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Archive for June, 2010

(Squabbling kittehs from ICHC?)

This morning began with the Tiger waking the Bear by pelting him with stuffed animals. An hour later, he rammed him with a desk chair – “accidentally,” of course. By 11 they were fighting over a toy. I was calculating the days until school begins. And wallowing in self-pity.

(More intransigent sib-kittehs from ICHC?)

So we fled the apartment, ran a couple errands, visited a playground. As my boys were romping happily on the play equipment, a woman rolled up with a one-year-old in a carriage. She turned slightly, and I saw it was actually a double carriage. She was ferrying year-old twins with a striking resemblance to Cabbage Patch babies (and I mean that in a nice way). The carriage was like the Queen Mary. She was rolling this whole ensemble through deep sand. She was patient and cheerful. I spoke with her and she did not make me feel like a loser for wondering how she manages.

I stopped feeling quite so sorry for myself.

By the end of the day, I’d seen no fewer than six sets of twins being strolled through Berlin. Whatever challenges my two bring, at least they aren’t doubled. Also, I had some great one-on-one time with the Bear this afternoon, which reminded me that they’re each marvelous company when they’re not together.

Now, if they could just get some sleep. It’s 11:40 Central European time, and the Bear popped out of bed again, for the eight time tonight. And you wonder why my blogging has been slow the past few months? It’s not just interference from teaching (and now the World Cup); I have two kids who went on sleep strike sometime last winter. Maybe they could take a page from the LOLcats on snoozing, too?

(Sleepy kitteh from ICHC?)

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I’m glad that South Africa is hosting the World Cup. I’ve read a few posts (most notably this one by Melissa at Shakesville) criticizing South Africa’s selection on the basis of its record on human rights and women’s rights (which are human rights, after all!). I’m all for calling out misogyny. Overall, though, I think it’s important to decenter Europe as the imagined home of the cup, and so I was pleased that South Africa was chosen. (After all, Western countries don’t have a spotless record on women’s rights, either.)

But. This blog is overseen by the spirit of Grey Kitty, who has made a few brief appearances in our Berlin apartment lately. She objects STRENUOUSLY!!! to one element of South Africa’s hosting: the infernal vuvuzela.

Kittywampus officially endorses the following message:

(from ICHC?)

and this one too:

(from ICHC?)

(To be fair, the same must be said of the pirate flag that my friend was waving in lieu of a German banner at the England-Germany match. Her young daughter confiscated it before anyone lost an eye.)

Obviously, a cat who sees the vacuum cleaner as demon spawn will not tolerate vuvuzelas. She will lose what’s left of her mind.

The same, it seems, can be said for humans. A dipshit American living in Bavaria snapped last weekend after days of constant vuvuzela buzz from his neighbors. Note that this was in Bavaria (not South Africa) and these folks were tooting while watching the games on TV. He marched over to his neighbors, wielding an axe, and threatened to kill them if they didn’t pipe down. The police are considering whether to bring charges for the threat and – in a very German twist – for insulting his neighbors. (“Beleidigung” – or insulting someone – is a crime here, and it need not rise to the standard of slander.)

Kittywampus in no way endorses his methods. Can we understand his distress? Well … MEOOOOOOW.

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It’s one thing to be contrarian; it’s another to be just plain ignorant. Or, as Nigel Tufnel says in This Is Spinal Tap, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” Camille Paglia had an op-ed on sex in Sunday’s New York Times. Guess on which side of the line she fell?

Paglia’s pretext for the op-ed is the failure of flibanserin (aka “pink Viagra”) to gain approval from the advisory panel of FDA. Really, though, this is just a platform for her to rant about a supposed “sexual malaise” that’s plaguing the U.S.:

The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel. The priggish 1950s, which erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory, were simply a return to the norm. …

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

… The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.

(More of the same here.)

Ahem. For a scholar who wears her erudition so gaudily, Paglia shows an abysmal grasp of the history of gender and sexuality. First, anyone who’s read Foucault’s History of Sexuality realizes that the Victorian era wasn’t only about repression. Discourses of sexuality proliferated, creating new identities (“the homosexual”) and planting lots of naughty ideas in people’s minds.

Those “intriguingly separate worlds”? They were a product of the self-same industrial revolution that made men and women virtually interchangeable in the factory before we made the shift to mind-based work. Separate spheres were only ever achievable for a small minority of middle-class, white men and women, anyway. Within those middle classes, mystery didn’t reign so much as a discourse of shame that demonized both men’s and women’s pleasure, as Richard Jeffrey Newman persuasively shows at Alas! a Blog:

Sexual pleasure undermined a man’s ability to compete in this marketplace of manhood in two ways: First, as Graham, Kellogg [of the crackers and cereal, respectively] and others made clear, such pleasure constituted unadulterated self-indulgence, a characteristic precisely antithetical to the kind of man a self-made man was supposed to be. Second, the expenditure of sperm—and the thinkers of the nineteenth century saw ejaculation quite explicitly as a form of spending—was a waste of energy that a man could have, and should have, been putting to more productive uses elsewhere.

(Do read the whole thing; unlike Paglia, Newman won’t waste your time.)

For the working classes circa 1850 or 1900, never mind separate spheres – they were lucky if they could have separate bedrooms. From the children, that is. I don’t know about Prof. Paglia, but I don’t know too many people whose notion of a sexay time includes a bed full of children on the other side of the room. For a real bonus, throw in a boarder or two, no running water, and perhaps a few resident species of rodentia.

Ironically, the most recent apogee of separate spheres was the 1950s, which Paglia denounces for their priggishness. Plenty of couples who steamed up their car windows at the drive-in theater might beg to differ. To the extent people managed to get in on in the back seat, it was in spite of the ostensibly separate spheres of men and women – not because of them.

