Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Since When Are Feminists Afraid to Talk About Sexuality?

So, during this semester my eyes have been really opened about how ill-prepared our student are to talk about sex, to make healthy sexual choices, and to be good parents who help their children make healthy sexual choices. What I wasn't prepared for was to discover how much the Women's Studies faculty suffers from the cultural dis-ease of talking about sex and helping all of us better understand the complexities of sexuality and sexual choices.

For the last 7 years I have sat on the WS committee at my college. For most of those years I have wanted to scream, when I left the meetings. The majority of women on this committee who have had the power to shape the program did not get PhD.s in an age where feminist theory was respectable or even mainstream. I think it is fair to say that their views of what the field consists of are outdated. They still retain a belief that at any moment men will infiltrate their group and undermine all of their goals. These women experienced horrendous and overt acts of sexism, and hence, tend to view most institutions on the college campus with a hostile eye.

I know and understand why they do it. I can come up with many reasons that explains well what they do. For example, many of them want to distance themselves with the co-curricular aspects of WS programming: e.g. the Women's Center, the Vagina Monologues, Rape Prevention, etc. They fear two things: (1) that they will be forced to accept more professional responsibilities than other departments/programs and (2) that they won't be taken seriously as a legitimate intellectual discipline.

In fact, the latter fear is incredibly palpable in all of their choices. Their orientation toward the world is that no one respects them, knows how rigorous WS is, and so we need to constantly reassert this in our stringent curriculum requirements. They have also built a governance structure that prevents any radical change to the program; to make any change is painful.

And, so, I have disagreed with them at many points in my untenured and now tenured career. I felt rather safe to do so, because they didn't have any power over my tenure decision. However, the bureaucracy that they have built to protect their fiefdom is nearly impossible to crack.

I spent 6 years begging them to move from a consensus model to a strong majority vote. The consensus model either prevented any decisions from being made or forced junior faculty to end up agreeing with tenured faculty for fear of being punished professionally.

The consequences is that the talented, new Ph.D.s, many of whom work alot with gender and sexuality, do not participate in the program, are helpless to change the direction of the program, and hence the program languishes in its antiquatedness.

Tonight I spent 5 hours in a "retreat." The first order of business was to debate changing our name to (a) Gender Studies or (b) Women, Gender, and Sexuality. I was in charge of arguing for the latter title. To be perfectly honest, I would have been happy with either name change, since I think that Women's Studies is a relic from the 80s and doesn't at all reflect the state of the field now. But, I was happy to argue for (b).

My colleague and I studied carefully all the programs that have such a title, considered how this works well to attract new students, new faculty, and accurately reflects the field. I also think this is good for future recruitment as well as working with other programs for joint appointments.

So, what happened? Well, the result absolutely stunned me. Let me keep you in suspension a bit longer about the outcome of this retreat.

First, I need to explain to you that the fact we had gotten to a point where we were going to vote on either of these name changes was a miracle. It reflected 7 years of hard work, including a process whereby we had moved to a strong majority vote. We had entertained for the last two years moving toward some sort of name change to accomodate the insights of queer theory. We invited an expert in queer theory to do a faculty seminar with us, wherein we learned how valuable queer theory criticisms of WS are. We have also had theoretical discussions on how WS might imply a false universalism. (DUH!)

We had also decided to change our mission statement and our curriculum. Changing curriculum, btw, is incredibly time consuming and we realized that deciding the question of a name change would be crucial in guiding us in rethinking what our curriculum should look like. Lastly, we have been handed the gift of a new college-wide curriculum that requires students to take TWO diversity requirements.

So, here we were. Ready to make a bold step into the 21st Century of feminist/queer theory. What happened?

We were forced to vote whether or not we were prepared to vote. We need 17 votes to even consider voting on the names, and only 13 people voted to do so. Why? Those who resisted were all untenured or had only showed up to one other WS meeting in their professional lives at my college.

I hadn't been prepared for this tactic. I was outmaneuvered. Why did this happen? Because the majority of women in that room were not comfortable teaching in a program that had "sexuality" in the title. Yes, I didn't make this up.

What were the arguments against Women, Gender and Sexuality?

(1) The title was too long, too unwieldy. What is the big deal with a name anyway? Why get so exercised over something as little as this?

(2) The History department or the English department hasn't changed their titles even though they might be doing more than what was traditionally considered "English." If English is still English, then Women Studies should keep its name. Why do we have to be trendy?

(3) Will our students really feel comfortable with the word "sexualities" in their transcript? Might they reject the program with its partial emphasis on sexuality? Who will ever hire them with such a major?

That was it. Those were the only arguments. I showed how shallow each of them were in my turn. For your sake, here goes:

Counter Argument (CA) 1: If a name is no big deal, then that cuts both ways, doesn't it? But, the fact is names are really important. What we name a program carries an important message about what we think we are doing. If we are no longer teaching Women's Studies, but asking broader questions about Gender and Sex as systems, then why not point this out in our title?

CA2: Shame on those other departments for failing to be bold enough to challenge the status quo and dominant paradigm. Moreover, shame on them for not having program titles that actually reflect what they are doing. Is Irish literature "English"? What about Anglophone literature from India? What about people in English departments who only teach theory? How about folks in the English department that only teach linguistics?


Ok, I that wasn't my third counter argument.

But, honestly, I was totally offended. What the hell is wrong with SEX. And, by the way, how many students are really going to avoid a class on, say, AIDS and Africa because it might discuss sex? What about biotechnologies, such as prenatal testing for sex selection? How about a policy course on abortion? What about a course wherein queer studies forces us to rethink some of changes we made in sexual harassment or rape law? Show me a student who would turn that class down? If they did, do you actually believe they would rather sign up for Gender Studies?

Lastly, WHAT program, seriously, WHAT MAJOR takes the temperature of its students to see whether or not they feel "comfortable" with learning something? Give me a break!

My most important argument pointed out how sexuality issues are perhaps the MOST important social issues at the moment: Gay Rights, for example, are the Civil Rights issue of our time. We had a case determining the future of abortion law at the SCOTUS today. More and more high schools are teaching abstinence-only. And, we have church leaders in Africa claiming that AIDS is bad, but condoms are worse.

Can you think of a more important and attractive set of social issues to discuss?

Every time I leave WS meetings I think of the old AA slogan for insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I am criticizing myself here. I think, hell, feminism is my religion. WS is my church. And, I hate the damn parishoners and the hierarchy.

How do I keep the faith?

Ayotte Case Today

The Supreme Court is beginning to hear the Ayotte vs. Planned Parenthood case today. Scott Lemieux, at Lawyers, Guns and Money is doing some live blogging and analysis on the arguments.

The crux of this decision is if Parental Notification laws put undue burden on women seeking abortions. Clearly when you put a young woman in a situtaion where she has only bad outcomes to fear (either my family hurts me, the man who impregnated me will hurt me, or the process to get an abortion will make it less likely to get a non-surgical one, etc.) you are putting undue burden on women.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Weekend in Paradise [justme Guest Blogger]

Just wanted to share two amazing experiences I had this weekend.

As you can tell from the title, I was off to the sunny seas of the Caribbean. Our second stop was in Cozumel, Mexico where Hurricane Wilma, a Category 5, sat and spun for a few hours. I cannot convey the extent of the damage in words. An entire tropical island paradise turned to a brown wasteland appearing to be more of a war zone than a resort. The "locals" had trucked in sand and palm trees for our little beach. Otherwise, there was no beach. No palm trees. Very few signs of vegetation. Our little catamaran snorkel and booze cruise was the second the boat had done since the hurricane. I cannot convey how welcome they made us feel, for obvious reasons. They were a great group of guys and gals who I am certain made out well on the day, and deservedly so. We all felt more than a little guilty at our extravagant trip after seeing what had gone and were going through. The “five star resorts” on the beach looked more like buildings under construction than the resorts they once had been. They were nothing more than concrete block and rebar.

