Archive for August, 2009

I’m not sure “nepotee” is a word, but if it’s not, I claim credit for coining it. The alternative was “beneficiaries of nepotistic largesse,” which was gonna overrun the bounds of my title box.

So anyway, this morning I was reading Glenn Greenwald’s latest column, “It’s Time to Embrace American Royalty,” occasioned by NBC hiring Dubya’s daughter Jenna as a news reporter, and his links led me back to an older post, where Greenwald counted 15 Senators who had benefited from nepotistic succession.

Note that we’ve now got 17 female Senators, an all-time high. But when you consider that women make up over 50 percent of the population, it would make sense to pick one’s husband wisely if one hoped to become a Lady Senator. Merit, schmerit. (Oh, and gentlemen? You might want to choose the right daddy, thought that’s a bit trickier, I know.)


If I sound extra cynical today, it’s because I’m pissed off and discouraged. I spent half the morning dealing with an irksome legal problem with a superdouche contractor who failed to finish a job, then put a lien on our house; we should prevail because he never served us, being a rather unbright douchebag, but it’s still a nuisance, and it’s going to cost us some money in legal fees. Then, by late afternoon my children, tired from the transition back to school, were beastly to me while I tried to cook dinner even though the menu totally pandered to them! In between I made some pdf documents for my fall classes. To alleviate the drudgery, I switched the TV on. MSNBC: Michael Jackson’s death. CNN: The ordeal of Jaycee Lee Dugard. Fox: Ditto, plus Cheney defending torture. It’s depressing when only Fox is providing some semblance of political news.

Honestly, I was so down, I had nothing to say. I would’ve taken the day off blogging except for a cheering conversation with my friend (and occasional commenter, Hydraargyrum) about the use of vast vats of pork lard in making pancakes. (No, either of us actually does this.) If you think I’m bleak now, you should’ve seen me two hours ago, before the big pork lard LOL.

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Glenn Beck is trying hard to turn himself into a LOLwingnut. (The funny part ends at 1:00.)

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

I have to admit that this is the longest snippet I’ve ever watched of the Glenn Beck show. I’m amazed at how inarticulate the guy is. If he weren’t inspiring crackpots to carry guns to political rallies, he’d be hard to take more seriously than the Church of the Subgenius (see also the Uncyclopedia entry).

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I’m sitting on my front porch, surrounded by nature’s goodness: blue sky with wisps of clouds, birdsong and the whirr of cicadas, mid-70s temperatures, leaves rustling in a soft breeze. It’s almost impossible to imagine the violence of Katrina that was visited upon the Gulf Coast four years ago today.

A friend and neighbor of mine, David Rae Morris, lived in New Orleans at the time. Since then, he has devoted much of his work as a photojournalist to documenting Katrina and its aftermath.

All of his photos are powerful, but these scenes from the Lower Ninth Ward remind me of not just the devastation but also the role of official indifference in amplifying the suffering. Katrina more than a natural catastrophe, it was a colossal human failure as well. David’s photos serve as remembrance of a disaster whose human costs remain huge. They also sound a warning, lest we ever again allow such incompetence and callousness.

(I’m just linking to his work instead of posting an image or here, because a single photo doesn’t do it justice and I don’t want to take the images out of the context he gives them.)

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I’m grateful that officials at my kids’ elementary school have far more sense than this:

Boys and girls at Sedalia Elementary returned to school Monday with some unexpected changes: They had to play in separate areas during recess and eat at different tables during lunch.

The decision to divide the two groups did not stem from an incident. Rather, the staff at the Groveport Madison school wanted to take proactive steps to prevent bullying and halt disruptive behavior from creeping into the classroom, officials said.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)

The school, located just southeast of Columbus, Ohio, had to drop its policy due to parental uproar.

So the issue is moot on the practical level, but I still can’t fathom the reasoning behind the policy. Since when is bullying primarily a cross-gender problem in elementary school? Any parent – and anyone who’s been bullied as a kid – knows that it’s mostly a matter of boys picking on boys, while girls make other girls miserable.

The daughter of one of my friends was upset for much of third grade last year because a group of three other girls who she thought were her friends played mind games with her. The Bear had trouble with another boy making cutting remarks about him at the end of third grade. There’s been some broader trouble with bullying among the boys in that class, too, but again it’s been boy-on-boy. One of the boys in the Tiger’s kindergarten class already earned the reputation of a bully, and though he mistreated girls, too, his main targets were other boys. (To our relief, the Bear’s tormenter changed to a different district over the summer, and the Tiger’s classmate is now in a different classroom.)

I’m not arguing that boys never pick on girls or vice versa, just that most bullying takes place within a single gender. And so I’m stumped when I try to imagine what Sedalia was trying to accomplish with gender segregation.

How much do you want to bet, though, that the boys were assigned to the sports fields and the girls to the playground equipment?

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Katie Roiphe isn’t wrong when she says feminist thought is underdeveloped when it comes to the pleasures of mothering an infant. I personally would extend this critique to the pleasures of parenting an infant, and the pleasures of parenting children at different ages, too. Of course it’s not just feminist writing that has failed to do justice to the pleasures of parenting; it’s hard to write about it from any perspective without resorting to clichés and cloying sentimentality.

But the phrases in Roiphe’s piece at Double X that have raised feminists’ hackles really do deserve a barrage of rotten tomatoes for being ahistorical. (Sadly, I’ve got too many rotten tomatoes of my own in the garden, but I throw like the stereotypical girl; no way can I lob them all the way to New York.)

Roiphe’s first problem is her subtitle – “Why won’t feminists admit the pleasure of infants?” – which I’m not sure she chose. It’s likely an editor’s headline, and so we can’t hold her fully culpable. But Roiphe herself writes:

One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment.

Hanna Rosin defends her at the Daily Dish on the grounds that she doesn’t demonize feminists:

Katie did not say that feminists hate their babies, or that baby-less women are useless, or anything else she’s being accused of saying.

But this surely misses the point. Roiphe seems to be indulging in something less sensational but no less pernicious: willful ignorance of recent feminist history. And I really mean: willful! Roiphe is the daughter of noted second-wave feminist Anne Roiphe, who wrote her own memoir of mothering, which most certainly wallows in its irrational elements.

Maybe ignorance is the wrong term, though. While Kate Harding sees Edith Wharton as Katie Roiphe’s foil, it’s easier to imagine that Roiphe’s imaginary interlocutor is her own mother. Read throgh this lens, Katie’s piece, which beautifully captures the blurriness of early motherhood, is yet another salvo in breaking free of her famous mother’s shadow; never mind that by now, Katie is probably better-known of the two. Perhaps Katie is trying to cast her own anchor in the wild sea of contradictions her mother bequeathed her. If so, I couldn’t blame her; the waters are mighty choppy.

Here’s how Anne Roiphe describes her transmutation through motherhood in Fruitful: Living the Contradictions: A Memoir of Modern Motherhood:

When I became a mother to my first child I stopped believing in art as the only good in the world. I thoguht my baby was good. I thought my responsibility to my baby was good. In the early hours of the morning as I held the baby and watched out the window for the return of his taxi, I knew what mattered. I didn’t believe that motherhood would lead me to freedom or wisdom, but I knew that the urgency of my life was my child. This was the beginning of my feminism and I don’t care that that was an odd way to find it, a weird way to express it. ( Fruitful, 11)

Compare this to Katie’s take on the transition to early motherhood:

There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done?

But at this juncture, mother and daughter chart a different course. Here’s Anne’s take on how her self-as-mother and self-as-person hardened into matter and anti-matter, even in the midst of billowing love – oh, because of billowing love!

