Archive for December, 2009

About a week ago, my university sent out a holiday YouTube greeting to its employees (and presumably to students, too). I’m sure the folks in marketing meant well, but it’s an absolute trainwreck of a message that exemplifies much of what’s wrong higher education in our neck of the woods, and I’m sure at other schools as well.

The clip celebrates “Bobcat pride,” which seems to be mainly based on our football team. You do see one picture of a student paired with a line about innovation. There’s a reference to the library, which, contrary to the clip, was not shuttered this week but populated with grad students, professors, and the library staff, all gearing up for winter quarter. Otherwise the clip says almost nothing about education. We could just as well be a fast-food chain, “going for great,” as our president likes to say. Nor is there any mention of the hard-working staff and faculty who make this place work. Apparently we run on pure Bobcat pride.

Oh, and we didn’t actually have a real coat of snow this week, either. But the pictures are pretty anyway.

As for the football team? They did have a winning season but just lost 21–17 to Marshall University in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Even without the loss, it’s hard not to picture pizza sauce and cheese splattered everywhere.

To be clear, I’m not picking on the university’s marketing people (well, maybe just a little for that line anthropomorphizing the chimes). This message directly reflects the priorities of our president and trustees. Academic units are being told to expect cuts as deep as 10 percent in the year ahead, while athletics are allowed to run a $15 million deficit, subsidized by the rest of the university. At this rate, “Bobcat pride” is poised to outlast our academic mission.

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I think the adage about dogs goes for sleeping tigers as well: one should let them lie.

But what if the tiger doesn’t stay in his bed?

Tonight my husband heard light footfalls on the stairs. He observed this stripy person perambulate as far as the landing …

… and then turn around, ascend the stairs, and return to his bed, where he lay clearly asleep with his eyes wide open.

Just what we needed: a Tiger who sleepwalks!

I know that sleepwalking is correlated with night terrors. The Tiger has had a few of those, as well as several wakings where his eyes were open but he couldn’t hold a conversation and he wasn’t quite there. Like any modern parent, I googled sleepwalking and quickly learned that it’s more common when kids are overtired. Goodness knows he was a cranky little cub today, and over dinner he kept flopping over. So yeah, he’s overtired.

I’m hoping this will be a one-time trick. If not, we’ll have to consider re-installing a baby gate at the top of the stairs. That feels like a quantum leap backward, but I don’t see any better alternatives. Even though the Tiger navigated the stairs expertly in his sleep, we can’t trust he’ll do it safely again.

I know kids generally grow out of it, but any been-there-done-that stories and advice will be gratefully appreciated!

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Okay, so technically I made this yesterday. And to be honest, there’s not really a recipe. The only trick to it is that you need to have 1) planted your own chard earlier in the year, and 2) nursed it through the first several hard freezes. Mine survived only thanks to the ministrations of my friend (and occasional commenter) Hydraargyrum, who covered it with a tarp while I was in California. I’ve since substituted Remay (a light agricultural row-cover fabric) for the tarp. It lets some sunlight through while trapping just enough heat. This is not a happy chard existence. It’s sort of a veal-pen for veggies. But hey, it’s already in a vegetative state.

It’s still pretty, isn’t it?

Anyway, I harvested enough yesterday to make chard greens with fried eggs and English muffins for dinner. I normally like to cook up the stems, too, but having survived several nights of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the stems collapsed into mush. So I trimmed off as much stem as possible and cooked the greens in a non-stick pan with a splash of added water. Once they were wilted but still held a bit of shape, I added two tablespoons of butter and a dash of salt and pepper.

Here you can see the sprinkling of snow the leaves picked up as I harvested them. I’m a snow cynic, but golly, the snow sparkled like tiny diamonds.

And here’s the view from my back porch (the garden is behind the peachy garage) right after I cut the chard.

Be forewarned that there’s no way most kids will eat chard that’s this intense. My Bear, who’s pretty adventurous for a kid, wouldn’t even try it. That’s where the English muffins bridged the calorie gap.

To be honest, I prefer my chard younger and milder, but I still thought it absolutely RAWKED to be able to havest anything from my garden on the 28th of December. That’s a new record, beating the previous mark of arugula for Christmas Eve 2005. It would be really cool if my chard survives until I’ve started my first flat of seeds for next year’s garden.

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So there’s another possible case of a blogger creating a false persona on the web – and this time, not just gender but sex is in play. At Carnal Nation, Monica Shores alleges that Alexa Di Carlo, who chronicles her career as a paid escort at the Real Princess Diaries, is not a sex worker. According to some of the allegations, she may not even be a woman. Quite a few sex workers are outraged at this apparent fakery (for instance Tasty Trixie, Jenny DeMilo, a dancer named Kat, and lots of others, I’m sure – be forewarned that their sites are generally not safe for work, as is Real Princess Diaries). They have at least two main grievances that seem pretty righteous to me: If Alexa is indeed a fake, she is creating fake expectations, too, that at their worst could put sex workers at greater risk. And Alexa uses oodles of erotic photos that aren’t of her, without any attribution.

Now, having never sold any service sexier than food, I’m totally unqualified to judge whether Alexa is credible as a sex worker. However, I’m totally fascinated by how people can play with and fake identities on the Web, and so I started rummaging around in her archives when I first heard about this story (via figleaf) a few days before Christmas.

The first thing I read was a post titled “The History of Sexuality,” since that’s my own turf. Guess what? Alexa also claims to be a graduate student in human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, aspiring to an academic career. Now that’s an area where I’ve got a clue.

And guess what else? I’m dead sure her academic credentials are fake. I have no interest in outing anyone – I expect people to honor pseudonymity and anonymity – so even if I knew who the “real” real princess was (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be inclined to reveal her name. But as an academic, I feel pretty strongly disinclined to tolerate fraud in my corner of the world.

When I went back after Christmas to look for that “History of Sexuality” post, it had disappeared from her archives. Since then, her whole blog has gone dark, including a very long post in which she defended her authenticity. She has also deleted her MySpace profile (though it – like her blog posts – is still in Google’s cache) and protected her tweets on Twitter.

The very fact that her “History of Sexuality” post disappeared early is suggestive because it contained a lot of detail that can be mapped onto real world correlates. For instance, SFSU really did offer a grad-level History of Sexuality course in fall 2009, which was taught by Prof. Amy Sueyoshi, and its syllabus (freely available online) really did include an assignment matching Alexa’s description of it:

For one of my classes this semester I have to develop my own syllabus for a History of Sexuality class for undergraduate college level students.  This has to include a description of the topics and suggested readings (along with justification for those readings) for each.

With that in mind, I’d like your input.  Read through this proposed two-semester outline and see if there’s anything else you think should be covered in a History of Sexuality course.  I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each.  Other than that, though, feel free to make any comments you wish about this.

(This and subsequent quotations are from the cached version, so I can’t provide a permanent link, but you can access my pdf of the cached version of History of Sexuality for verification. For as long as it lasts, Google’s cached version is here. Just in case the site ever goes back online, the original URL for the “History of Sexuality” post is here.)

She then includes this list of textbooks:

  • Sexualities in History
  • The Mythology of Sex
  • Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices
  • Passion and Power Sexuality in History
  • Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others
  • Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work
  • The Ethical Slut

One of her commenters proposed an obvious addition:

I can’t imagine a course titled History of Sexuality that doesn’t list in its readings The History of Sexuality: An Introduction by Michel Foucault. Of course, this isn’t a history in the traditional sense, but an examination of the construction of Sexuality as a concept, the categorization of sexual behavior, and the proliferation of sexual discourse (primarily as a control/power structure). Having a course with that title will immediately set up expectations for reading Foucault.

Okay, so Foucault is a tough read, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to assign it in an undergrad class unless it was aimed at especially advanced students. But that’s not how Alexa responded:

And you’ve explained why it would not be a central reading assignment in the course itself. Certainly, it’d be discussed, but, as you say, it’s not a historical text in and of itself.

Oops. Anyone who’s actually read Foucault’s History of Sexuality would never dismiss it on these grounds. No, it’s not a traditional history, but it’s conceptually crucial to understanding the history of sexuality. For instance, it was Foucault who first argued that homosexuality is a socially constructed and thoroughly modern category (though other historians have since fleshed out this insight).

In an earlier post, where Alexa listed her recommended books on sexuality, she did include Foucault – but in a way that only undermines her academic credibility:

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, Michel FoucaultFoucault is difficult to read, so I am only recommending the first of his three books on sexuality.  If you can get through this and want to continue reading, feel free to buy the other two.  His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.

(A cached version of this post, “Recommended Reading,” is here. My pdf of Recommended Reading is here. The original URL is here.)

Again, no! If a student submitted this précis to me as part of an annotated bibliography, or if she described Foucault’s thesis in this way, I’d have to assume she hadn’t read him. At a minimum, I’d question whether she understood him. The whole point of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is to describe power as decentralized and local in its workings. He does not conceptualize power as exercised in a top-down fashion. Instead, we’re all implicated in the workings of power/knowledge, which are not simply “the work of power elites.” I first read this book the summer before graduate school, and I understood that much. So should anyone who’s already logged a year as a grad student in sexuality – if she’s actually read the book.

But she does at least indicate here that she knows Foucault is difficult. How does she know this? And one thing weighed against my supposition that she hadn’t done the reading: she also picked up on the term “regulation,” which is pretty central to Foucault.

Well, I’m unfortuantely familiar with what students may do when they haven’t done the reading but are desperate to keep up appearances. The worst response? Plagiarize from someone who has read it. I say “worst” because it’s not only unethical, it’s stupid. Professors know how to use the Google, too, you know.

And that’s precisely what Alexa did here. She plagiarized. Here’s Alexa:

His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.

And here’s its original source, in a New York Times article from June 23, 2001, by Peter Steinfels on books that religious leaders have criticized as harmful:

Ellen Charry, another professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, chose ”The History of Sexuality” by Michel Foucault.

”The effect of this book is to endorse the notion that the regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance,” Professor Charry wrote.

By the way, with all due respect to Professor Charry, I still think it’s a crappy precis for the reasons I described above. Professor Charry doesn’t like Foucault’s embrace of kink, which may explain why she’s not inclined to tease out any of the nuances of his argument.

Now, only after I’d combed through Alexa’s post without any inside information from people at SFSU did I learn through Tasty Trixie’s comment section that one of the other SFSU grad students has a blog, The Sexademic. It’s a smart and interesting blog. Its author, Jessi, confirms both that Foucault is a standard part of the curriculum, and that Alexa is not a student there:

She claimed in her posts to be studying in my graduate program (Sexuality Studies at SF State) and seems to have lifted information from the department profile of a fellow male graduate student.

