Saturday, October 27, 2007

What Za's Food Poisoning Taught Me

My husband never gets sick. He goes years without seeing a doctor, taking a day to rest from a cold, or even take an aspirin. When he returned from his annual exam with a new physician, he delighted in rubbing it in that his doctor was hard pressed to find anything wrong with him. (I am the opposite; I get sick a lot.) When Za does get sick, boy, does he just hit it out of the park.

I awoke at 1:30 am last night to find Za collapsed (yet conscious) on the bathroom floor throwing up every few minutes. It appeared to me that he was suffering from food poisoning. I asked him if he needed to get to the hospital and, to my surprise, he asked, very calmly, if I would call an ambulance since he could not walk. He was very dehydrated and shivering. He had come downstairs to find more blankets and could not move beyond the bucket (which I leave in the bathroom to soak Maddie's clothes), which he clung to for fear another wave of nausea would hit. I had never seen Za this utterly helpless.

I had never called an ambulance before so he had to walk me through it. [I have to say that I was blown away by how utterly calm he was while suffering from this much pain.] The medics got him onto a stretcher and put him in the back of the ambulance. I got Maddie bundled, in her car seat, grabbed some clothes, Za's wallet and followed them to the hospital. While they got him onto a bed, I registered him.

When I walked back to the ER and saw Za lying on a gurney, with warmed blankets barely covering his naked body and groaning in pain. Maddie was just staring at him with perplex. Za intuitively knew that she was upset and whispered to me, with whatever strength he had, to pick up the baby and hold her because she knows something is wrong. Za asked for more blankets since he was shivering and some water. The nurse complied with the first request, but told him he could not have any water since he was nauseous. He did give me a swab and I kept moistening his lips, tongue and cheeks. Eventually they got an IV in him and gave him some anti-nausea medicine.

While they were putting the IV in him, he grabbed my hand and said, "I really don't like being in this hospital." He was as vulnerable as I have ever seen him. He couldn't speak enough to get what he needed. He couldn't keep himself warm. And, he couldn't relax for fear another wave of nausea would hit him.

Seeing Za this way, it finally hit me why most men do whatever they can to avoid seeking any medical help. Being that physically vulnerable is at complete odds with what masculinity demands from men. So, it takes being that ill for Za to finally break down and get himself to the hospital. (I realize now that he probably gets sick more than he admits, but works through it rather than submit himself to medical care.)

It was not 4 months ago that I lay in the same hospital, recovering from my C-section. I too was as vulnerable and pained as he was last night, but for me being in a hospital, surrounded by nurses and family was comforting. Being that vulnerable actually gave me a break from my life, where I have to take care of others and rarely get to be the one who needs tending.

Seeking medical help simply does not threaten my identity in any way. We hear daily the statistics that report how men have higher suicide rates or higher heart attack rates. Both of these, the experts say, follow from men's failure to seek medical attention way before a problem presents itself so that it does not develop into something life threatening. I have heard this stuff and studied this stuff for years. But it took me seeing Za that helpless to really get it emotionally.

Part of the reason I think I got it--if I am honest with myself--is because it was scary for me to see him that vulnerable. I felt uncomfortable by the prospect that he couldn't stand up, walk to the car, or help himself in any way. I too have internalized what men are supposed to be like and when they deviate from this, I get a bit frightened.

I was listening today to a podcast of Fresh Air, where Terry Gross discussed Shalom Auslander's Foreskin Lament: A Memoir, wherein he recounts his attempt to will away the frightening God that he grew up with in his Orthodox home. What hit me, listening to him explain the difference between being religious and being observant, was how similar the effects of a powerful religious upbringing are to gender roles. No matter how much Auslander has renounced theology and the practices of his orthodox upbringing, emotionally he cannot cast out this God from his childhood. He claims to be crippled by his belief in God. Auslander shared with Terry a eerie Jesuit saying: "give me the boy for 7 years and you will see the man." The intensity with which we train children in religion, or gender roles, is such that no matter how much intellectual work we do--for the rest of our lives--we are crippled by these beliefs that have been emotionally, not intellectually, implanted in us.

So, we face a crisis that men generally do not seek help from medical professionals in this country. We throw all sorts of information at men in public service announcements. But, at the end of the day, getting men to put themselves in a position of helplessness is not something to be achieved by intellectual means.