Worse yet, on our way home, in what I will estimate 6-7 foot seas (very tolerable for our cruise ship), we heard an announcement that there was a "vessel" in distress off the port side that we would be stopping to assist. After a huge turn (who knew it took that much time to turn a cruise vessel around?) we picked up 7 men, two women and what appeared to be about a seven year old girl - all Cuban. Their "vessel" was a maybe twelve feet by five feet flat bottomed boat powered by two oars. I didn't see the pickup itself until after it was over and their “vessel” was floating away, but my wife said two men were paddling and the others were bailing. I seriously doubt they would have made it through the night. A few hours later we met a Coast Guard cutter and offloaded the group into a Coast Guard life raft, in the dark, in a thirty knot wind, same six to seven foot seas. The Coast Guard made two separate trips as their raft would only hold themselves and five Cubans. I cannot convey the fear I had for those folks as they scrambled the 15 feet or so down the rope ladder to the bouncing raft (adorned in Celebrity Cruise attire, I might add). We knew if they went the sea they'd be ok (wearing life jackets and having the Coast Guard guys right there), but can one imagine the fear of the young girl in that situation? All were safely scuttled to the cutter, probably for a return trip to their homeland. See this link for a wire story on the event.

I could type for another hour, but it gave me a really good idea what life there must be like. If anyone wants to wonder what we – and I mean all of us - have to be thankful of over the Holidays, think about how bad one’s lot in life must be to risk the life of a seven year old – presumably one’s own child - to escape Cuba.

I am, yet again, humbled.

Why Aren't Mostly Male Doctors More Insulted?

Big Pharma relies on physicians and the power to write prescriptions to move their drugs in the pseudo-marketplace of health care.

I have seen the unbelieveable "bribes" that Big Pharma will give doctors my whole life. My Dad used to be proud of what he could get from the drug reps on the days they made their calling on him in the office. He would place all the trinkets and gifts he got from other drug reps prominently on this desk so that whomever walked into his office would know the stakes of any future "negotiations." My Dad used to make a great deal of money giving talks on the drugs, in very exotic places of course. And, from time to time, my Dad has used Big Pharma and it "generosity" for his humanitarian purposes. He got Astra Zeneca, for example, to donate a great deal of equipment for his clinic on Maui.

The recent regulations on Big Pharma, however, have dried up that well a bit. When I was a board meeting a few months ago for the academic society of psychiatrists and philosophers I belong to, I discovered the new route for getting drug company money: apply to their foundations. When you think like a corporation--which is tantamount to thinking like a socio-path, if we are going to think of corporations like individuals--then you figure out how to use them. Corporations want to appear nice and good, so give them the opportunity to fund your little conference with their philanthropy funds. They get to advertise their generosity, you get to have your conference in style, and the drug reps can show up and mingle a bit with the doctors.

And, mingling with doctors is what Big Pharma relies on now to get its drugs out there. The NYTimes has a mint of a piece today on drug reps. Did you know that a perfect resume builder for pharmaceutical representative is cheerleading?

And in a crowded field of 90,000 drug representatives, where individual clients wield vast prescription-writing influence over patients' medication, who better than cheerleaders to sway the hearts of the nation's doctors, still mostly men.

"There's a saying that you'll never meet an ugly drug rep," said Dr. Thomas Carli of the University of Michigan. He led efforts to limit access to the representatives who once trolled hospital hallways. But Dr. Carli, who notes that even male drug representatives are athletic and handsome, predicts that the drug industry, whose image has suffered from safety problems and aggressive marketing tactics, will soon come to realize that "the days of this sexual marketing are really quite limited."

Yes, yes, I could give a long disquistion on why it is so lame that to get ahead in this service economy you need to be a perky, prozaced, blonde. But, why bother?

I think the more interesting question is why the mostly male doctors aren't offended at how Big Pharma plays them. Isn't it an interesting that the stereotype of male identity, leads sales reps to play on their sexual appetites rather than their rational thinking skills to move their products? What always bemuses me is that men are rather proud of this fact; they don't generally feel belittled, duped or cajoled when a gorgeous woman is sent in there to play them.

But, what sort of image of male sexuality is really being traded on here? That men are so weak, so slavish to their hormones, that you can get them to do whatever they want if you dangle a perky blonde (or irresistible red head in the case of Roger Rabbit) in front of them? Why doesn't it offend more of these mostly male doctors that their expertise and judgment as M.D. isn't being appealed to here, but rather their venality and prurience?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Why Can't You Learn to Be Less Moral?

Goldbricker has a really haunting post on Col. Ted Westhusing, a military ethicist who volunteered to go to Iraq. Westhusing was found dead with a single bullet to his head. His farewell note asks: "How is honor possible in a war like the one in Iraq?" This is from a man who wrote a 352-page dissertation on honor and war.

From the L.A. Times, here is what a psychologist had to say about Westhusing:

A psychologist reviewed Westhusing's e-mails and interviewed colleagues. She concluded that the anonymous letter had been the "most difficult and probably most painful stressor."

She said that Westhusing had placed too much pressure on himself to succeed and that he was unusually rigid in his thinking. Westhusing struggled with the idea that monetary values could outweigh moral ones in war. This, she said, was a flaw.

"Despite his intelligence, his ability to grasp the idea that profit is an important goal for people working in the private sector was surprisingly limited," wrote Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach. "He could not shift his mind-set from the military notion of completing a mission irrespective of cost, nor could he change his belief that doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do should be the sole motivator for businesses."

So what exactly is the line between moral and mad?

The Virtue Tax

My colleague just popped in my office to alert me to this report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which suggests we should tax drivers of hybrid cars.

One is that owners of hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles pay a vehicle fee, the argument being that drivers should bear their fair share to fill potholes and fix bridges, regardless of how much or what kind of fuel they use.

That's right, you smug, self-righteous-latte-drinking, Prius-driving liberals. You too have to pay taxes like the rest of us jack asses that drive Hummers.

Haven't I pointed out over and over again how soulless the economists are?

So, the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money (could it be that 286.4 billion piece of highway bill pork that Congress authorized?). What do you do when you have less money to maintain the highways, and the damn hybrid drivers don't have to pay as much of the once touted "super-efficient" gas tax?

Liberal Pabulum and Propaganda Hunt Continues

Fresh from my email inbox is this article from the Centre Daily Times about PSU professor and blogger par excellence, Michael Berube and his colleague, Claire Katz (a Philosopher I might add!) who are talking back to the PA State Legislature.

To refresh your memories, PA House Resolution 177 (P.N. 2553), which was passed last July is aimed at policing and purging from the Academy any looney, left-wing bias.

A Penn State Professor and Centre Daily Columnist, David Warren Saxe (who wants to protect the right to gay bash), is enthusiastic about the hearings now ongoing due to PA H.R. 177.

The group should discover "whether the political left has indeed overwhelmed the great towers of academia and flooded the minds of its captive students with liberal pabulum and propaganda," David Warren Saxe wrote in a July 12 commentary in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Saxe, an associate professor at Penn State and a former Centre Daily Times columnist, went on:

"As the new generation of academics displaced the old, traditional ideas such as truth, objectivity and intellectual discipline were rooted out, ridiculed and redefined under banners of toleration and diversity."

A few months back I mentioned these hearings at PAC breakfast that I was attending. I asked if anyone in the room knew what the outcome was of the resolution, and I was told that hearings had begun.

A really clever woman in the group argued that feminists should go to these hearings and point out the sexist indoctrination going on in the curriculum. Not a bad idea, eh?

I always like the "if you can't beat them, join 'em" strategy.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

On Reading the Passive Aggressive Signs

The house is empty, all our family and guests have departed. Za and I sat alone in our living room last night, not sure what to do with ourselves now that everyone is gone. I have barely left my bed today, wanting to just hide under the covers and read a novel.

The absence in the house is palpable. The bustle and the bickering of relatives sharing a small kitchen space was, well, home to me.

The night before my mother and grandmother left, I snuck into my grandmother's room to apologize for not having enough time to speak to her during the week. She spent a great deal of time, in the background, cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, walking the dog, and raking leaves. No one asked her to do these things, but it is her way of being part of the family. It is not easy for her to sit still and just talk; she is a doer.

Za's family, on the other hand, are much more amenable to the cocktail and conversation approach. We put food out, make some lemon drop martinis, and talk about due process, the Bush Administration, or the post-Katrina nightmare. These are the conversations that light me up and energize me. I don't think, however, that my grandmother gets as much enjoyment.