For the record: there is no way this person is affiliated with my department. She knows a fair amount about sexuality studies but she constructed a syllabus of the History of Sexuality without including writings from Michel Foucault [Thanks Zoey for the cache link to Alexa's syllabus post]. History of Sexuality: An Introduction is one of the first sexual theory texts first year students read. No-one would leave Michel Foucault out of a basic sexuality reading list. This is tantamount to discussing the history of social labor movements without reading Karl Marx. Fail lady, fail.

I don’t know who this person is and the only thing I care about is that she is falsely claiming intellectual territory in Sexuality Studies at my university. Back off. Go fake yourself a life somewhere else.

(Read the rest here.)

The Marx comparison is spot on (and wonderfully phrased!). The sexuality studies grad program at SFSU is pretty small, and having been in a similarly sized program, I know how hard it would be to hide a secret this big. Jessi’s own identity is borne out by its website, as is the male student’s. Elsewhere, Jessi makes a persuasive case that her fellow student is essentially being libeled (see the comments in Trixie’s post) with details that again ring very true to an academic reader (“He would rather talk about Judith Butler and structural violence than write about deep-throating.)

Jessi’s post not only provides further confirmation of Alexa’s fakery; it also shows how a fake persona can have real world consequences. Alexa’s charade put a completely innocent male grad student under suspicion. She has also used countless erotic photos on her blog without any attribution – which is one of the things that rightly infuriates other sex workers, because she’s stealing their work. I guess a little academic plagiarism hardly registers when you’re routinely swiping people’s erotic photos to promote yourself.

The plagiarism really seals the deal, but other aspects of Alexa’s proposed syllabus raised my eyebrows, too. Her statement, “I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each,” might have just been an attempt to keep comments focused on the big picture. But given that she’s faked at least some of her academic background, it more likely indicates a fear of being caught out.

Her reading list is a curious mix, too. She has three academic titles (Ruth Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe, plus two essay collections, Passion And Power: Sexuality in History and Sexualities in History. The Mythology of Sex is an illustrated history – basically a coffee-table book. The two encyclopedias are completely unsuitable as textbooks, both because they consist of many short entries (duh!) and because the one on prostitution is super-expensive: $164 at Amazon, $225 list price. Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices is affordable but it’s not academic. These are books that might well be in the collection of someone who’s fascinated with sexuality and sex work, but they’re not the kinds of works that an instructor would steer a student toward, and certainly a second-year grad student ought to recognize their unsuitability.

Then there’s the incredibly broad scope of the course itself. In the first week, she proposes covering:

Ancient and Early Cultures
Sex from the beginning of recorded time through ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the Roman Empire, Greece, and Egypt.  Discussion of gods and goddesses of sex and related subjects.  Discussion of Aztecs & polygamy, Mayan and Incan civilizations and incestuous practices.

(This and the following comments all come from the History of Sexuality post again.)

Another commenter, Charlie, notes that this kind of breadth is pedagogically self-defeating, even in a survey class:

It’s not quite clear to me from your description of the assignment- is this supposed to be an examination of all of human sexual history? Can it be a course on some slice or portion of the topic? I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to cover this much material in this much detail. The amount of information that you propose to include, even in a two semester course, is more than most people can absorb, process, or integrate, at least in my experience. While others have said similar things in the comments, I would add that when you’re asking students to explore sexual philosophies that are different from their own, you need to create the room for resistance, debate and exploration. This syllabus is so large and dense that I would expect there to be insufficient time for that. I think you’d do better to narrow the range and have more depth, in order to create room for people to challenge their ideas about what sex is and engage with ways of thinking about sex that are different from what they know.

Although it’s evident that Charlie has a lot more experience with teaching than Alexa does, her response brushes off his very reasonable concern that the course is overly broad:

I think it depends on how in-depth the subject matter is covered. It is, obviously, not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the totality of human sexual history.

I think the first semester is easily doable, without constraints.

If you’re a graduate student really looking to refine a class assignment, you might want to seriously weigh advice from someone who’s been there, rather than dismissing it.

After I’d already formed this impression, I found that “Charlie” appears to be Dr. Charlie Glickman, who writes at the Good Vibrations blog and works as a sex educator. In a post titled “Who Is Alexa di Carlo?” he says that he took her at face value and provided help on the syllabus assignment, including some email exchanges. But based on her alleged theft of images from a camgirl, he now very much doubts that Alexa is who she says she is. He strikes me as smart, credible, and generous with his time. He also knows Jessi through Good Vibrations, which gives her a few bonus credibility points, too.

So why would someone pretend to be a sex worker? Well, the consensus seems to be that one might do it for the attention or in hopes of a book deal down the road. Certainly Alexa doesn’t seem to have earned any money directly through the blog (I saw no ads). She claimed to have attacted all of her clients through the blog, but that motivation collapses if she wasn’t really a sex worker.

Even more puzzling: Why, oh why, would anyone pretend to be a grad student? Sure, it might give your wanna-be “educational” posts a little more cachet. But for most of us, graduate school is a time of penury. I’m perfectly aware that some grad students choose sex work. I’d say it beats living out of your vehicles – and a recent vehicle-dweller just moved into the rental three doors down from me. Let’s face it – academic credentials don’t give you much of a boost in the blogosphere, especially if your claim to fame is that you host unprotected gang bangs for fun in your spare time. Academic credentials are also tough to fake.

Alexa di Carlo is a plagiarist. I’m be willing to bet my own credibility that she’s not a grad student in human sexuality studies at SFSU, either. As for her motives, your guess is as good as mine. Theories are welcome in comments!

And by the way, if anyone has a problem with my pseudonymity in this context, please drop me a comment. I’m pseudonymous so that my blogging doesn’t show up first when someone Googles me, not because I’m afraid to stand behind my writing. In this case, I realize I’ve made serious allegations and I don’t want them to be undermined by any suspicion about my own bona fides.

Added 12/29/09, 12:20 p.m.: Since this post is getting a bunch of hits from people who obviously aren’t my regular readers, here’s a short run-down on my academic credentials: I hold a Ph.D. in history from Cornell with women’s studies as a minor field, wrote a dissertation on the history of pregnancy and childbirth in early 20th-century Germany, and now teach women’s and gender studies at a public university in southeast Ohio. My graduate work, teaching, and research have all dealt with the history of sexuality.

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… wait ’til you see the new TSA regulations!

Now, I’ll admit that when I learned that the latest terrorist attempt occurred on Northwest’s Amsterdam-Detroit flight, I was a little spooked. Since that’s a flight I’ve taken several times in the past, even a highly inept terrorist seemed pretty real to me.

But, oh, these new regulations make the response to the shoe bomber look like pure genius (and mind you, even my ten-year-old already sees the stupidity of x-raying everyone’s shoes). I’m all in favor of measures that might actually save lives – like, say, stopping suspected jihadists from boarding airplanes? Or denying them a visa? Or keeping syringes out of carryon luggage (except for people with a documented medical need)?

Instead, here’s what the TSA is doing, according to the New York Times (via Jill at Feministe):

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines.

Yipes! I fly to and from Europe just about every year, always with two kids in tow. They’re getting older and more civilized now, but the prospect of having nothing on our laps except the fucking Sky Mall catalog is still excruciating. No books? No DVD player? No handheld toys? Not even coloring materials?

I guess I will have to entertain my kids with my delightful personality! They will be thrilled!

But my sprouts are at least school-aged. I really feel for the parents of toddlers and preschoolers. Keeping a tot strapped in for takeoff and landing is enough of a struggle. There have already been a few instances of flight attendants ejecting toddlers and their parents before departure when the kids were behaving like kids instead of little Hummel figurines.

Then there’s the bathroom problem. This obviously affects kids (who will have to hope for soft-hearted flight attendants) but it’s a big problem for many adults, too. On short flights – 90 minutes or less – people likely won’t have access to the bathroom at all. Add in the time spent boarding and waiting to take off, and you can easily reach two or three hours without a chance to use the facilities.

As the daughter of a Crohn’s patient, I know there are some people who often can’t wait for more than a few minutes without risking a godawful mess. People with bladder urgency problems or stress incontinence can’t wait, either. Such problems are distressingly common among women (though men aren’t spared, either). A 2008 study by Ingrid Nygaard et al. found the 15.7% of adult, non-institutionalized women suffered from moderate-t0-severe incontinence and 9.0% from fecal incontinence. And y’know, these conditions disproportionately affect mothers: the same survey found that women with three or more deliveries were 2.5 times more likely to report such issues than women who’d never had a baby.

Maybe we’ll eventually all be expected to don adult diapers for the duration of the flight. Hey, astronauts do it! Just think of it as an adventure in low-altitude space travel!

And the gain for the new policy is … what, exactly? Potential terrorists may have to plan their explosions for shortly after takeoff, thus forgoing the no-longer-free cocktails? That’ll be a real deterrent, considering that the mini-bottles of alcohol were never a huge hit among the jihadist crowd anyway.

Then again, there are some folks who already apparently think sharing a plane with kids is nearly as bad as traveling with a terrorist. After the recent incident where Southwest ejected a mother and child before take off, the amount of vitriol vented at parents and children at Broadsheet – a feminist blog! – was just stunning:

Throw Them from the Plane (at Altitude)

Sorry, I’m childless which apparently makes me already at risk for being an asshole, but having flown recently in a plane with a six year old kid who apparently was autistic and screamed the whole way? Fuck’em. If they can’t shut up, I don’t want them on the plane. That’s what driving was invented for.

(More examples of this constituency are here. This comment was unfortunately not atypical, although it gets bonus cruelty points for its ableism.)

Maybe we don’t have to worry about such people becoming terrorists, but the new policy sounds like a great way to achieve a new spike in air rage among child-haters.

As for those situations where driving isn’t practical, such as the trans-Atlantic routes, I guess families are supposed to travel by rowboat, so as not to disturb anyone? At least the kids would be too busy paddling to be bored.

Update, 12/28/09, 5:45 p.m.: I wrote this before I read that Ivana Trump got booted from a plane for acting even worse than some rather unruly kids. According to the HuffPost:

Police say Ivana Trump has been escorted off a plane in Florida after she became belligerent when children were running and screaming in the aisles.

Authorities say the first ex-wife of billionaire Donald Trump cursed at the children Saturday, and when flight attendants on the New York-bound plane tried to calm her, she became even more aggravated.

Now, obviously the kids shouldn’t have been running and screaming, either, but the kids, at least, still have a decent chance of becoming civilized.

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If I were still in Germany, yesterday would have still be Christmas – they celebrate a second Christmas Day, without even renaming it “Boxing Day” – and so I’m going to declare Christmas still in season. Or maybe I mean, it’s still open season on Christmas? Really, I just want an excuse to write down a few thoughts about the Christmas Eve service I attended before New Year’s festivities begin.

