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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