P.S. Za is fine and resting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Confessions of a Closet Co-sleeper

Oh Hallelujah, how I enjoyed this little piece on co-sleeping with your baby from Tuesday's Science Times section. I admit that before having Maddie I was suspicious of co-sleeping, but that is because I am far too conventional. I haven't embraced a lot of the parenting techniques that have become vogue, inspired by anthropologists and attachment parents. This, by the way, is odd to my mother who is an expert on attachment theory and bought me Dr. Sears' book. I guess I just wanted to imagine that I could get my baby to sleep on her own in the crib and thereby give me back some of my own time and space. I couldn't have been more wrong.

In a paper last month in Infant and Child Development, Dr. Dyer proposed that co-sleeping families fall into three distinct categories. There are intentional co-sleepers — those who sleep with their children because they want to breast-feed for a long stretch and believe bed sharing is good for a child’s well-being and emotional development. Another group is reactive co-sleepers, those parents who don’t really want to sleep with their kids, but do so because they can’t get their children to sleep any other way or because financial hardship requires them to share a room with a child.

And then there is a third group that she tentatively calls circumstantial co-sleepers — parents who sleep with their children occasionally because of circumstances like sharing a bed on a family vacation, during a thunderstorm or because the child is sick.

Bed sharing is most likely of greatest concern among reactive co-sleepers, Dr. Dyer says, because the practice is essentially forced on parents. In those cases, the practice is likely to be stressful for both parent and child.

My opening bit should make it clear that I am not an intentional co-sleeper. But, I am happy to say that I am neither a reactive co-sleeper. I think I fit into the circumstantial co-sleeper slot, but I am not sure. Maybe there is a fourth category, intermittent co-sleeper or what-else-are-you-going-to-do-if-you-are-sleep-deprived co-sleeper?

Ask parents if they sleep with their kids, and most will say no. But there is evidence that the prevalence of bed sharing is far greater than reported. Many parents are “closet co-sleepers,” fearful of disapproval if anyone finds out, notes James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

“They’re tired of being censured or criticized,” Dr. McKenna said. “It’s not just that their babies are being judged negatively for not being a good baby compared to the baby who sleeps by himself, but they’re being judged badly for having these babies and being needy.”

In fact, research shows that parents often talk about their children’s sleep habits in terms of where the child starts off the night or where the child is supposed to sleep — not necessarily where the child usually ends up sleeping.

This is the part of the article that really resonated with me. Maddie starts off nice and snug in her crib these days. She even falls asleep in it without much incident (I am proud that we made it cozy). However, more nights than not she wakes up in the middle of the night and if we both fail to get her back to sleep, she ends up in the bed with us. Last night she woke up around 11:00pm and I was going on three days of little sleep, so I just scooped her up, put her in the bed, and started to nurse her to sleep. I was certain that I was becoming an insomniac again since I could not relax enough to sleep and within a minute of nursing her I was sleeping like a baby (what an odd expression that is to parents!)

I tend to downplay that Maddie ends up in the bed at some point in the night because you wouldn't believe how many people ask about sleep. Sometimes it is because they are about to have a baby, anxious that they will never sleep again, and therefore want some sign that it is possible to get your baby to sleep snugly. Other times it is the judgmental set. I used to just say up front that we end up with Maddie in the bed a lot because it is the only way we all get sleep. But, I quickly learned that if I said that to the wrong person I would get a sassy quip from him or her like: "well you'll be breastfeeding that baby in bed for 3 years." There are some people for whom that comment would be a delight. But not me--the very conventional girl who wanted to follow all the right rules for getting my baby to sleep without needing my boob.

Anyway, what I like about this article is that it makes plain that there are a lot of us closet co-sleepers. We hide this for a variety of reasons--in my case a combination of not wanting to appear a hypocrite, fearing judgmental sneers, and distinguishing myself from intentional co-sleepers.