The first Bible reading at the service was the story of the Fall of Man from Genesis. While it’s a rather gloomy place to begin, it’s also entirely logical. If Jesus had to come and redeem the world, there’s gotta be some reason why we needed redeeming in the first place.

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “

4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. …

17 To Adam he [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:1-8, 17-19, New International Version

Oddly, the selection read from the pulpit left out Genesis 3:16, the part where Eve and all mothers are cursed forevermore: “To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

I appreciate that this edit may have intended to play down the misogyny, but let’s face it: the story tells of Eve screwing up. She was the weak link. It’s her role that allowed church fathers such as St. Augustine to insist that original sin was sexual. Indeed, Augustine believed that it was transmitted from one generation to the next via semen! Another church father, Clement of Alexandria, advanced what we today might call a more sex-positive interpretation. Clement held that Adam and Eve’s sin was disobedience, and thus wasn’t sexual at all.

While I’m all for inclusive language in Christian churches, there’s something dishonest in trying to minimize the misogyny of Genesis 3, given the history of its interpretation. The Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man – why isn’t is called the Fall of Humanity, dang it?! – is remarkably harsh on women compared to the other origin stories that I’m familiar with.

Like Genesis in the Bible, the Qur’an also links humanity’s fall from grace to Adam and Eve eating from a forbidden tree. However, the Qur’an does not single Eve out for any particular blame. On the contrary, it’s Adam who’s approached by Satan (not a serpent) in the Garden and led to disobey Allah:

But Satan whispered evil to him: he said, “O Adam! shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?”

In the result, they both ate of the tree, and so their nakedness appeared to them: they began to sew together, for their covering, leaves from the Garden: thus did Adam disobey his Lord, and allow himself to be seduced.

Surah 20:120-121

Here, too, their nakedness becomes an issue, but it’s Adam who disobeyed. It’s Adam who was seduced by Satan. I’m not claiming that the Qur’an is perfectly enlightened on gender issues, but on the events in the Garden, it doesn’t share the misogyny of Genesis.

The Gnostics who lived in the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death took yet a different perspective. Some of them considered themselves Christians, while others rejected the label. (In the end, that distinction didn’t matter much, as they were all relentlessly persecuted as heretics.) For Gnostics, the original sin of humanity had nothing to do with either sex or disobedience. It was a willful rejection of knowledge in favor of ignorance. I really like this interpretation. Especially after Bush II, it’s easy to see how much evil can be wreaked when a leader and his people choose ignorance.

The Buddhist origin story as told in the Agganna Sutta identifies greed and craving as the source of human suffering. The story is actually not technically one of origins but of a cycle in which the world passes into formlessless, then re-evolves:

There comes a time … when, sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world passed away. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn in the World of Radiance; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time … when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance, usually come to life as humans. And they become made of mind, feeding on rapture, selfluminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and remain thus for a long, long period of time.

Aganna-Sutta (pdf alert!)

And those humans would remain pure mind and light, were it not for their apparently inevitable fall into suffering:

[S]ome being of greedy disposition, said: Lo now! What will this be? And tasted the savoury earth with his finger. He thus, tasting, became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into him. And other beings, following his example, tasted the savoury earth with their finger. They thus, tasting became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into them. Then those beings began to feast on the savoury earth, breaking off lumps of it with their hands. And from the doing thereof the self-luminance of those beings faded away.

Note that craving ushers humans back into a state of suffering and sets them on the path to other sins that will incur further suffering. One of the later sins is, indeed, lust, but it can’t appear until quite late in the game, once humans have differentiated into male and female:

And in measure as they, thus feeding, went on existing, so did the bodies of those beings become even more solid, and the divergence in their comeliness more pronounced. In the female appeared the distinctive features of the female, in the male those of the male. Then truly did woman contemplate man too closely, and man, woman. In them contemplating over much the one the other, passion arose and burning entered their body. They in consequence thereof followed their lusts.

Make no mistake, lust is identified as a sin. But the Agganna-Sutta doesn’t blame the woman any more than the man.

Does this mean that the Christian tradition must stay forever mired in Augustinian notions of women and sex as the source of original sin? Well, no. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas (whose views on the Incarnation I’ve previously discussed) reconceives original sin as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Catholic feminist theologian Christine Gudorf takes a similar tack:

Original sin, sometimes called social sin, or the sin of the world, is socialized into us as we learn our world, as we learn to speak a language, to interact with different persons and groups, to accept a specific role in society. Born into a society permeated with racism, sexism, poverty, and violence, we learn varying degrees of complacency toward, and come to accept these realities:; that acceptance, once socialized into us, forms the groundwork for our committing overt acts of sin. In sexuality, too, original sin is present in our world. Patriarchy, misogyny, the related evils of homophobia and heterosexism, and alienation from and disdain for the body and sexuality are forms which original sin takes in the sexual context.

Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, p. 17

And this is the conception of sin that I chose to keep in mind as I sat through the rest of the Christmas Eve service. Which was just heartbreakingly beautiful. I have to say, the Presbyterians know how to do it right in this town. They included all the best joyful carols: O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World. The choir was beefed up by a few out-of-towners and even a visiting opera singer (as my friend who sings in it happily admitted), and they were so good, they managed to make even Away in the Manger touching, not cloying. We sang Silent Night by candlelight. I’m not a practicing Christian these days, but I still tear up at the music, when it’s done right; it’s some of the best evidence I know that there’s something divine at work in our lives, at least potentially.

As for redemption – our world needs more of it. I felt that the service, which ended with a prayer for peace and an end to imperialism, was on the right track regarding original sin, after all.


This post was informed by the following books (though any errors are, of course, my own):

Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective

Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective

Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics

Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

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Merry Christmas …

… from the Frog Queen and her froglets!

They should actually be tadpoles, now that I think about it.

Here’s wishing you a happy holiday, if it’s one you celebrate.

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At 4:30 today, my husband and I settled up the idea of making a turkey-dinner-without-the-turkey for our Christmas meal. Hey, we east mostly veggie, and to be honest, the whole family could happily crawl into a barrel of my stuffing and eat our way out over the course of a week.

So I found myself in Kroger at 5 p.m. the day before Christmas Eve, which is a fool’s errand under any circumstances. Still, I found everything I needed, including duct tape (or Duck Tape, as it seems to be called these days?) for my little Bear. Until it dawned on me that maybe a turkey-dinner-without-turkey might still require a pumpkin pie.

Using my shopping cart as a batter ram (a skill I learned in German supermarkets), I jostled my way back through the store – but no canned pumpkin was to be found. Fortunately, the cashier at the register was a former student of mine, who’s still working at Kroger while he finishes school. And even more fortunately, he had answer for me.

Less fortunately, the answer was this: Kroger has been out of canned pumpkin since Thanksgiving! Something about bad weather and harvest.

Sure enough, when I consulted the google just now, I learned that heavy rains kept pumpkins from being harvested. Maybe some of them first rotted in the fields; ultimately, the ones that didn’t get picked fell victim to frost.

It is good to know I can make a pumpkin pie from butternut squash if need be. It’s probably even more salutary to be reminded that pumpkins don’t grow in cans. They grow on vines. They’re tender fruit. And when the weather and climate don’t cooperate, pumpkins are only a vague Halloween memory. I’m wishing we hadn’t left those uncarved would-be Jack-o-lanterns freeze and then liquify on our front porch.

Also, it’s sobering to realize that Libby controls virtually the whole pumpkin market.

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You know what a thousand times more frustrating than trying a homeschool kids who think they’re on vacation? Following the debate among progressives on the Senate giveaway to health insurance companies. It’s making me downright Grinch-y.

I’ve been trying to find a way to imagine that the good will outweigh the bad in the Senate bill. I’ve looked at supportive arguments coming from Ezra Klein and Jeff Fecke and Jill Filipovic and a bunch of other people I respect. I’m all for the expansion of Medicaid, the banning of recission, etc. Yet none of the bill’s progressive proponents has convinced me that the reforms would outweigh the impact of the mandate on the folks who are too well off for Medicaid, yet would be required to buy insurance.

The bottom line is that this bill will guarantee that people have health insurance. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll have access to health care. The premiums will be pricey enough that many people will not be able to afford to actually use their insurance, since they won’t have enough money left to cover the out-of-pocket expenses. Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel has run the numbers for a couple of hypothetical middle-class families. Here’s her scenario for a family of four at 301% of the poverty level, or an annual income of $66,370, who experience a “major medical event” that would force them to max out their out-of-pocket payments:

Federal Taxes (estimate from this page, includes FICA): $8,628 (13% of income)

State Taxes (using MI rates on $30,000 of income): $1,305 (2% of income)

Food (using “low-cost USDA plan” for family of four): $9,065 (14% of income)

Home (assume a straight 30% of income): $19,275 (30% of income)

Health Care: $14,477 ($7,973 out-of-pocket + 9.8% of income; totals 22% of income)

Total: $52,750 (79% of income)

Remainder for all other expenses (including education, clothing, existing debt, transportation, etc.): $13,620 (or 21% of income)

(The whole post is very sobering; read it here.)

Barring a “major medical event,” that family is likely to minimize their use of health care, to the detriment of their actual health. This will be fine and dandy with the insurance companies, who still rake in their premiums, and with our congresscritters who’ve sold their souls to Cigna and Aetna.

And if that family does end up spending the full out-of-pocket amount? If they’ve already got any significant debt, or a rapacious mortgage, or college education expenses – well, they might very well land in bankruptcy.

There are lots of other problems with the bill, too. Marcy provides a good rundown of how it falls short of Obama’s campaign promises. Even some of the remaining, modest reforms are partly hollow. For instance, people who are older or sicker can be charged premiums that are 300% of those for young, healthy folks, and the protections for those with pre-existing conditions won’t kick in for another four years. Even the language barring rescission is leaky, since it allows insurers to deny claims based on “fraud” or “an intentional misrepresentation of material fact”:


A group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage shall not rescind such plan or coverage with respect to an enrollee once the enrollee is covered under such plan or coverage involved, except that this section shall not apply to a covered individual who has performed an act or practice that constitutes fraud or makes an intentional misrepresentation of material fact as prohibited by the terms of the plan or coverage. Such plan or coverage may not be cancelled except with prior notice to the enrollee, and only as permitted under section 2702(c) or 2742(b).

(via nolakai at the Daily Kos)

Don’t insurance companies already deny claims based on allegedly undisclosed histories of anything from cancer to acne? And would someone please tell me why the industry would need such a loophole if “pre-existing conditions” are going to be irrelevant?

So this is a real pickle of a bill. Calls from the left to “kill the bill” are beside the point, since it looks like it’ll be passed tomorrow anyway. The 60 votes in favor of cloture pretty well sealed the deal for the bill’s passage.

All that left is hope that the reconciliation process will leave us with something closer to the House bill. After all, I can’t remember where it says in the Constitution that only the Senate’s legislation really counts.

