC seeping into high schools. The military presence at Kidfest would seem to be another example. The soldiers there were all good-humored and sweet with the kids, but that’s not the point. The problem is that a strong armed forces presence at a kids’ fair normalizes the presence of the military in the civilian world and thus blurs the two spheres, as Enloe notes. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for military culture, and that’s … in the military.

This blurring of spheres also interposes military values into parents’ relationship with their children. No, you don’t have to embrace the military and its values – although I would’ve been a horrible meanie if I’d forbidden my sons from hopping in the bounce house. But the military presence does force you to take a position, because if you don’t, the default message kids receive is that military values are a shared and uncontroversial part of our mainstream civilian culture – just as much a part of the American consensus as Dora the Explorer and shiny red fire trucks.

tulip21These tulips strike me as oddly appropriate to this post – not as random as usual – since they’ve got this weird khaki camouflage effect. I honestly don’t remember ordering any bulbs answering this description!

Read Full Post »

You’re on a table, eight acupuncture needles pinning you in place, three of them attached to mild electrical pulses …

… and the table moves. It sways, briefly, for maybe three seconds. And the Californian in you realizes: We’re having an earthquake. I should be sprinting to the nearest doorframe.

Then you think, nah! This is Ohio. What are the odds? But you’re done with trying to relax into the treatment. You’re waiting for the earth to hiccup again.

When the doctor returns, you ask if he felt anything. He says, kindly and indulgently, that sometimes people drop heavy items on the floor above – or just maybe it was the acupuncture gods, reaching down to us. (A sense of humor is a good thing in a man who’s inserting needles into your flesh.)

But you’re the neurotically curious type. So as soon as you get to your computer, you google “earthquakes today.” Alaska has had a few little ones. But there’s nothing for the Eastern U.S. Because you really are neurotic, you refresh the page a half hour later, and the USGS informs you that a magnitude 3.4 quake struck southeastern Ohio at 9:42 a.m. Eastern time., its epicenter 57 miles to the southwest. Right when you were pinned down, immobile.

tulip20This is another of the tulips that I planted through a crust of snow last fall.

Read Full Post »

Following up on yesterday’s post on the strip-searches-in-the-schools case before the Supreme Court, I have to admit I’m shocked at just how much power schools have. I spent virtually all of the 1990s overseas, so I guess I’m still playing catch-up.

The transcript for the oral arguments in Safford Unified School District v. Redding (.pdf – thanks, Mark!) hints at how looney this power can be in action. The school district treated all “contraband” the same – ibuprofen, heroin, plastic explosives, and permanent marker pens!

JUSTICE SCALIA: Any contraband, like the black marker pencil that — that astounded me. That was contraband in that school, wasn’t it, a black marker pencil?

MR. WRIGHT [attorney for the school district]: Well, for sniffing.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Oh, is that what they do?

MR. WRIGHT: It’s a permanent marker.

JUSTICE SCALIA: They sniff them?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, that’s the — I mean, I’m a school lawyer. That’s what kids do, Your Honor, unfortunately, Your Honor. But –


(p. 14)

No, I don’t want my kids sniffing marker “pencils” either, but I haven’t banned Sharpies from my house, either. However, my otherwise perfectly sensible school has removed plastic knives from the lunchroom. I have no clue why; the kids haven’t heard any lore about vicious plastic knife fights. Maybe there’s a state law?? My kindergartner is not permitted to wear the hood up on what he calls his “hoodie-hood.” What good is a hoodie-hood if you can’t use the hood? It’s as though our district has forgotten that we’re a comfy little low-crime college town in the Appalachians and is hallucinating that we’re located, well, in the ‘hood.

Schools do a lot of silly shit. The reason they fail to use even the rudiments of common sense? Well, the oral arguments in the Redding case point to the root of the problem. The justices keep mentioning “T.L.O.” As any non-legal scholar with access to Google can tell you, New Jersey v. T.L.O. was a landmark case in the 1980s in which the court ruled that it was constitutional to search a student’s purse after she was busted smoking tobacco in the girls’ bathroom. She turned out to be carrying weed. The girl, the eponymous T.L.O. (I keep wanting to write J Lo), sued on the basis of her Fourth Amendment Rights. However, the court found against her, saying she had not been subjected to unreasonable search and seizure because different standards apply to schools than to the police.

In short, schools need only demonstrate “reasonable suspicion,” which is weaker than the “probable cause” standard that law enforcement officers must follow. Dahlia Lithwick sums up T.L.O. thusly:

In New Jersey v. T.L.O., a 1985 case involving high-schoolers with pot in their purses, the Supreme Court determined that for a student search to be permissible under the Fourth Amendment there must be “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school” and that the search cannot be “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

The crux of Redding’s case, then – and the similar cases in Ohio – boils down to the question of what’s reasonable? What is a reasonable suspicion? What constitutes an excessively intrusive response? Redding’s district seemed to think any suspicion – no matter how thin – was reasonable, and any response – no matter how traumatizing – was permissible.

So we’ve got a situation where schools have almost unlimited power. Yet they don’t have the competence to wield it. As the school district’s lawyer repeatedly insists, no one at the school is medically capable of identifying a loose pill. And so panic sets in, because OMG what if someone overdoses on this stuff? Imagine if you turn these folks loose on a bag of powder! But c’mon, people, anyone with the Google can play doctor as well as lawyer. Once upon a time, in my clueless youth, I took a pill that I believed to be ibuprofen but made me fall down a rabbit hole after ingestion. (Okay, it was only last August, but I really was clueless, if not exactly young.) After this happened a couple of times, I looked at the pill more closely. All of these otherwise unidentifiable, generic-looking, oblong white pills have a numeric code stamped on them. I googled that code and learned I’d been taking – gulp! – Darvocet. Expecting as much resourcefulness from a principal or school nurse would be, shall we say, reasonable.

