Archive for June, 2009

As I wrote in April when the 2009 H1N1 virus, aka swine flu, first grabbed our attention, the hallmark of the Great Flu of 1918 was that it killed the young and healthy. Early reports from Mexico indicated a similar pattern. Then the initial Mexican data was discredited as unreliable. U.S. public health officials hastily assured us that the first U.S.-Americans to die of the new flu suffered from “underlying conditions.” Never mind that those “conditions” included pregnancy – which does increase the risk of flu complications, but most folks wouldn’t consider a illness – and extremely common afflictions such as asthma.

Now the New England Journal of Medicine is reporting more systematic data from Mexico, and it’s not at all reassuring. Here’s what Gerardo Chowell and his colleagues found:

During the study period, 87% of deaths and 71% of cases of severe pneumonia involved patients between the ages of 5 and 59 years, as compared with average rates of 17% and 32%, respectively, in that age group during the referent periods.

(The full text of the study is available free online. I love the NEJM for this: they consistently provide free full content for their most important studies.)

“Familiar” seasonal flu tends to kill the very young and the very old, and the cause of death is typically pneumonia, not the flu per se. However, a series of 18 cases reported by Rogelio Perez-Padilla et al. in the same issue found that most of their patients died from the flu itself, rather than from pneumonia.

Mortality among the patients requiring mechanical ventilation was 58%, and although four patients had nosocomial pneumonia, in most of our patients, lung damage was most likely due to the primary effect of infection with influenza virus. Possible mechanisms of damage include direct injury to the respiratory epithelium with a secondary cytokine storm. We do not currently know whether our patients, especially those who died, had viremia, as was reported in association with H5N1 infection, a very aggressive variety of influenza. Coinfection with other respiratory viruses could also explain the increased pathogenicity among our patients; however, no other common respiratory viruses were found in our patients. Only three of the patients had received influenza vaccine in fall 2009, since most patients were within the age groups for which vaccine was not recommended in Mexico. It is currently unknown whether seasonal vaccination offered any protection against S-OIV infection, however. We did not find a factor that, before the onset of illness, predicted a worse outcome or death among our patients.

(Again, the whole shebang is available free online. My emphasis.)

Also, this was another young, healthy group: “More than half of the 18 case patients were between 13 and 47 years of age, and only 8 had preexisting medical conditions.” Nonetheless: “Twelve patients required mechanical ventilation, and seven died.”

This is cause for worry. Medical historians believe that most deaths in 1918 resulted from direct injury to the lungs, and they believe that cytokine storm may have played an important role.

I don’t want to be alarmist and predict a recurrence of the Great Influenza. I just want us to be ready, especially if the virus mutates to become more virulent. To that end, I’m relieved to hear that the CDC is pursing a possible mass vaccination campaign with up to 600 million doses. I’m hoping that school-aged kids will be first in line for the shots, since they’re both a vulnerable population and very efficient vectors of infection.

Oh, and I think the swine flu may have come home to my family. My brother-in-law in California has been laid low for the past several days. It looks like he’ll be fine, but the probability is high that if he’s got any kind of flu, it’s the swinish sort. I’m hoping that he’ll recover quickly and that my sister and her kids will stay healthy.

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A few weeks ago, in comments on my post critiquing the term “sex class,Lisa Harney and Sunflower both prodded me to think and write more about transgender issues. While I feel like I need to keep offering disclaimers that I’m no expert in this area, I just read something that’s so obviously disrespectful toward trans people that I’m going to stick my neck out and say: hey! this is plain wrong.

In a list of “10 Reasons to Suspect You’re Not the Fun Kind of Feminist (Part I),” redmegaera writes:

6. You don’t describe yourself as being “cisgendered” and you are a woman who hasn’t had and doesn’t plan to have sex-reassignment surgery, hormone injections or a double mastectomy for cosmetic reasons.

Although I realize that the “10 reasons” format is intended to mark the post as humorous, I’m going to succumb to the old humorless-feminist stereotype and say: That’s not funny!

As Lisa Harney writes at Questioning Transphobia, the term cisgendered is intended to shake up the norm and highlight a privilege that often goes unnoticed (by those who are privileged enough to do so, that is):

Cis is a neutral term applied to people who aren’t trans. It’s intended to decenter the notion that not being trans is the natural, default state for human beings and that being trans is a deviation, and that trans people are other.

(This is part of Lisa’s longer explanation of why it’s not okay for cisgendered people to reject being labeled as such.)

I don’t describe myself as being “cisgendered” every day, but I realize that the term describes what I am and so I’m happy to claim it. I was born with female organs, I’m comfortable with being called a woman, I appear reasonably feminine despite my incompetence with nail polish, and so I don’t experience any dissonance between my anatomy, my gender presentation, and the way the world views me. That’s a big ole privilege.

Now, back to redmegaera’s list. Just to clear up any possible misunderstaning, the term “fun feminist” is not a compliment. It’s a term that some self-described radical feminists use to question the seriousness of people whose flavor of feminism differs from theirs. I suspect I qualify as a “fun feminist” by dint of being an unapologetic heterosexual who paints her toenails, however sloppily. I don’t much care if someone wants to impugn me for being too fun. Still, I can afford not to care only because I’m privileged in multiple ways. I’m white, middle-class, heterosexual, educated, and yes, cisgendered. More importantly, my relative imperviousness doesn’t change the intent behind the term: to denigrate and insult.

Similarly, calling sex-reassignment surgery “cosmetic” trivializes the embodied experience of trans people. Those who pursue such surgery aren’t just trying to conform to some beauty ideal. They’re hoping to achieve some congruence between body and self – perhaps greater integration of body and self. However far this particular form of embodied dysphoria may be from my personal experience, I can still understand and empathize with the need to feel at home in one’s body. This seems like such an obvious point that I’m almost sheepish about making it. Yet it obviously needs to be said.

Also: Surgery, for whatever purpose, is never fun. Mocking people for needing it? Not my idea of fun, either.

Finally, here’s yet another ought-to-be-obvious point: Trans people’s rights are one facet of human rights, and they’re important to defend because every human being matters equally. However, on a more selfish level, feminists who reject the trappings of traditional femininity also have a personal stake in trans people’s rights, whether they recognize it or not. A world in which trans people can be murdered on account of their gender is also a world where “a fat, ugly, unfeminine, hairy-legged man-hating dyke” (#7 on redmegaera’s list) is also at physical risk. Radical feminists who feel no fellowship with trans people should still be able to see how transphobia harms their own interests. And maybe – just maybe – that could stir the beginnings of real empathy. (I’m not holding my breath, though.)

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The 15 Books Meme

My long-time friend and occasional commenter KMS tagged me with this on Facebook. As usual, I gravitate toward the long form, by which I mean I don’t know when to shut up. So I’m posting the “15 books” meme here, too, with a bunch of unsolicited editorializing. The rules are to give “A quick list of 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you — list the first 15 you can recall in 15 minutes. Don’t take too long to think about it.” I didn’t think too long in making up the list, but now that I’ve got it, I’m still thinking.

Here’s my list, in the order I first read them, and why these books mattered to me.

1. Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy – I’ll let Harriet stand in for all my other childhood books (from the Bobbsey Twins to Little Women to Narnia) that promised a life of adventure, travels beyond North Dakota, and a world where a girls’ smarts counted for more than her looks. Unlike KMS, I can’t list the Little House books, because they were set partly in the Dakotas, a little too close to home (though I read and loved them anyway).

2. Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun – I read this the summer after seventh grade while lying in a shady hammock. I’m not sure why my parents let me; maybe they had no idea about the book’s contents, or maybe they’d just entirely stopped paying any attention to the books I read (it was hard to keep up with me). At any rate, it put me off of war, forever.

3. Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds – Yes, really. This book occupied a long, long stretch of my eighth-grade English class. I read it surreptitiously under my desk. It wasn’t just a font of sex ed; it has lately come in very handy in understanding the Mark Sanford scandal.

4. Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman – I picked this up in the college bookstore toward the end of my undergrad career. It was assigned for a course on Canadian literature that I didn’t take but soon wished I had; I raided the whole shelf for that class, scoring Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and some Alice Munro stories. I fell in love with Atwood’s style, acerbic humor, and non-dogmatic, unromanticized feminism.

5. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye – Of all her novels, this is my favorite. She perfectly captured Mean Girl behavior long before Hollywood discovered it. And it’s very darkly funny.

6. Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body – I probably should have included more nonfiction on the list. This book launched my interest in understanding embodied experience, which has been my main scholarly preoccupation ever since. It’s also lively and accessible.

7. Barbara Duden, The Woman under the Skin – Duden showed me that what Martin did for women’s contemporary experiences was also possible to reconstruct historically, though a good deal trickier. And so my dissertation was born.

8. Eva Heller, Beim nächsten Mann wird alles anders – The story of a young German student who bounces from one unsuitable boyfriend to another, this was the first novel I ever read independently in German. It’s light and apparently fluffy, but it’s also wonderfully witty social satire. I was so proud of myself for reading it all on my own. It also resonated with me because I’d just broken up with my grad-school boyfriend, and I needed to believe “with the next guy, everything will be different,” just as much as I needed to poke fun at the idea. The second time I read it, my now-husband and I took turns reading it aloud at bedtime. That was even more fun. (And everything really was different.)

9. Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger – All of Lively’s novels wonderfully capture the contingency of history, both personal and large-scale, and the ways those different histories collide. This one also includes a shocking ending. I’m planning to re-read it this summer, and I’m hoping it’ll be just as good, now that I know how it ends.

10. A.S. Byatt, Babel Tower – This is part of a quartet of novels that follows the sweep of British history in the mid-20th century through the figure of a smart young woman, Fredericka, and the people in her life. Babel Tower, the third of the series, is my favorite of the bunch, despite (or because of?) its disturbing mixture of sex, violence, and maternity. I read it shortly before we decided to have our first child; it both expressed and quelled some of my fears about combining motherhood with the life of the mind.

11. Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep – The main character, Bonnie, is one of the most convincing female characters that I’ve ever seen in a book written by a man. Her insomnia perfectly echoed mine during early motherhood – and convinced me that I either was not completely nuts, or at least had lots of company in my craziness. (Another cheat: Stephen McCauley’s True Enough, which I read around the same time – early 2001 – did much the same for me, with another marvelously loopy female lead.)

12. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible – While I like almost everything Kingsolver has written (except Prodigal Summer, which is too preachy), this is her most rich and nuanced novel. The mother’s hard choices still haunt me. I read it during the penultimate phase of my dissertation, and I was so captivated, it derailed my writing.

13. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections – I almost refused to read this because of the hype. Then, one day in Berlin, I ran out of light reading and it was the only promising English title in the little bookshop where I was sought my fix. Franzen hooked me first on his dry wit and then on his ultimately compassionate take on his characters and their foibles. This was during the final-most phase of dissertating. To this day I blame Franzen for almost making me miss my own defense.

14. Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife – Of all the books on my list, this is the one I’m least likely to revisit. I read it while my husband was almost mortally ill. For me, the book is neither about time travel nor transcendent love. It’s the most vivid depiction I’ve seen of the cascade of catastrophic events leading from illness to decline to death. It haunts me and I wish I’d never read it.

15. Ian McEwan, Saturday – I appreciated how deftly McEwan handles his post-9/11 theme, but mostly I was drawn in by the suspense and the characters. On Chesil Beach is just as good in its own way – I guess I’m cheating on my 15-book limit again! – but since I have to choose, I’ll say Saturday resonates on more levels.

I’ll stop before I cheat again. I can think of lots of non-fiction, a bunch of classic novels (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre fired my adolescent imagination), and more childhood favorites. And shouldn’t the Moosewood Cookbook be on my list, too? Oh, wait, I am cheating again.

I’ll break the rules one last time by refusing to tag another 15 people (as the meme demands), but if you want to leave your own list in comments or link to it elsewhere, please do!

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Oh, Maureen Dowd. For a gal who questions whether men are really necessary, you sure do say some dumb shit about women.

I don’t usually read Dowd; she’s too glib, and today’s column is no exception. But today I hoped she’d buttress my interpretation of Mark Sanford as a Crappy Governor caught in the clutches of True Love, since some folks seem to think his emo press conference was all an act. I still think I’ve read him right. Were it not True Love, he could have gotten laid a lot closer to home than Buenos Aires, like every other blow-dried culture warrior. Without True Love, he wouldn’t have gone all loony tunes, thinking he could disappear for a week and then declare himself the heir to King David. Or rather, his looniness would’ve stayed focused on rejecting stimulus funds for his state.

But back to MoDo. She starts out brilliantly:

As in all great affairs, Mark Sanford fell in love simultaneously with a woman and himself — with the dashing new version of himself he saw in her molten eyes.

Hand on your heart: haven’t you ever been in just that position? Doesn’t that reflection of one’s soft-focus photoshopped self account for much of the allure of love affairs? Quite possibly, that allure is magnified in midlife and beyond. Someone in my very extended family just got caught in an affair. He was cheating on his second wife, whom he met in church and courted while both were married to their original spouses. After 20 years, he’s now taken up with another woman in the same church, also married, the mother of his current wife’s son’s best friend from high school. He’s over 70. Some folks, it seems, crave that glittery soft-focus reflection even into old age.

So I think Dowd is onto something important when she suggests Sanford was infatuated with his sexy alter ego, Marco. But then she just goes off the rails:

In a weepy, gothic unraveling, the South Carolina governor gave a press conference illustrating how smitten he was, not only with his Argentine amante, but with his own tenderness, his own pathos and his own feminine side. [my emphasis]

He got into trouble as a man and tried to get out as a woman.

(The rest of her piece quite amusingly counterposes the uptight Mark against the rascally Marco, but she’d already lost me.)

Good grief! Dowd is stuck in the nineteenth century if she thinks Sanford is behaving like a girl. The Enlightenment bequeathed us a legacy of associating man with culture, women with nature; man with logic, women with emotion; man with reason, women with irrationality. Three waves of feminism supposedly swept away these cheap binaries. Dowd, a beneficiary of all three waves, happily revives the old stereotypes when they suit her glib purposes.

Besides, those hoary stereotypes just don’t fit the facts, empirically. The hallmark of Sanford’s recent behavior – and the reason he needs to resign – isn’t his emotionality. It’s his irrationality. Women in politics do sometimes display emotion, but they keep a pretty tight rein on the crazy. When’s the last time a female politician jetted off to a foreign country to meet her lover? Without telling anyone? I don’t agree with Dana Perrino’s silly contention that the sex scandals would stop if we only elected women. Women, too, would start to feel cocky and entitled if they were no longer embattled. But surely, with our fresh memories of David Vitter’s diaper play and Larry Craig’s wide stance, no one can seriously claim that women are less rational than men. Not even when it comes to sex – or True Love.

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Sparkly Caturday

One of Berlin’s less charming features is the prevalence of dog poop on the sidewalks. The poop density actually seems to have decreased since last summer, but the kids still need to get used to watching their step. For the Tiger, this is an all-too-welcome opportunity for poop talk. We’re trying not to encourage it. But oh, how he’d love this LOLcat.