I really like Cenk Uygur’s idea that the two bills could be reconciled – and vastly simplified – by allowing anyone to buy in to Medicare.

You only need 51 senators to pass a bill through reconciliation. But theoretically the main problem with reconciliation is that it can only be used for legislation that affects the budget. So, a public option or Medicare buy-in would definitely affect the budget, but getting rid of insurance practices like barring people for pre-existing conditions or denying them care through rescission could not be handled through reconciliation.

So, if you just want one bill you can’t go through reconciliation because you can’t keep many of the important elements of health care reform. That’s conventional wisdom. But here is a radical new idea – how about we just do Medicare buy-in for anyone who wants it and not bother to pass any regulations about pre-existing conditions or rescission or anything else.

(More here.)

I don’t know if I agree that it’s pointless or unnecessary to include regulations designed to prevent abuses. Even if everyone had the Medicare option, the insurance market is intransparent enough that competition won’t solve all of its ills. But for months, now, Badtux the Penguin has been arguing that “Medicare for All” would fix our broken system. (See here, for example – but also everything under his label “health care.”) He’s right. It would also be a miracle of backroom negotiations.

I’d like to think it’s the season of hope and miracles, but they will only happen if progressives get beyond the “kill the bill” rhetoric and start pushing to fix the bill when the House and Senate get into reconciliation.

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Tuesday Recipe: Kiss Cookies

Sugarmag has a touch of the holiday blues, but she mentioned she might make kiss cookies with her kids. So I’m posting my version of my mom’s recipe here (which I’m pretty sure is not far removed from the official Hershey recipe), in hopes that her spirit will lift while she’s in the kitchen. Maybe I can’t give you hugs, Sugarmag, but at least I can send you kisses.

Kiss Cookies

1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. peanut butter (I used Kroger’s organic chunky)
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 egg
2 T. cream or whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
Dark Chocolate Hersheys Kisses, 1 for each cookie

Preheat over to 350 F.

Cream together the softened butter and peanut butter. Cream well with both sugars. Beat in the egg, cream or milk, and vanilla. Then sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. (I am lazy and usually just dump half the flour into the bowl, then stir the rising agents into the rest of the flour in the measuring cup.) Blend the dry ingredients well with the rest of the mess.

Roll batter into walnut-sized balls and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for seven minutes, then remove the cookies from the oven, place a kiss in the center of each cookie, pressing it oh so slightly down, and return the cookies to the oven for two more minutes. Don’t overbake! (This is a standard admonishment from my mom to me, and so I will gladly pass it on, because she’s right, by golly.)

My contribution to these cookies is that I swapped butter back in for Crisco, substituted chunky peanut butter for Skippy’s creamy (Mom warns against Jif), and went for the dark chocolate kisses, because mmmmm! My cookies were a bit flatter than Mom’s – I guess adding more flour wouldn’t hurt? – but they were darn good.

Mind you, I’m serious about the dark chocolate! Anyone who goes for milk chocolate is not allowed to cite this recipe as their source. So really, you need to go dark.

Makes about 2 1/2 dozen. Plan for half to be devoured while the kisses are still slightly molten. (And no, that last sentence is not intended as my entry in the Bad Sex Writing contest.)

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Turning back toward the Sun

I hate the shortness of the days. I’m not even really complaining; when I lived in Berlin (at the 51st parallel, same as Winnipeg) I sort of went to bed in November and stayed there until March. Or so it seemed. I’m just bright enough to realize that southeast Athens is kinder to me in winter.

I love that starting today, we’ll slowly move toward heat and light. My chard still lives, along with the shrinking remnants of my Silver Tidal Wave petunias. Otherwise? I’m waiting until I can plant again.

Until then, last year’s pansies in their June glory will have to help me keep the faith. (If you can’t see the pansies, they’re mostly larger-than-life, with saucy little faces in garish colors. They make me happy.)

Here’s wishing you a hopeful solstice!

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A couple of weeks back, Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors ran a post on the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing awards, in which she observed that misogyny breeds “bad sex writing, as well as bad sex generally.” I had no idea just how bad – and how misogynistic! – until the Daily Dish posted the winning scene, penned by Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones:

Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody. But my cock remained inert, I seemed turned to stone. I stretched out my arm and buried my middle finger into this boundless eye. The hips moved slightly, but that was all. Far from piercing it, I had on the contrary opened it wide, freeing the gaze of the eye still hiding behind it. Then I had an idea: I took out my finger and, dragging myself forward on my forearms, I pushed my forehead against this vulva, pressing my scar against the hole. Now I was the one looking inside, searching the depths of this body with my radiant third eye, as her own single eye irradiated me and we blinded each other mutually: without moving, I came in an immense splash of white light, as she cried out: ‘What are you doing, what are you doing?’ and I laughed out loud, sperm still gushing in huge spurts from my penis, jubilant, I bit deep into her vulva to swallow it whole, and my eyes finally opened, cleared, and saw everything.

Yep, folks, that’s the winning passage, or should I say the victorious wet tunnel, spasming around the author’s fingers?

I would love to hear what French feminist Helene Cixous would have to say about the mythological figures. Her famous piece, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” builds up to this, um, climax:

You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she is not deadly. She is beautiful and she is laughing.

The Medusa represents female sexuality. Perhaps she turned Littell’s protagonist to stone, but how then did his cock remain inert? Shouldn’t it be rock-hard, too? Ah, the incoherence of phallogocentrism! (I promise not to use that word too often, but it seems just perfect here.)

And if the vagina is the Cyclops’ eye, then how is it also Polyphemus?

And if our hero swallowed the vulva whole, wouldn’t he get awful indigestion? Or did I misread it, and he swallowed his own sperm?

And if his eyes then open, does that mean he’s now got a couple of vulvas just below his forehead?

And if the eye is immersed in the vagina but vaguely connected to the hip, can I imagine the body as anything other than a monstrous molar pregnancy? Yes, I realize this is supposed to be symbolic. (Cixous and other Lacanians might say this passage is immersed in the Symbolic order, the realm of life ruled by the Law of the Father.) But anatomically, it’s a train wreck.

At any rate, looking directly at the Medusa seems to destroy all logic, so maybe Cixous was on to something there. Littell’s imagination definitely made me LOL (a term unfortunately missing from Cixous’ oeuvre), so perhaps that renders me a mini-Medusa.

Some of the runners-up were equally impressive – if by “impressive” you mean strainingly pathetic in their apparently threatened masculinity. Here’s part of Philip Roth’s entry (yes, these appear to all be big-name writers, and yes, Roth should’ve stayed with the angst-y masturbation scenes of his youth):

The green cock plunged in and out of the abundant naked body sprawled beneath it, slow at first, then faster and harder, then harder still, and all of Tracy’s curves and hollows moved in unison with it. This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote, while simultaneously Pegeen Mike. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.

It was English that Pegeen spoke when she looked over from where she was, now resting on her back beside Tracy, combing the little black cat-o’-nine-tails through Tracy’s long hair, and, with that kid-like smile that showed her two front teeth, said to him softly, ‘Your turn. Defile her.’

Ew. This language of humiliation – sex makes her dirty! – makes me crazy. I am okay with green cocks; better that than a “realistic” dilso. It’s the idea of humiliation and defilement that squicks me.

From John Banville:

When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind.

I assume this Banville is hetero, and thus inexperienced with that particular taste. Fish-slime? Sawdust? I’d be concerned about what she’d used to wash out her mouth between customers. Seriously, sawdust??!?

From Amos Oz, following upon a description of a woman (or girl?) with “the breasts of a twelve-year-old girl”:

And she, like a baby, suddenly thrusts her thumb into her mouth and begins sucking on it loudly, until her back suddenly arches like a stretched bow, and a moment later, when she has sunk back onto the mattress, a long, soft cry bursts as though from the bottom of the sea, expressing not only pleasure but astonishment, as though it were the first time in her life she had reached that landing stage, as if even in her wildest dreams she never imagined what was waiting for her here.

Seriously pedophilic, dude. Give that man a rattle and a sippy cup.

And this offering from Nick Cave:

Bunny lifts his head and looks at her and sees that River’s visage has changed somehow – there is a pout of hubris with self-admiration as she picks up the rhythm of what she would consider to be, come morning’s sober light, basically a sympathy fuck.

‘Oh,’ she says, as she pounds her bullet-proof pussy down.

I’m willing to cut Cave some slack because a commenter at Feminist Law Professors says his book is actually a dark comedy that’s intended to take the piss out of misogynists. But even so, that “bullet-proof pussy” must come from somewhere. (Maybe it’s a phrase from James Bond and not a product of Cave’s own imagination?)

From Anthony Quinn:

Then he dipped his head lower until his mouth grazed the tip of the inverted white triangle that ended between her legs; he brought a hand around and, parting her legs slightly wider, allowed his finger to draw back the pouched silk. It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound, and as he probed it with his tongue he heard her moan quietly. Excited by the oysterish intricacy of her he sucked and licked the salty folds until they became sweet, and slowly she arched her back to heighten the angle of provocation.

Wow, maybe it wasn’t a woman at all but an injured oyster? Seriously, I cut my leg shaving this week, and it was a bad scrape that kept weeping for five days. I can guarantee you it wasn’t erotic in the least, though maybe I overlooked the third eye on my ankle or possibly a stray green strap-on affixed to my pinkie toe?

From Simon Van Booy:

Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah’s body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give.

Again, the anatomy boggles! Either Hannah has incredible deep-throating skills and the world’s shortest esophagus, or some extraordinary enzymes in her genitals.

Richard Milward starts off with yet another foray into freaky anatomy …

Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest …

but then does a quick skidoo into the land of talking genitals and condoms:

… Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina. They shag at double-speed : Inthekitchenthrydospoonsonthebreakfast baramongstallthecutlerytheninthebathroomtheyshowereachotherwithhotkissesandGeorgiekneels onthepisserwhileBobbydoesheruptheshitterthenintheloungtheybounceupanddownonthesofathenin thebedroomtheysqueakthespringsofthemattress. Meanwhile, down in Vaginaland, Mr Condom’s beginning to feel a bit iffy. He’s overheating. For some reason, the shagging seems to be twice as fast this evening, and he grimaces as he gets flung willy-nilly in and out of the pink tunnel. He starts getting friction burns, hanging onto Bobby’s stiff penis for dear life, headbutting Georgie’s cervix at 180 beats per minute. ‘Help me!’ he yells in the darkness, feeling himself melting. The sex only seems to be getting faster though, and Mr Condom squeezes his eyes shut as Bobby groans and the friction starts getting unbearable and Mr Condom thinks he’s going to be sick and the searing pain the searing pain and Bobby groans again and suddenly squirts a gallon of white molten lava from his Jap’s eye, exploding through Mr Condom’s heavy reservoir end and Mr Condom screams and screams and vomits ice cream into Georgie’s vagina.

