Archive for October, 2010

Prop. 19 Caturday

I don’t live in California, so I don’t have a chance to vote for Prop. 19, which would legalize catnip marijuana. But I still loved this comment in Michael Pollan’s recent interview posted on Alternet:

I always kept a little patch of catnip in my garden for my old tomcat, Frank, who really liked it. It’s not a very difficult plant to grow. The patch was hard to miss, because it was so shrubby. But every evening around five or six o’clock, just around the time that I was going to the garden to harvest something for dinner, Frank would come down there and look at me. What he wanted to know was where that catnip was, because he managed to forget every single night. And I would point it out to him or sometimes bring him over to it, and then he would pull some leaves off, sniff them, eat them, and start rolling in the grass. He was clearly having a powerful drug experience. Then he would sneak away and sleep it off somewhere.

But the interesting thing was, as much as this became part of his daily routine, he could not remember where the catnip was. And it occurred to me that this might be a kind of evolutionary strategy on the part of the plant: instead of killing the pest, it would just really confuse it. Killing pests can be counterproductive, because they breed or select for resistance very quickly. This happens with a lot of poisonous types of plants, as it does with pesticides. But if the plant merely confuses the pests or disables their memory, it can defend itself against them overindulging. Pure speculation, as I say in the book. It occurred to me that it might help explain what’s happening with cannabis, which of course also disables memory.

(Read the rest here.)

Of course, it’s easier to muddle memory when the brain in question is the size of a walnut. And even so, Grey Kitty always knew exactly where the nip was stashed. One time while we were out, she got up on a high kitchen shelf and pulled down the baggie. We found her sprawled on the living room floor, stoned out of her little gourd. She was lying in front of the television, as if she was hoping it might magically turn itself on.

Picture of two cats, one sprawled on the ground, the other admonishing him for overdoing the catnip

Stoned kitteh from ICHC?


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The controversy about the term “birth rape” has ebbed in the blogosphere (which has a shorter attention span than my seven-year-old son). But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about it. Nor, it appears, have other people. A reader named Ann took the time today to disagree with me vehemently:

To me there is not the slightest smidgeren of doubt that the women who state that they were raped, indeed were raped. Rape is NOT, absolutely definitely NOT only about sexuality. It is mainly about power and dominance. You will find very few among the BDSM community who are not aware of this.

Rape can – also – occur in the total absence of a feeling of guilt of the perpetrator. Whether a nurse, midwife or doctor think their deeds are justified because they have a right to go home early, or that woman birthing is too dumb or distraught to know what she wants, or whether a pedophile reasons that the 5 year old boy “wants it” because he happened to leave his knickers off, or whether the husband holds his wife down, thinking she’ll eventually come around, it all does not matter. It still is rape.

(Read the whole comment here.)

I fully agree that rape is not just about sex but about power. However, by its very definition, rape is about sexualized power. The abuse of medical power has to do with power too, but it has little or nothing to do with sexuality. (An exception would be a doctor who subjects patients to sexual touching – which most definitely belongs on the continuum of sexual assault, and which happens with distressing frequency.)

A doctor who violates consent is not acting from the same motivations as the pedophile. He or she is supported by our cultural values in ways that a pedophile is not. Yes, we live in a rape culture, but you would find very few defenders of a pedophile. By contrast, medicine enjoys partial immunity from criticism because of assumptions that lay people cannot understand it, that medical personnel always hold humanitarian values, and that they will always act in the best interests of the patient.

Of course, this isn’t true. Consider another truly vile category of gynecological violation: forced sterilizations. Doctors in Nazi Germany sterilized about 400,000 women and men, the vast majority of them against their will. About half of the victims were women. The Nazi program was inspired by smaller-scale compulsory sterilization programs in the United States, whose legality the Supreme Court affirmed in its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell. Compulsory sterilization declined after 1942 in the U.S., but poor women of color have still been subjected to it in the post-war era, most notably in Puerto Rico and on Indian reservations.