As for pre-industrial sex? Well, there was oodles of mystery in the “agrarian” world, as long as you perceive a lusty  difference between plowing a field (men’s work) and mucking out a stall (usually women’s work, at least in early modern Europe). O ho, that’s what the postmodern American libido lacks: the erotics of cow manure!

The farther back we go, the rosier Paglia’s nostalgia. Shakespeare’s era certainly was ribald, as we know from his plays. We also know from Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process (vol. 1: The History of Manners) that folks were also much more relaxed about bodily hygiene. And by “relaxed,” I mean that Europeans of the 1500s and 1600s would deliberately make their body odor more pungent. Also, pooping anywhere was okay. It was doubtless a super sexy era if coprophilia is your thing.

And then there’s one little detail that changes everything. You don’t need to be a historian to suss it out, either, because its advent falls within Paglia’s lifetime, and mine: women’s prerogative to say no. Paglia must be intentionally obtuse in failing to mention it. Echidne parodies this brilliantly in her take-down of Paglia’s op-ed:

Instead, give me the old Italian countryside, with haystacks and a violent rape of a peasant woman who really does like it after the bruises fade. Because sex is violence and violence is sex and all women like to be at the receiving end of that violence.

Except, of course, Camille Paglia.

(Another post to read in full, srsly.)

Exactly. Paglia can have the chastity belts, crowded beds, and literally shitty hygiene of the past. I’ll take the twenty-first century, which, for all its ills, offers birth control, hot showers, and the chance for a passionate yes – precisely because I’m free to say no.

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I watched the Germany-England match at the corner pub, which is called – I kid you not – Walhalla. It’s not a hotspot for German nationalists, nor do Wagner enthusiasts hang out there. I don’t even think there’s anyone named Siegfried or Brunhilde on the staff (though I couldn’t swear it).

Anyway, it was an excellent place to watch the game, which I thought showed the strengths of the German team very nicely: teamwork and some excellent passing. (The New York Times has a nice slideshow and a good overview of the game.) With Michael Ballack injured, there are no real stars, only a bunch of mostly young guys who have to rely on each other. Thomas Müller, who scored twice, stands out for having played really selflessly up to now, and so I was glad he got to enjoy a dose of glory. Unlike the team from, say, 2000, this is not an arrogant bunch. If they stand a chance against Argentina – and I think they do, albeit as underdogs – it’ll be through strong teamwork that can slip past Argentina’s vulnerable defense.

Did the Germans deserve to win? I think so, despite the miscarriage of justice against England’s second goal. Even I – the world’s worst judge of distances – saw that it was half a meter behind the line (official measurements showed 40 cm). The call was one of the worst I’ve seen. Even so, England came back strong and determined; they had some of their best moments early in the second half, after the denied goal. I don’t discount the psychological impact of the referee’s egregious mistake, but the English team was still in the game until Germany scored its third and fourth goals in quick succession.

Some folks here see karma at work. They see the unfairness visited upon England as just desserts for the goal awarded England in Wembley Stadium in the 1966 World Cup final. In that match, England beat Germany in overtime, 4-2. Their third goal – the infamous “Wembley Tor” – was controversially awarded to Geoff Hurst despite bouncing off the crossbar and landing in front of the line – or did it? You be the judge:

For good measure, the fourth goal was scored while spectators began to flood the field.

By contrast, the “Wembley Goal of 2010″ wasn’t even a close call:

It’s just unbelievable that FIFA won’t even consider using modern technology for controversial calls. Instead, they’re calling for an end to replays on the stadium screens!

A rule modeled on field hockey – which allows each team to challenge one call per half – would be a sensible way to make use of video technology without interrupting the flow of the game. Maybe you’d need to allow for two appeals per half in soccer, given the number of game-changing mistakes the refs have made in this World Cup. That, plus the use of smart chips in balls, could only improve the game. After all, egregious officiating creates interruptions of its own.

This time, my team benefited from the mistake. Next time, it may not. In any event, if the German team had won only narrowly, the victory would’ve been soured. It’s only fun to win when you win fairly. Even my kids know that.

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How do you know when you’ve arrived in a land that’s passionate about soccer? Unfortunately, when you see it used as a projection screen for people’s prejudices.

Exhibit A: Already in the jetway at Tegel Airport, we’re greeted by posters featuring a wistful little boy and the caption: “A trip to South Africa – every little boy’s dream.” For good measure, the poster exists in both English and German. There’s no poster depicting every little girl’s dream, although the German women’s soccer team is the reigning world champion!

Exhibit B: A tabloid headline trumpeting today’s Germany-England match that proclaims, “We’ll beat the little Englishwomen [die kleine Engländerinnen].” No, it didn’t call the English players pussies, but only because Germany has these handy feminized endings that can be tacked onto nouns.

So there’s something to be said for a soccer culture in which boys and girls play together through sixth grade and there’s no official scorekeeping, like in our little league in Athens.

On the other hand, the flip side of America’s relaxed relationship to soccer is this: 300 million residents, and apparently not a single young man with a killer instinct for the goal! At least that’s the impression I got from yesterday’s game. In the second half, the American guys worked out one magical chance after another … and the ball magically ended in the Ghanaian goalkeeper’s tender embrace, every single time. The Germans have a word for this – abschlußschwach – meaning you just can’t drive the goal home. Soooo frustrating.

(Soccer kitteh from ICHC?)

German soccer commentary also spends a lot of time discussing whether a win was verdient or unverdient – deserved or not. Sometimes, a team can play brilliantly and still lose. I don’t know how much “deservingness” is a cultural peculiarity, but I don’t recall hearing the mostly-British announcers on ESPN spend much breath on questions of soccer justice. In the US-Ghana match, a tie would have been a just outcome for two teams who both played a dazzling, captivating game; that would have been “verdient” for both sides. Only the single-elimination format precluded it.