Quite apart from the racism, that’s enough to put a gal off sex and ice cream alike for a lifetime.

(This and all other quotations came from the Literary Review’s runners-up page, which has more awesome horribleness. If you’re insatiable, previous years’ winners are here. The John Updike and Norman Mailer scenes are a must-read.)

Ann Bartow was wrong about one thing, though. The short list wasn’t all men. It did include one woman, Dr. Sanjida O’Connell. I know she considers herself a woman because I googled her and found that her webpage features flowers (gorgeous, not cutesy) and lots of feminine pronouns. Like some of the other contenders, she goes a bit heavy on water imagery, but I actually rather liked this:

He felt they were lacking some vital ingredient; she was only partly engaged, the building explosion of sensation that had made her unfurl like a flower, a morning glory greeting the sun, was missing. He stopped.

What is it? she asked.

You, he said. I’ve lost you, he whispered.

She smiled, wide-eyed, lithe as a cat, she twisted her body, took his hand and showed him what to do; he felt her breath hot against his throat, her pulse quicken, limbs grow taut.

Then it’s back to waves and currents and tides. But still. I love that the partners are in tune with each other – that she describes the inevitable asynchronies of sex as normal instead of threatening – and that the woman is confident to show the man how to make her lust blossom. Like a morning glory, if you will. I could actually imagine giving O’Connell’s book a whirl. I like her title, The Naked Name of Love. At the very least, she seems to have a solid grip on basic anatomy.

I’ve read too many Harlequins to argue that women are going to write better sex scenes than men. Most sex writing is hackneyed. It’s engorged with cliches (if you will). Writing well about sex is very, very hard. (Or maybe not so much hard as moist, apparently.) The short-listed authors at least tried to be creative, and if the list tilts heavily toward men, I suspect it’s because the roster of Serious Novelist is still heavily male. But it’s remarkable how badly these celebrated authors’ skills collapse in the authorial bedroom – and just possibly in the literal bedroom too. I gotta agree with Ann Bartow on that. These guys may be Serious Writers, but mostly they appear to be seriously anatomically challenged.

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There! Much better! My title carries a whole different set of connotations than the anti-abortion media’s headlines: “Catholic nurse forced to participate in abortion, lawsuit filed” (Catholic News Agency) and “Nurse ‘Forced’ to Help Abort (the New York Post). Despite vigorous googling, I’m not finding much other reporting on this story at all, except from Jill at Feministe. You know your sources are thin when the Washington Times appears to give the most dispassionate and complete account:

Catherina Lorena Cenzon-DeCarlo, 35, a Filipina nurse who is a permanent U.S. resident and married to an American, says that Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan “blatantly” violated a 35-year-old federal law that protects health care workers with religious objections from having to assist in performing abortions.

The hospital performed a late-term abortion on a woman whose health was not at risk, she says. The nurse is asking for a jury trial that could strip the hospital of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding until it complies with the law….

According to the 26-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for New York’s Eastern District, the lawsuit says when Mrs. DeCarlo was hired in August 2004, she told hospital officials outright that she would not participate in abortions. She is Catholic and her uncle is Bishop Carlito J. Cenzon, who leads the Roman Catholic diocese of Baguio in the northern Philippines.

The hospital did not object to this and gave her a form to complete that indicated her refusal to take part in the procedure. During the nearly five years from her hiring date until this May, the lawsuit said, the hospital had avoided asking her to assist on abortions, as it has a cadre of other nurses who have indicated their unwillingness to do so. …

But it was on May 24, a Sunday morning shift over Memorial Day weekend, when matters came to a head. The nurse said she was told she was assigned to help with a “D&C,” signifying “dilation and curettage,” a procedure to remove the remains of a miscarriage from a woman’s womb. But when she began preparing the operating room, she learned she had been assigned to help with aborting a 22-week pregnancy.

Dr. Noel Strong, the resident on duty, said the mother had preeclampsia, a medical complication involving hypertension and protein in the urine that is treatable with magnesium sulfate. Mrs. DeCarlo thought the preeclampsia not to be life-threatening and thus not an immediate cause for an emergency abortion. A flurry of calls then erupted between her and supervisors Fran Carpo and Ella Shapiro after Mrs. DeCarlo refused to take part in the procedure, the lawsuit says.

Ms. Carpo – on instructions from Ms. Shapiro – then forbade the nurse to try to find a substitute, adding that the doctor performing the abortion had called her, furious about the delay, the lawsuit charges. While Ms. Carpo said the patient was in mortal danger, Mrs. DeCarlo pointed out the patient was not even on magnesium therapy, the first step of treatment for the condition.

Ms. Carpo, the lawsuit said, was the manager on duty and could have easily stepped in as a replacement but instead threatened to charge Mrs. DeCarlo with “insubordination and patient abandonment,” charges that could have ended Mrs. DeCarlo’s career.

Mrs. DeCarlo broke down at this point and offered to get her priest on the phone to explain her point of view, says the lawsuit, but hospital officials were adamant that she participate. When she pointed out the abortion could be delayed until another nurse could be found to take part, she received more threats, the lawsuit says, until she finally capitulated, saying she would take part “under protest.”

When asked why she didn’t simply walk out of the building, one of her attorneys, Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, said the plaintiff “strenuously protested to the point of tears. Employees should not be forced to choose between their jobs and their beliefs.”

The nurse said she was “forced to watch the doctor remove the bloody arms and legs of the child from its mother’s body with forceps” and carry those body parts in a cup to another area of the operating room.

Bear in mind that the only source of info for this story is the lawsuit filed. Everyone else is refusing comment. Of course the patient’s identity and history are being kept confidential, as well they should.

Jill and her commenters have done a fine job discussing the legal and moral obligations of hospitals and medical practitioners. I don’t want to rehash that here. I’ll just say that no nurse or doctor should be hired to work in the ER, as DeCarlo was, if they would withhold lifesaving treatment.

Instead, I want to look more closely at the medical issues. Preeclampsia is a fairly common complication of pregnancy, occurring in 5 to 10% of all pregnancies. It’s signaled by a rise in their blood pressure, protein in their urine, and (sometimes) edema, or swelling, especially of the extremities. Many women experience no overt symptoms and might not even know that they have it. Most women survive it just fine.

But in a small number of women – between 5 and 7 per 10,000 deliveries – preeclampsia progresses to full-blown eclampsia, which includes seizures sometimes followed by coma and death. It accounts for 17.6% of maternal deaths in the U.S and 15% of premature deliveries.

Just because preeclampsia is a fairly common condition doesn’t make it harmless. I know someone who died of it, a college classmate of mine. A former colleague of my husband’s lost his partner to it.

We don’t have many more tools to predict or control eclampsia than we did 100 years ago, although one major reason health officials tout prenatal care is that it can catch and monitor preeclampsia while it’s still mild. We also don’t understand its causative mechanisms, despite countless research studies. Magnesium sulfate can be given by IV to prevent seizures, and while it saves lives, it’s no miracle drug. The only definitive treatment is delivery of the fetus – and even then, the new mother remains at risk for a few days thereafter. Of the three major killers of expectant mothers 100 years ago – hemorrhage, infection, and eclampsia – we’ve only made great inroads against the first two, thanks to transfusions and antibiotics. Mortality from eclampsia remains significant.

So what was going on with the pregnant woman in DeCarlo’s case? Well, according to the Catholic News Agency, she wasn’t really in jeopardy at all:

Hospital officials told Cenzon-DeCarlo that the situation was an “emergency,” although evidence suggests that this was not the case.  The hospital itself labeled the case as a “Category II,” meaning that the operation needed to take place within six hours.  This would have allowed enough time to find another nurse without moral objections to assisting in the abortion, her lawyers said.

Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the ADF, explained that the hospital could not legally have required the nurse to participate in the abortion even if the case had been a “Category I,” meaning that the patient required “immediate surgical intervention for life or limb threatening conditions.”  Federal statutes prohibit recipients of federal health funds from requiring employees to perform abortions, Bowman told CNA.

However, the evidence in the case suggested that the patient was not even at the “Category II” level, as the hospital had claimed.  When the woman was brought into the room, Cenzon-DeCarlo observed no indications that the case was a medical emergency.  The woman’s blood pressure was not at a crisis level, and standard procedures for patients in crisis [administration of magnesium sulfate] had not been taken.  Yet the nurse was still required to aid in the abortion.

Since we don’t have any hard information, I’d like to put on my historian-of-childbirth hat and offer some informed speculation. Severe preeclampsia at 22 weeks’ pregnancy is not very common. However, it can occur, and there’s one variant that would demand immediate action: HELLP syndrome. Here’s how Reese at Feminist Mormon Housewives describes her experience with HELLP:

Earlier this year I had my first child. He was born at 28 weeks because my life was in danger. It turned out that I had HELLP syndrome, which is basically preeclampsia turned up to 11. My blood pressure was 186/110, my organs were failing, my red blood cells were disintegrating, and my platelet count was dropping making it so that my blood wouldn’t clot. If I could manage to function with my organs failing, and if I could have avoided having a stroke or heart attack, I would have bled to death in childbirth.

If the patient at Mt. Sinai was suffering from HELLP syndrome, the attending physician could have very reasonably determined that there was no way she could hold out for several more weeks, hoping for a viable but very premature fetus. Indeed, he judged her case serious enough to require intervention within the next several hours. This suggests either HELLP or another serious complication, such as a severe headache (indicating a high risk of seizure) or chest pain (possible embolism). If you’re going to go straight to delivery (in this case, abortion, because the fetus was still a couple weeks short of the very outer limit of viability), then you might start administering magnesium sulfate as seizure prophylaxis as part of pre-op procedures, but the main priority would be to get the operation underway. Ordinarily a nurse would start an IV. In this case, the assigned nurse was arguing with her supervisor instead of tending to the patient. Could that possibly have anything to do with why the patient wasn’t on magnesium sulfate?

The patient’s relatively normal blood pressure is a red herring, because as emedicine notes, HELLP can present differently than regular preeclampsia:

HELLP syndrome (hemolysis, elevated liver enzyme, low platelets) is a form of severe preeclampsia that has been associated with particularly high maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality and may be present without hypertension or, in some occasions, without proteinuria. [my emphasis]

So we don’t know all the details, but certainly my speculations are a whole lot more believable than a scenario where mild preeclampsia was used as a pretext for elective abortion at 22 weeks. This was presumably a wanted fetus. On the off chance that it wasn’t, the woman could have sought elective abortion, which can still be carried out legally at 22 weeks. While it can be tough to find a provider for late-term terminations, last I knew New York City was one of the meccas for women needing such abortions. So there’d be absolutely reason to show up in the ER, hoping on spec that you could get an elective abortion. There’s also no reason why an ER doctor would prioritize a procedure if it weren’t urgent. Folks in the ER have a few other problems on their plate.