There seems to be a common conception that if declining to recognize a phenomenon as rape is the same as trivializing it. And yet, we don’t call forced sterilization “rape,” nor should we. Doing so would obscure its specific nature. It would draw attention to the particular values that legitimated it: the pseudoscience of eugenics, contempt for disabled people, and society’s exaggerated deference to medical authority.

In short: something can still be an atrocity if it’s not called rape.

Insisting on accurate naming is not “language policing,” contrary to what Cara argued at The Curvature:

I also thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was about broadening our definition of rape, not narrowing it — throwing out the stranger jumping from the bushes with a knife as the only model of rape, and recreating a model that encompasses a wide variety violent experiences and promotes affirmative, enthusiastic, meaningful consent as minimum standard of decency rather than a nice bonus if you can get it. I thought that anti-rape activism was about acknowledging that rape is not just one thing, that there is more than one way to violate a person and to be violated, and that whether consent was given was more important than how much force was used. Especially in this context, the posts in question come off as nothing more than language policing, against particularly marginalized populations, no less.

(The rest of the post is here.)

First, I think we should be able to discuss the applicability of “rape” to specific phenomena without shaming other feminists as rape apologists, or saying that they are acting as oppressors, or blaming their words for harming victims. That happened in both Cara’s post and the comments to it. Critique is good; disagreement is healthy. But shaming only leads to groupthink, as the comment thread to that post shows. Only one commenter deviated even slightly from Cara’s position.

I actually don’t think that anti-rape activism is “about broadening our definition of rape” – not if this means extending the term into entirely different realms of violence that are not basically sexual. Of course I strongly support recognizing acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and other instances of sexual violence as just as real, traumatizing, and illegal as the “stranger in the bushes.” But “rape” is not an infinitely elastic term, nor should it be.

Specific names for specific violations are politically and analytically important because they push us to understand the roots of different forms of violence. In cases of medicalized violence, we need to consider the values that enable a scenario like this one, described at the blog Forever in Hell:

The problem isn’t that women in labor are uniquely in a position to be victimized by medical professionals. The victims of such medical professionals are not uniquely women in labor. In other words, you don’t have to be a woman in labor to be victimized by a medical professional. You simply have to be in a room with certain medical professionals.

Case in point: a friend of mine needed a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in order to tell if he had Multiple Sclerosis or Lyme Disease. These two diseases can cause similar symptoms and similar MRI results, but have vastly different treatments, so distinguishing between the two is necessary. My friend is a large man, so he needed to have the lumbar puncture done at the hospital by a doctor.

Before the procedure began, the nurse told the doctor that the needle they had was too large, they needed to get another. “Too bad,” snapped the doctor. He had a schedule to keep, he had a golf game to get to. Waiting for someone to get the correct needle would take too long, so, before my friend could object, doctor forced the needle into my friend’s spine. When I say “forced”, I mean forced.

I could hear him scream from down the hall.

Then, to add insult to injury, the doctor refused to draw enough cerebral spinal fluid to allow for two tests. “We’ve got enough to test for MS, what more do we need?” he said.

That’s right. This doctor tortured a man so as not delay a golf game and didn’t even get the damn test done.

(The whole post is here.)

I don’t agree that doctors are the only offenders (as this post goes on to argue). The potential for abuse is greater among those who are more powerful, but other medical personnel aren’t outside the value system that enables medical battery.

But this example does show that the problem really is primarily with the values that underlie medicine. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the days when a white coat commanded automatic obedience. We have the patients’ rights movement to thank for that, which was driven in large part by feminist critics of medicine. However, as long as medical personnel remain unaccountable for violations of consent, some practitioners will abuse their power.

If we want to stop battery of women in childbirth, we’re not going to make much headway by combating rape culture. We need to call for more humane and democratic medicine. We need to demand medical education that would weed out arrogant abusers and reinforce respect for the patient. We need to insist that doctors hold each other and their subordinates responsible – and if they can’t, or won’t, the law needs to intervene, with civil or criminal remedies as appropriate.

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A D-Cup of Plenty

You might have heard about the bra that doubles as a gas mask. Myself, I’m less worried about terrorism than the threat of control-freak university administrators. For instance: As I’ve argued before, prohibition of alcohol is actually counterproductive on campuses because it only drives drinking underground, out of sight of potentially responsible peers and adults.