I also like how this article points to a phenomenon that I have been trying to better articulate since becoming a parent. I guess it is the pervasive moralism directed at parents, and particularly mothers. (I say particularly mothers because almost every time Za is out with Maddie women and other by-standers are so impressed that he is alone with his daughter that he just gets showered with compliments). I was shocked by how shrill and tendentious most books on babies and sleep are. There are clearly drawn battle lines and no author seems capable of promoting his or her approach without making a strawperson out of the other approach. Moreover, all baby and sleep books need to paint the opposing camp as heretics; I am not kidding. The moralism in parenting manuals seems to resemble religious wars more than reasoned debate.

So, I will continue to be happy as a closeted circumstantial co-sleeper. While I foresee that Maddie will end up in the bed less and less, both Za and I are a little wistful that we won't have our little girl to cuddle up with each night. In fact, what probably drags this process out the most is our needs more than hers. She is showing all sorts of signs that she is happy in her crib and seeking independence from our bed. But, letting her go is hard . . .

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Mad Men" Really Brings Home Patriarchal Sexism

If there is something that has dogged me about feminism in general, it has been the lack of precision about what feminists mean when they are criticizing patriarchy. In fact, I believe that equivocating on what 'patriarchy' means has been at the root of much of the vitriolic backlash against feminism. What often happens is that feminist will use 'sexism' and 'patriarchy' interchangeably and never define either terms.

A few weeks ago, I laid out what I thought was a helpful definition of patriarchy, put forth by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist/socio-biologist. Hrdy distinguishes between patrilines and patriarchies, both of which occur in animal nature as well as human nature. Patrilines reckon descent through the father. Patriarchies are kinship arrangements in patrilineal societies set up to guard against misattributed paternity. Patriarchies thereby "gain control over the resources that mothers need to survive and produce." In human societies, one tool that men employ to gain control over resources is to disseminate and perpetuate sexism. Sexism, therefore, is a worldview that considers women to be inferior to men. It should be clear that one can be sexist without being a patriarch or living in a patriarchal society. Sexism can linger long after kinship arrangements have changed, as they have in the United States at various points in history.

Having made this distinction, I think one era in U.S. history in which sexism was a part and parcel of patriarchal rule was post WWII. And, the fantastic TV series that has really brought home how bad things were for women, ethnic minorities, and racial minorities is AMC's Mad Men. I haven't watched the whole series (since I am downloading them from iTunes and watching when I can), but from what I have seen, I am convinced Matthew Weiner's fundamental motivation for producing this series is to remind the post-feminist/reverse discrimination era why exactly the women's movement and civil rights movements took place. While the cultural wars abound in print and the blogosphere--deriding feminists, gay rights activists, and civil rights groups fighting institutionalized racism (read: Jena 6), it seems that few of these pundits--particularly the women and racial/ethnic minorities-- have really taken stock of what their life chances would have been in the 50s. Would Ann Coulter exist in 1960? What about Condolezza Rice?

If you haven't seen Mad Men, I highly recommend that you download it soon. One of the important benefits of this show is to clarify what the nature of our feminist criticisms of sexism are now. We are not living in that era, but surely there are fringe right wingnut groups--the kind of folks that Amanda at Pandagon excels in taking on--that would love to return to those good old days. I think that any young women who have thrown their lot in with such fringe groups should watch Mad Men and ask themselves if that is the world to which they want to return. Some might. But, I bet the majority would not. We can also use Mad Men as a touchstone for making more nuanced arguments about persisting sexism, e.g. where it comes from and why it lingers, without mistakenly referring to our era as patriarchal (with the exception of some subcultures).

Who else is as addicted to Mad Men as I am?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What a Real Abortion Decision Looks Like

The tragedy of most moral debates in the political realm or even the classroom is that they are always construed in abstract and absolute terms. This is especially true when it comes to abortion. It has been my experience that those who take the most absolutist stances (with the exception of Rick Santorum) have never faced any of the real situations in which a woman (and her partner) must make the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. Sadly, I found out yesterday that a friend of mine is facing a very difficult decision regarding her pregnancy and I want to share it with my readers to stress--once again--that the decision to terminate a pregnancy belongs to the parents, not the politicians, churches, or even the medical establishment.

Fiona is 41 years old. A month ago her husband called us to let us know they were expecting their first child! We were excited for them and looking forward to our children growing up together. Because of Fiona's age, she and her husband underwent genetic counseling and prenatal tests. Unfortunately, the laboratory took their own sweet time to return the results of these tests and now, 5 months into her pregnancy, she has discovered that her husband is recessive for Tay-Sachs disease and the tests to determine whether or not she was came back inconclusive.