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Via Glenn Greenwald, I just made the acquaintance of a paragon of toxic masculinity, Andrew Klavan, and I don’t know whether to laugh or wince or drop-kick my laptop. He’s a writer of hard-boiled fiction who has apparently solved the puzzle of sexual harmony. Here’s Klavan’s take on marriage:

I’m the old-fashioned King of the Castle type: my wife knew it when she married me, she knows it now, and she knows where the door is if she gets sick of it. And you can curse me or consign me to Feminist Hell or whatever you want to do. But when you’re done, answer me this: why would a man get married under any other circumstances? I’m serious. What’s in it for him? I mean, marriage is a large sacrifice for a man. He gives up his right to sleep with a variety of partners, which is as basic an urge in men as having children is in women. He takes on responsibilities which will probably curtail both his work and his social life. If he doesn’t also acquire authority, gravitas, respect and, yes, mastery over his own home, what does he get? Companionship? Hey, stay single, dude, you’ll have a lot more money, and then you can buy companionship.

(There’s more here, if you’re in a self-punishing mood.)

Let’s try reversing the genders, now, shall we? Why on earth would a woman get married?

I’m serious. What’s in it for her? I mean, marriage is a large sacrifice for a woman. She gives up her right to sleep with a variety of partners, which is as basic an urge in women as having children is in men. She takes on responsibilities which will probably curtail both her work and her social life. If she doesn’t also acquire authority, gravitas, respect and, yes, mastery over her own home, what does she get? Companionship? Hey, stay single, girl, you’ll have a lot more money, and then you can buy companionship.

Hmmmph. The reversal was working pretty well up ’til the last line. Then again, maybe the shortfall of male sex workers would self-correct if women had all that gravitas and money that Klavan claims for men.

But hey, that wouldn’t be my utopia, anymore than most men would be happy as miniature Hugh Hefners. Does respect really have to be a zero-sum game, instead of mutual regard? Aren’t there forms of mastery that don’t entail becoming master of other human beings?

If I had to define a “real man” (which I’m generally loathe to do), at the top of my list would be confidence, which I think is sexy whatever your gender. A man who’s secure in himself doesn’t require a gun, a Hummer, a fawning little wife, or (as Greenwald points out) the occasional war of aggression. He’s not diminished by changing his babies’ diapers or cleaning the kitchen; indeed, he just might do both better than his wife. He’s actually part of his children’s lives. He’s not a breadwinner. He’s a father and a partner.

If that’s Feminist Hell, then please bring on the brimstone.

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Remember the case of Savana Redding, who was strip-searched in school on suspicion of having ibuprofen, and who took her case all the way to the Supreme Court? Well, despite the inane questions posed by some justices during oral arguments, Savana has won. Jill at Feministe reports that the lone dissent in the 8-1 decision came from Clarence Thomas:

“Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” he said. “Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school.”

Jill’s gloss on this:

Thomas only restates what high school girls everywhere have always known: Your panties are the safest place to secrete.

I’m grateful for some humor in this, however dark, because the decision isn’t all sweetness ‘n’ light. Alas quotes the NYT as reporting:

The officials in Safford, Ariz., would have been justified in 2003 had they limited their search to the backpack and outer clothing of Savana Redding, who was in the eighth grade at the time, the court ruled. But in searching her undergarments, they went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy rights, the justices said.

Had Savana been suspected of having illegal drugs that could have posed a far greater danger to herself and other students, the strip search, too, might have been justified, the majority said, in an opinion by Justice David H. Souter.

“In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear,” the court said. “We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

So, had Savana been accused of “secreting” heroin, ecstasy, or even marijuana, the court might well have countenanced the strip search. In other words: Her bullies weren’t thinking big enough.


This story is getting seriously under my skin. I mean that literally, not metaphorically, insofar as I tend to viscerally feel all that impinges on my child’s skin. Because when we landed in Brussels yesterday morning, en route to Berlin, we bumped up the harshest security I’d seen since our LeapPad brought out the bomb squad in Berlin last summer. Oh, Belgium! Who’d have thunk it? Are you suffering from the EU equivalent of short-man syndrome?

As we approached the metal detector, I asked the guards if my sons needed to take off their zip-front hoodie-hoods. “Oh, no,” I was told. The Tiger passed through the gates without incident. But the Bear’s zipper was a few inches longer, and it tripped the alarm.

“English? French? German?” the guards asked.

“English, please.”

“Vee haf to do a body search. Vich is his luggage?”

And they start to lead the  Bear away. I’m thinking, “Kill, kill, kill!” (See, I truly am capable of violence.) In the same moment, my husband is setting off the beeper with his belt (next time, we all wear sweatpants!) and I realize I’m on my own with both children. I’m faced with the dilemma of the mother in The Poisonwood Bible: stay with my older child, who needs me acutely, or with my younger child who’s inherently more needy?

Luckily, “away” was only a few feet, else I would have jumped the guard, and I’d be writing this from a Belgian prison (assuming they hadn’t already confiscated my lap top).

The “body search” they conducted on my Bear didn’t just involve a pat-down. The guy actually inserted his hand into the elastic waistband of the Bear’s sweatpants. He found nothing. He gave me the evil eye once more. Then he again demanded to know which luggage belonged to my son.

That’s when the Tiger’s LeapPad triggered a thousand alarms and a body search of the many tiger-striped stuffed animals that were packed in the same bag. I’ll admit his Mama Tiger is a hazard, but only because she houses myriad germs. By the time they finished failing to do a cavity search on Mama Tiger (she only has a belly-button, and it’s an outie), the guards had forgotten all about the Bear’s luggage, and they wearily waved us through to the terminal.

I know that when you’re between two countries, you’re virtually stripped of every right. If the guards had been even a wee bit clever, they might have picked up on the Tiger’s mild fever. (Swine flu! Swine flu! Oh, oops, not flu at all, so sorry we had to sent you back over the ocean.) If they were more historically minded, they might have seized on the fact that my husband once knew a couple of people who joined the Red Army Fraction in the late 1970s. The border guards are not that smart.


But neither are school officials very clever, as Savana Redding’s experience vividly shows. The next students’ rights case to come before the Supreme Court might not end so sensibly. I don’t know about you, but as the parent of a two future middle-schoolers, I don’t want the school to have virtually unfettered power over my children’s bodies. The Belgian border guards were quite enough.

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Maybe it’s just because I’m cross-eyed with jet lag, but as I caught up on the Mark Sanford saga today, I found myself feeling some sympathy for him. Yes, it’s sympathy for the devil. Daisy Deadhead has amply documented how, with his grandstanding refusal to accept federal stimulus money, he was willing to sell out his state for his presidential ambitions. Politically, Sanford is poison, and so I’m happy to see his national aspirations dashed. I also totally get how satisfying it is to see yet another Republican culture warrior hoist on his own hypocrisy. I feel deeply sorry for his wife and kids, who are being dragged through the muck thanks to his transgressions. He’s been a real jackass toward them.

So why the sympathy? Why not just contempt or schadenfreude?

Because Sanford would have been better off if he’d only gone hiking naked on the Appalachian Trail (as one rumor had it). He’d have been less exposed. Now we have confessions about crying for five days straight while he was in Argentina with his paramour, Maria. Now we have the texts of his emails. And what’s revealed is in a different universe than Eliot Spitzer’s visits to prostitutes (whom he allegedly bullied and coerced into rough, condom-less sex) and Bill O’Reilly’s loofah (or falafel?) fetish.

Here’s what softened my heart toward Sanford. In one of his emails to his mistress, Maria, he wrote:

As I mentioned in our last visit, while I did not need love fifteen years ago — as the battle scars of life and aging and politics have worn on this has become a real need of mine. … I looked to where I often look for advice and counsel, and in I Corinthians 13 it simply says that, “ Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude, Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right, Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things”. In this regard it is action that goes well beyond the emotion of today or tomorrow and in this light I want to look for ways to show love in helping you to live a better — not more complicated life.