Now, at my reunion last weekend, even the band alumni were banned from drinking whenever we had a horn in hand. We really could have used the “WineRack” (pictured below), but it was sadly out of stock.

This device does have a couple of unfortunate associations for me. It’s just a little too close to a lactation fetish, which I can’t help but find a little squicky. It also reminds me of the fake rubber boob that Robert DeNiro sported in Meet the Fockers so he could “nurse” his grandchild.

Even so, I think we need one of these before the next band reunion in 2013.

(Thanks to reader and friend extraordinaire, KRS, for discovering it!)

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I’ve been away from Kittywampus for over a week, but I haven’t dropped off the edge of the universe; I just dropped into my college band reunion. Come to think of it, there’s not much difference, is there?

This time (unlike the last reunion in 2007) I actually practiced beforehand. I had a lot more fun playing, even though the music still insistently raised that classic, pitiless question: “Is it art?”

In fact, I had so much fun playing that my soft palate hurt afterward. Stop thinking dirty thoughts, you. Yes, you! It wasn’t that kind of fun. But it was the next best thing.

Of course, the biggest fun of all was reconnecting with my friends from the band. Some shared their futons and cats with me, along with delectable tabouli, peanut butter cookies, and JD. (Yes, I’m lookin’ at you, reader and occasional commenter KRS, oh goddess among tenrz, who also found me a mellophone!!) Others shed feathers from their magenta and black boas far and wide. Yet others picked up a tenor sax for the first time in ten (or three) years and played as though it was yesterday.

Reunions raise a raft of questions about identity. Who was I then? Who am I now? Who were we then, collectively? And is there any straight line that can be drawn between then and now?

I like to think of the self as sedimentary. We all have layers. Some layers run deeper than others, and those low-lying veins of sediment hold up the rest. It’s a great gift to know others whose deepest layers run along a parallel course to one’s own. It’s a blessing. I am blessed.

Or maybe it’s just that every once in a while, we all benefit from a chance to pretend we’re 19 again. Never mind that every muscle – from quadriceps to diaphragm to lips – will remind us of our true age the next day. For a few enchanted hours, the world is new again. All possible routes remain open to us. We are unencumbered by Serious Jobs. We don’t yet have major family responsibilities. We soar through our upper register on the sheer force of will.

Or maybe that’s a simplification. We did have worries, after all, at 19 and 20. Parents divorced. Friends suffered psychological crises. We either had fraught love affairs or none at all.

Maybe, in the end, it just comes back to the music. It was always there for us, regardless of how joyful or crappy our personal lives might be. No matter what, the music told us that everything was, in fact, now and forever, “All Right Now.”

(Photos via Seth Snyder’s Facebook album.)

Update late on Thursday, 10/28/10: After searching high and low (mostly low), I finally found a version of ARN on Youtube where I’m playing. It’s from the last reunion in 2007, where my chops were more like ground beef. Be grateful that a few hundred other musicians were covering up my suckitude.

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

I am still tickled to have been part of a band whose “fight song” is a classic rock anthem about hooking up (though in ye olden daze, it was called a “pick-up”). Not a trace of “go team, fight team, rah rah rah.” This is the song I played over and over again on the drive back from Columbus a couple years ago when I finally go the all-clear on a suspicious boobalicious lump. Someday there will come a time when things are not okay. All the more reason to celebrate when things really are all right now.

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I wrote this post quite a while ago, when an acquaintance’s experience in the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail gave me an inside peek at the American system of (in)justice. I didn’t publish it at the time because of privacy concerns. The case is now well in the past (and my friend is okay), but now one of my former students is facing serious charges, which I’m confident are either baseless or extremely trumped-up. I suspect his main offense is that he’s young, black, and poor. (I may write about his case if it becomes more public, as seems likely.)

Consider this a piece of fiction that is nonetheless entirely true.

* * * * * * *

You are arrested. It’s the middle of the night. Before you’re hauled off, you’re allowed to collect a few phone numbers from your cell phone. That’s it. You’re driven through the darkness to the jail in Nelsonville, the next town over, some miles from your home.