But what’s at stake here is much more than just student safety. It’s about the prerogative of school officials to control students’ bodies. In this case, a girl was targeted, but as I argued yesterday, the history of patriarchy shows that boys’ bodies can be relegated to property, too. This bodily control operated on multiple planes in the recent case where a girl was suspended for taking a birth-control pill at school during her lunch hour. Zero-tolerance policies are not about keeping kids safe; they’re about fomenting moral panic and exerting control. A mere reasonableness test – stretching into infinity, where reasonable and unreasonable look the same – cements that control.

In the hands of school officials who are unwise or even sadistic, a highly elastic reasonableness standard allows for trauma and humiliation, again threatening both boys and girls within a patriarchal tradition that sees their bodies of children and women as not fully their own.  Justice Ginsburg called this out:

JUSTICE GINSBURG: There’s one aspect of this considering the reasonableness of the school administrator’s behavior. In addition to not following up with Glines [Redding's frenemy who ratted her out], after Redding was searched and nothing was found, she was put in a chair outside the vice principal’s office for over 2 hours and her mother wasn’t called. What was the reason for that humiliating, putting her in that humiliating situation?

MR. WRIGHT: Your Honor, that is not a matter of the record, but the inference is that the –that the investigation was still ongoing because there was a group of kids, and at that time the administrator was making efforts to try to make sure that he had gathered all the drugs that might be on campus. And in any event that wouldn’t –

JUSTICE GINSBURG: But how were they investigating her when they did nothing but put her in a chair outside the vice principal’s office?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, Your Honor, I can see where it might have been more reasonable in that sense to have let her go back to class, but it certainly is not a standard that would affect the constitutionality.

(pp. 19-20, my emphasis)

If the issue was student safety, why did no one call her mother? Even the attorney for the school district admits that the school’s conduct was not, um, reasonable. Let’s hope that the court agrees that it’s time to impose some limits on the empty signifier “reasonable.” But Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money lays out why the court will probably side with the district. Ugh.

I just hope I won’t have to take a shears to the hoods of my Tiger’s hoodie-hoods. He looks so darn cute with the hood up.

Read Full Post »

Is it ever okay to strip-search a student? The SCOTUS is hearing arguments on this, and if so, under what limitations. Justice Stephen Breyer – normally a good ally to liberals – managed to trivialize the issue in a dudely way, and both Historiann and Amanda Marcotte are taking him to task for it. Historiann writes:

Nina Totenberg’s report on All Things Considered last night on the “strip search” case heard yesterday at the Supreme Court is the only news report I can find that notes that lone woman Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on her own at one point in the hearing:

At this point in the argument, a gender difference reared its head.  Justice Breyer suggested that it’s no big deal when kids strip–after all, they do it for gym class all the time.  Savana Redding didn’t reveal her body beyond her underclothes, said Breyer.  Justice Ginsburg, the court’s only female justice, bristled.  Her eyes flashing with anger, she noted that there’s no dispute that Savannah was required to shake out her bra and the crotch of her panties.  Ginsburg seemed to all but shout, “boys may like to preen in the locker room but girls, particularly teenaged girls, do not.” …

The New York Times report, written by Adam Liptak, omits mentioning that Ginsburg was even in the room yesterday, and instead emphasizes this comment by “even the liberal” Justice Stephen Breyer:

Justice Breyer elaborated on what children put in their underwear. “In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day,” he said. “We changed for gym, O.K.? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear.”

Ha-ha!  Strip-searching middle-school girls is funny!  (Unless you’re a middle-school girl, but if you are, you don’t vote so we don’t care about violating your Fourth Amendment rights.)

(More from Historiann here.)

You bet it’s appalling when our supposed allies sell us out. That’s sure what Breyer appeared to be doing. There’s also a special level of prurience, and one hopes a special circle in hell, reserved for those who sexually humiliate a schoolgirl. (Redding was 13 at the time of the incident.) And let’s be clear: Strip searches are always a form of sexual humiliation.

Stepping back just a moment from the issue’s gendered dimensions, I assume we can all agree that strip searches in public schools are a violation of the kids’ rights – full stop. Nothing short of a life-and death situation justifies stripping a kid of her clothes, rights, and dignity. Metal detectors will pick up weapons. Unless there’s a clear and present danger of a kid secreting plastic explosives on his person, there’s just no fucking excuse (and then the principal had better call the cops anyway). Redding was falsely accused of carrying prescription ibuprofen; I’ve taken a lot of that stuff and it hasn’t exploded yet.

Historiann and Amanda are surely right that Justice Ginsburg is a lonely voice, and that we can’t trust a nearly all-male court to protect women’s interests. They’re right, too, that girls are generally vulnerable in ways that boys aren’t – not least, because teenage girls are sexualized in our culture to a much greater extent than boys. Girls are also more likely to be sexually harassed or molested, but truth be told, boys are also at very high risk.