Just imagine you’re a woman hoping to bring a child into the world. Imagine you get sick with a condition in mid-pregnancy that you’d never even heard of. Imagine hearing the ER doctor – whom you’ve never met in you life – tell you that you need to abort in order to save your own life; otherwise, HELLP syndrome is liable to put you into liver failure, possibly complicated by kidney failure and blood that refuses to clot. And then imagine that your story of loss is plastered throughout the court system and the yellow press, trumpeted by pro-lifers as evil incarnate, and held out as an example of women’s and doctors’ supreme depravity.

No, we don’t know exactly what happened. But my speculative reading of the paltry facts is a whole lot more coherent and compelling than the tale DeCarlo tells in her court filings. Given that DeCarlo is the niece of a Catholic bishop, this whole thing stinks of a set-up. If it’s not, why she didn’t she just quit on the spot when her boss ordered her to aid in an act she considered murder? I’d like to think that I’d have that much moral courage. Instead, DeCarlo cooperated just enough to add drama to her lawsuit – after she’d gambled with a woman’s life.

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In comments to Jeff Fecke’s post on health care reform at Alas, I expressed my skepticism that the Senate health care bill will be better than doing nother. Ampersand kindly pointed me to two columns by Ezra Klein. This first piece was quite reassuring, because I didn’t realize that the proposed Health Exchanges would have the power to decertify an insurer. There are still some big-ticket items that will remain virtually untouched as far as I understand it – including pharmaceuticals – and so I remain skeptical about the Senate bill’s ability to contain costs. Thus far, it looks like the insurers and big pharma are doing a happy dance, and I tend to agree with Robert Reich’s assessment: This is better than no bill, but “just barely.”

The other post by Klein set forth five ways in which the Senate bills would help hold costs down. I only want to address the first mechanism he outlines: bundled payments:

A lot of the focus has been on cost controls that work through the insurance system. But costs aren’t rising because insurance is expensive. They’re rising because health care is expensive. The experiments with bundled payments are an attempt to begin addressing those drivers directly. Right now, hospitals get paid for each procedure they conduct. If you come in with symptoms of a stroke, they get one check for the diagnostic, one check for the stroke medication, one check for the surgery, etc. And if you have to come back in two weeks, they get more money for that, too.

Under bundled payments, the hospital would receive one check for everything related to your stroke over a single period of time. That means they make more money from doing less, rather than more money from doing more. It also gives them an incentive to coordinate care when you’re out of the hospital, as it’s cheaper to get a nurse to call and make sure you’re taking your medicine than it is to have you in for a follow-up procedure. For more on the bundled payments system, and Sen. Mark Warner’s efforts to strengthen it, see this post, or this article.

I hadn’t realized bundled payments was part of the package, and I’m now I’m seriously fretting. I have no doubt that they’ll contain costs. However I know from personal experience that bundled payments can also create perverse incentives and very seriously harm the quality of care delivered. My very own sweet husband was an experiment with bundled payments. It wasn’t what I’d call a successful experiment.

My husband was admitted to the hospital in Berlin, Germany, in August 2004, right after Germany implemented bundled payments throughout its health system. He’s German and I’d lived there for nearly a decade, so we thought we knew the system. We were covered by relatively generous insurance from his American employer. But what our insurance covered was moot, because the hospital could only bill a lump sum, no matter how much care my husband required.

My husband had come down with an undiagnosed condition that was progressively paralyzing his peripheral nerves. It wasn’t precisely Guillain-Barre, but within several days it seemed apparent that his own immune system was attacking the myelin sheath of his nerves, as occurs in Guillain-Barre, and that it would make sense to treat it as such. However, the standard treatment for Guillain-Barre – intravenous immunoglobulin – is quite expensive. If the doctors gave it to him, they’d come out far behind on reimbursements; they’d actually *lose* a lot of money on his case. And so they didn’t give him the treatment.

Once I realized through frantic googling that intravenous immunoglobulin might help, we were nearly two weeks into our adventure. My husband was still hospitalized, had just learned that he had cancer to boot, and was viewing the world through a haze of painkillers. He wasn’t in any position to advocate for himself. So I confronted the chief physician and asked why he wasn’t getting the drug that’s the standard of care. At first he said it was probably too late to do any good now. I pointed out that my husband’s ability to walk was still declining daily. He countered, “It’s too expensive.” I said, “What???” We had American insurance; they could just bill us and our insurer would have to pay us back. I was perplexed at why cost would even enter into the calculus.

Only months later did I realize that the German system had just undergone reform, and that the hospital could not charge us any more than they charged people enrolled in German insurance plans. They could not pass the cost of the IVIG through to us and our insurer. We were a cash sink that was growing ever deeper.

In the heat of the argument, I knew none of this. I only knew that my husband was very sick, in grievous pain, and losing nerve function every day. I said, “This is the standard treatment. You have to give it to him.” And the doctor knew that I knew. He was a Herr Doktor Professor, a leader in his field, and surely unaccustomed to brash American women telling him how to practice medicine. Whether out of respect for the truth or pure shock, he finally agreed, if a bit grudgingly.

My husband suffered some permanent paralysis, and I’ll always wonder if prompt treatment would have made a difference. He did regain control over most of the affected nerves and muscles, though with lots of residual symptoms. I sometimes wonder if he’d have lost his ability to walk if he’d never gotten the IVIG. I sometimes wonder if he would have recovered fully if my googling had been swifter, and if getting access to the chief physician hadn’t been harder than crashing the White House. These questions lead to madness, and so I try not to ask them.

If the same thing happened here in the U.S., I’d very seriously consider suing.

Now, I realize that this is a single anecdote, and that every medical system spawns horror stories. Generally speaking, I’ve had great experiences with the German system. However, the utter trainwreck of care my husband experienced illustrates a systemic problem with bundled payments. They create strong – possibly irresistible – incentives to deny care that’s standard, evidence-based, and possibly lifesaving, if that care is expensive. They represent another step toward insurance companies dictating how doctors practice medicine.

In my fantasy world, some version of the public option would resurface when the House and Senate Bills are reconciled – and bundled payments would be jettisoned, along with Stupak, of course. Oh, and the final bill would contain language on Joe Lieberman’s überdouchery. Just because.

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… then why the heck did his folks name him Oral, fer cripesake?

Via Unrepentant Old Hippie, a posthumous glimpse into a side of the preacher man that we never knew:

Here are highlights, again thanks to Unrepentant Old Hippie:

“The vagina. Only one organ made can bring forth life. It’s the male organ. It’s not, in lesbianism, for the tongue of a female goes into the vagina of another female. It’s not in the male, where the male organ goes into the part of the body where the… the waste matter comes out of the body as poison, and he penetrates that part of the body in homosexuality. It’s not to be put in the mouth of the man, or the mouth of the man or the woman…. It is the male organ, penetrating the vagina of the woman, the male and the female.”

But it gets even better when Oral goes off on the ears and nostrils as unnatural sites for penetration. Not sure where he found the nostrils in his Holy Scripture. Maybe he just had some very bad personal experiences with those “orifyces”?

The only possible retort to Oral? Well, I hear it’s Zappadan, so here you go: “Broken Hearts are for Assholes.”

In case the Dutch subtitles aren’t doing much for you, here’s a brief transcription of the, ahem, end:

you’re an asshole. that’s right!
you’re an asshole. yes yes!
don’t fool yoself girl, it’s winking at you.
ram it up your poopshoot!
don’t fool yourself girl, it’s going right up yer poopshoot. ayeyayayayaa

But hey, at least no one is ramming anything up with anyone’s boogershoot. At least that one orifyce is safe.

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The feminist blogetariat is abuzz at the revelation that freelancer and professional blogger James Chartrand is actually a lady, and that ze could only make a real living after swapping genders. Sure, hir story definitely demonstrates that sexism is alive and well. The fascinating thing about this story, though, is how many layers it has, even after you peel away the obvious message about sexism. There’s hypermasculinity and gender fluidity; imperiled working mothers and supposedly ball-busting mommy bloggers; feminist outrage and faux feminism masquerading as a commitment to a liberal ideal of “choice.”

For starters, Chartrand’s success shows that masculinity can be purely a social construct. No, that doesn’t mean there’s no biological elements to masculinity, but it does indicate that it’s possible for it to be entirely performative, at least online. At the Sexist, Amanda Hess dissects the many ways in which Chartrand’s constructed masculinity goes beyond hir name: a hypermasculine logo, descriptions of hir female co-blogger as “perky” and “adorable,” bashing of mommy-bloggers, and the occasional gratuitous naked woman.

Once you know that Chartrand is actually a woman, hir web persona starts to look almost like a caricature of exaggerated masculinity, as if ze was trying to overcompensate for hir gender-switching. It’s possible Chartrand was indulging in an extended in-joke, but that seems improbable, given that hir livelihood was at stake. It seems more likely that the naked ladies and just-one-of-the-guys banter was part of an elaborate defense system against hir cover being blown.

At any rate, the fact that Chartrand’s charade was entirely successful suggests that masculinity can be pure artifice. Despite the occasional slip (like a recent post in which the otherwise assertively heteronormative James mentioned dating men, and then hurriedly changed the byline to hir female co-blogger’s), no one seems to have challenged hir online persona, and indeed hir regular readers appear to have been flabbergasted when ze came out. Ze only came out because someone threaten to “out” hir, not because hir facade of masculinity had cracked.

About that language of “outing” – it’s pretty weird, isn’t it? Why does a virtual man ‘fessing up to being a woman borrow a term linked to more clearly stigmatized identities? Obviously, there should be no shame attached to being homosexual or trans, either. Yet it’s telling that the vocabulary of “outing” appears in all of these contexts, providing more evidence that homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny form a kind of unholy trinity.

Chartrand’s virtual gender swapping further demonstrates what Sherry Turkle (in Life on the Screen) began arguing in the mid-1990s: since a person can swap identities online, gender can dissolve into an arbitrarily chosen posture – at least for a while.

I wonder if this very instability of gender online fosters a sexist backlash. That is, do people work harder to shore up gender boundaries online precisely because anonymity makes it possible to play with one’s identity? Are we collectively so insecure about gender that we have to police it intensively on the Internet? We know that women get harassed online in ways that men don’t.

Are web-based professional writers also especially vulnerable to being pigeonholed as unserious if they’re female? Chartrand writes of hir experience writing under hir real name:

I was treated like crap, too. Bossed around, degraded, condescended to, with jibes made about my having to work from home. I quickly learned not to mention I had kids. I quickly learned not to mention I worked from my kitchen table.