You are dumbstruck because you have no reason to believe you’ve broken any law.

Upon entering the jail, you are stripped of every thing you own. You’re not even allowed to have pen and paper.

The orange institutional clothing goes all the way down. You’re not even allowed to keep your own underwear. The standard-issue underwear are orange, too.

From inside the jail, you’re allowed more than the “one phone call” that TV cop shows. However, all calls must be placed collect. Cell phones can’t accept collect calls. You have a couple of phone number for lawyers who practice civil law. But it’s a weekend and answering machines aren’t so great at accepting collect calls either. You make an initial call in the wee hours just to alert a friend of your whereabouts.

You aren’t a hardened criminal, so you don’t know any attorneys who might represent you. Certainly you don’t have their phone numbers.

You wait, hoping for help.

Unbeknownst to you, your friends are trying to call you, cringing at the shame and, well, pollution they feel at dialing the jail. In fact, the jail isn’t even listed in the phone book, though there are numbers for the dog catcher and for the office that deals with numbering houses. They call the sheriff’s office, which has the jail’s number. They get through to the jail and are told that you’re not allowed to receive any messages. They ask if you can receive visitors, and they’re informed that visitations do occur on the weekend, but you’d have to make advance arrangements for that. They are left wondering if you were supposed to book visitors a day earlier, when you had no idea that you’d ever be arrested.

You call one of your friends. She’s uncertain and a little wooden on the phone, lacking even the vaguest idea of how to proceed or what to say. She says, Make sure you don’t say anything that could possibly incriminate yourself. You know she’s right, but her words widen the gulf between her comfortable world and the massive cell you share with 40 other prisoners. She says another friend wants to visit, and you should call him when you can. She makes reassuring noises about getting a lawyer, but you can hear that she really has no clue. You don’t break down, but nonetheless you sound defeated.

You pass a second night in the jail. With 40 men in the room, silence is a sweet fantasy. So is sleep. Maybe you think about the parallels between this 24-hour noise chamber and the intentional infliction of noise as an interrogation technique – or was that a torture technique? Maybe you don’t think about that, or anything coherent, because you’re scared and exhausted beyond words.

Next day, your friend visits. He tells you what he’s been able to learn about legal rights, based on his frantic googling. No, he’s not a lawyer, but he has excellent and dogged research skills. Not all of what he tells you is reassuring, because you seem to have fallen into a cleft in American law where the presumption of innocence is reversed and the normal rules of evidence don’t apply. You look ragged, worn, and demoralized, but he too looks visibly shocked at the jail’s surroundings: All these prisoners speaking through phones that crackle unto inaudibility. All these visitors who, like their locked-up men, look old far beyond their years. Every last visitor is female, apart from your friend. As for the prison personnel, they’re omnipresent through cameras (or so one must assume), but visible nowhere. This shabby regional jail is the ultimate faceless modern bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, your friends are trying to hunt down a lawyer. It’s surprisingly hard on a Sunday – surprisingly, because arrests don’t exactly plummet on weekends. A friend finally reaches a defense attorney who comes warmly recommended, and who thinks he doesn’t have a schedule conflict with the arraignment.

Again, this is all unbeknownst to you. A friend tries to call you Sunday evening and is first told that no messages can be conveyed to inmates. She shudders at thinking that you’re an inmate. But that is precisely what you are until the jail’s talons loosen their hold on your flesh and you’re dropped to earth like half-eaten roadkill. (At which point you’ll need a ride, because the law won’t transport you back to your hometown.) The line then goes briefly silent, and her heart leaps as she realizes she’s being put through to a supervisor. Oh, she’s good at reasoning with supervisors! So she mentions to the police officer who picks up that you really need to know that you can expect legal representation the next morning. After all, you’ve got a constitutional right to counsel. “That’s right, ma’am,” replies the officer. “He’s got a constitutional right to counsel. But he has no right to receive messages. That’s just policy.” He doesn’t say “sorry,” and his voice suggests he’s anything but.