I’m still psyched for the US-American team. We might not be a Great Power in soccer – not yet – but we also weren’t a Great Embarrassment. Yesterday’s match was so much more fun to watch than that snoozer between Brazil and Portugal. That’s something to celebrate.

Now, on to Germany-England. I’m happy to still have one of “my” teams in the tournament. Also: Yay Uruguay! They play entertaining soccer, plus they are really good looking. (But that would be a topic for another post, wouldn’t it?)

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We arrived in Berlin Thursday (I think that’s two days ago now, but I’m more than a little befuddled from jet lag). As we settle in, I’m trying to envision what will keep the Bear happy this summer, apart from “big” but occasional outings like the science museum. In the past, I could schlep both kids to a playground. The city’s chockfull of them, and they’d both happily play like piglets in mud (often literally) while I read a book for work or pleasure.

Last summer, the Bear would set out excitedly, but within five minutes he’d announce: “Mama. I’m bored.” His peers were scarcely to be found on the playground. He has a small but nice circle of German friends, but those play dates usually require organizing, not spontaneity. Especially once school lets out for summer, the playgrounds are dominated by the preschool set.

And frankly, the play equipment – even the thirty-foot tunnel slide shaped like a ship – has begun to shrink for him, as playgrounds universally do by the time a child turns 9 or 10. As it did for me, and I suspect for you, too.

The Tiger is still young enough to love playgrounds. He’s also completely undeterred by his monkey-bars incident of last winter. His left humerus has healed beautifully, and he’s regained his former confidence too. We can’t not go to the playground.

So maybe this summer the Bear will bring a book, too, and we’ll both read and giggle over the little creatures. Especially when they look a bit like these guys:

(Click here if you can’t see slippin’, slidin’ furballs.)

Proof positive that parenting is easier when the spawn arrive as singletons, not in a litter. (And to my friends who’ve managed multiples without access to teeth and claws: woo hoo! You have my serious respect.)

My husband wondered who was “making” the kittens go down the slide. Ha ha!

What’s next for these little fluffballs? Why, of course they decide they must learn to go up the slide, like two-year-old hoomans obsessively do.

Their cuteness is their salvation. (My kids knew/know that, too.)

Happy Caturday, all! Or, in the local lingo: Schöner Katertag, allerseits!

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And I might have become one myself, had I not blown up some chemicals in a high school lab. (My best-friend-cum-lab-partner took that incident as a signal from teh Ceiling Cat to pursue a Ph. D. in microbiology, so go figger.) Throughout college, at least half my friends were in STEM fields, maybe because Stanford was so heavy on engineers. (Conspicuously few were premeds, though, as playing in the Band had a lethal impact on many folks’ GPA.)

I still really enjoy science – and scientists – and so even if there were no gender angle to it, I’d still get a kick out of this website, which features drawings of scientists done by seventh graders. Each has a before-and-after version, with the “after” drawn once the student had met up with a real, live specimen of a scientist at Fermilab.

The paired drawings handily expose all manner of stereotypes – and the students’ growth beyond them. Sometimes it’s terminal nerd-dom that gets swept away, as in these sketches by “Ashley“:

Not that nerdiness need be bad, mind you!  Disclaimer: I too cherish my inner nerd. Though I never really took to Heinlein, I still have a soft spot for the original Start Trek, and some days I like books a bit better than people. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone – that most humanities types harbor a little nerdy streak, though we try with varying success to cover it up. The most assertively hip and fashionable big academic shindig, the MLA conference, might be interpreted as a massive exorcism of the inner nerd. Surely there’s a paper in that: “The Return of the Repressed: Post-Freudian Perspectives on the Nerd Within.”

While Ashley’s drawing makes mention of women and men, some of the other girls actually shifted the gender of their “typical” scientist. A great example comes from Amy:

See, the scientist shifts from being obsessive and frankly unbalanced to … being hip circa 1972! A scientist may even be interested in racquetball! (And honey, I’m not snarking about the “even” – I had zero interest in the sport.)

And a scientist can be a gal. A fashionable gal, even, who’s friendly and open and has a sense of humor. A gal who likes to dance.

Now, go flip through the other drawings. They’re cute, they’re enlightening, and they show that Amy was not alone in her preconceptions, even if she did draw the awesomest green smoke.

So the next time someone starts spouting untested, Lawrence Sommer-esqeu theories about women being naturally less suited than men to STEM careers, we might recall Amy’s sketches. We might ask what happens when girls (and boys!) meet real-life scientiests. We might also ask how to make science careers more family friendly – but oy, that’s be a whole ‘nother post. We might wonder how we can offer encouragement to those girls who nearly blow out a ceiling tile in chem lab (ahem!).

In the meantime, I have a couple of scientist friends who I think would rock that turquoise blouse and matching oversized shades.

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(Slacker husband kitteh from ICHC?)

While looking at pictures of sexy soccer players, I accidentally ran across a Woman’s Day article titled “The Husband Whisperer: 4 Tricks to Communicating with Your Man.” Besides reminding me why I’ve never bought a copy of Woman’s Day, it also convinced me I’ll never make a good husband whisperer. Not that I’m perfect in communicating with my husband – far from it! – but I’m instinctively leery of any approach that assumes a husband (or horse!) needs to be trained. Here, the goal is to train him to do what you want, when you want it, especially when it comes to household tasks. Oh, and he’s supposed to do it enthusiastically (unlike the surly Basement Cat pictured above.)

Credit where it’s due: The first tip, “Always say please and thank you — and touch him when you do” is less obvious than it might appear on its face. And it’s a good one. When you live with someone, it’s oh-so-easy to let basic manners slide. And touch is a great way to de-fang conflict of any sort – not just over housework. Touching can be pretty helpful in the midst of an argument, assuming your partner isn’t too pissed to let you close. (I’m not talking about sexay touch, just a hand on a forearm or shoulder.) My only gripe is that the example given is so stereotypical: taking out the trash.