Every time that my grandmother visits me, she reminds me that has never been the Nation's capital. I proposed we go the friday after Thanksgiving, and she seemed pleased. Friday came, however, and I was caught up doing other things and it slipped my mind. I wanted to finish raking, I wanted to clean the kitchen, and then, I had a few other guests to entertain.

To solve the entertainment problem, I got three movies and broke out the leftovers. My grandmother sat quietly in another room, reading a book. When the eating would end (we ate in regular cycles), my grandmother would enter the kitchen and start doing dishes. None of us stopped her, nor did we probably realize she was doing this.

However, the last time she set out to do the dishes, we were all aware she was in the kitchen. She started banging around pots and plates, slamming things on the table, and heaving loud sighs.

I started to scratch my head, scrambling to figure out why she was mad. My grandmother doesn't express her feelings. She has told me many times about growing up in a small county in Iowa. People don't talk, they do. But, clearly she was upset, and I didn't know why.

By the time I hit the sheets, I remembered that she wanted to go to D.C. I snuck into her room to apologize. She swore she had been happy the whole day. She wanted to do whatever I wanted to do; what mattered was if I was happy and enjoying myself.

My guilt sank further in.

We talked for about and hour. What I started to hear in her words, her accusations ("you didn't call me last year on Thanksgiving"), was a woman who is 85 and facing the end of her life. Her friends are dying. She lost her companion two years ago. My mother works all the time. Her grandchildren are scattered across the globe. She feels alone.

What hit me the most, however, was that she simply does not have the language to articulate this pain. She is the product of a different time and a different place: women didn't go to school, they stayed home and raised children. She knew how to milk the cows, tend to the chicken, and care for the home and hearth by the time she was 6.

No one cared what she thought or what she wanted. She learned to please others and to influence decisions through indirection: "wouldn't it be neat if you were to rake the leaves this way? Wouldn't you like that better Aspazia?" "I want to do what you want to do!"

But, like anyone who tries to be pleasant and self-sacrificing for too long without others insisting on pleasing you in return, she melts down. She doesn't scream, call names, nor does she pitch a fit.

Instead, she has learned the art of directing attention to her martyred state. Slowly, consistently and just-under-the-wire, her used-up-self begins to work at our guilt. Lest you think I am wholly mocking her, let me clarify that I do believe that she has been used-up, depleted, and it is reasonable for her to be resentful. I also think that we should feel guilty for letting her work this hard, with little return for her labors.

My grandmother is afraid of being alone and neglected. She wants to spend time with people, to laugh, to belong, and yet, she has very few skills for obtaining what she wants. We, however, have learned to develop skills to figure out what she wants, but we are slow in picking up the message until it is too late.

I have written about the art of passive aggressiveness before. I don't like it. I don't like that I have been well trained to read the signs. Yet, I don't want to ever forget that my grandmother did not grow up in a time where people taught or encouraged her to assert what she wanted. I do not want to forget that she isn't going to suddenly become loquacious, intellectual, and self-directed.

Above all, I don't want her to feel alone and neglected.

UPDATE: I just wandered up to the room my grandmother slept in to grab a sweater. On the edge of my dresser sits the bible that she and my grandfather gave me for my confirmation.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Thanksgiving Report

Yesterday was probably the most memorable Thanksgiving I will have ever had (don't you love the future perfect). Throughout the day I took time to state loudly: "this is so much fun!" I was fully aware that this Thanksgiving would set a new standard for what these meals should be like and be about.

If you read my brief message from yesterday on what was served and the major themes, you get an idea of what was in store. 18 people and two babies sat around two tables spilling over with amazing food: marinated and bbq'd Duck, Pot Roast, Turkey filled with Cornbread Stuffing, fresh Cranberry relish, two kinds of gravy, mash potatoes, sweet potatoe pie, green beans with almonds, pear and walnut salad. I don't think I am remembering everything. We had lots and lots of wine and 5 different pies to choose from.

While the food was amazing, the company and conversation was outstanding. Among us were 4 Ph.D.'s in Philosophy, a developmental biologist, a first year biology student from NYU, two ABD's in Philosophy, who both left Tulane to attend Georgetown Law. The latter couple now live in DC: the husband works for Federal Defense in Maryland and the wife is a litigator at a big firm (having left a year at Public Citizen). We had a Law Professor and his wife (Za's sister) works for the Department of Social Services in Louisiana. We had two brillant economics students and their equally brillant professor, Emma, whose beau is a Radiologist at the Univ of Maryland. My mom, the SEIU organizer hung out with Za's mom, who is a writer. Two adorable babies and my worldy grandmother who had 85 years of perspective on all our debates.

Many of our guests had lived or continues to live in Baton Rouge/New Orleans. Almost everyone had an interest in philosophical debate. And, what I loved above all, is that no one at the table defended the Iraq war, the Bush Administration, or called any of us looney liberals. We ate in grand style and carried on great debates ranging from Intelligent Design, the Coase Theorem, Due Process on College campuses, the failed Federal response to Katrina, and how to think through difficult ethical dilemmas.

At the end of the evening, I spoke to Emma's students. One was from Bulgaria and the other was from China. Both of them were working hard on their final projects for the Senior Seminar in Economics. Our friend from Bulgaria was evaulating how TANF (and AFDC) has impacted children. I asked him what his hunch was, and he said "not very good." Then, I asked him what we should do instead. "Education," he said. "How are we going to ensure that everyone will get a quality education in this country? Should we spend more for our educational system? Should we establish a national curriculum?," I asked. "I don't know," he said.

At that point, I made my usual point that economics is amoral. I think that anyone who studies economics should take philosophy, or at least ethics. Economics is a powerful tool for policy and for influencing legislation. However, if you have no idea what should exist instead of TANF and you give reasons to the conservatives to abolish it without any other viable policy for helping the poor, well, that is really bad for the poor.

This is the report from small town USA. Thanksgiving was a pleasure and I credit, in part, the kind of interactions that are possible when you teach at small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere to bring together really interesting people.

Notes from the Prozac Nation on Hiatus

My sabbatical starts in 3 weeks. Until then, my life is hell. Hence, I have decided to take a break from the Notes from the Prozac Nation column until I start writing my book again during the sabbatical. If any of you were fans, all you need wait is 3-4 weeks until Vol 2 is up an running.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Why Do Little Women Win These Competitions?

I saw the results of this Turkey eating contest yesterday while I was at the gym. I am not really a loyal fan of competitive eating, but it seems to me that I have seen more than one tiny woman beat these mammoth men. I don't get it.

I bet my dog, Marty, could take her!

Happy Thanksgiving: What's That, Yes A Quiz

My mother and grandmother are preparing a huge Turkey for the big meal at 2:30pm EST. Za's mother, sister, brother-in-law are preparing a pot roast at Emma's house. Emma and her beau are preparing a duck. I am going to faint from all this food. We have 18 folks and two babies showing up at our feast chez Emma. Last night we discovered that the common theme of our guests is: Philosophy, New Orleans, and Law. I am certain the conversation is going to be stimulating. (I promise to report anything extraordinary).

I hope each of you has a hearty and yummy Thanksgiving. Thanks also for helping me get my blog started this year.

In lieu of any substantive post today, I am giving all of you a quiz (via Packed in Saccharin). Scott's discussion of bad movies stimulated this choice of a quiz. My results are dead-on.

The Movie Of Your Life Is A Black Comedy

In your life, things are so twisted that you just have to laugh.
You may end up insane, but you'll have fun on the way to the asylum.

Your best movie matches: Being John Malkovich, The Royal Tenenbaums, American Psycho

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More Reasons to Give Thanks

I absolutely love Antheia's idea to list off what the simple (or not so simple) things we give thanks for this season. Some of the things on my list will be quite similar to Antheia's.