Would you have felt better or worse, had you been able to overhear that conversation? It hardly matters, though, because you’re embarking on a third night of sleeplessness, and while your friends have heard from multiple sources that you’re likely to be released on your own recognizance, you’ve not heard that from anyone authoritative. All you can think of is the consequences of baseless charges for your family, career, and freedom. And without the distraction of a book or internet access, you’ve got infinite time to think and fret, for as long as you’re incarcerated.

* * * * *

What’s changed since I first wrote this? Only the phone system. Now it’s impossible to reach a real person, however unfriendly. There’s only a convoluted automated answering system.

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My father has always kept guns. Like most men in North Dakota, he was a hunter. Indeed, during my 1960s and 1970s childhood there, you could hardly be a man if you didn’t own a gun. He shot deer, mostly to my mother’s dismay, as she recalls trying to deal with preparing the meat through the miasma of morning sickness. He shot duck and pheasant. We ate some of those. I remember having to pick out the beebees. My brother learned to hunt at his side. One of his early Halloween costumes was “hunter.” He was all cute pudginess and colorful shotgun shells. Even with my early pacifist stirring, I loved those colors!

Once our family moved out to California in 1979, hunting was relegated to a yearly trip back to North Dakota, usually timed so that the guys could partake of the annual community supper in Dad’s hometown. The guns remained. As time passed and we acclimated to a world where no one left their back door unlocked, Dad’s guns tended to gather dust even as his worries escalated. In this new, not-always-golden state, you had to fear crime – or so the media told us, relentlessly.

By the mid-1990s, my father kept a handgun in his nightstand. It was loaded. There were also murmurings about a loaded pistol under the driver’s seat of Dad’s car. When my first baby was born in 1999, these guns sounded like worse than a bad idea; they sounded potentially lethal.

‘Round about that time, my dad blew a hole in the carpet of his home office. He had taken a gun out of the locked cabinet (to clean it? just to hold it?) and pressed the trigger, certain it was empty. It wasn’t. Luckily for him, the carpet didn’t bleed.

This month, my brother will travel back to North Dakota with my dad, quite possibly for the last time. Their original plan was to hunt duck and pheasant. Then my dad started to skid away from reality; he started talking about shooting antelope (which don’t exist in central North Dakota). My brother decided he’d swap blanks for live ammo. Now, even that seems dicey, and he’s planning to plead a sore foot and avoid hunting altogether. Honestly, they’ll have far more fun just visiting people and eating buffalo meat with people my dad has known for decades.

As for the guns in his house, my brother spirited them away earlier this week, as I wrote yesterday. What I didn’t know until I spoke with my sis today: My father immediately noticed they were missing, before my brother had a chance to trot out the cover story about him “cleaning” the guns.

My dad called the police. He called the fucking police! They came to his house and took a report about breaking and entering and burgling.

This snafu will be straightened out. The police will learn that my dad is cognitively impaired before they pick up the “perp” (my dear brother, who may well have saved a life by removing those guns). They’ll have it in their records that my dad is non compos mentis.

What can’t be fixed: the fear. All these years, my father has stewed in it. Guns were his talisman.

It’s not true that the only thing we need fear is fear itself. We need to fear the combo of guns and fear. After a lifetime of relying on guns to keep the bad guys at bay, my father has no shield in the very moment when he feels most vulnerable. And yet, if he continues to have access to guns, odds are astronomical that someone will die.

I know plenty of people who are responsible gun owners. My dad was once one, too. But I think anyone who owns a gun would be wise to ask: What will happen as I age? Can I be sure I wouldn’t accidentally use the gun against someone I love?

Because that’s exactly the danger with my dad. He’s often confused enough that he doesn’t recognize his own wife. He could shoot her, or his beloved dog, or even his newly beloved cat. I know damn well he’s not the only aging gun-owner with too much exposure to Faux News and too little ability to cognitively filter real threats from those imagined.

Might we be wiser to find other ways while we’re still young to master our fears, however well founded they may be?

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I’ve written before about my father’s declining memory. Until fairly recently, we took some hope in the fact that he was chronically very low on B12. He has problems absorbing it through his diet (due to longstanding but stable health issues) and we hoped that aggressive supplementation might help.