The second tip, “Lead by example,” is one you’ve surely tried if you’re neater than your partner (or roommate, or children, or …). If it only worked, there’d be no demand for articles like this one. This tip is predicated on the idea that (some) men are household slackers, and women are all sticklers:

Why is it so difficult for a husband to swab the deck? It’s simple: Some men just aren’t that into cleaning. “Women see dirt and feel the mess that men don’t see or feel,” explained psychotherapist Marilyn Kagan, LCSW, who, with psychologist Neil Einbund, Ph.D., leads the Making Marriage Work courses at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Hold on! At my house, when it comes to doing a cleaning job right, it’s frankly my husband who shines. Not I! Yes, I spend more hours on housework, but when he does a task, it’s like fairy dust was sprinkled on that area of the house. It sparkles. My goal is usually more modest: keeping the health department at bay. Sure, in a majority of couples, the woman typically has higher standards. But honestly, how many male partners will respond warmly to an in-home impersonation of Martha Stewart?

So I called my husband back into the kitchen. Lifting the saucepan, I pointed to the dried-up pools of soup. I could see by his bemused expression that it never occurred to him to look under the pot. “I know you’re tired, but I want to show you what works for me,” I said, as cheerful as an infomercial. “I just spray a little of this cleaning fluid on the spill, wipe and voilà!” He looked at me as if I had just performed a mindfreak. “What’s that you use again?” he inquired, much to my own amazement.

Not only did he continue to use the product I suggested, he now regularly cleans under pots, like a little boy exploring the dark rooty underworld beneath a rock. It may seem like a small victory, and the results aren’t always perfect, but little things like this are a giant step for my peace of mind.

If I were that fake-cheerful, I think my husband might prefer to crawl under a rock, himself. I wouldn’t blame him.

The third tip – “play the empathy card” – isn’t all wrong. The author suggests explaining that certain jobs are hard to do because we little women are smaller or weaker. I don’t think that’s totally illegit. My husband has a good six inches on me, and he can easily reach the highest shelf without rearranging furniture. He’s always willing to schlep tubs of laundry down to the basement. I’m secure enough in my feminist cred that I can simply be glad for a pragmatic division of labor based on our different strengths and abilities.

But again, why should empathy be confined to stereotypical tasks and qualities? Some days, my husband’s back is making him miserable while mine is just a little creaky. Or maybe he has a late evening meeting. Why shouldn’t I make his life a little easier by taking out the garbage? Empathy works a whole lot better when it swings both ways. Otherwise, it’s just pity.

The fourth and final tip is the pièce de resistance, and oh, I bet you saw it coming: “Reward good behavior – the sexier the better.” The expert cited puts this in its most innocuous form, though it’s still problematic:

“Reward your husband for completing a task by doing something you both enjoy, like dinner and a movie,” Alpert suggested. “Women often find men who are good husbands and fathers sexy, so the hint of an even greater reward in the bedroom will almost guarantee success.

Sure, when the work gets done without one person bearing most of the burden, there’s more likely time to have fun together. The problem, though, is couching the bedroom (but not the dinner/movie) specifically as a “reward” for him, not for both partners.

And it gets worse. By the end of the article, sex has become wholly transactional:

I let my husband pick from several chores I wanted to hand over, then I told him about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (sex!) that would be waiting for him if he handled that chore for the next few weeks. Intrigued, he chose homework help.

To my amazement, after dinner that Monday, he didn’t have to be reminded about our deal. “Can we do the homework now?” he asked eagerly. “After iCarly is over,” I said, reminding him of another deal we’d struck with our seven-year-old for one hour of TV chill time. When the two of them finally headed off to hit the books, I luxuriated in an extra hour of me-time. And how did my husband respond later? Let’s just say he enjoyed it so much that he decided to extend our deal!

And how did our author respond later? She doesn’t have any obligation to tell us, of course, but the article ends here, with the utterly clear implication that sex was a prize for her hubby. It’s something she gave him, not a shared experience. The author could’ve tempered the transactional framing without getting into TMI. She could’ve just said: “And for me, it was a win-win!” or something blandly wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

Instead, the article ends with pussy as commodity.

I agree that housework is a serious issue. Spats over it harm marriages and other long-term relationships. Its unequal distribution continues to hold back women.

But seeing sex as something women give up in order to entice their mates to supervise homework? How, exactly, is this different from paid sex work? How is it better? How will it foster more mutual pleasure (as opposed to just more frequent sex)?

How is it liberating for women – or men?

Also: Can you imagine the parallel article in a men’s magazine, “How to Be a Wife Whisperer”? I’d call it out for manipulativeness just as much as I did this piece. It’s unlikely ever to exist, because the work of that hypothetical article is pretty well covered in women’s magazines. But if it did exist, you can be pretty sure its ending would be the mirror image of the one in Women’s Day – with the twist that it’s the man convincing the woman to lead him to her “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. (Pot of gold!!! How ’bout we just say honeypot and be done with it?)

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Caturday: Birthday Cubs and Kittens

Today is my Tiger’s birthday. He’s turning seven. (Seven! How is that possible?) He adores Maru, so this clip made by Maru’s human in honor of his birthday seems like a fitting Caturday celebration.

Go here if you can’t see the video.

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I’ve officially finished with the academic year – finally, finally, in mid-June. I’m hoping to get back to more regular blogging now that teaching the history of Nazi Germany isn’t dogging me nearly every waking moment (and a few nighttime ones, as well).

Kittehs do not appreciate being dogged.

