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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