This snippet of hir story suggests it’s not just the name change that revolutionized Chartrand’s fortunes, although I’m sure figleaf is right when he says that publishing is still thoroughly sexist. Nor was it only aggressively masculine posturing that won Chartrand clients. Chartrand started making more money as soon as ze stopped portraying hirself as a work-from-home mom. It wasn’t just hir gender that held hir back; ze was hampered by the image of kitchen table chaos and presumed children tugging on hir imagined apron strings. It’s ironic that in order to support hir kids and keep them from falling out of the middle-class, ze had to pretend they didn’t exist.

Ironic, but not surprising. Sociologist Shelly Correll has demonstrated that women with kids face a “motherhood penalty.” They’re less likely to be offered jobs and less likely to be paid well. When Correll gave potential employers fake resumes that varied only in subtle references to parenting activities, she found that supposedly childless women were twice as likely as mothers to be called for an interview.

The motherhood penalty suggests it’s not just plain vanilla sexism that accounts for Chartrand’s advantage as a “man.” Nor is the glass ceiling going the way of the dinosaurs, as Chartrand’s female co-blogger Taylor implies:

I thought I couldn’t do anything I wanted to for other reasons. I actually thought I was never going to be as successful as my mother, powerful woman that she is. But the very idea that I couldn’t accomplish great things because I was a woman would have been laughable to me.

After all, the person I thought I couldn’t live up to WAS a woman.

That’s how my generation thinks. We’re much, much closer to the glass ceiling than our mothers. A study done in 2005 showed that women under 25 working full time earned 93 cents to every dollar a man earned.

Women over 25? They were still stuck with 79 cents to the dollar.

That means that if I take a salaried job today, I might be earning $32,550 while the guy next to me earns $35,000. And that’s not fair, and I would complain about it.

But it’s nothing compared to the $27,650 that James would be earning right next to me, under his female name.

James is 38 years old. I am 25.

The pay gap is dying out due to mere generational change? That’s just wishful thinking. Let’s see where Taylor and all those other 25-year-olds are in twenty years, if they’ve chosen to have kids. This chart (from U.S. News and World Report, via Sociological Images) shows that near-equity has been achieved only for young (and mostly childless) women. The pay gap opens up during women’s prime childbearing and mothering years and persists until retirement age.

 Maybe the stigmatization of mothers in the labor market accounts for James Chartrand’s disparagement of mommy bloggers (via Amanda Hess):

I’ll give you an example of a stereotype: Work-at-home mothers are frazzled women with six kids at their feet. They wear baby spitup, the washing machine runs all day, the dishes are piling up, and they have a million things on the go at once. No one appreciates them, they bitch and whine, and they feel they aren’t taken seriously in the business world.

Before I have my comment section filled up with nasty remarks about how I hate women and my email bombarded with insulted letters telling me that I have no idea what I’m talking about, let me reassure you that I fully understand the hardships of both being a mother and working from home. I respect work-at-home mothers.

I cannot say, in all honesty, that I know what it’s like to be a work-at-home mother, though. But I’m a dad, and that’s close.

Many blogs run by women, managed by women and read by women seem to have an unspoken “all men beware” mantra. They’re full of posts and comments that leave me the distinct impression that these women wield their feminism like a spiked mace sword.

It’s scary.

Woe to the man that steps foot in those online communities of female bloggers with children.

On the few occasions that I’ve risked my balls to post a comment on a mommy blog, I noticed my comments were skipped over as if they (I?) didn’t even exist. Sometimes my comments get a sharp, snappy, “piss off” kind of remark in reply. Sometimes I’m absolutely bashed, and I have a hard time figuring out why. …

I don’t understand that. Yes, I understand catering to a female/mother audience and forming a blog community. I understand forming an online personality. I understand discussing the difficulties of working while raising children and maintaining a household.

I don’t understand making male readers and participants feel unwelcome. I know plenty of mothers who blog and who come off as… well, bloggers who are mothers. They don’t perpetuate the stereotype of a frazzle Mom trying to work in a household of chaos. They don’t try to shave the balls of all males who dare to visit the blog. They don’t discount opinions from men. Everyone is equal. They blog, they work, and they raise their children.

Projection, much?

Note the conflation of mommy bloggers with feminists with man bashers. Note also the anxiety about hir wholly virtual balls. Chartrand appears to have a bad case of pen(is) envy.

I think it’s perfectly fine to assume a pen name. I even have some limited sympathy with Chartrand’s decision not to admit that she was working under a pseudonym. It’s dishonest, and that’s not entirely cool. Yet it’s understandable, given the long tradition of women writers who’ve posed as men to get published, that a woman toiling in obscurity would “pull a Bronte” (as Kate Harding puts it in a great analysis at Salon). If we really believe that one’s gender is as important to the quality of one’s work as one’s eye color – which I do – then there’s no reason to think Chartrand’s gender should matter, at all, to her potential employers. Unlike Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky, I don’t think there’s something “Uncle Tom-y” about Chartrand’s choice. Unlike Fran Langum at Blue Gal, I don’t worry that Chartrand’s example will contribute to ghettoizing women who write, because Chartrand’s case is – as far as we know – singular. (You should read Fran’s post anyway, if only for the awesome pink penis pen illustration.)

However, it’s deeply disingenuous to claim to be a feminist (via your co-blogger) once you’ve made sweeping generalizations about “many” (weasel-word alert!) women bloggers being ball-busters. I don’t care if those balls are real or virtual. It’s all well and good for Chartrand’s co-blogger, Taylor, to write, “No one, but no one, gets to tell us how women should behave.” Sure, I’m not the boss of you. But I do get to point out that Chartrand’s story isn’t just a fable about the persistence of sexism, or the fluidity of gender, or the precariousness of working motherhood. It’s also a precautionary tale about the perils of liberal feminism of the sort that elevates “choice” above all else, including basic respect for fellow women. If your choice is not just to pose as a man but prop up the old boys’ club by dissing other women en masse, then that’s a choice I can’t respect. It’s a choice I can’t call feminist.

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(From ICHC?)

Actually there’s not much scientific evidence that handwashing prevents flu – though it definitely reduces bacteria, so it’s worth doing anyway.

But never mind that. I’m doing a happy dance because I just “got shotted” (as my son the Tiger used to say) against swine flu. Yippee! It may not protect 100% either, but there’s good evidence that it offers substantial protection. I’m relieved that I got it early enough for antibodies to develop before I’m back in the classroom in January, dodging my students’ germy germs.

My university, which had previously received just a few hundred doses for high-risk folks, suddenly got a shipment of 7000 doses. No, that’s not a typo. Seven thousand! I’m bemused at how quickly we went from the vaccine being more precious than gold to being seemingly awash in the stuff.

Regular readers know I’ve been slightly paranoid about this flu, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I got to the clinic more than two hours early. Luckily, the nurse was not only kind but very smart, and she’d already started giving shots, so I was out of there in 20 minutes. I probably was number 10 or so out of those 7000.

Here’s to your health, dear readers! I hope you’ll get shotted soon, too, if you’ve been waiting.

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I’m going to back off my promise not to comment on the Tiger Woods story, because there’s one facet of it that’s got me ruminating on what we mean when we talk about “domestic violence,” “battering,” and “abuse.” We will probably never know what transpired between Tiger, his wife Elin Nordegren, and a golf club. The media are assuming or alleging that she whalloped him with a club in a fit of rage. Now Amanda Marcotte has weighed in against the trivialization of assault when it’s alleged to have been committed by a Swedish supermodel. I absolutely agree with her that women shouldn’t get a free pass on assault. A woman who commits violence within the family should be subject to prosecution, just as a man would be.

But not all intimate-partner violence is the same, and that’s where things get sticky, because the law generally doesn’t differentiate very finely in this area. A one-time assault is not equivalent – morally, practically, psychologically, or politically – to systematic battering. Legally, however, this distinction has been erased.

Current laws on domestic violence were formulated to redress the historical problem of it being swept under the rug by family members, communities, police officers, and courts. As Hanna Roisin writes at Slate,

Because of Florida’s domestic-violence laws, [Tiger Woods] admitting to the police that Nordegren in any way harmed him would virtually guarantee that the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs, even if he protested it.

In 1991, Florida became one of many states to set up a pro-arrest policy in domestic-violence cases. For years, feminist advocates had complained that police treated domestic-violence cases as private family matters and assumed the abused spouse would never follow through and press charges. Beginning in the 1990s, laws began virtually to force the police to take action. The new statutes direct police to figure out who was the “primary aggressor” in a domestic dispute. They make a call based on a checklist (bruises, disparity of physical size), and then they make an arrest. Howls of protest from the abused spouse are to be ignored: “The decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties,” the Florida law reads.

The consequences for Nordegren could be grim, as Mary Elizabeth Williams adds at Salon:

If he says his wife went ballistic, she would be arrested — whether the golf superstar presses the matter or not. But there’s still more — Nordegren is married to a U.S. citizen, but she is Swedish born. I spoke Monday to a friend who works in Florida EMS who mused, “Is she an American citizen? If she’s convicted of a felony she could be deported.”

That’s pretty much my understanding of the law in Ohio, too. (I’m still not a lawyer but I’ve absorbed a smattering of knowledge of the DV laws through contact with a couple of lawyers this year.) In Ohio, according to a defense lawyer I know, once the police have been called out to a suspected domestic assault, the need to file only one form in order to make an arrest but three if they don’t.

I understand and support the “better safe than sorry” philosophy behind this. Under the old regime, a lot of women suffered in silence at the hands of their partners. Yet we also need to recognize that the laws have gone from being too lax to quite rigid – with sometimes disproportionate consequences. On the one hand, the current law isn’t enough to keep an offender from repeating. Protection orders are often a worthless scrap of paper. I know one survivor who’s been repeatedly harassed by the guy who hurt her, but the courts seem to be hamstrung when it comes to enforcing the protection order. At the other extreme, the laws include some cookie-cutter features such as the requirement to prosecute against the spouse’s wishes no matter what, and mandatory prison terms (as here in Ohio) that remind me of those used against drug offenders.

Now, I also get why those provision were written into law. A spouse might be intimidated into dropping charges. Courts have a long, long history of treating domestic violence as a peccadillo.

But let’s go back to the Tiger Woods case. Here, we have no reason to believe his wife could intimidate him, and yet it appears very likely (as Roisin argues) that he’s kept mum to protect Nordegren from possible prosecution. Despite all the nattering about this case, no one in the media is alleging that Nordegren abused him regularly.

While violence is never okay, I don’t think it makes sense to conflate a single act of rage with the sort of systematic abuse that batterers dish out. Such abuse occurs over months and years. It’s certainly more common for a man to abuse a woman in this systematic way, but the reverse also occurs, as does battering between same-sex partners.