Or then again, I might just spend the next few weeks genuflecting before the World Cup and blogging about which players and coaches float my boat. (Uruguay!!!!)

At any rate, this is how I feel tonight:

It’s just the mirror image of how I felt as a student … and how my students no doubt felt a few days ago.

Grading isn’t my favorite part of the job. You see wild guesses that are so far off that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Berlin Airlift was a British bombing campaign against Germany? It was an attempt to convey German and Polish Jews to safety?

But then there are essays that impress me with their maturity and insight. There are also moments of pure charm. My favorite this quarter came from a dedicated student who just drew a blank on an ID question. Since he was stuck, he went for style points:

It’s a pretty convincing Kitler, but it’s the name Strüdel – complete and replete with the umlaut! – that was my undoing.

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I’m glad Abby Sunderland has been found, adrift but safe in the Indian Ocean. As a parent and a sister, I empathized with her family and worried that they’d never see her again.

I will admit that I also had a moment or two of wondering: “What were they thinking? How could her parents let her sail around the world?”

Then again, just a few days ago I watched my little Tiger dangle from the monkey bars where he broke his humerus last winter. I felt my stomach clench and tumble. I checked my overprotectiveness. I cheered him as he swung from one end to the other. I imagine Abby’s parents went through something similar in deciding to let their beloved daughter try to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world – with, however, one difference. They had pretty good reason to assume Abby was up to the challenge. The Tiger, by contrast, has a very dicey record on the monkey bars.

That’s why I have to agree with Hugo Schwyzer’s thoughtful post on how not all 16-year-olds are equally mature, and how Abby’s parents likely made a reasonable decision based on her capabilities. I especially appreciate his point that 18 is not a magic age of reason, nor does it revolutionize the way parents see their babies:

On the one hand, I can’t imagine being comfortable sending my own child off around the world on a sailboat by herself. But if I’m honest, I know full well that protectiveness won’t vanish when my Heloise [Hugo's baby daughter] turns 18; I’d worry just as much if she were 18 as if she were a few months younger. Lines of demarcation don’t have much effect on the heart.

(Rest the rest here – it’s all very thoughtful.)

But here’s where I part ways with Hugo, and with the other commentary I’ve read: I don’t think parenting is the real issue here. Yes, American culture is riven with divides between parents like me who let our ten-year-olds bike to the local libarary, and those who think this is lunacy; parents who let their four-year-olds wander the neighborhood, and parents like me who worry that such small persons will be crushed under a car.

The issue in Abby Sunderland’s situation is, rather, this: Why does anyone feel compelled to set records at the cost of life and limb? Why do so many people still feel called to climb Everest, despite the fact that not only they but their local sherpas may well expire before they reach the peak? (This happened again just recently to a British climber, though he did get to the top first. Cold comfort, I say.)

I understand the impulse to explore and discover. In junior high, I dreamed of being an astronaut. That dream died forever in 1986 along with the passengers of the Challenger. But I can see why scientists still go to wild places. I have a friend who travels to Antarctica to research low-temperature life forms, and I completely understand why she does it, even though such expeditions always involve modest risk.

What I don’t understand is the desire to set records – to push one’s body beyond its healthy boundaries – to embrace risk just for its own sake. Sailing solo around the globe makes as much sense to me as playing chicken with a train, or drag racing on the freeway.

But drag racing and playing chicken are the desperate sports of poor kids. Setting records is the province of the privileged. The assumption is that no effort will be spared in trying to save you if your boat runs awry.

I’m not saying that Abby Sunderland should have been left to drift endlessly on the open seas. Of course not. I am truly glad and relieved she was found.

And yet. Every time an extreme athlete runs into trouble, massive resources are deployed to rescue him or her. Clueless skiers go into the Sierra backcountry and get stranded in a blizzard. Mountain climbers underestimate the danger of avalanche. Solo pilots fly into oblivion. The “resources” deployed aren’t just financial; human beings often risk their own necks in hopes of saving a life.

Just to underscore how much this is a function of privilege: In the last several days, tens of thousands of children have died of preventable disease: malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, typhus, etc. ad nauseam. How many could be saved with the money spent on rescuing people (children and adults) who – from a place of tremendous economic privilege – challenge themselves to break records, or simply assume that they will be “safe” in the wild because their lives have always been safe? Again, I’m not saying in any way that Abby should have been abandoned. Not at all. Only that we should question this cultural impulse to take risks and set records just because.

Once upon a time, parts of the globe were untouched by human exploration. Perhaps the urge to explore was extraordinarily adaptive a few million years ago – even a century ago. Today? We’d be wise to ask when exploration and adventure truly serve human knowledge, and when they’re only yoked to ego.

And I’m not saying this only because I’m so cautious, I only ever climbed one tree in my childhood. Perhaps that makes me an unreliable narrator – or just a chicken. Still, I think the larger point about risk and privilege is still valid.

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… Or about any other aspect of the BP oiltastrophy, from the eleven men who died to the thousands whose lives are wrecked.

I haven’t written about it because all I’ve got is a rant and a howl. The administration has bungled the response. If you’re inclined to defend Obama, you might first pay a visit to Erniebufflo’s post detailing the how, when, when, and who of said bungling. I agree with every conclusion she draws, including making BP pay in financial and criminal terms, and passing a comprehensive energy/climate bill that would start weaning us off our oil addiction.

So yeah, there’s nothing to laugh at. And yet, sometimes humor and satire offer the fiercest critiques. You might, for instance, find it enlightening to see what happens when BP spills coffee:

(Go here if you aren’t yet feeling nervous about your coffee. Via Lindsey Beyerstein at Big Think.)

If you’re musically inclined, the Raging Grannies might be more your thing.

(Go here if you can’t see the Grannies. Via Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.)

I want to be a Raging Granny when I grow up. Srsly.