Sanford’s straying was not a mere dalliance with a call girl or hottie half his age. He seems to have fallen deeply in love – so deeply that he appears deaf to the irony of quoting the Bible verse that’s a standard fixture at Christian weddings. In fact, he’s fallen clear off the deep end, flying off to Argentina for a few days in hopes of sorting out what he called a “hopelessly impossible situation of love.” His political instincts are so warped by passion that at his presser, he apologized first to Maria and only secondly to his wife and kids.

Obviously, he would have been far wiser, kinder, and more ethical had he put his energy into rekindling love with his wife. He didn’t do that. Quite possibly he didn’t realize what he needed until it ambushed him. In this, Sanford is not evil. He’s not even particularly a politician or a Republican.

He’s just frail and human. Like the rest of us.

Adultery differs from other transgressions in that so many of us are capable of committing it. Most of us would steal or kill only under great duress – in defense of self and family – but the bar is set far lower for adultery. Kinsey found that 50% of men and 26% of women had extramarital sex in their lifetimes. Recent, more conservative studies put those estimates at 28% for men and 15% for women.

As for the rest of us? Most of us, like Jimmy Carter, have “lusted in our hearts.” Those illicit lusts ought to humble us enough to realize that we’ve all got it in us; that adulterers aren’t a whole ‘nother species. While I’ve never crossed that line, I don’t fancy myself impervious.

Maybe Sanford did think he was above it all. I suspect that’s a professional risk of being a culture warrior. Human frailty may be universal, but Republicans have had more than their share of sex scandals. I have to wonder if perching on such high horses sets them up for a fall. Sanford wrote Maria that he was totally blindsided:

How in the world this lightening strike snuck up on us I am still not quite sure. As I have said to you before I certainly had a special feeling about you from the first time we met, but these feelings were contained and I genuinely enjoyed our special friendship and the comparing of all too many personal notes (and yes this is true even if you did occasionally tantalize me with sexual details over the years!) — but it was all safe. Where we are is not. I have thought about it and in some ways feel I let you down in letting these complications come into a friendship that I hope will last till death. In all my life I have lived by a code of honor and at a variety of levels know I have crossed lines I would have never imagined. I wish I could wish it away, but this soul-mate feel I alluded too is real and in that regard I sure don’t want to be the person complicating your life.

A rigid, over-confident “code of honor” – fixated on rules but blind to desire – can destroy self-awareness. Sanford didn’t think himself capable of an affair. Even now, he sounds as though he hasn’t registered the hypocrisy in the gap between his public moral code and his private passions. Might he have kept his vows to his wife if he’d been less arrogant?

Maybe not. We don’t know much about the dynamics of his own marriage, except that his wife Jenny has said, “I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal.” While that’s true, there’s more to love and marriage than just duty and obligation. If I were Jenny, obligation would probably be all that stopped me from filing for divorce straightaway (and boy am I glad she didn’t feel her duty included standing by Mark at his confessional press conference). She’s stuck with him for months, trying to save the marriage after learning of his affair. Yet it’s also possible that over the years, obligation stifled actual love, leaving only an empty shell. Though my only personal knowledge comes from dating a College Republican when I was 18, I imagine political marriages are more apt than most to be crushed by the weight of duty.

But just maybe, Sanford could have stayed faithful if his self-image hadn’t been so pure. He might not have “crossed lines I would have never imagined” if his imagination could have grasped the possibility of his own moral fallibility.

And just maybe, it’s not only politicians who suffer from misplaced arrogance about their own morality. Americans seem to regard sexual infidelity as just about the worst offense a person could commit. The right and the left seem to be united on this point. Indeed, so many people express an unseemly glee when cheaters get caught, you might imagine that the cheaters were a vanishingly small minority instead of 15-25% of the population. (Take for instance this comment thread at Pandagon, then multiply that example by infinity.) Even among sexual liberals who countenance open relationships and all manner of formerly “deviant” behavior, adultery remains the one cardinal sin – the one delict that can never be relativized or contextualized, as if no other action could possible inflict worse harm on a relationship. In the wake of John Edwards’ affair last summer, Hesperia questioned why this is so:

Truth is, although I know sexual infidelity is a deep hurt, I’m always curious as to why “we” put it at the top of the pile of marital sins. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s one of the sins we can see clearly when it emerges, but I do think there’s some messed up views about sex and its meaning present as well. I had a partner who “cheated”, but the cheating was way down on the list of the transgressions and was a sign of a much more profound unfaithfulness.

I’m not saying that adultery is right, or that the hurt it inflicts is trivial. Not at all. My own parents broke up over an affair and all the lies it entailed.

Yet I wonder if our collective judgmentalism about affairs is perversely and paradoxically making marriages more vulnerable to infidelity. I can understand why Republicans cling to judgmentalism; they’d have to rebrand themselves if they gave it up. The rest of us might do better to admit that we’re fallible, that we’re capable of straying, and that we may struggle to keep our promises – lest we too be left wondering “how in the world this lightning strike snuck up on us.”

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Tomorrow (well, technically today) I’m headed to Berlin with my kids and husband for our annual German sojourn. Posting will be flaky for a few days while we endure the flight and the intense jet lag that only young children can inflict on their loved ones. (Yes, I will drug them. No, it won’t be enough.)

To fill the void of words, here’s a bit of garden porn – my jackmanii clematis, which looms eight feet above the earth.


And the blossoms, up close:


It’s hard to leave with plants in bloom. I’m leaving a baby zucchini behind (the first I’ve produced in years) and a couple of aggressive winter squash vines that intend to destroy New York and Tokyo after they take out a bunch of my tomatoes.

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The Tiger’s birthday was actually Friday, his kid party was yesterday, and only now am I getting around to writing about it. The party itself was pure slackerdom: let them play in the wading pool, slide and slip on the slip and slide, and run through the sprinkler. Interspersed with all this was a hefty dose of simple carbohydrates, geared to a watery ocean theme. This was the cake:


In case you’re foolish enough to try this at home, the sand on the ocean bottom was made of colored sugar sprinkles, the rocks are milk chocolate candy rocks, the seaweed is cut from fruit leather, and the fish are Nemo fruit snacks. (By “fruit,” I mean a gummy concoction that resembles fruit only if you’re also credulous enough to think that Scientology is a reasonable belief system.) You could also use colorful goldfish crackers as your fish and crushed graham crackers for sand, but I was afraid they would turn disgustingly soggy in our muggy weather. So we just served the goldfish on the side. Honestly, we were just lucky that the thunderstorms passed us by and we weren’t stuck with ten six-year-olds in the house.

Also, I’m here to say: Gummi worms (aka “gummi eels”) in a wading pool? Not a brilliant idea.

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Exactly six years and two hours ago, my little Tiger slipped out his wet, dark, fetussphere and arrived fully in this world.

I’d been apprehensive about his birth, because my first delivery had been pretty horrendous. (I’ll leave the scare stories to another day, though.) So here I was, this feminist critic of medicalized birth, wanting to avoid a c-section but hoping even more to avoid a life in diapers (for me, that is) – and demanding to be induced as the least-worst option. I figured that if I had another baby with a 99th percentile noggin, he’d better make his entrance sooner, not later. My ob went along with my reasoning.

I didn’t actually have a formal birth plan. My doctor knew, however, that I’d want an epidural, and that I wanted to minimize other interventions.

So at 7 a.m. six years ago, I slurped down a Yoplait yogurt smoothie (judged least likely to reappear during labor, and least offensive if it did) on the ride to our little local hospital. First thing, the doctor broke my membranes – and installed an internal fetal monitor. I said, “Hey, that wasn’t part of the deal! I don’t want anything screwed into my baby’s skull!” “It’s hospital policy,” he said.