Tay-Sachs is a horrible genetic disease that has no cure and always results in death by age 4. Here is an excerpt from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

Infants with Tay-Sachs disease appear to develop normally for the first few months of life. Then, as nerve cells become distended with fatty material, a relentless deterioration of mental and physical abilities occurs. The child becomes blind, deaf, and unable to swallow. Muscles begin to atrophy and paralysis sets in. Other neurological symptoms include dementia, seizures, and an increased startle reflex to noise.
So here is the situation the couple find themselves in. Fiona is 5 months pregnant, very attached and excited about her baby girl, but knows that there is a greater than normal risk that this child will be born with Tay-Sachs. In order to better determine what that risk is, she needs to undergo another screening, but the results take even longer this time because they involve cell cultures. By the time she gets the results, she will most likely be in her third trimester or near her third trimester. If the tests show her child has Tay-Sachs, then she has to figure out how to get a late term abortion or choose to have the child and watch it suffer a horrible demise and death. Neither of these choices are easy to make.

It is precisely these real life decisions that have committed me to reproductive freedom for women. The idea that someone besides Fiona and her husband could make a better decision about what to do in this situation is just plain insane.

It is also worth noting here how inhumane the lab was in not getting this result back to her in a timely manner. When physicians or lab technicians screw up in delivering information during a pregnancy, it sets up unbelievably difficult moral dilemmas. One would hope that if the wacko anti-choice politicians are going to decide who can get an abortion, that at least the medical establishment would not bungle prenatal care in such a way that makes it extremely difficult to have any real choices to make.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What Does it Take for a Woman to Get Laughs: Not Be A Woman?

I've only watched the Sarah Silverman Show on Comedy Central once. It was pretty lame as far as I was concerned. She plays a self-involved, narcissistic, potty mouth. Some people find this funny, but I don't. I have a name for her kind of humor: orifice humor. I usually associate it with comedies aimed at men where there is all sorts of farts, burps, and random references to anal sex with animals or whatnot. Most men laugh hysterically at orifice humor, but I need something else.

But, my post is not about why I don't really like Sarah Silverman. Instead, I am sort of curious about how a couple of men I know reacted to her show and why I finally get the problem with women breaking into comedy. Last year Kate Clinton came to speak at my college, invited by the Women's Studies program. She mentioned how few women really make it in comedy, let alone get their own show. And then there was that provocative piece written by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, back in January, that claimed that women have more important things to do (read: reproduction) than be funny. Hitchens agrees with my assessment that men are into "orifice humor," although he doesn't put it that way:

The plain fact is that the physical structure of the human being is a joke in itself: a flat, crude, unanswerable disproof of any nonsense about "intelligent design." The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some subcommittee that was giggling cruelly as it went about its work. ("Think they'd wear this? Well, they're gonna have to.") The resulting confusion is the source of perhaps 50 percent of all humor. Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities. And there's another principle that helps exclude the fair sex. "Men obviously like gross stuff," says Fran Lebowitz. "Why? Because it's childish." Keep your eye on that last word. Women's appetite for talk about that fine product known as Depend is limited. So is their relish for gags about premature ejaculation. ("Premature for whom?" as a friend of mine indignantly demands to know.)
So, Hitchens would argue that men are funny because they are allowed to be childish. Clinton, on the other hand, would point to some sexism and double standards operating in comedy.

Alessia and I were partial to Clinton's explanation. After all, Silverman's humor is the classic guy filth humor that Hitchens is describing. So why does her act deep bother a lot of men? Could it be that she is crossing the line of what is acceptable humor for women? She is not just making fun of women's issues/stuff, but acting in all sorts of ways like the male jack ass comedians on Comedy Central and elsewhere. Alessia and I even compared her outrageousness to Andrew Dice Clay; she is shocking--pushing peoples' comfort levels.

So what do the rest of you think of Silverman? Is she funny? If you find her offensive, why? Would you find a male comedian making similar jokes equally offensive?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Another Reason Why I Detest Fraternities

Hanno forwarded me this gem from ESPN:

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Texas Tech has banned the sale of a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Michael Vick hanging the dog mascot of rival Texas A&M.