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Traditionally, German soccer teams have purportedly embodied “German virtues” (die deutsche Tugenden): a tough work ethic, discipline, organization. They’ve been made to sound much like a Mercedez-Benz. At their best, their performance indeed resembled German engineering. Otherwise? As Swiss National Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld recently described the German virtues: “Not necessarily play well, but win anyway.” If you’ve never lived in Germany as an expat (or as a German!) there’s no way to convey what a basic article of faith the German virtues have been. There’s gravity. There’s the fear of draughts. And then there are the German football virtues. All these are fixed elements of the German universe.

In that spirit, the old-time German stars tended to take themselves pretty seriously. The legendary Franz Beckenbauer, for instance, is one of those guys who makes you worry his whole face might crack and shatter if he smiled too warmly. His skin looks that much like brittle leather (perhaps it’s an antique ball, circa 1927?). Luckily, Beckenbauer doesn’t crack a smile often. Sure, it’s a stereotype – the humorless German – and even some of Beckenbauer’s contemporaries, the stars of the 1970s and 1980s, broke the stereotype on occasion. Still, they didn’t break the edifice of “German virtues.” Why, they helped build it higher, brick by brick.

Monty Python had their own take on this, with their Philosophers’ World Cup:

(via Cookie Jill at skippy the bush kangaroo; go here if you can’t see the clip.)

So maybe Marx wasn’t the most promising footballer. (Note Beckenbauer, however, in the lineup of philosophers. They’re not quite shittin’ you.)

And yet, the revolution did come, ushered in by none other than my alltime favorite soccer star, Jürgen Klinsmann. My Klinsi** coached a young, inexperienced team to third place in 2006. The German football-nation danced in the streets. Everyone in Berlin forgot how to be humorless (possible exception: those yippy little dogs that poop everywhere). Upon Klinsi’s departure, he handed the baton to Jogi Löw, who’d provided the tactical brains of the operation.

And today, the revolution in the “German virtues” burst onto the world stage. The boys (and they’re mostly still boys, many too young to drink legally in the U.S.) didn’t just win 4:0 against Australia. They didn’t just pass the ball like magicians, with the grace and style of Otto the Goalie Kitteh. Above all, they looked like they were having a blast!

ABC has snagged my Klinsi as a commentator. His verdict? “They’re having fun with the ball.”

Sounds like a real improvement on the old virtues to me! And oh, were those young, pass-happy Germans ever fun to watch! “Fun” is a virtue I can gladly get behind.

I lived in Berlin for just shy of a decade. I stepped in a lot of the aforementioned yippy-dog-doo. I figure I’ve earned the right to prognosticate. Sungold’s magic 8-ball sez: Germany might just make it to the finals! And if they do, it’ll be with virtuoso command of their passing game and a huge dollop of fun! Oh, and I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of Klinsi now and again – always my idea of fun fun fun.

** I say “my Klinsi” because back in 1996, I appointed myself president of the American women’s Klinsi fan club. Since no one has stepped up to depose me, I hereby appoint myself president-for-life.

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In the throes of World Cup fever, I was tickled that Google marked yesterday – the opening day – with a nifty soccer logo. Then I looked a little closer. Honestly, I don’t see too well at the moment, because my glasses broke in a weird, melting-metal, Salvador-Dali way, and my old specs are, well, not up to specs. But this was impossible to overlook.

Nary a POC (player of color!) in sight.

I’m still pleased that Google wanted to mark the occasion. I think the graphic is clever and dynamic. But really, I’d be surprised if there’s a single competitor whose side looks quite that pale. Perhaps somewhere there is a country called Sungoldonia, peopled wholly by pale-skinned creatures like myself. But if its denizens were all like me – pale and clumsy – why, they’d never be able to mount a team, much less qualify for the World Cup.

If you’ve been watching the gamesalong with me, you’ve surely noticed that most teams – not just the South Africans but also the French and English – prominently feature players of all colors. Even the presumptively “white” countries like Germany are starting to see the impact of immigration, however slowly. It’s all for the good – not just because inclusion is ethically right (though that’s obviously primary), but because we’re liable to see better Fussball! The Brazilians may be overrated … or not … but in any event the German roster includes Brazilian-born Cacau, as well as players of Turkish and Polish descent. While I don’t cleave to the idea that some ethnic or racial groups are “naturally” more athletic than others, I do appreciate that cultural differences spawn different styles of soccer. Mixing them is bound to create interesting hybrid styles.

(Photo of the German national team from FIFA; I claim fair use for the purposes of academic and cultural criticism.)

If even historical bastions of “racial purity” are starting – however hesitantly – to embrace multicultural teams, might it be time for all of us to wonder why “white” remains such an easy, lazy default? (And yes, I write this as a white gal who surely defaults to “white” more often than is comfortable to admit.)

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The 2010 World Cup got off to a grand start yesterday, with host South Africa tying Mexico 1:1 in a game marked by two gorgeous goals. The keepers did a fine job too, but they’ve been working hard at it all their lives. They can only envy Otto the Goalie Kitteh’s natural abilities.

Go here if you can’t see the video. (Seen originally on ICHC?)


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I just loved this post from Holly of Self-Portrait As, in which she dissects the circular logic of the Mormon faith in which she grew up. You really ought to go read the whole thing if you’re interested in the riddles of theology and belief. Here’s my favorite part:

But the entirity of Mormon theology is circular. God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect. We know that God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect, because the Bible tells us so. We know the words of the Bible are true, because it is the word of God as revealed to his prophets (whom we know are prophets because they speak the word of God), and God is just, loving, benevolent and perfect and would not create a hateful, unjust or imperfect doctrine.

Yeah.

The idea of god itself is just one big circle of thinking that leads back upon itself. God clearly has a shape: he’s round.