In Ohio, schools have conducted strip searches for contraband as minor as cigarettes. In a case the ACLU just won against the Bucyrus School District, all but one of the students were boys. They weren’t treated any better than Redding, and they don’t seem to have regarded the experience as a boys-will-be-boys lark. Here’s how the ACLU describes the kids’ ordeal:

The case stemmed from an April 17, 2008 search at Bucyrus Middle School. Prior to the start of the school day, a group of students congregated in an alley across the street from the school. Some of the students in the alley were smoking cigarettes. The school principal came upon the students, some of whom ran onto the school grounds and mixed in with others. The principal pulled a group of students inside, including some who had been in the alley and some who had not.

Staff members brought each of the male students into an office, made them turn out their pockets, patted them down and made them to drop their pants so they could check for tobacco products. A staff member also ran his finger around the waistbands inside the boys’ underwear. Staff then took a female student into an office and forced her to lift her shirt up and patted her down. No cigarettes were found. The female student also reported being strip searched again at an after school event several months later.

You can’t tell me these boys were preening! You can’t convince me they were joking around in the locker room!

What’s at stake here is bodily integrity and autonomy. We feminists fight for these rights for girls. We need to insist on the same rights for boys. And we have to acknowledge the very real humiliation when a boy’s bodily integrity is violated. Amanda writes:

Feminists can immediately see what’s going on, as we’re more than a little attuned to the way that authoritarian pigs have more than a little bit of the sexually sadistic streak that means they look for every opportunity to humiliate teenage girls with nudity. …

One wonders if a boy had been required to pull his penis out of his underwear and shake it in front of the teacher if that would have seemed different than the practice of using public urinals to Breyer.  I think it’s quite likely.

(More from Amanda here.)

Sure. But it’s really, really not just girls who are being targeted in these searches. In the Bucyrus case, “authoritarian pigs” showed their “sexually sadistic streak,” but they didn’t limit the humiliation to boys. We don’t know why the girl was picked on a second time (but oh, my prurience meter is flashing). No matter what, her double ordeal doesn’t neutralize what happened to the boys. A trusted adult actually reached into their underwear. The boys were forced to drop their pants. None of this is hypothetical.

I’m guessing Breyer and the other justices were probably briefed on the Ohio cases; if so, that makes his comment more brutish, not less.

A patriarchal approach to power regards young boys as property, just as much as young girls. It disrespects them completely as autonomous persons. Think of the way the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints deal with “their” young people: they rape marry the girls and exile most of the boys. The FLDS church represents one model of how a pure patriarchy harms all but the ruling patriarchs. In a rump patriarchy like ours – better described as a kyriarchy, in my view – a few boys are groomed to become the next patriarchs, while the rest are brought up to be peons, not rulers. Humiliation is a central tactic in creating this distinction.

Schools are funny little universes unto themselves. Sometimes the leadership loses its moorings and claims absolute power for itself. When that happens, it’s not surprising that the petty dictators also anoint themselves petty patriarchs.

It’s not crying “what about the menz?” to note that kyriarchy can hurt boys just as seriously as girls, and sometimes in very similar ways. We wouldn’t excuse sexual assault just because the victim was a boy. Here, too, we need a feminist lens that’s broad and sharp enough to see that Breyer’s sexism hurts both boys and girls.

Read Full Post »

I’m not going to pontificate on what we all need to do to preserve our Earth. Others can do that far more intelligently. I’ll just offer one very personal reason why we can’t continue to wreck it. Today’s guest artist, the Tiger, requires a habitat. So does his brother, the Bear. So do all the small people in their generation.

Here’s the artist’s rendering of our planet, Erf. (Yes, that’s how it’s pronounced, too.)


If we can’t live here anymore, here’s a getaway rocket …


… which will take us to Mars. I’m not sure sure it’s habitable, either, despite Dick Cheney’s fascination with it. I have to wonder how a planet sporting eyes, ears, and chicken feet can support human life.


If Mars (aka Mrs) is capable of sustaining life after all, it might look a little like these aliens (aka alens):


Myself? Looking at those aliens, I’m really hoping we can stay right here on Erf.

Read Full Post »

Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution. … Yet society has not a word of condemnation for the man, while no law is too monstrous to be set in motion against the helpless victim.

Emma Goldman, The Traffic in Women

Goldman published this in 1910. I’m dismayed at how little progress we’ve made in the past 99 years. I just wrapped up a discussion of this piece with my online feminist theory class, and even among this group of young, feminist-leaning people who are 90% female, moralism cropped up at every turn.

About half of my students worried about the moral consequences of legalizing prostitution. They thought it sent the message that adultery was okay. They feared previously faithful men would be snared on the streets. They fretted that more women would be drawn into the profession. Most of them weren’t any more comfortable with decriminalization as a solution, even though most of them also recognized that prostitutes would be safer if they weren’t hiding from the law.

That discussion ended a few days before the murder of alleged escort, Julissa Brissman, made the news. It turns out that Brissman – killed allegedly by medical student, Philip Markoff, who’s being called the Craigslist Killer – had formerly worked for Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” who was caught up in the Elliot Spitzer scandal. Davis writes on her blog:

She was only a bodyrub girl – never an escort so please don’t get the wrong idea. She was a doll and now she is dead – and this all could have been avoided by not busting me or even by making a dent in the industry by busting all my clients who are also criminals and shedding some light on how widespread this industry and really making a difference. Or by legalizing it so that these girls are safe.