From then on, though, things went swimmingly. I actually got taken off the Pitocin drip after an hour because my contractions were ferociously strong. I walked a few laps, at the urging of the delivery nurse, and then I said: “Epidural. Epidural. Epidural. Epidural.” There might have been some verbs in there. Also some saltier language. I’m not sure anymore.

Moments later, a skinny older gent with silvery hair and a handlebar mustache appeared with the epidural apparatus. As he leaned in, I smelled an overwhelming eau de skunk. (Or is that eau de skuncque?) He and his dog had tangled with one that morning, and all the tomato sauce in the country wasn’t going to remove the odor. If I’d had a proper birth plan, this sure as heck wouldn’t have been on it.

But the epidural was such a deliverance, I really didn’t care. He could’ve brought the skunk with him in a pet carrier, and it wouldn’t have disturbed my bliss.

The rest of the delivery went smoothly. I was fully dilated by 2:30, and the Tiger emerged at 3:15 after a reasonable number of pushes. His cry was lusty and loud. I didn’t require any major repair (maybe I got a stitch or two). I got to see the miraculous oddity that we call the placenta. (Didn’t take it home and bury it, though.) The only hitch was that another baby was born within minutes of the Tiger, right around shift change, and I ended up self-diagnosing a minor postpartum hemorrhage, which was promptly treated with the Pitocin I hadn’t needed during actual labor.

The Tiger remains lusty and loud. He’s playing a Blue’s Clue’s computer game while I write this, each of us noodling with words. And he’s thrilled to be six, finally, after counting down for the past two weeks.


Would I have been unable to avoid the internal monitor – which left a crust of blood on the Tiger’s head for over a week – if I’d prepared a formal birth plan? Well, I might have become aware that it was policy. I very much doubt I could have altered the course of events. Nor would the internal monitor have necessarily been a deal-breaker. I knew I couldn’t handle a repeat of my first delivery.

Kate Smurthwaite recently published a smart and acerbic analysis of birth plans on the F Word blog. She observes that birth plans are in the ascendancy in Great Britain – and that they typically fly out the window once labor is underway:

Apparently the NCT [National Childbirth Trust in its prenatal classes] went on and on about how important it was for women to write a “birth plan” to take with them to hospital. Now it’s understandable that women would want to have a document in hand to tell nurses what they want in different scenarios, to avoid having procedures they didn’t want forced upon them when they are in too much pain to discuss things. However of those in the group who made a “birth plan” (Lynda refused despite repeated demands by class instructors) 100% ended up not sticking to it and then feeling they had somehow “failed” to have the birth they wanted. In any case who would write a birth plan that says “experience extreme pain, demand an epidural, discover it’s too late, baby’s heart rate slows, rushed in for emergency cesarean”. Everyone writes “no pain relief, baby slips out in 2 minutes, I look stunning”, and then nobody lives up to it. So sure take in some notes about particular things you’re worried about seems to be good advice, but stay open minded about what happens – don’t make too many plans!

During my first pregnancy,  no one had nattered on about birth plans, because – at least as of the late 1990s – they weren’t yet a fixture in the German maternity landscape. I knew a lot (too much!) about childbirth from my dissertation research but I signed us up for a prenatal class anyway, mostly so my husband wouldn’t be out of the loop. I knew I wanted an epidural and was unapologetic about it. Rather than writing up a birth plan, I sought and found a midwife I felt I could trust. No plans would’ve anticipated the particular complications we encountered, so we avoided disappointment by relying on relationships rather than a checklist. I saw first-hand the fruits of the opposite approach when a young woman was transferred from a freestanding birth center, needing a cesarean, and she was utterly furious. So angry, in fact, that she barely perceived her child. I now wonder if she might have suffered PTSD, which is not all that uncommon after childbirth. And mind you, I’m not judging; I’d lost so much blood and suffered enough tearing that I too could only look at that baby of mine, the Bear, in wonder and confusion. I was still too exhausted to love.


The conference I attended last month (A Philosophical Inquiry into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering) devoted an entire panel to the implications of birth plans. The whole panel was terrific; they papers by by Barry DeCoster (Worcester State College) and Sonya Charles (Cleveland State) both amply demonstrated that Smurthwaite’s observation hold all too true for American hospitals. But why is there so often a gap between the plan and the events? And why do we persist in writing plans that are really no more solid than skywriting?

The panel’s third presentation, by Allison Wolf (Simpson College), offered insights into why we persist in trying to plan the unplannable. She showed how such plans, which puport to safeguard women’s autonomy, actually dovetail tightly with the values and priorities of medicalization. Wolf stated that medicalization shields us from animality and contingency, which are two basic facts of our humanity. (The following ideas are Wolf’s, but I take responsibility for any distortions of them.)

As animals, we’re mortal. We’re embodied, and we therefore experience the world in certain ways. This includes the experience of sensations as well as our reactions when those sensations seem to spin out of control. We seek to reimpose control, and one major arena where we do so is pain, including labor. However, this impulse to exert control bumps up against brute reality, which is often unpredictable and harsh. Material reality is not as controllable as we’d like to believe. Anything that deludes us in regard to these facts – anything that tries to conceal our animality and the world’s contingency – alienates ourselves from humanity.

Medicalization tries to support this delusion, offering an illusion of control. In the case of childbirth, medicalization holds out the promise of pain relief and exhorts women (who are now patients) to exert control over their emotions. In presuming that pain, fear, and stress, are entirely bad, medicalization denies our animality, and it obscures any possible positive role for pain. It also directly distracts attention from our embodiment (when, for instance, enemas are used in labor to try to sanitize the process). Finally, medicalization alienates from the fact of our own mortality. Childbirth brings our mortality into focus. Rather than encouraging denial of this and making false promises of perfect safety, medicine should guide and comfort women, helping them cope with their fears, Wolf argued.

Within this context, the birth plan may be regarded as helping women cope, as Wolf suggested. However, she and I both worry that it may feed false expectations. The process of birth is fraught with contingency. When women fail to follow their plan, they may experience this as their first failure as mothers.

I’d like to see birth plans look more like a decision tree. (That’s what’s in the doctor’s head, after all.) Or maybe we should abolish the plan in favor of a conversation between doctor and patient in which both discuss their values and priorities. One woman may say she wants as “natural” a birth as possible. Others (me, me, me!) will want their epidural as soon as they check into the hospital. A great many will change their mind during birth, and that has to be okay, because giving birth absolutely bristles with contingency.

This may be the biggest lesson to be learned from birth plans – and their failure. Like birth, parenting is fraught with contingency. There’s plenty of animality, too (from feeding and diapering infants, to watching school-age kids play soccer in the mud). Instead of mourning or blaming oneself when the perfect birth didn’t proceed according to plan, we’d do much better to regard it as our first big lesson in parenting.

And once we accept contingency and animality – once we recognize their inevitability and their accidental blessings as well as the tribute they exact – we’ll be better prepared to cope when the next skunk crosses our path.

Daylily6Daylily currently blooming next to the downspout behind my house.

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Hilzoy is absolutely correct: Assuming that there are strong parallels between Eastern Europe in 1989 and Iran’s ferment today would be stupid and risky. Eastern Europeans welcomed our support. Iranians, by contrast, have had reason to suspect American motives ever since we brought down Mossadegh and installed the Shah’s harsh dictatorship. Throwing strong American support behind the protesters might poison their cause for many ordinary Iranians and sharpen the government’s reaction.

But there’s one interesting parallel between 1989 and 2009 when it comes to the roots of discontent: a shortage of housing, though for different reasons and with different consequences. Eastern Europeans lacked apartments because government planners failed to build enough decent units. Iranians are priced out of the market, especially in Tehran, where Time magazine reports prices have risen “as much as 150%” since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.