(The whole post is here.)

Of course, that circular logic occurs in all of the monotheistic religions (and perhaps in others as well). It’s not unique to Mormonism. Just speaking for myself, I don’t believe any religion has a monopoly on truth, though I think all of them offer wisdom. The question is, how do we distill out their wisdom while discarding superstition and historical prejudices?

I don’t have any easy answers. I think many of us have moments of awe and wonder, which point the way to something larger than ourselves. I believe that love, kindness, and compassion ought to guide our actions, along with a deep respect for the wholeness and integrity and worth of all other creatures. Picturing God as round might not be a bad image for all that. It definitely works better than imagining a dude with a big white beard.

Then again, with today’s opening of the World Cup, most of the world is contemplating god in the form of a holy sphere. As Germany’s head coach for its 1954 World Cup championship, Sepp Herberger, famously observed: “The ball is round.” Soccer is the perfect game and the World Cup its apotheosis. Proof for the existence of God, after all?

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The “boy crisis” has made the news, yet again, though it’s unclear whether much is new or different about it. This time, it’s Hanna Rosin in New York Magazine, asking where “the boy genius” has gone. (For an earlier iteration of the “boy crisis” meme, see Ann Hulbert’s smart takedown of it in Slate a few years back.)

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to worries about how boys may be shortchanged by our educational system. I am, however, reluctant to view it in oversimplified terms.

First, the two-ton elephant in the room – which Rosin doesn’t even mention – is the confluence of gender with race and socioeconomic class. Rosin mentions that boys are less likely than girls to earn a high school or college diploma. But she completely glosses over the fact that by far the most troubling disparity is between African-American boys and girls. (I’ve written before about the racial crisis in education, along with the real problems that emerge if college and learning become “girly” objectives.) All in all, white boys are doing pretty well.

My other objection is that Rosin, like so many other commentators, frames boys’ educational attainment as part of a zero-sum game. Remember those classroom games that pitted the boys against the girls? In the 1970s, my teachers often had the girls and boys vie to be the better team at spelling or math. Teachers may downplay gender-based competition these days (or maybe not!), but the media still can’t drop the idea of a “war against boys,” as Christina Hoff Sommers termed it a decade ago.

The zero-sum frame relies on a boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus view of gender. Yet most interventions to improve boys’ learning will help girls, too! Take the much-lamented death of recess. Sure, the antsiest boys will benefit most from restoring recess. So will the antsiest girls! At least in the lower grades, I still see more boys than girls who are high-energy, but boys don’t monopolize that market. (We can leave aside the nature/nurture question here; anyone who’s spent much time volunteering in a first-grade classroom has seen girls as well as boys who have trouble sitting still.) Fresh air, movement, a break in routine – these are benefits that accrue to all kids, not just boys.

And by the way, the villain who killed recess isn’t, say, Mary Pipher (who wrote Reviving Ophelia) or the AAUW. The culprit is NCLB and every other testing mandate that pressures teachers to maximize the time spent teaching to the test.

Or take the main example Rosin pillories: early testing for gifted programs. I’m sorry, but age four is just too young for sorting kids into ability levels! Parents whose kids are exceptional may gain useful information from early individual testing, especially if they have a bright child who’s seriously frustrated and bored. Otherwise, I don’t see much utility in testing before late gradeschool, and I do see great potential for mislabeling and pigeonholing kids of any gender. (Pigeonholing and mislabeling can be a problem at any age, but that’s such a huge issue, I’m not going to try to address it here.) More boys than girls are likely to have their talents overlooked, but again this is primarily a matter of poor educational practices, which can hurt any child.

On average, of course, girls develop faster in their language skills, especially in the early grades, as Rosin notes. She’s also right when she observes that there are problems stemming from school curricula becoming more verbal, even when it comes to learning math. But again, this is not just an issue for boys!

Here’s an example. Recently, the Bear came home with a math problem that asked which operation he’d use for finding the total amount of produce sold at a roadside stand. The answer was, obviously, addition. But then he was supposed to explain why he’s use that operation! Well, duh! I think it’s terrific that kids with less mathematical inclination are being helped to understand math through verbal routes. But for kids who are less verbal (like my Tiger), it’s neither fair nor useful to be forced to explain mathematical reasoning in words. For kids with fairly equal strengths in both math and language, it’s just annoying and alienating! And yes, my son the Bear falls into that latter category – but so did the young Sungold, and I recall being a girl at the time!

I do see one area where there’s a true zero-sum game: admission to self-enclosed gifted programs, which is what prompted Rosin’s article in the first place. I see the sort of standardized testing that the Tiger underwent this year in first grade, and it was all verbally based – including the math – because the instructions were delivered through headphones. For a kid with listening issues, this was fatal: he scored well below average on everything except a simple non-verbal IQ screening test, where he cleared the 99th percentile – a vivid illustration of how pegging all performance to verbal abilities can systematically underestimate a child.

I can imagine three solutions to this problem. The first is a no-brainer: test children for gifted programs no sooner than fourth grade. Secondly, testing needs to ensure that subtests can’t be easily distorted by weaknesses in the areas not being tested. This is not a trivial problem, but it’s one that can be addressed by clever psychologists.

And thirdly, maybe self-contained gifted programs should be a little less contained. Maybe they need to have flexible enrollment limits. Kids should be able to join in if a later assessment shows their promise. And stand-alone programs should probably be deemphasized in favor of flexible, differentiated teaching strategies that meet kids where they are. This is tougher for teachers to implement than simply putting a bunch of high-performing kids in a classroom – who are not always necessarily the ones with the greatest potential, since some extremely bright children check out due to boredom, and others may be brilliant but struggle with a learning difference. Those children, again, are more likely to be boys than girls. All of them deserve a chance to flourish.