Now, I don’t even know exactly what a bodyrub girl does. I’m assuming it’s a “sexy massage” as opposed to a therapeutic one? But never mind exactly what Brissman did; she was targeted for her proximity to sex work, judging from Markoff’s other alleged victims. The details of her work are immaterial. They shouldn’t distract from the larger issue of whether, as Goldman accuses, we’re still “ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race.”

Isn’t it striking that a self-styled capitalist entrepreneur like Davis and a socialist anarchist like Goldman frame the problem so similarly? They both see the prostitutes themselves as sacrificial lambs in a system that protects the powerful under a figleaf of morality. In fact, your political orientation, your religious beliefs, and your personal morals are actually quite irrelevant to whether prostitution ought to be decriminalized. If you blame sex workers for formenting immorality among their customers – instead of holding the customers responsible themselves – and if you thus conclude that prostitution has to stay illegal, there’s only one possible outcome. Sex workers will continue to be beaten, robbed, abused, raped, and killed, often with impunity. If you embrace the current slut-shaming legal regime anyway, you’re complicit in these injuries and deaths.

The flip side of all this moralism is hypocrisy. Davis is still furious with Spitzer for his duplicity. She has every right to be enraged. She served jail time while he walked away free.

And yet, the gossip about Spitzer (if true) suggests that his misogyny may dwarf his hypocrisy. Another high-end escort, “Annie,” tells the New York Daily News that Spitzer tried to choke her during rough sex – without her consent:

“He wanted a scenario where I was supposed to say I had just been to a self-defense class. He was supposed to respond, ‘Let’s see if you learned anything. He would be aggressive. I would have to defend myself.

“When he arrived, he took off his jacket but kept on his shirt and tie. His demeanor was nice, but I don’t remember any kissing or tenderness. He wanted to get on with the role-play. It was the first time I’d done that.

“I remember holding his wrists and him pushing back. I felt he was gauging my strength. We moved to the bed. He put his clothes neatly to the side, folding his pants. Yes, he did leave his socks on.

“I was never fully undressed. He was naked. He was perspiring a lot. He was holding me down. He pinned me to the bed. That didn’t bother me. But when he grabbed my throat, that was too much. I remember trying to push myself up off the bed, which made him apply more pressure. I’ve never been worried about my safety, but I was really concerned.

“Finally, I pushed him away and got up. He hadn’t finished. But I’d had enough. I don’t think he was planning on really hurting me. He didn’t ask if I was all right. He didn’t appear to be mad, either. Maybe he had had so many experiences with other people that he could see I didn’t know what I was doing. As he was leaving, he gave me a tip.”

(via Pandagon)

I realize this isn’t the most trustworthy source, but the allegation that Spitzer liked rough sex (without condoms) has surfaced repeatedly. That gives it some credibility.

And if it’s true, it suggests that Spitzer attempted sexual assault against this escort. Yes, she agreed to the role play. No, she didn’t agree to the choking. I understand that some people kink on consensual breath play; even then, I have qualms because it can end fatally. But that’s not what’s alleged here. Annie did not consent to being choked. Amanda Marcotte suggests Spitzer may be a sadist. I don’t think we can know that, though my gut feeling is that Marcotte is right.

If the allegations are true, however, we would know something that’s much more serious than a private proclivity for (consensual) sadism. If Annie is telling the truth, Spitzer is guilty of sexual assault because he did something that fell outside the consensual boundaries of the role play. He didn’t negotiate consent for choking. He brought real danger into the scenario. And Annie could have really gotten hurt. That’s why it’s bullshit to chalk up Spitzer’s behavior to plain ole boyish horniness, as Dan Savage does. Spitzer was not apparently interested in negotiating a BDSM scene. He wanted to make an end run around consent (and probably figured that the hourly rate was high enough to include that). Without a clear “yes” and clear boundaries, though, kink is not kink; it’s abuse.

Of course, there are noble men out in the world, working to protect prostitutes – like these gents in Oklahoma City. But oh – wait! The vigilantes who claim to be protecting the prostitute on this clip end up threatening to hunt her down, put her in jail, and have her children taken into protective custody. Some chivalry, huh?

I’ll admit that I winced, too, when I saw how her pimp seems to be doubling as babysitter. I agree that kids shouldn’t be accompanying any sex worker on the job. I don’t think it’s an appropriate profession for “take your daughter to work day.” I’d much prefer a world where no one’s daughter thought that sex work was her best option.

But this gal says – loudly if not proudly – that she’s doing the best she can for her kids. It’s a sad indictment of our society, not her morals, if prostitution is her least-bad option. I winced at this, too, but I believed her.

Emma Goldman forcefully argued that women assumed the risks of prostititution because their other options were often worse. In her day, the alternatives for urban girls were factory work, where they spent practically all their waking hours under semi-enslaved conditions in dirty, often dangerous condtions, or domestic service, which offered virtually no freedom and still sometimes exposed young women to the sexual depradations of their employers. The equivalent jobs today, I suppose, would involve double shifts of flipping burgers, often without anyone watching the kids.