Cuties (Tofutti Ice Cream Sandwiches)
Lavendar Candles
Potato and Leek Soup
Fall Colors on the East Coast
Marty (my beagle)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
Meyer's Aromatherapy Cleaning Supplies
Hot Stone Massage
Facials with Carole Franck products
My G4 Mac (although it is dying a slow death)
A student's smile when he/she finally gets an A from me
This blog and my co-bloggers
Fire Pits and Sm'ores
The "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker
Sleeping in
Good Sales at Anthropologie
My IPod
Watching bad, bad TV (we're talking the E special on the Hilton Sisters) at my friend's house
Chocolate Martinis
Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line"
Beers with Uncle Ben
Panera's Cuban Black Bean Soup
Cafes with free Wireless
Cashmere Cable Knit Sweaters
Red Envelope catalogue
Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert
Whole Foods
Shenandoah Valley, CA
Eric's Restaurant in Noe Valley
Slumber parties with my girlfriends (including lots of Appletinis)
Golfing while Barefoot
Small Towns
Dinner Parties on Wrap-Around Porches
Surprise Dates at French Restaurants
Northern California Beaches
Telegraph Ave in Berkeley
Mt. Tamalpais
Muir Woods
Jeanette Winterson novels
Good Teaching Days
Students who Keep in Touch
Community Theater
Snow Days

Reasons to Give Thanks

"Let's resolve to have a good Thanksgiving".... Aspazia, I couldn't agree more! Today I had the chance to observe a teenage cancer “retreat” at the hospital. The theme of the retreat was “Reasons to Give Thanks,” and the main therapeutic activity involved making a list of all the things that you are thankful for. It was an extremely emotional experience to listen to these kids, most of whom are grateful just to be alive this Thanksgiving, to sputter off long lists of things that have brought them joy this year. They spoke of various physicians and nurses, and being thankful for their kindness and expertise, they spoke of being thankful for different chemo drugs, for radiation therapy. And they spoke of the seemingly trivial things: movies that they could watch over and over again, receiving cards from classmates. It’s amazing how sweet simple pleasures can seem when such big facets of your world are falling apart. My patients never fail to inspire me, and remind me how much I have to be thankful for. So, here’s my list, some of my reasons for giving thanks this year…..

Starbucks' Vanilla Lattes
Lavender scented bubble bath
Spa Days
A good bottle of Pinot Noir
Gerber daisies
My amazing patients!!!
Godiva truffles
Tae Bo
Flannel sheets
The smell of a wood burning stove
Calling out of work for a “mental health day”
Philadelphia Story, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany's
Compliments from strangers
The snooze button on the alarm
College sweatshirts
The little art gallery on the corner of my block
Music boxes
The smell of snow
The birth control patch
Longwood Gardens
Lucinda Williams’ “beautifully flawed voice”
Cindy Sheehan
Broken in blue jeans
The arrival gate at JFK
Handel, Bach, Beethoven
Google Scholar
Free night and weekend minutes
“Tuesdays With Morrie”
The Fruit and Vegetable Market on Sundays
“End of chemo” parties
Drive-in movie theaters
The “to be or not to be” soliloquy
Deferring college loans
Stain stick
The George Forman grill
Ear muffs
Maybeline “Great Lash” Mascara
Christmas lights
Sail boats
Margarita glasses
Community Theatre
Ben and Jerry's Phish Food
Runner's high
The New York Skyline
Swing dancing
Martini and Manicure night at the bar
The New York Times online
The brilliance of Jonathan Larson
Coming home
Post it notes
Roe v. Wade
Peppermint patties
“Le Petit Prince”
New England Clam chowder
Stem Cell Transplants
Cape May in the winter
Vanilla Scented Candles
Friends who are like family
English Bulldogs
Sidewalk chalk
The lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center
Clean Mammograms
Another day to say Amen.....

R.I.P. Ugly Dog

Farewell Ugly Dog. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say we have lost a real American treasure.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Melancholy Monday: Losing a Child

Today was my first day back after a 2 week absence from work due to being hospitalized for meningitis (ugh!). I was planning on working a half day as I’m still feeling under the weather, but ended up working a 12 hour shift.

I was getting ready to leave for the day when I overhead a page that a trauma was coming in, it was a teenage boy who had gone into cardiac arrest with no previous medical history of a heart problem. I took off my coat, and waited along with the rest of the medical team for the ambulance to arrive. He died shortly after arriving in the ER.

I sat with his mother for hours while family members poured in and out to offer support. I was overcome with the haunting emptiness that was in her eyes. I sat with her in the waiting area, while doctors, parents, and patients sped by, going about their business on the other side of the glass door. It seemed almost cruel that this mother had to watch other people continue on with the fluid motions of their lives, while she sat paralyzed, stuck in this moment.

She talked to me about giving birth to her beautiful baby some 17 years before, and of how she didn’t sleep for weeks because of his terrible croup. She beamed as she spoke of his accomplishments; he was going to be the first one in his family to go to college she said. I sat and listened to this woman’s stories, I listened as she exclaimed how lucky she was to be a woman inasmuch as it granted her the opportunity to be this child’s mother. But even while talking about the happiest of memories she seemed to be choked by unfettered grief.

I was watching an old episode of Six Feet Under while I was home sick this week. The episode dealt with a mother who was burying her son who had died in Iraq. For those of you who are familiar with the characters, Brenda was sitting at the kitchen table talking to Nate and David about the situation and said: “men and women lose their spouses and are called widowers, children lose their parents and they are orphans, but what about parents that lose their children?” Then she said, “Maybe it's just too fucking horrible to even give it a name.”

Maybe we don’t give it a name because we don’t have words in our language that can begin to touch the utter despair that a parent experiences when they lose a child. There is no word that can adequately encapsulate all of the could have beens and the should have beens, all of the doubt, blame, and regret. I suppose that words are just not good enough to define the inperceptable experience of as losing a child.

More Melancholy

A student appeared at my office door today. He's generally a happy, charismatic guy with an interesting background. He was raised in California and joined the military immediately after graduating from high school. He bought that line about seeing the world. He became a radio operator and, toward the end of his enlistment, spent nine months in the front line, right in the heart of Baghdad. When he was discharged after four years of service, he registered for college under the GI Bill. Though he'd been home for almost a year, the war plagues him relentlessly.

While in Iraq, he watched his best friend, someone he'd known since high school and enlisted with, die right in front of his eyes. His other friend lost all feeling in one leg when a mortar hit him during the same attack. It's the image of his friend that is haunting his every waking moment. He thought it would get better if he just ignored it, but it's now consuming him. He's failing several classes. He's frighteningly quick to anger. He's no longer sure that he's ok. Frankly, I'm not sure he is either.

It is an understatement to say this war is an ugly thing. It's taken this young man and chewed him up. And, culturally, we haven't given him any tools for coping with what he's seen and what he's reliving now. He sat there saying, "I don't want to see anybody about this because it's going to mean I'm weak" and "My grandfather and Dad were in wars, and they never talked about it. We're not supposed to" and "What if I'm a dad one day? What is my son going to learn from me about being strong?" He shoulders all the responsibility for what happened. He confessed that he didn't want my sympathy. He said that men didn't cry. He was bound by his fear of discovery even in the face of his confession.

Culturally, we reward men who are fit the mode of traditional hero: brave, strong, inaccessible, invincible. Yet, we condemn the ones who do not fit the model even as we say that we want sensitive men who can discuss their feelings and be part of the team. The message he gets is obvious - suck it up, get over it. As a boy, he learns that confessing feelings means we will think less of him. His feelings are a threat to his masculinity.

I ache for this poor man's grief. It is palpable. His blissful demeanor masks hurt that I find worse because it didn't have to be this way. Of course we all know that people who sign up run the risk of facing real war. I understand. But his pain is another real war that continues and that I hope he won't fight alone.

Melancholy Monday: Without Words

I have a framed poster on the wall over my desk. The poster advertises a literary review at the college where I teach. The reason why I asked for a copy of it was because it is a painting of the bedroom of one of my former colleagues from the English Department. He died last year and it was one of the saddest funerals that I have ever attended. His death was not expected, and hence the funeral was not a salve to the mourners. The funeral only magnified his absence.

When I first arrived at this job, I was young, a bit crazy, and full of life. Bob took me under his wing in many ways. He would talk to me about literature and philosophy over beers at our local pub. I cannot tell you how many times he told me how bright I was. I really needed to hear that when I first got here. I was so intimidated--good lord I was 29 years old, fresh out of graduate school. One of his favorite lines was that the "Philosophy Department has the highest IQ on campus." What I loved even more about Bob was that he probably said that about every department.