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Last August, my husband and I applied to refinance our home mortgage. At the end of last week – about ten months later – we finally closed on it.

Why did it take so long? In a nutshell: legal trouble. And so a straightforward, dry financial transaction turned into a mini-drama.

Back in 2005, we had insulation blown into our house. The contractor showed up a few days later than scheduled, obviously running behind on all of his work. He tried to play catch-up at our expense. Our supposedly two-day job shrank into a single day, leaving us with a tremendous mess and parts of the job still unfinished. We complained; we paid him for work done but withheld about a third of the invoiced amount; we got dunned repeatedly, wrote letters explaining what was still unfinished, and ultimately filed a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General’s office.

The contractor’s response was basically “FU.” Toward the end of our correspondence, he told us that he had a lien on our property and would collect one way or another. That seemed ludicrous, because we had never gotten any official notification of a lien being filed.

We put him out of our minds for the next few years. Then one day, a few weeks into the refinancing process, the bank called to inform us that a contractor had placed a mechanic’s lien on our property.

I knew nothing about mechanic’s liens, though a quick scan of the Ohio Revised Code gave me a basic clue. I learned that a contractor can stop you from selling or refinancing your home if he says you owe him money. For him to collect, he’d have to initiate foreclosure proceedings. For the lien to be valid, it has to be filed within 30 days of the date when work was last performed on the property – and it must be served on the property holder.

In other words, unlike other types of debt, fees owed to contractors are backed with one’s property as collateral, which puts the consumer at a massive disadvantage when there’s any dispute. While I can understand that the law aims to protect honest workmen from getting screwed over, it’s strongly skewed against consumers when a contractor does shoddy or incomplete work. For a dispute of less than $600, our entire house could be held hostage. And so it was.

In our case, though, the lien had never been served on us. I thought we should be able to make our case even on the substantive facts, but if not, then at least on that legal technicality.

We talked to a lawyer friend. He said the rational thing to do would be to offer the contractor a compromise payment. So we called him – let’s call him Nagol Insulating. Nagol’s response was: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You’re just mad because I didn’t clean up. [There was more to it than that.] You owe me 25% annual interest, but I’ll accept half the interest plus the principal. Oh, and I just got out of court with another customer, where I won again.” We did a search on Nagol and learned that he had dozens of liens filed in Athens and nearby counties. (You can check out contractors’ records for many Ohio counties and some in other states too at Public County Land Documents – a great source that I’ll check before we ever hire another contractor again.)

So we went back to our lawyer friend, who said, “Well, getting rid of this fellow will probably cost you more than than the disputed amount in legal fees, but he’s demanding menace money! I would completely understand if you wanted to fight him.” Our friend couldn’t represent us, since he’d once done work for Nagol and would be open to conflict-of-interest charges, should the case land in court. He referred us to a colleague, whom I’ll call Mr. Magic, Esq., because he’s actually a magician who performs for kids on his off-work hours.

We paid a retainer of a few hundred bucks to Mr. Magic, and I will say that this small act – paying money to our lawyer –  truly did work magic on my peace of mind. Suddenly, we had someone in our corner. Someone who could read the Ohio Revised Code and not just speculate on what it meant! Someone who knew how to speak and write legalese while translating it for our benefit!

Any of you ever felt at the mercy of a bully? I remember it well from my childhood, when no one ever swooped in to protect me. Now, I had a protector. It felt great.

Which leads me to think that everyone should have affordable access to a good lawyer when they need one. For civil disputes, I don’t know how you’d prevent people from filing frivolous lawsuits. And yet, I can’t help but think that their numbers would be dwarfed by folks with legitimate complaints – the legions whose insurance coverage has been canceled when they get sick, for example. As for criminal defendants, yes, they’re entitled to a lawyer, but unless you can pay for your own, chances are good you’ll be assigned someone who’s overworked, burnt-out, perfunctory, or just plain incompetent. (I know someone who pled guilty to a spurious charge of disorderly conduct just because the alternative would’ve been thousands of dollars in legal fees.)

Let’s be clear: the opportunity to retain an attorney rests on a massive dose of privilege. Ten years ago, we could not have afforded Mr. Magic’s fees, which ultimately ran into the high triple figures. We’re really lucky we had the money. Otherwise, we would have either had to cave into the bully’s demands (which were in the same price range, however) or just defer financing the house, likely missing the boat altogether on affordable interest rates.

Mr. Magic did an excellent job, as it turned out. Since there’s no legal mechanism for questioning the validity of an illegally filed lien, the procedure required us to file a “Notice to Commence Suit,” which essentially dared Mr. Nagol to foreclose on us within the next two months; otherwise, the lien became void. It could perhaps also be termed a “Notice to Shit or Get off the Pot.” Nagol tried filing a suit in small claims court, again, but that wasn’t the proper venue and anyway Nagol is the only one who’s convinced he’s a legal hotshot. He’d be well advised to stick to insulating, except even that isn’t true.

In the end, Nagol’s lien expired since foreclosing on us would have cost him a four-figure sum just in legal fees. (Hmm, maybe not everyone needs access to an affordable lawyer?)

I sort of miss having Mr. Magic, Esq., on retainer. But mostly I’m just glad we could finish the refinance job.

Which brings us to what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.” Back in August, we were quoted an annual percentage rate of 4.85%. Friday, we closed at 4.325%. Thanks to Nagol’s shenanigan’s and the resulting delays, we just went from a 30-year mortgage (at 5+ APR) to a 15-year. Our monthly payment stayed the same.

If Nagol only knew! But then again, it’s enough to have vanquished the bully once. I don’t see any need to provoke him.

(If you’re a local reader and want the real name of Mr. Magic, Esq., I’m happy to provide it if you email me. As for Nagol, if you want to avoid him you can just spell his name backwards.)

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