If the moralists really cared about women, they’d stop choking them/prosecuting them. They’d cut out the vigilante act. And they’d press for decriminalization, which the sex-worker-rights organization COYOTE (Call off Your Old Tired Ethics) has demanded for close to 40 years. Then again, that was part of Goldman’s program a century ago. Goldman gets the final word, since her ideas are – unfortunately – as fresh as ever (my emphasis):

An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and insure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones–coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday Recipe: Rhubarb Dessert

Rhubarb dessert is one of my favorites from my mom’s cookbook. Yes, she has authored her very own cookbook, composed 80% of yummy sweet things, mostly from North Dakota. This dessert is about as North Dakotan as it gets, and I mean that in the best way possible: It’s tart-sweet comfort food with meringue on top. Rhubarb grows well in North Dakota, and this is one of my favorite things to do with it. Rather unfairly, my mom doesn’t have a good local source of rhubarb where she now lives in California, while I was just given a heaping armful by my friend who tilled my garden.


Rhubarb Dessert

Mix together (I use cold butter and zap it in a food processor until crumbly):

1/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter or shortening

and pat the crust mix into an 8 x 11 pan. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes.

Beat together (in the same, unwashed food processor, if you like):

3 egg yolks
3/4 cup cream
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 or 4 tablespoons flour

Fold 4 cups rhubarb into the cream mixture, then pour it onto the crust. Bake one hour, starting at 375° for ten minutes, then at 325°.

Beat three egg whites (which you’ve saved from when you separated out the yolk) until they start to appear glossy. Then gradually beat in five tablespoons sugar. Gingerly spread the meringue onto the dessert (you don’t want to squish out all its lovely little air pockets). Bake for about 10 minutes, taking care not to get the meringue too brown.

Mine looked like this:


It’s sort of beige so I made it into a still-life-with-Tiger-artwork. It won’t look like this for more than a few hours, as we’ll demolish most of it after soccer practice tonight. Leftovers – should we be lucky enough to have any – will need to be refrigerated due to egginess.

Read Full Post »

And I mean “mad” in both senses. I realize I’m a little crazy. And I’m deeply, frothingly angry.

The very first quarter I taught women’s studies, several students wrote about experiences with sexual assault. My heart hurt for them, and all I could do was hope that the class helped them make sense of their experiences – and especially, help them know, bone-deep, that they weren’t at fault.

The next quarter one of my students was raped during the quarter. She trusted a male friend to walk her back to her dorm – for her protection! She was usually a non-drinker and a self-described lightweight, but she’d had a few that night.. He knew this about her and exploited it. She told me about what happened, and we cried together.

Most quarters since, I’ve heard stories like this. When assaults happen on my watch, I’m not just dismayed for the student. I feel as though I personally have failed to keep them safe. And I go just a little bit mad.

Last night, I got an email from a student whose boyfriend hurt her earlier in the weekend. No, he hadn’t raped her. He had “only” wrestled her so hard to the bed that he put her wrist in a cast. (The rest of the details would be hers to tell, not mine, so I’ll merely say the attack came out of the blue, and not even the most unreasonable apologist could accuse her of provoking him. I’m deliberately focusing on my role in this situation because to delve more deeply into her situation might violate her privacy, and she’s already feeling shame and humiliation, even though she knows intellectually that there’s no need for those emotions.)

I was touched that she trusted me enough to call on me, but I felt totally inadequate to help her meet her needs. Besides grappling with the trauma, she’s trying to decide whether to press charges. I might have felt better prepared to help if I’d been sure that prosecuting would be a good idea, but she’s not sure she wants to. She’s not sure she’s able to let it go, either. She’s truly torn. I honestly don’t know what’s best. I know too many people who’ve been revictimized by the courts. But I also hear her when she says she’s worried he might repeat this pattern in future relationships.

So today we met at the women’s center after she’d visited a couple of counselors. We sat around for hours eating chocolate cake and getting caffeinated together. She alternated between telling her story, getting ideas about resources from people at the women’s center, and just talking about things that tickle her. She needed not just support but some normalcy and some warmth. That, I could help give.

I think she’s safe. He hasn’t tried to contact her. She’s got family involved. Her professors are being supportive. I think she’s going to be okay, apart from whatever scars this experience leaves behind.

But I see red when I remember that this young woman took not one but two classes with me, and she still ended up hurt! I always find myself wishing that exposure to women’s studies will protect my students like an invisible cloak. The rational side of me knows it won’t. This breaks my heart, again and again.

The only cloak that might work? Teaching the men that they can’t treat other people’s bodies like objects. It’s that simple. And that hard.

Read Full Post »

Since I’m always a sucker for a silly quiz, I took this one via Blue Gal. I have to admit it’s a pretty bogus result. Not that I’m a dummy, but is intelligence really a virtue?

I get that discipline is a virtue, or compassion. But intelligence is just something you’re mostly born with; you can’t cultivate it in quite the same way as compassion, say. You really can’t be sure it’ll be used for good rather than evil. (Bwahahahaha!)

I’m also not sure how you claim intelligence as your best quality and still score high on humility. I’d say medium humility would be more accurate – but then again, maybe I’m more perfect that you knew!

The low score for discipline? Spot on! And maybe that holds true for anyone who wastes their time on quizzes like these.

Your result for The Best Thing About You Test


Intelligence is your strongest virtue


Intelligence (also called intellect) is an umbrella term used to describe a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, plan, and solve problems. And you? Your brain shines.  All 7 virtues are a part of you, but your intelligence runs deepest.

It is likely you’re a smarty-pants.  And it’s likely (but not necessary) that your discipline score is high also.  It takes a certain resolve to maintain all those neural thingies.

Intelligent famous people:  Einstein, Shakespeare, Da Vinci.