Shortages of decent, affordable housing tend to be particularly hard on young people trying to strike out on their own, as both examples show. This has an impact on whether and when people choose to marry. In Eastern Europe, couples tended to marry very young, often as soon as they finished their schooling, because married couples had priority over singles in being granted an apartment. I knew a number of East Germans who’d married at 18 or 20 for precisely this reason. Even so, many young couples had to camp out at their parents’ homes while waiting for their own digs.

In Iran, the housing problem is having an opposite effect on young people. Because the issue is high prices rather than an absolute shortage, people are deferring marriage to later and later ages. Time’s reporter, Azedeh Moaveni, presents this conundrum as typical:

Amir Hekmati is a determined 31-year-old civil servant from Tehran’s Narmak neighborhood. He earns the equivalent of $500 a month and has saved assiduously. He’s also managed to secure a loan from the ministry where he works and a small sum from his parents, but even with that he can’t muster enough to buy a studio apartment in an outlying district of the city. Two women he admired turned down his marriage proposals on the grounds that he did not already have his own place. “If women would just agree to be girlfriends and date, we wouldn’t be forced to pursue marriage in the first place,” he complained.

Hekmati can dream on, because even though Iranian women are outstripping men in higher education and are increasingly pursuing careers, social norms haven’t changed enough to embrace premarital sex. Which points out another issue: For at least some young Iranians, deferred marriage doesn’t mean freedom so much as involuntary celibacy.

I don’t want to overstate the similarities between 1989 and 2009. There are immense cultural differences between Iran and the former East Bloc countries. And yet, in both cases supposedly “private” desires for a home, marriage, and family fed into public protests and a desire for political change. Understanding the dynamics of revolution requires breaking down this artificial distinction between private and public.

I don’t think it’s likely that the Iranians can achieve a bloodless revolution through peaceful protests. Against the odds, I’m wholeheartedly hoping they can.

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So the other day, in an effort to understand my first-born better, I came upon a website dedicated to The Highly Sensitive Person. Both my boys go ballistic if a tag inside their shirt is tickling their neck. But the Bear, in particular, has always been high-strung in certain ways. He never slept as a baby, and he still doesn’t. He got totally freaked out at Chicken Little. While he seems very mature and cool-headed at school, he can still be volatile at home, especially when he’s tuckered out. And tuckered doesn’t even begin to describe his state after long days at Watershed Daycamp this week.

So I took the child’s test on his behalf, and yup, the Bear scored as a definite Highly Sensitive Person. The Tiger came out more borderline, which is true: he’s a good sleeper, and his approach to intensity is much more relaxed than his brother’s. I don’t suppose that this knowledge can help me moderate the Bear’s behavior, but it may help me be more patient and understanding.

If I’m able, that is. While I was at it, I took the adult version of the quiz on my own behalf. (No, not that sort of adult; it’s safe for work.) I scored 20 out of 27, well above the minimum of 14. This explains why I’m so bothered by the cacophony in the elementary school’s cafeteria and gym. It points to why I’m such a shitty multitasker. And it illuminates why when the Bear loses it, I’m apt to lose my cool, too. Heck, I could hardly watch Chicken Little, myself.

I suspect my husband might score on the high end of the scale, too. (Sweetie, are you reading? Yoo hoo?) If so, it’d explain why we do so much better as lovers than as fighters.

I’m curious about how y’all come out, so if you take the quiz, please leave your results in comments! If you end up as neurotic as me, there’s a consolation prize: taking after the “Princess and the Pea” correlates loosely with intelligence. (In my case, I fear, very loosely.)


Daylily, blooming yesterday in my forlorn perennial bed.

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I’m surprised this hasn’t made the rounds of the blogosphere, so I’ll have at it. In last month’s American Prospect, Dana Goldstein reviewed a new biography of Masters and Johnson, Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier. She buried this gem in the middle of her review. Since we at Kittywampus are less circumspect, here’s the money quote:

Masters, known as cold and businesslike, relied almost totally on the attractive, effervescent Johnson to interact with volunteers. When he divorced his wife in 1971 to marry his longtime business partner, the media portrayed the pairing as a real romance, proof that there could be no sex without love. The truth of the Masters-Johnson partnership, however, was far more sordid. By Johnson’s own account, and that of friends and colleagues, Masters hired the divorced mother of two under the implicit understanding that she would become his sexual partner — for the purposes of research, Masters claimed. “Sex for Virginia Johnson would become part of her job,” Maier writes matter-of-factly. And indeed, Johnson told Maier herself in an interview, “No — I was not comfortable with it, particularly. I didn’t want him at all, and had no interest in him.” Johnson engaged in sex with Masters, she claimed decades later, because as a single-mother, “I had a job and I wanted it.”

(My emphasis. Read the rest of Dana Goldstein’s excellent review here.)

Of course, when Masters hired Johnson in 1957, Catharine MacKinnon was still in grade school. No one had dreamed up a name for sexual harassment, though it occurred commonly, and women certainly knew it was wrong when they experienced it. And yes, sexual harassment is the right word for what Masters imposed on Johnson. She very clearly states that she had no interest in him. She was living a hardscrabble life as a single mother, and her other options appeared worse.

This is the couple whose work overturned the oppressive Freudian conceit of the vaginal orgasm as essential to mature femininity. They proved that clitoral and vaginal orgasms didn’t differ, physiologically. How ironic that this liberatory insight flowed from a partnership that began as sexual exploitation.

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I’m still obsessing about how my university prosecuted a former student of mine for underage drinking after she’d been assaulted. She spontaneously admitted having had two beers many hours before the assault, but the police officer who responded to her call didn’t see any evidence of alcohol, nor did she order a blood test. As I previously argued, the university was wrong to bring charges against her through its internal judicial process. Students who are afraid of being charged with alcohol violations won’t report sexual assault or regular assault. They might not even seek medical care. The university’s actions were shortsighted and disproportionate.

So when I recently met my student’s lawyer, I collared him and asked whether something similar could happen in the real-world court system. He said it could in theory, but it’s unlikely in practice. Police and prosecutors have a strong interest in winning cases. If they charge the victim with a misdemeanor, they might lose her cooperation and fail to convict on the felony. So there’s a strong internal logic that prevents them from going after underage victims who’ve been drinking. The university isn’t subject to the same logic; they see an opportunity to discourage underage drinking, period.

I think his argument makes sense when it comes to my college town. Of course, the police don’t always follow this logic. For instance, there are innumerable cases of sex workers being brought up on prostitution charges when they report violence. This, too, is shortsighted and disproportionate.

The lawyer also saw a hefty dose of victim-blaming in the university’s reaction. “It’s like a girl who was drinking had it coming to her,” he said. I’m confident that no university official would say that out loud. The vast majority would be horrified at the idea. They’d insist that their only motive is to curb underage drinking. And yet, when you routinely prosecute assault victims for underage drinking, you implicitly equate the drinking with the assault. In fact, up to now the possible punishments have been similar. Proposed new rules will make the penalties tougher and more consistent for students who commit sexual assault, but they don’t deal with regular assault, and they also don’t offer amnesty for the victims. That’s not good enough.

Update 6/16/09: In comments, Hydraargyrum points out that the illegality of under-21 drinking will still having a chilling effect on victims reporting, because they don’t know that they’re unlikely to be charged. He’s absolutely right, and I should have said that in the first place! My earlier post did make this point, but it needs to be repeated.

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Ode to Mulch

I just want to say how much I love mulch. I’m actually not capable of saying much more than that, because I spent most of the afternoon laying it out, and now I’m completely kaput.