Ah, ah, I said when I saw the baby eighteen hours later, and those early moments as I counted the fingers and the toes, and looked at the lashes and felt the soft indentation on the scalp, touched the black wisps of hair, were my first and possibly last moments of wordless joy, of lifting up like the Eatern religions a promise of transcendence and peace. Temporarily I was blissed. So blissed I hardly noticed that I had lost my place on Juck’s raft, would soon lose my indifferent husband, my time for myself, my ambition, my freedom to go wherever the mood took me and stay as long as I liked. I was no longer the subject of my own days. Now I was the soil, damp, dank, wormy, from which someone else might grow. If I did badly I would never forgive myself. Judgment hung in the closet where the dark creatures of my childhood had once lurked. I had given up my boundary, the wall of self, and in return had received obligation and love, a love mingled with its opposite, a love that grabbed me by the throat and has still not let me go. (Fruitful, 4)

Anne published this in 1996, when Katie was all grown up and capable of grasping her own mother’s ambivalence about motherhood. (Katie surely absorbed it in her childhood, too.) By contrast, Katie the mother revels in her loss of self and the dissolution of personal boundaries. While only Katie knows her own heart, it’s hard not to think that she’s reacting against Anne’s ambivalence:

But then part of the allure of maternity leave is precisely this: You give up everything you are and care about. The books on your shelves are not your books; the clothes hanging in the closet are not your clothes. You are the vague, slow, exhausted animal nursing its young. Anything graceful, original, sharp, intelligent about you is gone. And it is that sacrifice of self, that total denial of the outside world, that uncompromising violence done to your everyday life, that is this period’s appeal. You are transported in a way you will never be transported again; this is the vacation to end all vacations.

Of course, in my drugged baby haze I do occasionally recognize that the baby will not always be six weeks old, that I will one day sleep more than two hours at a stretch. I also recognize that if you had a newborn every day of your life you would die. But for now, I feel like closing the shades and staying in the opium den. I know somewhere out there is a great world where people talk and think and write, but I am not interested in going there yet.

One serious difference? Katie has a map and a few talismans to help lead her out of her opium cave. Anne did not. Katie saw her mother reclaim a self who writes and thinks and moves through the world. Anne had no such role model:

My own mother read mystery stories, romance novels, and smoked three packs of Camels a day. She had no work in life other than the beauty parlor, the shopping lists, the decorating of the house. She played a high-stakes game of canasta, two, three afternoons a week. She blew smoke rings across the card table. She lay for hours soaking in the bathtub, a glass of scotch balanced on the rim. She had servants for the real work of the home. She cried herself to sleep most nights. She yearned and did not know what she yearned for. She wanted me to be different and the same. (Fruitful, 5)

Is it any wonder that Anne and Katie see early motherhood differently? Katie’s palette of possibilities, including that teaching job at NYU to which she can return, are the fruits of her mother’s generation. Those options are the legacy of Anne and other second-wave feminists not having set up house in the opium den, no matter how seductively it was furnished in Harvest Gold.

But these understandable generational differences still don’t excuse Katie Roiphe’s deliberate effacement of second-wave history. As Anne’s daughter, Katie surely grew up aware of Adrienne Rich. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, Rich distinguishes between the social pressures and norms that often do make motherhood oppressive, and the deep-seated, often embodied joys of mothering one’s beloved children. Just as her subtitle promises, she tries to separate the patriarchal institution of motherhood from the lived experience of mothering. While we might fault Rich for being essentialist – after all, many of those pleasures and joys are available to fathers, too, if they chase them – we can’t claim she focused merely on the ways society oppresses women through motherhood. She also celebrated the joys.

When I first started studying motherhood, the historical and theoretical literature was a lot thinner. In the past ten years, there’s been an avalanche of new books analyzing the problems with the institution of motherhood. There have also been efforts – fewer in number, but still important – to recast the lived experience of mothering in feminist terms. They range from Sara Ruddick’s work on maternal practice to Daphne de Marneffe’s Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life.

The point of criticizing the institution of motherhood wasn’t merely to help new mothers grope their way out of the opium den when they felt a need or desire for the ordinary light of day. It was to free the experience of mothering from its alienating elements. Katie Roiphe has benefited from this. So have I. That doesn’t mean lived experience has broken free of the institution, only that before we start making broad generalization about the feminists who came before us, we’d better examine the history. We’d also be wise to take stock of our own generational and familial baggage and privileges.

Oh, and the world “vacation” to describe early mothering? That works for me if you consider a visit to a Baghdad “adventure tourism.” Early mothering can be hallucinatory, all right, thanks to extreme sleep deprivation. But I, for one, like to catch up on sleep on vacation, and I’m grateful that my now school-age children kindly allow me to do it.

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If you’re a nursing mother in Ohio and your employer doesn’t allow you time to pump, you might as well quit before you’re fired. Here’s how the Columbus Dispatch reports a decision by the state’s highest court that, at least on its face, would appear to make breastfeeding incompatible with full-time employment if you’ve got an unsympathetic boss:

A Cincinnati-area company didn’t discriminate against a new mother when it fired her for taking unauthorized breaks to pump milk from her breasts, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this morning.

Totes/Isotoner, an outerwear manufacturer in West Chester, did not violate Ohio’s pregnancy-discrimination law by firing general laborer LaNisa Allen for taking lactation breaks four hours into her shift.

Allen argued that her breasts ached five hours into her shift, when she was allowed a lunch break.

The court, however, said Totes/Isotoner was within its rights to fire Allen for “failure to follow directions.”

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented, and Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger said the Supreme Court should not have taken the case.

In an unsigned opinion, the court said Allen’s status as a lactating mother isn’t relevant to the dispute.

“In this case, the evidence in the record demonstrates that Allen took unauthorized breaks from her workstation, and Isotoner discharged her for doing so,” the court wrote.

“Thus, the record as it was developed in the trial court fails to provide a basis from which a jury could conclude that Isotoner’s articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Allen’s termination — failure to follow directions – was a pretext for discrimination based on Allen’s pregnancy or a condition related to her pregnancy.”

(I quoted the whole Dispatch article so as not to distort the sparse information on the case.)

With the usual caveat that I’m no lawyer, the outcome of this case appalls me. How is “failure to follow directions” even an issue when one’s body is threatening to leak all over one’s workspace? Imagine if the employee in question had an attack of diarrhea. Or if she’d had to throw up. I’m not equating breastmilk with poop or puke (sorry for those icky images) but beyond a certain point, one has equally little control over it. Would Allen have been fired if she’d urgently needed to go to the bathroom? Would her supervisor have denied her that “privilege”?

Of course, “failure to follow directions” is only an issue because – as far as I can see from this brief news report – the employer did not make any allowance for breastfeeding. No nursing mother should have to go five hours between pumping. I remember often being in significant pain after just three.

Waiting too long to pump ups the risk for mastitis, which is a seriously painful infection. Over the long run, it will likely diminish her milk supply. And as any woman who’s leaked milk can attest, having a big wet bulls’ eye in the middle of each breast is always a little embarrassing, even though it really shouldn’t be. (I still recall what I was wearing when I had an epic leak while shopping one day in Berlin – a skinny long-sleeved purple T-shirt – and I didn’t even see anyone I knew except for my husband and baby.)

Weird judicial decisions like this one, which may have a legal basis but no connection to reality, show that a “gender-blind” application of the law will sometimes result in enormously sexist rulings. Maybe someday, humans will reproduce asexually, like starfish. Until then, the plaintiff’s status as a lactating mother is irrelevant only if the law willfully ignores mothers’ needs and embodied experiences.