Your raw relative scores follow.  0% is low, and 100% is perfect, nearly impossible.  Note that I pitted the virtues against each other, so in some way these are relative scores. It’s impossible to score high on all of them, and a low score on one is just relatively low compared to the other virtues.


50% Compassion

67% Intelligence

63% Humility

44% Honesty

13% Discipline

29% Courage

42% Passion

Take The Best Thing About You Test at HelloQuizzy

Then, please share your own score in comments. Undisciplined minds want to know.

Read Full Post »

pansy11Following up on my last post about my run-in with a raucous proponent of ev psych, I should clarify one thing: I do believe humans are naturally aggressive. We don’t learn aggression as kids. We learn how to channel it, sure. But the impulse is with us from the beginning – possibly from the first time we bite down on the nipple that feeds us and relish the drama of our mama’s response.

Here’s one example. Gardening has the rep of a peaceful, earth-loving, nurturant activity. And it is. You plant stuff. It grows. Beauty and yumminess ensue.

But gardening has its dark side, too – and I don’t mean the gorgeous black of the leaf mold I hauled into my veggie patch today (although it was very dark, rich and crumbly). What I mean is that in order to bring forth life, you have to kill.

Sometimes the killing is regrettable. A dear friend tilled my garden this afternoon, and now my veggie patch is ready to plant. I’m so grateful. The dirt looks wonderful. But I know that the motorized tiller shredded some of my slippery little friends,  the earthworms. That makes me sad. If I were robuster, I could dig the garden by hand and most of them would be spared. But I’m not, and so the worms paid the price.

Sometimes, though, the killing is practically lustful. Yesterday I started pulling out some weeds in the perennial bed. For years, those weeds have had the upper hand. I guess since they’re perennial, too, they’ve felt right at home. It’s the perennial bed, right? But I’ve got some coneflower seedling that I want to put in there, and so I set myself against the thicket.

I started off thinking I’d work for fifteen or twenty minutes. I wouldn’t overdo it. I’d protect my back and my overall energy. I’d stay mindful of a slow gardening philosophy.

Then I started following the runners that connected these particular weeds – and the only thing I was mindful of was the next plant’s root system and where its runners might lead. In other words, I began to act like the mildly obsessive gal you know from this blog. I dug and flung dirt. I yanked or eased the underground city of runners into the light. I practically chortled when I lifted a big maze of roots.

The only word for it? Aggression. Afterward, I felt just a little bit of catharsis. That is, until I discovered a few more of those bastards in the bed this afternoon.

If you think this all sounds a bit red in tooth and claw, just wait until the slugs grow thick and I start grinding them between a couple of stones. (I found one today and had mercy; I only pitched it out of the bed. Hard.) By August, I’ll be chasing down cucumber beetles with a dust buster at dusk. I once even killed a firefly that was on my purple pole beans before I knew what I was doing. I still feel bad about that. I love fireflies. I mistook it for an enemy of my beans.

This is the not-so-gentle side of organic gardening: You frequently come head-to-head with the critters. Maybe you admire the cute polka-dots on the cucumber beetle or the sheen of the Japanese beetle’s carapace. Maybe you recoil at a grub’s grubbiness. And then you ruthlessly take their animal lives in order to protect the plants you’ve nurtured since they were inert seeds. Just possibly, you feel regret. But chances are, even if you’re a non-hunting, anti-Nugent-y peacenik like me, you feel a little satisfaction and release not just in the beauty that results, but in the catharsis of aggression.

So I don’t think we should be sanguine about human nature. We are indeed animals. But we’re animals who can learn. After all, I don’t treat my kids, husband, or parents like those cucumber beetles. Then again – this evening, the Tiger was wielding the dust buster pretty wildly, and it’s a wonder he didn’t whack anyone with it.

Read Full Post »

So it’s one thing to tangle with evolutionary psychology as a blogger. It’s quite another to butt heads with it in person. Or, as in my case, to get verbally head-butted by it. And I’m feeling a little distressed, because a student got traumatized in the process and I didn’t manage to stop it.

Though I have friends who are trained biologists, I don’t normally have any direct dealings with people who believe the urge to rape is hard-wired and unalterable. My comfy little bubble popped a few days ago – in the university’s women’s center, of all places. I had just given an informal lunchtime talk on men in women’s studies, which was more of a discussion than a talk. (It was mostly based on material I presented last summer at the NWSA conference.) One of the attendees who spoke up was someone I’d never met before, a biologist who emphasized that she challenges budding health care workers to question their homophobia and gender stereotypes. The rest of us all made happy noises about how great it was that people were doing feminist work in the natural sciences, too.

But after the event, while people were hanging around chatting, this biologist collared me and said, “Well, I piss off a lot of the pre-meds with what I teach them. But I also piss off everyone else, because not all of what I teach is so politically correct.” Curiously, I asked what she meant (and oh, we all know what happened to the cat!). The earful I got was not just un-PC but downright triggering. (That’s your cue if you’d rather not keep reading.) And it was delivered in a loud monologue so everyone else in the women’s center got to listen along, sans trigger warning.

“You know how the college girls walk around uptown on Saturday nights with their butt cracks showing and their tits hanging out? And everyone’s drinking? It’s no surprise that they get raped. It’s bound to happen! Never in human history have young people had this much freedom. Never have they been so unsupervised, with so much access to alcohol. You’ve got these guys who are at the peak of their sexual prowess. They’re programmed to want to have sex with anything that moves. They’re animals – we all are. And men are visual. So someone is going to get raped.”