This system might not work for everyone; it’s most suited for raised beds that are intensively cultivated. It works great for me. It’ll keep the wilderness at bay while I’m in Germany, and it conserves water, too.

First I put down a couple of layers of newspaper around the plants. This is a fussy job but it results in a great weed barrier. Then my husband and I snake the soaker hose around the bed, using metal garden staples to anchor it. Here are the first two steps, viewed through the chard cage:


The gaps between the newpapers are deliberate, here, because I’ve got some microsopic chard seedling that need to grow. (The basil is in the cage too because that’s just how it worked out.) Elsewhere, I overlap the newspaper sections, sometimes tearing or cutting a notch to go around a plant.

Then we cage the tomatoes. Today that was another two-person job because they’ve grown big. Finally I add a layer of straw, which conceals the newspapers and keeps them from blowing away. The straw also helps with moisture retention.

My summer squash will probably be taken down by squash vine borers before I get back from Germany, but it will die in style. You also see more basil and some pepper plants, as well as potato-leafed tomatoes in the background.


These are more peppers and my purple pole beans.


It’s a buttload of work upfront, but I won’t have to weed this bed for the rest of the season.

And here’s the payoff: blossoms, promising I can has Sungolds.


Now I’m off to watch the start of the fourth season of Weeds, which just came out on DVD.

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First off, before I get all cranky, I should say that I enjoy Melissa McEwan’s writing, and I’ve empathized with her struggle to make a living as a blogger. The money issue is a matter of public interest, not just her personal problem, because for those who do it full time and well, blogging is more than just a hobby. Blogs have become a vital source for news and opinion. As conventional newspapers circle the drain, blogging will become more important, not less.

However. The latest dust-up at Shakesville makes evident that they’ve got issues bigger than money. The blog went quiet for several days, and then the contributors, sans Melissa, wrote a long post indicting their commenters (not their concern trolls or haters) for using “triggering” language and undermining the blog as a “safe space.” You can read their manifesto here, if you haven’t already. No, I didn’t read all 745 comments, but I read a reasonable sampling, enough to be disturbed at the emerging groupthink.

Apostate has a good discussion of the issues of “triggering” and “safe spaces,” so I won’t rehash that here, except to say I basically agree with her point – that while we ought to be kind and considerate, we can’t possibly anticipate everything that might trigger another person. She’s also got a long comment thread on a previous post that amply shows how arbitrarily the charge of “triggering” has been deployed at Shakesville.

What I’d like to discuss, instead, is the problem of “self-policing” that the Shakesville shakedown has brought to the fore. I happily agree with the Shakesville contributors’ call for commenters to “Think before you speak.” That’s just plain decency – and it makes for better conversations. I’d like to see progressives and conservatives alike follow this guideline. But their next principle makes me cringe:

Police your own comments in terms of adherance to the Shakesville comment policy, the concept of Shakesville as a safe space, and behaving in accordance with what Shakesville is All About.

Sure, people should follow the comment policy. Moderators have every right to ban those who don’t. But “police” yourself? Even if you don’t mind its Orwellian ring, “policing” tends to shut down good discussions. It squelches dissent. And that’s not good for feminist or progressive politics.

Now, my stake in this is as a feminist, not as a member of the Shakesville community. I read Shakesville daily but I don’t think I’ve ever commented there, mostly because I felt like I wouldn’t have a niche. During the primaries, I got a strong vibe of Hillary-as-victim and Obama-as-sexist, and I worried I’d be piled upon for supporting Obama. I also felt put off by the custom of referring to guest posters and commenters as “Shaker So-and-So.” I’ll admit I can’t get past the image of collectible porcelain salt-and-pepper shakers (Shaker Sungold? you’d need a Shaker Brandywine to match). But in a more serious vein, the term seemed to demarcate insiders versus outsiders. And I think that’s rarely a healthy thing. It squelches dissent and nourishes groupthink.

In recent months, I’ve had the impression that Shakesville’s standards for ideological purity have escalated. Here’s one example. I thought this post by Deeky conflated seduction with rape in ways that do a disservice to actual rape victims:

Does anyone here watch Hell’s Kitchen, Fox’s garish, ugly take on Top Chef? Season Five premiered last night and we were introduced to the Tool Academics that are this year’s contestants. It’s your typical crew of self-important, deluded gourmet wanna-bes and as per usual there are at least a couple (or three, or four, or twelve) misogynists in the bunch. And right off the bat we’re introduced to a real winner. Giovanni, an executive chef from Florida, in his little get-to-know-me moment confesses he has quite the way with the ladies:

“When I first started cooking, it was an easy way to get a girl to my house. Instead of taking ‘em out to dinner, I could get ‘em home—food is an aphrodisiac, then you pour a little wine onto that, and then you go on to the next [pause; smarmy grin] level.”And there it is, about five minutes into the episode, and we’ve a man practically admitting he rapes women, and it is presented unquestioningly, unblinkingly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It should be shocking and surprising to me, to everyone really, but it isn’t. Rape culture: you’re cooking in it.

(That’s the entire post; I didn’t want to take anything out of context, but I did add the emphasis.)

No! We don’t have “a man practically admitting he rapes women.” He’s talking about a certain approach to seduction that’s loaded with troubling baggage. He seems to be operating within a paradigm where the man seeks sex and the woman presumptively resists it. This conquest narrative is messed up, and it’s certainly woven into the fabric of rape culture. However, cooking a woman a nice meal and even serving her “a little wine” in hopes of getting lucky is a world apart from ‘fessing up to actual rape. No one is gets sent to jail for wining, dining, and lusting in his heart, as long as what follows is consensual. And that’s as it should be.

Furthermore, conflating seduction with rape disrespects the experiences of those who’ve actually survived sexual assault. An attempt at seduction may be creepy and unpleasant, if it’s unwanted and persistent. However, it’s not liable to inflict lasting trauma.

Hyperbole also isn’t going to help us win over those who aren’t already singing in the choir. It just provides cheap fodder for anti-feminists.

But no way was I going to wade into the comments on that post. (I’d recently had a dust-up here on my own blog when I challenged the conflation of rape with seduction and/or rape culture, and was subsequently accused of rape apologism.) Only a couple of men in that thread – neither of them regulars at Shakesville – challenged the conflation of date rape with mere wining and dining. At least one of them had MRA-ish credentials (he writes for Feminist Critics). They were skeptical of the basic notion of “rape culture,” and they were immediately dismissed as concern trolls. Maybe they were. But no one responded to an incontrovertible point that they made: the cheesy chef has not admitted to rape. He hasn’t even said he gets women drunk in order to take advantage of them. He mentions “a little wine,” which is a far cry from, say, doing shots of tequila.

One of the male skeptics, Rodeobob, wrote:

OK, I’m asking in all seriousness: how is this ‘rape culture’?

I see that he’s a tool. I see the sexism, I see the misogyny. But rape?

“we’ve a man practically admitting he rapes women,”Really?

He admits that he likes to use cooking as a way of attracting women.
He admits that he uses the “cooking dinner” date over taking a woman out.
He admits to serving “a little wine” with the meals he cooks as part of romance/seduction.

Where’s the violation of consent? Where is he “practically admitting” to rape?

Don’t misunderstand me. I see that it’s a cheap, sleazy behavior, part of a sexist worldview that’s harmful to both men & women, but I don’t see the connection to rape.

Is it the “get a girl into my house” line that makes it ‘rape-culture’? Because most folks who are dating will, at some point or another, desire a private location like someone’s house.

Is it the “food is an aphrodisiac” line? A well cooked meal is sensual, and I don’t see how that can be seen as a violation of consent, or an objectification of a person, or as part of a denial of autonomy to a person.