The red and black shirts, with text that says "VICK 'EM" on the front in an apparent reference to the Aggies' slogan "Gig 'em," was created by a Tech student who was trying to sell them before Saturday's game in Lubbock.

The back of the shirt shows a football player wearing the No. 7 Vick jersey holding a rope with an image of the mascot Reveille at the end of a noose. Vick, who faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal dogfighting charge, is suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

Tech officials late Tuesday announced the fraternity that sold the shirts was suspended temporarily and will face judicial review for allegedly violating the solicitation section of the students' code of conduct.

The school said it wouldn't allow the sale on campus of items that are "derogatory, inflammatory, insensitive, or in such bad taste."

No more shirts are being produced, the school said in a release.

A&M officials, in a statement, thanked Tech administrators for "their response and action regarding this matter."

Geoffrey Candia, the creator of the shirts who is with the Theta Chi fraternity, told The Associated Press they were taking full responsibility. "We realize the shirts shouldn't have been printed," he said.

He told The Battalion, A&M's newspaper, for Tuesday's editions that the university prohibited sale of the shirts on campus through his fraternity. He said he originally had wanted to give 50 percent of the proceeds to an animal defense league in Lubbock "because we knew there would be a controversy about the shirts, you know, animal rights, stuff like that."

Candia told the newspaper about 300 had been sold. He had hoped 500 would be sold before Saturday's game.

In a posting on his Facebook site at about 4 a.m. Tuesday, Candia wrote: "a little tshirt get aggies all worked up... its a t-shirt people!"

The controversy comes about 2½ months after Gerald Myers, Tech's athletic director, announced a campaign to promote good sportsmanship across the campus and at athletic events. The words used in the effort are honor, respect, pride and tradition.

Myers did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

"You can't make light of a situation like that," Tech media relations spokesman Chris Cook said. "That is in poor taste and poor judgment."

Robyn Katz, president of Tech's chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, said her organization "wouldn't take a dime" from Candia.

"If he really wanted to help promote anti-animal cruelty then he would donate time" at a no-kill shelter," she said. "He's really doing the Tech community a disservice. There's plenty of other ways to promote a rivalry."

Hanno then made a very interesting analogy: "Sure some girls get raped at frats... but we donate money to women's shelters, too! Why dont you report that!"

What goes through these kids' minds when they offer up ridiculous justifications like that?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On Charity

Money is tight--really tight. Every pay check is dedicated to living expenses, debt, mortgage and insurance. There is always a little left over, but not much. I have to remember, however, that I am fairly privileged. I am not rich--not by a long shot--but I have a home, retirement, insurance, and very steady employment. Still money is tight.

Given this reality, I feel torn each time I am presented with a request for charity. There are lots of organizations to which that I like to give money. I get regular requests to do so from those same organizations almost daily. And, given the tight money situation, I am not giving. I couldn't help but really analyze how sincere my wish to be charitable was given my behavior.

There are lots of ways to give, to help others who or more needy, who are in a tough spot, or who want to build an organization to improve conditions for others. But, what I find is that most of us give only when it is convenient for us. So much about charity is about the self. Think about the dreaded pledge drives on NPR. How to the fundraisers motivate us? They tell us we can get a tax break or that we will get a membership or gifts. Or, take another example, fundraising for a college. How do you do it? You appeal to the vanity of those with money. You figure out what they want to give and tell them you will memorialize them by naming a building after them or a endowed chair or a scholarship prize. The point here is to get those with a great deal of money to give, you have to convince them that there is something in it for them.

But it seems that true charity hurts the giver a bit. Maybe it means you give up things you want to give to others--you have less money for entertainment, travel, clothes, or even food. You realize that it is more important to help someone in need or an organization you care about than it is to spend that money on yourself or family. Moreover, it seems that true charity is to give without expectation for a return or glory or even thanks.

In fact, true charity really exposes what the whole point of a gift is or should be. A gift. But how often do we ever really give to others without some expectation of thanks, or reciprocation, or acknowledgment of our greatness. Too much of giving is about power or self interest. This is what is concerning. And yet, let's face it, the only way so many charitable organizations can function is to appeal to vanity and self-interest.