Okay, that’s not quite verbatim, but it’s also not exaggerated. She kept getting into infinite loops, especially when it came to the girls’ exposed anatomies and the boys’ uncontrollable libidos. By now there was a circle of a dozen women surrounding us. The conversation was impossible to ignore, with her haranguing me at 120 decibels and barely pausing to breathe.

Eventually I squeezed in a question: “You’re right that we’re in a historically new situation, compared to 50 years ago. But we’re not gonna go back to locking girls up. We’re not gonna veil them or seclude them. And women aren’t necessarily safe in their homes, either. So what would you do to fight rape?”

“Well, they have to stop dressing like they do. It’s like they have a bulls-eye painted on them. Then they get raped and wonder why! The boys can’t help it! It’s what they’re made to do! Girls dress like that and rape will happen. They have no one else to blame!” (Sorry about all the exclamation points. I’m actually toning her down from the ALL CAPS that would be a more faithful transcription.)

I said: “What about the boys? Can’t we teach them that no means no – that date rape is real rape and it’s against the law? Sure, we’re all animals, but aren’t boys capable of learning?” (Nods and murmurs from the crowd.)

“No! This is what young male animals do. They would rut all day and night if they could.”

I tried to get her to engage on a different level – that is, discussing with me rather than haranguing me – because I really am interested in science. When she repeated that guys are visual, I mentioned the study from last fall that showed men respond erotically to the color red but didn’t investigate at women’s responses, though the researchers suspected women would respond similarly. She said, “Oh yeah, women are visual, too!” and went right back to her auto-rant about how men’s visual orientation predisposes them to rape.

I’d chock this up as just another lesson in how inflexible some folks can be, except that a former student of mine walked out with me afterward and told me that one of the young women who was forced to listen to this had to walk out because she’d recently been raped.

I’m dismayed that my colleague’s rape-blaming opened up this student’s wounds. I don’t know the girl, and I’m not sure I’d recognize her on the street. Yet I feel that I should have seen this coming. I should have found a way put the brakes on my ev psych colleague – even though she’s way senior to me, and even though she was shouting at me rather than conversing. I didn’t have any real control over that conversation, but I feel like crap that I didn’t know how to shut it down once it was out of control.

It would be unfair to pin the failings of a whole field on a single individual. In fact, it’d be bad science to make her stand in for all of ev psych – and don’t we already have enough bad science in this realm? Still, this conversation resonated with all of the worst features of ev psych. In the discipline there’s sometimes a kind of macho swagger that goes along with claiming to have the only clear-eyed view of the world, while feminist scholars supposedly indulge in wishful thinking. There’s an unwillingness to grant authority to “fuzzier” disciplines. There’s a media filter that plays up ev psych’s most retrograde tendencies, which frustrates me no end because I like science and want to understand it with some nuance. And there’s a willingness to write off people’s moral capacities – especially men’s – which helps women not one whit. In my personal ev-psych smackdown experience, all of these traits derailed the chance at real dialogue – and retraumatized a sexual assault survivor as a special bonus.

Yes, we’re all animals. But fortunately, we’re animals with moral reasoning. Not to mention the ability to understand that laws have consequences. At The American Virgin, Trixie writes:

Helping young men understand these issues and learn to take responsibility for their actions doesn’t make women victims. We can take all the self-defense and empowerment classes we want, but unless we put the responsibility in the hands of the guys, we won’t change a thing.

That’s exactly it. Even if men’s behavior were completely resistant to change, there’d still be no reason to blame women. Men would still be morally culpable when they commit rape. But education does matter; men’s behavior is malleable. The only redeeming feature of the “men are hard-wired to rape” argument is that it pisses men off, as I’ve found in my teaching, and it puts them in a position where they want to claim a moral high ground. So maybe there’s a use for the cartoon version of ev psych, after all.

Read Full Post »

I’m starting to feel a lot less skeptical about acupuncture. This morning I had my third treatment, and ever since, I’ve felt like I’m on a mix of an anti-anxiety drug and an opioid. Except that I’m a little more clear-headed than that sounds – or so I hope, since I spent much of the day writing a short introduction to Simone de Beauvoir and existentialism for my online feminist theory class, and for that I needed every last synapse to be firing.

The opioid analogy got me wondering whether acupuncture sets free endorphins. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that, since the pain isn’t so very intense. Well, there’s usually one needle that’s really ouch-y, and today one of them hurt before it even broke the skin. It’s really hard to find scientific evidence on acupunture (you end up at a lot of badly designed webpages full of woo on a bright orance background), but there does seem to be a body of research suggesting that endorphins may be one mechanism by which acupuncture works. One theory is that it hits certain nerves that trigger the release of endorphins; if so, that would explain why you get an endorphin-like effect without having to suffer blinding pain.

And that made me think of a conversation I had with a friend the other day about S&M, where we were both trying  – and failing – to understand the appeal of practices that appear to be all about pain. I do understand that endorphins are in play, big time, in the recipient. What if masochism is just a different school of acupuncture – minus the heating lamp, plus lots of leather and latex? Is it possible that masochism is a way to treat the same host of ills that acupuncture is meant to address: chronic pain, stress, and so on? I’m not about to start begging someone to whip me, but as an outsider, I’m curious.