Obviously, we can’t rely on existing law to recognize breastfeeding as a predictable consequence of pregnancy. Hey, even childbirth isn’t inevitable – you can always abort! Somehow, I don’t think that line of reasoning would fly in the Ohio legislature. But the plaintiff’s lawyers should never have had to argue that lactation is part of pregnancy; even though the postpartum period can reasonably seen as a fourth trimester, it’s predictable that not all judges will folllow that logic.

It’s time for Ohio to pass a law that would specifically protect the rights of nursing mothers who are trying to balance paid work and infant care. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, the only part of Ohio’s Revised Code that mentions breastfeeding protects the right of women to feed their babies in public. It says nothing about the workplace. But guess what? Guaranteed pumping/nursing breaks wouldn’t even necessarily impair productivity. Most new mothers can work better when they’re not distracted by boobs that ache and threaten to give new meaning to the slogan “got milk.”

Update 8/28/09, 10:30 a.m.: Here’s some good news and some bad news on this issue. First the bad: As Gina points out in comments, in Ohio you could in fact be fired for going to the bathroom while at work. Ohio law does not guarantee that workers can take any sorts of breaks, unless they’re under 18 years of age.

The good news is that a proposed federal law, the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, would expand the definition of sex discrimination to include lactation and mandate breaks for lactating employees with a child under the age of one. It would also require employers to make “reasonable efforts” to supply a private place to pump other than the bathroom. Here’s where you can read more about the BPA and express your support to your congresscritters.

See the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog for commentary on the legal reasoning behind the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling.

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Why is it that the only two presidents to undergo public speculation about the shape of their genitalia have both been Democrats? Sure, there was a short flurry of attention to the bulge in Dubya’s flight suit after his “mission accomplished” landing, but as far as I could tell, the question was mainly: codpiece, yes or no?

Bill Clinton’s penis was never actually deposed by Ken Starr, but I suspect that’s only because Starr couldn’t figure out how declare it a legal person. I’m sure the Clinton-haters would say he brought the attention on himself because he couldn’t keep it zipped. They’re right, insofar as we would have all been spared some unsavory mental images if Clinton had kept his distance from Paula Jones.

But Barack Obama has led a virtuous life, by all accounts. He seems to be a faithful husband to Michelle. And now the Freepers and birthers are talking about the presidential penis as if it were 1994 all over again. It’s partly that the birthers are desperate for some real evidence. Mostly, though, he’s a black man (never mind his biracial heritage) and the hardcore racists among us have x-ray vision. They know that beneath that urbane, erudite surface lurks a hypersexual jungle man – a foreigner with an uncivilized, uncircumcised penis.

All day I’ve been thinking about the partisan angle on this and believing – without evidence – that this must reflect some serious insecurities among parts of the Republican base. And now I see that Dana Goldstein has turned up corroboration for my theory:

Sadly, I’m going to have to interrupt our Very Serious coverage of torture and Ted Kennedy‘s death to point out that Rush Limbaugh, referencing the CDC’s consideration of circumcision as an HIV prevention method, has said:

“If we need to save our penises from anybody it’s from Obama.”

(She said it at TAPPED. Via Feministing.)

Sadly, too, the similarities to Clinton’s first term are coming into focus. He too saw health care reform thwarted by lies, rumors, and powerful lobbyists. By the time Paula Jones came forward in 1994, his presidency had hit the skids and government was gridlocked, thanks to Newt Gingrich and his cronies.

I just hope that playing politics with the presidential penis will fail, this time around. The Freepers are just ludicrous, and it’s hard to take them seriously. Then again, two months ago it was equally ludicrous to imagine that health care reform would be derailed by screaming protesters toting guns at town hall meetings.

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Last fall, the topic of girls kissing girls for boys’ jollies came up in one of my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies sections. I’m still perplexed at how we landed there on the very first day of class, but hey, there we were. So I asked the group, which was about 90% freshmen, how many of them had seen girls kiss girls at parties just to titillate the guys.

Each and every one of my 40 students raised their hands. For me, it was one of those moments where the students school the teacher. Srsly.

I think I had the presence of mind to ask how many had seen two guys kiss for the same reason. (Zero hands? It’s a blur, I was a bit shellshocked.) In the moment I really could have used this video:

via Sociological Images, posted with vodpod

I was struck most by the scene from Grey’s Anatomy, where the odious and (in my view) perfectly unsexy Dr. McSteamy personifies the male gaze. Very soon thereafter, Callie traded in her oh-so-slightly-butch lover, Dr. Erica Hahn, for a frilly, chirpy gal in pediatrics.

I’d like to rewrite all these scenes with Homer Simpson as the spectator. Then we might be able to talk seriously about the level of dipshittery required for women to use other women to snag a man, who is in turn manipulated by a total cliche. It’s a whole universe of userdom for both genders, where women’s real desires are subordinated to the purely transactional, and the man is believed to be about as bright as … well, Homer Simpson.

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Alternet has an extremely long piece exploring the mysteries of the female body. “Why do Women Orgasm?” by David Barash (mega-alpha-dog in evolutionary psychology) and Judith Eve Lipton asks a bunch of questions that are actually interesting, such as why evolution favored menstruation, menopause, and female sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, they don’t provide any answers that struck me as particularly new. Some of the sillier ideas come from Desmond Morris’ oeuvre, such as his theory that breasts served as ersatz buttocks, sending a sexual signal to newly bipedal males, and ultimately facilitating missionary-style intercourse and emotional attachment. The more interesting theories, such the grandmother hypothesis, are familiar to anyone who’s read Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. (Angier also lustily debunks the breasts=buttock theory.)

So I scanned five pages of nothing new under the sun – only to arrive at this non sequitur of a conclusion:

We note that there are also “male mysteries.” But for some reason they aren’t as sexy or as prominent as their womanly counterparts. Some of these perplexities include: Why are men so much hairier than women? And, paradoxically, why are they also more prone to go bald? If penile size doesn’t matter, why is it so widely considered — at least by men — to be important? Why do men have shorter lifespans than women? And why are they so notoriously reluctant to ask directions? In view of the fact that in most species males are the fancy, colorful sex, why are male Homo sapiens so drably ornamented compared to women? And — most profound of all — why do men’s underpants have that little trapdoor when no one uses it?

(Read the whole thing here, if you’re looking to kill some time. My emphasis.)

Okay, so they’re trying to be cute, joking about trapdoors and using that trusty old cliche about men refusing to ask directions. But geez, can we retire the idea that only Woman is mysterious? Can’t we move beyond Freud’s famous – and pathetic – question, “what does woman want?” The “eternal feminine” died circa 1969 at the hands of early women’s liberationists. Women are uniquely “mysterious” only because they’re seen as objects, not subjects, and because they’ve been defined as bearers of The Sexay.

If the “male mysteries” aren’t “as sexy or as prominent” as women’s, then I guess Barash and Lipton are saying that the penis is neither sexy nor prominent. Sorry guys, I dunno what your experience has been, but I beg to differ. When you compare the human penis with other primates’, it’s pretty darn prominent by comparison, and that’s true whether it’s soft or erect. “Penile size” may not be as crucial as many men believe, but it’s still fascinating to many women. (Susan Bordo does a great job of exploring that fascination in The Male Body; she’s a philosopher but her analysis is anything but, um, dry.)

And not sexy? Harrrrumph! That’s only the case if you believe that women aren’t interested in looking. This is bunk. According to Ms. Naughty (not the most academic source, but reliable on this score), it was Alfred Kinsey who found women to be unresponsive to visual stimuli. More recent research has laid this stereotype to rest:

Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California found that women became fully aroused within two minutes of watching a sexually explicit film – faster than the average man. Twenty female volunteers aged between 20 and 30 were each shown a 22 minute erotic clip featuring two different hetero couples having sex, while their breathing and genitals were monitored. It didn’t matter whether the clips had sound or not, the women still became aroused. The results were published in 2003 in the journal “Fertility and Sterility.”

(This comes from Ms. Naughty’s “History of Porn for Women.”)

Mary Roach reports similar findings in her book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Of course, physiological arousal – throbbing loins and heaving breasts – isn’t the same as being turned on in one’s mind, and most porn fails many women (me too) on that score. But that doesn’t invalidate the larger point.

There’s nothing wrong with mystery. There’s nothing wrong with sex being a little mysterious. There’s nothing wrong with scientists trying to solve some of those mysteries. What’s not so great? Confining the mystery to only one sex.

Mystery is linked to being desired – not to being a subject who lusts and yearns. As long as only women can be mysterious, it reinforces the most hackneyed stereotypes of heterosexuality, where men do the looking and desiring, while women, as mere objects of desire, are expected only to react to men’s advance – and then only on the third Saturday of the month while hoping for expensive jewelry and/or a baby in return.

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Today’s most-emailed story at the New York Times tells the story of a medical student, Kristen Murphy, who voluntarily spent two weeks as a wheelchair-using “patient” in a nursing home in preparation for specializing in geriatrics. It’s an otherwise engrossing read, but I had to read the following passage a half dozen times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating:

No one said a word the first time Ms. Murphy showed up at the daily bingo game. She started to talk to anyone who would listen. And she was surprised what happened.

First she bonded with Camille Stanley, the “queen bee” of the social scene. Then she found Dr. Thomas N. Silverberg, 89, a former internist and arthritis specialist with advanced rheumatoid arthritis. “My specialty is slowly killing me,” Dr. Silverberg said.

The two talked for hours about life and medicine. Unlike the friendships she makes as an adult, slowly nurtured over dinners and drinks, bonds in a nursing home, where there is nothing to do but talk, are forged quickly and deeply.

(The whole thing is here. My emphasis.)

Whoa! How, exactly, does the clock run backward? Is it becoming an octogenarian that cancels out being an adult? Or does entering a nursing home do the trick? I’d like to know, since my parents are well into their seventies, and I don’t think they’re quite ready to stop being “grow-mutts,” as my younger son says, just yet.

Or maybe these nursing-home residents have discovered the fountain of youth?

All snark aside, it’s plenty unfortunate that the author, Katie Zezima, used that phrasing. It’s inexcusable that her editors didn’t catch it.

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The New York Times reports that officials at the Centers for Disease Control are likely to recommend that infant boys be routinely circumcised, in an effort to lower HIV rates.

Public health officials are considering promoting routine circumcision for all baby boys born in the United States to reduce the spread of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

The topic is a delicate one that has already generated controversy, even though a formal draft of the proposed recommendations, due out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the end of the year, has yet to be released.

Experts are also considering whether the surgery should be offered to adult heterosexual men whose sexual practices put them at high risk of infection. But they acknowledge that a circumcision drive in the United States would be unlikely to have a drastic impact: the procedure does not seem to protect those at greatest risk here, men who have sex with men.

(Read the rest here.)

This strikes me as wrong on so many counts. The CDC admits that universal circumcision will offer only a marginal benefit. That minor benefit in preventing heterosexual transmission would be seen only 15 to 20 years from now (unless we assume today’s baby boys will be exceptionally precocious, sexually). If adult men were to seek circumcision in large numbers, there might be a short-term impact on transmission. But if the CDC thinks adult men will clamor to be cut, I’ve got a bridge they might like to buy, too.

The CDC is relying on an African study that showed a sharp drop in heterosexual transmission of HIV in men who were circumcised as adults. However, no study has shown a similar benefit in highly deveoped countries.

Circumcision offers at best false security. It won’t allow anyone to throw away the condoms. Bioethicist Alice Dreger explains:

To state the obvious, circumcision doesn’t prevent HIV infection. A circumcised penis may be less effective at transmitting HIV, but it can still manage it. Anyone who thinks they are protecting their son from HIV by preemptive circumcision probably should also consider castration, since that significantly lowers the libido, and heaven knows libido is a serious risk factor for sexually transmitted diseases. Or you might just consider good sex education.

(Dreger’s whole piece, “Proof That I Like Penises,” is a great read.)

Of course, too many Americans seem to still think comprehensive sex ed is morally and physically dangerous. Far better to expose babies to the risks of circumcision! (The risks are relatively rare, but they include possible wounds to the penis. Also, the official tally of “risk” doesn’t take into account possible loss of pleasure and sensation.)

By the same logic, the CDC might also recommend hysterectomy to all women who’ve finished childbearing and prophyactic mastectomy to all women who don’t plan to breastfeed in the future. You’d prevent thousands upon thousands of cancers.

The real issue here, though, is informed consent. Babies can’t consent. When I gave birth to my two boys, I thought it would be presumptuous and immoral for their father and me to make an irrevocable decision about their anatomy. I also didn’t want their arrival in this world to be marked by avoidable pain. Yes, parents have to make medical decisions on behalf of their children all the time, but very few of them involve amputating part of the body for uncertain gain in the distant future.

And one more thing: Although the New York Times article appeared in yesterday’s edition, none of the many feminist blogs I follow has mentioned this story; I found it via a brief mention by Hanna Rosin who’s guest blogging at The Daily Dish. I’m a bit perplexed that the feminist blogosphere hasn’t picked it up. This is not a question of “men’s rights.” It’s an issue for feminist parents, and in fact for anyone who believes in bodily integrity and autonomy. It’s a matter of basic human rights.

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Scenes from my front-porch idyll:

My mother calls me mid-afternoon from California, and her voice betrays that strained cheer I always hear when she’s about to deliver bad news. “It’s about your father. No, no – nothing terrible. It’s just that his forgetfulness is getting much worse.”

I said, “My sis already told me how he was driving his wife to work and stopped at Wal-Mart so she could quickly buy item. He was supposed to wait for her but he forgot all about it and ditched her there.”

“Well, yes, that wasn’t good. And now he’s having trouble recognizing his friends. [His wife] wants all you kids to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them this year. Even if it means going to Mimi’s Cafe on Thanksgiving.”

“That’s okay, we can always make a real meal the next day, at your house.”

“You know, I’m starting to feel warm-ish toward [his wife]. Not warm, really. Just warm-ish.”

“More than that isn’t in your job description. [Wife #2 was the "other woman" in marriage #1.] But I have to say, I’m sincerely grateful that she’s there. It can’t be easy. Being so far away, I worry less, knowing she’s there.”


This isn’t how I pictured my dad growing old. He’s 77, true, and has lived with inflammatory bowel disease for the past 55 years. Otherwise, though, he’s been quite healthy. As he approached 70, he noticed that his friends who hadn’t already dropped dead suffered from more ailments than he did. He’s got some genes for longevity: His mother (my grandma) died just short of her 103rd birthday. She stayed mentally clear until she was about 98. She and her many sisters all lost her marbles sometime in their nineties. I figured my dad’s mind would stay clear until the rest of him gave out.

The first sign of mental fuzziness was the “damn iPod” story. About two years ago, he bought a new iPod. Soon thereafter, he accidentally knocked it off a shelf onto the floor, where it promptly went kaput. My dad got as much mileage out the story of its demise as he would’ve from actually listening to music on it. I heard him gripe about it 20 or 30 times. He’d go on autoloop – a trick I remembered from my father-in-law, who was already fairly confused when I first met him.

But the woeful tale of the iPod was still something we could laugh about.

Then there was the time when he was supposed to meet my sister for lunch. He called her from outside her house, livid that she was standing him up. “Dad,” she said, “it’s only 10:30.” He was able to laugh about that one, too.

He called me midday on April 19, wanting to wish the Tiger a happy sixth birthday. “Dad,” I said, “his birthday is June 19.” We laughed, chatted briefly (saying nothing about iPods), and hung up.

May 19, he called again. “Where is that little stinker? I want to wish him happy birthday.” “Um, he’s in school … and his birthday’s still not for another month.” We were still laughing.

But these latest incidents? And especially his growing inability to recognize people? Where there’s still laughter it feels forced.

My mom had to hurry off the phone to go play bridge. I held it together until she hung up, and then I sobbed right there on my porch, phone still clutched tight in my hand.


I’m my dad’s executor. This appears deeply illogical at first glance. I live in Ohio. California is a whole continent away. Sure, I’m the eldest, but both of my sibs have better financial skills.

“You know why he picked you for the job,” my sister said a couple of years ago. “It’s because he knows you won’t pull the plug. He saw how you kept that kitty of yours around to the bitter end.”

Now, to be clear, I did take Grey Kitty to the vet, intending to have her euthanized. I didn’t do it because the vet said that he wouldn’t if she were his pet; that she wasn’t in major pain, just thin and weak. I brought her home and she died within the hour.

It must also be said that I cleaned up gallons of poop, usually smeared into the carpet, during the last months of her life. Many people would have called it quits after a few weeks of 24/7 poop patrol. At that time, I had a toddler who was liable to stumble into her leavings.

If my dad wants to hang on, no matter what, I wouldn’t be the one to try and talk him out of it. He knows this.


But what happens if there’s no there there? What if his core self disintegrates? I think of the Dylan Thomas poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. …

I’ve always expected my father would be one to rage, rage. That’s what his mother did, for as long as she could. But he won’t be able to muster much rage if his sense of self dissolves before his physical health declines. I supposed that’s what I should wish for him, in some ways: a slow, peaceful letting go of this world.

But not at the cost of losing him even before he dies!

Thomas’ poem ends with a plea that I didn’t understand before. Now I do:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas isn’t describing his father as fighting death; he’s imploring him to do it. He’ll take curses along with blessings, if that’s the price for preserving his father’s life a bit longer.

My dad’s fierce tears are one of the things I love best about him. He is one of the few men of his generation who cries easily. He cries when he’s moved by music. He sobs at funerals. My mother always had to deliver the news of the death of a family pet (including my dad’s dogs, post-separation!) because he can’t hold it together long enough to get the words out. Recently, while I was talking to him on the phone, he started to cry at the mention of his beloved niece, who died ten years ago, and had to hang up. (And I’m very much his daughter; I’m blubbery just writing this, thinking back on that aborted conversation.)

It’s ultimately a selfish wish, isn’t it? The desire to keep our parents with us at all costs? I was slightly mollified when I spoke with my sister yesterday and she said it’s mostly neighbors whose names he’s forgetting. She doesn’t think he’s failing to recognize people who are important in his life. Yet, not long ago, he forgot the name of my husband.

And so I’m left to burn and rave at close of day, while my father settles into unnatural mellowness and the moorings of his being-in-the-world – his very personhood – slowly, inexorably come loose.

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At Alas, Angry Black Woman describes a predicament that strikes many creative people sooner or later:

For most of my adult life, I’ve had to live without health insurance. Because I was a freelancer for many years, or because I did not have a fixed residence for a while, or because my skills and career interests often meant that the best jobs available to me were with small companies or non-profit organizations that did not offer benefits. I spent something like 6 years without health insurance.

(Read more here.)

I’m only going to address the first part of ABW’s resume: being a freelancer for many years. What’s more entrepreneurial than working for yourself, building a client base, managing your own business? Shouldn’t the Republicans rabidly favor any change that would promote that American entrepreneurial spirit?

Seriously, there are ways to deal with freelancers other than just casting them out into the cold and hoping they don’t come back in with frostbite. When I lived in Germany, I eventually aged out of eligibility for student health insurance, though I was still dissertating. By then I was also translating as a pretty major sideline (hence the slow dissertating). I worked with an agency or two, but I was still a freelancer. Through other expats, I heard about the Künstlersozialkasse. While this sounds like a serious disease to American ears, it was actually a pretty clever invention. The KSK was a special public health insurance agency that catered to freelance writers, artists, musicians, and other creative folks who might have otherwise been left uninsured.

I submitted a sample of my work translating ludicrous “lifestyle” articles from Porsche’s customer magazine (not the technical articles, which weren’t artsy enough) and I was good to go.

Germany’s economy is often criticized as being insufficiently nimble – as stifling entrepreneurship, thanks to higher taxes and more regulations than we have in America. But here’s one area where the U.S. systematically smothers creativity and innovation. And while I’d prefer to see a single-payer system where you didn’t have to prove that your translations were artsy enough, any public option that was affordable to entrepreneurs, small-business owners, and freelancers would still be pretty grand.

Republicans and Blue Dog Democracts, you’ve got a choice. You can support innovation. Or you can keep serving your masters in the insurance industry. You can’t do both.

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Most days, Kittywampus is fairly sleepy (as befits its patron cat), but yesterday traffic on my blog just exploded. You might have thunk it was my post on erotica for women that drew a crowd, but no … it was my half ranty, half wonky post on health care. WordPress put it on their front page and it got well over a thousand hits within 24 hours. This is not a daily occurrence at The Kitty.

Interestingly, lots of the hits came from outside the U.S. Apparently the world is watching to see if we can do health care reform right.

I also got more comments on that post than on any other to date. They came disproportionately from men. Since when did dudes have a lock on wonkery? Wonkish women of the world, stand up! From a hands-on perspective, as the first-line nurse to children and aging parents, most women know more about health issues than men do. Even those of us who aren’t versed in economic policy have something to contribute. (Except for this: If you’re one of the 54% of Americans who don’t know that Medicare is a government program? Please stay comfortably seated.)

Though it was fun to play at being a big blogger for a day, I’m glad to get back to a sleepier pace. Somehow I have to finish my syllabi before September 9, but yesterday I spent the whole day watching my stats, responding to comments, and appreciating how much time goes into just basic moderation of lengthy threads. Obviously, an actual big blogger wouldn’t respond to all the comments. I also kicked out the troll who’d taken up residence here the week before. That was fun, too. I should do it more often, now that I’ve tasted troll blood. It’s sweeter than you might think. On the whole, though, attendees of town hall meetings could learn a lot from my commenters, who stayed quite civil despite their irreconcilable views.

If I’d know that this little post would get any serious attention, I might have set aside my annoyance at my relatively trivial current gripe and instead told some of the battle stories from when my husband became seriously ill. That was exactly five years ago yesterday. I’m too superstitious to write about it on its anniversary, and anyway it’s still painful. (How does one mark such an anniversary – the day when someone became paralyzed and nearly died, but didn’t? The day that heralded a cancer diagnosis? The day that upended a whole family’s life and left it forever after on a slant? Gifts and champagne don’t quite match the occasion. So I just hugged him hard and said, I’m glad you’re still here.)

So I probably would have stuck with the same themes, but I would’ve edited more carefully and worked out a real argument at the end, instead of relying so much on Robert Reich (wonderful as he is). I might have watched my pottymouth. I would’ve been a little less ranty (though that was the post’s original purpose, after all!).

And if I had a chance to rework the post, I would have definitely included LOLcats. Here’s one for the Blue Dog Democrats:


Blue Kitteh Democrat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Here’s one for Obama’s deluded approach to starting negotiations by offering up the public option:



This seems about right for the less-evil Republicans:



And finally, this seems perfect for those Repubs propagating the “death panel” meme (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Palin) and carrying Obama=Hitler signs and wielding loaded guns and calling for blood to water the tree of liberty:



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A couple of weeks ago, Laura Woodhouse at the F-Word told the sad tale of a new women’s magazine in Great Britain that’s struggling to find a willing printer. The mag in question – Filament – is smart and sexy, she says, even if it’s not overtly feminist. Oh, and it intends to show naked cocks. Erect ones. Not on every page, maybe not in every issues. But erect all the same. And that’s why it’s had trouble finding a printer that’s both affordable and willing to do the job. This is obviously absurd and discriminatory. None of the purveyors of naked women seem to have similar problems.

Now, to be clear, Filament doesn’t intend to be a porn magazine. It plans to feature smart writing (only some of it with an erotic bent) and to cater to the “female gaze” with its imagery. This intrigued me, since I do like to look at men, and I’m annoyed at the idea, so often presented as “scientific fact,” that only men are visual.

I liked very much Filament’s rationale for including erotic photos of men:

Representations of women’s bodies far outnumber representations of men’s bodies everywhere: from advertising to art. In erotic image in particular, representations of the male body specifically designed for women are almost non-existent.

The common explanation for why women have sometimes seemed disinterested in images supposedly intended for them – the idea that “women are less visual” – has now been largely disproven by research. Research also shows that women prefer images of men designed quite differently to those usually marketed toward women.

And I also appreciated their remarks on the heterosexual “female gaze”:

Our images of men are made for the female gaze. We draw on research about what women find erotic, from published academic research and our own online research community.

From research we’ve learnt that what most women find erotic does not at all match what is typically thought of as an erotic image of a man designed for women. For example, on average, women prefer:

  • men who are not muscle-bound
  • men with more feminine face shapes
  • men with attractive faces
  • images that show the subject’s character and the environment he is in.

We also know that women’s tastes vary quite a lot, and we aim to cater to that variety too.

Great choice of terminology. Since feminist film theory emerged in the mid-1970s, there’s been a lot of academic discussion of the “male gaze” and how presumptions about what men find attractive shape visual depictions of women. It’s high time we flipped that term on his head. I also like how the publishers note that heterosexual women’s tastes vary. I like their bullet points except for the bit about “more feminine face shapes.” Huh? All in all, though, I was intrigued enough to check out the sample of pictures that they offer online.

That’s where my enthusiasm crashed. Sure, the photos in Filament are tasteful. They’re well-lit, artistically photographed, and show – as figleaf observes – “visual and atmospheric context.

But darn it, they really don’t raise my pulse. The models are uniformly young, slender, and hairless below the neck. As I said in last summer’s discussion of “feminist porn,” most men featured in alternatives to industrial porn look like boys, not men. Filament’s imagery is no exception.

It’s probably no coincidence that the image I liked best shows a man who might be pushing 30.** He’s also the most conventionally “masculine” of the three models featured online. A second one depicts a young man with a mane of dark hair, intense eyes, and lavish tattoos; the tats wouldn’t be my thing anyway, but here they serve to underscore the young hipster vibe. The third picture features an even younger man (wearing eye makeup, I think) who could pass for 18 or younger. He does have an ethereal beauty but I get a “barely legal” impression from the photo. The apparent makeup is too feminine for this gal. It’s possible also that the atmospherics of the setting – the crucifix on the wall, the hood over his head, the shadow over his face – overwhelm the model. All three of the models are in relatively passive poses, which tends to reinforce the androgyny of the second two pictures. Passivity can be nice in a context of taking turns, and from a feminist perspective, it’s good to challenge the idea that men must always be dominant. As a steady diet, though, it’s pretty bland.

If I were 18 or 20, I’d probably find the first two images attractive though not outright inspiring. But not all women are young, and we don’t automatically lose our libido as we age. To be fair, I know that some women really enjoy looking at younger men. I also admit that as a college instructor, I automatically de-eroticize men young enough to be my traditional-aged students. Even so, I’m pretty sure I’m the only woman who strongly prefers men who aren’t just of legal age but well into adulthood. Solidity and experience are sexy; so is the occasional wrinkle. And body hair! Bare, slender chests signal “teenager” to me. I get more heated looking at close-ups of flowers.

Maybe I’m asking too much. After all, erotic images aimed at men also typically feature very young models – except for the MILF, who’s framed as a fetish and might be considered “old” at 25 or 30. Possibly there’s also a small pool of men over 30 who are willing to pose for erotic pictures.

But if Filament is serious about understanding the variety of the female gaze, I’d love to see them cater to women of various ages, too. Whether or not they claim the feminist label, I see acknowledging women’s desires as a feminist act. Exploring the “female gaze” has the potential to deconstruct the “male gaze.” I’m glad they’re taking this risk – and it is risky, financially and culturally. I hope that if they can gain a foothold, they’ll keep taking risks and explode the idea that the erotic dies – or at least falls into a coma – after age 30.

**Note: I’m not copying the pictures, just linking them, because I don’t want to potentially trample on Filament’s copyright. Also, I’d prefer people visit their site and check them out.

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Stop scrambling German history.

It was Bismarck, not Hitler, who introduced universal health care in Germany. Bismarck established public, non-profit insurance agencies funded by worker and employer contributions. He didn’t do it because he was a bleeding-heart liberal; his intent was to co-opt an issue that drew support to socialism.

Please get your mustaches straight.


Photo from the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) via Wikipedia.

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My family and I have “good” insurance. Oh, sure, I’ve spent dozens of hours fighting our insurer to reimburse us for life-saving cancer drugs that my husband had the temerity to need while he was in Germany, where those drugs cost somewhere between a tenth and half the price that they would have been in the U.S. They didn’t come with the exact same package size or dosage as is standard in the U.S., and so our insurer initially rejected some thousands of dollars in claims. Never mind that my husband saved them some tens of thousands by becoming critically ill while in Germany instead of Ohio. I contested those denials and won most of them. That’s what it means to have “good” insurance.

But yesterday, I just about blew my top on account of the latest hassle from our “good” insurance. On July 1, our employer switched to a new prescription mail plan, Express Scripts. That meant all of us employees needed to set up a login on this mail-order pharmacy’s website. I tried to enter my info, and the screen kept kicking out my email address. I tried setting up a login for my husband – easy peasy. But I couldn’t set up a login for myself.

After about an hour of wrestling with the website and talking with condescending phone reps “patient advocates” – I’ll spare you the tedious details – a supervisor finally informed me that their system wasn’t malfunctioning. Instead, the problem was that my employer hadn’t contracted for dependents to have access to their own prescription information. All my prescription management has to be done through my husband’s ID. All prescription reminders have to go to a single email address; it’s impossible for each partners to get a reminder sent to his or her individual email account.

How is this fucked up? Let me count the ways!

First, this has got to be in violation of HIPAA privacy rights. The Express Scripts supervisor told me that it’s HIPAA compliant. I don’t see how that can be squared with two basic premises of HIPAA: 1) no one but me has the right to access my medical records unless I waive that right, and 2) I have the right to access my own own medical records!

Second, this is just sucky customer service. “Express Scripts” is a wonderfully ironic name. I spend a good two hours dealing with this problem yesterday. (Add another hour for time spent calling physicians offices for old prescriptions that hadn’t transferred and complaining to HR that my kids weren’t on the plan at all).

Third, denying access to dependents decreases efficiency of service and drives up costs for Express Scripts, which will surely be passed along to subscribers. They supposedly want patients to use the website, judging from the message on autoloop played after you’ve dialed customer service and are put on endless hold. But in fact the only way I could access my information yesterday was through talking with a real (and rather snotty) person, who first implied that I must be doing something wrong if I couldn’t sign up for a login.

Fourth, given that the website is the only place where a patient can view her prescription records, lack of access could be medically dangerous. If you’re on multiple medications, they can be hard to keep track of. Plenty of illnesses, from HIV infection to mental health problems, can be exacerbated if you miss a dose.

Fifth, this system is absolutely infantilizing for the “dependent.” I’m 45 years old; I want to be able to manage my own health problems without always having to ask my spouse to do me the favor of forwarding emails, etc. Obviously I know his login and password – I set it up for him, after all, with his permission – but lacking access to one’s own record is structurally and symbolically infantilizing, nonetheless.

Sixth, this system is almost guaranteed to produce sexist effects. My employer’s policy says that when both partners work for the university, premiums for family coverage will be charged on the higher-paid employee. Since the university is the biggest dog in town, quite a few couples are in this position. I’d be very surprised indeed if women don’t make up a strong majority of “dependents” who are also employees in their own right.

And finally, for couples where one partner is controlling or abusive, denying the “dependent” partner access to their own records could subject her (or him) to further abuse. Obviously marriages where one partner tried to control the other through access to needed medications have much, much deeper problems. However, it’s because such marriages (unfortunately) exist that HIPAA privacy protections extend into the family.

Of course I called HR about this. Express Scripts told me that they do offer plans where dependents can access their information. Ohio University could have chosen to include this in their contract with Express Scripts. I asked HR why they didn’t do it. HR will “get back to” me. (Ha.) While I’m waiting for a response, I have plenty of time to ponder how this is just one of many, many ways in which our current system fails to deliver humane, rational, and efficient care and may be driving the need for blood-pressure meds and anxiolytics.

I don’t know if the now-endangered public option will be a panacea. It has the potential to fail, economically and politically, if private insurers are allowed to cherry-pick the lower-risk customers. But abandoning the public option would be even worse, for reasons Robert Reich outlines:

Without a public, Medicare-like option, health care reform is a bandaid for a system in critical condition. There’s no way to push private insurers to become more efficient and provide better value to Americans without being forced to compete with a public option. And there’s no way to get overall health-care costs down without a public option that has the authority and scale to negotiate lower costs with pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals, and other providers — thereby opening the way for private insurers to do the same.

(The rest is here. Have I mentioned lately that I adore Reich?)

Yup. Isn’t it ironic that it’s now us liberals who are trying to introduce some real competition to outfits like Express Scripts? And that it’s the conservatives who are terrified of a little competition and cost control?

Update, 8/19/09, 12:30 p.m.: Late this morning I had a good conversation with the HIPAA privacy “team leader” for my region. He impressed me with his thoroughness and professionalism; it was worth waiting for a callback, and far preferable to speaking with an unknowledgeable phone rep. He had to be circumspect because he can’t prejudge a situation, but he basically agreed that there are two potential issues here: the dependent’s lack of access, and the primary policyholder’s access to an adult dependent’s information. The first is not a HIPAA issue if my employer’s notice of privacy practices specifies that we must ask for our personal health information in writing – which my employer indeed does – except that there may still be an issue of discrimination if dependents are treated differently than their insured spouse. On the second point, Ohio University’s privacy notice says: “Unless authorized by you in writing, your health information:  (1) may not be disclosed by the Plan to any other University employee or department …” My husband is a university employee, so OU would seem to be violating its own policy on this score.

In short, if anyone is in violation of HIPAA privacy provisions, it’s Ohio University, not Express Scripts (which is guilty only of poor customer service). I’m still waiting to hear back from HR. If I don’t, or if I get an unsatisfactory, I have enough information to lodge a formal complaint. To those critics who complain that the government can’t do anything right and therefore can’t be entrusted with health care: My experience this morning shows that this needn’t be the case.

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Over the past few days, a new commenter has been visiting my blog. He insists that it’s overblown to discuss any fascist tendencies among the American right wing and keeps talking about the stupidity of “you people,” though I’m still not sure who we might be. (I’m not going to do him the favor of linking to those comments; I’ve already been more than patient in letting him continue to post. You’ll find plenty of his droppings if you browse comments for the last week or so.)

Now, in my response to my post on how teachers are disrespected, he leaves this gem of a comment:

Well, to be prefectly honest, 1f 1t were up to me, all teachers would be rounded up ınto l1ttle camps, w1th barbed w1re and bar1kng dogs, and gıven ‘reducatıon,’ wıth mandatory r1ce tw1ce a day.

Oh 1n pr1nc1ple teachers should be decent people, but 1 have never met any such ones.

I know one shouldn’t feed the trolls; this one is about to lose his place at the table. Before he goes, I’m trying to figure out what the heck “reducation” might be. Might it be a communist form of education? A mix of education and reduction? Will it make me as charming as this guy? Will it make me a prefectly good speller, too? And may I have some wingnut sauce with my rice?

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The comments to my post on recent post on breast cancer and breastfeeding challenged the idea that breastfeeding advocates are overplaying their hand when it comes to maternal benefits. I’m not questioning its overall benefits to babies; as Sugarmag points out, it meets babies’ nutritional needs precisely. No formula can provide the immunities that breastmilk automatically delivers. The only potential negative is that mother’s milk contain toxins, since we’re at the top of the food chain. (This concern seems to be far more widespread in Germany, where at one point even some advocates of natural childbirth counseled against nursing for more than six months.)

But for the mother, the balance of costs and benefits is more complicated. Advocates of breastfeeding naturally want to cast this balance in a positive light – and hey, that is their job! – but too often they present an oversimplified picture. As an example, I’d like to look at a La Leche League article that commenter Nawny pointed out. At first glance the article appears evenhanded, but it omits some crucial information. (I’m leaving aside the breast cancer issue, since the new information is too recent for us to expect it would already be included on the LLL website.)

The article makes the point that women can use breastfeeding to prevent conception. Here’s what it says:

As for fertility, the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) is a well-documented contraceptive method, with 98 to 99 percent prevention of pregnancy in the first six months. The natural child-spacing achieved through LAM ensures the optimal survival of each child, and the physical recovery of the mother between pregnancies. In contrast, the bottle-feeding mother needs to start contraception within six weeks of the birth (Kennedy 1989).

And that’s all it says on this topic. I’m fairly sure I’m not the only person who knows a few unplanned babies who were conceived during this supposedly “safe” time. The problem is that no one can know if she’s ovulating until her periods has resumed. This happens roughly two weeks after her first postpartum ovulation. She can’t predict when this will occur, yet she’ll be fertile during that first cycle. The LLL article doesn’t mention this, nor does it urge women to use a second form of contraception if they don’t want another baby right away. That’s irresponsible.

The LLL also stresses that breastfeeding can help a woman lose her baby weight:

Production of milk is an active metabolic process, requiring the use of 200 to 500 calories per day, on average. To use up this many calories, a bottlefeeding mother would have to swim at least 30 laps in a pool or bicycle uphill for an hour daily. Clearly, breastfeeding mothers have an edge on losing weight gained during pregnancy. Studies have confirmed that nonbreastfeeding mothers lose less weight and don’t keep it off as well as breastfeeding mothers (Brewer 1989).

What they don’t mention is that many women have trouble losing the last ten to fifteen pounds. This makes sense, biologically. It’s nature’s protection against a nursing mother becoming emaciated and perhaps less able to produce milk. For women who’ve only heard that breastfeeding will help them get their figure back, those last pounds can be discouraging. A more honest message would note that those last pounds will likely persist until after weaning, but they needn’t be a permanent feature. Without that honesty, women may feel that they’ve suffered a failure of will.

Another issue that LLL doesn’t address at all in this piece is loss of sleep, which becomes a permanent feature of most nursing mothers’ lives. The standard advice (not offered here) is to pump milk and have your partner or other supportive person give it to your baby in a bottle when she wakes in the wee hours. This logic failed me – and many other mothers – on two counts. If your body is used to providing a 2 a.m. feeding, you’ll wake up with engorgement an hour or two later, at which point you’ll need to either pump or feed your baby! This advice also presumes that your baby will take a bottle, which both my sons steadfastly refused. I waited the obligatory month before even trying a bottle, because I didn’t want to wreck breastfeeding. By then, they were clever enough that they demanded their much-loved product, and they stuck to that line until they started to use sippy cups around eight months.

Anyway, chronic, severe loss of sleep depresses the immune system. It can worsen depression. After my first son was born, I was definitely depressed; sleep deprivation just about sent me around the bend. I appreciated the convenience of just rolling over and letting my sprout latch on. However, if I’d bottlefed, someone else could have done the job, and I would have been spared that taste of near-psychosis.

Research shows that women get worse sleep than men. As I’ve argued before, breastfeeding sets women up to do the bulk of nighttime parenting, thus ensuring that they’ll get lousy sleep long after their kids have traded mother’s milk for (heaven help me) juice and Sprite. (Okay, the Sprite is a rare indulgence.) Women who sleep poorly have a greater risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depressions, and feelings of hostility, distress, or anger.

Also, engorgement and mastitis hurt. Like a son of a bitch! ‘Nuff said about that. And while it’s true that pregnancy alone is hard on the perky look, the constant inflation and deflation, eight to fourteen times a day, over months, leaves many mothers with breasts so altered that they feel like “not-self.” In a nutshell, that’s why my sister opted for implants after feeding two babies. Her body no longer felt like her own. Some of you may be thinking, how vain! But I can’t view her decision – or others like hers – as frivolous. Alienation from ones embodied self runs much deeper than mere vanity.

That’s surely not an exhaustive list of the physical costs of breastfeeding. It’s just the ones that spring first to my mind as having been omitted from LLL’s catalogue of maternal benefits.

And then there are the non-physical costs. New motherhood is a profound experience of losing autonomy. Breastfeeding amplifies this loss, especially if your baby won’t accept pumped milk in a bottle. Maybe the intimacy of breastfeeding compensates for that; maybe not. That’s an individual balance, and one I’m loathe to judge.

And finally, breastfeeding is not free. Hanna Roisin did a pretty fair job of setting out the social costs of breastfeeding in her controversial article in The Atlantic, “The Case against Breastfeeding.” But it’s her paragraph on the economic costs that really stuck with me.

The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.

(The rest is here.)

Exactly. I’m one of millions of middle-class mothers who reflexively cringe when we see an infant taking a bottle. I did this the other night at Applebee’s; I assumed that the bottle was filled with formula, and I inferred from the adults’ clothing that they families were working-class at most. I thought to myself: “But breast milk is free!” Yes, I know better.

Really, we need to discuss the pros and cons of breastfeeding honestly. We need to discuss how much of the cons are attributable to lack of social support. We need to acknowledge when a con might not be ameliorated easily with a social social.

Because there’s a cost to spinning the data solely in favor of breastfeeding. Mothers quickly feel like failures if they encounter resistance – whether it’s a disapproving mother-in-law, an unsupportive boss, or plain old engorgement. They feel like failures if they can’t produce enough milk. They blame themselves. Honest advocacy that acknowledged the difficulties and possible harms to a mother’s health would be far more supportive than the one-sided presentations that were prevalent when I had my babies, and that still dominate the infoscape. They might also ultimately be more persuasive, if they could acknowledge women’s legitimate fears and give them techniques to cope.

Propaganda might guilt women into trying to breastfeed. But in order for them to keep it up, breastfeeding advocates need to supply a more balanced and truthful perspective. As I said in m last post, the preponderance of evidence favors breastfeeding. We who support it don’t need to stoop to the sort of propaganda that formula manufacturers use  – though they call it marketing, of course.

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Today’s Columbus Dispatch features an article entitled “Teacher Salaries Raising Eyebrows.” As the child of two public school teachers, I had to wonder what could cause such eyebrow twitching. According to the Dispatch, teachers in “some districts” (note the weasel word “some”) aren’t bearing their share of the state’s fiscal pain. They’re still getting pay hikes for experience and continuing education even if their base pay has been frozen. The article quotes State Superintendent Deborah Delisle as saying it’s time for “a reality check in every single community to see what we are able to sustain.”

Nowhere does the article offer even a single figure to illustrate average salaries either statewide or in a given district.

Now, I agree that when times are tough, everyone needs to share in the burden. But last I knew, schoolteachers weren’t being overpaid. Many of them are struggling to raise their families. I’m not suggesting they struggle harder than, say, the librarians here in Athens, who have seen real cuts. However, they’re surely struggling harder than upper-level university administrators, who haven’t come under criticism from high-ranking state officials.

But schoolteachers are such a soft target! The reasons for this say a lot about our culture, and the reflection isn’t pretty. Teachers are commonly seen as having a cushy job since “they have their summers off.” That’s definitely one nice thing about teaching. In their petty envy, though, people conveniently forget that during the schoolyear, most teachers take their work home with them every night. Grading is a relentless grind, and it’s not terribly rewarding.

Then there’s anti-intellectualism. Here, we elected a president whose weak grades at Yale apparently served as a qualification for office – and we did it twice. Obama represents a departure from this. But voters’ suspicion of eggheads goes all the way back to Adlai Stevenson, and beyond. Having lived in Germany, I’ve seen the correlation between a culture’s general respect for ideas and thinkers, and the way it treats its schoolteachers. German public schools pay their teachers more generously than American schools. By the time students arrive at university, they’re far more independent as learners, and their critical thinking skills outstrip those of college-bound American kids. I’ve observed this as both a student and an instructor. My (German) husband, who has years of teaching experience in both countries’ public universities, concurs.

Then again, some of this just goes back to how often school sucks. Some people have never gotten over their personal scars from their school days. I don’t believe in nurturing grudges – they’re a stupid energy suck – but if I’m honest, I have to admit I still hold a grudge against my sadistic P.E. teacher, to the point where I’m tempted to exact revenge by using his real name here. (I’m mature enough not to – but just barely.) And I was one of those students who always had it easy, academically. I had great relationships with most of my teachers, the other exceptions being a few who were truly incompetent and one who was a creepy lech.

So I can understand why people who struggled in school don’t have much sympathy for teachers. To them I would say: You don’t have to care about the teachers. You do need to care about the kids. Where teaching is poorly paid, you’ll see a lot more lemons with a teaching certificate. This was sadly the case in the North Dakota schools where I spent my early years; I had some excellent teachers but also too many who should have changed careers but lacked other options. In 1975, 5eachers’ annual pay in my little district ranged between about $7000 and $10,000. (I know, because my mom kept the books for the school board, to supplement her salary!) I then finished high school in California just as it was dismantling its formerly great school system in the wake of passing Proposition 13. Today, California’s system is in crisis. (As is the whole state, but that’s another story.)

My kids go to a very good public school that’s less than a block from our house. It’s not perfect, but there’s really only one teacher we’ve felt a need to steer clear of. I know how lucky we are. We pay for it with a 1% income tax, which takes a big bite since it comes out of our gross income. I grouse about it a little. But I also know this: Public education is not so different from the rest of the economy. Most of the time, you get what you pay for.

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