Then came the encounter where he didn’t recognize his next-door neighbor and kept re-introducing himself, saying he was looking for a “small animal, white with brown spots.” He couldn’t remember what sort of animal. (It was the cat he and his wife recently adopted. The fact that he loves it is also anomalous – he’s always distrusted cats – but very sweet.)

Then came the night when he misrecognized his wife. He thought she was my mom’s sister (that is, his former sister-in-law).

Then came the collision – his car with another – which was (predictably) his fault. Through some great fortune, no one was injured. Soon thereafter, my brother and his wife hid his keys.

Then came the episode where he came into the bathroom where his wife was showering, brandishing a shotgun. He’d heard a noise outside and fired off a couple of warning shots. We don’t know how true this is, because my brother had already confiscated all the ammo in the house (or so he thought). But soon thereafter, my brother spirited off all the guns. He’ll explain that he’s “cleaning” them, and this will be a very lengthy process indeed.

Then came yesterday’s doctor visit. My brother and his wife bundled my dad down to UC Davis, a good hour-long drive from his home in the California foothills. He was fit to be tied as soon as they were in the car. The doctor met first with my dad’s entourage. He didn’t need to see the MRI, he said; based on their description of my father’s behavior, it had to be Alzheimer’s.

Then my dad berated the doctor for a while, refused testing, insisted there was nothing wrong with him, and announced that any goddamned fool ought to know it’s normal for a guy to be a little forgetful when he’s nearly 80. I wasn’t in the room, but I’m sure there was a lot more cussing, there and on the ride home.

Well, at least there must have been a flash of my dad as he once was – feisty and cantankerous and just difficult. Who knew that I would someday mourn the man who used to harangue me about how wonderful Reagan was and how foolish those lilylivered liberals? Now, though, his rage is focused on his frustrations. It’s terribly hard for him, and it’s trying for his wife, who is bearing the brunt. He has detailed memories of people and events in North Dakota, 40 or 60 years ago. He just can’t remember how to work the TV remote. One outburst came after he called his wife at work, wondering why the house was so hot. She came home to find the AC on the coldest setting but every single window thrown wide open. “I can’t fucking do anything right,” he said.

Yes, in some sense he is raging against the dying of the light, as I once wished he would. But on a deeper level that’s not true, because in so many important ways, he is barely the man I’ve known for the past 47 years. His self is receding. And anyway, the rage is wholly impotent.

Somehow I’d managed to believe that my dad’s cognitive decline could be something other than Alzheimer’s. Now, this diagnosis sounds so final. It feels like both a life sentence and a death sentence for my dad. Well, I guess it is all that, and more. I feel like my father is already gone, and I missed the point when he left. It feels like I’m mourning him piecemeal. It feels as though there’s no space in my life for mourning or grief. Classes still need to be taught. Papers need to be graded (though I haven’t touched them since last night’s phone call from my sister, when I got the news). Kids still need meals, homework supervision, and nursing (the Tiger’s out of school with a fever). Only in the middle of the night is there time and space for weeping.

I hate that I’m so far from my family. I hate that the burden rests so relentlessly on his wife, and that my brother has had to do so much more than I. I hate that I can do so little to help. Yes, I can call him, and I don’t do it often enough. The truth is, I dread further evidence of decline.

The last time I spoke with my dad, I had almost found a way to navigate the mix of nonsense and fact. I just pretended he was tripping. I harked back to those times when I felt responsible for keeping a friend from having a bad trip. I didn’t let reality perturb me. Experience with altered states turns out to be a more useful life skill than I’d ever imagined.

He knew who I was throughout the phone call. For that, I am grateful.

But the day draws near when he won’t know me anymore. A couple of weeks ago, his wife – testing his tether to reality – asked him: “Do you have children?”

“Yes, three.” A pause. “I have a son.” He named him, then added: “I have two daughters. An older one and a younger one.”

“Do you know their names?”

A much longer pause. Then: “I have a Patty.”

“And your other daughter?”

“That’s the smart, funny little one.”

He drew a complete blank on my sister’s name. Perhaps she will forever be the smart young one, caught in the hardening amber of my father’s brain.

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