For sure, some interesting things are transpiring as I lie there like a cartoon voodoo doll. Brownfeminipower has written about how acupuncture has put her face to face with rage. For me today, it was grief about something I don’t know how to properly mourn. For a few moments, the grief was a series of waves crashing on the Northern California shoreline. First I was watching the waves. Then I was the waves. I thought I was holding it all inside me, because I had the Bear with me (he was home sick from school today). But when I opened my eyes, they were glistening wet.


Read Full Post »

A few days back, when I posted on my university’s duplicitous way of dealing with layoffs, commenter Jake expanded the discussion in a direction that’s really crucial. While my original post dealt with the university’s obfuscation of the impact of cuts on teaching staff, it’s important to note that the announced layoffs will hit facilities employees the hardest.

This is a key point, and not just locally, because it looks an awful lot like what’s happening on a national scale: People who work hard for modest pay lose their jobs while the decision-makers who ran the organization into the ground keep their jobs and their perks. No, Ohio University isn’t AIG or Citicorp, although we do have a private plane for the president’s use – which is not on the chopping block.

Here’s what Jake wrote:

Over the last 3 years, I’ve become relatively good friends with the janitors over at the RTV building, and I always seem to hear about the effects of things on their staff before anyone else really knows about it. It also hits home a little bit because my dad is the buildings and grounds supervisor and does basically all of the maintenance at my high school, and my brother is currently a janitor at a community college. One of the heads of facilities at OU says that the buildings will look just as good, even without all of the lost jobs. Really?? At what cost?? These janitors that still have jobs are already forced to skimp on their duties in order to get done in time. I was told that they’re instructed to use a half hour to clean one bathroom. One of the janitors I talk to has 10 bathrooms to clean each night. That’s 5 of 8 hours right there. How is she supposed to finish her duty effectively that way??

And maybe what makes me even more upset…when you lay off that many people in the maintenance staff, you’re guaranteed to have times, especially at night, when the appropriate person is not available if a certain thing happens (i.e. a burst pipe, a high voltage alarm going off, etc). So, there are two choices. Hire a separate entity to come do the work, or pay someone overtime to come fix the problem. Doesn’t that seem counter productive?? Yet, the head of facilities is reported as saying that neither of those would be necessary. Exactly how??

According to Ohio University’s student paper, the Post, the university plans to cut 32 unionized maintenance workers (and possibly 34 facilities workers altogether, if you go by the story’s accompanying graph – see below). These workers are not janitors, for the most part, because custodians were already laid off en masse in last year’s purge. These are the fix-it people, and their jobs are toast unless a bunch of folks unexpectedly take early retirement. The real loss is greater than 32 or 34 positions, because as the Post reports, another 13 are being eliminated through attrition.

As Jake points out, these cuts to the facilities staff will result in unrealistic workloads, poor service, and probably higher long-term costs. In addition to the costs of overtime and outsourcing that he mentions, deferred maintenance can ultimately raise overall costs, too, by making physical plant more likely to fail catastrophically (think: burst pipes). And there there are the intangible costs. Over time, workers are bound to feel demoralized as they work harder and harder, yet the university starts to resemble the set from the movie Brazil.


I’m swiping the graph from the Post to make one more point. Nearly two-thirds of the jobs cut (59 out of 90) pay less than $45,000 per year. The cuts thus disproportionately hurt a great many people who are already struggling. They may not have much savings. If they’re married, their spouse almost certainly works but probably doesn’t earn big bucks, either. Finding another job anywhere in this economy is hard enough, but in our little pocket of Appalachia, the university is the major employer. The university is offering career counseling services, but it’s a well-meant farce when there are virtually no job openings within commuting distance. (Last month, unemployment was at 7 percent in my county and 10 percent in the neighboring ones.)

What if – instead of laying people off and gutting health care benefits – the university instead negotiated a graduated set of pay cuts? Substantially raising employees’ share of medical expenses is just a backdoor pay cut anyway. One model for how socially responsible pay cuts could work is laid out here. (Disclosure: I helped tweak the brackets on the model, but I don’t have a major personal investment in the details; what matters is the basic idea of solidarity.)

Oh, wait. If you did that, then the people at the top might feel the pain. That would be socialism! Class warfare! The president might have to sell his plane! (I hear you can do that on eBay.)

Read Full Post »

Where the Grammar Police Live

The scene at dinner tonight, over an elegant repast of tofu dogs with lots of ketchup:

“It needs to have a comma,” says the Bear.

“What needs a comma?” I ask.

“The ketchup bottle. Where it says ‘Grown not made,’ there should be a comma.”

Is there any better proof that grammar isn’t just innate, as Noam Chomsky famously claimed, but that grammatical nitpicking is also genetically hard-wired? You’ll find plenty of goofs in this blog, I’m sure. But I’m the daughter of an English teacher, and so I cringe when I notice a mistaken “their” instead of “they’re” after a post has already gone up. (It’s worse when a student busts me on it!)

Both my sister and I inherited Mom’s pleasure in picking out misspellings in billboards and wonky punctuation in headlines. Now my nine-year-old son is diplaying the same twisted tendency. I’d put money on linguistic pedantry being an autosomal dominant trait.

Maybe it’s just neurosis begetting neurosis, but here’s the really crazy thing: I was totally proud of the Bear for catching it.

So, Heinz: It’s “Grown, not made.” And while you’re fixing it, maybe you could get rid of the TM symbol after it? That’s just totally inane.


These tulips, currenlty blooming in front of my house, have been gnawed on by small critters, though their scars are well hidden in the photo. I guess I’ll take that as evidence that they’re grown, not made.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: