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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.)

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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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