I think a lot about the whole Republican view that we should shrink government and let charitable organizations do the work of a large, inefficient, unwieldy bureaucracy. Why should not be coerced to pay taxes, so the argument goes, but rather we should be free to choose who we want to give to and how. Hell, in theory this sounds great. But that is the whole problem with the "party of ideas"--sounds great on paper, but never works in practice. Why? Because people need incentives to do what is not immediately in their self-interest.

Very few of us are truly capable of charity. In fact, I would argue that charity is almost impossible in such a highly driven consumer culture like ours. For example, I caught a bit of the Extreme Home Makeover television show last Sunday. The purported motivation of the show is to give back--in the form of a luxurious home--to people who have struggled and scarified for others. Again, on paper, a good idea. But, I was haunted by the episode I saw where the gift to a young girl suffering from cancer was to build her a room that was like a shopping spree. They gave her a huge closet filled with clothes and shoes and accessories so "she can finally be a kid who can play." So, charity is giving a shopping spree to a young girl--giving her an addiction to material goods. Maybe I am being too harsh, but it seems to me that with so many people unable to feed their families across the world, we can do better than conceive of charity as giving people luxurious homes with the top of the line consumer goods, right?

In any case, this is my preoccupation today. What do the rest of you think?

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Mom Job

No, I am not going to write about the difficulties inherent to raising children, or proposals for renumeration for mothers, or the lack of respect given to mothers who do the important work of raising children. Nope. What I am going to write about today is the new plastic surgery craze--the "Mommy Job" described yesterday in the Fashion & Style (!?!) of the NYTimes.

Look, I am pretty ambivalent about plastic surgery. I don't tend to take the hardline against plastic surgery, claiming that it is micropolitical enactment of patriarchy (see, for example, Sandra Bartky, "Foucault, femininity and the modernization of patriarchal power" in I. Diamond & L. Quinby (eds), Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988 ). Nor do I take up what I think is a rather silly and naive view of feminism as 'all about choice." (See Echidne on this). I can't really say I have a coherent position on this, other than it being a rather pervasive technological innovation to the age old human quest for human perfectability.

Having put that disclaimer out there, I am pretty pissed off at the "mommy job." I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment of the procedure:

Many women struggle with the impact of aging and pregnancy on their bodies. But the marketing of the “mommy makeover” seeks to pathologize the postpartum body, characterizing pregnancy and childbirth as maladies with disfiguring aftereffects that can be repaired with the help of scalpels and cannulae.

“The message is that, after having children, women’s bodies change for the worse,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a nonprofit group in Washington. If marketing could turn the postpregnancy body “into a socially unacceptable thing, think of how big your audience would be and how many surgeries you could sell them,” she said.

Like I have enough shit to worry about that I have to now endure the remaking of the postpregnancy body as repugnant. Don't new mommies have enough to worry about?

But, what is also so odd to me about this story and the phenomena of the "mommy job," is how damn expensive it is: between $10,000 and $30,000. Who can afford this but the Paris Hilton (or should I say Nicole Ritchie?) set or others willing to put themselves in needless debt--robbing their children's college fund--to combat a fictionalized malady.

Is there anything left in this culture that doesn't need to be fixed, remade, or reinvented? Is everything really for sale? That is what is dawning on me now, more than ever. Sure, lots of other people wised up to the horrors of our consumer society. It took me having a child and facing the anxieties associated with new motherhood--not to mention too much time to watch TV and its self-esteem robbing advertisements--to finally get to the point where enough is enough. We don't need so much damn shit. And, we don't need to turn our postpartum bodies into a new kind of commodity either.

Ok, I am done with my rant.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Self-Conceptions are Often Just Self-Deceptions

I discovered that I can download podcasts of Fresh Air from iTunes and this has been my savior on mega walks with daughter. I was listening to Terry's interview with Jeffrey Toobin about his new book, The Nine. The book sounds utterly fascinating, especially to someone like me who is obsessed with the direction of the Supreme Court. But, this is not really what I want to write about. What really got me thinking was something he said in his long discussion of Sandra Day O'Connor. He suggested that after she cast her vote in the Gore v. Bush case, on the side of Bush, that the public outcry really challenged her self-conception. O'Connor, Toobin argues, prided herself on her "fairness" which the public outcry really pushed her to look at honestly.

The idea that our self-conceptions are often self-deceptions really stuck with me for the rest of the day and into the night. I kept thinking about how much of our political and ethical judgments are both an expression of and justified by what we think our self-conception is. I think this insight is really the key to understanding those who seem so full of shit to us. We listen to people whose politics couldn't be more widely divergent from our own and they say things that seem so wholly disingenuous when you compare them to what they actually do--what causes they support, who they vote for, and how they live their lives and treat others--that it is hard to make sense of them. The problem is always assuming that what they say about themselves--how they fashion their self-conception--is in fact true or, better yet, honest.

As someone who has spent many years teaching both ethics and feminism, I have heard a lot of bullshit in the classroom. I have listen to young women talk about themselves as tough, empowered, and independent, while they wore the uniform of their sorority, giggled like flirty school girls when a man spoke up and said something inane, and put themselves in risky and dangerous sexual situations. I have also listened to students champion the "boot straps" myth of selfhood and success, while knowing full well that everything they currently have was a gift from very rich and indulgent parents. I witness a lot of self-deception in students' self-conception.

And for me, what you really need to do to teach ethics or political philosophy well, is get at peoples' self-conceptions and get them to be honest with themselves. This is not only ridiculously hard work, but it is downright draining. No one likes to have a mirror held up to them and the defenses against taking a good look are mighty powerful. But, this is what good teaching is. I reject any notion that the idea behind teaching philosophy--especially ethics--is to help students clarify the right principles and apply them consistently. This is just a game and doesn't really get at the more important question: what kind of person am I? What do I really value? And, how do my actions match those values? This is a lot tougher and not something that can easily be achieved in a semester or even four years for that matter.

I am constantly evaluating my self--wondering how credible criticisms against me are and taking them too painfully to heart. I am sure that I am not a good example of what you should do to achieve intellectual honesty. But, I will say that I try damn hard to keep it real.

And yet, what really haunts me about the powerful ways that our self-conceptions are really self-deceptions is that we are unable to ever fully be honest about who we are. In fact, I wonder if we could really live without a lot of self-delusions; perhaps they are even healthy? But, if it is the case that we can't be fully honest about who we are, then to what extent can we ever live without hypocrisy?

Monday, October 01, 2007

On Whining

There is nothing that irritates me more than whining. I can tolerate it better from a 4 year-old than a 20 year-old, but I don't like it in either case. I started thinking about whining last night as I was kept awake by my daughter, who just seemed incapable of getting herself back to sleep. She wasn't really whining, since she can't really communicate any other way than to cry or sometimes scream. But, nonetheless, the effect of her crying got me thinking about how much I am turned off by whining. I am not sure why and so it seemed like as good an idea as any to write about whining today.

The iconic whiner, to me, is a college student who starts complaining about the amount of reading, or the length of the exam, or the stress of juggling several papers at once. It is usually a young woman, who has decided that I am her buddy more than her professor, and she starts expressing in baby-like whining language how freaked out she is, stressed out she is, and wants me to fix it for her. She usually does this in front of the entire class, since there is no problem presenting yourself as a ditsy, whining little girl on my campus. After all, many of these 18-22 year old women are donning ponytails with big grosgrain pink polka dot ribbons. Looking like a little girl is de rigeur around these parts.

My usual response is to immediately ban whining. I warn that if she continues to whine, then I will add more work. I know, not very kind of me, nor good disciplining, but, I do it nonetheless. I just want the whining to stop. Why? Why does it bug me so much?

Part of it might be that these young women are acting like babies to get their way. And, now that I have a baby, I know how effective crying/whining is. Maddie does, in the end, get her way. But, it seems to me that there should be much more sophisticated ways of getting your way as a young female than to resort to baby-like pouting. I can't imagine that these young women were indulged in their whining when they were 4 year-olds; didn't their parents say "use your words" or something similar?

Whining is a behavior adopted among many cutesy young women to bend people and institutions toward their will. The downside is that they lose all credibility as adults in the process. I mean, look at how annoyed I am at them. How will the professional world ever take these young women seriously if this is their only tool for getting help, attention, or a reprieve?

Bottom line: whining is a survival skill that tiny infants, incapable of speech, adopt to get the attention of their caretakers. Once speech becomes possible, whining has to go . . .