The crucial variable that defines battering and abuse is not, to my mind, gender; it’s the systematic, pervasive, long-term character of abuse. It’s the desire to control one’s victim.

This distinction isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be in Amanda’s analysis, and it largely disappeared in the subsequent comment thread, apart from a couple of folks who insisted not all violence = battering. Amanda does draw a lot of other useful distinctions:

Is Elin Nordegren a batterer?  I’m not really sure it’s exactly the same kind of domestic violence, if she did attack Tiger Woods in response to his infidelities.  I would argue that assaulting a cheater is motivated by the belief that you own them sexually. …

But I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Nordegren is a classic batterer, like I suspect Chris Brown was.  I doubt she isolates Tiger Woods from friends and family and controls his movements.  I doubt she’s invested in her image of herself as a masculine dominator or thinks that Woods is her inferior that should cower and obey.  I doubt she worked up to this beating by softening him up with a constant barrage of put-downs interlaced with chivalric displays of charm in order to cause him to question his own sanity and ruin his self esteem.  I’m not excusing her behavior in any way.  If she beat him, she should face the criminal justice system and an end to her marriage, like any other abuser.  But it’s important to see the distinction between incidents like this and the epidemic of battering that so many women face.

Why?  Because if we refuse to see these distinctions, we won’t know how to fight violence, because you can only fight violence if you understand root causes.  Violence like Nordegren’s alleged behavior can’t be addressed in the same way as more typical batterer-style violence.  Freaking out over infidelity can be slowed by fighting the idea that monogamy gives you ownership rights to your spouse.  But battering needs to be fought by putting rest to the idea that women exist to serve men’s desires and needs and that men are better than women. Battering can only be fought culturally by rewriting our scripts for masculinity so that dominance and power over others don’t define the man.  Different causes require different approaches.

I agree with a lot of what Amanda says. Most batterers are indeed men, and we could expect their abusive behavior to diminish if misogyny goes into decline. However, the problems of abuse and battering isn’t only gendered. Some women control men, too, through their physical violence. Their numbers are small, but not vanishingly so. Women who beat men can often count on them not to fight back, thanks to being socialized not to hit a girl. (Back in 2002, Salon published a moving essay by a man who had tolerated years of violence from his alcoholic wife out of a mix of decency, fear, and shame.) Emotional abuse, though not usually lethal, can be quite devastating, and it doesn’t require physical strength.

In the end, Elin Nordegren’s gender has no bearing on why I believe it would be wrong to convict her on domestic violence charges and deport her back to Sweden. I’m troubled because I think jail and deportation would be utterly disproportionate to the alleged crime. If she had hit another woman in a bar fight, the potential consequences would have been substantially milder. (I have a few former students who’ve been in bar fights, and I don’t recall any of them doing hard  time. Community service, yes; prison, no. Also, the bonus punishment of having to tell their prof that they had to miss class for a court date.)

Problem is, we can’t always distinguish one-time meltdowns from the first arrest of a serious, systematic batterer. So I’m not sure how we should try to improve on the legal status quo. I don’t know how we can introduce reasonable flexibility into the law without putting some victims of battering at greater risk. At the very least, though, I think we are responsible for acknowledging that the current law is unduly harsh toward some offenders – and for saying that this is a real problem.

As for Tiger? I suspect he sees it similarly, and that’s why he’s protecting his wife. But I do give him credit for decency and generosity in shielding her from the full force of the law. That is neither to endorse her alleged attack on him, nor to give him a free pass on his rampant cheating. It’s only to see that both of them are real, 3-D, flawed human beings capable of occasional noble acts. Just like the rest of us.

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Maybe you’ve already heard this at Feministe, where I picked it up. If not, enjoy the wonderful weirdness of Hanukkah lyrics penned by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, which last I heard was the Mormons’ promised land.

The song’s backstory is here. Musically, it’s good enough that you can happily hear it more than once.

And is it really so surprising that a Mormon would write a Hanukkah song? After all, Jewish songwriters created about half of the popular Christmas songs written in the twentieth century. Here’s just a sampling.

  • Johnny Marks – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (and many more)
  • Mel Torme – The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
  • Irving Berlin – White Christmas
  • Walter Kent and Buck Ram – I’ll Be Home for Christmas
  • Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne – Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
  • Frank Loesser – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (which I discussed here, and yes, I still think it’s complicated)
  • (More info on Jewish songwriters here ; note that many took on WASPy names.)

It’s about time Christians started returning the favor! But who’d have thought Orrin Hatch would be the guy?

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I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my breasts bounce back some sound waves (to the extent that they still bounce at all) instead of glowing from repeated mammograms. Two new studies, when read together, raise some intriguing questions about how we might catch breast cancer in young women without overreliance on mammograms.

First, the bad news: A meta-analysis of six studies performed by Dutch researchers finds that women can have up to a 2.5-fold increase in breast cancer if they’re exposed to radiation before age 20 and are already at higher-than-average risk. “Radiation” refers to both mammograms and chest x-rays. (Obviously, radiation for cancer treatment also amps up the risk of a second cancer, but that’s not what the researchers examined.) “High-risk” was defined by the presence of either a known mutation (such as the BRCA genes) or a family history of breast cancer.

On the flip side, though, Dr. Constance Lehman of the University of Washington has found ultrasound to be extremely effective at distinguishing breast tumors from benign changes in women under age 40. In two studies that together looked at about 2500 women who presented with a suspcious lump, ultrasound was completely correct in differentiating between benign and cancerous changes. It missed one cancer that was found by a full-breast mammogram in an area remote from where the lump was felt.

Neither of these studies looked at women in the group currently under discussion, those between 40 and 50. Neither of them looked at women of average risk who were undergoing totally routine screening (as opposed to heightened surveillance for one reason or another).

However, the studies raise questions that are highly relevant to this “controversial” group – asymptomatic, apparently healthy, low-risk women between 40 and 50 (and perhaps into the mid-50s, if the woman’s not yet menopausal).

First, how much do we really know about the risks of ionizing radiation to these women? I’ve asked radiologists, gynecologists, and even a breast cancer specialist about the radiation risks posed by mammograms, and none thought they were worth worrying about. But I’ve had a lot of mammograms already: one at 36 for an odd lump, another “baseline” at 41, followed every time by multiple extra views because something didn’t look quite right. I’ve had three MRIs to follow a suspicious little lump that eventually dissolved. (I was hellbent on avoiding a biopsy, but you can bet your boobies I’d have caved if the lump had been bigger.) The only time I got a simple all-clear was this fall, when I told the tech to “squeeze harder.” She said, “Honey, in all my years I’ve never been asked to do that.” But I was ready to do almost anything to avoid a callback.

So how big a risk is an “average” fortysomething gal like me incurring? Well, here’s one of the reassuring studies (via Pubmed), “Estimation of radiation risk from screening mammography: recent trends and comparison with expected benefits,” by SA Feig and SM Ehrlich, both radiologists in Philadelphia:

Although direct evidence of carcinogenic risk from mammography is lacking, there is a hypothetical risk from screening because excess breast cancers have been demonstrated in women receiving doses of 0.25-20 Gy. These high-level exposures to the breast occurred from the 1930s to the 1950s due to atomic bomb radiation, multiple chest fluoroscopies, and radiation therapy treatments for benign disease. Using a risk estimate provided by the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) V Report of the National Academy of Sciences and a mean breast glandular dose of 4 mGy from a two-view per breast bilateral mammogram, one can estimate that annual mammography of 100,000 women for 10 consecutive years beginning at age 40 will result in at most eight breast cancer deaths during their lifetime. On the other hand, researchers have shown a 24% mortality reduction from biennial screening of women in this age group; this will result in a benefit-to-risk ratio of 48.5 lives saved per life lost and 121.3 years of life saved per year of life lost. An assumed mortality reduction of 36% from annual screening would result in 36.5 lives saved per life lost and 91.3 years of life saved per year of life lost. Thus, the theoretical radiation risk from screening mammography is extremely small compared with the established benefit from this life-saving procedure and should not unduly distract women under age 50 who are considering screening.

Okay, so the risk-benefit ratio looks pretty good, right? But look at their assumptions. I’ve been getting mammograms at six-month intervals instead of annually, and requiring not just two views per breast but typically six or eight. (I have “dense” breast tissue, like many women in their 40s, which sounds perkier than it really is). If that trend continues, by age 50 I’ll have accumulated six to eight times the amount that Feig and Ehrlich assume. Add to that several chest x-rays from my two bouts of pneumonia and a few chest infections that were heading south, and what’s my real exposure?

I don’t think I’m especially unusual, even if I may also not be typical. “Dense” and cystic tissue is practically the norm in my age group. Most of us have had a chest x-ray or two. What does it mean if we’ve instead accumulated several times the presumed average? The mortality curve for radiation exposure tends to be curved upward, not linear, as far as I understand it.

Also, these guys work in radiology. While I don’t think they were overtly biased, there’s always a built-in bias to protect “business as usual” in one’s profession. (Yes, even among us historians and gender studies profs.) It would be very hard indeed to come out and spin this data in a different direction, questioning the safety for the subset of women who come under more intensive surveillance.

The second big question is whether ultrasound could usefully substitute as a screening tool for women in their forties. The study I cited above looked at diagnostic testing – that is, women presented with a problem. My hope is that it could eventually become the primary tool. A quick glance at the studies shows it’s not quite ready for prime time (see here, for instance, and here), but the studies also show that very recent research (published 2009) is generating better algorithms for distinguishing between cancer and harmless changes.

Of course, one of the reasons not to routinely screen women under 50 is to avoid pathologizing their bodies and generating horrible anxiety. Merely switching to ultrasound wouldn’t address those problems. But that’s too big a set of problems for this post; they’ll have to wait for another day.

Update 12/13/09: Orac at Respectful Insolence (Science Blogs) notes that a crank named Mike Adams is blowing up the study on mammography and radiation into (short version) OMG, mammograms are a hoax and they’re out to kill all women! Yep, healthy skepticism about a screening method is one thing; quackery is quite another. Mammography are definitely a useful tool, even though there’s a history of doctors and patients overestimating its benefits and disregarding its risks.

Also, Orac is skeptical of this metastudy because there’s no access to the details so far (just an abstract that provides no more info than the popular press), and so there’s no way to know how solid it may be. As Orac says, “Garbage in, garbage out” – and unless you know how good the underlying studies were, you can’t judge the quality of the metaanalysis either. I want to second his call for a large, prospective study of risks and benefits to younger women, as well as his desire for better screening methods that don’t rely on ionizing radiation. As he notes, MRI can’t fill that need, because it’s too expensive and too sensitive (thus exacerbating mammography’s problem of too many false positives in young women). But really, if you’re interested in these issues, you should just go read Orac’s excellent post.

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