Bob was also the kind of English Professor that every student has to have at least once. In the 60s and 70s, you can imagine him getting high with his students (before all the PC and tightening down in the 80s). He taught Lolita every year, and relished the shock effect on his students. He travelled to Africa and Jamaica with his students and bathed nude in front of them. Just ask anyone, you will get countless stories of his generosity, insanity, and kind, kind heart.

Bob retired after I had been at the college 4 years. He was forced to retire because his wife's drinking problem had magnified into a full-time disaster. He cared for her, tried to get her to stop, and then, I think, just joined her. I still don't know what caused his death. But, it was sudden and tragic.

I remember worrying about the fate of his wife all through the funeral.

The last time I had seen the two of them together was at a meet-up for Howard Dean's candidacy for the Democratic ticket. The two of them were exceedingly drunk, spilling over others, knocking plates off the table, talking really loudly and ruffling the feathers of the discussion moderator. I remember being really torn in that situation. The moderator didn't know them, and hence it was reasonable to be irked with them. And yet, I wanted to leap in and take over, just so he wouldn't continue to talk to them as children.

The whole event was unnerving. Bob's wife was particularly loud and disruptive, but if you had any kindness you could hear her profound intelligence and will to be part of something transformative. But who would be attuned to hear that from two old, drunk, ex-hippies from Minnesota?

Which reminds me, Bob was younger than my mother when he died. He really wasn't old. In fact, he could have easily kept teaching if it were not for his wife. Before he quit his job, he wrestled with leaving her and couldn't bring himself to do it. He loved her too much and couldn't abandon her to her destruction.

This morning, I glanced at the poster of Bob's bedroom: a huge iron bed with a toussled quilt, sunlight coming through the window, and books everywhere. It is a romantic picture of a literary man's most private room. When I looked at the poster this time, I thought of his wife.

Last week when the usual suspects gathered at the local bar for a post-mortem of the faculty meeting, I saw Bob's wife in the corner.

She was all dressed up, reading the New York Times, drinking Bourbon, and all alone. She sat at a table that I used to sit at with Bob and others on Thursday nights several years ago. I couldn't help but glance over at her. She looked so profoundly sad. She would listen to our conversation a bit, then put her head down for a few minutes.

I began to imagine what it would be like to view us from her seat.

Was she reliving days of her youth, remembering the heated arguments around her dinner table, when she and Bob were our age? Or was she thinking about the last few years of his life, when Bob would meet up with us at the pub and talk about the horrific state of the country before hurrying home to meet her? I have no way to tell.

Watching her from time to time that evening made me melancholy. I could've gone up to speak to her, and perhaps I should've. I hesitated because I wasn't sure she would know me. That is probably not fully honest. I didn't walk up to her because I didn't know what to say. I was without words.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Do Not Water the Plants

I am sitting in the cafeteria of Za's building (many, many labs, and places to get coffee!).

Anyway, I am grading---grrrrrrrr!---which leads me to be easily distracted. I just glanced at the Ficus tree, which has a huge sign that reads:

Do Not Water
the Plants


Maybe it is just me, but this cracks me up. Overwatering the plants in my house, my office, or my workplace ain't likely. Only would a bunch of biologists be likely to do so.

On Ideologues and Truth Seeking: Part Two

I hinted earlier in the week that I had something about this recent FDA decision in the pipeline. I did. Then, I started thinking more seriously about what GAO's report about the FDA and Plan B really meant: Ideologues at work.

It is tempting to not really say much more about this topic of how ideology is so dangerous to truth seeking, and particularly how it can undermine the very government institutions (the courts, the FDA, etc.) because David Rosenbaum from the NYT did a nice job in his piece in the Week in Review today. Consider this passage:

Donald F. Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, offered an explanation for the Bush approach: "The facts are rarely 100 percent clear. There is almost always uncertainty and a need for interpretation. As long as that's the case, ideology is awfully handy because it provides a way to interpret the fuzzy area between what we know and what we don't know."

With the politicization overload of last week, there was one reminder that at least a few islands of impartiality lie in the sea of partisan polarization.

There a great deal of questions for which the answers are not wholly clear. My contention has always been that the best we can do with the unknown is to try and create a process for making good decisions, with accountability built in, that also allows for a range of views and novel approaches. Now, before you launch into a criticism that either what I said is vague or that it is mere relativism, give me a further read.

During his mock-Rhodes interview, GburgKid emphasized the importance of pluralism for a healthy democracy as well as building institutions that empower many voices and ensure fair and inclusive process for decision-making. That sounds great, doesn't it, but what does it mean?

As things stand now, we know that those well educated (which is often correlated with economic and social class), and who know how to debate well, are better poised to persuade and get elected. We also know that the more money you have, the more likely you are to be better represented in a trial. We could spend a lot of time enumerating conditions which diminish the likelihood of new voices, or silenced voices, from influencing how we ask questions, answer them, and which questions we ask in the first place.

I think that GburgKid was emphasizing that we need to empower the voices that are often not heard. The only problem with this view is that we can find ourselves in a dilemma, wherein we will have to empower voices that intend to quash, silent, and dismiss all the others. This is the classic problem of: should we be tolerant to those who are intolerant.

The other problem with the model of pluralism is it can collapse into relativism, wherein we want to be so inclusive of other viewpoints that we no longer have standards.

We risk relativism--"the might makes right"--when we are looking at fuzzy, complicated and grey area questions. A strong, consistent, ideology that seems to fit with the "common sense" views of most Americans becomes a really handy way of solving tough questions afterall. Few people relish thinking through ambigious situations and coming up with solutions or punishments. We all like the easier path: follow recipes or directions.

But, I would hope that many questions, especially policy questions, are less like following recipes and more like creating something new. We need new energy, we need to listen to folks that are often cut out of the process. But, we need to be able to have a fair process by which to do so.

This is leads me back to Rosenbaum's image of "a few islands of impartiality in the sea of partisan politics." How can we set up process by which we minimize the danger of ideology and we maximize transparency, accountablity, and internal criticism?

This is what you hope that the Courts do as well as the FDA. We want to believe that money and power cannot corrupt these processes. And, I tend to believe, more and more, that democratic institutions can take a page from the scientific method (now, I am astutely avoiding saying that scientists are free from bias, partiality, or corruption). But, I do think that what the scientific method does build into the process is (a) evidence and (b) the principle of falsifiability. That is, scientists should actively seek to disprove their hypotheses and, if they do, then the community is bound to move forward.

We aren't seeing a lot of this kind of critical thinking lately.

The real interesting question to work out is what counts as evidence. What counts as evidence in one context (e.g. how to determine causality in the framework of molecular biology vs. how to intentional wrongdoing in the moral/legal context) will not carry over into another context. But, at least we can have these sorts of conversations and we could probably come up with transparent processes that we must be beholden to if we want there to be fairness, truthseeking and accountability in government.

I am going to end my post here, since I have now opened up a whole other complicated question, one that I imagine many of my readers could say far more intelligent things about.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

GburgKid is a Rhodes Scholar!!!!

I just got off the phone with one of the authors of this blog, GburgKid. I won't reveal his actual identity, unless he wants me to do so. He just completed a grueling day of interviews (two) for the Rhodes. He walked into the interview having already won the Marshall.

He got it. I am so proud of this young man and honored to have played a small part in helping him along the way.

I guarantee that we can expect a lot from him in the future.

I going to make myself an Appletini and jump up, down, and around the room.

UPDATE: Here is the AP story on the competition.

Full Contact Legislating

The House erupts over Murtha's resolution to withdraw the troops. Duncan Hunter (CA-R) simplified Murtha's resolution and put it to a vote (withdraw troops folks?) in hopes of trapping Democrats ("look they voted for making things worse!!!"). Democracts saw the Republican trap in the vote, and avoided it. But then, Jean Schmidt (OH-R)--you know the one who beat Paul Hackett--turned herself into the "messenger" for Colonel Danny Bubp.

"He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

Ooooooh dems fightin words!

Seriously, I am getting really sick of the typical pro-war maneouver: If someone makes an intelligent, well-reasoned argument for not only withdrawing the troops, but doing so without wholly leaving Iraq to the wolves, then . . . shout names, destroy and honorable man's character, and make a strawman out of his resolution. Nice.

I just hope 2006 gives these Republicans a clear message: knock it off. Act like adults.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Rep. John Murtha: AMEN

Finally, finally reason and common sense is getting through. Hats off to Murtha.