Is it the “…pour a little wine into that”? Sure, getting someone to an intoxicated state so as to exploit impaired judgment can qualify as rape, but that’s generally farther out along the drinking continuum than serving wine with a meal. Is “rape culture” to include any use of alcohol in a social setting where sex might be an outcome?

“…and then you go on to the next [pause; smarmy grin] level.” OK, this is a sexist statement, devaluing both women and sexual intimacy by reducing it to a conquest, and this guy is obviously a tool for attempting to boast at his romantic prowess, but I ask again, how is this rape?

Steven Tyler saying he’s never been rejected because he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, that I can see as “rape culture”.
Using violence against women as fashion statement, or really in any context that glamorizes it? Absolutely I can see the connection to “rape culture”.
Tool bragging about using his ‘Hey I’m a chef, let me cook you a gourmet meal’ routine as a way to seduce women? I don’t see the connection. There’s no violation of consent, no violence, no dehumanizing of women or disrespecting their autonomy.

Explain the connection to ‘rape culture’ for me. The sexism, misogyny, and general chauvinism are clear, but I’m not seeing the jump from that to rape or rape culture. Or maybe I just don’t understand what’s meant by “rape culture”; I assumed it referred to social attitudes that denied women their autonomy, rejected the idea of their sexual freedom (including the right to consent), and generally dehumanized them.

I’m trying to learn. What am I missing? What am I not understanding here? What do I have wrong?

Here’s how Deeky responded (neither his nor Rodeobob’s comment is abridged):

getting women drunk so they can no longer give consent is rape.

I don’t know if Rodeobob’s questions were disingenuous, but even if they were, the question of “how is this rape” remains a fair one. It’s one I asked, too, when I read this, and I’m a committed feminist who’s wholly convinced that we live in a rape culture. Of course Deeky’s response is true in general, but it doesn’t respond to Rodeobob’s specific and legitimate questions. Nor does it have any relation to what the chef actually said on the teevee. Even if Deeky preferred to ignore the larger question of “how is this rape,” he might have at least responded that rape ≠ rape culture, and that the idea of sex as conquest feeds a rape culture. Instead, he implicitly distorted the chef’s remarks by suggesting that he intended to get women drunk. That wouldn’t be my reading of “food is an aphrodisiac, then you pour a little wine onto that.”

I’m in no way endorsing everything the male skeptics wrote on that thread. But I also wouldn’t want to endorse the way the commenters (including Melissa and Deeky) refused to engage thoughtfully with them. I sympathize with how frustrating it can be to field 101-type questions, though I don’t see that thread as an instance of this; potentially useful questions were raised about how, exactly, we define a rape culture, and how we can understand the relationship between the conquest narrative and sexual assault. I also totally get that it’s way more fun to end with variations on the word “douche.” That is precisely what happened: commenters let off some steam by trying to trump each other (douchebucket, douchevat, douchetower). However good this might feel to the posters, it just doesn’t change any minds – and hey, even if you write off the vocal skeptics off as MRAs, concern trolls, or douchebuckets, let’s not disregard the much larger audience of lurkers who might be persuadable.

Also, it really doesn’t look good for feminism when the ensuing post at Feminist Critics comes off as more reflective and reasonable. (That’s not my usual sentiment; some thoughtful people post at Feminist Critics, but plenty of MRAs feel at home there, too.) In a nutshell, that’s why I – as an apparent non-stakeholder in the past and future of Shakesville – care very much how it evolves. It still represents feminism very publicly on the web. If it fosters groupthink and brooks no dissent, it makes all feminists look closed-minded.

So I hope for the sake of the people in that community, including Melissa and all the regular contributors, that the blog stops being such an evident source of personal stress and pain, whether that means new rules or a hiatus or whatever.

I hope for the rest of us, the casual readers and passers-by, that Shakesville’s future includes a greater tolerance for dissent – and not just an imperative to police oneself.

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Heavy Petting in Public

Strangers keep passing my house and petting my lavender. It’s about three feet tall and apparently irresistible.


The pansies are still looking pretty perky, despite a hot spell and ferocious thunderstorms. The tall round globes are the dried remnants of globe allium.


It’s just starting to bloom, much to the bumble bees’ delight. I wish there were a “blog this” feature on the scent.

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This sort of crap should never, ever happen anymore. And yet, a Columbus judge is still on the bench after behaving cruelly toward victims of sexual assault:

Rape cases are often settled without a trial so that the victim can avoid testifying and reliving the ordeal.

But Common Pleas Judge Tim Horton recently ordered two victims to appear in court, in front of their attackers, because he said he wanted to make sure that everyone understood the plea deals that had been worked out by attorneys.

One of the victims, a 13-year-old boy, eventually was allowed to give a written statement through his mother.

But in the other case, a young woman began to break down on the witness stand, and Horton, who has been a judge for three years, scolded her.

“About two minutes here, if you don’t gather yourself, I’m about to rip up this guilty plea, and this man in front of you is about to walk. So I would do your very best to gather yourself,” Horton said, according to court transcripts.

A victims’ advocate is outraged.

And Horton now acknowledges that he wasn’t at his best during those moments.

“I don’t intend to make this a trend,” he said. “I’m still evolving as a judge. (The woman’s case) was a plea I learned a lot from. It was not my finest plea.”

The 19-year-old woman was raped on a pool table with a knife to her throat at a party in Grove City in 2007. She said she thought the arrest of her assailant and a negotiated plea deal would end her trauma.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)

Look, Judge Horton, you don’t get to “evolve” at the victim’s expense.

Since the 1970s, judges have had every opportunity to know that their job is not to put the victim on trial! Horton’s picture in the Dispatch article looks as though he might well have been born in the 1970s. He’s been a judge since 2006, so he’s neither a newbie nor a judicial dinosaurs. He represents a fresh, new generation of judges – and he seems to have a heart like a cherry pit.

Horton evidently wanted to push for a higher penalty and wondered if the victim knew that a longer sentence could be imposed. You can’t fault him for that. But why not talk to the victim and prosecutors privately, in his chambers? Why force her to testify in public?

And most of all: How could he threaten to tear up the deal and let a rapist walk away free, simply because the victim broke down on the stand? Not even the pursuit of justice can ever justify the threat of injustice.

Empathy. It’s not just for wise Latina judges anymore.

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So swine flu has now officially been declared a pandemic. I’m guessing that most Americans will shrug at the news, having decided the threat was way overblown. Myself, I’m scheduled to start worrying about it again in the fall, when the flu season picks up again. Until then, the big questions are:

  • Will the virus mutate to become more virulent? Or will it lose some of its punch?
  • What will happen in the Southern Hemisphere over the summer? Will people in poor countries prove especially vulnerable, or will they be largely spared?
  • And will the international public health community rush sufficient amounts of vaccine into production? This is still important even if the illness remains “mild.” Its novelty will create a strain on health systems, simply because many more people will fall ill than in a normal flu season. The “pandemic” label lets WHO accelerate the vaccine process, but I’m skeptical that supply will meet demand.

In the meantime, we are so lucky, because the State Department apparently knows where the threat is: elsewhere!!

I just got my new passport. It came with a little brochure that informed me about the RFID tracking chip in the passport (eek!), warned me against abducting my children overseas, and enlightened me on “Pandemic Flu”:

For information about pandemic influenza and how you can protect yourself if there is an outbreak while you are abroad, please visit the official U.S. Government pandemic influenza website at http://www.pandemicflu.gov.

Um, sorry to break the news to the State Department, but ground zero for the pandemic is right here in North America. The virus may well have originated in the U.S. before spreading to Mexico. Sure, plane travel spreads it, but there’s no reason to think I’ll be at more risk when I travel to Germany in a couple weeks than when I flew out to Seattle and Eugene last month.

I guess xenophobia is at pandemic levels, too.

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