The Democrats are winning me back.

When Do Single Mother's Count?

What does it take to be a single mom that Conservatives, such as George Will, pity?

I have been thinking about this question alot. Prior to the current budget cuts, images of welfare queens and sexually irresponsible young women paraded before us.

The face of much of the poverty in this country is a woman's face. Poverty is a feminist issue.

Many of these women are struggling to raise children with few resources. If they are on TANF, they now are forced to work rather than raise their children. Maternal labor doesn't seem to count as labor. Eva Kittay, in her book Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency points out that when we "revolutionized" AFDC, we created "a harsh policy insisting that women caring for children under conditions of dire poverty, with no other support available, are to sweep streets and take care of other people's children, rather than tend to their own."

Women who seek government assistance to raise future citizens are scorned and seen as "dependent" on a system. What is the solution to this policy: no more bastards. That is right, our current public policy has recreated illegitimacy. What happens to children who fall into this category?

To my question: under what conditions do we pity single mothers?

(1) If their husbands abandon them. Our public policies, organized around the presumption that patriarchy is the best family form, allow us to pity women whose husbands have failed in their duties to provide for the family.

(2) If their husbands died. It is even better if the husband died fighting for his country or in a terrorist attack, like 9-11. Moreover, a dead husband allows a single mother to get Social Security and perhaps private insurance.

I find it appalling that you have to satisfy these two conditions to be considered worthy of support networks and governmental assistance. Maternal labor is the bedrock of our entire country. (Just to stave off any comments that I am leaving out fathers, let me point out that I am saying something different that "mothers," i.e. women. I talking about what the work of mothering is).

Cutting programs that ensure we have the healthiest and brightest citizenry as possible is not only immoral and unChristian, but it is directly opposed to our nation's self-interest.

Thanks for Slashing those Student Loans!

Why do the Conservatives hate the poor so much? Ok, that is supposed to be a joke. But seriously, I am all for balancing your budget--trying to cut back on things you don't need, paying off debt, working on savings . . . I really am. But, I am always amazed at which programs Conservatives want to cut to pay off a huge deficit they created.

I don't care what anyone says, or whatever metaphor you want to use, I don't think Government should run like a business. Here are some reasons why:

(1) Government should be transparent and accountable. Today's top Corporations are far from transparent in their accounting practices (I 'heart' Eliot Spitzer).

(2) Government is a non-profit endeavor, working toward the betterment of each citizens through a variety of programs, offices, institutions that help people help themselves (that is, the goal of government is not to make a profit for its shareholders).

So, I woke up to read about the House Budget cuts this morning. I applaud the return of some moderate Republicans and thank them ("thank you") for caring about many of the programs slated to be cut.

Last night, moderate lawmakers secured another change that scaled back cuts to the food stamp program. Initially, the bill would have denied food stamps to the working poor who are not eligible for cash benefits under the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under the compromise, pushed by Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), poor families could still receive food stamps if they receive certain kinds of work-support services, such as child care and transportation assistance, funded by welfare. The change reduced the food stamp cut from $796 million over five years to $675 million, preserving food stamp benefits for about 80,000 people but still cutting around 220,000 from the program, according to the Congressional Budget Office and liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

I am not at all sure what to make of this "compromise." Anyone who has worked with a welfare office or non-profit organization trying to help the "working poor" knows that it is already a nightmare to make ends meet and that getting child care and transportation assistance is nearly impossible. I also don't understand why you are eligible for food stamps if you have secured other welfare benefits? You give food to people who are drawing from a variety of programs, but not those on TANF who aren't eligible for cash benefits? Someone explain this to me . . .

These sort of cuts--
The proposed spending package for fiscal 2006 is smaller than this year's version, meaning high priorities such as disease research, rural health care, Pell grants and low-income heating assistance were allotted less money.

are also quite baffling. With an expensive winter--everyone know heating costs are supposed to skyrocket this year--you are likely to find a lot more homeless folks who cannot pay their bills. You are also cutting people out of educational opportunities with Pell grant cuts.

Oh lordy, why do I bother going over this stuff. It is just so predictable that to save costs, we close the doors on the poor. So much for our wake-up call after Katrina that we have a great deal of poverty here in this United States.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

On Ideologues and Truth Seeking: Part One

I just read an interesting piece in the NYRB on the media. I took particular interest in the discussion of right-wing blogs and how they reinforce of disseminate a coherent message through out the Conservative media network. Unlike a lot of other bloggers that lean left-of-center like I do, I don't read right-wing blogs. When I do, I am so unsatisfied. I am also quite depressed, because I begin to recognize the source of the phrases, positions and "facts" that many of my students make. You see, I was a pretty naive gal until a few years ago when the failed 2000 election changed my whole perspective on politics. I started to really pay attention more and figure out what happened, why it happened, and what this means.

When I started to pay attention to news outlets and learn more about the operatives among the Conservative movement, I was struck my how often the positions I was striving to get my students to question were a product of that magnificent media machine. Having said that, I still cannot stomache to read the top right-wing blogs.

Blogging has transformed into a crucial activity to sustain my intellectual life. When I set out to write long entries (watch out, here comes one), I tend to work out complicated positions, finish conversations that have been playing out in my mind, and invite discussion on difficult topics. I am simply not sustained by pithy, defensive, sound bites. I long for real conversation. I also want to be challenged to rethink positions so that I might have a more subtle and truthful position. I often tell my students, when giving them advice for how to write a paper, "find the smartest person in the room that you disagree with the most, and try to persuade her."

I have been reflecting alot this week on the relationship between ideology and an intellectual pursuit of truth. I imagine that many who read my blog and don't agree with me could call me an ideologue, but I vigilantly struggle against becoming a mere ideologue. I fight the all-too-easy path of letting my beliefs harden and my openness to other's positions shut down.

When I think about how I arrive at political positions and moral positions, I shudder at the pain, the struggle, and the tumult of working through grey area stuff. I think many legal and moral issues are really difficult to find simple and obvious solutions to. I just taught Book III of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, which I think does a good job of thinking through how legislators should assign punishments: when they should pardon and pity or when they should praise or blame. Aristotle does a good job of distinguishing between constraint and coercion and the nuances that legislators and judges should consider when examining the two.

I asked my students to think through some really complicated examples of student misconduct, wherein students such as themselves are on hearing boards to assign punishments and judge each other.

I presented an example of a young man, who has been through a miserable week because his mother is diagnosed with late stage cancer, his girlfriend dumped him, and he cannot sleep. He then goes out to a party to escape his life, gets too drunk, and begins to fall apart. A security officer on campus tries to restrain him from walking into the wrong dorm. And, frightened, miserable and drunk, he pushes the officer off of him. The officer then cuffs him, drags him to the office, and files charges. When the young man goes before the conduct review board on campus, he is deemed responsible for disrespect to a security officer and being drunk and disruptive. Rather than given greater support at the College--counseling and consideration--he is suspended.

When I ask my students to think through what is the proper punishment, what should a conduct board do with this?, the majority of them find him personally responsible for misbehaving, think that the circumstances surrounding it are irrelevant, and that he should be punished.

I presented a case of two men having consensual sex. One of the men is "out" and the other is absolutely not out. The "closeted" student's roomate catches him and the other student in flagrante delicto. The next few days the "closeted" student becomes terrified of rumors, of ostracization from his fraternity, or worse, of physical punishment for being gay. So, he reports this sexual act as rape. He goes to the health center, tells the therapist that he was lured back to the the gay student's room (which is down the hall from his own room), and that he was then coerced into having sex. What should be the outcome of this trial?

The latter question is particularly thorny and laden with all sorts of issues of homophobia, consent, self-hate, and guilt to sort through. Both parties come to the conduct board with unbelievably traumatized and have to be judged by their peers. What is the right answer to this case, how do we make the best judgment?

Sorting out what is right, what should happen, how laws should be written is difficult work. It also requires more than theoretical rigor, it requires that the one who is in a position to judge actually spend time with the very real people who are affected by judicial bodies.

Anyone who has navigated through the judicial system with someone who has been charged of a crime knows what a blunt instrument the law can be. What is worse is when those in a position to judge, assign blame, or mete out punishments are ideologues.

God helps us from this particular human cruelty.

Finding the truth is not easy. In the process--if we take it seriously--we are going to be put into crisis. This is why Plato gives us the allegory of the cave. Leaving the security and predictability of our entrenched beliefs about the world is painful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

He Kicked Him In the Penis!

Oh Yeah, you need to see this.

Via Feministe, Check out this TV ad. Sheer Brilliance.

Walmart and the Clergy

Walmart Watch just alerted me to "Wal-Mart, Its Foes Turn to Religion," in the LA Times.

I wanted to excerpt this part of the story which depicts Wal-Mart's pre-emptive responses to the organizing of the Wal-Mart movie screenings in churches. One of the strongest moral points in the film is that being a Christian entails caring for the poor. So, what is at issue here is two different conceptions of what it means to care for the poor. Most of you know, if you are reading my blog, that I don't buy Wal-Mart's approach.

Wal-Mart Watch's religious efforts are part of the group's Higher Expectations Week, a series of nationwide events at churches, clubs, colleges and other organizations that highlight criticism of the retailer. The activities include free screenings of Robert Greenwald's recently released documentary, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," a critical look at how the company, the largest private employer in the U.S., treats workers.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on its outreach to clergy. But church leaders from around the country said the retailer had contacted them to encourage their support — or to respond to their criticism — of the company.

The Rev. Ron Stief, director of the Washington office of the United Church of Christ, said a Wal-Mart representative telephoned him about six weeks ago after he criticized the company in a church newspaper article about Greenwald's documentary. After years of writing letters to the company to complain about Wal-Mart's conduct, Stief said, he finally received an invitation to Bentonville.

"They wanted me to come see their side of it," he said. Stief said he hoped to take the retailer up on the offer after he and other church members see the film.

The Rev. Clarence Pemberton Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said a Wal-Mart representative attended Tuesday's regular meeting of about 75 Baptist ministers in that city.

"It appeared that what he was trying to do was to influence us or put us in opposition to this film that is coming out and will be in the churches," Pemberton said, referring to the documentary. "It was implied very strongly that it was about some sort of cash rewards for people who would become partners with Wal-Mart and what they were trying to do."

Bishop Edward L. Brown, a regional leader of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said a Wal-Mart representative attended a CME bishops meeting last spring in Memphis, Tenn.

"They are reaching out, no question about that," Brown said. "They were trying to give their point of view, to do damage control."

And the Rev. Ira Combs of the Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson, Mich., told the Jackson Citizen Patriot last week that Wal-Mart recruited him to be part of a national steering committee of community leaders that would meet in Washington to "develop responses to issues raised by the company's critics."

Combs, who told the paper that he was a Wal-Mart supporter and might have been chosen because he is active in the Republican Party, did not return calls seeking comment.

Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara said he was not surprised that Wal-Mart was hoping to influence church leaders. Through its community grants, the company already gives money to many local church projects.

Wal-Mart Watch, in reaching out to churches, has opened a new front in its campaign, hoping to win converts among those who are not natural allies of labor and environmental activists, the mainstays of the group's support.

The Bible and Abortion

I have a post in the pipeline on the GAO's report on the FDA's review of Plan B. But, I have lots on my plate right now, and so I am posting the complete text of an article that appeared in the "Week in Review" section of the NYT this past weekend. Articles do not remain free for long on the Times website, so I want to preserve it here. I think the content is rather intriguing and worth some discussion, if folks are up for it.

On Abortion, It's the Bible of Ambiguity

FLIP to the back of any of the fancy, leather-bound Bibles that are so common in evangelical churches these days, and chances are there is an index. Called a concordance, it offers a list of specific words mentioned in the Bible and where they are referenced in the text.

There a reader can find, for example, how many times Jesus talked about the poor (at least a dozen), or what the Apostle Paul wrote about grace (a lot). But those who turn to their concordance for guidance about abortion will not find the word at all.

"I can't take you to text that says, 'Don't commit abortion,' " said Michael J. Gorman, a professor of New Testament and early church history and dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, located in Baltimore. "It just doesn't exist."

Does that mean the Bible has nothing to offer on the issue? Mr. Gorman, who calls himself an evangelical, cites the early church's opposition to abortion and broader themes that suffuse the Scriptures, rather than specific verses: "There's an impetus in the Bible toward the protection of the innocent, protection for the weak, respect for life, respect for God's creation."

For evangelicals, who are defined in large part by their reliance on the Bible, the question of how the Scriptures should be interpreted is crucial. Catholics depend more heavily on the church's moral teachings, which are often drawn not from the Bible but what they call, "natural law," the innate sense of morality that they believe is written on people's hearts and can be divined by human reason.

But evangelicals - or at least the members of the vocal religious right who have dominated the issue over the last two decades or so - use the words of the Bible to make their case. And in many ways, what the Bible actually says, and according to whom, is where the battle over abortion begins.

One anti-abortion group, Michigan Christians for Life, for instance, sells bumper stickers emblazoned with "Deuteronomy 30:19."

The verse reads: "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him."

But some evangelical scholars say the passage has nothing to do with abortion. Instead, it is an exhortation to Israelites, who fled Egypt and are wandering in the desert, to obey God's word, the way to true life, said John Goldingay, a professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, outside of Los Angeles.

"It's saying to Israel, choosing life means choosing the way of life, choosing to obey God's word, which has been revealed over the last 30 chapters," Mr. Goldingay said.

Like many professors at evangelical seminaries today, Mr. Goldingay teaches his students to pay attention to the genre of the biblical passage they are studying before interpreting specific verses. Some passages in the Bible are written as poetry, full of metaphoric language and imagery, and were never meant to be taken literally, he said. Others, especially in the Old Testament, are written as history and detail God's relationship with his chosen people, the Israelites, and need to be read as such.

"We're always trying to work out legal implications from them, as if they were a legal kind of text, like interpreting a constitutional document," Mr. Goldingay said. "The problem is that wasn't what they were designed to do."

But other evangelical scholars, at seminaries that read the Bible more literally, disagree. "Just because it's not primarily about abortion doesn't mean we shouldn't draw anything from it," said Craig V. Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Tex.

He pointed to a passage in the Book of Psalms, often cited by anti-abortion groups. The verses, from Psalm 139, read: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."

To many evangelicals who oppose abortion, the verses speak directly to when life begins - at the moment of conception.

"I'd summarize Psalm 139 as suggesting that in the womb, from the very first point of conception, it's God at work," said Scott B. Rae, a professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University, an evangelical school outside of Los Angeles.

But, again, other evangelical Bible scholars differ. In this case, the writer of Psalms, which is essentially a collection of songs, is using poetic imagery to celebrate God's special relationship with his chosen people, the Israelites, and his promise to be with them for a thousand generations, said Willem A. VanGemeren, a professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an evangelical seminary outside of Chicago.

"The issue is not so much of when the moment of conception is, or the beginning of life, but rather they cannot see life apart from their relationship with the Lord," Mr. VanGemeren said.

For their part, some abortion rights supporters frequently turn to a passage in Exodus 21 that sets out guidelines for the Israelites on how to resolve a dispute in which a pregnant woman intervenes between two men fighting and is struck: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."

Abortion rights activists argue that the passage shows the fetus is assigned a lower value than the woman, because if a premature birth occurs, they say, the baby dies. Then, the punishment is only a fine, compared to "life for life, eye for eye" if the woman is killed.

"You can't make everything of that passage," said Paul D. Simmons, an ethics professor at University of Louisville, who once taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "What you can establish is there's a clear distinction between a fetus and a woman."

But Mr. VanGemeren, of Trinity, said that conclusion is shaky, arguing the passage remains shrouded in ambiguity.

"We don't quite understand what exactly happens to that child," he said.

According to Mr. VanGemeren and many other evangelical Bible scholars, no single passage in the Bible clearly supports the anti-abortion stance, but they argue that the broad narrative of the Bible, with its themes of creation, God's blessing on life and humanity bearing the image of God, speak against abortion.

"Of course, nothing addresses abortion directly," Mr. VanGemeren said, "but the biblical inference as accepted over the centuries is a witness that cannot be ignored."

Interpreting the Bible, as difficult as it is, becomes only more so, when theologians are asked how abortion should be legislated, if it should be legislated at all.

Some scholars spoke in absolutes, others cited exceptions. Still others waxed eloquent about the need to turn society away from its individualistic ethos and the need to pay equal attention to other biblical priorities.

In the end, as it turns out, it is a complicated business, bringing a complicated Bible into a complicated world.

Just a few comments, if I may. What I find interesting in this article is how thoughtful the writer was in portraying how many evangelicals acknowledge there is no clear-cut biblical statement on Abortion, and yet they maintain their position as truly moral because of a need to protect the weak and a deep respect for life, which is God's creation.

I also appreciate that Luo acknowledges the range of opinions among evangelicals.

Having said that, I also continue to be bothered that this ambigious text fuels so much energy and political force against women. I am also troubled that women's lives often turn out to count less than the life of a fetus given the way many interpret some of these ambiguous passages.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Hurray for Small Towns

Yesterday was a triumph for community, especially the kind of community you can participate in and build in small towns.

Over the weekend, I spent some time talking to an organizer from Walmart Watch, who I now count among my friends. We were discussing what his future plans will be once this Higher Expectations campaign is over. We spent the better part of two months putting together a screening of Bob Greenwald's film, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices. When we would meet to discuss the how to publicize, get people to our event, set up equipment, etc., we would occasionally turn the conversation to more personal topics. I came to deeply respect him for his commitment to justice. We both had parents who are union organizers, we both love Existentialism, and we both have that fire in your belly, I guess.

Anyway, we were having breakfast this past Saturday and I asked him what his life is like during this campaign. He has moved around 7 times in 8 months; he lives out of hotels.

"How can you have a life?" I asked.

"You can't," he replied.

He is thinking about moving back home, which is New York. He can seek a consulting job and start to build the sort of stability in his life that I realized I already have. I told him how I have lived in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Rome, etc. . . and landed in this tiny, tiny town in a very rural county. He was surprised that I chose to live here given the list of cities I once called home.

I realized, at that moment, why I had stayed in this town. While we were talking and walking to and fro locales, I had seen and greeted the Borough Council President, the owner of the hip coffee shop, a local business man, etc. I know a great many people in this town, and after 7 years, a great many of them have embraced me.

While this is a very conservative county, it is also a community, with all the features of small towns that big strip malls, developments and Wal-marts threaten to destroy. You can be sure that your children will be safer here, you see acres and acres of land here, old farmhouses, and hang out with the head of the chamber of commerce each friday for beers.

Before the Walmart screening last night, I went to see community theater: a play called "Crimes of the Heart," which depicted three sisters returning home to a small town in Mississippi because their grandfather is dying. A colleague of mine was a lead role and she did marvelously. I looked around the theater, which was a sometimes basketball court in an old school house turned community center. The audience was filled with many retired folks, who remind me of my grandmother. They were dressed in their Sunday finest to see a play, and were absolutely grateful for this small community theater.

I loved that the people brought together in that room were just people, who loved seeing a play. I probably have little in common with them, many of whom wore proudly their American flag pins in their lapel, but our politics didn't matter. The play gave us an opportunity to think beyond the polarizing rhetoric of our day, and sit down and experience the pleasures and problems of small town life: gossip, small-minded folks, and yet acceptance and deep kindness in times of tragedy. You cannot turn people whose politics you don't like into caricatures in small towns. You live with these people, go to school with them, see them at church, at the market . . .you see all their wonderful dimensions.

I left this play, and headed to my little church to set up for the screening. A few people showed up early and we played around with space. Ultimately, we decided to move the chairs to face the wall, where we would project the film. Everyone in that room pitched in immediately, even a 85 year old woman was dragging chairs. Then, we awaited, nervously, to see who would show up.

A steady stream of folks started in, the chairs were half full, it was 6:12 and we were happy. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we had a flood of people. All the seats were taken, folks started to sit up on the stage and floors. Younger folks gave their seats to older folks in canes or wheelchairs. Even more people showed up and then we had people standing in the back, in the doorway, and in the small rooms on either side of the church. Our little church was packed, I would imagine that 130+ people made it out to see this film.

We had to turn on the fans, open the doors and windows, so that folks weren't dying of heat. Only one or two left despite the conditions. The film lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes, and the audience didn't stir or get restless. You could hear sighs of disbelief, horror and then laughter. When the film ended, the whole crowd spontaneously clapped. As people got up from their seats, the moved over to me or my organizer friend and asked how to be part of the campaign. Others were deeply concerned about how to avoid Walmart when there was nowhere else to shop.

The response was meaningful and real. A colleague of mine, upon entering the church, asked me why I was so amazed at the turn out. I shook my head and said that I didn't expect this many people. She said "you don't know this town."

Indeed, I didn't. But, I am getting a sense of what is possible in small towns and what is so precious about them. Everyone in that church last night, and the community theater earlier in the day, can attest to the spirit of small town life. I have never been so committed as I was last night to keep it alive.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Plan B

Troublesome stuff from Target - they're allowing pharmacists to refuse dispensing Plan B. Finding an address for their corporate headquarters nearly impossible. Maybe the way to go is to target (!) letters of protest to these stores.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pig Pen? Who Would've Guessed . . .

So, it turns out that of all the Peanuts characters, I am:

Pig Pen
You are Pig Pen!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Via Shakespeare's Sister.

Happy Veteran's Day

I just came back from beers with my Friday buddies. I toasted Ben (who is a Marine) and others who served in the Army. One of my drinking friends served in Vietnam. Another of my friend's was lucky enough to not get his number called.

I want to remember today all of my relatives who are veterans: My father (Vietnam), My Uncle (Purple Heart, Vietnam), My Dad's Father (WWII), and my Mom's Father (Purple Heart-WWII). I also want to note that all of them were drafted, with the exception of my father, who had an obligation to serve since he paid for Medical School with an Army scholarship.

What really struck me today is how different all discussions of War and Veterans are when you factor a draft into it. If you were to ask any of these men what they thought of war, you would not get a romantic picture; you would get a rather complicated, painful, heroic, and wistful story.

I was also raised by all of them to pray and work for peace. My Mom's Dad, for example, lost his arm, was shot through his leg, and his stomach. Those wounds healed much better than the emotional scars that he was left with for the rest of his life.

He raised me to honor those who had to fight. He also taught me what heroism is--living with unbelievable scars from bloody conflicts. My grandfather was involved in the Normandy beach invasion; he was in the infantry. What he saw that day, very few of us can imagine.

UPDATE: Hey look, the President decided to take a page from the College Republican's playbook and exploit Veteran's day for partisan politics too. Lovely. My Dad used to always say to me: "never argue from a position of weakeness, always from a position of strength." I interpret this latest speech as a sign of the President's weakness. Shame on you too Mr. President for exploiting this non-partisan, National holiday.

Pat Robertson Speaks to God

God is pissed at the Dover Area School Board (in York County, PA--a detail Fox News does not include--too bad since it widens the swath of evil doers).

I particularly like the headline of the Fox News story: "God May Smite Down Town That Voted Out Anti-Evolution School Board."

What a precious gift Roberston has: being able to talk to God. I have found God silent on most questions I pitch to him. I am just the lowly sort of human being who has to try and find some meaningful sign or explanation for when bad things happen, like the earthquake in Pakistan, or the riots in France, or Katrina, Rita and Wilma. I often find it rather mysterious why these things happen.

But, I am glad to hear that God is finally going to exercise his omnipotence and his wholly good nature and smite down those heathens in York County. I have known for a long time that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good, but I have always been baffled by his seeming non-intervention in our lives when evil is among us.

But, finally, he will act this time. He will set aright what humans have made wrong. He will punish the wicked.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city," Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club."

Notes from the Prozac Nation, Vol. 1, No. 11

  • It's Not a Chemical Imbalance: Well, I can't say that I am surprised that a study revealed that Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertisements are misleading the public about the nature of depression. Duh! But, perhaps the "street cred" of the investigators here will get the word out to folks that while Depression sucks and there are new treatments, that the cause of depression is not so clear.

  • Cross-Cultural Depression: The Center for Latino Community Health just reported that Latinos have a high risk for depression (1 in 5) and yet 90% do not seek a mental health professional and 80% do not even seek a GP. This is dire indeed. Janet Murgia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, suggests that the dearth of culturally competent practitioners is part of the problem.